Thursday, February 9, 2017

The Long War, Part XXVII - The New York Address

Esteemed representatives of the great planet Earth. I come before you today as a visitor, and ask for your indulgence. I am the Speaker. I speak for my kind, and while we have names, our names have no easy equivalent in your speech. Suffice to say that I belong to a Council of Elders, and I can speak for them. We have traveled across time and unimaginable distances to come to your world.

Many of you are undoubtedly wondering what our purpose is, and why we have come. We are part of a galactic coalition of intelligent species, and mankind has ascended sufficiently to join our ranks. It is our intention to impart the secrets of faster than light travel to your species, in order that mankind can join our confederation and take its next step towards a larger universe. Before we take such a step, however, we are obligated to ensure that your kind is worthy of such an ascension. Our obligation is twofold - we have a duty to our members to ensure that a warmongering, destructive species does not join our ranks. What we have seen upon your world has given us grave reservations. We also have a duty to mankind not to provide you with gifts that you are not adequately prepared to receive.

We have watched you for untold aeons, and when it was judged that Earth had the potential to produce a space faring species a barrier was built around your solar system designed to keep your kind from perceiving the galaxy as it truly was - a place teeming with life. You were never alone. We apologize for the deception, but it was a necessary step. The barrier screened our greater civilization from yours, so that you had the opportunity to develop free from our influence. Believing yourselves alone and masters of your own fate what kind of world would you carve out for yourselves? This is a test that is incumbent upon all developing civilizations. The barrier also served to protect you and keep your kind hidden, free from interference. Despite our best efforts there are still predatory civilizations that prowl the fringes of the galaxies, looking for worlds to devour or subjugate. We have found that only together can we resist the darkness that threatens to consume us all.

I must apologize if what I say causes you alarm, but I am bound by necessity. The barrier shrouding your world dissolved a few years ago, when the satellite Voyager I left the heliosphere and passed into interstellar space. Earth lies naked and exposed, visible for all to see. When Voyager passed the ancient markers left behind in the Oort Cloud it triggered a signal for the barrier's dissolution and for a message to be sent to us that mankind was ready to make contact with the greater galaxy beyond its borders. When your astronomers look again into the night sky they will find the unmistakable signs of other civilizations. Like it or not you are part of something much larger, and it is time for humanity to grow up, and discard the petty tribalism that has plagued its short history. You have in your hands the means to eliminate most of the suffering on your world, yet you concentrate your wealth and resources into the hands of a miserly few. You slaughter each other over the most trivial of distinctions, and sow division and discord where there should be trust and amity. Our first sallies for peace were mercilessly rebuffed by representatives of the UN, by the paramilitary unit known as X-Com. Our pilots and navigators were slaughtered and killed, and even now their bodies are kept in secret labs beneath the earth, the subjects of cruel tests and experiments. This will no longer be tolerated. You have been warned.

To show that we come in good faith we present you with several tokens. We will give you the technology to scrub your atmosphere, to reverse the accumulation of carbon gases that will soon choke your world and turn it into a seething hothouse. We will give you the means to cure the vast majority of afflictions and illnesses plaguing your world, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and HIV. We will impart the secrets of gene therapy, so that everyone will have the chance to maximize their potential - to live beyond the limits imposed by the lottery of genetics. We will provide you with cleaner, renewable sources of energy, and free nations from the tyranny of oil and those who control its supply. The solar system and its riches lies waiting, yet mankind squabbles over the Earth's diminishing resources, unable to look beyond a few petty years of its lifetime. Even now the nations of China, Japan and the US arm themselves in anticipation of a conflict that could devastate the world.

We will not force you into joining our coalition. For those who do, we will lay down several prerequisites, the chief being an adherence to the tenets that all humans are deserving of respect, dignity and freedom. In return we will grant those nations who join us the greatest gift of all - the secret of interstellar flight. The Free Nation of Syria is the first nation-state to join our coalition, and we re-affirm our commitment to their cause. We ask President Al-Assad to sit with us and negotiate a peace, so that the slaughter may end, and that millions of Syrians may return to their homes to rebuild their nation. President Hollande of France and President Poroshenko of the Ukraine have also expressed their wishes to join our coalition, which we have named ADVENT in honor of this momentous occasion. This truly is the advent of a new age for mankind, and we ask you all to embrace it. For those who choose not to join us the only consequence will be a slow fade into historical obscurity. We will not impose ourselves upon you. Mankind must ascend willingly, or not at all. For those who join us, however, we offer the riches of the solar system and beyond. Humanity was never meant to stay bound to one planet. Its destiny lies in the stars.

Next: TBC

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Long War, Part XXVI - The Speaker

Previous: The Long War, Part XXV - Hearts and Minds


On 26 August 2016 a ceasefire between all the belligerents in Syria (excluding jihadist factions) came into effectPutin, the consummate politician, agreed to the ceasefire in order to give the Russian military time to mobilize more forces into Syria. Al-Assad also used the time to concentrate his troops into the vicinity of Aleppo, where the government coalition was planning a mighty offensive to destroy the city. Despite the aliens' vaunted air superiority the technological gap between the two civilizations was not insuperable. X-Com had demonstrated time and time again that the aliens were vulnerable to terrestrial weapons on the ground, and even the alien fighters could be shot down on occasion. Absorbing this lesson, planners on the Syrian, Russian and Iranian side planned to adopt the doctrine of using cheap, expendable units to attrite the alien defenders of Aleppo. For now, however, Putin used the breathing space afforded by the ceasefire to re-organize his forces, as well as to seek diplomatic allies against the aliens. It would not be known until much after the war that Putin had tried to approach the aliens with a peace deal through back channels, only to be definitively rebuffed. While it was believed that it was the aliens' solidarity with the embattled rebels that caused them to reject the sallies out of hand, a more cynical interpretation was that Putin, due to his actions in the early 21st century, was well-placed to be the villain against whom the aliens could rally the rest of the world against. While popular at home, Putin's expansion into the Ukraine and Syria  earned him the ire and suspicion of Europeans and several Middle East nations. America and Russia were historical antagonists, and China had its own ambitions as a rising power in the 21st century. Any fall in Russian prestige was celebrated, albeit quietly in private state rooms and in the corridors of power. The greatest irony of this was that Russia had only signed on to the X-Com initiative as an act of political opportunism, but would later become its greatest supporter and champion due to the aliens' intractability in their dealings with the Russians.

