Floating in the void a fleet of starships, each one twenty kilometres in length. Waiting for the message. Waiting for their vindication for the guilt at what they had done.
The New Ones were promising. They were resourceful, technically skilled, impressive mental abilities and a strong physical body. Everything the Ethereal Ones needed to complete their task. They dared to hope. Could they be successful? Victorious, even?
Then the message came and their hopes were dashed. The New One had passed every test - even the one she wasn't meant to pass. The New Ones could not be dominated. Like the Ethereals, they were made to conquer not to cower. They were immune to the slow psionic conditioning of the Ethereal Ones, only responding to the most forceful of methods and even then not for long. There was no question about it - the New Ones were out of reach.
Devastated by their failure, the Ethereal Ones turned their eyes to other matters. They had several other species lined up for an attempt at uplifting. One was a proud race of warriors afflicted with an insidious sickness of artificial design. Another was a species trapped in space, prisoners of their own immune systems. The Ethereal Ones had to move quickly. They had less than one hundred and fifty years before the Dark Ones would return. The galaxy must be prepared at any cost.
"My god. The ship itself is behaving like a dying star!"
Central Officer John Bradford looked sharply over at Dr. Lieza Vahlen.
"At this distance ... the earth will be consumed."
Bradford's knuckles whitened on the control room's guardrail. Was this it? After everything XCOM had achieved was this how it ended?
He looked over at the Commander. Steven Hackett was a force of nature, his tactical genius matched only by his combat abilities. Bradford had seen the old man take down some of the most highly trained hand to hand operatives on the XCOM roster without breaking a sweat. He looked closer, trying to discern the emotion in the old man's eyes. Confidence? Or fear?
"Sir, the alien ship is in motion!"
He spun on his heel, facing the tech that had called up to him.
The tech stared dumbly at him.
The fear in the man's eyes was plain to see.
"It's coming straight for us."
Reacting almost instantly, he slammed the button on the control panel that set off alarms blaring in every room in the facility.
"This is Central Officer Bradford. All combat personnel, prepare to repel a direct assault on the Hive."
He turned round to look at Commander Hackett, the old man watching the approach of the temple ship with what seemed like detached interest.
"Come on Janey. Please be you behind the stick."
That was the closest thing he had ever heard to an admission of fear from the implacable Hackett. Nevertheless it filled Bradford with a wild hope. What if it was Colonel Jane Shepard in there?
Dr. Vahlen looked at her screen with mounting amazement.
"The ship is stabilising itself! I can't explain it!"
The Temple Ship came gliding to a halt above XCOM HQ.
"Sir! Incoming transmission!"
"Put it through."
The signal beacon originated from the Temple Ship.
The entire control room relaxed at the sound of Jane Shepard's voice, then tensed up again as it was followed by the sound of wet coughing.
"Sir, I'm hurt bad."
Hackett gripped the railing, jaw working as he cast around for words.
"Hang on. Stay with me, Janey."
"I'm bleeding out sir. I'm not gonna ..."
Her words were cut off by another fit of wet coughing.
"I'm not gonna make it."
Hackett spun around and pointed at the hangar, staring at Bradford.
"I want every medic available on that ship yesterday."
As Bradford scurried off to fulfil his Commander's orders Hackett turned his attention back to the matter at hand.
"It's okay Janey. Help's on the way."
There was a sound halfway between a cough and a sucking sob.
"I'm scared Dad. I don't want to die."
Bradford glanced over his shoulder in disbelief as the Skyranger delivered an army of medics up to the hovering Temple Ship. The Commander was Colonel Shepard's father? He had realised they were close, but ...
"Don't leave me Janey. Hang on, okay?"
"I ... It hurts ..."
The Control Room was silent as a tomb as a tear fell from the Commander's eye and the soft sobs of his dying daughter echoed in the empty air.
"Dad ... Take care of my squad okay? Williams deserves a promotion to Captain, Alenko is ... Ah!"
The soft cry of pain jolted the entire room. Several of the techs and operators were openly weeping, Bradford absent-mindedly fielding the status reports from the medics as they boarded the twenty kilometre long Temple Ship.
"Never mind Dad. There's a Sectoid coming to finish me off. Look after my guys, okay?"
There was a pause, only filled with gurgling breaths over the comm.
"I'll be waiting up there with Mum. See you later, Daddy."
The feed went dead and Commander Stephen Hackett broke down and wept.
The grey skinned Sectoid scampered over to her, plasma pistol glowing an ominous green. Jane Shepard let it come. She didn't care any more. If she had really wanted she could have pulled her plasma pistol off her hip and blown the alien away but that would only prolong her lingering death.
The little creature paused by her prone form, sniffing at the gaping hole in her gut. The wound was from the Uber Ethereal's psi lance, leaving her with just enough life to stabilise the Temple Ship and park it on top of XCOM HQ. She was certain her father and the mad professors would appreciate the chance to pull the ship apart and see what made it tick.
