Lancaster cleared his throat, turning to face squads Siren and Dracula, who were scattered amongst the chairs in the small briefing room. An intense silence fell over the group of soldiers, and Lancaster said, “Right, so, the EXALT. We almost know where they are.”
“Which isn’t bad, considering they were Carmen Sandiego only 4 months ago,” added Coach. A few soldiers laughed, and Lancaster turned to the pictures on display.
“We’ve narrowed down their main base of operations being in either Nigeria, or South Africa. Captain Coach and I have combed through all the intelligence we’ve managed to gather, and not only have we narrowed it down to these 2 countries, we’ve managed to narrow it down to 1 specific site in each country. So there’ll be no shooting in the dark once we’re there. Both are in relatively urban environments. Needless to say, this complicates matters. We are, officially, an unofficial, shadowy, paramilitary organization who only conducts military operations in-country at the behest of the Council. An unannounced raid by us that happens while also accusing them of harboring known alien sympathizers will probably make them a bit miffed, and cause a bit of political fallout.”
“If we’re wrong, anyway,” said Coach.
“If we’re hitting both countries, aren’t we going to be wrong in one place?” asked Vincent. “Do we have a plan for that?”
Coach shrugged and said, “Just don’t get caught.”
“Oh, right, of course. Us people who don’t turn invisible. Just don’t get caught. I should’ve thought of that.”
Lancaster grinned and said, “We’ve got a plan. Colonel Ravenshaw and Colonel Wolfswift have been gracious enough to turn command over to us for these missions, and we have infiltration plans. I’ll be leading Dracula into Nigeria. We’ve narrowed down the site in Nigeria to series of warehouses in a depopulated industrial district in Lagos. Coach will be leading Siren into South Africa, where the site seems to be a tower in a commercial district. The under cover of night, the Skyranger will drop off Siren and Coach in Johannesburg, and then swing northwest to drop myself and Dracula in Nigeria on the outskirts of Lagos. We’re landing on the outermost city perimeters, so we’ll have to be quick and get to our sites before the night is up.”
“I hope you all are friends, by the way,” said Coach, “The Council is too stingy to give us a second Skyranger, so we’ll all have to crowd into the passenger bay. That’s why none of the MEC pilots are coming with us.”
From the back, Crimson asked, “Why two sites? Can’t we figure out which one is the real one?”
Exchanging a disappointed look with Lancaster, Coach said, “Not really. Once they realized we were collecting intel from their cells, they really ramped up their counter intelligence efforts. One base is a legitimate base of operations for them. The second is probably nothing more than a shack with a land line, but they’ve managed to repurpose it so an equal amount of signals of importance come from both. If we had more time, money, and manpower, we could probably decipher their encryption, but… we don’t.”
Lancaster looked around the room at the soldiers and asked, “Any more questions?” but none came. Coach clapped his hands and said, “Excellent! I love short briefs. Ladies and gentlemen, your flight departs in 24 hours. I recommend getting some sleep. It’s going to be a long mission.”
OPERATION RED THORN
EXALT HQ RAID
Dead was crouched behind a dumpster at the intersection, wary of any approaching cars or people as the squad canvassed the series of warehouses behind him, looking for a quiet way in. After a few minutes of silence, Ravenshaw said in a hushed whisper on the radio, “Found an entrance. Everyone on me.”
Dead stood up and retreated back to where the squad was, finding them gathered outside the delivery entrance of an old warehouse. Paddon and Lancaster were up on the ledge, fiddling with something in the dark, as Ravenshaw gathered everyone around her.
“Lancaster will be on point, I’ll be on trail. We’re going to do this room by room. Look for anything that’s out of place, anything that even hints at the EXALT. Don’t shoot without positive identification. We’re not here to murder civilians.”
She looked up at the two men on the ledge and gestured towards them, and they picked up the rusting door as quietly as possible, creating a small opening. Lancaster slipped through as Gray took his place, holding it as the rest of the squad squeezed underneath. Once Dead was on the other side he grabbed the door so Paddon couldn’t come through, who grabbed it on their side. Gray and Ravenshaw were the last ones through, and they quietly dropped the door.
“Lancaster, go. We’ll be behind you. Flashlights on, don’t shoot until you know for sure.”
Dead flipped the flashlight on his rifle on, sweeping it around the warehouse. Empty shelves towered above them, stuffed with cardboard boxes filled with mechanical odds and ends. Even in the darkness, Dead saw Lancaster shimmer out of existence as the rest of the squad moved forward looking for any signs of activity. A thick layer of dust covered the warehouse floor, looking as if it hadn’t been disturbed in ages.