On 8 September 2016 Emilia Amat Al-Maseeh, the new president of the Syrian National Council, addressed a special meeting of the United Nations at its headquarters in New York. The new leader of the Syrian opposition was accompanied by the alien emissary introduced by Al-Maseeh as the Speaker. The Speaker's presence generated tremendous international interest, momentarily dwarfing the unfolding crisis in the East China Sea. While Japan and China stared each other down across the straits dividing their nations, the rest of the world watched with awe and trepidation as a small UFO landed in the grounds of the UN headquarters. This was a historic moment, and it was covered in exquisite detail by the international press. X-Com was in attendance, and represented by General Bradford, Dr. Moira Vahlen and Chief Engineer Raymond Shen. Three Skyrangers full of X-Com troops were also on stand-by, ready to intervene on a moment's notice. They were an addendum to the already unprecedented level of security surrounding the arrival of the Speaker.

These security precautions proved to be unnecessary, however, as no incidents marred the event. The Speaker was a tall humanoid looking creature wearing an ornate metallic headdress and garbed in red, flowing robes. The alien had four atrophied limbs instead of two, but otherwise it looked very much like a tall, spindly human in appearance. The Speaker was supported by Al-Maseeh, and its fragile, decrepit walk towards the UN assembly hall gave the impression of great age and vulnerability. This was belied by the ceremonial honor guard accompanying the Speaker, which consisted of four gold armored floating humanoids. The archons, as they would later be known, were impressive specimens. They were superficially similar to the floaters in that they used some kind of anti-gravity mechanism to hover and fly, but unlike the floaters, who were a bizarre amalgamation of metal and biological flesh, these archons were elegant beings which inspired awe and wonder. They also appeared human, much to the surprise to all those present. They had human faces and torsos, and the honor guard appeared to consist of two male and two female archons. The archons were naked apart from their augmentations, and the sight of the bared breasts of the female archons caused a minor scandal. Human genitalia were either not present, or were covered by augmentations, much to the relief of those overly concerned with propriety. Nonetheless the human faces of the invaders served to disconcert and confuse observers. The most common comment heard when perceiving the archons for the first time was that "they look like angels." Certainly the physical attractiveness of the archons did much to give this impression, but many of those who were in close proximity attested to a feeling of reverence in the presence of these beings.

The honor guard remained outside while Al-Maseeh and the Speaker entered the UN headquarters. The archons were bombarded by photos, and a few of the more daring reporters reached out tentatively to touch them. The archons responded with graceful equanimity, and returned the gestures, even smiling gently at the awestruck faces crowded before them. "It felt like the sun on my face," gushed one reporter. "My God, he was beautiful." Inside the assembly hall Al-Maseeh was the first to address the UN, and her speech re-affirmed the Syrian rebellion's determination to oust Al-Assad from power. She cited the numerous human rights violations perpetrated by the regime as the rationale for the rebellion, and once again called upon the UN for assistance in their plight. The most remarkable part of her speech was her plea to the Syrian refugees who had fled the country, calling upon them to return:

"Thanks to the steadfast support of the Speaker and his kind we will finally see the dream of a free, democratic and peace-loving Syria. Everywhere we see nations turning a blind eye to to our suffering - nation after nation has closed their borders to us, and we have become a displaced people, with no place to call our home. Thousands of us live in squalor in camps and ghettos all over Europe and the Middle East, and everywhere we go we are met with fear and suspicion, accused of harboring terrorists in our midst. My dear brothers and sisters, it is time for us to return - to rebuild - to make Syria great again. The Speaker has guaranteed our freedom and liberty, and they have proven to be true allies in our time of need. They gave us food, medicine and weapons to fight our enemy. They cured us and helped us, and stood with us in harm's way when everyone else abandoned us. What a twist of irony it is that the most humane of all turned out not to be our human brothers and sisters, but visitors from beyond."

Al-Maseeh's address provoked a bitter response from the Syrian government diplomat, and harsh words were exchanged which required the intervention of UN security. After order was restored the Speaker ascended the podium with obvious difficulty, and had to be assisted by the Syrian opposition leader and the UN Secretary-General. The Speaker spoke in English, and indicated that alien technology could translate their speech into any language found on Earth, and vice versa. The Speaker spoke with the slightly metallic modulated voice of an elderly male, and the speech he would give would mark a paradigm shift in how humanity viewed the universe and its place within it.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Long War, Part XXV - Hearts and Minds

Previous: The Long War, Part XXIV - Enter Chilong

Reversal in Syria

Al-Assad's stunning defeat by on the outskirts of Aleppo marked a stunning reversal of the fortunes of the Syrian rebels. Prior to the alien intervention Syrian government forces, aided by their Russian and Iranian allies, were slowly closing the noose around Aleppo. The rebels, abandoned by their American and Gulf nation allies, were doomed to inevitable defeat - the only question remaining was how long the collapse would take. Pounded by Russian air strikes and surrounded on all sides by Syrian and Iranian ground forces, the only strategy left to the rebels was to hold their ground, dig in, and hope for international intervention that would not be forthcoming.

