Wednesday, June 22, 2016

X-Com War Diaries, Part I - Long War Incomplete

The date is March 2017. It is one year after the X-Com project was activated. Our interceptor fleet has three brand new Firestorm aircraft, and even our modified Ravens are shooting the aliens out of the sky on a regular basis. Our troops are armed with plasma weapons and titan armour, taken back base after base from the invaders, and repelled an alien assault on X-Com HQ. The hyperwave beacon is mere days from activation, and several soldiers are mastering the new art of psionics. It has taken me over 150 missions and God knows how many hours to get to this point in this, my sixth attempt, and completing the Long War mod seems to be an attainable goal at last. I load up my Ironman game, eager to get into the last stages of the campaign. The game loads. And loads. And loads.

The Long War refuses to be beaten.


ARE YOU KIDDING ME.

I restart the game. My save refuses to load.

NO.

I restart my computer. My save refuses to load. All I'm looking at is the orange X-Com unit badge revolving around and around and around.

HELL NO.

I trawl Reddit, the Steam forums, the 2K forums, and the Nexus mods site looking for a solution. The consensus is the same - I am shit out of luck.

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!

I have to start again. Unbelievable. The first and second playthroughs were dry runs. The third was the seminal playthrough in which most of the characters and events in my fan fiction piece were established, but was abandoned because I started cheating by using Alt-F4 to save characters I grew to like from terrible fates. The fourth and fifth playthroughs were clumsy attempts to try and recreate the events and characters of the third, and they, too, were abandoned because I started cheating. This is my sixth playthrough. I was good. I didn't cheat. I took my lumps and said farewell to dozens of good soldiers who were shot, blown up, eviscerated, and impregnated by aliens. My memorial wall had over 70(!) names by the end game. It was painful, but the game was never dull because of it. But now this...?!?

I like X-Com. So I'm going to start again. When I first started writing the Long War story, my intention was simply to document the adventures of my band of soldiers in my Long War playthrough. These next series of posts is an attempt to get back to that idea, which has long since been overtaken by the sprawling, unwieldy fictional tale now in its place. I'm not abandoning my fan fiction piece - I just need a break from writing it. I'm also playing more games this month - Overwatch, Hearthstone, and Darkest Dungeon are all interspersed between moments playing either X-Com or X-Com 2, which means less time for writing. I recently finished X-Com 2 on Veteran Ironman - the release of the Alien Hunters DLC seemed to be an opportune moment to pick up and play that title again. This time around I also used a Jagged Alliance mod which allowed me to use voices from the Jagged Alliance series for my X-Com 2 soldiers. This mod really made me happy as a long time fan of both the X-Com and Jagged Alliance series. For whatever reason though I still can't get behind X-Com 2 as much as I can the original remake, especially with the Long War mod. The fact that I still haven't finished the Long War actually tells me that I like the game a lot.

I tried mightily to reconcile my playthroughs with the stories and characters developing in the fan fiction piece, but those two things are just diverging further and further apart, despite the fact that the fan fiction began from the events and characters in my third playthrough. The third playthrough was where the story's characters first took shape, and determined the events and locales in the story. France was the first country to leave X-Com in that particular campaign, so I chose it as the first country targeted for alien infiltration in the story. Ogbomosho was the site of the first alien terror attack, and so I wrote an arc about chryssalids running amok in Nigeria. The game was solely responsible for choosing these locales, and I just fleshed out the details around them. Even character names (not the call signs, however) were established in the third playthrough, and since that time I've been renaming soldiers in subsequent playthroughs to bring them in line with established characters created in my third game.

This time around I'll let the schism widen, and cease all attempts to reconcile the two branches. The Long War piece will evolve on its own. This series will just be a recounting of my seventh playthrough as it unfolds, and I'll keep it very meta and "gamey" to differentiate between the two. I will continue to try and recreate the characters in the fan fiction in game as well, but there won't be any deus ex machina interventions to ensure they attain certain ranks or avoid terrible deaths. What will be, will be. As to how the events in the game will affect the fan fiction piece, that remains to be seen. But I'm thinking that if someone dies in this seventh playthrough, then it should ripple across to the fan fiction universe, too. I'm also still determined to link the outcome of the game to the outcome of the story. I made the same resolution for campaign number six, and things looked good for the human defenders until my save file decided to take a dump and kill off my playthrough. Hrm. Meta alien intervention perhaps?

Here we go again. For the seventh time. 

Stakes are high, X-Com. Time to go to work.

Next: To Be Continued

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Long War, Part XVII - Resistance

Previous: The Long War, Part XVI - Advent Rising

Syl was dumbstruck at the sight of the millions assembled in the Place de la Republique. She had never been in a crowd that size before, and the teeming mass was like a living thing, breathing, roiling and undulating through the streets of Paris, filling every street, every alley, and every corner. They had come from all over the France to take part in a massive rally against President Hollande. The news was disseminated through traditional word of mouth - social media had been shut down in the first wave of emergency legislation, but despite the lack of Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, the French people, undaunted and provoked by the President's brazen attempt to seize control of their nation, rallied and massed together in their thousands. They descended onto the French capital like a force of nature, sure in their belief that a demonstration of national unity would suffice to frighten off this wannabe dictator, fracture the Socialist Party, and rally the rest of the French political parties to their side. Seeing the crowd first hand Syl was inclined to agree.


Scree, on the other hand, was more concerned with the practicalities of navigating through this enormous throng of people. The two former X-Com operatives were on their way to a meeting with their commanding officer. Two French companies had deployed with X-Com in February, only to be withdrawn one month later, and had never been heard of since. Scree and Syl, as members of the strike force, were the last two to return, and their repeated attempts to contact members of their unit were met with silence, confusion or concern from relatives or loved ones.

"I was told that you were all still deployed in Japan," replied one concerned spouse to Scree's inquiries. "What's going on, Pierre? Should I be worried?"

"It's probably just a misunderstanding," replied Scree. "I'll get it straightened out and get back to you."

