In the last episode of Jarenth Plays XCOM 2, I discovered that the world has changed a lot during my twenty-year involuntary nap. The aliens are in power now, ruling through ‘kindness’ and ‘gifts of advanced technology’ — and the occasional bit of brutal military suppression. Led by Steve Bradford, the remnants of XCOM have been fighting them at every turn… as well as they managed to, anyway. But with me rescued from alien clutches and back in the command saddle, things are finally looking up for the beleaguered Resistance. In fact, the results of my first active command are returning to base as we speak…
The landing bay is really crowded. I’m not entirely sure, of course, but it looks like almost the whole base turned out this. To welcome home the victorious soldiers. As Steve tells it, Future — sorry, I mean present XCOM’s missions don’t usually go this… relatively well. Sure, two of our four soldiers are crawling back, rather than walking; they’ll be medbay fixtures for a few days, at least. But it’s a marked improvement over the days where the Skyranger was mostly a delivery service for body bags.
Speaking of the Skyranger: it’s landed just now, and our four soldiers are walking out — some more so than others — under rapturous applause. Steve and I figured this would happen on beforehand, but it’s alright. These people deserve a little morale boost.
The applause dies down after a few minutes. We don’t have much time for celebration; no rest for the weary, and all that. Most people return to their temporarily abandoned posts. A few men in armor jackets and a woman in a green vest push the retrieved power converter to somewhere deeper in the base, as Steve takes me to meet the troops.
“Okay, first up,” Steve says, “you already identified Ranger Seabird on the field earlier. Might as well teach you about the different soldier classes we use in XCOM nowadays, now that we have the chance. The Ranger is basically a variation on the old Assault class theme, meaning they get up close and they go in hard. I know you’re skeptical about the whole sword thing; trust me, everybody is at first. But I’m sure you’ll see what kind of good a strong melee weapon can do on the field.”
“Speaking of variations on a theme,” Steve says, as we walk to the next soldier, “Squaddie Viel here is a Grenadier, an adaptation of the old Heavy. His specialty is wholesale destruction. Grenadiers still carry miniguns, but we decided to swap the rocket launcher for a grenade launcher. Not much place for a bulky boomtube on our battlefields these days. But grenade launchers take the same kinds of grenades that normal troops can throw, they fire them farther, and they can be fired on the go. Combine that with some heavy armor, and you got yourself a real battlefield tank.”
“Our Sharpshooter here, Squaddie Frederick, is… basically a Sniper. To be honest, I can’t quite remember why we gave ’em a different name. They’re accurate, they shoot from a distance, and they can be pretty deadly with their pistol sidearms. You probably remember how that goes, yeah?”
“And finally, the last soldier for you to meet-”
“Hold up,” I interrupt Steve’s spiel. “The last soldier? Do we only have four troops? Because I’m pretty sure I saw a bunch of people doing assault rifle drills earlier.”
“No, you’re right,” Steve says, “we do have more soldiers. It’s just that…” He looks a little uncomfortable. “Well, you have to understand that turnover is pretty high for us, particularly in the lower ranks. And you know how bad it hurts to lose someone you care about. That’s why… we have this sort of standing policy, that new rookies in XCOM don’t really have a ‘name’ at first. Not until they’ve survived at least one combat outing. You know, show us that they got what it takes to survive. Then we can all start being friends.”
“Anyway,” Steve continues, “the last soldier for you to meet today is Specialist Tegler. The Specialist class is more or less based on the principles of the old Support class, but it’s probably the biggest departure of what you’re used to.”
“How’s tha- whoa!” I saw, as a flying trapezoid the size of a cat whizzes past my head.
Steve chuckles. “Yes, exactly. This GREMLIN drone is the Specialist’s trademark. They can be outfitted for either field medic duty or active combat, and they also serve as remote hacking tools.”
I whistle in appreciation. “Impressive.”
“Yeah, they really are. They’re probably some of Shen’s finest work to date. I swear we’d be nowhere without-”
“Shen?” My face lights up. “Why didn’t you tell me the old man is also here? Oh, man, I’m gonna go say hello!”
