XCOM: Enemy Advanced
Burning Skies and The Fire Bird
Location: First Light, Crystal Mountains
Date: 8th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 19:52:08 (Canterlot Standard Time)
The six Bearers of Harmony sat together around a table, trays of food laid out in front of them. Dinnertime at XCOM was surprisingly edible, considering all the stories Shining Armor shared about rations, but not everypony was digging in. Applejack ate normally and Rainbow Dash dug in with gusto, but Rarity, Twilight and Fluttershy were still staring at their tray for the past ten minutes. Even Pinkie was just picking at her food, the only thing she ate being the cupcake that came with.
Applejack was the first one to notice, brow creased halfway through an apple. “You girls doin’ alright?”
“It’s nothing,” Fluttershy said reflexively, shying away from her farmpony friend. “Really, it’s nothing.”
“You sure?” Dash asked, head rested against her leg on the table. “You haven’t eaten at all. Rarity and Twilight, too. What gives?”
Rarity blinked, looking about with some confusion. “Hm? Oh! My apologies, Rainbow Dash, I was just… I was just thinking about the recent mission to Manehattan.” She smiled radiantly, but none reached her eyes. “Don’t you girls remember when I brought you there?”
Applejack nodded. “Ah don’t think the rest of the city’s destroyed, Rares. Just the shipyards.” She sighed, “What’s the real problem here, girls?”
“Ponies died out there,” Twilight said abruptly. “Lots of ponies, Applejack.”
“Hang on, Twi. You were fine just earlier today!”
“I didn’t think about it at the time, I was too busy being glad Shining was alive or excited at studying alien technology, but now that I have time to think I just…” She took a deep breath, and let it all out slowly. “It’s horrible. It has to be done or we’ll all be dead, but it’s horrible.”
“I tried to save those ponies,” Fluttershy said softly. “I saw how their insides fused and charred and cooked, and I couldn’t… I…” Tears welled up in her big blue eyes, and her lips quivered involuntarily. “I… It was horrible. It was too horrible. I… I couldn’t do anything. I just looked and -” Fluttershy nearly retched, but held it back in. Not that she had anything left inside her to throw up.
“Red Glare,” a deflated Pinkie said simply, without any of the life customary of a Pinkie Pie. “I was friends with Red Glare. And Truck. And Eli. And Darkbolt and Sharp and Dusk Shine and Steady and Kunta and Dawn. Good friends. We talked and laughed and partied and cried. And now they’re dead. Just… gone. No parties. No jokes. No hanging out. No nothing. Just like Granny Pie.” She sniffed. “It’s quieter, you know?”
It was. The carousing that was expected of a military mess hall was significantly softer today. The soldiers did their best to ignore it, but their absence was palpable. It was the silence that jarred most of all.
“Pinkie…” Dash reached out and touched Pinkie’s hoof with her own. “You still have us, you know that? We’re here for you. We’re here for all of us.”
“How do you two cope so well, though?” Rarity asked, half-melancholy and half-curious. “Such an event… How could anypony look past it?”
At that, both ponies shrugged in unison. “It hurts, Rarity,” Applejack said, “Ah knew those ponies too, and Ah was overseein’ the mission. Ah was responsible, and it hurts. But Ah can’t just lay around and mope, Ah’m Central Officer. All Ah can do is keep movin’ forward.”
Dash nodded, legs crossed, and continued. “It’s okay to cry, yanno? It’s hard. Not everypony’s strong enough to keep moving on after this. It’s alright to sit around and mope for a day or two, but the important thing is to get back up and keep going onward.”
The various ponies nodded in agreement and seemed to cheer up. Even Fluttershy looked more determined than before. They all knew what was at stake, Rainbow Dash knew. They just needed to be reminded a bit. Even Twilight needed help sometimes.
“Wise words,” Rarity smiled, then she frowned. “Too wise. Where did you hear them from, Rainbow Dash?”