The destruction of Aleppo was widely reported on international news, and garnered much public sympathy.

No one expected the aliens to intervene, and when they did they did so in a series of slashing and incisive counteroffensives that cut off Syrian troops and seized air superiority over the skies of Aleppo. By the end of July the Syrian offensive had all but stalled, once again opening a window for dialogues and a ceasefire. Furious at the loss of Russian prestige, Putin decided to redouble Russian efforts to crush the rebellion, and immediately gave the order for the deployment of further air and armor assets. Russian military analysts credited much of the aliens' success to their air superiority, but as X-Com and other nations had already demonstrated, the aliens were beatable on the ground. Even the new mechanical units deployed by the aliens around Aleppo were not invulnerable to conventional weapons. Guided weapons were still horribly vulnerable to alien countermeasures, but simple, brute force weapons like artillery, mortars and anti-tank guns could and did take a toll on alien mechanical units. Human forces also had the advantage of numbers - the alien deployment around Aleppo was the most significant demonstration of strength to date, but in terms of size they were no more than a single battalion - about 1000 mechanical units, both large and small, in total. The Russians alone had four to five times that number already in Syria, and could deploy a hundred times that number given time. In addition the Syrian government, along with their Iranian allies, also had the capacity to mobilize large reserves of men and equipment. Assad's four corner strategy in Syria - dispersing his forces across the country to forestall any kind of partition plan from the UN - required him to scatter his units all over the map. Given the symbolic significance Aleppo was gaining, Assad decided to temporarily abandon this strategy in favor of concentrating on the outskirts of Aleppo. For better or worse Aleppo was now a rallying point for the Syrian resistance, and the place where they would be making their last stand.

Aleppo - before and after the civil war that would devastate the nation and send its population fleeing into Europe.

The size of the alien deployment was deceptive, however, as their numbers were being bolstered by more and more EXALT troops. Each EXALT trooper exhibited signs of alien modification that went beyond the cosmetic. EXALT troopers never seemed to tire, could see in the dark, and were fearless in the face of the enemy. Some were documented in videos performing superhuman feats of strength and agility which strained credulity. As the situation in Aleppo became more and more desperate, more and more rebels and freshly radicalized Syrians began to join EXALT. Abandoned by their American allies, the rebels were faced with an impossible choice, and for most of them, the most rational one was to embrace EXALT. The most important aspect of EXALT was their ability to communicate and coordinate effectively with their compatriots across the map, along with their ability to coordinate with the aliens' air forces. The most senior members of EXALT seemed to have a direct line to the alien command, and requests for air support were promptly and decisively answered. More importantly, it was the aliens that kept the supply corridors open and allowed food, water, medicine and ammunition into the city. With the aliens keeping Russian fighters and bombers at bay, the resistance finally had a glimpse of something which they had lacked for a long time - the hope of victory.

The alien intervention in Syria also did much to alter the public's perception. Long feared and reviled in the public eye, the alien intervention garnered much goodwill among those who sympathized with the plight of the Syrian rebels. World opinion on Syria seemed to concur that something had to be done, but no nation or world organization had the political backing, will or capability to mount any kind of effective intervention. The UN once again displayed its ineffectiveness as a policing organization, being scuppered time and time again by Russian vetoes in the Security Council. Obama had once ordered American planes to intervene in Libya in 2011, but in the case of Syria in 2016 he assessed the public mood and the threat of getting into a shooting war with Russia as factors too large to ignore. NATO, Europe's foremost security organization, was paralyzed without the US, and could only watch impotently as Russia propped up Al-Assad's regime under the guise of attacking Islamic extremists. For months on end the world watched as Syria collapsed into a failed state, precipitating the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War. It appeared that all the world could do was watch and offer its condolences until the aliens appeared. The alien intervention brought Putin's adventure in Syria to a temporary halt, and grateful Europeans, wary of Russian intentions on their doorsteps, reveled in Putin's discomfiture.

It was not only those that held anti-Russian sentiments that rejoiced. Human rights groups could not help but be impressed by EXALT's conduct in the refugee camps in Syria. Demonstrating a more secular and tolerant bent EXALT camps were becoming havens against the constant strife and turmoil, and international aid organizations as well as media were given free access in and out of the safe zones. The video footage that came back from the camps were a public relations victory for EXALT. This was in stark contrast to the disorganized chaos of the UN relief effort, which was dogged by accusations of incompetence and favoritism towards Al-Assad's forces. The biggest supporters of the aliens were the resistance fighters who directly benefited from the alien intervention. Initial misgivings about the aliens' mysterious conduct soon gave way to shrugged acceptance, even friendly camaraderie, at least on the part of the Syrians. Embracing wholeheartedly the adage that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend", the rebels ignored the grotesque appearance of the floaters, and soon took to scrawling messages and graffiti on alien mechanical units which took their defacement with placid equanimity. Soon there was a plethora of photos and videos of rebel soldiers posing with mechanical units, some of which were adorned with hats, shemaghs, and other similar paraphernalia.

EXALT camps were clean, well-ordered and most importantly of all, safe.

