PILLAR OF NORTH AMERICA
Paddon sat on a bench next to Gray, watching the demonstration take place. The protestors had circled around the Pillar of North America, one of five monuments erected to those lost during the invasion. carrying signs that featured pictures of Sectoids with X’s crossed through them.
“That’s the worst chant I’ve ever heard,” said Gray.
Paddon grunted in agreement, watching the lead protestor call into his bullhorn. The chanting reminded him to take his genetic medication, and he dug the orange pill bottle out of his pocket. He poured the pills in his hand and picked out 2 blue ones and a green, popping all three into his mouth at once. He swallowed them, wincing as they went down, and he suddenly regretted not taking a drink of water.
“It’s good that the docs were able to finally get you down to two medications from that mountain you used to have,” remarked Gray. “Makes me glad I never got my trip to the tube.”
“Not to rub it in, or anything,” said Paddon.
“I’m just saying, the first generation gene mods had some issues. It’s the hazards that come with being the first monkey shot into space.”
Paddon grunted again, pocketing the bottle. He looked at his watch and saw that Maxwell was a minute late, which seemed unusual for a man who had a reputation for being punctual. He glanced around the park, wondering what was so urgent that the man had been willing to fly all the way from Germany to meet them. Gray had been the one to get the phone call, but whatever it was, Maxwell had been riled up by something and needed to see them, in person, as quickly as possible.
Suddenly, Paddon felt an elbow in his ribs and Gray said, “The big man approaches. And with a guest!”
Paddon looked up and saw Maxwell walking towards him alongside Lancaster, who was carrying a manila folder. Both men wore intense, worried expressions, and as Paddon and Gray approached, the first thing Maxwell said was, “We need to find a quiet place to talk. Any bad restaurants around here?”
“In D.C.? Are you kidding? There’s tons. Follow me,” said Gray.
The four men set off, with Gray leading the way. Paddon fell in next to Lancaster, who seemed a little less preoccupied then Maxwell.
“How’s Ravenshaw doing? I haven’t heard from her since we settled in D.C.” asked Paddon.
“She’s doing fine. Still heading up XCOM in the Philippines. The whole nature of their mission has changed to more of a training and analyzing role. She hates it, but she’s a true believer. She probably won’t leave that place until she’s dead.”
“That’s good. XCOM can use someone like her,” said Paddon. Lancaster nodded in agreement, and Gray found the restaurant he was looking for. On the outside, it looked like a sandwich shop that had been looked over by the health department, and the interior looked much the same to Paddon. However, it was completely deserted with the exception a surly cashier, giving Maxwell the privacy he wanted.
“I’ll grab us all coffee,” said Gray. The other three sat down in a booth in the corner of the shop, giving Paddon a chance to ask what was going on. Maxwell cut him off before he could say anything, saying, “Not yet. Let me ask you a question, though. When’s the last time you talked to Burning Man?”
Paddon shrugged and said, “No idea. Right before XCOM got restructured and we all went our separate ways. Why?”
Maxwell shook his head, saying again, “Not yet.”
Paddon nodded and tapped his fingers on the table, looking around the dingy shop. Eventually, Gray returned with four cups of coffee and said, “Their coffee only comes in black and, uh, not black. So I hope you like it black.”
Paddon grabbed a coffee as Gray took a seat next to him, and everyone looked at Maxwell expectantly. He took a sip of his coffee, and then looked at Lancaster, who finally opened the manila folder he had been carrying around. He dumped out a stack of papers, all face down, and before he showed them he said, “Just to let you guys know, as of right now, only 5 other people know about this. Myself, Coach, Wolfswift, Ravenshaw, and Maxwell. You two make 7.”
“That’s all fine and good, Lancaster, but we still have no idea what this is about,” replied Gray.
Maxwell nodded, and Lancaster flipped over the top paper. It was a photograph, and Lancaster said, “This photo was taken by authorities in South Africa, shortly following Operation Red Thorn. Coach led Siren to the EXALT HQ, where they assassinated the EXALT commander and razed their command and control center.”
Paddon looked at the photographs, which showed the interior of a building covered in ash and scorch marks. There were computer bays which had been ravaged by the fire, as well as a destroyed hologlobe unit. Lancaster flipped over the next photograph and slid it towards Paddon, saying, “And this was taken about 3 weeks ago, in the same building, in the same place.”
Paddon took the picture and saw that the interior looked the same, but all of the electronics had been removed.
“Someone salvaged all of the computers?” asked Gray.
