Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Long War, Part VII - Global Unrest

Previous: The Long War, Part VI - France


X-Com had no way of ascertaining the size and scope of the alien threat. Telescopic observation seemed to point to Mars as the aliens' base of operations - astronomers tracked the aliens coming and going from Mars with their instruments, but thus far could not determine the aliens' precise strength and numbers. The aliens kept the bulk of their fleet hidden behind the far side of Mars, but what was most troubling were photographs taken by the Hubble Telescope which suggested more and more alien craft were arriving from deep space. While public concern had abated somewhat by the aliens' pathetic showing on the ground to date, military commands all over the world knew that the aliens had not yet shown their full strength. They were extremely concerned at the prospect of the aliens deploying nuclear weapons or their advanced equivalent. If the aliens wanted to nuke the Earth from orbit, there was nothing anyone could do about it. The fact that they had not suggested that they were after something else.

These mechanical pods were launched from the UFOs and immediately released a gas that could solidify into a sticky, web-like substance which immobilised luckless humans in the vicinity.

Occupation and conquest were mooted as possible reasons, but the conduct of the aliens did not appear to corroborate this hypothesis. An equivalent terrestrial campaign would entail fighters establishing air superiority, followed by a bombing campaign which would take out radar installations, air fields and supporting infrastructure. Armour and infantry would then move in to capture strategic positions and destroy enemy resistance with air support. The aliens did none of these things. They clearly had air superiority, but left ground radar installations and air fields - both high value strategic targets in conventional warfare - unmolested. Their ground incursions were pathetically inept, and the sectoid themselves were no match for well-trained human infantry. The one thing that humans knew for certain was that the enemy abducted people wherever they landed. The aliens went about this in two ways. The first involved landing squads of aliens who acted as grab teams. In this situation the aliens only made off with a few individuals before departing. The other way entailed launching mechanical pods from the UFO which emitted some kind of green substance that incapacitated and immobilised humans nearby. The captives would then picked up by a complement of drones who carried the immobilised humans back to their craft. There were also unconfirmed reports of humans willingly boarding alien craft of their own accord, but this was dismissed as preposterous.

While the aliens evaded or punished any attempts at air interception they seemed to let their ground troops fend for themselves. They never lent air support to their ground missions, and if a ground team was wiped out the UFO simply didn't return. Sectoids never seemed to exhibit distress when one of their number went down, and they were mostly silent on the battlefield. Their mode of communication remained a mystery. In all the time the aliens had been present not once had they attempted to establish communications or respond to human overtures. This fact alone confirmed for most that their intentions were malevolent.

Civilians trying desperately to escape the tendrils of the alien abduction pods.

In response to the abductions civilians armed themselves and barricaded their homes, and neighbourhood watches were established which disseminated UFO sightings much like tornado warnings in the American Midwest. Security forces in every nation created rapid response groups similar to X-Com which could then be deployed to anywhere in the country at short notice. Having taken tremendous losses, air forces all over the world ceased trying to shoot down the UFOs. Only the modified F-35s fielded by the US and X-Com seemed to have a chance at shooting down the enemy craft, and even then a squadron of US F-35s was badly mauled when trying to engage a large UFO off the east coast of America. Now standard procedure was to shadow the UFOs while air assault troops waited on stand-by. Once the landing site was determined the air assault forces would deploy to engage the sectoids on the ground. This measure was hugely successful in the months of March and April 2016, and the number of abductions dropped dramatically.

Second Kill

On 23 March 2016 satellite XCS-1 detected two UFOs in the vicinity of Osaka, Japan. This would take the total number of UFOs sighted in this area to five. Prior to the Osaka incident researchers had assumed that the aliens were content to take whatever humans they could find, but the single-minded focus on Osaka seemed to indicate otherwise. The aliens were clearly looking for something. Once again General Iwata ordered the F-35s scrambled, and soon "Monk" Kanamin and "Grounder" Tanner were streaking through the air in pursuit of UFO-4, while "Zeke" Gibson and "Q-Tip" Murphy chased after UFO-5. UFO-4 was another scout class UFO, but it put up more of a fight than its previous compatriot. Both F-35s did not fire their missiles, but instead throttled in to engage at gun range. When they closed in the UFO began to jink and juke in an unpredictable manner while returning fire with plasma bolts discharged from its hull. Monk was able to land several hits with his 20mm cannon, but was also hit in return. He was forced to disengage and return to base. Grounder pressed the attack, raking the UFO with cannon fire as it pursued the fleeing Monk. Much to his delight the UFO began to spiral downwards, and once again Central was filled with overjoyed men and women as it crashed into the ground north of Osaka.

UFO-5 appeared similar to the scout UFO seen on previous occasions by X-Com, but was faster and had significantly better ACM capabilities. 

The mood in Central soon sobered, however, when UFO-5 proved to be a much more formidable adversary. Zeke and Q-Tip could not get a bead on the UFO, and it in turn displayed excellent ACM (air combat manoeuvring) skills, placing itself behind both pilots on separate occasions. Its plasma guns pounded the F-35s, and both pilots had to withdraw with their craft heavily damaged. UFO-5 then headed west at high speed before finally launching itself into orbit.

Leadership Clashes

UFO-5 had escaped, but UFO-4 was down on Japanese soil, making it the second UFO shot down by X-Com. The recovery mission would be led again by the dour "Akuma" Ishikawa. Akuma's authoritarian style was perfectly suited to the Japanese chain of command, whose society inculcated respect for authority figures from a young age, and whose relationships are characterised by sempai (senior) and kohai (junior) dialectics. In the context of the strike force it was extremely jarring, however. Most elite units in the world displayed the same characteristics of egalitarian bottom-up planning as seen in the American Delta Force and the British and Australian SAS. The rationale behind this was that as the armed force's elite they could be trusted with the responsibility of planning the minutiae of each mission. Objectives would be given to them from their superiors, and the operators themselves would then work out the details of the mission. They eschewed uniforms, standards of appearance, and traditional trapping of rank in return for maintaining elite standards of soldiering and the willingness to put themselves in harm's way at a moment's notice.