This makeshift alliance soon gave way to real solidarity when alien forces saved rebel lives time and time again. EXALT camps provided the necessities of life and advanced medical care beyond anything previously seen on Earth. Wounds that were previously life-threatening or fatal became routine, and were treated as simply as one would apply a band-aid to a paper cut. The world watched with amazement and gratitude as several children amputees had their limbs regrown over a matter of days. Such life saving and life altering interventions had a profound effect on the rebels and their outlook towards the aliens, not to mention on corporations, governments and global cartels all hungry for the technology the aliens could offer. In late July 2016 a stronghold of Syrian rebels was subjected to numerous air strikes from Russian S-34s using conventional bombs. The garrison would have almost certainly be wiped out had an alien fighter not intervened and shot down two of the Russian jets. In the process the alien fighter went down in the sands outside Aleppo, and the grateful survivors from the rebel garrison immediately launched a rescue mission. Footage of rebel fighters carefully and gently carrying out the fallen sectoids from the wreck was circulated widely on news and social media. The sectoids were the size of small children, and their limp, dead bodies invoked a pathos that was undeniable. One sectoid, clearly stricken and near death, was cradled as tenderly as a baby by a rugged Syrian resistance fighter who had tears streaming down his beard. Another wounded sectoid was carried on piggyback out of the wreck, its oversized cranium resting on the back of another resistance fighter. The survivors were brought to Aleppo, where the sectoids became another public relations hit for the visitors. The sectoids could not speak, but they seemed to understand everything that was said around them, and resorted to communicating in a form of crude sign language. Footage of the sectoid interacting with several Syrian children also went viral, prompting questions about alien intentions and whether the UN had acted appropriately in forming X-Com earlier in the year.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Long War, Part XXIV - Enter Chilong

If Dacheng had been a superstitious man he would have felt some trepidation at the sight of the fog rolling in from the harbor. He was standing at the foot of Happy Valley at the base of a sweeping cemetary that rose up into the hills. Improbably situated in the middle of the urban tangle of Hong Kong the cemetery was crowded with the war dead of another era. British, Canadian and Indian troops shared their repose with Chinese soldiers, all having fallen against the Japanese in a war that still colored relations between the two nations. The top levels of the crowded mass of tombstones and memorials were now shrouded in mist, and as the sun set and the shadows lengthened around him it was easy to imagine the restless revenants of bygone ages lurking in the swirling milky darkness. But Dacheng was not a superstitious man, and as he waited patiently behind a large mausoleum, his only concern was the unusually bitter cold.

"Hands up."

Dacheng recognized the voice. "Colonel." He turned around slowly, and beheld the familiar build of his former commanding officer. His features were shrouded in shadow, but there was no mistaking the silhoutte of the weapon glinting in the half light. 

"Turn around. On your knees. Take your jacket off."

"Easy, Colonel," said Dacheng. "It's me. Paoquan."

"Take your jacket off, Paoquan," said Chilong firmly. "Slowly."

Dacheng complied. "It's me, Shaojie." He shivered at the chill. "You don't recognize me?"

Chilong's reply was not unkind as he flex bound Dacheng's wrists. "If this is really you my friend you have my deepest apologies." He quickly divested Dacheng of his weapons, both the 9mm in his jacket, and the small .38 in the ankle holster. "But I have to make sure." Chilong first peered at the back of Dacheng's neck, looking for scars or incisions. He then made his way down the back, fingers probing the spinal column, looking for tell tale bulges or swellings. Satisfied, he drew out a switchblade, a movement that caused Dacheng to start with alarm.

"Wait. What are you doing?"

"As I said, Paoquan," said Chilong regretfully. "If this is really you I am deeply, deeply sorry." With that he slashed gently across Dacheng's forearm, drawing a line of blood which caused the prone soldier to wince.

Dacheng was angry, now, not so much at the mild pain, but at the liberties being taken with his person. "Get off me, Shaojie. You're starting to make me angry."

Chilong cut the plastic flex binds with the switchblade and holstered his weapon. He held out a handkerchief apologetically, which Dacheng took with an angry swipe.

"Mind telling me what that was about?"

"Just making sure you were you, and not something else." Chilong waited for Dacheng to finish binding the cut, and then returned his jacket and weapons.

"How does cutting me open accomplish that?"

"It's just a little cut, Paoquan." A ghost of a smile illuminated Chilong's face. "Nothing to cry about."

"Give me that switchblade and we'll see how you like it."

Chilong held the weapon out and offered it to Dacheng handle first. "If that will satisfy you."

Dacheng waved him off. "I should stick that switchblade up your ass," he growled. "Make me understand why that little song and dance was necessary."

"You read the file I sent you?"

"Yes, of course."

"Then you know that the infiltrators don't bleed red."

"So you say. What about that little chiropractic examination?"

"Just making sure there wasn't anything lurking inside you."

"If I had a chryssalid embryo in my gullet I would either be paralyzed, dead or shuffling around like one of the jiangshi."

"I'm not talking about the chryssalids you fought in Africa," replied Chilong enigmatically. He abruptly changed tack. "Where's your extraction?"

"We have to go west. We're going to extract from Aberdeen Country Park, two clicks from here. Too densely populated around Happy Valley."

"Nobody around now," said Chilong drily.

"See all these condominiums around us? All of those people are going to get an eyeful of the Skyranger if it comes to land here. "

The two were interrupted by the sudden flood of light from the road, and the sound of several vehicles revving noisily into the cemetary car park. The sounds of tires crunching to a rapid halt in the grey ashpalt was soon followed by the sound of several car doors opening and slamming shut.

"So much for staying covert," said Chilong grimly. "Let's move." Without waiting he began ascending the hillside, adroitly picking his way past the maze of headstones and graves.

Dacheng followed. "How did they know we were here?"