“Commander, wait!” Steve shouts, but I’m already out the door.
The modest engineering bat is much less of a mess than I’d have expected. A few computer screens, a robotic arm, a table full of doodads, and what I think is a fancy 3D printer. It’s so very much… not on fire.
The green-vested woman from earlier is in the workshop, apparently tinkering with one of those GREMLIN drones. “C’mon, Rover…” I hear her mutter. Then it suddenly springs to life, whirrs around the room, and gets all up in my face so quickly I can’t help but stumble back.
The woman laughs. “Ah, Commander! Sorry about that. Getting our tech to talk to theirs than you’d think.” She approaches me and extends a hand. “Lily Shen, Chief Engineer, at your service.”
Seeing my poorly-hidden disappointment, her face drops in tune with me. “Ah, yeah. You were probably expecting to see my father. In all that’s happened, I’m guessing Central didn’t tell you… he’s gone.”
“I…” I don’t really know what to say. “I’m sorry to hear that. He was one hell of a man.”
Lily nods. “My father gave everything he had to get us this far. Our weapons, our armor, our tech… this entire ship is his life’s work. And I know he’d have loved to show you around the place yourself, but…”
She then perks up. “But hey! I’m here to finish what he started. And it might not look like much, right now, but I promise you you’ll be amazed by what I can do and what I can make.”
“No, no,” I shake my head, “you don’t need to impress me. Sorry, I didn’t mean to… I was hoping to see an old friend, sure. But if Steve brought you in, as Chief Engineer, then I’m sure you’re the right woman for the job.”
Lily smiles. “I won’t let you down, Commander.”
“Alright, great,” I saw. “That’s a good start! I’ll let you get back to work for now, but I know where to find you if…”
Suddenly, some thoughts I hadn’t noticed were niggling click into place in my mind. “Wait, hold on. Did you just say this ‘ship’ is your dad’s life’s work?”
Lily’s face draws an enigmatic smile. “Oh, man. You didn’t know yet? Well, what is basically is i-”
She’s interrupted by the intercom loudly crackling to life. “COMMANDER JARENTH, PLEASE REPORT TO THE COMMAND DECK. I REPEAT, COMMANDER JARENTH…”
Lily flashes me a sly look. “You know what? You should probably go do that. You’ll figure it out soon enough, I think.”
“Steve!” I’m getting the hang of moving through this base; it only took me several minutes to find the Command Deck this time. “Listen, I have a question for you. I was talking to Lily Shen earlier, and-”
“Ah, Commander!” Steve interrupts me. “Good that you’re here. We’ve got an interesting developing situation here. Despite ADVENT’s lies, there are still more people like us, people who fight back. They’re scattered in groups all across the world. And it’s time we let them know they’re not alone.”
“Alright,” I say. “Sounds like you have a plan in mind already?”
Steve nods. “We’ve received word from a resistance group in Mexico. They’ve found an Alien Relay outpost, lightly guarded, but transmitting god knows what to ADVENT central. If we can destroy it in time, we deny the aliens vital intel and show the North American resistance cells that we’re playing for keeps.”
“Alright, I’m liking the sound of this. Do we send the Skyranger out there, then?”
“Actually, sir,” one of the bridge technicians interjects, “given our current location, there’s no way the Skyranger could reach that position.”
“What? Where are we, then? And what happened to the Skyranger? The Skyranger I remember could go across the world and back, no problem.”
“We’re currently in South India,” Steve replies. “And the Skyranger you’re thinking of could resupply everywhere, remember? Global government assistance and all that. We don’t really have that kind of luxury anymore.”
Then a mischievous glint sneaks into his eyes.
“Shen, status report,” Steve barks into his earpiece, as I stand around all confused-like. “Are we ready?”
“Short answer?” Lily’s voice crackles over the intercom. “”Yes”. But you might all want to hold onto something.”