This was the kind of environment Colonel Bradford wanted to foster in his international strike force, and Akuma's traditional style of command definitely clashed with this philosophy. Nonetheless Bradford still had political considerations to juggle, and for now the directive from General Iwata and Prime Minister Abe of Japan was that squads must be led by Japanese soldiers. He still had two widely respected squad leaders in "Okami" Takeda and "Tengu" Hara. Okami was very cautious and conservative, more so now after the deaths of the two soldiers under his command, but he commanded almost unanimous respect through his excellent marksmanship, which was the best in the unit. Only "Gevlon" Kruger despised him, and his reasons were linked to the death of "Ophelie" Scholtz, which he blamed squarely on Okami. Tengu was loud and aggressive in both conduct and demeanour, but also possessed a sense of humour and a willingness to embrace the vagaries of his position. Rather than shrinking from the titters and grins brought about by his poor English he embraced it, becoming more bombastic and taking every opportunity to add newly acquired pieces of vocabulary to his tirades. His squad's planning sessions were open to input and alteration. This was in sharp contrast to Akuma, who came to meetings thoroughly prepared but was unwilling to bend on any detail. 

X-Com completes their second salvage and recovery mission after shooting down a second UFO.

Nonetheless Akuma was the only man who had commanded a UFO assault to date, which made him the sole expert on the strike force. Bradford tasked him with securing the UFO, and an assault force was hastily thrown together.  The team was composed of Akuma, Russians "Jeromai" Kurnakov and "Pike" Yakovleva, Australian "Missy Mojo" Fitzgerald and Dutch "Redbeard" von Heuvel. The squad was rounded out by three members of the Indian contingent - "Noisy" Tendulkar, "Kurn" Jaiteley and "Jaedia" Dagur. Noisy, as attested by his call sign, was loud, obnoxious and opinionated - he was also courageous, intelligent and fiercely loyal, especially to his countrymen and women, whom he considered to have been slighted by the fact that the Pakistanis were allowed to deploy before the Indians were. He saw this mission as a chance to demonstrate the prowess of the Indian troops, most of whom were members of Indian Air Force's newest special unit, the Garud Commando Force.

The Skyranger dropped the team close to the crash site, but immediately came under fire from sectoids entrenched behind heavy cover. Pike was badly wounded by plasma fire, and Redbeard was also hit while trying to advance under heavy fire. Redbeard's collapse almost triggered a rout -  Kurn,  Jaedia and Missy Mojo all panicked and began falling back. Akuma, Jeromai and Noisy all kept their heads, however, and staved off a possible collapse by maintaining suppressing fire on the advancing sectoids. Akuma's accuracy with his marksman's rifle took a deadly toll, and Noisy's cover fire allowed Kurn to run to the fallen Redbeard and administer first aid. The remainder of the squad rallied, returned fire, and killed the remaining sectoids. With the surrounding area clear X-Com then assaulted the UFO itself. This was Akuma's second UFO assault, and he implemented tactics gleaned from the lessons learnt in the first encounter. He surrounded the UFO and posted operators on every exit point before breaching the craft. Akuma knew that a single operator did not have the stopping power to put down an outsider, and therefore he posted them in pairs at the exits. Once preparations were completed, Akuma gave the order to breach the craft. As expected the outsider ignored suppression fire and immediately made a beeline for the nearest exit. This time, however, it ran into the combined fire of  the Russians Jeromai and Noisy, who riddled the outsider with gunfire and put it down. X-Com had secured another UFO wreck.

Next: The Long War, Part VIII - The Phony War

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Long War, Part VI - France

Previous: The Long War, Part V - Opening Moves

Victory in the Air

On 10 March 2016 satellite XCS-1 picked up another UFO travelling at low speed over Osaka. This was the third UFO sighted in the same location in the space of two weeks. This particular UFO was the more common scout ship variant sighted frequently all around the world, and after intense discussions with the heads of the JASDF General Iwata decided to risk an air interception. Flight Officer "Q-Tip" Murphy and Flight Officer "Monk" Kanamin were scrambled to engage the enemy craft. Both were piloting extensively modified F-35s representing the cutting edge of aeronautical design, and they were soon in range of the enemy bogey. After several fruitless attempts to contact the UFO Monk was given permission to fire, and he launched two missiles, both of which merely ignored the target and crashed into the ground. Undeterred, he piloted his fighter closer to the slow moving UFO and fired at it with his 20mm Vulcan cannon. The UFO was apparently taken by surprise, and it took off in a fast but erratic course north across the Japanese countryside. Monk had apparently scored a critical hit, because the UFO eventually descended to the ground in the fields north of Kyoto and came to a halt.

Central erupts as X-Com F-35s score a kill for the very first time.

UFO Recovery

Jubilation erupted in Central as the first air victory over the aliens was celebrated by X-Com personnel. A recon flight over the crashed UFO indicated that it was still largely intact, and Bradford wasted no time in organising a recovery squad. With both "Okami" Takeda and "Tengu" Hara resting from their exertions in Egypt and Osaka respectively, it fell to "Akuma" Ishikawa to lead the team departing for Kyoto. The dour Ishikawa was not well-liked, and his squad was composed of neophytes going into combat with the aliens for the very first time. Akuma projected the aura of man who cared nothing for what other people thought of him. He was focused, impersonal and expected everyone to be the same. His assault team was composed of two Israelis ("Mesmer" Levin and "Kitty" Biton), two Pakistanis ("Arcturus" Lakhan and "Liore" Rataul), two French ("Syl" Roche and "Scree" Rousseau) and one Australian ("Jewel" Taylor).