The pegasus shrugged and grinned toothily. “My dad says this stuff all the time. Sometimes it’s pretty cool, sometimes it’s pretty uncool, but it’s usually right.” Her smile faded, and she looked up at where the sky was. “Wonder how he’s doing...”
Location: First Light, Crystal Mountains
Date: 12th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 09:42:54 (Canterlot Standard Time)
Hangar Bay One was massive; it had to be, because it was the one reserved for the Skyrangers and Cloudbarges, titanic engines of magic and technology, held aloft by a combination of telekinetic spell-engineering and flare-pattern hybrid vector jet engines enhanced by rune circuitry. Shining Armor, Ivan and Firebird all felt a bit lost amongst the sheer size of the uppermost level of XCOM, though they did not show it. “Remind me,” the Lieutenant spoke up, “Why are we here?”
“We’re welcoming the new operatives coming in to replace our losses in Manehattan,” the Captain responded joylessly. “From what the General told me, he pulled some favours and we’re getting units from the Eastern Front and Herakles.”
Nearly everyone that had been wounded in Manehattan was discharged, and it was with some guilt that he saw familiar faces board the Cloudbarges back to their homelands. Only Corporal Starlight was due for a full recovery, though Sergeant Black Moon was staying as an instructor, both at Firebird’s request and his prodigious skills with a gun. But he would never walk or fly again without a wheelchair.
At the mention of the Eastern Front, Firebird brightened. “Wonder if we’re getting anypony from the Special Forces,” she grinned hopefully. “Wouldn’t mind being in charge of Wet Blanket.”
“I’m reasonably sure that Lieutenant Rainy Day still does not appreciate that nickname,” General Blueblood said from right behind the three with a smirk, “But I’m willing to let that slide. Once.”
“Commander on deck!” Shining Armor called out, biting his lip too late. All over the cavernous hangar, technicians, security staff and discharged operatives alike dropped what they were doing and turned to the General with a salute. Ivan and Firebird, however, just looked at him with strange looks. He coughed, and smiled sheepishly. “Sorry.”
“At ease,” Blueblood barked, and activity resumed. “I want XCOM to be more about efficiency and less about ceremony, Captain. Even if it does inflate my ego in a satisfying manner.” He pondered for a moment. “Maybe on Sundays. You know, in celebration of Princess Celestia and her Sun.”
“Sorry, sir. Force of habit.” Shining averted his eyes and flushed red. Some things stayed after almost a decade as Guard Captain, like the meticulous process for ceremonies and traditional formations. Princess Celestia had decided the Royal Guard to be eye candy several centuries back, it seemed.
“So!” Ivan spoke up, breaking the awkward atmosphere. “General Blueblood, when should we expect our reinforcements?”
“They should be arriving within the hour. In fact...” General Blueblood looked at his watched and tapped a hoof impatiently. “They’re late. They should’ve been here ten minutes ago.”
“Maybe they got intercepted by UFOs,” Firebird offered in jest. “Would definitely be an ironic turn of events.”
Three pairs of eyes turned to her, in varying degrees of worry and annoyance. “What? I’m just saying. Those aliens have a sense for dramatic irony.”
Shining Armor spoke first. “While it would be morbidly funny, more likely they got hit up by rough weather. This far north, weather’s a bit... chaotic. In fact, head due west and we find Stalliongrad, land of the craziest weather in Equestria.”
“Always did want to work with a pony from Stalliongrad,” Ivan said. “They seemed the most fun of the Equestrian cities.”
“I know, right? I heard the stallions there are big, burly, wrestle bears for a living, have unshorn fetlocks... have deep, husky accents...”
“Lieutenant Firebird, you’re drooling on me. Do stop right now.”
Firebird leaned over to the other side and mumbled an apology, but was drowned out by the roar of jet engines. A Cloudbarge troop transport descended, held aloft by four self-correcting vector turbines and landing with a heavy lurch. A large ramp lowered, and the first operatives rolled out and formed up in front of the General.
