Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Long War, Part XIX - Mirage

Several kilometres from Aleppo a large convoy of UN trucks laden with food, supplies and fresh drinking water waited in a depot guarded by Syrian government forces. In and among the halted vehicles was a makeshift camp populated by idle UN staff. Tents, makeshift shelters, hammocks and fold-out chairs and tables festooned the spaces around the trucks, and in and around the nooks and crannies laptops and electronic devices of all kinds played wildly different forms of media to bored men and women lounging in the heat.

Mesmer, Syncaine and Azuriel sat in the shade of a tarp at the edge of the camp, watching a stocky Scottish woman berate a pair of Arab soldiers. McMasters was nominally charge of the relief mission, and whoever had picked her had done a good job - she was fearless in the face of guns and glowering soldiers, and the force of her personality and her belief in the righteousness of her cause was usually enough to bulldoze aside any obstacle in her path. That was before Syria, however. Today she was haranguing the government soldiers for stealing UN supplies from the stalled trucks. Two young soldiers stood shame-faced before the onslaught, before finally fleeing for the safety of their barracks.

"She's a firecracker," said Syncaine laconically. He rubbed the growing stubble of his beard, and took another sip of water.

"It won't do much good," replied Azuriel. He was laying on his back half-dozing in the sweltering heat. "The guards grab stuff during the night when everyone is asleep."

"Yeah, I know."

Mesmer looked at the bottle Syncaine was drinking from. "Did you take that from the trucks?"

Syncaine shrugged. "Everyone else was, so I thought why not?"

Mesmer sighed and shook her head. They'd been in a holding pattern for two weeks now, waiting with the stranded UN supply trucks for a call that would probably never come. The UN had come to Syria with supplies and good intentions, but their attempts to supply the refugees trapped in Aleppo had been stonewalled by the government's refusal to allow them access to the so-called neutral zone. The civil war was in its fifth year, and every year more and more nations joined the carnage. Despite the presence of blinking lights in the sky - despite the incident in Nigeria - despite the meltdown in France - the war in Syria continued unabated. The conflict in the desert had a timeless quality about it. It was a sand-blasted, arid and parched purgatory, and every year the dead and the hollow eyed were replaced by a limitless supply of more men, women and children destined for similar fates. The deserts of the Middle East was where the hopes for peace and prosperity came to die - yet, even in this blasted landscape, the olive trees dug their roots stubbornly in the flimsy soil, and the doves returned year after year, seemingly oblivious to the desolation around them and the shattered, desiccated bones of their forebears.

The Scot stomped over to the lounging X-Com soldiers, and her eyes immediately locked onto Syncaine's purloined bottle of water. "You took that from the trucks," she said accusingly.

Syncaine shrugged.

"Unbelievable." She walked off angrily, the tension in her shoulders clearly evident.

"I think she likes you, Syn," Azuriel observed. 

"Lucky me," replied Syncaine. They knew the real source of McMaster's frustration came from not having any authority over the X-Com operatives. They'd been inserted into the UN aid mission by order of the Secretary-General, and all McMasters ever received was a memo signed by Ban Ki-Moon ordering her to give the squad every form of assistance at her disposal. Nominally the squad were UN observers reporting on the status of the temporary cease fire between all combatants in Aleppo. The reality, however, was far different.

It was EXALT's presence in Syria that X-Com was interested in most. The newest player in the volatile and deadly game of international terrorism, EXALT had apparently begun as mercenaries for the jihadists, but had rapidly expanded, in some cases appearing to subsume substantial parts of both the ISIS and al-Qaeda networks. That did not concern X-Com directly - for them the biggest concern was the growing evidence that EXALT was being armed with alien tech. Kurd rebel forces claimed to possess cadavers bearing indisputable signs of genetic modification, and they had approached Mossad with a deal - they would turn them over if the refugees in Yarmouk were supplied. And so here they were.

Today, though, the war against the aliens was on dangerous ground. Azuriel, Syncaine and Mesmer were all Israeli, and their presence on the ground was a closely kept secret. No commander in their right mind would have ever considered deploying Jews in Syria, given the decades long enmity between the two nations, but X-Com's hands were tied - the Kurdish rebels had deep historical ties with Mossad, and they would only deal with the representatives of the Israeli secret service. So when Mossad was offered the deal, they relayed it on to X-Com command through Mesmer.