The UFO crash-landed in a deserted field north-west of Kyoto, and the Skyranger touched down a short distance away. This was the team's first UFO assault, and Akuma ensured that the area around the UFO was first cleared of aliens before attempting to breach the vessel. This mission also marked the appearance of floating mechanical drones which flew through the air without any apparent means of support, apparently propelled by the same mechanism which drove the UFOs. The drones appeared harmless, until one of them shot Jewel with a bolt of energy which nearly killed her. After that incident the squad took no further chances, and shot down every drone they saw. Syl proved adept at shooting down the flying targets, accounting for two of them. The rest of the squad fared less poorly - the drones were small and fast, and it required a steady hand and a keen eye to maintain a bead on them. The most notable event of the UFO assault was an encounter with an hitherto un-encountered alien which the troops dubbed as the outsider. The troops struggled to describe this fast, dangerous and resilient foe. Even footage from personal cameras mounted on the soldier's helmets revealed scant details - an alien being, humanoid in appearance, clad in some kind of metallic-looking armour but radiating light and energy from within. Upon death, the light disappeared, and the armour collapsed in a heap of parts. Careful inspection of the parts revealed nothing beneath them - no corpse or body or any form of remains. Gunfire was partially effective in ripping apart the armour which gave this alien its shape and cohesion, but it appeared that the outsider regenerated damage rapidly. Only sustained damage over a short period of time sufficed to disrupt whatever being animated that suit of armour - if left to its own devices the armour would visibly regenerate and repair damage done to it.

The Outsiders appeared to be the pilots of the alien craft, but were also formidable combatants, possessing deadly aim and the ability to regenerate damage to their exo-suits. They appeared to be animated suits of alien armour - once the armour took sufficient damage it collapsed in a heap, leaving no body behind.

"Kitty, Liore and I stormed into the UFO and saw this thing," Arcturus later stated. "We riddled it with bullets - there was no blood, but we could see our bullets leaving holes in its armour. The thing sprinted out of the UFO and ran into the woods. It was fast, faster than a human, and it didn't seem to be scared of being shot. Kitty ran after it to finish it off while Liore and I made sure the UFO was clear. The next thing we hear is Kitty calling for back-up, and so we run outside. We saw the outsider, and our bullet holes were gone. It was suppressing Kitty and just walking up to her, as easy you like, no fear, while shooting at her. We blasted the thing to pieces with our guns, tearing off bits of its armour and puncturing it full of holes. At some point our damage must have overloaded its ability to regenerate, because suddenly the light died out and the armour collapsed into a heap."

One final incident of note involved Israeli soldier "Mesmer" Levin. She reported experiencing something similar to what "Bhagpuss" Taylor and "Syp" Muyumba experienced in Osaka. "I'm afraid of spiders," the red-headed Israeli soldier admitted. "And at one point in the fight I saw a  large spider, bigger than my hand, on the log I was taking cover behind. I stopped shooting and scrambled away, but moments later when I looked back, the thing was gone. At first I thought it had just scuttled away, but I saw the same damned spider later when we were closer to the UFO. I thought, this thing can't be real, and closed my eyes - when I opened them again the spider was gone."

"Akuma" Ishikawa's sketches of the Outsiders.

The downed UFO was a gold mine for the research team, and great efforts were expended in recovering and returning the alien craft safely to Tanegashima.  This windfall was soon to be followed by grim news on the world stage, however. France had been flip flopping in its support of the X-Com project, at first blocking it in the Security Council before voting for it in the General Assembly. On 11 March 2016, however, France withdrew its support of the X-Com project, ceased all funding, and formally requested for the return of their personnel and equipment.

Unrest in France

The withdrawal of France drew tremendous criticism from both home and abroad. Media outlets were outspokenly contemptuous of President François Hollande, who was already suffering from low approval ratings. He had been given the nickname "Monsieur Flanby" when he assumed power in 2012, and France's recent antics baffled and outraged members of his party. Media representatives found their access to Élysée Palace severely restricted however, and the President and the Prime Minister became very reclusive and insular, refusing to appear in front of the media and communicating only through statements issued through intermediaries. The President's withdrawal from public life became so acute that France's populist newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur published a giant headline which read, "Where In France is Monsieur Flanby?"

French members of the X-Com unit were ordered to return to France immediately after the French withdrawal. The French contingent consisted of two companies made up of approximately 400 soldiers and support personnel, and they were shipped back to France in three flights on the 16th, the 18th and the 20th of March. Syl and Scree were the only members of the French contingent to pass selections into the strike force, and they were supposed to take the final flight on the 20th. Prior to their departure Syl tried to get in contact with the members of her contingent who had departed earlier, but was unable to raise any of them. Mystified by this development she contacted the NATO Bretigny-sur-Orge Air Base in France to confirm their arrival, and was told that the flights had been rerouted to Grenoble. Her attempts to contact Grenoble Air Base were in vain, and further attempts to obtain contact details were met with confusion, silence and outright hostility.

Alarmed Syl shared her concerns with Scree and her commanding officer Major Jacques Davout, and he wasted no time in contacting his superiors in France. Upon concluding his phone call he told Syl that they had been ordered to return to France immediately. "The directive comes all the way from the President," Davout told them. "They'll explain when we get there. Some kind of big operation against the aliens." This did not assuage Syl. A single child from a single parent she contacted her mother, and quizzed her on the conditions at home. Her mother told her that all was well, although "conspiracy theories" abounded. Stories of giant alien space craft touching down in the countryside and squads of tall, gaunt thin men guarding the Élysée Palace made the rounds on tabloids and across pub tables. "It's all rubbish," her mother assured her. "People are just nervous, that's all."

France withdraws from the X-Com project.

The UK

In the meantime, X-Com forces were deployed to halt abduction attempts by the visitors in the UK. SCO19 (England's equivalent to SWAT) and British SAS commandos responded to six reports during the month of March, and on 20 March 2016 made a formal request for X-Com intervention. Like in Egypt, human armed forces were more than a match for the aliens on the ground, and X-Com's intervention was more a courtesy and compliance with the UN resolution than any real need. For this mission Bradford decided to deploy "Okami" Takeda with a team largely composed of British ("Bhagpuss" Taylor and "Milady" Edwards) and European personnel ("Scree" Rousseau, "Tobold" Moreau, "Gevlon" Kovács, "Syl" Roche and "Ophelie" Scholtz). This would be the last mission that Syl and Scree would perform for X-Com before heading back to France.