He waved them down and stood at attention himself. “I am General Blueblood, Commander-in-Chief of the XCOM Project. The unicorn is Captain Shining Armor, your Field Commander. The griffon is Sergeant Ivan Sharpeyes, and the mare is Lieutenant Firebird. They will be your squad leaders for the foreseeable future.”
The unit of assorted races, consisting of just as many zebras, griffons and minotaurs as it did ponies, nodded in acknowledgement. General Blueblood was impressed. His favors did much more than recover losses. They might get a new Strike Team, at this rate.
He smiled. “Welcome to XCOM.”
"So, Doc, how's he doing?"
The zebrican shamaness looked up from her chart, nodding when she saw it was the Lieutenant. That was quick. The new soldiers had just arrived. "His condition is quite stable. He will be discharged in a day or two, if he is able."
Firebird nodded, allowing herself a small smile. "That's good. Thank you, Dr. Zecora." She grinned, head tilted slightly. "I never thought a shaman would ever wear a labcoat, much less become Chief of Medicine."
"With the fate of our world at stake, much of our traditions we must forsake." The striped shamaness smiled as well. "Just as well to use what I learned, than to hide away and be spurned."
"Heh.” Firebird smiled, looking at the sleeping Black Moon. “I always wonder how you and your fellow shaman can rhyme on a dime like that."
Years and years of training. But completely worth it, just to see the looks on everyone’s faces. "The knowledge of the past is a shaman's responsibility, among them the secrets of our lyrical ability." Zecora lowered her gaze at the Lieutenant knowingly. "Are the two of you close? He gets visited by you more than most."
"That was stretching it," Firebird chuckled, and then her smile faded slightly. "We've been in the same squad for almost eight years, Blackie and I. I don't know anyone with a steadier aim than him. Pony, griffon, minotaur, if it can shoot he's beat them and taken their money." She laughed softly. "Always asked him why he never got a markspony lanyard, but I guess he prefers the feel of a... thing." She tried miming an assault rifle with her hooves and blanched. "My visits aren't a problem, are they?"
"Do not worry, your visits won't end. Indeed, recovery accelerates if aided by a friend." Though that’s usually if the patient is awake to notice. But she need not hear that part.
"That's a relief." Firebird heard a beep, and checked her watch with a sigh. "Gotta go, Doc. Need to meet the new squad. If he wakes up later, tell him I said hi."
Zecora, for her part, smiled in sympathy. "I'll be sure to tell him, my deep orange friend. So go along now, and make this war end."
The Field Commander’s office was spartan, though it was not shabby by any stretch of the imagination. It had only a single cupboard, his table, and a potted plant he called Planty, but it still looked worthy of an officer of XCOM. He liked it that way. Kept from extraneous distractions while keeping it respectable. It also presented an intimidating presence during interviews.
"So," Shining Armor said, forelegs rested on the table surface. "Sergeant Iron Hoof, was it?"
The towering peach earth pony nodded, still as a rock on the chair. "Da, Captain Armor, Staff Sergeant Iron Hoof. Served in Stalliongrad Garrison, 2nd Red Guard Battalion."
"A Red Guard?" Shining Armor whistled. Those rarely left Stalliongrad. "How were the weekly hailstorms, dragon attacks, diamond dog raids and griffon warlord sieges?"
Iron Hoof shrugged. "Could be worse. Could have fought without trusty machine gun. Could have fought without fellow comrades. Could have fought while half-frozen and starving." He paused. "Actually, last one happened. Was bad week."
Well, at least he knew General Loshad wasn't throwing them the undesirables. Only an authentic Red Guard could give no fucks about being in one of the most hostile cities within Equestria. "So why did you join XCOM?"
"Aliens attacked home, Captain. Lots of ponies died." Almost imperceptibly, he saw his eyes narrow. "Baby sister was killed. Little filly, only eleven years. Had nothing else left, so joined XCOM." He shrugged. "Not only Stalliongrad militiapony to come, Captain. There were others."