"So, you're a spy, Mesmer?" Bradford had asked after the briefing concluded.

"I'm a patriot, General," the scout-sniper replied. "Just like you."

"Any more patriots like you on the strike force? In the task force?"

"We have patriots from all over the world, General," she had replied.

It was a running joke that the X-Com strike force was made up exclusively of spies. No one had taken the unit seriously in its inception, and it was joked that the only people who applied for the strike force were intelligence officers for their respective nations looking to keep tabs on the movement of the international force. Mesmer knew she was a spy, but the fact that she had been ordered to reveal herself meant that Mossad no longer felt the need for subterfuge within X-Com. Her superiors in Mossad told her that Jeromai was an FSB officer, and she suspected that either Bhagpuss or Tremayne reported to British MI6. Even Bradford probably reported every X-Com movement to his superiors in the US Army. There was nothing secret about X-Com - every move it made was reported to a dozen intelligence agencies shortly after it acted. Yet somehow the coalition limped on, acting on an ad hoc basis and moving under its own inertia.

An olive skinned woman wearing a hijab emerged from one of the distant tents and walked towards the Israeli trio.

"What's happening, Saylah?" Azuriel called out from his bunk.

"Same story." The Saudi Arabian spoke in perfect British English. "Nothing. Assad won't budge. Neither will the Kurds."

"The aliens are laughing their asses off at us," Mesmer said suddenly. "Look at us. Humanity is a fucking joke. Maybe we should just let them take over."

Azuriel laughed mirthlessly, his eyes hooded. "Maybe they should."

"Worried about the Palestinians, Mesmer?" Saylah asked. "Uncommon sentiment from your people, isn't it?"

"Are you picking a fight, Saylah? Or just being a bitch as usual?"

"I have no problems with Palestinians," Azuriel grunted. "As long as they stay out of our country, and leave us in peace."

"And if they don't?" 

"As the good book says," Azuriel replied, eyes steadily fixed on the Saudi woman. "An eye for an eye."

"Here comes the sarge," Syncaine commented, smoothly cutting off the Arab woman's rebuke. Two more figures approached the throng of operators gathered under the tarp. One was a short, well-built Japanese soldier, while his companion was a large hulking bear of a man. The Japanese soldier, Okami, was the most respected squad leader of the task force. His marksmanship was second to none, and he was the founder and chief instructor of the impromptu sniper school founded in Tanegashima for new X-Com recruits. He led two squads in Ogbomosho during the African crisis, and fought in the week long battle to keep the chryssalids contained within the city. His companion was another respected soldier. Jeromai was a 40 year old plus veteran of the First and Second Chechen Wars. The Russian cut an intimidating figure with his massive build and piercing blue eyes. He rarely spoke, but every utterance was issued with the force of a command. The two of them were an unlikely pair, but together they were an effective command element for the X-Com platoon known as Shirogumi, or White Team.

"Get your gear together," Okami said in his clipped, strange English. "We're moving out in 10." 

"What changed?" Saylah queried.

Okami shrugged. "Assad won't move. Neither will the PYD. But the local commander has come to an agreement with the leader of the opposition forces in the Yarmouk area. He says we can deliver the supplies today."

Syncaine looked skeptical. "I don't like it."

"Neither do I," Azuriel agreed. "No official sanction from up high is an invitation for a gigantic clusterfuck."

Okami nodded. "I understand. However, the local commander is willing to provide an escort and accompany the convoy to Yarmouk. He says that he has negotiated a ceasefire."

"Do you trust him?"

"He's coming with us, so he is willing to bet his life on it. It's good enough for me. Otherwise we have to wait here longer. Maybe forever."

"Are we going in geared? Or as UN observers?" Syncaine again.

Jeromai answered the question. "I insisted that if we're going to go in on his word then we would go in armed, just as a precaution. Our UN credentials won't mean anything if someone starts shooting."