"I don't know. Maybe..." Chilong trailed off, and pointed behind Dacheng. Dacheng followed his finger, and at first he could not make out what his old commanding officer was pointing at. Then in the dim half-light he saw what looked like a firefly buzzing around in the air behind them.

"What is that?"

"It's a drone," Chilong said. "They're all over Hong Kong." He stepped towards the drone, which reacted by darting backwards out of reach. Dacheng drew his 9mm.

Chilong grinned for the first time. "If you can hit that thing I'll pay you a $1000 dollars. It'll be like shooting a fly." Below them, obscured by the mist and the darkness the sounds of pursuit grew closer. Chilong's grin faded. "No more time. Let's go."

The two soldiers kept moving up the steep hillside, weaving their way past the crowded mass of graves and tombstones like billy goats.  All the while the drone danced and whirled maddeningly out of reach, keeping pace with them and presumably relaying their exact position to their pursuers. Dacheng spoke into his collar. "Xanziee, our original E&E plan is shot. We need extraction now. Top of Hong Kong Cemetery."

"Roger that," Xanziee's voice rang in his ear. "Skyranger inbound. ETA five minutes. You have Chilong?"

"Roger, he's with me. Be advised we have hostiles on our six."

"Hostiles? What kind of hostiles? Locals?"

"Negative. X-rays. At least, I think they are."

"Better make sure, Dacheng. Last thing we need is another incident."

"We're being trailed by some kind of miniaturized drone. Definitely alien tech. The sooner we're out of here the better."

"Roger, Dacheng. Stay alive. Don't die. ETA soon."

The two soldiers kept climbing. Their pursuers were rapidly gaining ground, and now the silhouttes of men could be vaguely seen in the mists below. The shapes were human, but their movements anything but, as they loped and vaulted over gravestones with the grace of antelopes. A dark suited man suddenly emerged from the darkness, and Dacheng gasped out a quick "NO!" as Chilong aimed his weapon at the man in black and fired. The man in black exploded in a spectacular ball of green gas, the miasma coloring the mist a sickly emerald, and Dacheng's protest died as swiftly as it had begun.

"Believe me now?" Chilong gasped. He was older and more sedentary since becoming a staff officer, and the toll of the rapid ascent was beginning to wear on him.

"Yep," said Dacheng grimly. Without hesitation, he aimed at two more silhouttes and squeezed off several rounds. With a strange and strangled yelp another thin man fell down the hill, while a second exploded in spectacular fashion as before. The fire from the two soldiers stopped the headlong rush of the thin men, and their pursuers scrambled and took cover behind the headstones. Any doubt as to their origin were dispelled as green plasma fire began to rain from below. Several dark shapes could be seen moving to both sides, darting from gravestone to gravestone in the same, unnatural but fluid movement.

"They're flanking us," warned Chilong.

"Xanziee, we need you now," Dacheng said urgently. "We are under fire from plasma weapons. Hostile X-rays are in the area, over."

"Roger, Dacheng. We're here. Hold on."

Overhead the mists parted momentarily and the Skyranger thundered overhead like a chariot of the gods. It landed on the top of the hill some distance from where Chilong and Dacheng were pinned down, and immediately several X-Com soldiers disembarked and scrambled into firing positions. Two fire teams led by Xanziee and Tengu respectively headed straight down the slope, while sniper Tenshi set up on the road which ran along the ridge on the crest of the hill.

"I can't fucking see anything in this fog," grumbled Kappa as he moved down hill with Tengu's team.

Tenshi the sniper concurred. "I'm not going to be much use here, sergeant. Visibility is very limited."

"Copy," acknowledged Tengu. "Be prepared for close contact."

The sound of handgun fire rang up the hillside. Dacheng and Chilong were still making a stand somewhere below the Japanese and Chinese fire teams. Flashes of ghostly green plasma fire illuminated the mist from below.

"We're coming down the hill, Dacheng," said Xanziee.

"Copy. Beware of flankers coming up the sides." Dacheng's voice was calm but strained.

The fire teams split up and moved downhill, with Tengu's group moving down the north side, and Xanziee down the south. A man emerged from the mist and was involuntarily shot by one of Tengu's fire team. Shocked and dismayed Oni bounded forward to assist the stricken man, until she came close enough to realize that this was no person. As the thin man struggled to rise, green ichor was pouring out of a hideous stomach wound, and an emerald haze was rising from the orifice into the cold winter air. The most unnatural thing about the creature however, was how its joints articulated. It looked like a tall, well-dressed human, but its elbow moved and bent back impossibly as it scrabbled and reached for its plasma weapon.

"Don't move!" Oni said, her training reasserting itself. The thing ignored her and kept crawling for its weapon. A double tap into the creature's skull turned it into a hissing, smoking green-tinged corpse.

A burst of chatter on their radios told them that Xanziee's team had also made contact. All their weapons were fitted with suppressors, but there was no mistaking the thwacking sounds carrying over the night air as the Chinese fire team engaged more of the thin men.

"Xanziee, what's your status?"

"Contact resolved," came the reply. "We have one injured. Be advised, hostiles seem to explode when shot, and release some kind of poisonous gas. Keep your distance."

Tengu's team looked at the fallen thin man in unison. Oni moved away from the corpse, and then Kappa casually lifted his rifle and fired two more rounds into the creature. The bullets hit the chest cavity, and the creature blew apart in a puff of green gas, much to the wide-eyed astonishment of the X-Com soldiers.

"Well, that's new," said Kappa.

"Copy that, Xanziee," said Tengu. "Let's keep going."

