SUNDERED SPIRE

The XCOM Dreadnought shuddered as its secondary fusion lances spat shards of sunfire at the distant Ethereal ships and a quartet of Mantis destroyers detached from the docking ports tucked into the vessel's belly. Inside each of the destroyers were thirty six XCOM operatives, armed to the teeth and ready for combat. Each destroyer was escorted by a squadron of four Infernos and a full wing of twenty Firestorms and was moving in to take up position alongside the Final Farewell, sheltered behind the mass of the Aegis Mantle.

In the troop compartment of the XCS Sundered Spire, Lauren Elderflower checked her appearance for what had to be the fiftieth time. Her flame-red hair was pulled up into an elaborate ponytail, a light dusting of makeup accentuating her high cheekbones and brilliant green eyes. It was highly unusual for an XCOM operator to go into combat dolled up like her, but then again she wasn't exactly an XCOM operator. She was, in fact, a military reporter.

Commander Hackett had been under pressure from a particularly noisy group of Council nations to allow media access to XCOM field operations for a good long while, and for almost two years he had resisted, his stated reason largely being that every seat on a Skyranger given over to a reporter or cameraman was a seat that didn't contain a soldier or SHIV. However now with a fleet that was expanding faster than XCOM could recruit soldiers thanks to some sort of magic nanite box, that excuse didn't really fly anymore. Eventually Hackett had given in and allowed one reporter to be embedded into one of his squads, and after her work in Afghanistan in late 2014 she had been the obvious choice.

The problem was, one reporter was about as useful as a quadriplegic on a unicycle without a camera crew. They had got round that issue by refitting a trio of utility drones with cameras and mics in place of their arc modules and syncing them to a control screen on the left gauntlet of the borrowed set of Archangel armour she was wearing. The three camera drones retained their twin linked plasma pistols and Hackett had insisted she check out on a light plasma rifle before being deployed in the field, meaning she was by no means helpless in a fight, but there was no doubt she would be a burden to whichever squad got saddled with her. Even so, the opportunity to finally shed some light on the mysterious inner workings of both XCOM and the numerous foes they faced?

She could practically taste the Pulitzer.

At the front of the troop compartment Colonel Shepard stood, thumping a fist on a bulkhead for attention. From what little contact Elderflower had with XCOM troops prior to this battle she had learned that Shepard was a living legend, with the highest X-ray kill count of any operative, exceeding the second highest by almost thirty kills.

"Listen up! You all know your objectives. Our target has taken several fusion lance hits and is venting atmo. We'll go in through the hull breaches and spread out from there. This is a capture and hold mission people, elimination of Ethereal forces is a secondary objective. If you see something new, arc up if the opportunity arises but don't go charging in unnecessarily and get yourself scorched."

She paused and looked around the troop compartment, seeing the determined expressions on the faces of her soldiers, or as she thought of them, her family, albeit a slightly larger one than the norm. There was even a growing trend of calling each other brother or sister.

"We've never come across dedicated Ethereal combat craft before. Pretty much everything we saw during the Invasion was recon or ground attack. We have no idea what to expect over there, but I have a couple of hunches."

Lauren realised Shepard had noticed one of the camera drones pointed at her as she began her speech, and most of it was for the benefit of a civilian audience. She was fervently glad that the legendary Lola wasn't one of the many soldiers who gave reporters everywhere the cold shoulder. She had dealt with her fair share of those in Afghanistan, particularly among the Afghan soldiers.

"Ethereals are devious fuckers on the best of days so I'm expecting quite a few underhand tactics. They'll probably mess with the gravity so don't get too attached to the floor, and if the opportunity arises they might try blowing us right back out into space so have your Archangel packs and grapples ready at all times. Go for full environmental seals as well, they might try to choke us out by shutting off life support. And bear in mind this ship is two and a half k long, we'll almost certainly be outnumbered to a degree bordering on the hilarious. Equipment check."

Lauren had already had all her kit worked over by an XCOM tech in the armoury and she didn't have the slightest idea how any of it worked so she satisfied herself with directing her camera drones to film the rest of the destroyer's occupants as they readied their gear.

"Elderflower? You're with me."

She walked over to where Shepard's squad were readying their kit, glancing nervously at the enormous form of an alien soldier she had been informed was called an Adraa, then her eyebrows shooting up into her hairline as she realised the young girl practically vibrating on the spot beside Shepard had double jointed legs and three fingered hands.