Maxwell nodded and said, “We don’t know how long ago.”
Lancaster continued, pulling another piece of paper out. “In the past couple of months, there’s been some paramilitary activity in southern and easterm Africa, targeting aid groups that use Meld technology. A single group has taken credit for all of them, proclaiming a rejection of human modification. Pretty awful scenes, few survivors. By all reports, they roll up in trucks, use some hodgepodge of laser and ballistic weaponry, and then take off before anyone can respond. They call themselves the ‘Defenders of Our Humanity’ and have made it their mission to oppose transhumanism.”
Gray snorted and said, “What a stupid term.”
Lancaster continued. “About 2 weeks ago, they bombed a clinic that provided genetic medication for people who had received biological augmentations. There was some CCTV footage available of the attackers, so we pulled it and got a picture of the person we believe to be their leader.”
He slid the photo towards Paddon and Gray, and Paddon felt his stomach tie itself into a knot.
“No way,” he said.
“That’s Burning Man, former lieutenant and Chimera 7 of XCOM,” said Maxwell miserably.
“Christ,” muttered Paddon.
“When I was working within EXALT, they never quite reached XCOM’s level of technological sophistication, I saw them hit some pretty close approximations. We think Burning took a team to South Africa and salvaged EXALT’s HQ to repurpose it for his own needs. It would’ve been easier than starting from scratch,” said Lancaster.
“His intention seems to be to spread his particular brand of philosophy, and continue to target all things ‘transhuman’. Anyone who receives augmentations, anyone who distributes them, anyone who is any way associated with it. If he has taken all of EXALT’s equipment, it’s worrisome for a lot of reasons. We managed to keep the most dangerous technology locked up, plasma weaponry and gene mods mostly, but the EXALT made pretty good progress in reverse engineering it. If he’s got that data…” said Maxwell.
“And, if nothing else, it shows that he’s getting ready to expand his operations. The EXALT had a pretty impressive command and control suite,” said Lancaster.
Paddon sighed and took a sip of his coffee, processing all the information. He stared down at the photo with Burning Man in it, wondering what drove him to this and asked Maxwell, “So what do you want from us? I don’t think you’re here just to share this with us.”
Maxwell nodded and said, “Well, I want you to bring you on board to our agency. We’ll get you on a payroll, we’ll get you spun up for field operations again. We need-“
“Wait wait wait. XCOM isn’t doing this?” asked Gray.
“No. XCOM is purely extraterrestrial. Trust us, we hoped we could get XCOM on board. Ravenshaw was the first person we talked to, but she’s still under the thumb of the Council. She wants to, but there’s no way the Council would allow it. However, we have managed to acquire some special XCOM assets, courtesy of Ravenshaw,” said Lancaster.
“We’ll fly you guys to Germany, get you all trained up, and then send you to Africa to dismantle the group. Wolfswift is on board and already in Germany. We’ll send her out with you guys to find Burning Man when you’re ready to go.”
“So, that’s it? You two just roll into town, ask us to get back into the saddle and go to Africa to hunt down a former member of XCOM?” asked Gray.
“Pretty much,” said Maxwell.
Paddon drained the rest of his coffee as Gray leaned back, staring at the ceiling. He mulled everything over, trying to decide what the right thing to do was, when Gray said “Screw it. I’ll do it.”
“Excellent,” said Lancaster. “Paddon?”
He pinched the nose of his bridge and said, “Fine. I’ll do it.”
Maxwell grinned and said, “Awesome. Both of you, get your personal affairs sorted in the next week. We’ll get in touch, get you flown out to Germany next Friday. We’ll have you on the ground in Africa by the end of the month.”
Lancaster and Maxwell both stood up, putting on their jackets, and Lancaster said, “It’s a relief to know you guys are on board. Wolfswift was worried she’d be going at it alone.”
Maxwell dug out a card from his pocket and handed it to Paddon saying, “That’s my contact information. As soon as you’re ready to go, let me know.”
With that, Maxwell and Lancaster left the shop. Paddon drained his lukewarm coffee and said, “Well, so much for peace in victory.”
“It’s not that bad. Something was bound to come up sooner or later. It’s just unfortunate it’s this. Do you think Burning is doing this on his own?”
Paddon shrugged and said, “Don’t know. Doesn’t matter. Sounds like we won’t be able to drink for a while.”
Gray slapped him on the back and said, “Come on man, let’s hit the pub tonight. One last chance to enjoy victory before it all goes to hell again.”