With a final glance at the smoking ruin of the thin man the Japanese pushed further down the hill. They had two more contacts, but this time the fire team put them down without any hesitation. The nature of their adversaries revealed itself through their amazing movement and acrobaticism. The thin men vaulted tombstones and mausoleums like they were insignificant obstacles, and their mobility through three dimensions meant that the Japanese were constantly scanning above their positions as well as to their front and rear. Tengu also warned the remaining soldiers at the Skyranger to stay frosty - it was not inconceivable to think that a thin man or a group of them could bypass the X-Com fire teams moving down the hill and threaten the waiting Skyranger at the summit.

"This is Xanziee," Tengu's radio crackled into life. "We've made contact with Dacheng. He's alright. X-rays seem to be falling back, but stay alert."

The Japanese team moved down the hill, and were soon reunited with the Chinese. Xanziee's squad looked more or less intact, but the big Chinese gunner Dajie seemed to be nursing some sort of injury. Accompanying them were Dacheng and a large Chinese man with a scar running down the side of his face. Tengu's squad looked curiously at him, wondering what kind of man had prompted such a drastic response from the visitors. He returned their stares with equanimity.

"Everyone," Dacheng said. "This is Colonel Shaojie Zhang, former special forces, former Chinese intelligence, and former attache to Admiral Wu of the People's Liberation Army of China. The Taiwanese call him Chilong."

The Chinese soldiers laughed at this, while the Japanese soldiers exchanged puzzled glances. The Chinese soldier appeared unperturbed, even smiling at the joke.

"It means hornless dragon," Kappa said to his squad mates. "Someone with a large mouth, but a small penis." Oni put her hand to her mouth and tittered.

Dacheng continued. "Everyone, meet Chilong. Chilong, meet X-Com."

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Long War, Part XXIII - Hornless Dragon

He was being followed.

His pursuers were not particularly well versed in tradecraft, and he had no difficulties making them out from the normal denizens of Kowloon. They were too well-dressed to fit in, and their dark glasses were a dead giveaway - they might as well have branded the words "SPY" on their foreheads. It would have been comical if they weren't so relentless. Three, four, five time Chilong thought he'd shaken them, only to find more lounging in front of his route, trying to appear inconspicious, then falling in casually behind him as he passed. That meant they were tracking him not just by foot, or by car, but also through other means. He wondered if there was something in the contents of his briefcase giving him away, then dismissed the thought - if that had been the case they would have broken down the door of the fleabag hotel where he'd slept, and taken him while he was asleep. No, he guessed that his face had been seen by facial recognition software while moving through downtown Hong Kong, and the results processed and sent to the capture teams trawling the metropolis for him. He knew who - what - was following him, and he knew that they were systematically plugging themselves into every network in the world, secure or otherwise, and availing themselves of the massive streams of data flowing through kilometers of fibre optic cables crisscrossing the world. He resolved to change the pattern of his face at the next available opportunity. The bottleneck for the enemy at this point was Earth technology, and while their computational ability was phenomenol, they still had to work with the limits of current gen facial recognition software. Chilong knew how to beat those.

His most recent tail was a woman, and a quite attractive one at that. Her appearance made her stick out like a sore thumb, however, and he was able to shake her in a warren of streets crammed with stalls filled with animal and vegetable produce. He crashed into a stall owner by mistake, and the man whirled around furiously with a shouted rebuke on his lips. The rebuke melted away along with the belligerence on the man's face when he saw Chilong's face. Even in his middle age Chilong possessed the build of the soldier he used to be, and a massive scar running along the length of his cheek added to the intimidating aura around the man. Chilong almost laughed at the expression on the man's face, but kept his composure, bowed and said "Dui bu qui" as he kept moving past. He needed to get under cover - he suspected that his pursuers were somehow tracking him from the sky, and he wanted to change his profile and silhoutte before re-emerging into the open.

His chance soon came when he dived into the ground floor of a rickety building filled with what seemed to be a never ending row of cheap clothes, shoes and sneakers. Winding his way deeper into the building he found a stall where he bought a hat, some glasses and a heavy overcoat for five times its regular price, then slipped into filthy, reeking lavatory where he could change. He ditched his old jacket and replaced it with his new acquisition. The glasses he inscribed with an alternating zebra stripe pattern with a marker pen, which he then donned along with the hat. As he was finishing he heard a strange humming. He soon found the source - an insect was trying to get into the lavatory through a small hole in the fly screen covering the only window into the latrine. Its body was rattling against the mesh as it tried to worm its way through the opening. Upon closer inspection the insect turned out to be a small metallic drone with a central black eye of some kind, and Chilong immediately realized how his pursuers had been keeping up with him. He grabbed the drone, which was no bigger than a ball bearing, and tried to crush it with his hand, without any success. The drone rolled and skittered in his hand, but whatever impelled through the air was not strong enough to escape a human grip. He pondered on how best to dispose of the drone, before finally deciding to adopt the simplest and most elegant solution of hurling the thing into the nearest toilet and flushing it. He closed the lid for good measure. He would have liked to keep it, but he didn't want to take the risk of being tracked through the drone's position.

He left the bathroom hurriedly, keeping his eyes open for signs of his pursuers. Seeing no men or women in black he immediately returned to the stall where he bought the coat, and delighted the elderly stall owner by buying another coat and hat, this time in a different make and color, but at the same exorbitant prices. He half-heartedly asked for an exchange, offering his original purchases in supplication, but was denied. The stall owner pointed self-righteously at a crude, hand-written sign above the stall stating "No Exchanges or Refunds", and Chilong defeated, just nodded and forked over his money. His last glimpse of the stall was the sight of the owner picking up his discarded purchases, and shamelessly putting them back on display.