The Sectoid clicked something in its strange language and a veritable swarm of the diminutive aliens appeared, surrounding her as they clicked at one another. A pair of Mechtoids stomped up, flanking a Sectoid Commander that started bossing the rest of the Sectoids around. Working in tandem, they shucked off the remnants of her psi-boosting armour and undersuit, the Mechtoids hefting her up and carrying her over to a device she recognised as a surgical crèche. It was then that she tried to fight, unwilling to become an alien science experiment, but it was too little, too late. She could offer no more than a hoarse cry of displeasure as they stuffed her into the surgery, unconsciousness mercifully claiming her as the surgical cutlery glittered and clattered above.
When she woke up she immediately wondered why she wasn't dead. She had seen the wound. Even with her genetically modified secondary heart there was no way she would have survived.
Opening her eyes, she looked around. She was naked aside from a mask over her mouth and nose, suspended in a gel-like substance with cuffs around her wrists and ankles. She tried to wriggle free but the cuffs held firm. Her attempts to reach out psionically were likewise unsuccessful, her mental abilities inhibited by something. After around ten minutes of fruitless struggle she gave up, instead focusing on trying to determine her location. She was in what appeared to be a stasis tank, suspended in the gel-like fluid. She could just see out, realising she was in a small room, little more than a cell, with the tank she was occupying in one corner, an alien surgery opposite her and a force field door to the side. She glanced up sharply as a Sectoid entered through the door, her gaze following the little creature back to another tank next to hers.
She found herself staring into the beady eyes of a Muton.
She cried out in shock, recoiling as the creature's eyes followed her. She could see the hate burning within them as they drilled into her vulnerable body. Without the heavy armour on the Muton was in appearance surprisingly similar to a human. This one was apparently male. The obvious difference was the alien head with a narrow jaw that jutted out and down. The creature's muscled chest lacked nipples and instead of the six pack of abdominal muscles on a Human the creature had two rows of five hard muscles, a single smooth band of muscle running vertically between them. The creature also lacked a bellybutton or any form of hair and its limbs all terminated in wickedly clawed digits. The creature was half as tall again as any Human and judging by its tense, corded muscles the bastard was doing its level best to rip itself out of its restraints and tear her limbs off.
The fluid in the Muton's tank drained and the tank hinged open, the entire backplate sliding out with the Muton still cuffed securely to it. The Sectoid briefly glanced around before hitting a button, the backplate reclining and bringing the Muton to a horizontal position. From somewhere the grey skinned alien produced a tulip-like bowl and dipped a utensil into it, producing a purple-grey paste which it held up to the Muton's mouth. The creature never took its evil looking eyes off her as the Sectoid fed it the paste, gulping each mouthful down quickly with something approximating a grimace. The monster's facial expressions were surprisingly similar to those of a Human. Glancing over the Muton, she noticed a pattern of plasma burns all up the creature's right side, the flesh charred horribly.
Once the Muton had finished what she assumed was its meal, the Sectoid held the mask up to its face. The Muton obediently pushed its narrow jaw into the mask, a tube connecting to it as the plate it was cuffed to slid back into the stasis tank. The tank filled up again, the gel making the creature's movements surprisingly sluggish. Throughout the entire process it had not once looked away from her. She had killed plenty of Mutons, barely seen as a speck of colour through the scope of her plasma sniper before she ended their lives. Never had one unnerved her quite as much as the one she was sharing a room with.
She let out a yelp as her body sagged into the cuffs, only just realising that the gel in her tank had drained as it opened, her own body being lowered to horizontal as she shivered in the cold air aboard the vessel. It was no surprise that most G-modded soldiers forwent their trademark sleeveless armour in favour of warmer designs when aboard alien vessels. The Sectoid pulled the mask off her face, the faint musk of unwashed Muton assailing her nostrils as soon as she was exposed to the cabin air, and waved the utensil in her face. She noticed that the utensil was an oval loop of wire on a handle, a film of paste suspended by its own surface tension in the gap. It looked revolting, and judging by what she had seen earlier even the Muton found it disgusting, but she was very, very hungry. After about thirty seconds of internal debate she gave in to the Sectoid, who had looked like he was about to try and force it between her lips.
The taste burst against her tongue. It was surprisingly pleasant, a spicy tang overlying the base flavour which was like nothing she had tasted before. The closest comparison she could come up with was sour cream and tomato salsa. Now the trick was to get it off the spoon and down her neck.
