BBC NEWS 24

"And now onto our top story of the week, the increasingly serious Chryssalid Crisis in mainland Europe. Here to speak with us today is the XCOM liaison to the Parliament, Major Lucian Westford. Major, thank you for coming."

The XCOM liaison nodded graciously.

"It is my pleasure, Anna."

"So the first question on everybody's mind is, how far will the Chryssalids spread?"

The Major took that to mean 'will they spread to Britain?'

"Thus far, all evidence suggests that Chryssalids are adverse to water. Their exoskeletons prevent them from floating and they need oxygen just as much as you and I. Although there has been one documented case of Chryssalids travelling in larval form inside a whale zombie, we believe that the eggs were treated with Ethereal cyber-tech to keep them dormant until they reached dry land, so it is highly unlikely the garden variety Chryssalids we are up against would be capable of replicating the feat."

"I see. So the Chryssalid spread should be limited to locations they can reach on foot?"

"Well, we're hoping to limit it a bit more than that. Worst case scenario, we lose the entirety of Europe, Asia and Africa, but realistically we will halt the Chryssalids long before then."

"What makes you so certain?"

"Well firstly, we have the Krogan on our side. I don't know how much you know about the Krogan, but they have experience fighting an enemy very similar to the Chryssalids known as the Rachni, which thankfully have been exterminated by our Krogan allies long before the Ethereals showed up. Secondly, under the terms of the Bradford-Montpellier Agreement XCOM has authority to initiate blanket orbital bombardments should the Chryssalids reach the Mediterranean coast or the German/Poland border."

"And why haven't orbital strikes already been used to halt the Chryssalid advance?"

The Major frowned. That was a sticky question indeed.

"While they may be useful, orbital strikes have serious repercussions even for the other side of the planet. The sheer force of the munitions are enough to cause severe seismic activity across the globe and the dust thrown up by the strikes could adversely affect the climate, even bringing about a new ice age. We do have experimental gravitic bombs designed to avoid those effects but they're only useful if you want to render whole swathes of a planet uninhabitable."

"Is there any official word on rumours that different forms of Chryssalid have been sighted attacking refugee camps in northern Spain and Italy?"

"I'm afraid I cannot confirm or deny that at this time."

CAMP NOUVEAU LILLE

Shepard snarled, a feral expression on her face behind her helmet as she reloaded her sniper rifle. The power cell sliding into the weapon, she tossed the spent one away and re-sighted. At this point the Chryssalid fliers were close enough that she had flipped her scope to the side, using a holographic red dot sight instead. She squeezed the trigger eight times in rapid succession, scoring a kill with every shot, and then there was no time to reload as the Chryssalids were on top of her.

The body structure of these Chryssalids reminded her of a dragonfly, she idly noted as she blasted to one side just in time to avoid the first of the onrushing Chryssalids. It shrieked at her as it rushed past, claws outstretched, and she replied by blasting it to shreds with a hail of shots from her plasma pistol. She sent a quick psionic order and across the camp XCOM soldiers shot into the air, Archangel thrusters flaring.

Tali received the order and lit off the thrusters in her own armour, feeling the familiar acceleration as she rocketed up to join the dogfight. She had almost reached the battle when she felt a psionic surge and was shrouded in a group psi barrier, just in time for three acid green projectiles to splash against it. A quick probe into the network revealed that she was not alone in receiving these attacks - the fliers were indeed spitting jets of acid at the XCOM soldiers.

Snarling in an unconscious mirror of Shepard's expression, she stretched out her hands in front of her, an orb of purple energy appearing between them. Shouting in exertion, she released the psi lance, watching as it curved slightly to match co-ordinates with a Chryssalid flier that simply disintegrated under the impact.

Responding to a mental warning, she jetted towards the centre of the camp, glancing behind her to watch as the ground based heavy weapons started to throw up a dense barrage, vaporising any flier entering the zone. Any who made it past the barrage found themselves up against an army of airborne XCOM soldiers, and before long the remaining fliers were retreating. Tali checked her Omnitool, then spoke out loud to herself.

"Thirty three hours to go. Yay."