“I don’t think we’re in the right place,” muttered Dead. From nearby, Lancaster’s disembodied voice said, “We might be. They’re not stupid, if they’re here they’ll heavily restrict their movement.”
The squad pressed forward, sweeping their flashlights all over the darkened warehouse, wary of any signs of movement. The further the squad pressed in, the more Dead became certain they were in the wrong place.
“What we looking for, exactly?” whispered Gray, and Lancaster replied, “Anything. Hatch, hidden stairwell, ladder- hey, do you hear that?”
The squad stopped and listened, hearing the sound of someone running inside the warehouse. The squad shone their lights all over the warehouse, the echoes of the footfalls making it impossible to know where it was coming. Suddenly, Dead caught a flash of movement through the shelves and shouted, “Hey! Stop!”
The squad took off at a run, shouting at the fleeing figure as they tracked it through the shelves. The shouts and footsteps echoed all throughout the warehouse, making it impossible to track through sound, though Dead could catch fleeting glimpses of it. The squad rounded a corner and saw the person slapping on the delivery entrance they had used, trying to pry it open himself. The squad quickly surrounded the figure and Paddon pinned him to the ground, aiming his rifle at him.
“Where are they?” shouted Ravenshaw as the figure squirmed under Paddon’s knee, “Where is the entrance to the base?”
As Ravenshaw tried to interrogate the man, Dead saw the cell phone in his hand. Over the shouts, he could hear the sound of approaching sirens. “Colonel! Do you hear that?”
She suddenly fell silent, listening to the sirens. “We should go. It’s a trap,” said Lancaster.
“Yea, I know that. God dammit!” shouted Ravenshaw, kicking the cell phone out of the man’s hand. The man grunted and pulled away, as Ravenshaw drew her pistol and aimed at him.
“Colonel! Colonel, don’t. We need to go. Paddon, help me get this door open,” said Gray. He and Paddon pulled the delivery door open, creating a small crack that increased the volume of the sirens, and Ravenshaw holstered her pistol and slipped out. The rest of the squad quickly slipped out, with Dead coming last, who held the door open so Paddon and Gray could make it through. At the end of the street, the flashing lights of approaching authorities was rapidly approaching the warehouse as the squad turned and ran, heading towards the extraction point.
An hour later, the squad found themselves on the outskirts of Lagos, completely exhausted. The sun was starting to come up over the horizon, and they had hidden themselves away under a small bridge. Dead leaned against the concrete support and panted out, “I can’t believe it was a trap.”
Lancaster shrugged and wiped his neck, trying to dry off the sweat. The squad sat in complete silence, all of them trying to catch their breath and drinking out of their canteens. Eventually, Vincent asked, “When can we expect the Skyranger?”
“Dunno,” said Ravenshaw, “However long it takes for Siren to sack the actual HQ.”
Dead closed his eye and rested against the support, feeling exhaustion rapidly overcome him. The last thing he heard before he drifted off was Paddon asking, “Did anyone bring a deck of cards? We’ve got some hours to kill.”
OPERATION RED THORN
EXALT HQ RAID
“Oi, OBT, mind drilling a hole through this lock?”
Coach stepped aside as OBT unholstered his laser pistol and pressed it against the steel lock of the door and fired, the laser melting all the way through. OBT put his shoulder against the door and pushed, swinging open easily.
“Thanks,” said Coach, stepping through the open door. At first glance, he thought he was in the wrong place. They had tracked the suspected site to a penthouse in a Johannesburg tower, though it looked as if they had broken into the apartment of someone who was merely rich, rather than evil. Bear and tiger skin rugs adorned the floor, and exquisite and presumably expensive pottery were on display along the walls. As the entirety of Siren filed in behind him, he heard the squad give appreciative whistles and Coach heard a smack, followed by Talana hissing, “Don’t touch that!”
Suddenly, one of the doors that led to the room swung open, and the squad turned to face the new threat, only to see an unarmed man. He was wearing a pleasant, if forced, smile, and said to the soldiers, “Commander Clarke has been expecting you. Follow me, please. And, if you’d be so kind to oblige, no shooting inside. You might destroy the finery.”
He turned and gestured for the squad to follow, and everyone looked to Talana. She shrugged and followed the stranger, and the rest of the squad followed. Coach purposefully lagged behind, allowing the rest of the soldiers to get ahead of him before feeling his mimetic skin start to blend in with his surroundings. The stranger led the squad down a long wall, lined with more of the antiques. Eventually, the hallway gave way to an open compartment, with a massive hologlobe commanding the center of the room. EXALT soldiers stood around the bottom floor, and Coach saw a man sitting in a large chair, directly in front of the globe. The stranger led the squad towards it as Coach stuck to the shadows in the rear of the room, and the stranger said, “Commander Clarke, our guests.”