After about thirty seconds of manipulating the utensil in various ways, she figured out a technique. By poking her tongue through the wire loop, she could break the hold of surface tension, the paste rolling itself into a goopy ball that she could then swallow. She had ten mouthfuls of the paste before the Sectoid removed the bowl, gingerly probing at her abdomen. Outside of the stasis tank the wound had started to sting again and the Sectoid's examination was aggravating the frayed nerves. She hissed in displeasure as the Sectoid finished its examination and tapped a control panel, sending her back into the stasis tank. As the gel flooded around her body she glanced across at the Muton. The hulking alien seemed to be asleep. She had just enough time to wonder why the creature would take a snooze with its mortal enemy four metres away before the sedative kicked in.
The Temple Ship had been under XCOM's possession for almost a month and over half the ship was still unexplored. The Hive had been massively expanded to accommodate the enormous influx of scientists and engineers, and the soldiers needed to guard them. Each of the new personnel had to undergo a lengthy induction progress before they could take the oath of Vigilo Confido and become part of the team that had saved the planet. The scientists had already uncovered an enormous wealth of alien technological goodies, including a device that could amplify low level psionic gifts, meaning that anyone with the tiniest indication of the gift could have their talent amplified to the point where they were fully capable combat psionics. Using the new screening technique every single soldier who passed the rigorous recruitment process of XCOM was strong willed enough to gain some level of psionic gift, although the 'first phase' psionics tended to be far stronger. Another goodie was a machine designed to artificially synthesise Meld, vastly expanding the capabilities of the base's genetics and cybernetics division and making it economical to add more than one G-mod to a binding site. Of course, there was one outstanding issue.
When the Über Ethereal had fallen to a bolt of plasma from Colonel Shepard's sniper rifle the neural feedback had killed every Ethereal left on the planet but had left the remaining aliens unscathed, if leaderless. Without the guidance of the Ethereals, Cyberdiscs, Seekers and Sectopods were rendered inert, Chryssalids went into berserk killing sprees and Thin Men followed their hardwired programming to blend in to society, going to ground in dense urban centres using unsuspecting civilians as concealment. The Mutons, and their genetic cousins the Floaters, were the most difficult matter to deal with, being rounded up, disarmed and moved to an enormous ghetto cum prison camp in the Sahara desert. The Sectoids? They fixed things.
It seemed that when not directly instructed to by an Ethereal, the Sectoids were mentally programmed to act as autonomous repair drones, regardless of whom possessed them. This trait had caused great consternation at first but the XCOM operatives had learned to stay out of their way as they carried out their duties, restoring the Temple Ship to its former state. They even cleared up and kept the Human lab equipment working, and one engineer swore up and down that a Sectoid had administered first aid when he cut his hand on a power tool.
For Psi Specialist and assault lieutenant Jacob Taylor, the job of rounding up the latest group of Mutons was an exceptionally boring one. Like most XCOM personnel, he had several reasons to hate Mutons on a personal level and yet he couldn't bring himself to. They just looked so damn lost without an Ethereal to tell them what to do. The Muton in front of him growled half-heartedly as it deposited its plasma rifle and grenade on the pile of alien weaponry, the lame attempt at a threat display lost on the lieutenant who had once took on a Muton Berserker with nothing but a combat knife and held it off long enough for his teammate to put a laser beam between its eyes. The next one along was a Floater. Seeming to be the top half of a very diminutive Muton fused with a jet turbine, the Floaters always unnerved Jacob. They were an unpleasant reminder of the depths to which a species could sink. The Floater dropped its plasma carbine on the pile, then boosted over to where the Chinook helicopter waited to truck the latest load out to Sahara Camp. Jacob knew that the camp was only a temporary solution, just as he knew the Muton population would be a major social problem for a good while. He just hoped the solution didn't involve a nuclear bomb.
The next Muton along was an Elite, clad in distinctive red armour with a heavy plasma slung on his back. The alien went for a full on threat display, roaring and pounding his chest, making the four XCOM soldiers manning the checkpoint step back and raise their weapons. The Muton settled down, unslinging his weapon and brushing an imaginary speck of dirt off the handle before gently setting it down on the pile. Jacob nodded as his superior, Major Alenko, signalled for him to keep an eye on the Elite. They didn't want any firefights breaking out today.
Alenko, Taylor knew, was still grieving for the loss of his commander, Colonel Shepard. Taylor could sympathise. He had served in one of her squads several times and he knew what an inspirational leader she was. Alenko had always carried a torch for Colonel Shepard despite her repeated attempts to gently let him down.
As the next Muton sullenly chucked his weapon on the pile, Jacob sighed. It was going to be another long day.
Tali'Zorah nar Rayya screamed in terror as the sinister disc shape skimmed through the fleet again, loosing a volley of green projectiles at the engines of the Rayya. The whole deadly ballet was carried out in silence, the vacuum of space concealing the sound of the unidentified contacts. Tali's brain filled in the whooshing sound of the blue light emanating from the bottom of the disc shaped ship and the hissing of the green bolts of energy. She didn't need to imagine the booming or the entire ship rattling as the Rayya's engines were obliterated and she, like so many of her kin, slowly fell to the surface of the planet.