The Skyranger touched down in Coventry near a petrol station occupied by sectoids, and "Okami" Takeda moved his squad in to secure the petrol station. Okami divided his team into two groups - the first group, led by himself, would clear the trucks and vehicles in the parking lot, while the second would assault the station. A vicious firefight ensued in the station which claimed the life of "Ophelie" Scholz. Dashing across a garage she was gunned down by a sectoid lurking in overwatch. Gevlon also had an episode similar to that experienced by Bhagpuss, Syp and Mesmer in previous missions - he did not elaborate in debriefing, but recalled that he felt a very deep compulsion to run and hide suddenly take hold of him. Instead of running he charged the sectoids, and became engaged in vicious short range exchange over a car. The sectoids died, and the station was clear.

On route back to Tanegashima the Skyranger stopped in Germany to deliver the body of Ophelie back to German authorities. She was the second casualty under Okami's command, and he took her death hard. From hereonin Okami's deployments would be characterised by extreme caution and an unwillingness to take risks. Gevlon, furious at the death of his comrade-in-arms, blamed Okami for her death, and lobbied for non-Japanese squad leaders in the future. Okami, for his part, was quiet and circumspect. "I should not have divided my squad," he stated later. "If we were all together perhaps she would not have felt compelled to take such risks." Bhagpuss defended his squad leader, stating that "Scholz advanced under her own initiative. We could have waited for the rest of the squad, but she wanted to push forward and unfortunately paid the price."

The Skyranger made one more stop before returning to Tanegashima. On its return flight the aircraft made a clandestine stop in the Ardennes with the quiet approval of the Belgian government, and both Syl and Scree were inserted just a few clicks from the French border. As soldiers they were obligated to return to France as per their superiors' orders, but rather than return with the rest of the French contingent they would take a different route home. Their commanding officer, Jacques Davout, would cover for the two of them, and ensure that for all intents and purposes they would be listed as "returned" for bureaucratic purposes. Between them, Davout and Colonel Bradford, they concocted a scheme by which X-Com could gather information without going through official channels. The pair was given a powerful radio transmitter which could transmit signals to a bay tower in Germany. The signal would then be relayed to Central via fibre optic cables which stretched across the European and Asian continent. While the rest of their countrymen were boarding transport planes from Tanegashima, they were determined to walk across the border, make their way to the air base at Grenoble, and ascertain what exactly was going on.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

The Long War, Part V - Opening Moves

Previous: The Long War, Part IV - First Contact

The Unfriendly Skies

The biggest concern for X-Com was the alien's undisputed mastery of the skies. Many analysts wondered why the aliens didn't just bomb the planet into submission. Earth had no answer for the mysterious mechanics which powered UFO flight, which allowed the visitors to travel at tremendous speeds with unrivalled manoeuvrability in both air and outer space. The only chance humans had of shooting down a UFO was when it deigned to leave orbit and travel in the atmosphere. Infrared (heatseeking) and radar guided systems seemed to fail utterly for reasons unknown. The most successful guidance system was image recognition, in which onboard computers memorized the image of the UFO and tracked it visually. The visitors could still outrun or outmanoeuvre the weapon, however, and even possessed some kind of countermeasure which fired plasma bolts at the incoming missile, destroying it before it could hit the target. In the rare cases of reported hits, it appeared that the alien spacecraft were also robust enough to shake off a direct hit by a missile. It was a mystery to researchers as to how the visitors could cope with the tremendous G-forces generated by their manoeuvres. The turns, dives and ascents performed by the UFOs would immediately render a human unconscious through "redout" or "greyout" effects. This was especially puzzling given the apparent frailty of the visitors. Preliminary analysis of the sectoid cadavers indicated that they were physically weaker than humans and possessed a cardiovascular system which made them vulnerable to G-force effects. Dr. Shen surmised that the aliens had some kind of dampening field operating within their craft which shielded the occupants from gravity effects - if this was true it might also explain the secret of their propulsion system, which did not appear to conform to Newtonian laws. UFOs displayed no wings, no rotors, or jet exhausts - the laws of inertia and conservation of momentum did not appear to apply to them.

The F-35 Lightning II, Earth's most advanced multi-role fighter craft at the onset of the alien invasion.

Despite the aliens' formidable advantage X-Com was determined to re-establish satellite coverage over the world, starting with the skies over their base of operations. X-Com launched its first satellite, designated XCS-1, on 28 February 2016 from Tanegashima. It incorporated stealth technology to minimize its radar profile, and had a propulsion system which allowed it to change its position in orbit. More automated spacecraft than satellite, it was designed to scan then displace in order to stop the aliens from locating its position and destroying it. To engage the alien craft X-Com fielded a specialised squadron of fighters composed primarily of heavily modified F-35 "Lightning" jets. These planes represented the pinnacle of human aeronautic design to date, and they were tasked with the daunting task of bringing down the UFOs. One of the most impressive pieces of equipment at X-Com's disposal was the Skyranger SR-1 VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) air assault aircraft. It combined the speed of the Cessna Citation X (the world's fastest civilian business aircraft) and the almost unlimited landing capabilities of traditional air assault helicopters with the range of long haul cargo aircraft like the Boeing C-17 Globemaster. Developed by Japan's Kawasaki Heavy Industries and still in the prototype stage, it allowed X-Com to deploy virtually anywhere in the world within 12 hours at the latest.

The first operational flight of the Skyranger took it to Asyut, Egypt. Radar pickets established by the Multinational Force and Observers in the Sinai Desert reported tracking several unknown contacts moving east from Israeli air space into Egypt. Egyptian television and radio shortly began broadcasting confused and scattered reports about extra-terrestrials on the streets of Asyut. A formal request was made soon thereafter to the Egyptian government to allow X-Com to enter their airspace. It was initially ignored, but repeated attempts by the Secretary-General himself eventually elicited a grudging response from  President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. El-Sisi complained to UN Secretary-General Ban that the situation was well in hand, but reluctantly gave the go-ahead for a salvage and recovery mission. Egyptian TV showed several soldiers brandishing a dead sectoid aloft with glee while firing their weapons in the air. Other footage showed dead aliens being dragged bodily on the streets by furious civilians chanting "Allahu akbar (God is great)!" Nonetheless X-Com Force Commander Iwata still requested permission to conduct mop-up operations to acquire alien artefacts and bodies for research, and el-Sisi complied on the proviso that Egypt be placed on the priority list for satellite coverage.