"Excuse me, what's your name?"

The helmet tilted to look at her, then the visor flipped up to reveal a distinctly alien face.

"Tali'Zorah nar Rayya."

"If you don't mind, I have to ask, you look a lot different from most of the soldiers here. Are these some extreme genetic modifications?"

The soldier nodded, her hands skilfully disassembling her shotgun without even looking, then starting to snap it back together.

"In part. I'm actually a member of the Quarian species, although I have gone in for the full genetic modification package as well. Still getting used to the tail."

Lauren frowned. She had expected XCOM to be a nexus of the fervent xenophobia gripping the citizens of Earth right now, and yet here she was, chatting with an alien.

"How did you come to be a part of XCOM?"

A very human expression flitted across Tali's face, a blend of sorrow and anger that was especially jarring on her permanently cheerful features.

"The Ethereals attacked us, much the same way they attacked Earth. Almost three hundred human years ago my people had to evacuate our homeworld for reasons I'm not getting into right now. Every member of our species lived on an enormous fleet of ships called the Migrant Fleet. About eighteen months ago the Ethereals lured our fleet into orbit around an unknown planet then sprung their ambush. Shot the whole fleet down. By the time XCOM found us the Ethereal bosh'tets had killed almost eighty per cent of our population."

Lauren's hand shot to her mouth, a gasp of shock dying on her lips as she registered the tears in the alien girl's eyes. Then Shepard rapped on the wall of the shuttle.

"Alright ladies, balls out of purses please. Two minutes to LZ."

Tali blinked once and the emotions slid off her face, being replaced with a stony gaze Lauren had only seen on special forces veterans before. It didn't look right on that youthful, smiling face. The visor slid closed and the voice that came from within was completely different as well. The accent was still discernible but the voice was slightly deeper and rougher, with a clipped military cadence that hadn't been there before.

"You looking to make history Elderflower?"

"Wha ..."

"Put on a helmet or you'll be the first human ever to die from hard vac exposure."

Scrambling as if kicked, she reached for the helmet clipped to her belt and slid it over her head, the high necked nanoweave undersuit slithering across her jaw to link with the headpiece and connecting the vital links that would allow her to breathe and provided power to the helmet's HUD.

IT LOOKS LIKE YOU'RE TRYING TO START UP YOUR HUD. WOULD YOU LIKE SOME HELP?

Through the visor she looked askance at Shepard.

"Seriously? XCOM armour runs on Windows XP?"

Shepard had yet to lower her visor and Lauren could clearly see the confusion and then annoyance on her face.

"Goto, cut that shit out!"

Lauren glanced back to see a small armoured Japanese woman tapping some sort of orange holographic glove around her left arm. Moments later the text floating in her visual field changed to something more appropriate.

HUD ONLINE

VIGILO CONFIDO

Shepard snapped her own visor into place and mounted her plasma sniper on her back.

"Thirty seconds to LZ. Ready for deployment."

The soldiers within all lined up by squad, facing the enormous door at the rear of the compartment. As well as five squads of soldiers there was a team of six enormous robotic units called MECs. Each of them was painted a different colour and had a different design of helmet on their heads. They had all been completely silent on the journey, and Lauren had thus far been unable to determine if they were purely robotic or if they had a human sequestered somewhere in their gargantuan frames.

"Alright Elderflower, time to buckle up. You're not ratified for this manoeuvre so I'll be remotely controlling your pack in transit. Just relax and try not to zom in your helmet, that'll make you totally fucking miserable for the whole ride."

"Zom?"

"You know, zombie. Chryssalid zombie? It means puke."

Then the light flashed green and the thrusters on her back shoved her out of the bay and into zero gravity, streaking through space with an XCOM ship behind her, a gaping hole in an Ethereal ship in front and a raging dogfight on all sides.

Regrettably, she did in fact zom. A lot.

###

AEGIS MANTLE

"Boarding parties have breached the target ship."

