In the last episode of Jarenth Plays XCOM 2, I met a bunch of people and I shot a bunch of people. Not necessarily the same people, though there was some overlap. I also learned that XCOM isn’t the only force resisting the aliens: small resistance groups are scattered across the world, each fighting the good fight in their own ways. The Last Remaining Good Councilman told me in no uncertain terms that it’s up to me to forge these disparate groups into a powerful, unified resistance; fail, and the fate of humanity itself might well hang in the balance…
“Alright then!” I sit down in my captain’s chair, which I now understand to be an actual captain’s chair, and swivel towards Steve. “Finding the ADVENT blacksite. How do we go about doing that? Remember, you’ve been handling this resistance thing for decades now, while I’ve been on this ship for all of… eight days, I think. Got any suggestions for what we should do next?”
“Actually, Commander…” Steve grins, and lets the rest of the sentence trail off as he walks to his own bridge console.
A few button taps bring up a schematic map of our surroundings.
“We’re currently on the ground in a sizable resistance camp in the outskirts of Mexico”, Steve explains. “These are the people that tipped us off about the Alien Relay. They’re the single largest resistance cell we had prior contact with. So for all intents and purposes, this place is our ‘Resistance HQ’. We can rest and refuel here when we don’t have anything better to do. Connecting the Avenger’s systems to the radio towers here will also let us scan for valuable intel on the aliens’ plans.”
“Okay,” I nod. “And beyond that?”
“Beyond that…” Steve sounds a little hesitant. “Well, you have to understand, Commander. It’s really hard for resistance cells like ours to actually get in touch. The aliens are scanning on almost every frequency. If we just sent out a message of ‘hey, we’re fighting the good fight, come meet us here’ we’d be swamped in ADVENT interceptors inside the hour.”
“So we can’t just text people, I gotcha. What can we do?”
“Well… honestly, most of what we do now is low-tech message sending and blind luck,” Steve admits. “We don’t really have a good system yet. But…” He quickly flicks a few intercom switches. “…unless I’m mistaken, Tygan’s been looking into a way to solve that problem for us. Isn’t that right, doc?”
“Absolutely so, Central,” Richard’s voice replies from the desk speakers. “I’ve been working on a way to piggyback our own radio signals onto the aliens’ lesser-used frequencies. That should allow us to contact other resistance cells both safely and discreetly. It will take me some time to work out all the kinks, however. Commander, it’s up to you if and when I get started on this.”
“Thank you, Richard,” I reply, “I’ll work this into our planning. How about those other projects I asked you about?”
“Ah, yes! I actually just completed my analysis of ADVENT’s magnetic weaponry has given me a number of ideas for improving our own. We can’t actually salvage ADVENT weapons from the field, since they self-destruct on their assigned user’s death. But occasionally, some weapon components may survive the destruction process. I’ve already talked to Chief Engineer Shen, and she and I are confident that we can integrate a modular upgrade structure into our own ballistic weaponry.”
“Wait,” I say. “So what you’re saying is… we can just attach whatever ADVENT weapon parts we find to our own guns?”
“With a little spit and duct tape, yes.”
“Great work, Richard. And the materials?”
“Still working on that right now, Commander. But preliminary results are already positive. I’m certain we’ll be able to develop at least some rudimentary better armor for our troops on quite short notice.”
“Excellent. Keep on that, then. And let me know when you finish that ADVENT Officer autopsy.”
I close the comm and turn to Steve again. “Alright then. This sounds good to begin with. But I’m also really hoping there’s more we can do than just sit here for a week.”
“There is something, Commander,” Steve replies, and I sigh a sigh of relief. “Communication difficulties notwithstanding, we do still get the occasional bits of news from resistance cells. In fact, we just received word of a stash of vital supplies hidden on the Canadian border. We could fly the Avenger there, and spend a few days scrounging everything together.”
“Scrounging? You mean, like, scavenging stuff? You make that sound almost… non-violent.”
Steve nods. “Unless the reports were wrong, the aliens shouldn’t have any reason to be there. I don’t expect we’ll see any combat.”