X-Com operatives boarding the SR-1 Skyranger, the longest ranged air assault VTOL aircraft in the world.

The strike force was once again led by "Okami" Takeda, and he was accompanied by Japanese soldiers "Tenshi" Hatakeyama and "Oni" Okamoto, Russian "Jeromai" Kurnakov, Australian "Coreus" Shearer and three of the Sand Sisters - "Alysianah" Jawahir, "Saylah" Talabi and "Paeroka" Farid. Okami found himself leading a squad of five women and two men, a situation wholly unfamiliar to the young master sergeant. The JSDF did not allow women in combat roles, and even the presence of the Japanese female soldiers - Oni and Tenshi - was only possible because X-Com was a UN task force. Oni was originally a truck driver (euphemistically called "motor transport operator" in armed forces parlance) in a tank battalion, while Tenshi was a logistics officer. What both had in common was that they had heard about Bradford's open selections, decided to try out, and passed.

The team arrived in Asyat on 7 March 2016 to find the city in uproar, with jubilant crowds chanting in the streets. Egyptian security forces had driven the aliens to a perimeter around an ancient Egyptian necropolis but had halted under orders from President el-Sisi. Much to the disgust of locals X-Com were given authority to take over operations, and Okami immediately led the squad into the maze of tombs before the overzealous Egyptians changed their mind. Oni advocated an attempt at communicating with the aliens, and was given permission - advancing cautiously from tomb to tomb, keenly aware of how Milady had been fired upon in Osaka during the first contact event, Oni addressed the sectoids and waved a white flag from behind the safety of a large tomb. A hail of plasma fire was her response, much to the amusement of the team's sniper Jeromai. The 43 year old Russian was a veteran of the First and Second Chechen wars and a current FSB (Federal Security Service) field officer tasked with monitoring the movements of the nascent X-Com organization. Until recently he had believed the X-Com initiative to be an international farce, but seeing the aliens first-hand made him revise his opinion in a hurry. Once engaged Jeromai wasted no time in demonstrating his deadly prowess with his firearm. His very first shot killed a sectoid outright, and he dropped another shortly afterwards.

The ensuing firefight saw the X-Com squad dispatch the aliens quickly and efficiently. The sectoids were pathetic soldiers, firing blindly at times and grouping together to make inviting targets for grenades. The Sand Sisters once again continued to impress, advancing and covering for each other while remaining cool under fire. Alysianah showed great poise, working her way through the tombstones into a position where she could hurl her AP grenades at the sectoids firing from heavy cover. Okami on the extreme left flank dropped one sectoid after another with measured fire from his DMR (designated marksman's rifle) while in the middle snipers Jeromai and Tenshi kept up a fusillade of fire which kept the visitors' heads down. The visitors were soon overwhelmed. As per Osaka, X-Com forensic teams immediately began bagging the cadavers and collecting whatever fragments they could find.

"Okami" Takeda at the conclusion of the firefight which took the life of Australian SAS soldier Dylan "Coreus" Shearer.

The team suffered one casualty, however. Australian "Coreus" Shearer was hit by sectoid fire early in the battle and panicked. While cowering behind some light cover another sectoid fired at him, and despite being hunkered down behind a tombstone the plasma bolt penetrated the obstruction and instantly killed him. Shearer was the first casualty of the X-Com project.

Battle of Japan

Shearer's next of kin were dutifully notified, and his body sent back  to his family in Melbourne, Australia. His death was a sobering reminder to the rest of the squad of the stakes involved. Up to this point X-Com had had an air of unreality surrounding it. Having seen the aliens firsthand, however, and losing one of their own solidified the idea that X-Com was a legitimate task force with a real purpose and a real enemy.  Global UFO activity was reaching unprecedented levels, especially over the nations of Australia, Egypt and France, and these countries made repeated requests to be given satellite coverage. Security forces in all over the world were learning that the sectoids were weak and vulnerable to terrestrial weapons, however, and the general public's apprehension was giving way to belligerency. There was fierce debate on many forums as to the best way to deal with the visitors, and the scenes of alien bodies being dragged through the streets affected people in different ways. Some were jubilant; some were upset at the "inhumane" treatment of sentient beings; others feared reprisal. "If they're anything like us," said Tenshi. "They're going to want revenge."

The first UFO ever tracked by X-Com's satellite XS-1. This contact destroyed a squadron of JASDF fighters sent to intercept it.

On 8 March 2016, barely 24 hours after the deployment in Egypt, satellite XS-1 picked up a large contact moving through Japanese air space. Designated as UFO-2, it was the largest contact ever tracked, and several Japanese Air Self Defence Forces (JASDF) F-15s were scrambled in pursuit. General Iwata and Colonel Bradford watched grimly from Central as jet after jet was shot down by the contact. The mood in Central darkened as JASDF Patriot batteries launched their surface to air missiles (SAM) ineffectively at the UFO. The aliens appeared to have the ability to manipulate their radar signature - radar waves propagated at UFOs were either absorbed or came back subtly modified which wrought havoc on missile guidance systems. This led to the even deeper mystery as to how ground based or satellite based radar could pick up UFOs at all. "If their ships are capable of absorbing radar waves and not registering on our arrays," queried Dr. Shen. "Why don't they just stay in stealth all the time?" Hypotheses ranged from power requirements which limited the use of such countermeasures to small bursts, to more malevolent theories from the troops themselves. "They're toying with us," squad leader "Tengu" Hara said grimly. "Like a cat playing with a mouse. They don't see us as dangerous, so they are just playing with us for their own amusement."