The military elements of the Migrant Fleet had been disabled quickly and efficiently, forced to perform controlled crashes on the planet below. She had known something was off when the star charts insisted the planet they were orbiting wasn't there. The entire fleet went into orbit around the rock at Admiral Xen's insistence while she took some readings. The results had been amazing. The planet seemed to have been designed for Quarian habitation. The ecosystem had no pathogens, no toxins or for that matter nothing which could aggravate their immune system. The entire thing was covered in what looked like an ancient city overwhelmed by jungle, the flora and fauna miraculously agreeable to the Quarian presence.
Of course, it had been a trap.
The strange ships hadn't even given them a chance. Before they knew what was happening their military arm was plummeting to the planet and without their protection the civilian fleet was quick to follow.
Tali clung on to the wall as the Rayya fell towards the unknown planet and screamed.
The CDEM was gone. Their replacements weren't much better.
Urdnot Wrex dropped to a crouch, rolling the Muton over his shoulder and slamming it down on the ground. His shotgun boomed, reducing the creature's head to paste. He had to admit a form of grudging respect for their attackers. The Mutons were physically the equal of Krogan, apart from their lack of tissue regeneration, and their weaponry was far superior. Wrex found himself falling back on his biotics to win confrontations far more often than he would like.
The robust physiology of the Mutons proved less susceptible to modern firearms, the individual grains passing straight through and doing little damage to the robust internal organs of the aliens. They could still bring down a Muton through sheer weight of fire but more and more Krogan were falling back on relic weapons left over from the Krogan golden age. Graal Spike Throwers, Striker assault rifles and high calibre sniper rifles were all popular choices for dealing with the Mutons. Wrex himself used a Claymore shotgun modded with incendiary rounds, more than capable of putting holes through flesh he could fit his head into.
It had barely been three days since the Tuchankan skies had lit up with the CDEM battlestations detonating in blossoms of nuclear fire and already Wrex was wishing for their return. Not that he didn't appreciate a good fight, but some of the aliens he fought were just wrong. The worst kind were the Floaters. Those things made him ache just looking at them. The Green Crests weren't much better, appearing exactly like Krogan warriors until you put a hole in them and instead of blood toxic gas came pouring out. Seekers were cowardly hit and run fighters, wrapping steel tentacles round his clan mates and squeezing the life out of them, and there was no joy in destroying armed machines like the Sectopods and Cyberdiscs. Nevertheless they were attempting to destroy him, and that was more reason than most of his kills had given him.
XCOM Research Report: 29th September 2016
Head Researcher: Dr. Lieza Vahlen
Team Leaders: Dr. Samuel Osabi, Dr. Friederich Zaitsev
TOP SECRET: ANY UNAUTHORISED PERSONNEL READING BEYOND THIS POINT SUBJECT TO IMMEDIATE PUNITIVE ACTION
THIS DOCUMENT IS RF TAGGED ALL MOVEMENTS ARE BEING TRACKED
Alien device examination, project codename: Fountain
The latest device pulled from the Temple Ship has shown to be one of the most promising finds yet. The device has, through careful testing, been proven to intercept radio transmissions and translate them to several alien languages, storing them in a meticulously organised internal database. We estimate that the device already holds almost one hundred terabytes of stored communications, including several from radio frequencies we previously thought were secure.
The computer systems inside the device prove to be a fascinating study as they contain algorithms for a highly adaptive on the fly translation program. This program has already been proven to translate communications in any terrestrial language simultaneously to all major alien dialects. The program has also been surprisingly easy to manipulate to our own needs, allowing us to start a series of basic translations of stored alien communications and starting to build up our understanding of how the aliens communicate.
We have isolated four major alien dialects which have been arbitrarily named Sectoid, Muton, Cyber-form and Ethereal (see appendixes 1, 2, 3 and 4 respectively). Surprisingly, the few complete alien comm transcripts we have managed to gather has invalidated several prior assumptions about the aliens, in particular Mutons. We have also discerned that while Mutons, Sectoids and Cyber-form aliens can understand each other's base languages with little effort they possess no knowledge of the Ethereal language, the alien's ruling caste seeming to communicate with their underlings solely through psionic messages relayed through the alien Hyperwave communication network.
We believe that by copying small sections of the translation device's code we can construct field translators that should allow our operatives to intercept and translate enemy messages in the field and hopefully make our POW population easier to handle, as well as open up new possibilities in interacting with cyber-form aliens.
Translator Implant available for manufacture.
"What have you got for me, Doctor?"
Dr. Vahlen turned to the Commander as he walked into the room. Since the death of his daughter, Hackett had thrown himself into his work with almost suicidal drive, and though his surge in productivity wasn't entirely unwelcome several of his close friends, Dr. Vahlen included, were becoming somewhat worried about him.