Back outside he made good time. There was no sign of his pursuers. He still exercised caution, sweeping his tail at regular intervals and keeping his face averted from cameras and people, all the while following an unpredictable and zigzagging route. He passed several TVs displaying hourly updates of the unfolding crisis in the East China Sea, and shook his head at the news that Admiral Wu had occupied the Diaoyu islands. The man he served under would never have done anything as rash or provocative as this, but he already knew that Wu was not responsible. The clutter of shops, stalls and human traffic soon thinned as Chilong approached his destination. The warehouses at the docks had always been a hive for illegal activity, and now Chilong was on his way to meet a union man who moonlit as a fence, forger and smuggler. Upon arrival he was greeted by a few of the man's associates, and immediately sensed that something was amiss. He decided to abort the meeting and turned to leave, only to find another man behind him wielding a handgun pointed at Chilong's chest. A familiar voice bellowed out a cheerful greeting.

"Zhang! It's been too long, my friend."

"Well, Po," said Chilong. "I am disappointed in you."

"I'm sorry, Zhang," replied Po. "Money talks, my brother, and you're worth quite a bit these days. What the hell are you wearing? You look ridiculous."

"Just trying to keep inconspicuous. I don't suppose doubling your fee will help?"

"Afraid not," Po said regretfully. "If it's any consolation the price on you is phenomenal. What did you do? Kill a party official or something?"

"Who's paying you? The government?"

"I don't think so," Po replied. "They don't feel like government, and the way they deal, they don't want too much attention on themselves. But what they do have is a lot of money. Every Triad gang in Hong Kong is looking for you."

"Po, what would say if I told you that the people you're dealing with are not humans, but aliens?"

Po chortled with genuine mirth, a belly laugh that spread to his men who momentarily lost their grim miens and chuckled. "I heard that you'd lost your mind. It looks like they weren't lying."

"Po, we've dealt with each other many times. Have I ever lied to you? Ever reneged on my part of the deal?"

"Zhang, the only difference between now and then is that back then, you were a scary party official with the PLA at your back. Now you're just a fugitive, hunted by everyone without a single friend in sight."

"I thought you were my friend."

"Friend might be stretching it. Associate, maybe. Besides this isn't personal. What would you do if you were offered this much money?"

"I would decline, and honor the promises I have made, especially to someone who has always treated me with courtesy and respect."

Po frowned. "I'm sorry, Zhang. I truly am." He looked away. "Besides, it's too late. They're here."

From the rear of the warehouse emerged two more of Po's men, escorting two well dressed people. They had lithe, graceful gaits, and as they emerged from the shadows Chilong recognized the woman shadowing him earlier. The man he didn't recognize, but he had the characteristic length of limb and torso that marked him as one of the infiltrators. The thin man appeared to be one of the earlier iterations of his kind - his skin was pockmarked with what appeared to burn marks around his neck, and he wore dark sunglasses which hid his jaundiced yellow of his eyes. Chilong had run into his kind before, and knew what they looked like. But he had encountered more and more of them in passing, and each time they became more human-like in appearance. The woman accompanying the thin man was strikingly beautiful. She had porcelain skin and fine delicate features framed by straight black shoulder length hair. There were audible gasps from the men in the room when they saw the girl for the first time. Even Po, who prided himself in his worldliness, appeared momentarily dumbstruck. He regained his composure, and greeted the woman with a stupid, silly grin on his face.

Chilong covered his face with a handkerchief. The men were not only reacting to her appearance, but also to odorless chemicals she was releasing. He knew this first hand - he had thought it was love at first sight when it happened to him the first time. This was part of their modus operandi, one of their basic routes into positions of power. A beautiful girl or a handsome man casually striking up a conversation at a bar or restaurant or hotel lobby or cocktail party with an unhappily married off-duty general or admiral or politician. Chilong once considered himself to be iron-willed, but even he had been seduced by the biological cocktail artificially concocted by the visitors, all artfully contrived to strip their marks of their defenses. Only once they were alone in the embrace of their dream lover would the real horror start.

Even with the handkerchief Chilong could feel himself being swept away by the woman's charms. A detached, analytical part of his mind noted that the pheromones appeared to be affecting the men differently. Some appeared to be falling in love for the first time. Others stared hungrily at her with unvarnished lust and desire, while some men looked like they were about to fall on their knees to a vision of some sacred goddess. He wondered if the infiltrators could regulate the amount of pheromones they released into the air, and decided that they must - effective seduction of a mark required finesse and precision, otherwise jealous suitors fighting for attention could jeopardize the operation. This infiltrator must have had her - its - emitters turned up at full blast, blanketing the area with its heady musk. But Chilong had one advantage over the rest of the men, and that was that he'd experienced this before. Po's men had failed to frisk and disarm him, and he seized his chance while they were all distracted. With practiced ease he spun around and grabbed the gun of his captor, pointing the weapon towards the roof of the store. He didn't want to kill any humans, accidentally or otherwise. Po's men were all related one way or another to the fence, and the death of one of them would seal Chilong's fate thanks to the complex code of conduct which ruled over the Triads. Shocked and surprised his captor - he recognized him as Po's cousin - failed to react in time, and he was disarmed with deft aplomb by the ex-special forces soldier. With his left hand around the neck of Po's cousin Chilong levelled the weapon at Po with his right.

Chilong's actions snapped everyone out of their reverie, and for now he had everyone's full attention. Po opened his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Zhang - there's no way out of this. Put the gun down."

"I'm afraid I can't."

"You wouldn't shoot an old friend, would you?"