Hackett nodded in satisfaction. So far things were going surprisingly well. The Final Farewell's repair system had proven to be highly effective, the kilometre long frigate covering the four destroyers that had delivered the boarding teams admirably, fending off the damaged cruiser's escorts as the boarding parties made their way into the structure of the ship. They had spread out, each fire team going separate directions in an attempt to find the ship's bridge and engineering sections, if it even had any. The Firestorms and Infernos were holding their own in the chaotic melee dogfight that had evolved around the Ethereal ships, with the Mantis destroyers swooping in and taking out gunship after gunship as the Aegis Mantle and her two escorts not tied up covering the boarders relentlessly bombarded the second cruiser. Fortunately they had managed to cripple the hostile's forward fusion lance batteries in the first couple of salvoes but the ship's plasma weapons were still functioning and were whittling away at the armour of the capital ships with each volley.

The space battle had been in XCOM's favour from the get go. Hackett could feel the weight of the other shoe looming above his head.

###

ETHEREAL CRUISER 'CHARLIE-ONE'

The last of the bile expelled from her helmet after her thoroughly undignified zero gravity experience, Lauren gathered her drones about her. She knew, objectively, that they were nothing but machines following a set of programmed instructions but she couldn't help assigning them personalities. The way they had drawn back slightly as the vomit splashed on the gloriously gravity-imbued floor from the venting chamber at the base of the helmet made her suspect they were slightly more sentient than their creators let on.

"You done zomming?"

"I hope so."

"Good, let's go. Time's a-wasting."

Weapons firmly in hand, the squad plus one started heading deeper into the Ethereal ship, Lauren keeping up a steady muttered commentary into her suit's recorder as she went.

"I have to admit, the pressure is high. I've seen plenty of footage of XCOM at work but that doesn't really convey the professionalism with which they hold themselves. Truly, these soldiers aren't phased by anything."

There was a pause in her verbal diarrhoea as Shepard held up a fist, the squad instantly falling into cover. Reflexes honed dodging insurgent ambushes in Helmand province kicked in and Lauren swiftly followed suit.

"Elderflower, get Tommy to have a peek round the corner."

Quickly making sure one of her other drones was in position to record the whole thing, she directed the one singled out to zoom up near ceiling level and look around the corner. For some bizarre reason Shepard insisted her three drones were named Timmy, Tommy and Balthazar, and the names had quickly caught on.

"Three contacts, about fifty metres down the hall."

"Talk to me."

"Um, they look like the big guy, with green armour."

"Mutons. This is Team One, contact ... I don't know where the fuck we are."

A dry male voice with a strange synthesised tone responded.

"You'd think the goddamn Ethereals would have the decency to put up maps on the wall."

"Cram it up your ass, Zaeed. If you still have one."

"I'll have you know the surgeon promised to leave that whole area be."

Shepard was already in motion, pressing her back against the wall then disappearing right in front of Lauren's disbelieving eyes. She could still see a faint outline if she strained her eyes but if she didn't know what to look for she would have never realised Shepard was there.

"Stand by."

Apparently without any prompting, Tali and another soldier, a Human called Jenkins, moved up, also somehow camouflaged against the bare metal of the corridor, hugging the walls until they reached a slight indent in the corridor, taking cover behind the structural elements. The Adraa soldier, introduced as Boruv, dropped to the ground, camouflaging against the floor, then belly-crawled to a convenient waist-high partition in the centre of the corridor that was projecting some sort of holographic console above it. In her haste to follow the disappearing soldiers she had completely lost track of the fifth one, Williams.

There wasn't even a signal. Three projectiles burst out of nowhere almost instantaneously, each one impacting a different target. The first one, a green bolt she recognised from the firing range, struck the head of the leftmost Muton, erasing everything above the clavicle from existence. At the same time the second, a bolt of purple light, blasted a hole clean through the central one's chest. A split second later the one on the left was struck by a crackling blue orb that flickered forks of force over the creature's form, everywhere the blue light touched being eaten away like hydrochloric acid on speed. Three bodies hit the ground almost simultaneously and Lauren's jaw clonked against the bottom of her helmet.

Moments later the artificial gravity cut out.

"Called it."

"Stuff yourself, Lola."

Lauren dry-heaved a couple of times before she found her equilibrium, infinitely grateful that she had expended the contents of her stomach on the ride over. Zero gravity was not fun at all.

"Sharpen up. They must know we're here."

Instantly Lauren tended up, her light plasma rifle feeling heavy in her grip as she scanned for any movement. Wordlessly, the XCOM troops started to move up after a second or so, her trailing behind them like so much baggage.