Truly alarmed now, they shared their concerns with their X-Com commander, Colonel John Bradford, and he in turn offered them a roundabout way of returning home. They'd only been with X-Com for just over a month, but as members of the strike force they participated in two missions apiece, which was enough to earn them the loyalty of their C.O. The two of them were dropped in Belgium, given a powerful radio transmitter, and sent off with the best wishes of Bradford and their squadmates.

"The transmitter links to a bay tower in Germany, and then travels overland across Europe and Asia," said Bradford. "You need anything, give me a call, and I'll do whatever I can."

That transmitter was now safely tucked away in Scree's pack as the two of them bumped, jostled and ground their way through the square. Scree swiveled the pack around so that it faced to the front, in order to keep the contents more secure. The two of them were linked together by their elbows in what would otherwise have been an intimate gesture, but it was done for more practical purposes - if they lost each other in this crowd they would never find each other again. Being soldiers they'd also prepared for this eventuality. Every fifteen minutes or so they would set a rally point at an intersection, a street, or a shop both of them knew just in case they were separated. In the event that this failed then the final contingency would be to meet a block from their destination. There was a reason for their excessive caution. Syl's last phone conversation with her C.O. did not sit well with her. Davout, a gregarious but competent officer, shared Syl and Scree's misgivings and agreed to cover for the two of them when he departed home for France. They had not heard from him since. In the intervening time they traveled across the Belgian border in the Ardennes and made their way to Grenoble. From Grenoble Syl called Davout on a pre-arranged number, and spoke to a person who sounded like their old C.O., but differed greatly in manner and attitude.

"Come to Paris immediately," Davout had said in a flat, emotionless voice. "This is an order." He gave them an address in Paris, and hung up.

So here they were in Paris at last, only a kilometer or so from their final destination. This kilometer might just have well been ten, given at the speed at which they moved. Despite the size of the demonstration an air of merry-making permeated the air. The people seemed confident in victory - this rally dwarfed even the thousands that lined the streets in the liberation of Paris in the Second World War, and the size of the assembly begat confidence and purpose. It was as if every man, woman and child had come to Paris that day to underscore and re-affirm the tenets of liberté, égalité, fraternité. The tricolors of France fluttered in the spring breeze, and they flew everywhere, from the hands of small children and the elderly alike, and from cars, balconies and rooftops. White collar and blue collar marched side by side with students and unionists. Celebrities of all stripes turned out in force either as an expression of true belief and solidarity, or as cynical opportunists hoping to parlay this zeitgeist for personal gain. Songs and chants rippled through the crowd, died out, then began again. The noise was like a roaring of a great waterfall, and the sound was felt, rather than heard. It rippled through tissue and bone, and it was hard not to become enamored by it, to be caught up in the feeling of being part of something greater. Even the two soldiers were not immune to its charms. Syl found her heart swelling with pride for the ardor of her countryfolk.

"This is amazing," she said to Scree.

"What?" Scree's gaze was fixed resolutely forward.

She stopped moving, and Scree finally turned and faced her, annoyed at the sudden stoppage. She motioned all around. "This," she said. "This is amazing!"

Scree's eyes turned outward, and the enormity of the gathering seemed to finally register. An uncharacteristic grin came to his face, and he nodded. "Yes, it is." He looked around once more, then re-focused. "Come on. We have to go."

The crowds increased in size as they pushed closer into the city center. Slowly and almost imperceptibly the atmosphere gave way from gaiety to muted tension - Syl knew without looking that they were approaching the police lines. The welcoming smiles turned into tight lipped nods and looks of acknowledgment. Suddenly they were at the front, and before them, about 20 meters distant, stood a wall of black clad riot police. They wore riot helmets and sported riot shields and batons. They stood stock still in the face of the din, and their line was meticulously perfect. Their sleeves were adorned with new ADVENT insignia, an emblem that was fast gaining notoriety in France and greater Europe. At the front of the demonstration stood men, women and even some children, hands linked together as they chanted slogans and sang songs. Syl shook her head. She feared for the safety of the children at the front of the demonstration. As they winnowed their way through the crowd, Syl took the time to address one of the parents.


"You should take your children home," she shouted over the din at one startled looking couple. "This could get ugly." She looked at a different couple with a young girl, and repeated her comment. "This is no place for children."

Scree gave both couples long, even looks before pulling on Syl's elbow. "Come on," he said. The two of them kept moving through the chanting throng. Behind them one couple appeared to heed Syl's advice and began moving backwards, while the other parents exchanged quick words, shrugged, laughed and then turned their attention back to the police lines. Syl seethed in frustration. Scree appeared oblivious to Syl's mood, his attention solely focused on blazing a path through this dense, seething forest of humanity.

"The police are blocking the route," Scree said. "We need to find a parallel street and go from there." He pulled on Syl's elbow again, but she didn't budge. Irritated at this second stoppage he turned to her, but found her pointing towards the police lines. Look, she mouthed.

A pretty young woman had detached herself from the chanting crowd, and crossed the gap between the demonstrators and the riot police. She held a bouquet of white poppies in the crook of one elbow. When she reached the lines she offered one to one of them of the troopers - when it failed to elicit a response she placed it in the gap of the trooper's helmet and moved on to the next one. She moved down the line, placing poppies in the gaps and chinks of the riot gear of every trooper she met. She was also speaking to them - Syl could see her mouth opening and closing, but it was impossible to make out her words over the roar of the crowd. She stopped in front of another trooper, but this time she reached up and lifted up the perspex shield covering his face. She tucked the flower behind the man's ear, and smiled at him. The crowd cheered approvingly. Syl admired the girl's boldness. Then Syl took another look at the face of the trooper, and a shock of recognition almost floored her.

She tapped Scree on the shoulder and pointed. "Look - isn't that Girard?"

"What?"

She had to shout to make herself heard. "Look. Isn't that Girard? Wasn't he part of your unit?"

Scree followed the direction of Syl's finger, and stared at the trooper. "My God. It is him." He was dumbfounded. "What's he doing here?"

"I don't know," Syl shrugged. "But I'm going to find out." She deftly unhooked her elbow, left the embrace of the crowd and walked briskly across the gap towards Girard, bellowing a greeting over the tumult. Scree was left grasping at air, but recovered swiftly and jogged after her.