"I thought we were just associates."

"More like trusted partners, now that I think about it."

Chilong laughed. "You were always a funny guy, Po. That's why I like you." He motioned to the men flanking the visitors. "Tell your men to move away from them."

Po looked puzzled. "Why?"

"Because I don't want them to get hurt."

Po still looked confused, but with a curt bark he ordered his men to move back. "Your move, Zhang."

"This is what you're dealing with, Po." With that Chilong shot the simulacrum squarely in the chest. Such was the compulsion the pheromones had that Chilong had difficulties pulling the trigger. The others reacted similarly. A combined roar of rage and fury and outrage began in a dozen different throats, only to change into shock and horror as the woman's chest exploded in a ball of green acrid smoke. The ruined remains of the creature's torso collapsed to the floor, all the while belching forth noxious fumes. The stench, combined with the grisly and unnatural remains, purged any residual effects the pheromones might have had. One member of Po's crew had remained too close to the woman, and the unfortunate man was splattered with green acid, which immediately fizzed and burned his exposed skin. He began to scream in pain.

The woman's partner let out an unnatural howl of rage, and pulled a weapon from his coat with unnatural speed. Chilong was ready, and he fired several rounds before the hammer clicked on an empty chamber. Po's cousin had loaded the weapon with a half empty clip. By some miracle the shots only hit limbs or grazed the chest of the thin man, and there was no spectacular detonation which characteristically accompanied direct hits to the creature's lung chamber. But the shots effectively disarmed the thin man, as its right arm hung uselessly after a bullet went through the shoulder joint. Its weapon clattered to the floor, and it was immediately snatched up by one of Po's men. Moments later it was dropped with a surprised yelp - the silver and green object had resembled an exotic pistol of some kind, but was now visibly melting and collapsing into itself. A second man, heavily tattooed and muscle bound, looked at Chilong and the thin man in confusion, unsure of which threat he was supposed to neutralize. At a nod from Po, the muscled thug turned his attention to the thin man.

"Don't get too close," Chilong warned. "They're much stronger than they look."

Po's man ignored him, and kept advancing. He motioned for the thin man to lie on the floor. The thin man stood quiscent and ignored him until the man was close enough, and then suddenly lashed out with a front kick which propelled the man across the warehouse. The man slammed into a rack of shelves, knocking them over, and there he lay, groaning in agony. The rest of Po's men drew their weapons, but the thin man was already moving. In a single fluid movement the creature leapt through a window, falling two stories down and landing on its feet like a cat amidst a shower of broken glass. To the disbelief of all present, the creature sprang up once more and leapt two stories upwards onto the roof of an adjacent warehouse before sprinting away into the gathering dusk.

Po and his men stared at Chilong wordlessly. 

"As I said," Chilong said. "Aliens." He released Po's cousin and returned his weapon, then walked to Po's man where he lay among the fallen shelves. He lifted up the shirt, noted the black and blue coloration of his chest, and did a few gentle pokes which elicited more gasps of pain. "Broken ribs, internal bleeding. You need to get him to a hospital." He turned to the other man who had been sprayed with acid. He was whimpering in pain. "Just superficial burns. You're lucky you weren't closer. I did tell you to move away."

Po made a quick gesture, and three men began building a makeshift stretcher with the assistance of Chilong. Po left but returned a few minutes later. Chilong felt a tap on his shoulder as he was tending to the fallen man, and saw a large brown paper envelope thrust towards his face.

"Your new passport. Plane tickets. ID. Like we agreed on."

Chilong reached into his shirt pocket to pay Po, but the fence waved him off with a curt gesture. "Consider it an apology." 

"Thank you."

"What are they?" The woman's remains had been consumed by the acid, and was no longer recognizable as being human. Only a smoking green-tinged slurry remained.

"I don't know. But they're not just flying around in the skies anymore. They're walking among us, and they're taking over our structures and institutions."

"Such a shame, really. She was beautiful."

"Taking her home would not have ended well for you."

"Talking from experience, Zhang?"

Chilong nodded grimly.

Po laughed. "That would have been a night to remember. And still - it would almost be worth it."

"No. It wouldn't. If you're lucky, they'll just kill you and replace you with something that looks like you. If you're unlucky, they'll turn you into a prisoner in your own body. They'll chain your will and volition to a dark corner of your mind while you do terrible things - kill your friends - murder your own family - and all you can do is watch."

Po stared at Chilong.

"That's why we need to fight these things," Chilong said flatly. "They're not here to help us, uplift us, or bring us gifts from above. They have come to subjugate us, for their own purposes, and they don't care how they do it. There's no compassion in them, no affinity, no empathy. They care nothing for human life, and they will turn the world into a charnel pit to get what they want."

Po shook his head. "I'm not sure if I can believe what you're saying, Zhang. I'm not sure if I want to."

"It doesn't matter what you believe, Po. But they'll come back here to look for their compatriots, and to erase any signs of their passing. Better watch your back."

"If they come back here, they will regret it. Get out of Hong Kong, Zhang. My boys are loyal, but they can't keep their mouths shut. Word will get out."

"I understand."

"Good luck to you."

Chilong bowed. "And you, old friend." 

Po laughed again. "Get the fuck out of here. As I said, all of Hong Kong is looking for you, and not everyone has scruples that you can manipulate, you sneaky motherfucker. But one more thing. Someone left a message on your bulletin board. I was monitoring it while we were looking for you. Someone calling himself Dacheng. You might want to take a look at it."

"I will." With that Chilong shook Po's hand, and disappeared back into the maze of Kowloon.

Next: The Long War, Part XXIV - Enter Chilong