"What about al-Nusra? What happens if they show up?" Mesmer asked. The ceasefire between the government and the rebels did not apply to al-Nusra, the militant arm of al-Qaeda, nor did it apply to ISIS.

Jeromai looked at Okami, and shrugged. "Then we kill them."

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Long War, Part XVIII - Awakening


It started as an indistinct glimmer on the furthest edges of her vision. A mote in her mind's eye, she didn't really notice it until it had become a distinct flickering in the firmament of her consciousness. She could choose to ignore it, and she did - after all she was only thirteen years old, and had more pressing things to attend to. As the days went on it grew in brightness and size, and it became harder and harder to pretend that it wasn't there. She wanted to ask her mother, but she knew that she would get no answers from her. She had become accustomed to seeing and hearing and feeling things that no one else did, and she didn't want to get another of those wary, scared looks from her mother whenever she articulated them.

"Mi-chan," Chiharu would say. "Daijobu?"

Nanami never begrudged her mother these occasional moments. To Nanami her mother's love for her was inscribed in everything she did - it shone through her hands when she made her breakfast and dinner, reverberated through the timbre of her voice in her angriest moments, and radiated off her body while she slept, exhausted and worn after another long shift at work. Nanami knew that men thought her mother beautiful - they tried to hide it, but they might as well have thundered their thoughts from the rooftops. Nanami had always been uncannily perceptive - many men had flitted in and out of her mother's life, and she had always gauged their measure at first impression. She had not thought much of most of them, and she used to be brutally honest with her mother about her opinions. When her mother became upset for the third time she realized then that most people wanted the freedom to make their own mistakes, and so she ceased from offering unsolicited advice. All she could do was watch the inevitable fall, as inexorable as gravity, as another relationship hurtled back to earth and burned up on the way down. To Nanami her duty had always been clear - to pick up the shattered pieces of her mother's psyche and bind them together after every landfall. Exhausted and unhappy her mother had fallen asleep after coming home from work, and woke up to a meal prepared by her then ten year old daughter. The meal was simple and clumsily prepared, but that singular act of thoughtfulness broke down a barrier between them. Her mother burst into tears and hugged her daughter for an eternity, and from then on out they were no longer simply mother and daughter, but also partners, united together against the world. They shared the chores, talked frankly about their lives at work and at elementary school, and shared their hopes and fears with each other.

All except the dreams. When she was younger and her father was still in her life Nanami had been always been beset by the dreams. She could never remember the exact details, but many times during her life she had woken up, afraid, disorientated and screaming. Dismissed as night terrors, she'd appeared to have outgrown them, much to her mother's relief and to her father's exasperated disgust. For a brief moment of her young life Nanami was plagued with the guilt that she was responsible for driving her father away. That guilt disappeared when in a strange moment of clarity she had glimpsed into the contents of his mind, and saw a weak, self-centered man driven by petty desires and vainglorious ambitions. There was no room in that place for her mother and her, and when he finally left, she had not wasted her grief. During that time, however, Nanami had learnt to keep silent about the dreams and visions. As far as she knew, she was the only one that saw them, and sharing them only engendered fear, doubt and skepticism. She wondered if she was crazy, and she made great efforts in suppressing the dreams, or pretending not to see what she saw to herself. Perhaps it worked, because they eventually stopped.

Now thirteen and in the final year of elementary school, life had slipped into a comfortable routine for the two of them. They were not well-to-do, but they were no longer poor, either. Their situation was a far cry from what it was several years ago. Nanami recalled her mother's deep shame at being unable to provide her with a new dress for her nyugakushiki. While all the newly inducted children stood proudly in their new shoes and bright dresses, Nanami wore a plain green one piece with her old gym shoes. Later, as they walked home she had felt the shame radiating from her mother, and at first thought she had done something wrong. Once again her uncanny senses slipped past surface appearances, and she realized that the shame and anger pouring from her mother was directed inwards.

"Mama, daijobu," she said abruptly, grabbing her mother's hand. "I don't need a new dress." 

Chiharu looked at her daughter with shock. "How do you do that, Mi-chan?" Her face fell. "I'm so sorry about today." Her face twisted in self-loathing. "How did I become so useless?"