"Girard! It's Roche!" The man didn't budge. "Girard! It's me, Roche." She looked into the man's eyes, trying to spark a flicker of recognition. "Girard, you jackass, it's Roche. What are you doing here? Where's the rest of the unit?"

Girard stared at her, eyes unblinking. The girl noticed Syl's presence at the front of the lines, and flashed her a friendly smile of camaraderie. She offered a white poppy to Syl. "Vive la France," she said. Syl took the poppy and returned the smile with an awkward one of her own, but her attention remained fixed with Girard. It was him, no question, but the man's seeming lack of awareness and his failure to recognize her troubled her. He stared straight ahead, eyes unblinking and utterly devoid of warmth.

"Girard, you damned jackass, snap out of it. Don't you remember me? What's wrong you?"

Girard turned and looked at her for the first time. Encouraged, Syl continued. "It's me. Roche. We were in Tanegashima together." Scree arrived behind her. "Do you remember Marchand? You were in the same unit." Syl looked to Scree, and on cue he continued prodding the silent trooper. "Girard. It's Marchand. What's wrong, comrade? Where is everyone else?"

The whole line suddenly moved in unison, much like a parade line does when reacting to a shouted order. All of the sudden Syl and Scree had the attention of the entire front line, and the unblinking gaze of so many eyes was disconcerting, especially after the trooper's silent vigil. Girard's eyes were now alert and wakeful, and he spoke for the first time. "Roche. Marchand. Major Davout wants to see you." In an amazing display of synchronization Girard and another trooper grabbed Syl by both her wrists. At the same time two other troopers stepped forward and grabbed Scree. "You must come with us. Do not resist." The troopers behind created a gap to allow them passage, and without waiting for either for them to speak the troopers began dragging the two of them bodily back through the police lines.

"Wait a minute," Syl said angrily, digging her heels in. She pulled her wrist back through the weak point of the grip between the thumb and the index finger, and was shocked when he was able to maintain the hold. She tried again, this time with all the strength she could muster, and her hand slipped through the grip and was free. Girard made a clumsy attempt to grab her wrist again, but this time she was ready and avoided his clutching hand easily. Nonetheless the other trooper still had her other wrist. Despite her best efforts she was being pulled further and further back.

"Stop!" she shouted, furious now. The trooper was tremendously strong, but she received help from an unexpected quarter. The girl with the flowers latched onto her other wrist, shouting, "Fascists! Fascists! Let her go! Help me, they're trying take her! Fascists!" The poppies tumbled out of her hands, covering the ground in a tangle of white petals, but their combined strength was enough to stop the trooper from dragging Syl back any further. The girl shouted and pleaded with demonstrators in the line, while simultaneously hurling curses and imprecations at the riot police. "Fascists! You should be ashamed! You call yourselves French?" One trooper near the girl deliberately drew his baton and brought it down in a vicious arc into her face. The girl went down instantly, her face suddenly transformed into a crimson mask. There was a collective gasp of horror from the crowd. For two, three, maybe four seconds there was absolute silence - then an animal cry of outrage swelled from the mouths of a thousand people and a human tide engulfed the lines. The mob surged, ebbed and crashed violently, but around the fallen girl an eddy of stillness prevailed. Several people picked her up gently and began moving her back through the oncoming charge, which parted like the Red Sea to let them through. The crowd's fury was reserved for the troopers, and in the front of the melee furious demonstrators punched, kicked, bit, spat, pushed and hurled insults.


The trooper's casual brutality seemed to be a signal for the remainder of ADVENT to swing into action. More ADVENT hands grabbed Syl, and this time there was no resisting - she was carried backwards like a struggling, kicking child by several troopers. Scree too, was resisting as violently as he could. A big strong man, he was putting up a mighty fight, and he shook off the first two troopers with ease. An accomplished judoka, he also cross-trained with his fellow soldiers in other grappling disciplines like wrestling and jujitsu. These troopers were large and uncannily strong, but also slow and ponderous, allowing him to move his feet into positions where he could throw them over his hip and shoulders. Nonetheless the weight of numbers began to overwhelm him as more and more ADVENT troops joined the melee. Even the troopers he'd thrown were grabbing his boots from the ground, seemingly oblivious to the kicks and stomps he was throwing at them to make them let go. He was saved by the arrival of the furious crowd. Scree could see Syl disappearing into the police lines, but there was nothing he could do about it. Surrounded by hundreds of furious French it was all he could do just to keep his head up in the madding crowd. He hoped that the crowd's impetus would suffice to sweep away the lines, and let himself be carried by the wave of outraged French towards the ADVENT lines.


The black lines showed no fear of the oncoming mob, and they laid into the demonstrators with brutal precision, hitting them with batons and riot shields. They displayed no fear or remorse, and their attacks were bone-crunchingly effective. The initial fury of the crowd was dissipated in mere minutes as skulls, shoulders, forearms and elbows were shattered and broken by the fury of the assault. Soon the first demonstrators were either writhing in agony on the ground, or backing off fearfully, stunned at the viciousness of the police response. Some lay unmoving, pools of blood growing beneath them. The black line advanced slowly, shields interlocked, and the crowd began giving way. Demonstrators helped their wounded comrades retreat, or dragged them backwards with the help of others. Witnessing the brutality of the attack Scree realized that he and Syl had been spared the worst of it - none of the troopers had used their weapons on them, and had been content merely to forcibly haul them into custody. He didn't have time to ponder this mystery. The whistle of tear gas canisters overhead warned him of a new danger. To his right a retreating protester buckled and fell suddenly, but got up again and limped on. Rubber bullets and tear gas, Scree thought grimly. This escalated fast.

Scree withdrew with the rest, recognizing the hopelessness of the situation. He passed by a groaning young man in his 20s, and grabbed him by the scruff of his jacket. He dragged him backwards for about 20 meters, but found further progress impeded by crowds of people advancing from the other direction. By now the canisters were laying down clouds of choking white gas along the street, and protesters who had never experienced the awfulness of tear gas found themselves coughing and gagging as the acrid fumes burned their eyes and lungs. It was the catalyst for a disaster - afflicted people stampeded and fled in all directions in frenzied attempts to escape the gas. People were trampled underfoot, and terrible scenes ensued. Scree knew that he had to get off the street. He lifted up the youth, and slung the boy's arm over his shoulder.