CAMP NOUVEAU LILLE

Shepard answered the call on her Omnitool.

"Sir."

Commander Hackett acknowledged his daughter's greeting.

"Commander Shepard. How's it going down there?"

"No serious casualties so far, sir. It feels like they're testing our defences, so I'm expecting several more probes and then a major attack."

"Have you encountered any of the fliers yet?"

She nodded, then sheepishly realised the channel was audio only.

"Yes sir, we dealt with a wave about two hours ago. They're more fragile than the regular kind but they have some sort of acid spit which seriously weakens armour."

"That matches what the other evac forces have described. What are they doing now?"

She paused for a moment to check the sensor displays.

"Looks like they're hanging around just out of artillery range. I've grounded the bombers for now, three of them got pulled down mid-air by winger swarms."

"Watch your back, Commander. There's some sort of strategy at work here."

"You think the Chryssalids are under Ethereal direction?"

"Either that or they're much smarter than we thought. Whatever the reason, I don't like it. The good news is that three more Krogan transports just popped through the psi-gate, so expect reinforcements in about ten hours."

"Understood sir."

"Hackett out."

She terminated the call, rubbing her chin as she thought. She was certain the Chryssalids had more up their sleeves (metaphorically speaking) than what they had already seen.

Almost as if fate heard her ponderings and decided that was an excellent idea, her Omnitool chimed to alert her that a communication was coming in from the recon elements in high orbit.

"Shepard, go ahead."

"Ma'am, we've found something you ought to see."

An image appeared on her wrist and she peered at it, slightly confused by what she was seeing. It was a Chryssalid alright, but unlike any form she had yet seen. Its colossal body was supported by a tripod like arrangement of three thick legs, a tiny head between the front pair of legs the only indicator of the direction it was facing. The creature had a fourth limb extending from the centre of its back, arching over its head and terminating in a cluster of six eyes on short stalks. All in all, it looked like H.P. Lovecraft had taken some really bad acid.

"What the hell is that?"

The recon operator sounded slightly nervous when she responded.

"Unknown ma'am, but whatever it is, it's huge. The central body alone is the size of a Firestorm."

"Keep an eye on it."

"That's the thing ma'am, we just lost visual."

Shepard bit back the first three things she wanted to say, although judging by the number of surprised looks from nearby XCOM operatives her irritation was being broadcast loud and clear over the psionic network.

"Sorry, run that by me again? You recon types boast that you could read a newspaper from high orbit and you managed to misplace a Chryssalid the size of a house?"

"Uh ... Yes ma'am."

She held her breath and counted to ten.

"Find it."

"Working on it, ma'am, but it's not showing up on any of our scopes. Switching to thermal ... Ma'am, we have a thermal signature but no corresponding visual ... Several thermal signatures, actually."

"Switch to subsurface."

She waited tensely as the recon operator followed her instructions.

"Several tunnels are converging on the camp, ma'am! They all stop around ten kilometres from the boundary. It looks like the unknown Chryssalid forms are moving down the tunnels. I count at least ten tunnels, maybe thirty of the big Chryssalids."

"Relay the intel to Hackett. How deep do the tunnels run?"

"Looks like about twenty metres down at their lowest point. Wait ... Unknowns are exiting the tunnels. Nearest one is ten point two clicks north north east ..."

There was a tense silence. Shepard was briefly aware of her soldiers scrambling to prepare for another assault.

"Report!"

"These readings can't be right ... Ma'am, I'm getting massive psiwave signatures from all the unknowns."

At that moment, there was a brief ripple in the air that manifested as thirty purple orbs lofting upwards from the horizon, arcing down towards the camp. Shepard knew psionics when she saw them, just as she recognised the terrifying profile of a mortar strike from her time in Afghanistan.

"BRACE FOR IMPACT!"

Then the psi-bombs hit. There was no thunder of explosions or plumes of fire as she had expected, merely a chorus of sickeningly distorted screams and the familiar soul-sucking sensation of a nearby Psionic Rift attack, multiplied exponentially by the sheer number of rifts hitting at once. In the first salvo alone twelve XCOM soldiers and as many Krogan died, along with almost forty civilians. She didn't need to speak her next orders as she already knew over the network that the artillery crews were turning to return fire.