And then, before I can even formulate a good ‘what the hell is going on’, the ground starts shaking. Softly at first, but getting more intense by the second. A high-pitched whining sound spools up in the distance — below us? And then, the ground shifts up with a sickening lurch…
“We’re on a spaceship?!” I nearly have to shout over the dim of the engines. I’m the only one surprised by this, apparently. Everyone else is more elated: another round of applause fills the bridge, and I can hear Lily hooting over the intercom. Even Steve is full-on laughing.
Finally, he turns to me. “Yes! Yes, we’re on a spaceship. An old alien ship, to be exact. One of their old troop landers. We found it abandoned in India a few years ago, and repurposed it into a base of operations. A stationary one, until now — that power converter we brought back was the final piece of the puzzle!”
“You just ‘found’ an alien spaceship? In a ditch?”
Steve shrugs. “Could be any number of reasons. We used a lot of EMP during the war, remember? Could be this was an early landing that we repelled, and the ship was just forgotten about. Or maybe the aliens just parked it there after the war themselves. Why would they still need troop landers after they’d won?”
“Anyway…” Steve gestures around a little. “We put a lot of work into getting this tub working again, and safe for human habitation. And stealthy. We’re off the radar.” He grins. “We christened it the ‘Avenger’. Not bad, huh?”
I find myself grinning too; the enthusiasm here is infectious. “Yeah. Yeah, I can see this work. How long is it gonna take us to get to Mexico?”
“A few hours at most.”
“Wow. Not bad!”
“Yeah.” Steve turns towards a console. “Why don’t you go check in with doctor Tygan while we fly? I think he’s just about done checking out that chip we pulled out of you.”
“Aw. No in-flight movie?”
Another grin. “Maybe next time.”
“So what you’re telling me…”
I adjust my seating. Richard’s lab-stools aren’t particularly comfortable. And the flying isn’t doing me any favours either. I was never a big flyer, tell you the truth. Not even the Avenger’s alien stabilizers can suppress that part of me that would rather just be on the ground.”
“So what you’re telling me is, this chip let the aliens… talk to my brain?”
“Basically correct, Commander,” Richard replies. “Essentially, the chip combines a cybernetic neural interface with a psionic data uplink. Its primary function was that of a conduit, allowing the aliens to pass vast amounts of data into, through, and out of your cerebral cortex.”
He looks at the magnetically suspended chip almost reverently. “So much of my own research based on this simple design. If only I had known.”
“Well,” Richard continues, “while most of the data on the chip was lost when we disconnected it, several fragments remain. They believe they will help clear things up for you.”
He turns on a nearby monitor, taps in some commands, and the display flashes to life…
“What I believe, Commander — and keep in mind this is just hypothesis, but I think it matches observations well — is that the alien were using you as a source of tactical decision making. Much like we do here, except less voluntarily so. Think about it: from their perspective, you might very well be the most tactically acute mind on the planet. It was you who drafted the soldiers, and chose the missions, and executed the battlefield tactics, that all led to their initial defeat. And while ‘simply’ killing you would have deprived XCOM of this knowledge, capturing you — and employing you in this way — would actually shift the force multiplier that you represent to their side. I no longer believe that it is a coincidence that the aliens got as much more effective in warfare as they did, after you were… taken.”
I don’t really have anything to add to this, so after a few seconds of silence, Richard continues. “Disconcerting as this probably is for you, however, there is still some ‘good news’. This chip bears a striking resemblance to a similar type of ADVENT implant I briefly helped develop during my time there. I was given to understand then that these chips would be distributed to active ADVENT Field Officers. Retrieving and analyzing such a chip would surely provide us with more insight. And since an ADVENT Officer corpse was among the spoils our troops brought home from last mission…”
I raise my hand quickly. “Doctor, gonna have to interrupt you there.”
“While I’m just as interested in finding out the truth of all this, I’m gonna have to veto this project right now. We need to get more practical. XCOM is under-armed and under-equipped, and we’re gonna keep getting our asses kicked if we don’t fix that.”