"You need to walk," he yelled. The youth nodded, his features twisted in pain. "What's the injury?"

"My ankle," the youth replied, grimacing. "Rolled it as we were pulling back."

Scree nodded. "Lean on me, keep your weight off your bad ankle, and walk with your good leg. Ready?" The youth gave a pained thumbs up, and the two of them began hobbling along the curb, looking for a place to stop. They had barely moved 10 meters when a terrific explosion knocked them off their feet. The detonation came from the direction of the Place de la Republique, and such was the force of the blast that it shook the ground itself.

Scree rolled to his feet, dusted himself off, and looked in the direction of the explosion. A persistent ringing was all he could hear, and he wondered if his eardrums had burst. He could not see the plaza from this street, but above the tenements he could see a thick plume of oily black smoke rising into the sky. The ringing was slowly dying away, and its place the wailing and screaming of the injured could be heard keening into the wind. Then he felt his eyes burning and his nostrils and throat constricting in pain, and he knew this was no place to tarry. He hauled the youth to his feet again, despite the latter's cries of agony - the boy had fallen on his bad ankle, and was in incredible pain. "Come on," Scree grunted. They stopped in front of an apartment building. Scree tested the door, found it locked, and saw a frightened face through the glass behind. He thumped on the glass. "Let us in," he shouted.

The face disappeared for a few moments, and Scree was debating whether to smash the glass when the door finally opened, and several hands emerged and helped the two of them inside. They were in the lobby of an old apartment, and the place was full of terrified people. Some appeared to be nursing injuries, while others looked in shock. The muted weeping of frightened children murmured in the background, as did the whispered words of comfort doled out by parents trying to contain their own rising panic. One old man had the doorway to his apartment wedged open, and from the interior emerged a steady supply of cold water, hot tea and coffee, and biscuits. The ground floor hallway was almost full of people, and more were coming in every minute to escape the carnage outside. Scree helped the youth down to a patch of tiled floor. Rolling back the hem of the trousers Scree uncovered an ankle ballooned to double its normal size. He sighed. "You won't be walking on that anytime soon," he remarked. 

The youth nodded through the pain, and replied, "Yeah, I noticed."

"I'm going to leave you here, OK? My friend is still out there, and she needs my help. Do you have a phone? Do you have someone you can call?"

"Yes, I'll be alright. Go on. Merci pour tout."

Scree turned to go. "Wait." The youth reached into his pack, and produced a gas mask. "Take this. For the gas."

Scree looked at the mask. "You always carry one of those around in your backpack?"

"Not my first demonstration," the boy grinned. He must have been barely 20.

"What do you know of this ADVENT group? Where are they based?"

"ADVENT? I hear they've taken over the old Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité HQ. They merged the CRS with ADVENT a few weeks ago."

"Is that where they would take rioters, people they've arrested?"

"I assume so, yes."

"Do you know the address?"

"I have it." He pulled a moth-eared notebook filled with pamphlets, maps and scribblings, flipped through it and found what he was looking for. He scribbled an address on a page corner, tore it off, and handed the stub to Scree.

Scree looked at the address. "I know this address." It was the one Davout had given them earlier. "Merde."

"Is something wrong?"

"Nothing. I was hoping an old friend could help me out, but he might be in more trouble than we are." Scree began pacing, stopped, then made a decision. "I'm in over my head here. I need help."

The youth's eyes blazed fiercely. "My friends and I, we're organizing a resistance. We've already joined forces with several other campuses. We could use someone like you."

"What?" Scree paused and smiled ruefully. He admired the youth's spirit, and did not want to patronize him. "I would be happy to join." He pulled out the radio transmitter Bradford had given him. "First, though, I'm going to need to call some people."

Next: To Be Continued

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Long War, Part XVI - Advent Rising


The French Connection

In May 2016 the Western intelligence world was shocked by the revelation that France was exporting arms and supplies to the jihadists in Syria and Nigeria. The Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence agency, shared these allegations with the US, who later passed it on to General Bradford at X-Com. German-US relations had cooled somewhat after it was revealed in 2014 that the US had CIA moles in the BND, but the scale and nature of their discovery overrode any differences between the two NATO partners. A clear chain of custody was compiled through German surveillance which showed arms being taken from French bases, stockpiled in ports on the Mediterranean Sea, before finally being smuggled onto container ships bound for Nigeria. There was also inconclusive evidence that French shipments were also being routed to Syria by way of Turkey, with shipments crossing the northern border of Syria to end up in the hands of ISIS and al-Qaeda groups. What made these revelations even worse was the apparent complicity of the French government - surveillance footage showed the weapons being packed and loaded in plain sight in French bases, although there was much debate as to whether or not the base commanders were aware of the final destination of these weapon shipments. These claims were so shocking and controversial that intelligence officers did not know what to do with the bombshell on their hands. If these claims were validated then the French government was responsible for supplying the worst terrorist organizations of the 21st century, responsible for numerous deaths and atrocities all over the world.


The French carrier Charles De Gaulle carried out hundreds of air strikes against fundamentalist Islamic groups in Syria and Iraq.

This revelation was a complete turnaround for French policy, which up to the latter part of 2015 had been to actively oppose and combat terrorism all over the globe. France had one of the most forwardly deployed militaries in the world, and maintained several bases in Africa due to the painful legacy of French colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. France was instrumental in peace keeping and anti-terrorism operations in sub-Saharan nations such as the Central African Republic, Mali, Chad and the Ivory Coast. France was also one of the coalition leaders in the battle against al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria, having launched over 200 air strikes against terrorist strongholds from the carrier Charles De Gaulle in the Persian Gulf since 2014. For these reasons, France's actions in the early 21st century baffled and mystified the international community. US Secretary of State John Kerry stated: "Since late 2015 French policy has been unpredictable and inconsistent. President Hollande refuses to engage in meaningful dialogue anymore, and French officials obfuscate, delay and sometimes outright lie when dealing with us. In the UN they have been unreliable and dishonest partners, pledging to stand with us on resolutions, only to back out later without giving us the courtesy of telling us." Kerry's statement was in reference to France's flip flopping with regards to the establishment of X-Com in 2015-2016. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council France had vetoed the original X-Com resolution, but then voted for it when the amended resolution went before the UN General Assembly. France sent a company of soldiers and technical staff to Tanegashima in February 2016 when the X-Com unit was first constituted, only to have them withdraw one month later after France left the Council of 16. President Hollande's dramatic about faces exasperated and infuriated world leaders, while domestically it merely confirmed the French people's dim view of their incumbent President, who possessed the lowest approval ratings of any French leader in modern history. Nonetheless none of France's backflips in the UN compared to the shocking revelation made by German intelligence, and crisis meetings were convened in secret to discuss what was to be done in the light of these findings.