With the failure of Japan's air force General Iwata was forced to decide whether to scramble the specialised F-35s at X-Com's disposal. He decided against it, judging the risk to the craft and pilot to be too great. To their astonishment the UFO descended to a location west of Osaka, Japan - the exact same place where X-Com had made first contact only one week prior. Iwata ordered the Skyranger scrambled immediately, and a squad led by Tengu was ordered to try and assault the UFO on the ground. The UFO did not stay long enough for this to happen - it took off again prior to the arrival of the Skyranger. As with last week, however, reports on the ground indicated that the aliens were out in force on the ground, apparently searching for something.

Return to Osaka

Tengu's eight man squad contained five soldiers who were present at first contact ("Tengu" Hara, "Bhagpuss" Taylor, "Syp" Muyumba, "Milady" Edwards and "Izlain" Favre). Chinese soldiers "Xanziee" Tsang and "Dacheng" Nguyen also made their debuts following fierce lobbying from the Chinese government. The final member of the squad was Dutchman "Redbeard" von Heuvel. Tengu found himself commanding a squad of non-Japanese soldiers, two of which (the Chinese) were quite openly and serenely unimpressed by his status as squad leader. Fortunately for Tengu his original squad mates were beginning to bond and acknowledge his status. Izlain in particular served the role of a non-com well because of his fluency in Japanese. Having been stationed in Okinawa for several years, he was able to smooth out difficulties in translation, and enforced Tengu's orders in the field in classic drill sergeant style.

Bhagpuss and Syp were still wary because of the strange visions which afflicted them in their first mission, but the remainder were quietly confident of their ability to handle the aliens on the ground. The aliens sequestered themselves in a large office supply warehouse and Tengu wasted no time assaulting the building. Unlike Okami, Tengu felt that negotiations were a waste of time. "If they wanted to talk to us they have the means to easily do so," Tengu stated. "Which means they don't." The X-Com team was able to overwhelm the aliens with textbook infantry tactics - Tengu, Milady, Syp and Bhagpuss established a base of fire to pin down the sectoids while Izlain and Redbeard enveloped around the left flank. Dacheng and Xanziee did the same on the right flank, and caught in a murderous crossfire the sectoids were routed and killed. The mystery of why they had come to this location again remained unsolved, however. All X-Com were able to find huddling in the store room of the building were seven civilians - four terrified office workers, the building's custodian, and a mother and her daughter who fled to the building when the aliens arrived.

Dutchman "Redbeard" von Heuvel deploys into combat for the first time.

Despite a thorough search of the area X-Com researchers were unable to determine what brought the aliens to this part of Japan for the second time. While speaking to the civilians, however, Tengu was interested to learn that the mother and child had also been at the sight of the first contact. Chiharu Kimura and her daughter Nanami cowered in their vehicle when sectoids landed near the Chugoku Highway a week ago. The sectoids were moving methodically down the highway searching the vehicles, and the Kimuras were only saved by the intervention of X-Com operators. Tengu thought it a great coincidence and thought nothing of it. He would not realise until much later that he had found what the aliens were looking for.

Next: The Long War, Part VI - France

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Long War, Part IV - First Contact

Previous: The Long War, Part III - Japan

X-Com Selections

X-Com selections were completed by the end of February 2016, and Colonel Bradford's strike team was finally beginning to take shape. Out of the 6,000 soldiers from the UN brigade Bradford selected a cadre of about 50 troops to make up the X-Com strike force. The selections were a gruelling battery of tests which gauged marksmanship, conditioning, mental toughness and tactical awareness. They were also non-gender specific and disregarded the soldier's qualifications and previous experience. As far as Bradford was concerned, as long as the soldier passed selections it didn't matter who they were, where they came from or what they did prior to joining the unit. Selection turned out quite a few surprises, weeding out soldiers with impressive resumes on paper and including some unlikely candidates. What was most astonishing was the number of women who were able to meet the minimum criteria. Contrary to representation by popular media most special force soldiers are not muscle bound strongmen, but tough, wiry and rugged individuals characterised more by their endurance, tenacity and willpower, and several female soldiers from units around the world seized this opportunity to prove that they had these qualities.

Female commandoes from Pakistan arrive at X-Com headquarters. X-Com, being under the auspices of the UN, allowed both men and women to serve in combat operations.

Every squad member who passed selections was allocated a call sign, and awarded the nominal rank of X-Com Private First Class. Bradford, whose off-duty hobbies included playing Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games, created a pool of names from bloggers, writers and journalists who wrote about MMOs, and handed out these call signs arbitrarily to the X-Com squad. The only exception to this were the Japanese, who were able to create their own call signs due to their status as hosts. Squad members unimpressed by this took to addressing the Japanese soldiers with their own colorful variants, and it was only until much later when the Japanese soldiers had proven themselves that squaddies began using their official handles.

Bradford organized the strike force into four squads, and selected capable JSDF soldiers to lead them. Assigning Japanese soldiers as squad leaders was a political necessity but fortunately for Bradford he had outstanding candidates. Everyone respected "Okami" Takeda because of his outstanding marksmanship and calmly capable manner. "Tengu" Hara was a traditional drill sergeant in manner and speech, but unfortunately his English was somewhat limited, which meant that his tirades often ended up being unintentionally comical. "Akuma" Ishikawa spoke excellent English, but was dour, grim and rarely smiled. He was more or less accepted even if his squad mates found it difficult to warm to him.

The only problem for Bradford was Riku Sato, the fourth designated squad leader. Sato was the son of a prominent Japanese Liberal Democratic Party politician who yielded concessions to Prime Minister Abe on the proviso that his son receive a command position. Sato was the smallest man in the strike force, not particularly fit, and his marksmanship barely enough to qualify. To his credit it must be noted that Sato never lobbied for the position, but was railroaded into it by filial duty. Nonetheless his appointment strongly reeked of nepotism, and the Chinese members of the squad ("Xanziee" Tsang and "Dacheng" Nguyen) wasted no opportunity expressing this opinion to anyone and everyone. Sato's call sign was "Tora", or tiger, but he was better known as "Momo-chan" in reference to the famous Japanese legend of Momotaro. Momotaro was a tiny boy who came from a peach in Japanese folklore, while the suffix "chan" was customarily reserved for little girls. If Sato took offence to the nickname he gave no sign of it - he did not respond to any provocations, but stoically ignored it and went about his business.