The familiar booming of the Krogan batteries all but drowned out the more muted thump sounds made by the XCOM artillery, seconds after the launches the landscape lighting up with explosions.

"Recon, report!"

"Hits on all Chryssalid tripeds. Wait a second ... All tripeds still active! No damage!"

Even as the recon officer spoke another wave of rift mortars launched into the air, personnel rushing to clear the projected impact sites. Even so, another forty odd people perished in the strike. In the wake of the rift mortars, she felt a familiar tugging at her mind and carefully lay down on her back so as to be able to focus every iota of mental energy she could muster.

With a collective shout, almost a thousand XCOM psionics threw up the most powerful psionic barrier they had ever attempted. A dome of flickering purple energy appeared around the camp, the civilians gasping in awe as the telekinetic field wavered, then solidified.

Not a moment too soon. A third wave of Rift Mortars lofted through the air, impacting on the psionic bubble and drawing a terrifying scream of pain from the collective XCOM psionics maintaining the barrier as its strength was cut in half by that single volley. Shepard whispered under her breath the same instructions she was sending over the network.

"Brace yourselves ... Rebuild the barrier ... Protect the civilians ..."

The barrier had recovered by about a quarter by the time the next strike hit. Again Shepard screamed in pain as her mental fortitude was pushed to the limit.

On the barricade, Grunt looked around at the XCOM psis as they screamed. He didn't pretend to understand psionics but he could tell their shield wouldn't last much longer. A quick comm check revealed that with the entire XCOM leadership unresponsive, he was in de facto command.

"This is Specialist Urdnot Grunt to all Kaestos class assault rams in the area. Our position has become untenable, we need immediate extraction of all combat assets."

He turned and gestured to a nearby technician.

"Activate the contingency."

Another wave of Rift Mortars hit, drawing another collective scream from the XCOM personnel. One mortar round punched through the barrier, striking a Krogan artillery position and killing the crew as they attempted to dismantle the weapon.

"Leave everything you can't carry! Just grab the XCOMS and get to the shuttles!"

The activity paused as a sound like a whip crack echoed around the camp with a sudden gust of wind and a bright green flash. Turning to face the wind, Grunt saw a colossal mushroom cloud blossoming on the horizon, lit from beneath by the baleful glow of fire. One of the men in his MEC squad glanced over to him as he gathered three XCOMs and slung them over his shoulder.

"Which camp was that?"

"Don't know, don't care. That'll be this place in less than an hour so get a move on!"

Grunt led his squad in a mad sprint between various strongpoints, by the end of their mad rush each one laden down with four or five XCOM operatives. With all their focus pushed into surviving the next rift mortar strike, they weren't even aware of their surroundings. Grunt was of the opinion that a true warrior should never be in such a state, but considering they were the only thing between him and getting his brain shredded by a Chryssalid tripod he couldn't really complain.

A heavy lift shuttle descended from one of the assault rams, passing through the telekinetic field and coming to hover, its belly hinging open and spewing thick alloy cables that the Krogan MEC troopers attached to their armour. Just as Grunt was about to plug in he heard a faint sound.

"Hold. Anybody else hear that?"

A few of his troopers nodded. Even as they did so Grunt was turning to the source of the sound. Two Humans were running toward them, clearly civilians judging by their appearance, one about half the size of the other. A mother and a child.

"Hold the shuttle!"

The lifter paused long enough for Grunt to snag the two civilians with one arm, clutching them to his chest as the platoon was pulled into the belly of the shuttle.

"We're aboard, go!"

The lifter surged upwards, angling for the safety of high orbit as Grunt looked down at the two civilians still held against him. The mother of the child appeared surprisingly young, although he was no expert on Human ageing. As for the child, he would guess she was about five. Both were staring at him fearfully and so he released them, the mother drawing the child close as she folded to the deck, sobbing.

He was distracted from the civilians by the XCOM agents scattered around the shuttle stirring as the mental lockup they had been in faded.