From his position in the back, Coach watched the man get out of the chair and exchange salutes with the squad’s escort, and then approach Talana. Coach noticed the heavy laser strapped to his back and the way Siren bristled when the man said in a booming voice, “Soldiers of XCOM, welcome! I am Commander Clarke, the overall commander of EXALT, and I am so pleased to welcome you to our humble abode. We’ve been expecting you here. We expected the squad in Lagos, as well. I’m glad XCOM doesn’t disappoint.”
“What happened to the squad in Lagos?” asked Lindan. Clarke chuckled and said, “Oh, who knows. Arrested? Dead in a firefight? Something unpleasant, I’m sure. And that cuts XCOM’s manpower down by one third, I’m not mistaken.”
Coach felt his mouth go dry at the thought of Dracula being captured, and saw the squad tense at the mention. “You are mistaken,” said Talana.
“Good try, Colonel Wolfswift. I am not. Do you think you could take the field against us so many times without us learning a thing or two about XCOM? You have three squads, each glad in different colored armor. It’s… cute. I will admit that the disappearance of Captain Thakilla and the yellow armor to be curious, but it’s not hard to imagine what had happened.”
The man continued to pace in front of the squad as Coach looked around the room, watching the EXALT soldiers start to close in on the squad. He gripped his plasma rifle, trying to find the best way out of the situation, while Clarke continued to talk.
“But that is all beside the point. It is not my desire to see XCOM destroyed. Rather, I would see it… dismantled. Our goals are polar opposites, though our means of accomplishing them are the same. You posture yourselves as the noble defenders of mankind, seeking to stop the invasion. I understand that to be a foolish, and impossible, goal. I don’t seek to stop the invasion, rather, I would accelerate it, so I- or rather, EXALT- may inherit the Earth. Once the invasion has progressed and the aliens have realized how willing we are to work with them, we shall be installed as the human overseers of Earth! Throughout the whole of human history, monumental changes have always been met with resistance, but things always get better. Why should this be different?”
“And what do you want from XCOM?” asked Talana.
“Join us. Share your technology with us. I see you have plasma weaponry, something we have had difficult replicating in our workshops. I am aware that you have found some way to harness psionic capabilities- something else we have had trouble with. If EXALT can master these technologies, it will surely show the aliens how deserving we are to be in charge of humanity, of how worthy we are.”
As Coach listened to Clarke drone on, he quietly slipped his plasma rifle over his back, pulling a smoke grenade off his belt.
“No,” said Talana.
Clarke recoiled as if he had been slapped, saying, “No? No? That’s all you have to say? Do you know-“
“Where’s the 6th soldier?” asked the escort. Clarke turned to him, asking, “What?”
Coach gripped the smoke grenade tighter as the escort said, “There was a 6th soldier! I know there was a sixth, he was wearing a different color!”
“Don’t be an idiot, you only walked in with-“ said Clarke, as recognition slowly dawned on his face. “Bogeyman! One of their Bogeymen are here! Where is he?” he screamed.
Coach quickly pulled the pin off a smoke grenade and rolled it towards the squad, and pulled another one to do the same. As both grenades bounced along the ground towards the squad, Clarke screamed, “Kill them! Kill them!” and the grenades detonated, filling the hall with smoke. Laser fire erupted all over the room as Siren fell backwards, taking cover behind whatever they could, when Clarke suddenly charged through the smoke and straight towards Coach, who fired two plasma bolts into him. He fell backwards, a smoking hole in his chest, and Talana shouted, “Spread out! Form a perimeter! Don’t let them get the drop on us!”
OPERATION RED THORN
EXALT HQ RAID
“Clarke is shot!”
“Commander is down!”
“Fan out, find them!”
As the smoke filled the situation, Siren slowly pulled back, trying to find a concealed position. The EXALT were jumpy, firing stray lasers wildly, though Crimson was relieved they didn’t come too close to the squad. The squad moved in silence, moving around the outer walls. The smoke was starting to rapidly disperse and Crimson looked around, trying to find cover. Talana snapped her fingers to get his attention, and gestured for Coach, Lindan, and himself to wrap around the side wall, taking a position on a small ledge. The three soldiers moved towards the ledge as the rest of the squad held position, taking cover behind a row of planters. They ducked into position as the smoke started to fade just enough to allow vision of the rest of the room. From the floor, one of the EXALT soldiers shouted, “There they are!” and Crimson heard laser fire, though none directed towards him.