"I'm aware. I brought you in for a special reason." Mostly because Iron Hoof was the only Red Guard so far. He leaned forward, forehooves tented. "I want to put you as Squad Leader of the Heavy Ordnance squad, Strike Three. Interested?"
Iron Hoof nodded impassionately. "Da, Captain."
The Field Commander smiled and extended a hoof. "Then I'm putting you as Squad Leader once we shake on it. Last chance to back out, Sergeant."
Without hesitation, the Sergeant met it with his own hoof. "I will rise up to challenge, Captain." Idly, Shining Armor noted that his fetlocks were unshorn. Firebird was going to go wild over Iron Hoof, he was sure.
Shining Armor grinned. "Then let's introduce you to your squad, Strike Three-Actual."
Location: First Light, Crystal Mountains
Date: 18th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 04:13:03 (Canterlot Standard Time)
Warning klaxons blazed through First Light, and red warning lights flashed all over the underground base. General Blueblood stifled a yawn as he stepped onto the Operations Deck, gesturing the technicians to ease as they all snapped a salute. “What’s the situation, Central?”
Applejack nodded, seemig unaffected at all by the sudden contact. Damn earth ponies and their ridiculous endurance. “Storm Squadron is ready for launch on your command, General.” She cocked an eyebrow. “Been up late again?”
Blueblood nodded blearily and picked up a mic. “Storm Leader, this is Azure High.” He smirked. Being commander had its perks. Like having the fancy callsigns. “Give me a sitrep, Flight Captain.”
The speakers crackled with static before a voice responded. “Azure High, this is Storm Leader. All wings accounted for, and we’re ready to kick some ugly alien flank.”
The Flight Captain was enthusiastic, at least. “Acknowledged, Storm Leader, sit tight.” The mic clicked and buzzed, switching channels to another waiting radio. "Blue Thunder, how're the other birds doing?"
Talon's getting ready and Skyrangers prepped, General, and Storm Squadron's yours for the moment," Rainbow Dash responded tacitly. "Take care of them, alright? I would be with them, but... you know."
"You and me both, Commander," Blueblood nodded in empathy. "Excellent work. Strike One-Actual, are your operatives ready?”
“Strike One, Two, Four and Six will be on the Skyrangers in five minutes, sir. Making final equipment checks.”
“Excellent. Skyrangers will be headed out and trailing the Stormclouds five clicks away for fast response. Azure High, out.” The radio clicked again. “Storm Squadron, your mission is to shoot down a UFO sighted over the Crystal Empire. Preferably the UFO should crash far from the city itself, but do everything you can to shoot it down.”
“Roger that, General. We’ll take it down, we’ll do it in ten seconds flat, and we’ll be back in time for a nap and breakfast.”
The General smiled softly. The crazy old buck would be proud. “Don’t make promises you can’t make, Commander. Initiate launch sequence.”
The caverns First Light was built into rumbled as seven sets of engines roared to life and shot off into the midnight. All eyes turned to the hologlobe as the icons of Storm Squadron raced over the globe at breakneck, homing in on the UFO moving erratically over the Crystal Empire.
“This is Storm Leader,” the radio chirped as the icons converged, “UFO is engaged, repeat, UFO is engaged.”
Storm Squadron moved into position about five hundred meters from the UFO. Even with the low visibility it looked like the other one downed just over a week back; a flat disk with translucent bubbles located at four arbitrary corners of the craft, moving with no identifiable propulsion system, navigation system or even windows. If the ponies didn’t know better, this craft was just waiting to crash and burn.
Flight Captain Lightning Dust looked at the purple form, and took a deep breath. Alright, Dust, you can do this. You’ve trained for this. You’ve run the sims. You’ve done the training flights. You’ve even done flights with the Griffons and Equestria’s aces. It may be nighttime, but you can take down a wimpy little UFO.