"Tingle, twelve o clock."

"Confirmed. Multiple tingles."

Lauren raised a perfectly groomed eyebrow behind her blank visor.

"Tingles?"

"Bioelectric membrane. Inbound, get to cover."

With expert movements the XCOM team pulsed their thrust packs and slipped into cover behind objects on the walls, floor and even ceiling, although Lauren was having trouble remembering which was which. She managed to inelegantly smack into the wall behind a convenient jutting out object, then braced her feet against a handhold and held herself there.

Moments later an unnatural sound reached her ears, seeming to slip straight through her helmet and into her brain. The music itself was quite pretty in a mystical alien way. Its effect was less pretty. Her vision started to waver as if she were drunk and her limbs felt sluggish, lagging half a second behind her brain's commands.

"Colonel ..."

Then the door barrier in front of them collapsed and through it came three aliens in full body suits with clear visors. The faces within reminded her of white feathered owls right down to the small sharp beaks tucked against their faces, but the eyes were distinctly reptilian, the feathers around their eyes giving way to shimmering black scales like some parody of eyeliner. Each of the slender creatures had a long blade coated in hissing green plasma extending from their right wrists and their three fingered left hands were bathed in the purple light of psionics.

"Take them out!"

Plasma fire roared out, the erratic aim demonstrating that whatever was affecting Lauren was affecting all of them. Nevertheless some shots were finding their marks thanks to the sheer volume of fire. Whatever was affecting their aim seemed to have no effect on her drones, which were blasting away with their little plasma pistols. Seemingly deterred by the fire against them, the aliens flawlessly changed direction and slipped into cover, Lauren idly noting they had a single thruster similar to the ones on her Archangel armour mounted on their backs. Despite them being in low cover, she couldn't get an angle on them, the aliens somehow shielding their entire bodies behind what was at best a waist high protrusion.

A fourth one of the strange owl aliens came into view, its armour much heavier than the thin, flexible bodysuits worn by the other three. Its beak was open and there was a faint purple flickering emanating from it, and Lauren instantly recognised this creature was the source of the unearthly song disrupting their aim. However all of this was secondary to what the alien was holding. Lauren had spent enough time embedded in various military units to know a grenade launcher when she saw one.

"Colonel, grenade ..."

She was cut off as with a faint pop sound the grenade launcher released a tumbling cylinder, flying straight thanks to the lack of gravity, and then detonated it. Instead of the scythe of shrapnel or blossom of plasma she had expected however, the grenade exploded into a brilliant white flash and a deafening thunderclap of sound that made her reel even through the polarised visor and audio pickups of her helmet. Disorientated from the effects of the flashbang grenade, she had no time to react before the aliens were on them.

Too close to think about trying to shoot them off the XCOM unit, she settled for taking potshots at the one with the grenade launcher, landing a hit that barely scored its armour. The grenade launcher wielding alien moved back into cover, flattening itself against the wall oriented ninety degrees perpendicular to the one she was clinging to, tapping a button on the launcher and watching as the chamber cycled, preparing another grenade for launch.

Upside down relative to the alien grenadier, Shepard and Tali were two-teaming one of the aliens. Both of them were incredibly highly rated as hand to hand specialists and they were packing phrenologiser gauntlets that could punch through Muton armour, and yet the slender alien was dancing between them as they lumbered around like drunks. An understanding of the laws of physics was all well and good, but hand to hand at the speeds XCOM soldiers moved was about instinct and muscle memory. Both of those things were thrown off thanks to the lack of gravity, an environment that there was no real hand to hand doctrine for.

Tali twisted her hips frantically, barely managing to avoid a disembowelling slash from the alien she was fighting. The little bastards were quick. Although, looking at the swells on their chests and their slender limbs, perhaps little bitches would be a more apt description. She lashed out with a tail strike, managing to hit the alien on the shoulder and sending them both spiralling off in opposite directions just as Boruv pulsed his thrust pack and charged.

For all their agility the aliens were fragile. Caught between four hundred kilograms of armed and armoured Adraa moving at high velocity and a remarkably unyielding wall, the X-ray never stood a chance. Disregarding the broken body of his target, Boruv clung to the wall and snagged Tali's foot as she spun past, stabilising her and letting her get her bearings. With a nod of thanks, she sought out another target. Surprisingly enough the reporter was keeping her cool, using her little drones to suppress the grenadier, but that song was a major disadvantage for the XCOM team, the debilitating effects making it that much harder to adjust to zero gravity hand to hand. One of the two melee attackers remaining was ferociously duelling Shepard while the other was fighting both Jenkins and Williams, the latter of whom had a clean stab mark through her left shoulder, the edges still glowing red hot, and was clearly favouring her right side.