Shrugging aside her concerns, Lieza gestured towards the dormant alien drone on the workbench.
"I assume you read our report on the alien translator we found?"
Hackett nodded, eyes focused on the drone. The little things weren't much threat to XCOM warriors but after seeing swarms of them blitzing through buildings and slaughtering every civilian inside before the soldiers could gun them down, they were no less hated.
"Using the translator, we were able to translate SHIV programming into cyber-form code and upload it into an inert drone body. Although our troops could already use Arc Throwers to reverse hostile drone IFF in the field this is a more permanent means of gaining control and should allow us to modify the drones for our own purposes."
Hackett nodded slowly.
"And you're certain once this upgrade is activated the drones won't be able to revert to their original programming?"
Dr. Vahlen shook her head vehemently.
"There is no original programming left. Most of their core operating system was deleted when the Über Ethereal was killed, as for the rest my team spent three days scrubbing it completely from its system. The drones will be completely under our control."
To demonstrate, Dr. Vahlen activated the drone and had it perform a couple of laps of the room, then twitch its frontal manipulators in a passable rendition of the Macarena, accompanied by tinny music blaring from the little thing's internal speaker. Hackett chuckled as the drone came back to rest on the workbench.
"What do you think the odds are that your team will be able to physically modify the drone?"
The doctor shrugged as she absently tapped her datapad.
"Existing drones, highly unlikely. Every component is perfectly balanced, power, weapon, propulsion. Attempting to add, remove or alter any of these components would disrupt the whole system and render the drone unusable. On the other hand, we think we could manufacture new drones from scratch using materials recovered from the Temple Ship. If you wanted us to, we could probably make significant alterations to the drone's design in our new units. What did you have in mind?"
There was a pause as Hackett idly stroked his chin, fingers running along the scar he had gained in the Gulf War.
"A lot of possibilities. The drones could perform several high risk utility roles such as spotting for sniper teams or scouting blind corners. If we used them as airborne spotters for Archangel snipers it would eliminate the need for a ground presence in Sahara Camp altogether."
Dr. Vahlen agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiment. Several soldiers had already been hospitalised by angry Mutons while attempting to police the ghetto set up in the desert. The job, unfortunately, mostly involved clearing up the decaying corpses of Floaters. It turned out that a psionic implant had prevented their bodies from rejecting the mechanical augments, and when the Ethereals were eliminated so were the psi implants. Their organic half suddenly at odds with their mechanical half, the Floaters were quite literally falling to pieces. The XCOM cleanup units had to be quick on the mark - it turned out a Floater jet turbine could be converted into a single use flamethrower-like weapon by some of the more tech-savvy Mutons, and when drained the fuel burned hot enough to allow the inmates to fashion crude blades and armour from the alloy casings left behind. XCOM security forces had already needed to rush in and take out several stockpiles of improvised weapons held by the leaders of the large tribes the Mutons were organising themselves into.
On that topic, Hackett addressed the good doctor once again.
"Any ideas on how to deal with our Muton problem? It seems that for the time being extermination is off the table."
Lieza found her worry returning. The wording of the sentence implied that Hackett was in favour of genocide. Ignoring the implications of his last statement she responded.
"Not at the moment. The staff down at Sahara base are compiling a report on Muton sociology, hopefully that will have some answers."
"I hope so."
Jane groaned as she awoke. Her stomach felt like it was on fire, alien tools retracting back into the surgery on articulated arms as the plate she was still cuffed to slid smoothly out of the alien device.
She had briefly contemplated escape, a contemplation quickly rejected when she realised what the Sectoid was doing. Healing her. Time seemed to warp and blend together, long periods of sedative-induced unconsciousness broken by meals and sessions in the surgery. She had no idea if she had been in the room for a week or a year. The nerds back at XCOM had confirmed that the alien circadian rhythms weren't in sync with Earth's twenty four hour day but they had never quite figured out how long the space invaders considered a day to be.
She had already christened her Muton roommate Stewie and the Sectoid taking care of her Brian. Of course, she had no way of knowing if Brian was the same guy between two meetings, for all she knew he was a series of clones that got disintegrated after every time she saw one, but nevertheless she called him/them Brian.
Right now, Brian was rubbing a salve into the healing burns on Stewie's side. The Muton had his eyes closed and his mouth slightly open, seeming to relish in the healing effect the paste had. She knew the feeling - after taking a hit from a plasma rifle, burn salve felt better than sex.
At some point Brian had stopped taking them out of the stasis tanks individually and started removing them at the same time. For the first couple of sessions both of them had strained at their bonds and spat vitriol at one another, then they began to settle into a different rapport. One would lay quiet and listen while the other talked. Of course, Jane had no way to understand the snuffles and grunts Stewie emitted as speech and she doubted he could understand English either. For all she knew he was describing in vivid detail how he was going to relieve her of her internal organs and use her spine to pleasure his lady friends. She usually talked about her family and friends at XCOM.