She tapped on a rune with a hoof, subtly refining engine thrust on the vector-engine craft. “Alright, Storm, wide spread, three K. We don’t want to get shredded by plasma fire.”
The other pilots sounded their acknowledgement when her sensors peaked. Instincts roared and she banked hard left, just barely dodging a bolt of plasma streaking out and singed the heat shielding. She barely had time to react as more bolts of plasma shot out from the featureless hull in all directions. Dammit, the last one didn’t do that. “Evasive maneuvers! Weapons live, Storm! Engage!”
She thanked the pony that devised the Neural Harness and spun left in a barrel roll, the g-forces she was so used to kicking the cyan mare back into her straps with a grunt. Another tap of the hoof, and she established long-ranged radio transmissions. “This is Storm Leader. UFO is engaged, repeat, UFO is engaged.”
“Acknowledged, Storm Leader. Skies are clear of weather teams and civilian flyers. Keep an eye on the sensors and good hunting.”
“Roger that.” The sensors pinged, and through the night sky she saw the UFO swung around in a ninety-degree turn and headed straight for her, showing no regard for the laws of physics. “Darn it, it’s on me! Storm, form up and engage!”
“Hang tight, Leader. Lining up shots.” Dust banked hard right away from another plasma bolt and ran straight at the UFO, priming every last one of her missiles and locking targets. The UFO wants to play ball? She’ll play ball! She’ll play all the ball!
The radio spiked with a mangle of static and sound, and Dust nearly shook her helmet off like a wet dog. What in the world...
In stark contrast to the midnight blue skies of night, orange yellow flowers like the sunrise bloomed against the UFO’s hull one after another in quick succession, growing in brilliance as Sunburst after Sunburst impacted against the UFO’s hull. Dust pulled up and over the UFO, diving and rolling to right herself behind the disk-shaped craft.
“Storm,” the radio buzzed, “this is Central. We’re readin’ four hits and two misses on the UFO. Hull’s still holdin’, everypony, but keep at it! It’s gotta go down sometime!”
“Acknowledged, Central. Moving in for the kill!” As she said so, she fired a missile at the UFO and struck it dead on, another confirmed hit on the UFO. And yet, it was still trucking on, and swung down low to the left. How could something that’s been hit so many times by something so destructive be so fast?
Aliens cheat. That’s the only conclusion. She trailed after and fired off another missile, hoping that the Sunburst would live up to its name. The rest of Storm fired as well, bolts of orange streaking and connecting with the hull. To Lightning’s irritation, the thing was still intact.
It pulled up suddenly, and Dust saw that the ground below was growing bigger worryingly quick. “Pull! Pull! Pull!” she heard Storm Two screech, and all seven craft pulled back hard, fighting momentum and firing afterburners to not end up as tree paint. they rolled and weaved, trying to bleed off speed, eyes glued to sensors to locate the UFO around them.
“Storm, watch out! The UFO is--”
The purple alien disc came screaming in, plasma cannons firing. Dust suppressed a scream as she felt burns on her lower belly, a small price to pay for the deep connection a neural harness granted. Storm Squadron peeled off from the UFO and each other, each plane finding a separate piece of sky to hide in as soon as they could.
“Storm, damage report!”
“Storm Four, left wing got clipped. Still flight-worthy, Leader.”
“Storm Seven here. Lost power to an engine, but still in the air and raring to go!”
Storm Two, Three and Six responded with superficial heat shield damage, and Dust frowned at the missing one. Well, that wasn't good. “I don’t see Five on the sensor net. Where is he?”
“This is Two, Leader. Five got shot down, but I saw a chute open.”
Dust heaved a sigh in relief. She wasn’t about to let ponies under her command die. Looked horrible on her record. “Central, did you catch that?”
“Skyrangers on approach notified, Leader, and recovery beacon’s noted. We’ll get him.” Hesitation filled the air, almost palpable. “Storm Leader, your frame’s lookin' mighty unsteady, over.”