Growling, Boruv tensed his arms, biotic energy surging through his frame.

"Fuck."

He snapped his wrists at the grenadier, blue light surging out.

"YOOOU!"

A singularity erupted into existence, yanking everyone in the corridor towards it. The grenadier was closest, the weapon spiralling out of her hands and the song abruptly ceasing, replaced with a sound halfway between a hiss and a chirp, presumably an expression of surprise. This was, after all, the first time the Ethereals had encountered biotics since their initial subjugation of the Adraa.

Boruv hastily cancelled the singularity as soon as the alien was out of cover, the three drones pouring plasma fire into it with pinpoint accuracy, accompanied by a couple of haphazard, panicky shots from the reporter herself. The other two X-rays had been totally thrown off by the sudden appearance and disappearance of gravity, one distracted creature promptly finished off with a plasma charged punch to the head from Shepard, the other torn apart by a point blank fusillade from Williams and her heavy plasma, the barrel actually jammed into the alien's chest to stabilise the one handed firing.

Shepard immediately got on the horn as Tali moved towards Ashley, checking her HUD to make sure there was heat and air in the room before opening up the armour at the end of her tail and expelling the regeneration spray over her comrade's wounded shoulder. Ash nodded once, face tight although nobody could see through her visor, and used a repair kit to patch her armour. It wasn't a perfect fix but it should keep her alive if the Ethereals decided to decompress the ship on them.

With sudden and abrupt shouts of consternation, the gravity suddenly reappeared in the compartment, causing all six of them to tumble gracelessly to the floor. Then the gravity kept increasing.

"Сука's trying to crush us!"

"Shepard, what do we do?"

The gravity was past three G now and still climbing, thwarting every attempt of the squad to get up. Lauren, as the only unmodified one there, was feeling the stress more than the others but there was no doubt the Ethereals intended to ramp up the gravity until the squad's skeletons gave up the ghost and they crumpled into lifeless sacks of flesh.

"Four G ... Five G ... Anyone have any bright ideas, now's the time ... Six G ..."

As the gravity ramped up and the air became denser, sounds started to lower in pitch and become quieter, attenuating far quicker in the dense medium.

"If any Ethereals are listening ..."

All attention snapped to Boruv, who had started to glow like a blue star.

"EAT A SHIT!"

Then abruptly the compartment was back to a nice normal one G. Shepard gingerly picked herself up.

"Nice work."

She frowned slightly, her voice even lower and quieter.

"They're still increasing the gravity. I'm reducing our mass to compensate but it's getting ... tough ..."

"Book it, people! Through the door!"

The six of them, plus three drones with their antigravity motors on the verge of shorting out entirely, hurled themselves through the doorway and back into blissful zero gravity. Lauren twirled through the air, a mad giggle escaping her.

"I changed my mind. Gravity can suck it."

###

ETHEREAL CRUISER 'CHARLIE-ONE'

Zhang swept his particle cannon in a steady arc, scanning for hostiles as Reegar moved up, the two rookies trailing behind him, the other two sticking close to him. One of them was so fresh he hadn't even got his MEC painted, still in the drab factory grey. However, experienced MEC pilots were few and far between, the four colonels each leading one of the four MEC units assigned to the boarding parties. Zhang, as the de facto leader of the MEC corps, had selected Reegar as his second in command. Although the Quarian soldier wasn't experienced with his MEC suit, he had nearly a decade of combat experience and plenty of time fighting the Ethereal forces during the Fall of the Flotilla and subsequent extraction of Quarian civilians jammed into a handful of functioning Quarian ships like sardines. Zhang had been on the ground during that operation and had gotten to know Reegar quite well while protecting the Quarians restoring their ships and then using the kilometre long XCS Lin Yai Zhang, the stripped down battleship he himself had helped capture over Shanghai, to shuttle them through the psionic gate a hundred thousand at a time.

Ahead of him, Reegar clenched a single robotic fist, the rookies flanking him coming to a halt as if they had run face first into an invisible wall.