Stewie was speaking at the moment, his strange language a mixture of animal growls, grunts and snuffles, although Jane couldn't tell how much of it was speech and how much was groans of pleasure as Brian rubbed salve into his burns. Not for the first time she found herself wondering about Mutons. She had fought hundreds of them, blown them away with her sniper rifle, and yet she hardly knew anything about them. What did they eat? Did they listen to music? Was there a Muton version of Failblog?
She chuckled at the mental image of three Mutons roaring at a PC as it played a video of another Muton falling backwards off a swing, then mentally shook herself as a strange noise filled her ears. She couldn't quite make it out but whatever it was, it seemed to be having a profound effect on Stewie. The alien roared and tensed his muscles, ripping an arm out of the cuffs. Suddenly faced with the possibility of the Muton getting loose, all of the anthropomorphisation she had assigned to it fell away, replaced with the cold tactical mind of an XCOM operative. She didn't have weapons or armour, but she didn't need them when she had her mind.
Brian clicked angrily, trying to force Stewie's arm back down and getting propelled across the room for his efforts. Testing the cuffs, she found they had significantly more give to them than she remembered. Apparently Stewie's unnatural surge of strength had short-circuited the mechanism holding them closed. She quickly ripped her own limbs out of their imprisonment, leaping off the table and ignoring the twinging in her stomach as she prepared her mental powers. Stewie tore the last of his limbs out of its cuff and jumped into a fighting stance, wicked claws gently clicking against one another. Jane knew that however this went down, one of them wouldn't be walking away.
The Turian fleet exited the Relay, sensors immediately sweeping the area for any sign of threats. Since the inexplicable loss of contact with all assets in the cluster ten days ago, the Council had ordered a Hierarchy Battlefleet to secure the system. One could never be too careful where Krogan were involved.
As predicted, no spaceborne threats. Yet somehow the CDEM headquarters station had been replaced with a slowly spreading debris field that was painting trails of plasma across the Tuchankan sky as it skimmed the edge of the planet's atmosphere. On the bridge of the Turian flagship vessel, Admiral Abras Tanarek watched the screens carefully for any sign of hostile activity. Younger, more hot headed Turians would call him an over-cautious old man who overestimates his foes. He personally let his record of the fewest combat losses under his command per enemy killed in the history of the Hierarchy do the talking. In his book, keeping his men alive was his highest priority. He made individual visits to the families of any soldier who died while acting under his orders. That was dedication.
"All elements have cleared the relay and are assuming combat formation. Awaiting orders."
"Proceed to Vaul for drive core discharge, maintain patrol grid at all times."
As his subordinate relayed his orders, he looked at the tactical map and pondered his options. There was no hostile space force, and indeed he hadn't expected one, but something had taken out the CDEM bases in the system in a single simultaneous blow. Something didn't add up.
"I don't like this, sir."
He glanced up at the captain of the dreadnought, Antari Kolotaras. The older female's mandibles were twitching back and forth as she watched the system pass by.
"Either the Krogan have pulled off a very complicated plan or there's a third force at work here. Either way, something big is happening in this system."
Abras nodded his agreement.
"Any Krogan smart enough to plan an attack like this would know that the logical step would be a peacekeeping fleet."
"In which case we're heading straight into a trap."
"Any thoughts as to the nature of this trap?"
She twitched her mandibles again, then an expression of horror graced her features.
"It's standard procedure for us to immediately discharge our drive cores ..."
The fleet dropped out of FTL, the automated systems moving them in to skim the upper atmosphere of Vaul.
"... at the nearest gas giant."
Abras dove for the command channel.
"All ships, maximum readiness! Prepare for close assault!"
Sinister shapes started to rise out of the gas giant's rings as the Turian fleet scrambled to prepare themselves for the coming attack. Abras could only stare in amazement at the ships. He had never seen anything like them before. The centrepieces of the ambush were six enormous dreadnought-sized vessels that had a dangerous spiky appearance, unlike anything he had ever seen. They were accompanied by boxy light cruisers and disc shaped frigates and corvettes, swarming towards his ships at a terrifying rate. Suddenly engaged in melee, his conservative, long range tactics were invalidated, every ship forced to fend for itself in the chaotic furball.
One such corvette streamed towards the dreadnought, a constant blitz of green energy pouring out of it as it came. The plasma - because that's what it was - passed through his vessel's kinetic barriers with ease, the shielding no obstacle to the energy weapons. Energy weapons! He couldn't believe it.
Panicked status reports were bandied around the bridge, the shouts only adding to the aura of chaos.