“Yeah, I feel it. Checking instruments.” Dust took a peek, and shrugged. “It’s fine, Central. Just clipped the wings a bit. We’ll live.”
“Acknowledged, Storm Leader, but take care. Pilots ain’t easy to replace.”
“I read you, Centra--” She saw a shadow pass over her, and she looked up to see the UFO, just waiting for a pot shot. She even saw the damn things smoking and the glowing section of the hull. “Hold that thought, Central, just gotta make this last shot...”
It was almost dead, and one good missile would do it in. Just to be safe, she painted it for a simultaneous multi-missile strike and fired all her missiles, five bolts of orange landing direct hits in three salvos. The UFO hull section blew open and the ship descended, almost like a frisbee on its last legs. “This is Storm Leader. UFO is down, repeat, UFO is down, somewhere in the woods northwest of the Crystal Empire.”
“Acknowledged, Storm Leader. Excellent work. Pull back and let Talon Squadron take patrol duty over that airspace. You’ve earned a break.”
“Roger that,” the pegasus said with a grin. “Storm, we’re going home. Drinks are on me!”
Location: UFO Crash Site, Gemstone Woods
Date: 18th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 04:31:18 (Canterlot Standard Time)
“Strike One-Actual, this is Talon Leader. We’ll be providing air cover for this mission, in case the aliens try that stunt in Manehattan again.”
“Acknowledged, Talon Leader, and thank you.” Shining Armor switched channels as the squad pulled down their goggles and Strike Two took to the sky. “Azure High, this is Strike One-Actual. Strike Teams are touched down and moving in to secure the UFO.”
“Acknowledged, One-Actual. Best of luck, and use the trees for cover.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice,” Shining Armor grinned, and pulsed the channels again. “Strike Teams, this is One-Actual. Strike Two heads to the sky and provides air cover. Strike Six, hang back and get a good angle. You are authorised to go high, if you need to. Strike Four, stick to the woods by the northern side. Strike One, we’re sticking to the woods south of the crash site. Let’s do this quick and tidy, kids. I don’t want to be caught like the last time. Clear?”
“One-Actual, this is Six-Actual. Advise that Strike Six gets into the woods as well. There’s no telling if the aliens have night vision, but we should assume so.”
Shining Armor clicked his tongue. He didn’t think that Strike Six would be within visual range of the alien crew, but safety was paramount. “Good catch, Ivan. Arrange your squad as you see fit. More questions?”
“One-Actual, this is Two. Suggest that we go up high and hit the UFO from above.”
“Negative, Two-Actual. Risk is too great. You’ll get shot down by the Recovery, and we both know it’s coming. Stick to the plan, Firebird. Anypony else?”
The radios fell silent. “Good. All units, move out. And conserve your explosives; we want something to bring back and study.”
Location: First Light, Crystal Mountains
Date: 18th Mayfly, 1006 PDE
Time: 04: 52:18 (Canterlot Standard Time)
“Recovery beacon located, Azure High. Recovery One going in.”
“Acknowledged, Recovery One. Good work. Now get back to base.” The General turned around as he heard a pony approaching the CiC, and nodded in recognition at the mare taking the stairs up. “Good morning, Twilight Sparkle. The ground mission is going underway.”
The haggard unicorn blinked and yawned, showing no regard for etiquette in the CiC. “That’s good then, General. How’s it going?”
“Azure High, this is Talon Leader. Recovery UFO sighted. Engaging.”
“--better than expected, all things considered,” General Blueblood mused, and picked up the mic. “Talon Leader, this is Azure High. You are authorised to use the Night Haunter. Make it count; we’re only authorised to give one a mission.”
“Roger roger, Azure High. Priming all missiles.”
“Central,” he continued without a hitch, “Get Strike Three and Five up and running. I want them on their Skyrangers in ten. We’ll advise from there.”
“Aye,” Applejack waved from the other side of the CiC, and began conversing actively with the technicians beside her.