"Meld signatures ahead."

It had been well documented, the curious sixth sense that all Meld augmented soldiers possessed that allowed them to unerringly home in on Meld caches in the field. It had swiftly emerged that in Quarian subjects it was almost three times as keen, even allowing augmented soldiers like Reegar or that Zorah kid to sense nearby Meld augmented units like Mechtoids.

"Copy. Numbers?"

"Just one, heading our way fast."

"Spread out."

He moved off to the side, growling as one of the rookies, the one with the unpainted armour, made to follow him.

"I said spread the fuck out, dipshit."

"Sorry sir."

The appropriately chastened rookie moved off and back, putting a decent spread between the MECs. The three offensively oriented Vanguard MECs, Zhang and the two rookies with him, took up position at the front, Reegar and the other two support oriented Lynchpin MECs hanging back slightly.

"Sir, my HUD is fritzing."

"Mine too!"

"What is it, some kind of ECM?"

Growling, Zhang tapped his helmet, hoping the image would stabilise, anything but continue its nausea inducing wavering.

"Prepare for imminent attack."

All six tightened their grips on their weapons, taking up firing stances.

"Colonel, you hear that?"

"Great, music. Anyone bursts into song I shoot you down myself, got it? No musicals."

That drew a round of nervous chuckles. Then the enemy was on them.

The first impression Zhang had was 'oh look, a MEC'. However on closer inspection it obviously wasn't an XCOM MEC. The long slender limbs and thrusters precluded that, as well as the distinctly avian face visible beneath the thing's glass visor. The alien mech was wielding a weapon that emitted a soft blue light from its pure white cylindrical barrel, an ominous orange glow from within the boxy attachment slung beneath the barrel. It held the weapon in a left handed grip, a deactivated plasma blade visible retracted against its right forearm and an Ethereal tech take on a grenade launcher mounted on the left forearm. Its shoulders held two larger versions of Archangel thrusters, its calves holding two more. Perhaps strangest of all were the shallow swells in the chestplate. Seriously, who puts tits on a MEC?

His observations were cut short as the alien demonstrated two things. Firstly, it was hostile. Secondly, that weapon it was carrying looked familiar for a reason. He had seen them in the aircraft hangar at the Hive plenty of times.

It was an EMP cannon.

His MEC suit crashed, Zhang filling his helmet with Cantonese bad language as he felt the suit begin to drift slowly off the floor, the magnetic pads in the soles also taken out by the weapon's discharge. After a couple of seconds his HUD started to reboot, the crawl of status reports driving him mad until finally it winked back on, letting him see exactly what was happening.

Unlike the XCOM MECs, the alien unit was clearly designed for zero gravity combat. It had magnetic plates in the soles of its feet, just like his own suit, but they weren't used for walking. The hostile had actually attached its foot to the chest of one of the rookie's MECs and had moved onto the next morbid demonstration in its technology expo - the fusion cutting torch slung under the barrel of its EMP cannon, with which it was burning the rookie's head off. The man's screams were clearly audible as his head was cooked like a salmon wrapped in foil, then a burst of gas crystallising in the air as his helmet was breached and he flatlined a moment later. Zhang hadn't even noticed the X-rays had shut off the life support to the area.

Finally his limbs started to respond to his commands and he reactivated his mag boots, adhering to the floor with a solid clunk. His particle cannon was already swinging around but the alien has curled its slender mechanical leg up to its torso, using the corpse of the rookie as a shield as it ... she? approached the rest of them. One of the other rookies, a Vanguard, tried to charge the target, only to move too fast for his magnetic boots to compensate and find himself barrelling headlong down the corridor with no way to check his tumbling momentum. The X-ray capitalised on the opportunity, and blood and machine oil mingled in the air as her plasma blade sheathed itself again, the unfortunate rookie cleaved in half from head to groin. Reegar recovered from his own EMP hit just in time to have the alien thrust her leg forward, releasing the headless rookie and sending the body barrelling straight into Reegar, knocking him down as a ton of dead weight crashed into his chest. The two remaining rookies formed up on Zhang, intending to present a co-ordinated fusillade against the alien MEC. She then took the opportunity to demonstrate that her EMP cannon did, as a matter of fact, have an area of effect setting.