"Our engines are out! K-barrier generator is down!"
"Hull breach! We have a hull breach!"
"Partial loss of heat and atmo to decks nine and ten!"
"All comms are down! Defensive armament at thirty per cent power!"
Abras noted that the offending corvette had shut off its plasma weapon, instead firing strings of what looked like orange crystals at the ship. The dreadnought's K-barrier was down, the vessel presenting no resistance to the penetrating rounds spewing forth.
The shout went up and every Turian on the bridge produced a weapon. Abras took the opportunity to check how the rest of the fleet was doing.
Already half his ships were expanding clouds of debris, smashed aside by the sheer destructive power raining from the enemy dreadnoughts. The other half were beleaguered by the harassment of the disc-shaped corvettes and frigates, backed up by volleys of plasma fire from the grim, implacable mass of the boxy cruisers. His mandibles slackened in disbelief. This wasn't a battle. It was a rout. The first time since the Krogan Rebellions that a Turian fleet had been defeated in open battle. He hit his comm override, unsure if his words would even be transmitted.
"All ships that are still capable, break off and head for the Mass Relay. Send word to Palaven. This is a direct order."
Any other words were cut off as three objects smashed through the ceiling of the bridge, embedding themselves in the floor. The Admiral turned, pistol raised, as the orange crystals lifted off the ground, strange energies swirling around them and forming the husk of an armoured creature wielding a glowing green rifle of some sort.
That was the last thing he ever saw.
XCOM Research Report: 18th October 2016
Head Researcher: Dr. Lieza Vahlen
Team Leaders: Dr. Samuel Osabi, Dr. Amanda Kasanyé
TOP SECRET: ANY UNAUTHORISED PERSONNEL READING BEYOND THIS POINT SUBJECT TO IMMEDIATE PUNITIVE ACTION
THIS DOCUMENT IS RF TAGGED ALL MOVEMENTS ARE BEING TRACKED
Experimental armour modification, project codename: Testudo
Upon obtaining a number of intact Sectopods and Cyberdiscs for study following the capture of the alien Temple Ship, we believe that we have discovered the source of a curious property of these enemies the troops refer to as 'hardening'.
The phenomenon of hardening has been extensively documented by XCOM squads in the field. Most of the larger cyber-form aliens and Ethereals exhibit this property. From what we have been able to determine these aliens project a low level energy field that has the ability to redirect incoming fire away from critical systems to strike other, less important components. Our snipers in particular find this highly inconvenient.
The research team have managed to isolate the device we believe is responsible for this trait and have discovered the design is deceptively simple. The energy field is very easy to replicate and we have developed a device that we believe will use this effect to far greater effect than the aliens did. Through manipulation of the power output in a repurposed Cyberdisc we have identified several other uses for this field. The effect scales with the power flowing through the device and we showed that applying a surge of power to this device can make the target almost completely invulnerable for short periods of time. The downside is that the field also effects outgoing projectiles at the higher power setting, making weapons exceedingly difficult to aim for the time it is active. At a lower power level the field provides a significant level of protection with glancing shots redirected completely away and direct blows lessened in power and nudged away from vital systems. We have also observed that the effectiveness of the field depends somewhat on the power of the weapon firing, conveying almost total immunity from pistol fire yet doing very little to protect from plasma sniper bolts or Sectopod cannon fire.
The scientific division, working in concert with Engineering, have developed a variable power hardening field module that can easily be integrated into our powered armour designs. This final design has two effects - increased protection for vital organs, and a fixed reduction in the energy of any incoming fire. This design can also be boosted to provide a temporary massive increase in personal protection at the cost of offensive ability. Note that this system provides no protection against close combat attacks.
Personal Hardening Field available for manufacture.
MEC/SHIV Hardening Field Foundry project available.
Summoning a bolt of pure psionic force, Jane lashed out. The streamer of purple energy leaped from her hand to the Muton's chest, catching the creature full on and propelling it out of the room, punching a hole in the wall with its passage. She followed up her attack by leaping up onto the table, readying herself for another psi technique. The Gollop Chamber had opened her mind, boosted her psionic powers and granted her a massive array of abilities at her disposal. She swiftly settled on a basic Psi Suppression technique, the purple energy streaming around her opponent and slowing his motions until it looked like he was struggling through neck deep treacle.
In almost comical slow motion, Stewie's head turned as the noise that had started the whole thing sounded again. He suddenly seemed to disregard her, instead seeking out the source of the noise. She hurriedly cancelled the Psi Suppression, readying her mental powers in case he turned on her again.
Her curiosity was piqued by the strange sound. Ensuring to keep a healthy distance from the volatile alien, Jane started to follow him deeper into the Temple Ship.
Major Alenko looked around in surprise as the Mutons he was guarding suddenly turned round, the turn coinciding with a strange, echoing sound emanating from deep within the Temple Ship. Confused, he tapped the communicator panel in his left gauntlet, opening a channel to the Commander.