“Now…” I get up. “I’ve had a chance to read some of your other study proposals before I get here. You said a study of ADVENT’s modular weapons might help us understand how to make our own ones better? And the hybrid materials we recovered from ADVENT Troopers look like a good starting point for better armor. I’d like you to tackle those projects, in that order. And then we can resume looking for the future. Can you do that?”
Richard, to his credit, doesn’t even skip a beat. “Certainly, Commander. I do find that area of research among the more intriguing options available. I’ll begin work immediately.”
I leave for the bridge as he starts sketching out schematics.
“Ah, Commander!” Steve says as I enter. “Excellent timing. We’re in range of the Mexico site. Skyranger is prepped and ready to deploy. I’ve pre-selected some troops for this mission, but obviously everything is pending your final approval.”
The troops load into the Skyranger, which takes off almost immediately. I watch them on a console as they fly out of the Avenger’s hanger deck. Destination: Tijuana outskirts. Estimated time of arrival: a little under an hour.
The Skyranger’s new VTOL engines roar to life on the descent. Like Steve said, it doesn’t actually touch down. Rather, the troops quickly descend from grappling ropes. The Skyranger itself flies some distance from the combat area after that, waiting out of sight and radar range until the all-clear is given and it can pick up the surviving troops.
The troops convene right outside a ruined Tijuana suburb. The Alien Relay has been set up inside one of these buildings. Our objective: to blast it into little Alien Relay chunks before it finishes transmitting.
“I have good news and bad news, Commander,” Steve says. “Bad news is, in the time it took for the local cell to find this thing and for us to get here, it’s almost finished linking to the alien network. We have only a handful of minutes before it completes its transmission, and that would mean a failure for us. Good news is, security is supposed to be light. And radio chatter indicates we weren’t spotted. We have the element of surprise.”
“Alright,” I say. “So how does this work again? We’re concealed now, but we’ll be revealed if…”
“If we get spotted,” Steve finishes my questioning thought, “or if we open fire. We’ll probably have to, at some point, if we want to destroy that Relay. But pick your moment of engagement carefully.”
I take that advice to heart. I take that advice to heart strongly. I take it to heart so strongly, in fact, that the first few turn-minutes of the ‘battle’ are spent carefully moving everyone in position. Squaddie Viel and one of the rookies make their way around the nearest ruined house and onto the street crossing, while Squaddie Frederick and the other rookie take up position inside that same ruined house.
Security is light, sure. But I’m still not super sure about relative power levels. Near my starting house, an ADVENT Officer and one Trooper patrol the roofs and the streets of the ruins. Across the street, another Trooper and one of those overgrown Sectoids guard the Relay. And an immense scanning system, set up in the middle, dashes any remaining hopes of us getting to the Relay unnoticed.
It’s like the world’s deadliest puzzle. What do I engage first? I have no doubt that they’ll all come for me, once I fire the first shot. Do I take out the Officer? Or the Trooper? Or…
“Commander!” Steve’s voice knocks me out of planning reverie. “Only four minutes remaining! I appreciate your caution, but we’re running out of time here.”
“Alright, yeah. Sorry.” No time like the present, then. “Viel, rookies, fall into overwatch. Frederick! Open up on that Sectoid.”
The bridge’s alien radio chatter tap goes haywire in an instant. Oh, yeah, they definitely know we’re here now.
The aliens react immediately. The nearby Officer and troop rush into Squaddie Frederick’s building, trying to pin him down, while the Sectoid and the other Trooper rush for better cover…
The distant Sectoid falls immediately, and the ADVENT Trooper follows suit pretty quickly after. The nearby Officer and Trooper are a little more of a pain to deal with, though. I realize in time that the positions I had chosen would leave my rookie wide open for return fire, which is good… but the time I spend consolidating my position is time not spent dealing with the relay.
Worse, I have to draw back Squaddie Viel to prevent Squaddie Frederick’s position from getting overwhelmed. And worse yet, he then misses a point-blank shot on an ADVENT officer, leaving him wide open for a flanking retaliation.