Crimson stood up and saw a group of EXALT soldiers crouching behind the hologlobe projector, completely exposed to him. He fired a barrage from his heavy laser, cutting down one of the soldiers instantly, as Lindan and Coach joined him. Their plasma fire quickly cut down two more, but a sniper deeper in the room returned fire. Crimson ducked back behind the planter as another laser pierced his cover, spraying him with soil and clay.
“Sniper!” screamed Coach, “Sniper up high!”
Crimson quickly crawled towards a nearby pillar and took cover behind it, narrowly avoiding more fire from the floor. He could hear plasma fire from the other half of the squad firing at the enemies, when OBT shouted, “We’re pinned by that sniper, I can’t get a bead!”
Utilizing his cover, Crimson closed his eyes and focused, reaching out with his mind. He could sense the minds of everyone in the room, like small bits of electricity pulling on his hair. He couldn’t tell friend from foe, but he felt for the weakest signal, assuming it would be the furthest away. He gathered together all his will and directed it towards the mind, and felt it become a hotbed of activity. The sniper shouted, but was cut off by the muted discharge of a plasma sniper, and OBT shouted, “Sniper down!”
“Rocket! Rocket on the ground!” shouted Talana, when Crimson heard the roar of a rocket firing. He heard the scream of the rocket before he saw it, when it detonated on the planter in front of Lindan. The explosion sent shrapnel flying into Crimson and the concussive force knocked him backwards, slamming his head into the ground. His vision went blurry and his ears started to ring, and he could hear shouts over the sound of gunfire. He saw Stacker’s face appear above his, and he shouted, “Crimson’s OK!” before he was suddenly gone again.
Crimson struggled to sit up, his vision swimming, and saw a bleeding Coach firing at an out of sight enemy as Stacker kneeling over Lindan. He had his hand on his neck and swore, shouting, “Lindan is dead!”
“Get Crimson to a safe place! We’ll keep them pinned!”
Stacker ran over to Crimson, unhooking the medikit of his belt. Crimson looked down at his arm and saw blood streaming out of his shoulder. Stacker pressed the kit against the wound and pulled the trigger, injecting the medical compound into him. Immediately his vision cleared and the pain vanished. Crimson grabbed his heavy laser and stood up, leaning against what remained of the pillar. The body of Lindan lie nearby, among the dust and rubble, and Crimson felt his head swim again. The sound of gunfire had diminished, and the yells from the squad told him that there wasn’t much opposition left. The gunfire suddenly stopped, and Crimson heard the sound of running footsteps. Crimson raised his heavy laser in anticipation when Talana came dashing around the corner, followed by OBT.
“They’re dead, or routed. We need to get out of here, quick. Stacker, Coach, get Lindan to the helipad, call the Skyranger. Crimson, help me find something flammable,” she ordered.
“Flammable?” asked Crimson.
“Yes! Flammable! We need to torch this place so no other idiots try and take over for them.”
As Coach and Stacker picked up Lindan’s body and started moving him towards the exit, OBT shouted, “Colonel, they’ve got a lot of these banners hanging up. They look like they’ll burn pretty well.”
“Good idea. Got a Zippo?”
Crimson glanced around at the EXALT banners hanging from the ceiling as Talana tossed OBT a lighter, and he flicked it open to apply the flame. It quickly, the bottom of the banner going up in flames, and OBT tossed the lighter to Crimson, who followed suit. Within minutes, they had set multiple banners on fire, and the fire was quickly spreading. Crimson heard the dull roar of the Skyranger outside, and Talana shouted, “That’s enough, let’s go!”
The 3 soldiers sprinted out of the building and towards the exit as smoke started to fill the halls. They burst onto the helipad and saw the Skyranger with its ramp down, and Coach and Stacker were loading in Lindan. The fire was quickly consuming the top of the skyscraper as the soldiers filed into the Skyranger, and once they were loaded Talana shouted, “Go!”
There was a lurch as the Skyranger ascended, quickly departing the skyscraper. As they flew off, Crimson watched the blaze consume the top of the tower, turning into an orange beacon in the night. The ramp started to slowly close, and Crimson turned to see Stacker closing the zipper on Lindan’s body bag. The squad looked on in solemn silence, and OBT said, “It’s a shame that the traitors are what did him in.”
Crimson nodded, unsure of what to say. Talana called up to the pilot, “Have you heard from Dracula?”
“Yea!” called back the pilot, “They’re outside of Lagos. We’re heading there now.”
Talana nodded. “Good. Get some sleep, everyone. You’ve earned it.”