Nanami burrowed her face into her mother's side. "You're not useless, Mama." 

"I promise you, Mi-chan," her mother said fiercely, returning the hug. "I'll do better."

Her mother was as good as her word. The procession of men ended, and while hopeful suitors still lurked in the wings, Chiharu's energies were directed at her daughter and herself. Chiharu finally obtained her nursing qualifications, and held down a steady job with solid pay and benefits. She'd swallowed her pride, and reconnected with her estranged parents. Chiharu's mother was overjoyed to have her daughter back, and the pair were immediately reconciled with no recriminations on either side. If anything, Chiharu's mother took the brunt of the blame on herself, castigating herself as a terrible mother for letting her daughter venture into the world alone. Chiharu knew only too well how it felt to feel inadequate as a parent, and both women, generations apart, bonded instantly over their shared guilt. Chiharu's father, cut from a particularly unyielding cloth of Japanese masculinity, took longer to thaw. Once again though, Nanami's strange ability to winnow past the facades of ego came to the rescue. Beyond the rigid mazes of tatemae Nanami perceived an old man anxious and concerned about the well-being of his daughter and granddaughter but lacking the wherewithal to express it. Nanami hugged her grandfather, addressed him as ojiisan, and the walls of formality were breached, the garrison routed, and the stronghold overrun. While Chiharu and her father would never ever be as close again, the intention was there on both sides, and Nanami served as the glue that kept them civil to one other.

By the end of elementary school Chiharu and Nanami could count themselves happy and comfortable, and the gold-tinged days slipped by swiftly and effortlessly. In the waning days of school, however, the dreams began again in earnest. This time, though, Nanami did not suffer alone. When she woke up terrified in a pool of sweat, she found her mother instantly by her side. Her concerned grandparents took her to counselling and eventually to a child psychologist, and Nanami did her best to recall her dreams in quiet conversations with her mother during their bedtime rituals.  She also told her mother about the strange glimmering she could see growing in strength on the horizon, as clear as a lighthouse to her eyes, but seemingly invisible to everyone else. Her recollections upon waking were improving, but this was cold comfort to Chiharu, who found herself looking at stark, sinister cartoon doodles of little grey men and tall figures in black.

"They're coming, Mama," she would say. "They're looking for people like me."

"Who's coming, Mi-chan?" her anguished mother would ask, stroking her daughter's hair softly.

Her daughter would not elaborate, and Chiharu could only reflect on Nanami's latest sketch, which depicted a many limbed hooded figure surrounded by a menagerie of fantastic creatures. This was filed away in a folder along with the rest, and shuffled along to counselors, teachers, and psychiatrists, each of whom posited their own theories and prescribed different courses of action. Solely concerned with her daughter, Chiharu only half-heartedly listened to the news of strange blinking lights in the sky that began to fill print and media in the same year. She ignored the bombast surrounding the creation of some kind of multi-national task force based in Japan, and the Prime Minister's attempts to justify the nation's new interventionist stance. Politicians and their promises were so far removed from the minutiae of her life that they faded to the background, mere ambient noise behind the more strident notes of day to day living. It was only while waiting in traffic along the Chugoku Highway with Nanami that the correlation struck home with the force of a thunderbolt. They, along with many Japanese commuters on their way to Osaka, had watched with stunned disbelief as a sleek silver saucer streaked parallel to the highway, slowed its velocity, and land somewhere ahead of them. Traffic ground to a halt, and amazed commuters left their cars, craned their necks and peered ahead, trying to get a glimpse of the grounded craft. Chiharu was among them, until she felt Nanami's hand tugging on her own.

"Mama, we have to go," her daughter had said, urgency flashing in her eyes. "They're here."

Next: The Long War, Part XIX - Mirage

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.


I restart the game. My save refuses to load.


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.


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.


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.

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, Victor? 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?"


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 Rousseau? You were in the same unit." Syl looked to Scree, and on cue he continued prodding the silent trooper. "Girard. It's Victor. 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. Rousseau. 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: The Long War, Part VIII - Awakening