Official French opposition to the X-Com project had grown since their withdrawal from the Council of 16 in March 2016. The newly appointed French ambassador to the UN, Jean Pétain, publicly lambasted the UN and the X-Com project in a series of speeches and interviews. Pétain's actions publicly exposed X-Com as a nascent military organization, and laid bare before the global public details of its operations. The details were so explicit that they could have only come from the French personnel initially deployed with X-Com back in March 2016, or from an insider currently serving in the task force. "X-Com has gone far above and beyond its original mandate," said Pétain in a fiery interview on CNN. "It was supposed to be a research team, not some paramilitary unit wilfully ignoring sovereign borders. There are over 10,000 soldiers in Tanegashima. What possible purpose do they serve? More importantly, who do they serve? Who do they answer to? X-Com is basically the Secretary-General's own private army, answerable only to him, and what baffles me is how all these nations are willing to let him do whatever he likes with it." Ban's response was typical of the man. "If the X-Com unit only answered to me," he stated ruefully. "Then why do I have to make so many phone calls every time they need to go anywhere?" Realistically the X-Com unit was under no threat of being disbanded, despite the strident objections put forward by Pétain. As long as it had the support of the superpowers it had manpower, material and funding. The decisive intervention in Nigeria also earned it a great deal of international good will, although its global mandate did raise many questions among the nations in the General Assembly. In the spirit of cooperation and inclusion Ban accepted small donations of men and material from nations not represented in the Council of 16 in order to sooth and placate the odd murmurs of dissent. In return he promised greater transparency and consultation from the X-Com unit in future operations.

The Advent Acts

France's anti-terrorist stance up to the end of 2015 earned it the ire of global terrorist organizations, and the country was the subject of numerous terrorist attacks in the early years of the 21st century. The single deadliest attack in French history took place on 13-14 November 2015, where a coordinated series of suicide bombings and mass shootings in Paris killed 130 people and injured 368. The attacks were a retaliation by ISIS for France's involvement in the Syrian civil war. In response to the attacks President Hollande instituted an état d'urgence (a state of emergency) which was originally scheduled to last only three months after the attack, but was never subsequently lifted. On 17 November 2015 Hollande convened a Congrès du Parlement français and addressed both houses of the French Parliament, laying out his plans for constitutional and legislative reform. There was widespread support for a tough law and order stance after the November attacks, but that support evaporated almost instantaneously after Hollande's dramatic proposals were made public. The proposed new laws expanded police powers to hold and detain suspects without a warrant, and temporarily suspended habeas corpus, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press while the state of emergency persisted. The most controversial proposal was an amendment to the French Constitution which would give the President plenary power to institute or maintain a state of emergency. Under existing law the President could only institute a state of emergency for 12 days, after which the consent of Parliament would be required to extend it. Under Hollande's proposal the President could unilaterally decide when to begin or end the state of emergency, and taken with the expansion of government powers effectively gave Hollande dictatorial control over the country.
Hollande's attempt to pass what later became known as the Advent Acts was the spark that lit the powder keg in France. These acts were so-called because they were drafted during the Advent period before Christmas, and also as a way of mocking Hollande, whom popular media labelled as an aspiring tyrant with a Messiah complex. An editorial in the Le Nouvel Observateur wrote:

Monsieur Flamby has finally lost his mind. In these proposed acts we not only see a mind swimming in delusion, but also the power hungry aspirations of a would-be tyrant. No one in his right mind would even consider proposing, never mind ratifying these acts, which take away all the freedoms fundamental to democratic society. Even Herr Hitler's Enabling Act appears benign by comparison.

Opposition leaders were similarly stupefied at the audacity of Hollande's proposals. Unlike American or Australian bipartisan governments, France had a multi-party system and governed through the creation and dissolution of ever-shifting coalitions. Hollande's constitutional proposal would have to navigate a political quicksand to even have a chance of being heard, and early indications were that it would be impossible. Virtually every political party in the political spectrum, including the Republicans and the National Front,  did not waste the chance to denounce and ridicule the President. Members of Hollande's own Socialist Party and their coalition were horrified at the draconian provisions of the acts, and begged Hollande and his advisors to radically alter them, lest they destroy any miniscule hope of winning re-elections in 2017. Defections from the Socialist Party began en masse. "Hollande no longer speaks for the Socialist Party," said one disaffected member. "He only speaks for himself now." French and international media were equally merciless in pouring scorn and derision, and popular opinion was almost universally in opposition to the acts. The numerous calls for a vote of no confidence were drowned out by louder calls for the President to resign.

Despite massive opposition Hollande did not waver. Hollande became the first President in nearly a decade to invoke Article 49 of the French Constitution, which allowed the Advent Acts to bypass the National Assembly. Under the French constitution the opposition was entitled to raise a vote of no confidence, and this was done on 10 May 2016. No one expected Hollande's government to survive the vote, but in an amazing and complete reversal of fortunes the opposition was only able to raise 246 out of the 288 votes needed to dissolve Hollande's government, much to the consternation and bafflement of every political analyst. In the days before the vote Hollande had conducted a series of one on one talks with influential party leaders at the Élysée Palace. While the content of the talks were kept confidential, party leaders exited the Palace with a seemingly new found respect for the President, and tried to influence their party members to vote with the incumbent. The confusion engendered by this about face muddied the voting waters tremendously, allowing Hollande to squeak by on the thinnest of margins. Hollande had also somehow managed to unify the Socialist Party - even dissenters from the back benches appeared to have recanted their misgivings, and voted with the President. This new solidarity, along with the disarray in the ranks of the opposition, allowed Hollande to call for a Congress of the French Parliament to vote on the constitutional amendment giving him plenary powers on 24 May 2016.