Zhang's HUD blinked on again and he was very surprised to find himself staring into the slit pupils of the alien woman's eyes, inches from his helmet. They were a lovely shade of mauve, he thought to himself, as her beak clicked a couple of times beneath her transparent visor. Immediately following that thought was the realisation that it wasn't normal. His first assumption was that he was concussed, but he didn't remember hitting his head. Then he realised. The alien, like the Asari he had encountered all top briefly, was empathetic.

His limbs returned to power and he took the opportunity to slug the alien in the gut, taking a grim satisfaction in the look of shock on her face and ignoring the thoughts whispering in his mind that it was wrong to hit a lady. She didn't like that one bit. With a shriek of rage she spun, grabbed the wrist of the rookie still inert behind her and flung the poor bastard right at the wall with enough force that he smashed through. Before he could go flying off into the next room she grabbed his ankle and, wielding him like an Olympic hammer thrower, spun round and slung him directly at Reegar, who had just managed to shift the last guy off him. The sixth member of their squad loosed a particle beam that scored a thick indent in the back of her shoulder, drawing a pained shriek and a leakage of blood before her suit clamped an emergency seal over the wound. Zhang noted the blood composition, a thin liquid with a sickly blue-green colour, even as he retrieved his own particle cannon and made to fire at the hostile.

To his surprise she had recovered a particle cannon off one of the dead rookies and somehow managed to fire it one handed, the beam hitting him dead in the chest. Almost half his armour integrity was gone in a single hit, alerts blaring across his HUD. He ignored them, forcing his cannon round and taking aim.

This time, it was his turn to be hit by a flying MEC, although the person hitting him was, in fact, Reegar. If he wasn't careful, the Quarian operative was going to get a reputation for this. Reegar had apparently been hit by one too many EM blasts since his MEC was steadfastly refusing to start up again. From around the bulk of Reegar he had become entangled with, he saw the alien MEC punch a slender digit through the visor of the third rookie, killing her instantly, then flung the corpse at the entangled mass of Zhang and Reegar. All three were knocked out of the hole in the corridor that emerged onto one of the hull breaches. Reflexively grabbing onto Reegar in one hand and the dead rookie with the other, Zhang could only watch the X-ray disembowel the last member of his squad as he spun off into space.

###

ETHEREAL CRUISER 'CHARLIE-ONE'

"How are you holding up Williams?"

"Aches like a bitch, ma'am, but I'm still good to go."

She nodded. Speaking aloud was more a habit than anything else, but sometimes couching a thought in a set language was a comforting exercise when dealing with stress. Fortunately the Ethereals hadn't tried messing with the gravity again, instead leaving it firmly off, but they had decompressed the ship at some point, making it that much more important to keep an eye on Ashley and her compromised armour. For the fiftieth time Shepard consulted her Omnitool.

"Okay, if this thing's at all accurate, we should be nearing the bridge."

One of Lauren's camera drones inserted itself into her personal space.

"Colonel, could you explain exactly where we're going?"

Beneath her visor she shot a death laden glare at the camera but her reply was cool and professional.

"We're heading towards what we hope is the bridge. We took some density scans of the ship before we boarded, and records on Ethereal ship design has showed they prefer large open rooms for the bridges of their larger craft. We detected six rooms that could fit the bill, plus another eight that might be auxiliary control units. Our electromagnetic scans detected a lot of wires running into this room in particular, which makes it one of the most likely candidates."

"So really, you have no idea whether this is the target or not."

"We've made the best guess possible with the intelligence we've got, but we don't call them Enemy Unknown for nothing. Combat ready."

Taking the hint, Lauren moved her camera drone away from Shepard, taking up a position bobbing around the group. Through pulses of their thrusters and pushing off walls, the squad had made their way to their target, oddly enough not encountering any more forces after their initial encounter with the aliens Shepard was referring to as Sirens. As she explained it, they were feminine in appearance, sang to people to disorientate them and then killed them, and so the name seemed pretty apt. Other groups had reported sporadic contact with the occasional Muton, totally helpless in zero gravity, but mostly the Sirens. Comparing the various comm chatter reports, the unit had surmised that there were three main sub-types of Siren. The fast ones in the black skintight armour with wrist blades were known as the Warriors. There was a slightly tougher melee variant out there as well that wore thicker armour, with white plates over a black undersuit and seemed to be demonstrating some Sectoid level psionics, were called the Elites, and finally the silver armoured grenadiers were known as the Siren Commanders due to their tendency to lead teams of Warriors. Perhaps the most worrying were the three teams, including Colonel Zhang's MEC team, that had gone completely silent.