But through some clever rookie flanking…
…all immediate danger to my troops is quickly taken care of. Which only leaves…
“Commander!” Steve almost yells. “We only have two more minutes to deal with the Relay!” Oh shit! I plum forgot about that thing. And everyone except the second rookie is all clustered up on the other side of the street!
I run rookie-the-second up to the Relay, double-time. Surely all it takes to smash one of those alien computers is a few bullets to the…”
I turn to Steve. “That thing looks tough. Too tough. I don’t think one rifle salvo can take out in time.”
“Commander, it’s on the cusp of finishing! We fail to destroy it now, this whole mission was for nothing! Do you have any ideas?”
Do I, though? Rookie one is way too far to get here on time. Rookie two isn’t strong enough to destroy it alone. Squaddie Frederick doesn’t have a line of sight to the relay. Which only leaves…
A grin creeps across my face. “Maybe one. What did you say Squaddie Viel’s specialty was again?”
The frag grenade sails through the air in a lazy arc, neatly passes through the open window, and rolls to a stop almost next to the Relay. Beep, beep, beep. And then BOOM.
The Relay is still standing when the smoke clears, but it’s clearly damaged. A single rifle volley from rookie the second causes it to crumble into a heap. Estimated time before transmission completion: seconds.
Steve wipes the sweat off his forehead. “Whew! Cutting it close, Commander! But great work. Now just clear up any remaining local hostiles, and we can have the Skyranger fly in for pickup.”
‘Any remaining local hostiles’ turns out to be one more Sectoid, and one more ADVENT trooper. The latter goes down almost immediately after contact, courtesy of Squaddie Frederick’s deadly aim. And after I move everyone in position to take shots at the Sectoid, the successful end of this mission looks to be only moments away.
Then the Sectoid does a thing.
“Fuck!” I almost-yell. “They can do that? I mean, they can still do that? I mean…”
“Remember, Commander,” Steve says, “these aren’t the Sectoids you were used to anymore. They’re stronger on all fronts: physical, and mental.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Alright, we can deal with this. Kill the Sectoid, break the control, right? Frederick…”
“Rifle’s dry, Commander!” the radio crackles.
“Alright then, reload. Viel. Do your thing.”
Squaddie Viel takes aim with his minigun. He fires… and misses.
I sigh. “Rookie! Get to high ground and take that thing out.”
Rookie the first climbs a nearby roof and pegs the Sectoid with a volley. It hits!… But not hard enough. It’s still standing.
Mind-controlled rookie the second takes potshots at Frederick, while the Sectoid runs for cover and… oh, goddamnit, it’s animating one of those psi-zombies. That’s not fair! It can mind-control the living and the dead?
“All units,” I bark, “ignore the zombie and the rookie. Take that Sectoid out, ASAP!”
Frederick aims and fires. Miss!
Rookie the first takes another shot from her rooftop position. Miss.
Viel… is out of ammo. Goddamn ammo, what have you ever done for me? I have him get into what I think is a better position… only to realize too late that I still wasn’t thinking of the mind-controlled rookie as the threat he actually is.
Luckily, the mind-control snaps quickly after that. I hear the rookie’s Australian accent over the radio. “I’m back, Commander, I’m back! I’m… I’m alright.”
“Good! Welcome back. How about you get back out there and show that Sectoid what happens when you mess with XCOM?”
Rookie 2 runs out, takes cover, and fires at the Sectoid. Miss.
Rookie 1 takes aim from the roof and fires. Miss.
Viel runs away from the encroaching psi-zombie, and spins up his minigun for a barrage. Miss.
Frederick pops out from cover to level his sniper rifle at the Sectoid’s center mass. Miss.
The Sectoid runs for better cover, and uses more of its psionic fuckery to reduce rookie 2 to a state of blubbering panic. At least it’s not mind-control, but… Then it fires a beam of concentrated plasma at rookie 1, scorching her badly. Because of course it can hit just fine
I’m entirely sick and tired of this now. Another miss from Squaddie Frederick, our ostensible Sharpshooter, almost drives me into actual real-life rage. But a team effort between Squaddie Viel and rookie 1 finally gets puts an end to this miserable miss-parade.