Chinese soldiers during X-Com selections.

Selections revealed some outstanding soldiers, but also revealed some deep divides based on nationality, religion and cultural background. The X-Com strike force had representatives from over 20 countries as disparate as Burma, Croatia and Mexico. It was truly a polyglot unit, and the most surprising thing was how under-represented the Security Council nations were. The entire British, Chinese, French, Russian and US contingent numbered a total of ten soldiers in all - two from the UK, two from China, two from France, two from Russia, and two soldiers from the US. Overall Bradford was pleased with the quality of the soldiers in his strike force, although he still harboured doubts as to whether they would be able to put aside national differences and work together in unison. This was also the thinking of the major powers, who doubted whether a truly international force could be as effective as the special forces fielded by their respective countries. Nonetheless at its inception X-Com soldiers were perceived as little more than security personnel attached to salvage and recovery teams, which explains the comparatively low standards in comparison to more elite formations, and the lack of interest by the Security Council nations in filling the force with their best soldiers.

First Contact

X-Com's first deployment was in Osaka, Japan. On 2 March 2016 terrified residents called 110 (Japan's emergency contact number) and reported what appeared to be a UFO landing in the rice fields just off the Chugoku Highway west of Osaka. Eager to justify the existence of X-Com, Prime Minister Abe immediately ordered the strike force into the area. The UH-60JA Blackhawks arrived at around 6 am JST, but were informed by Central that the UFO had already departed. Continuing calls to 110 suggested, however, that there were still unknown non-human beings moving around in the area. Deploying his international squad for the first time as squad leader, Okami went into the area to secure the location for the research team. The squad was composed of the four soldiers Bradford had anointed as his future squad leaders ("Okami" Takeda, "Tengu" Hara, "Akuma" Ishihara and "Momo-chan" Sato) along with an American observer ("Izlain" Favre), two UK soldiers ("Bhagpuss" Taylor and "Milady" Edwards), and a Nigerian medic ("Syp" Muyumba). Upon arriving at the freeway the team made first contact with the aliens - a historic event under normal circumstances, but marred by the fact the aliens tried to kill them on sight.

The very first X-Com deployment in Osaka, Japan.

"They were not interested in talking," recalled Okami. "Milady wanted to negotiate, and she went forward with a white flag and no weapons. Suddenly she was being shot at by their beam weapons. She was lucky not to have been killed." According to Okami, the squad came under fire by alien plasma weapons - beam weapons which fired green pulses of energy which cut through kevlar and armour plating like "a hot knife through butter." "Lucky for us they weren't very good shots," said Okami. "We fired back, and our bullets and grenades worked just fine. This was a relief for us because we didn't know if our weapons would be effective against the visitors."

The firefight was over quickly, and the squad was able to get a closer view of their adversaries for the first time. They were underwhelmed by what they saw - short, gray humanoid creatures, shorter than an average person, but with overdeveloped craniums and almost vestigial limbs. "They looked just like the typical aliens you saw in drawings and movies," Izlain stated. "Makes you think that all those people that said they'd been abducted by aliens might have been telling the truth all this time." The squad also drew tremendous confidence from the results of the first contact. "In the air they had us beaten," Izlain added. "But if they bled and died like humans on the ground then we had a chance."

The operation was characterised by a curious incident which afflicted both Bhagpuss and Syp. Both operatives panicked and cowered under fire, and this lapse was explained by their combat inexperience. During debriefing however they insisted that during the battle they had abruptly seen visions in their heads which terrified them and rendered them incapable of acting. Bhagpuss said, "I felt like a 10 year old again, and my step-father was coming up the stairs with his belt in his hand. It was a really strong memory, and it just overwhelmed my mind for a few seconds."

Despite this curious incident the squad suffered no KIAs, although "Tora" Sato was badly burned by plasma fire during the engagement. Plasma fire cut through almost anything, but it also instantly cauterized any wound, which meant the operator could continue fighting as long as the wound was not fatal. Sato also corroborated Bhagpuss and Syp's story about experiencing a compulsion to run and hide, although in his case he ignored it. "It happened twice during the fight - I just remembered the death of my mother, and the memory made me almost fall to my knees and cry. It felt just like how it had felt when I first heard the news, but I just shut it out of my mind as best as I could. After a few moments the feeling disappeared." While Sato was able to shake off the strange vision he admitted that the distraction almost proved fatal. "Just after the feeling subsided I was shot by one of the aliens." Milady had a more scathing version of events. "Sato pushed too far forward and was shot because he was reckless and stupid," Milady remarked, not mincing her words. "I don't believe that rubbish about visions and such. He's just making excuses."

X-Com researchers do a preliminary autopsy on the cadavers of the invaders.

Despite the apparent friction between squad members the strike force performed efficiently and competently in their first operation as a team. The research and logistics team were able to bag up the alien bodies and collect whatever alien artefacts they could find. Alien weapons appeared to self-destruct after the death of the wielder, collapsing into a heap of disparate fragments which were later carefully collected by the forensics team and brought back to Central. Bradford was extremely pleased by his squad's performance, but he was under no illusions about the enormity of the struggle ahead. This was an important victory to be sure, but the war had only just begun.

Next: The Long War, Part V - Opening Moves

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Long War, Part III - Japan

Previous: The Long War, Part II - The Origins of X-Com

Establishing a Base of Operations

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan was the first to volunteer his country as a possible base of operations for the new task force. Japan had a modern and well-equipped military and she was a long standing ally of the US. The US was reluctant to take on more global responsibility, given that her volunteer armies had been heavily committed to Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade. She was also confident in going it alone when it came to dealing with the extra-terrestrial threat - she had world's most advanced military, and she was still the world's pre-eminent superpower despite the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia. Nonetheless she was not opposed to lending assistance to an international effort, and with Japan at the head of such an endeavour she could be sure that she would retain considerable influence over the course of affairs.