"Shepard. You in one piece?"

The XCOM Commander groaned and massaged her temple.

"Going to be feeling that one for a while. How many did we lose?"

"Nouveau Lille, about three hundred thousand got left behind. Too early to say how the other camps did. We had to abandon the big guns but we didn't leave any troops behind. Well, any troops still breathing."

"Not bad. Contingency?"

"Active."

She nodded grimly.

"Better than I thought we would do at least. Where are we going now?"

"Orders are to regroup on Mars."

###

XCOM Research Report: 13th December 2017

Head Researcher: Dr. Lieza Vahlen

Team Leaders: Dr. Craig Fires, Dr. Andrew Mello

TOP SECRET: ANY UNAUTHORISED PERSONNEL READING BEYOND THIS POINT SUBJECT TO SEVERE PUNITIVE ACTION

THIS DOCUMENT IS RF TAGGED ALL MOVEMENTS ARE BEING TRACKED

Autopsy Report, project codename: Harridan

The first Chryssalid mutation form encountered in the field, the flying specimen officially known as the Chryssalid Zephyr has proven to be a fascinating insight into the Chryssalid species.

The Zephyr's shape is based on the terrestrial dragonfly, although on a much larger scale. The basic structure consists of a relatively light central body with the familiar Chryssalid head partially integrated into the thorax, the grasping arms enlarged and strengthened, theoretically allowing the Zephyr to lift heavy objects, possibly even a fully armoured Krogan. A single pair of blade-legs are usually carried tucked into the belly, with the rear legs fused into the long tail that is covered in independently moving structures known as 'microfins' by the research team. These microfins are most likely the source of this particular Chryssalid form's remarkable agility.

The final features of note are the wings and acid glands. The enormous size of the wings relative to the body suggests that the Zephyr is capable of gliding more akin to a bird than an insect although field encounters have shown that in combat the Zephyr 'buzzes' its wings like an insect. The acid contained within the spitting glands is a powerful corrosive agent but does little innate damage to alloy armour, instead seeming to weaken the armour and make the wearer more vulnerable to subsequent physical impact. The acid is launched from a small orifice located below the mouth.

Though it is an inspired design it does have one glaring weakness. The exoskeleton is very thin, making the Zephyr exceptionally fragile. Even conventional ballistic weapons should be able to dispatch a Zephyr with a single well placed shot.

Also interesting to note is that the Zephyr is no different genetically from the baseline Chryssalid. Indeed, it appears that the Zephyr specimens examined by the research division were 'born' as normal Chryssalids but then developed into Zephyrs. The cause of this development was most likely an environmental trigger but at the time of writing remains unknown.

Dr. Vahlen's Personal Note (1): May I ask the Commander to crack down on the practice of putting seasonal headgear on the Sectoid workers. I hardly feel such frivolity is appropriate at such a serious time.

Dr. Vahlen's Personal Note (2): In response to your prior message, I would like to inform you that the next research team member to press the button that plays 'Jingle Bells' from the light up antlers atop the cranium of Sectoid 114/62A will be vivisected.

Dr Vahlen's Personal Note (3): Thank you.

###

PATERA SPACEPORT, MARS

The scene on the surface of the largest of Patera Spaceport's natural levitating platforms was one of utter chaos. XCOM, Geth and Krogan shuttles jockeyed for position, crowds of soldiers milling around waiting for orders that weren't coming. Observing the scene from the cockpit windows, Shepard glanced to the Krogan pilot.

"What the hell is this mess?"

The pilot gestured angrily to the spaceport.

"XCOM Command is running around like headless pyjaks trying to put out a million fires at once and the leadership of the Tuchankan Expeditionary Force got blasted to ash by their own contingency with the rest of Nouvelle Paris. The spaceport isn't even finished yet, it wasn't supposed to be operational for another month. Our orders basically amount to 'fuck off to Mars while we find our own asses'."

She rolled her eyes.

"Super excellent. Hold on, I have an idea."

She tapped her Omnitool, opening a comm line.

"Yo Joker, you in orbit?"

"Where else would I be?"