“No more immediate contacts visible, Commander,” Steve says, a tinge of relief audible in his voice. “Sending the Skyranger in to bring our troops home.”
“Good.” I toss my headset down unceremoniously. “Lemme know when they’re set to get back, alright? I’ll be at the bar. I need a drink right now. Or five.”
When our soldiers finally get back to base, it’s time for one of the best parts of this job: doling out some well-earned promotions. Both rookies survived their first combat outing with flying colours, meaning they both get to have a class — and a name.
Our Australian mind-controlled wonder, ‘rookie 2’ introduces himself as Squaddie Ran Neko. His chosen class is Sharpshooter, following in Squaddie Frederick’s footsteps. I can’t blame him: if my first close encounter with an alien turned into a mind-control nightmare, I’d opt for the ‘be as far away from everyone as you can’ combat discipline as well.
‘Rookie 1’, on the other hand, opts for the much more up-close-and-personal style of the Ranger. I’m guessing Viel’s close-range combat tactics have given Rita Wulf a certain appreciation of the power of getting up-close and personal with her enemies.
Steve catches me as I re-enter the bridge. “Excellent job out there, Commander. We’re already getting reports that our strike had the intended effect. More and more resistance cells are carefully seeking contact with us. We’ve already had one trained Engineer directly apply to join us.”
“Oh, really? Lily’ll probably like that.”
Steve nods. “I’ve already sent the new recruit to report to Engineering. With her help, I think Shen can finally make some headway into cleaning up the center of this ship. There’s a lot of room there in theory for us to build new facilities in, but they’re packed with alien junk and potential hazards.”
“So,” I finally say. “Where do we go from here?”
“I have a few ideas about that, Commander. First and foremost, we should…”
Steve stops talking. An old, dusty-looking console has suddenly sprung to life.
“Huh. That’s odd…” As we both watch, the monitor displays an encryption pattern being broken, and a familiar-feeling symbol. “We brought that console over from the old XCOM HQ. But I don’t think it’s been used since…”
The image on the console changes.
“Hello, Commander,” a warbled voice springs forth from the speakers.
I grin in spite of myself. “Well, well. I never thought I’d say this to you, of all people, but… it’s nice to finally see a familiar face again. You don’t look much different from twenty years ago.”
I hear the councilman chuckle. “The same could be said of you, Commander.”
“So. To what do I owe the visit?”
“Much-needed cooperation,” the councilman replies. “As I’m sure you know by now, the old Council of Nations is no more. One by one, our erstwhile members have sworn fealty to the ADVENT administration. All of them… with one exception. In the days since ADVENT’s takeover, I have done all I can to aid the resistance from the inside. The various resistance cells are disorganized, but powerful in their own right; it was intel gained from local resistance groups that led to your recent… extraction.”
I look at Steve. He nods.
The councilman continues. “However, the disorganized nature of the resistance makes it nigh-impossible for us to pose any real threat to ADVENT and their alien masters. If this is to change, someone needs to bring them together. You need to bring them together. Before it is too late.”
“Too late? Too late for what?”
The screen changes. Text files and reports start flashing into view. Alien reports, ID cards, DNA sequences…
“What you are seeing,” the councilman says, “are classified reports of missing civilians from across the world. Their numbers are growing. We suspect they have been taken to an ADVENT ‘blacksite’, located somewhere in the eastern United States… though its exact location remains unknown.”
“The alien are abducting people?” I ask. “Why?”
“That,” the councilman replies, “is what you need to find out. We need to you take charge of resistance operations throughout the world. Establish contact with local cells, and bring them into our fold. Find the location of the black site, investigate it, and shut it down. Save our world, Commander. The clock is ticking.”
And with that, the screen flickers out. I look at Steve for guidance, but he just shrugs.
“No pressure, though.”