"Stack up. Ash and I will take point, everyone else be ready to move in on my command."

The team moved into position either side of the wide doorway, each person swapping out the power cells in their weapons with fresh ones. Shepard checked everyone was ready, then held up three fingers, then two, then one. Then she stuck her fist, middle finger still proudly upraised, through the door, feeling the energy barrier collapse around her wrist.

Almost instantly, Shepard felt a cold slithering sensation in her mind. In the early days she would have to focus her entire will to expel the foreign presence, leaving the alien free to puppet her body until she excised the voice. Now however, with her mind shield built into her armour, the mind control attempt simply rolled off her.

"Confirmed Ethereal, engage!"

The Ethereal in question was remaining comfortably upright despite the lack of gravity, its robes still falling around it, just the faintest glimmer of purple at the hem betraying that it wasn't an effect of gravity. That illusion was shattered as Boruv biotically charged the Ethereal, slamming into the smug psionic and sending it spiralling through the air ass over tit, its robes flying around and giving all present a good flash of its undercarriage, or as Vega referred to it, the grape and raisins. The theory had even been floated in the rec room that the Ethereals had invaded Earth in a bout of penis envy. Nevertheless the Ethereal in question quickly righted itself, lashing out with a psi lance that Boruv neatly dodged with another biotic charge.

While the biotic and the psionic duelled, Shepard leaned round the corner and sent a plasma sniper bolt through the brains of the nearest Siren. The dedicated zero gravity combatants swiftly reacted to their comrade's death, turning to face the XCOM unit and slinging psi lances at them. The bolts were noticeably weaker than Ethereal or XCOM psi lances but the potential for damage was there. One of Lauren's camera drones got scorched by a double tap of psionic power, the gravity wave engine exploding and sending components of the drone spinning across the room. The other two drones were swift to react, spinning round to fire on the pair of Sirens that had taken out poor Timmy. While Tommy chased them into cover, Balthazar spun in the air, locking his twin plasma pistols onto the glowing green tower of an Elerium power source, detonating it and killing both Sirens instantly.

Tali surged into the room, kicking off the ceiling and exploding toward the second group of Sirens. Her shotgun roared, belching a cluster of alloy shards that reduced the nearest one to a fine blue-green most of blood droplets that hung in the vacuum, then Ash leaned round the corner and opened up with her heavy plasma, killing another. Shepard shoved herself into the room, and after a quick thought exchanged with Tali caught the tossed arc thrower. The Ethereal, which had abandoned all semblance of dignity and was trying to crawl away from Boruv with its single unbroken arm, was helpless as Shepard calmly drifted over to it and filled it with volts.

She threw back her head and let out a Quarian hunting call, Tali joining in from where she had just got the last Siren into a submission hold, then the rest of the squad. Soon every psionic was echoing the call, the Aegis Mantle ringing with the rapid trilling sound as XCOM celebrated its first live Ethereal capture.

The celebration was cut short as the stunned alien lifted its head and weakly spat out two words in English, its voice a hissing rasp.

"You ... lose ..."

Its single undamaged arm shakily rose and pointed at a holoscreen, upon which was an image of Earth.

Deep within the core of the stricken cruiser, a team of Sectoids frantically finished their task as ordered by their master. A mechanism shunted backwards, a ten metre long alloy rod pointed at both ends with a one metre diameter shunting into place in the enormous barrel of the kinetic weapon. A powerful magnetic field generated by supercooled elerium electromagnets snapped into being and the rod was expelled from the barrel at an incredible velocity. The second rod shifted into the mechanism, propelled forward at a slightly different angle and velocity, each one precisely calculated by an array of navigation computers. Six such rods were fired before the damaged power grid gave up the ghost, the magnets shutting down and the seventh rod jamming in the chamber.

On the bridge of the cruiser, Shepard watched the display of the rods falling towards her home. She dropped to her knees, the image dealing a body blow to her. After all she had done, after their hard won victory, the result was this. The Ethereal condemning millions to die in a single act of spiteful revenge.

They called it the Day of the Reaper.

The Ethereal laughed.