Japan in the early 21st century was a country stagnating under two decades of recession and afflicted with a low birth rate and an ageing population. She was also being threatened by the rise of China as an economic and military superpower - China had recently overtaken Japan as the world's second largest economy, and the two nations' continued dispute over the Senkaku Islands continued to dominate headlines on both sides. Both nations had a long and fractious history and the issue of Japanese war guilt in the Second World War was an ongoing impediment to better relations. Japan's tech and automobile companies, once at the forefront of innovation in the 80's and 90's, had been eclipsed by silicon valley giants like Apple, Google and Tesla. Prime Minister Abe had also inadvertently rekindled the pacifist movement in Japan after taking steps to circumvent Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution. The US written Japanese Constitution, created by General Douglas McArthur and his staff at the end of the Second World War, specifically prohibited the use of military force except in self-defence. In July 2014 the Abe cabinet passed a bill which allowed for a looser definition of the article, giving Japanese forces permission to participate in military actions in order to defend their allies abroad. This was met with tremendous opposition from both in and out of Japan - overseas the move was met with harsh criticism, particularly from China and North Korea. Domestically there were massive demonstrations the likes not seen in Japan for some time, and opposition members and academics geared up to challenge the legality of Abe's bill in the Supreme Court of Japan.

US, Australian and Japanese forces conduct joint exercises in Kyushu, Japan.

Abe saw the X-Com Initiative as a chance to illustrate the wisdom of a more flexible interpretation of Article 9, and to re-assert Japan's position as a major player on the world stage. Japan was the second largest funder of the UN, and over the years had lobbied intensely for a permanent seat on the Security Council. Despite her pacifist constitution the Japanese Self Defence Force (JSDF) was a well-equipped and capable military force, with long standing ties with the US and Australia. Japan had also contributed logistical support to the UN on numerous occasions, and was no stranger to multi-lateral operations. There were numerous US bases in Japan, particularly in the Ryukyu island chain in the south-west of Japan, which allowed for immediate commencement of operations between Japanese, American and Australian forces. More importantly however, she also had state of the art research and satellite launch facilities at Tanegashima off the coast of Kyushu, Japan. The first priority of the fledgling program was the re-establishment of satellite coverage of the skies, and great efforts were being made to create passive stealth satellites which had minimal radar profiles. The proposed plan was to launch satellites from two locations. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) would handle launches from Tanegashima, while Elon Musk's privately owned SpaceX would be contracted to handle launches from Vanderberg Air Force Base in the US. The term X-Com would become a blanket term to encompass the satellite program, the air interception program headed by the US and Japan, the research and development program which would be run by JAXA in Tanegashima, and the military force which were originally tasked to provide security for the forensic and recovery teams.

Mustering the Troops

Japan received the go-ahead to commence X-Com operations at the end of January 2016 despite vocal and strident opposition from China. Being a resolution created by the General Assembly rather than by the Security Council, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was free to ignore China's objections, and soon personnel and equipment were being transported to Ryukyu Islands from various nations across the globe. Japanese Ground Self Defence Force (JGSDF) General Kiyofumi Iwata was appointed as force commander. Force commanders were customarily high ranking officers picked from the nation that would bear the heaviest burden of the mission, and given that Japan would be providing the bases and the majority of the supporting infrastructure it was only logical that a Japanese officer be given overall command. The bulk of the research team would come from Germany, who after Japan, was the third biggest funder of the UN. The team would be headed jointly by German astrobiologist Moira Vahlen and American engineer Raymond Shen, while the actual ground missions would be directed from command (later to be known as Central by X-Com operators) by Colonel John Bradford of the US Army.

JGSDF General Kiyofumi Iwata, appointed as force commander of the X-Com task force, here pictured with Australian Army Chief Lieutenant General Angus Campbell.

There were, however, serious delays in the build up of manpower and material. The UN did not have a standing reserve - instead, international coalitions were assembled on a per resolution basis. This meant that every multi-national task force had to be assembled from scratch, an incredibly inefficient and time-wasting exercise which had to be repeated every time the UN made a resolution. Fortunately for the X-Com project US, Japanese and Australian forces were already cooperating in Japan and could begin work immediately while the remainder of the international coalition arrived in dribs and drabs. The Russian contingent was the first to arrive on the scene, and wasted no time poking around the US facilities on Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, which was the site of X-Com's first military deployment. They soon found their movements heavily curtailed by grim-faced Marines, and the decision was made to relocate the X-Com task force to their own facilities on Tanegashima as soon as possible.

Dr. Moira Vahlen and Chief Engineer Raymond Shen confer on the layout of the new X-Com base in Tanegashima.

The base at Tanegashima thus became the central hub for X-Com activities for both R&D and military purposes. Facilities were extremely roughshod at the outset, and often improvised. Troop quality was also uneven - special forces commandoes rubbed shoulders with regular infantry and support personnel who did not have specific combat training. All operators purportedly had to be able to speak English, and air assault experience was specified as mandatory. Despite this pre-requisite Bradford found soldiers arriving at the base who had never been in a helicopter, much less be able to fast-rope down one. As a UN force it also incorporated women in combat roles, something which some of the soldiers from more conservative regimes were not accustomed to. There was also friction between members of the coalition - the Ukrainian civil war had flared into life once more, and the Russians soon found themselves at odds with the Ukrainians and Belarusians serving on the task force. The Pakistani and Indian contingents treated each other cordially albeit coolly, and organized impromptu cricket matches which were fiercely contested much to the bemusement of the locals, whose local sport was baseball and soccer. In the meantime the Chinese were treated with total suspicion by the Japanese, and the disdain was mutual.

Determined to make the best of the circumstances, however, Bradford immediately implemented a strict training regimen and instituted a new hierarchy within X-Com which disregarded ranks held by the soldiers in their respective countries. From now on rank in the new unit would be earned by their performance within the unit. Bradford also conducted selections to determine his squad compositions and to see which of his soldiers could be trusted to conduct operations in a cooperative and efficient manner. The primary goal of the new X-Com project was simple - barring any communications from the visitors, X-Com was to shoot down an enemy craft, and recover the remains for analysis. Bradford was determined that his dysfunctional team of international soldiers would be ready for that eventuality.

Next: The Long War, Part IV - First Contact