Ratification

The French Congress was a special body composed of both the Senate and the National Assembly, and it met at the Palace of Versailles to vote on the amendment. Constitutional change required either a national referendum, or a three-fifths majority in Congress, and it was almost universally believed that the bill stood no chance of being passed despite the miracle wrought by Hollande in surviving the vote of no confidence. Laurent Wauquiez of the Republicans attacked Hollande for wasting the Parliament's time, a sentiment which was echoed by Marine Le Pen of the National Front. Prior to the vote the Palace was surrounded by heavy security and closed to the general public for over a week. Arriving reporters and political commentators were shocked to find that the proceedings were to be closed from the media. Aside from a select group of "approved" reporters (mockingly known as Hollande's "stooges"), reporters were not allowed to enter the building during the Congress and had to wait outside behind heavily patrolled cordons of French security. Reporters noted that there were large numbers of police clad in riot gear present, ostensibly as a precaution against terrorist attacks. Since the November attacks Hollande's security detail had tripled in size, and large numbers of tall, thin men wearing dark suits and glasses were becoming a common feature in the President's increasingly infrequent public outings. After three hours, members of the Congress began leaving the building, and news began filtering out that the impossible had happened - the bill had passed.


France's President Hollande addressing the French Congress on the vote to grant him plenary powers.

The news stunned the nation. Politicians leaving the building appeared dazed and confused by what had just transpired. Wauquiez, one of the most adamant critics of the amendment, looked lost and discombobulated. Mobbed by the media all he could offer was a weak statement:

Hollande gave an amazing speech, one of the best I've ever heard. At the time it seemed so convincing - so inspiring - that I couldn't help but vote aye. Now, though, I think - what have I done?

Similar stories emerged from other politicians, all of whom displayed signs of confusion and incoherence upon leaving the building. Not all present were similarly affected. Le Pen launched a blistering attack on the rest of Congress, calling them "slack-jawed idiots" who "were taken in by a confidence trick." Her anger was also reserved for members of her own party, who could not explain why they voted the way they did. In a public display outside Versailles Le Pen lambasted members of her own party, who could only stand shame-faced and apologetic as their leader vented her wrath. Similar stories emerged of party faithful across the political spectrum talking to their colleagues in bewildered confusion, unable to explain what had just happened. "It would be laughable if it wasn't so tragic," said Le Pen bitterly. "This is a national catastrophe."

The accounts which interested X-Com observers the most were ones similar to that given by Greens senator Marie-Christine Blandin:

I felt a very, very strong compulsion to vote yes - I don't know why I did, or where it came from, but it didn't feel like it was coming from me. So I fought it, and fought it, and suddenly the compulsion was gone. I was free again. I looked around and saw my colleagues in a similar stupor. I shook Desessard beside me, and all he did was look through me, before returning his gaze on Hollande. I did the same to Placé , and he looked at me like I was a stranger. I shook him again, and this time he recognized me and snapped out of whatever it was. We looked around the room, and it was the same everywhere. Hundreds of faces staring at Hollande like he was God or something. Here and there, people like me and Jacques, looking around, wondering what the hell was happening.

Blandin's description rang true for many X-Com operatives, many of whom had first hand experience of such compulsions during their battles against the sectoids. When quizzed by Bradford and Doorn as to whether such compulsions could compel someone to vote, Nigeria's "Syp" Mayumba could only shrug: "When it happened to me I would hallucinate and see things that weren't there. But I never felt compelled to do anything. I could still choose how to react, even to disbelieve what was in front of my eyes. I don't believe the sectoids could control us in the way you are suggesting." Hungary's "Gevlon" Kovács disagreed. "In England, when Scholz died, I could feel something compelling me to run. I've never felt terror like that before, even when we were fighting the chryssalids. The fear was completely irrational - most of the sectoids were dead, and we were just mopping up the last two or three. There was no reason to be afraid, but I was." The Hungarian soldier was emphatic. "It's only the scale that is different. In my view it is completely possible." Accounts like these only added to the growing suspicion within X-Com that the French government had been compromised by the aliens. It was a suspicion borne out of their experience fighting the sectoids, but one they could not readily share with the world, which remained largely ignorant of the capabilities of the visitors.

Revolt

For the rest of the world and France in particular, the result of the Congress was solely attributable to the politicians who voted yes for the amendment. Questions as to the irregularity of the proceedings were subordinated to outraged calls for the whole sale resignation of those who ratified the amendment. "We have been betrayed," cried the L'Express. "These so-called guardians of the Republic have handed the keys to Monsieur Flamby, of all people." Politicians baffled by their own behaviour during the Congress regrouped swiftly to campaign against the amendment, partly as a means of damage control, and also out of shame over what had happened. When quizzed by reporters on the validity of the Congress' result, Wauquiez was adamant:

There is only one way to satisfactorily answer this question. President Hollande decided to forego a referendum, knowing full well that the French people would never stand for such an amendment. It is time for the French people to decide. We must have a referendum, and we must have it as soon as possible. Let the people decide if this is really what they want for France, because if we let this result stand we make Hollande the first despot of France since Napoleon the Third.

The call for a national referendum was a battle cry taken up by virtually all of France. France in the 21st century was an active democracy, with an almost 80% voter turnout compared to the US's 48%, and massive demonstrations, strikes and protests erupted all over the nation. There was immense public pressure on Hollande to resign. His political opponents recognized the hallmarks of a coup d'état, but were confident that Hollande lacked popular support to maintain his new government. No coup survives long without popular support unless backed by powerful police or military regimes, and Hollande did not appear to possess these, either.