Her spirits slightly lifted by her pilot's cocky tone, she gestured derisively at the spaceport even though there was no way for Joker to see it.

"Get Edi plugged in and playing traffic control. Get these shuttles unloaded and landed."

"You got it, boss lady."

A semblance of order restored to the milling shuttles, Shepard contacted Joker again.

"Is the Iconoclast in orbit?"

"Yes boss, sitting over Patera."

"I want you to take a shuttle over and get their crunchers together, start dropping buildings."

Joker grunted his assent. Crunchers was a term for sufferers of Vrolik's Syndrome who were capable of using the psionic data uplinks aboard the Iconoclast and a few other prototype vessels like the Normandy Midnight. Officially the nickname came from their ability to process, or 'crunch', vast quantities of data. Unofficially they were named after the sound made when people ignorant of their condition shook their hands.

"You got it boss. Whereabouts?"

"Start laying down the capital city, you might as well. I'm sure you'll be able to design a pretty nice one."

She could only imagine the look of glee on Joker's face as he learned he had been given carte blanche on designing the capital city of Mars.

"Oh, and Joker. Make sure to put in a few obvious defences. The refugees need to feel safe, now more than ever."

She cut the line, watching as a flight plan finally lit up on the shuttle's HUD and taking the flask offered to her. The Ryncol seared a line of fire down her throat and she welcomed the slight dulling of her senses. Leaning back in the co-pilot's chair, she passed the flask back to the pilot, who took a large gulp.

"Worst Christmas ever."

AEGIS MANTLE

Hackett looked up from the tablet Bradford had just handed him.

"Remind me why the fuck we haven't bombed these idiots from orbit yet?"

Bradford inwardly groaned. It seemed that every Council missive was less welcome than the last for Commander Hackett.

"Have you seen this? Can you believe this? Listen to this agenda."

Bradford prepared for the worst.

"Item One, the agreement of suitable monetary resources to be used for Christmas bonuses to XCOM staff."

Suddenly Hackett's rage seemed more understandable.

"Item Two, discussion on measures to be taken regarding large number of genetically modified XCOM soldiers making extreme profits from the stock market. Item Three, a discussion on allegations of preferential treatment of aliens within XCOM ... Do they not realise there's a fucking army of Chryssalids bearing down on them?"

"They're scared out of their minds, Steven. They're in denial."

"Well I don't have time for it. Set up a communication filter. Anything from the Council gets quarantined and kept out of the circuit until further notice."

Bradford baulked.

"You're cutting the Council out of the loop? Steven, these are some very powerful people you're about to piss off. Much as I understand your position, we need their resources to stop the Chryssalids."

"I don't care how powerful they are! They're like a lead weight around our necks, have been since the end of the Invasion. I'm going to do what we did with the Citadel Council, cut them out and deal directly with individual national governments."

Bradford nodded slowly.

"I'll get it done, but I really think this is a bad idea."

"Noted."

NORMANDY MIDNIGHT

Shepard glanced up as she heard a knock on her door.

"It's open."

The doors slid open, admitting Liara and Garrus.

"Garrus, Liara. What can I do for you two?"

Garrus was the first to speak.

"We want to fight. I'm just a good a shot as you and I can't stand by and watch while innocent civilians are slaughtered by Chryssalids!"

Shepard frowned at them.

"You too Liara?"

She simply nodded.

"You'd just be liabilities. You're not tuned into the network, you're not trained XCOM operators, you're not even gene modded."

Garrus tilted his head at her.

"I'm willing to get gene mods and a psionic communications implant. As for training, I'm one of the highest scoring graduates of the most elite Turian special operations program in recent history. I may not be up to your standard but I'm certainly better than the greenhorns you're throwing at the swarms at the moment."

She nodded, a small smirk on her face.

"Report to the gene lab at 0900 tomorrow."

He saluted and turned on his heel, leaving Liara alone in the room.

"What about you Liara?"

She swallowed and stood straighter.

"I'm willing to undergo any genetic modifications you deem necessary, Commander."