Twilight blinked. “You sure about this? Detonating that over the crash site...”
“They’ll be out of range, and we’ll have a team come over to purify the taint.” Blueblood frowned, and wrinkled his snout. “I don’t like this.”
“Using the Haunter?”
“No, I love that. It’s the ground mission. It’s going too... well.” He picked up the mic again. “All units, this is General Blueblood. Stay low and within tree cover. We have a recovery UFO moving in. Clear it quick, people.”
“Acknowledged, Azure High. Moving to the woods.”
All the same, Blueblood sighed. He had a hunch, and it was ominous. “Somepony get me another cup of coffee.”
“Sir, you still have your first cup.”
“Make that a full pot. Black, no sugar, no milk.” He huffed. “I’m going to need it strong.”
A recovery UFO had arrived, and so Strike Two had to make adjustments to the usual plan. They went within the trees, making use of the dense foliage as cover. The darkness of the woods was a problem, but with their night vision goggles seeing anything wasn’t as much of a risk.
“This is Six-Actual. Taking out the Outsider.”
Far behind the other three Strike Teams, Strike Six waited, three long barrelled sniper rifles poised at the Outsider. Going first, Sergeant Ivan held his breath, adjusted for wind speed and pulled the trigger. The rifle kicked him in the shoulder, and the heavy bullet passed right through the Outsider’s head. Its form shimmered and flickered, before collapsing back into a cracked crystal core.
Firebird heaved a sigh of relief. A single Outsider annihilated most of Strike One and crippled Black Moon. Damn Sectoid hit him in the wing at the last moment. “This is Two-Actual. We have confirmation that the Outsider is down, repeat, Outsider is down. Four, move in.”
“Four-Actual, moving in.” Strike Four was an oddity among the units. While all of them made use of concealment and basic stealth in their operations, Strike Four specialised in being the sneakiest things that ever lived. More at home in the dark than in the light, Four seemed the perfect unit for night ops. Though what would be more perfect was if they had remote gun drones. Wouldn’t need to worry about losses on a breach, in that case.
Nevertheless, nowhere was this more apparent than when they flowed through the darkness like water through a river, completely soundlessly and with no indication that they moved. At least, to the untrained eye. Firebird saw them clearly.
The Strike Teams had been given the usual lecture on the viability of not using explosives on the aliens by the research team, and the Captain had promptly told them to ignore absolutely everything unless you were that certain in your shot. Strike Four, however, had taken it to heart, and took out the four remaining sectoids mulling about in confusion with coordinated bursts of rifle fire. “Strike Four, sectoids neutralised. Site clear, One-Actual, repeat, site clear.”
“Negative, Strike Four,” was the reply, “We have one more signature inside the UFO itself. Hold position, we’re headed your way.”
Firebird cursed. What was it, another sectoid cowering within the wreck? “One-Actual, permission to breach.”
“Negative, Strike One breaches. Provide support.”
“Then permission to move from the trees into the sky. We don’t have a good angle from here.”
“...Very well. Move, but quickly. I just got word from Azure High. The recovery UFO goes down soon and all units are to aid Strike Three and Five in securing that as well.” At that, the Lieutenant frowned. All six Strike Teams deployed? That seemed a bit excessive, not to mention that if another UFO arrived while they were recuperating, there would be nopony able to intercept. The best they could hope for was utterly destroying the UFO, and that was a hard thing to do.
A loud wham echoed from the east, and the trees bent the opposite direction as the shadows of an arcano-nuclear strike fell over all present. Was that a Night Haunter? Bah, nevermind. “Strike Two, move out. Strike One, please hurry.”
“Strike One, in position. Guns loaded and ready to rock.”
“Strike One, Two is in position. Brea--”
The screen popped and an Outsider ran out at breakneck speed, sliding into the woodland cover just as it fired off a burst at Strike Two. They went wide, dodging as quick as they could.
The bolts connected.