Or so they thought. Once Hollande had the authority of the amendment behind him he immediately created a task force called ADVENT, perhaps as a jab against those who labelled his legislative proposals as the Advent Acts. ADVENT was granted wide spread powers mirroring that and superseding traditional police, including the ability to arrest people without warrants and to hold them indefinitely. Hollande never had to appeal for police or military support because he used ADVENT troopers to implement his policies within the capital. No one knew where ADVENT was recruited from or where they were trained but soon there were thousands of well-armed and well-disciplined black clad troopers in Paris and their numbers swelled daily. Traditional law enforcement like the police nationale and the gendarmerie nationale were more or less left alone to complete their duties, but their chiefs and leaders were summoned by Hollande to the Élysée Palace for high level briefings and subsequently became as reclusive as the President, rarely leaving their offices and issuing puzzling and contradictory decrees to their mystified and increasingly concerned subordinates. The Compagnie Républicaine de la Sécurité (CRS) or the French riot police, was merged with ADVENT and compelled to undergo "re-training" in several newly-established facilities all around the nation. French military units were also deployed overseas and garrisons emptied, ostensibly to pursue the war against terror - in reality, Hollande was dispersing and breaking up power blocs which could conceivably create organized resistance while he consolidated control domestically. ADVENT forces began arresting and detaining journalists and reporters, and the sight of heavily armed riot police armed with rifles and batons became more common place. They were invariably led by thin men in dark suits, marking them as part of Hollande's own private security detail.


French protesters demanding the end of the state of emergency.

If Hollande expected the French people to roll over meekly while he seized control he would be sadly mistaken. The birthplace of one of the earliest explicit enunciations of human rights (the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen), France had a robust history with democracy and dictators, occupation and resistance, and its people were no strangers to revolution. Incensed by the increasing presence of ADVENT troops in the capital, French citizens began to adopt extra-legal means to combat the growing repression. They hid political dissidents from the prying eyes of ADVENT, and when faced by the shut down of Internet service providers (ISP) throughout the nation, reverted to handing out pamphlets and leaflets and passing news through word of mouth. Guerrilla radio stations sprang up in the absence of the Internet, and soon the air was alive with insurrectionist talk of revolution. These stations did not survive for long - somehow government forces could locate and triangulate these ad hoc broadcast networks swiftly, and squads of heavily armed ADVENT troops would shut them down. Undeterred resistance radios went mobile, and learned to displace from place to place from broadcast to broadcast. Protests became more violent as ADVENT responded with increasing brutality. The question of where political prisoners were being detained was the largest and most incendiary topic - no one knew where they went, and many of the massive protests racking the country were composed of furious and distraught citizens looking for their missing loved ones. In the meantime the rest of Europe could only sit back and watch in disbelief as one of the Western world's more stable democracies implode and descend into anarchy and totalitarianism.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Long War, Part XV - The Enemy Within


The Rise of EXALT

Intelligence analysts initially believed that the massive Boko Haram uprising that coincided with the chryssalid outbreak in Ogbomosho was an unfortunate coincidence which diverted much of Nigeria's armed force assets away from the crisis. Weeks after the incident, several facts began to emerge which contradicted this initial conclusion. African coalition forces continued to give ground to the Boko Haram counter-offensive around Lake Chad, and much of the insurgents' success could be attributed to the actions of the splinter jihadist group known as the Sabbaha. At first it was believed that the Sabbaha was just a highly effective cell of the Boko Haram network, but when members of the faction began appearing in Syria and fighting alongside al-Qaeda and ISIS fighters it became apparent that they were a separate organization with a global reach equalling and even surpassing that of al-Qaeda and ISIS. Sabbaha was the Arabic word for "exalt", and it was by this name that the faction became known as, thanks largely to the viral videos released by the organization. One infamous video showed a Sabbaha spokesman quoting a mishmash of religious texts after a successful attack against a Nigerian outpost south of Lake Chad. "Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds," the spokesman intoned. "His messengers have returned. Exalt them in all their glory, and accept them into your hearts. Be not proud, but abase thyself, and exalt those that have to come to lift us up. For it is said, whoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted." 
 
An EXALT patrol moving through the ruins of an urban centre in Syria.
 
The spokeman's speech was sprinkled with a confused jumble of psalms and aphorisms from both the Bible, the Koran and a number of more obscure religious texts. The lack of doctrinal consistency was not lost to some - analysts wondered out loud as to whether EXALT actually possessed a cohesive internal ideology, or whether the allusions to religious texts were a smokescreen for a more sinister agenda. Analysts also posited that EXALT's confused religious stance could possibly lead to conflict with the more fundamentalist elements of the jihadists, which took religious orthodoxy to extremes. Nonetheless there were advantages in EXALT's more moderate approach, especially in Africa, where Christianity, Islam and the Bahá'í Faith were the most widespread religions. In a continent filled with a myriad of cultures, dialects and religious practices a moderate stance ensured a larger pool of followers and more potential recruits for the EXALT cause. Regardless of whether they were true believers, apostates or cynical opportunists, no one could deny the effectiveness of the EXALT forces, whose hit and run raids took a disruptive toll on government operations in both Nigeria and Syria. What made these raids more worrisome was the presence of UFOs in the skies during critical operations involving EXALT forces. On numerous occasions air support could not be provided to ground troops fighting in Nigeria and Syria due to alien fighter craft hovering in the vicinity. It was a troubling coincidence, and one which did not slip past the eyes of careful observers.

At the end of April 2016 a large battle took place near Diffa on the Niger and Nigerian border between African coalition forces and Boko Haram. Diffa had been a harbour for thousands of Nigerian refugees fleeing the fighting in Borno, but on 27 April the refugee town was attacked by a large force of Boko Haram. The battle was a costly one, and it ended in a marginal victory for the African coalition. During the battle several EXALT soldiers were killed along with hundreds of Boko Haram insurgents. The bodies were to be summarily buried, but a keen eyed medic noted some unusual aspects about the cadavers and made arrangements for an autopsy. While the bodies were superficially similar to a normal human cadavers, deeper inspection revealed several modifications not of terrestrial origin. While the Nigerian doctors were unable to understand how these implants functioned, they seemed to correlate to observations made by Nigerian soldiers about this new splinter group, which attributed EXALT with superhuman feats of strength, speed and skill. Alarmed by this turn of events Nigerian forces were instructed to send any fallen EXALT soldiers back for autopsy, and subsequent corpses revealed that all of them had also been subject to genetic modification. Not all corpses had the same modifications, however, which seemed to indicate that these implants and grafts were done to enhance the existing specializations of the enemy combatants. One corpse had a secondary heart - another had skin which looked like human epidermis, but had the stopping power of Kevlar - one cadaver, identified as a sniper, had eyes which were clearly modified to give the recipient improved ocular vision and the ability to see in different spectrums of light. Many discredited Nigerian soldier eyewitness accounts were re-examined in the light of these findings. Furious Nigerian commanders had refused to believe these tales told by their soldiers, dismissing them out of hand as excuses for military setbacks, but the mounting evidence told otherwise. Amazing stories of EXALT soldiers jumping onto rooftops in a single bound, or vanishing in plain sight suddenly became much more believable.