At that Shepard raised an eyebrow. The Turians had a certain pragmatism that made them accept gene-mods as just another military technology but the Asari obsession with status quo she thought would have been an insurmountable obstacle.

"Really?"

"It's like you said, Commander. My people have been stuck in a ditch for three thousand years. I hope that I can jolt at least some of them out of it. As for training, can I not simply learn everything I need to know through a psionic imprint?"

Shepard simply stared at Liara for a moment. Then much to the shock of the young Asari she leaped up and kissed her full on the lips.

"Liara, you are a fucking genius! Psionic imprints! Fuck yes!"

She did a little manic dance around the room, then grabbed her communicator.

"Joker, get me a direct line to Hackett right the fuck now!"

Without turning around she pointed behind her towards Liara.

"Gene lab, 0900. Don't be late."

Liara backpedalled from the room, wondering exactly what had just happened.

NORTHERN SPAIN

"Alright listen up men!"

Nihlus Kryik suppressed a growl of annoyance as his new tail twitched behind him. He supposed he could brief the platoon purely psionically, and indeed his words were being transmitted to the other vehicles in the column by the new psionic communicator in his brain, but he preferred to speak out loud.

"Command has identified a pair of tripods moving towards a civilian evacuation zone. We're going in for an armoured assault. Our mission is to intercept and destroy the tripods. Our planned intercept is at this location."

He mentally sent an image of a steep sided valley with two tripods and a swarm of smaller Chryssalids moving down the centre.

"We'll split into two squadrons and take the high ground on both sides, then the tanks will hit the tripods while the infantry takes out any of the smaller forms that try to engage the vehicles. Our secondary objective is to determine the most expedient way to dispatch the tripods. I'll remind you that thus far both long range artillery and air strikes have failed to damage these forms so any intelligence we can provide will greatly assist in future encounters."

One of the soldiers, a Thessian two vehicles behind, psionically flashed Nihlus a question.

"Yes, thus far the only offensive capabilities the tripods are known to possess is the Rift Mortar attack. We are anticipating being well within their minimum range, so with a bit of luck the only threat we'll face is from the escorting forms."

As Nihlus continued his briefing the tank column roared across the wild countryside of Spain, the sun setting behind them.

CODEX - EUNOSTOS

Selected as the site of first city on Mars, Eunostos is a relatively flat region to the north-east of Olympus Mons that borders the Alba Patera peninsula to the north, the Chromatic Flats to the east and south and the Arcadian Ocean to the west. Situated in the narrow temperate zone around the equator of the planet, Eunostos can reach temperatures of up to twenty degrees in the summer and the region is the least affected by the harsh Martian winter thanks to geothermal activity of nearby Olympus Mons preventing Eunostos Bay from freezing over like the rest of the Arcadian Ocean.

The city consists of a central zone known as the Centre-Ville ringed by ten districts, or arrondissements. The Centre-Ville primarily contains the administrative buildings of the Martian colonial government, local EAC headquarters building and the planetary transport hub. The Premier Arrondissement is home to Mars's largest and most exclusive shopping centre, the Vie de Paris, as well as many other strips of restaurants, shops and specialist service providers, while the Cinquième Arrondissement is the centre of Eunostos's thriving nightlife. The Deuxième, Troisième and Quatrième Arrondissements are mostly high density residential areas broken up by the odd convenience store or café. The Sixième Arrondissement is dominated by the University of Eunostos and Martian Museum, the Huitième Arrondissement is the seafront, beaches, harbour and associated infrastructure and the Dixième Arrondissement is dominated by an XCOM base and shuttle port. The Septième and Neufième Arrondissements contain more luxurious residences, the beachfront properties of the Septième Arrondissement in particular being highly sought after. The first five arrondissements are clustered fairly closely to the Centre-Ville and are clearly separated by four wide avenues and the maglev track leading to Patera, while the outer arrondissements are less clearly defined, larger and not as densely built up.

The initial wave of inhabitants to populate Eunostos were refugees from the Chryssalid Crisis, meaning that the official language of Mars is French although many other European languages are spoken there. It is estimated that Eunostos in its current state can support a population of twelve and a half million before expansion becomes necessary.