"Command, this is Major Alenko. We have some strange Muton behaviour here, sir, they seem to be reacting to a sound coming from within the Temple Ship's deep layers."
Moments later Hackett's gravelly voice entered his helmet.
"Copy that, Major. Seems every Muton on the ship is being affected. Follow them at a distance, find out where they're going. If they show any sign of hostility take them down."
He turned to his squad, looking them over. As well as himself, Taylor, Williams and Vega, he had two rookies in his squad, Jenkins and Goto. The two rookies were equipped with light plasma rifles. Although the weapons did less damage than the heavier plasma rifle Alenko wielded or the specialist weapons of the other members of his squad, they had an inbuilt stabiliser that boosted a Rookie's generally poor aim and made for an excellent firearm when making the transition from the crude ballistic weapons of whatever national force they had been recruited from to the plasma tech prevalent around XCOM. Like everyone else, their armour had been upgraded with the Personal Hardening Field modification that took the form of an excessively large guard on the right shoulder that shone with a bright green light. Almost everyone in XCOM now used Archangel armour, the flight ability a massive tactical boon and allowing them to soar safely above the unarmed crowds of Mutons that could still rip a soldier limb from limb if they were caught off guard.
Readying his plasma rifle, he motioned his squad forward, keeping his jets warmed up to leap into the air at the first sign of danger. He glanced across at Lieutenant Vega, the bulky operative interpreting his intentions with ease born of countless operations together and stowing his Heavy Plasma, replacing it with the Blaster Launcher all Heavies carried. If the Mutons decided to make trouble the enormous guided plasma bombs the weapon fired would be invaluable in breaking the initial rush. However, the hulking aliens seemed happy to merely proceed deeper into the ship, compelled by the eerie sound that periodically issued forth from the depths of the ship. No XCOM forces had ventured there yet - they kept their operations for the time being confined to the upper portion of the Temple Ship out of an almost superstitious dread as to what horrors awaited below. Even the usually cavalier Dr. Vahlen hadn't suggested the soldiers attempt to head deep into the vessel for the love of science, instead busying herself with feverish study of the enormous number of alien devices flowing in from the parts of the vessel they had secured. And yet here they were, following a horde of Mutons deep into unexplored territory. The rookies were visibly nervous, their gung-ho attitude seemingly dispersed in the face of the lingering threat. Kaidan checked his squad readout. Although Goto was doing surprisingly well Jenkins had his thrusters running hot.
"Jenkins, shut off your jets. You're wasting fuel."
Not technically true - the Archangel's gravity wave thrusters were powered by a speck of plutonium in each thruster that produced more than enough energy to operate the gravity wave devices that held a soldier aloft. The limitation to the thruster efficiency was, in fact, heat production. Jenkins was actually running the risk of overloading his thrusters with heat, which would cause an emergency shutdown. It was just easier to say fuel.
As Jenkins somewhat sheepishly shut off his thrusters Kaidan led the team through a large door that the Mutons had disappeared through, James second in and covering them with his absurdly powerful blaster launcher. What they saw wasn't what they were expecting.
They were in an enormous, cavernous chamber lined with row upon row of stasis tanks. And inside those stasis tanks were creatures that he had never seen before.
There were creatures inside the pods. They appeared to be the source of the sound that was causing the Mutons to act bizarrely and were physically very similar. Although far more slender than the average Muton the creature still outmassed a fully armoured XCOM soldier by a significant margin. Its features seemed slightly softer than the craggy faces of the average Muton and its body was covered in tribal tattoos similar to those that usually covered the upper arms and shoulders of the enormous alien soldiers. Kaidan almost instantly knew what he was looking at.
Over five thousand of them.
One of the Muton warriors - a Berserker, judging by the way he moved - stepped up to the nearest container and bunched up his muscles, delivering an enormous blow to the side of the tank. His meaty fist shattered the relatively fragile tank, the stasis fluid splashing onto the floor and the female Muton flopping forwards, her sheer mass yanking various tubes out of her bulky body as she fell into the surprisingly gentle grasp of the Berserker. That seemed to be the catalyst for a wave of Mutons ripping their females out of their imprisonment, the seven XCOM squads deployed around the doors and preparing to turn the entire room into a kill box.
The first female awoke, hauling herself up in a dignified manner and briefly tottering on unsteady legs before righting herself. She blinked and looked around imperiously as a door on the far side of the room opened, admitting one more Muton that was unarmoured with a pattern of semi-healed plasma burns up his right side. Another figure stepped into the room after the burned Muton. It took Kaidan a moment of squinting to recognise the figure. Although she was hardly recognisable outside of her armour, the way she held herself proved her identity beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Colonel Jane Shepard was alive.