One form exploded outright as a bolt cored him through the chest, and the griffon crashed to the ground lifeless and glassy-eyed. Two next to him screamed and crashed as well, both from the intense radiant heat and the bolts that cut through their wings, vaporising bits of wing in a puff of smoke and igniting the rest. Lieutenant Firebird twisted to the side like a top, bolt passing right past her, and she made the folly of taking a breath at the same moment.
The air burned within her lungs just as it burned her chest and neck and legs, threatening to cook her like a turkey over an open flame. She could scarcely scream as her wings locked up from shock and she crashed onto her legs improperly, breaking one knee as she coughed and hacked weakly, trying to force the burning air out of her lungs. The damage had been done, and her breaths grew shallower and shallower. It was like somepony lit a firecracker and stuck it down her throat, and then set her on fire for good measure.
“Strike Two got shot! Strike Two go shot!”
“Grenades, grenades! Throw your grenades!” The woods exploded, and a trio of trees were torn apart as six grenades found their mark, ripping the Outsider apart in a show of excessive ordnance.
“Azure High, this is Strike One-Actual! Strike Two is--”
All sound fused together into a single infuriating droning ring, and Firebird wheezed painfully. Every breath felt like being burned by plasma again, and she swore she smelled cooked meat. That was revolting in the best of times, and now it was piss-pants terrifying.
...Yep, it definitely was. She has lost bowel control. This literally could not get worse. She felt the rims of her vision narrow with every passing moment, and the monochrome colours of the night vision goggles were starting to melt together into some strange haze of gray.
Before she knew it, she was looking at the back of her eyelids. No, dammit, stay awake! Force them open! You can’t... You can’t die like this! Not like... Not... Not like...
And Firebird was gone.
F-04 ‘Thundercloud’ Interceptor
The F-04 ‘Thundercloud’ is a single-seat, twin-engine supersonic supermaneuverable fighter aircraft. Designed primarily as an air superiority fighter, it also has other capabilities including providing close air support as well as signals intelligence. The Thundercloud was designed by the brightest minds of Equestria and Aerie Peak five years ago (1001 PDE), and to this date has remained the finest fighter craft in the world yet designed.
The Thundercloud is notable in that, instead of relying on analogue controls like its predecessor the F--03 ‘Stormbolt’, the Thundercloud is operated instead by the Mind-Machine Interface Uplink devised by Dr. Firefly, more commonly known as the Neural Harness. Pilots wear a specialised flight suit which links up to the craft’s systems, allowing pilots to essentially ‘become’ the plane for the duration of the uplink. While using a Neural Harness, pilots tend to be laying down, a position that helps in ‘tricking’ the mind that the pilot is, in fact, naturally flying and not moving at supersonic speed.
Though the Neural Harness, it becomes possible for flight experts of the pegasi or griffon races to rely and use the instincts they have developed on the ground as a pilot, effectively shortening pilot training for most as well as heightening the potential capabilities a pilot can achieve, assuming an adjustment period with the newfound capabilities of a supersonic fighter jet was passed. Certain key functions, such as communications and weapons remain hoof controlled, and as such the forelegs of the pilot remain free to move about during flight, though they may be curled up and secured if so wished. With the responsiveness and control granted by the Neural Harness, a single Thundercloud flown by a decent pilot is often the match of an entire squadron of Stormbolt fighter craft.
The Thundercloud is a remarkably durable plane, designed to remain flyable even after an entire wing and half of another wing have been destroyed. Advanced thaumaturgical composites and alloys built into the hull allow for a stronger, yet lighter airframe that becomes both faster and more agile in the sky. A single Thundercloud is also capable of carrying up to twelve missiles, six of them internally, or a full payload of eight bombs, four internally. Advanced avionic systems aid a pilot during flight, making the many minor corrections a pilot would be doing during natural flight subconsciously, and providing sensor data to the pilot through the neural link. Such an intimate connection with the plane, combined with the design and structure of the craft, makes the Thundercloud ideal for XCOM’s operations.