In the meantime the appearance of EXALT forces in the Syrian civil war turned around the flagging fortunes of the jihadists, whose forces were under constant attack by a coalition of nations led by the US and France. Syria was a flash point waiting to combust, as Russian assisted government forces led by President Bashar al-Assad pushed back US backed rebels from key cities in the strife-torn state. Syria was a complex three cornered conflict, with the Russians and Assad's government in one corner, the Kurd rebels backed by the US in another, and the jihadists in the third, who sought to exploit the chaos and confusion to carve out a fundamentalist Islamic state in the greater region of Syria and Iraq. To add to the confusion Turkey, the US's nominal NATO ally in the conflict, seemed quite content to antagonize both superpowers. While Turkey was staunchly anti-Assad and anti-government, President Recep Erdogan took Washington to task over the Western refusal to see the militarism of secular Kurdish groups in the same light as the terrorism of the Islamic State. Turkey also shot down a Russian Su-24 which they claimed had strayed too close to the Turkish border, precipitating a diplomatic crisis between the two nations.
 
The fiery remains of a Russian jet plunges to the earth after being shot down by Turkey.
 
While the superpowers and their allies played their complex game of regime-building in Syria, the real human cost of the civil war went largely unnoticed. The estimated number of casualties ranged from 150,000 to over 470,000, with the UN estimating the number at roughly 400,000. These casualties included women, children and non-combatants, and precipitated a refugee crisis as hundreds of thousands of Syrians fled the war zones. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that there were over 4.8 million displaced Syrians, making it the biggest displacement of people since the Second World War. Many European nations, wary of sleeper terrorist cells entering their countries, closed their borders, and the issue of immigration became an incendiary topic in politics once more. In the meantime, intelligence reports from the region pointed to an alarming development - thousands of displaced Syrians and Iraqis, shunned by the world at large, appeared to be turning towards the jihadists in unprecedented numbers. A report by UK intelligence officer Amelie Edwards revealed that it was not to fundamentalism that people were turning to, but to rather to more secular concerns:

The movement towards EXALT appears non-ideologically driven. What the EXALT forces are offering is something neither the US or Russia, or any of the other powers currently intervening in Syria have - safety, protection, and an end to the conflict. While thousands of Syrians die everyday in clashes between pro-government and rebel forces, Syrians who manage to flee to the EXALT zones are given food, medicine and shelter. We don't know from where exactly these supplies are coming from, or how they are getting there, but we strongly suspect that the visitors are responsible. Furthermore the EXALT zones are safe from bombing or shelling - the UFOs in the area shoot down any fighters or missiles straying over these zones. This is the first time we've seen the aliens establish what is essentially a no-fly zone - we've never seen them stake out a piece of Earth's territory and hold it before. Ground incursions by government or rebel forces are decisively punished by EXALT forces - in some cases with air support from the UFOs - and the EXALT forces allow people to move in and out of the safe zones to pass on the message of hope to friends and relatives in conflict ridden areas. Even the world's media is allowed to enter these zones, and the images and footage coming out of these safe zones show injured people being treated and fed and taken care of.

Edwards also confirmed that EXALT's comparatively moderate stance on religious orthodoxy was both a boon and a curse for the fledgling organization:

EXALT's moderate stance allows people from all denominations - Christians, Muslims, Sunni, Shia, Kurds - to enter their safe zones, which makes their appeal even more widespread. They also police the zones very stringently to ensure no fundamentalist related conflicts arise. We believe that ideological struggles have taken place between EXALT and the more extreme elements of ISIS and al-Qaeda, but in each case the EXALT forces seem to prevail, either through negotiations or in some cases, the use of force. EXALT is providing the jihadists with equipment, manpower, and air support, which gives them a lot of leverage. Hardliners have either changed their tune, perhaps accepted it as the cost of doing business, or in some cases, just disappeared. Somehow EXALT has managed to penetrate networks which have taken us years to unravel, and the most worrying thing about it is that we don't know how they are doing it. They seem to be changing these networks from the inside out, moderating them and toning down the rhetoric, thereby increasing their supporter base.

Shell-shocked and war weary Syrian refugees arrive in EXALT camps.
 
The visitor's humanitarian intervention in Syria prompted some to suggest that the aliens were not wholly malevolent, a hypothesis which Bradford quickly rejected. "No one who was in Africa will tell you that the aliens are here to help us," he said. "I have to admit, thought, that in the battle for hearts and minds in Syria the aliens are trouncing us. But to what end, who knows." Nonetheless this was the first act of benevolence attributed to the aliens, which opened the door to the possibility of negotiations in the future. While some people lauded EXALT's actions in Syria, Edwards warned that there were still plenty of disaffected and displaced people who were ripe for recruitment into terrorist organizations. EXALT offered empowerment, purpose, and a sense of belonging against the impersonal juggernauts of the superpowers. Angry young men and women who lost friends and family could not help but be impressed and influenced by the EXALT soldiers. They were genetically enhanced to be stronger, faster and more skilled than normal humans, but beyond these superficial changes they were also making a difference and influencing the world around them. They were not just helpless victims in the game of nations. More people joined EXALT after seeing their loved ones being given life-saving medical treatment than the Boko Haram ever recruited by compelling people at gun point, and these recruits were true believers in the righteousness of their cause.