“Well. Sounds like a fool-proof plan, then. Make it so.”
I’m staring over Avenger floor plans with Lily. It’s been five days since we arrived at the supply site, and true to Steve’s predictions, we haven’t had a single hostile encounters. Supplies are pouring in — slowly, but surely. And with the excavation of one the Avenger decks completed, Lily has suggested we turn that space into something more useful.
“What have you got for me, Chief Engineer?”
Lily smirks. “Take a look, Commander.”
“Most of our options right now are fairly basic,” Lily continues. “More laboratories’d let us study faster, if we had more scientists on board, and more workshops will let me and the other engineers build fancy GREMLIN drones. We can use those to keep the ship in optimal shape. We’ll also have to build some more power facilities later down the line; the power we draw from the main core in Tygan’s lab is good for now, but we’re not exactly drowning in excess here.”
“But…” She points to a few options on the list. “…I think you might like these two better. This first one is the Advanced Warfare Center, which is… like a cross between an extra-curricular class and a fancy medbay. It’ll let soldiers get a little more creative, and with the right staff, also gets them on their feet more quickly.”
“Interesting,” I mutter. “And the other one?”
“That’s the Guerrilla Tactics School,” Lily replies. “It’s a squad training center, lets our troops learn to work together more effectively, and in larger groups. Plus, as a bonus, we can also let rookies train there to advance to the class of their choice.”
“Ooh!” I perk up. “Squad size increases and directed rookie training? I like the sound of that. Let’s do that one.”
“Aye-aye, Commander,” Lily says. “It’ll take us about… two weeks, to get it up and running. But I can probably bring that down to one if you want to assign Tucker to it full-time.”
I’m up on the bridge in under a minute. “Steve, brief me. What’s happening?”
“Incoming Resistance intel, Commander,” Steve replies. “Looks like a ranking ADVENT scientist in Los Angeles is willing to defect to XCOM. And bring a boatload of fresh intel with her, too. But she needs us to come and break her out.”
“Break her out of what?”
“The city, Commander. There’s not a whole lot of freedom of travel for human ADVENT employees. She tries to leave Los Angeles on her own, the aliens’ll know something’s up. There’s no way to do this one quietly, I’m afraid: we get in there, we put her on the Skyranger, and we bug out before too many reinforcements show up.”
I nod. “Alright, I gotcha. Let’s rock and roll, then.”
The squad touches down on a laboratory roof. Hard. Steve wasn’t kidding about us going in hot; I’m pretty sure that landing was heard three blocks away.
“Commander,” Steve says, “drop-off went as planned, but the lab itself is too low and too close to ADVENT anti-air systems to allow for local pickup. You’ll need to get the squad and the VIP to nearby higher ground. Be advised, though, patrols were spotted.”
“At least we have the high ground for now,” I say. “Let’s stick to that as long as we can, and only get down to street level when we absolutely have to.”
“Good idea, Commander,” Steve says. “But do note we can’t take too long on this extraction. ADVENT interceptors are already inbound, they’ll reach our position within minutes. Everyone not onboard the Skyranger by then is getting left behind; we cannot afford to our only transport.”
I bite back an exasperated sigh – this time limit actually makes sense. “Alright then. Hustle, everybody! And let’s hope doctor Philips here kept up with her cardio.”
Initial movement goes well enough. The lab roofs are all blessedly free of ADVENT troops. Everyone reaches the building’s street edge in a respectable two, three minutes. We already know we won’t be alone for long, however.
And, sure enough, no sooner do we get a visual of the street level…
The initial confrontation honestly goes well enough. Two of the rookies deal minor damage to ADVENT forces, while a third keeps overwatch-guard near doctor Phillips. And Squaddie Frederick, true to his teaching role, shows everyone the proper form for pistol-downing an ADVENT Trooper from two stories up.
And, sure, the aliens do more of their weird psycho-crap in response. And one of the ADVENT troopers does score a good hit on Frederick, dropping his hit points down to one-third maximum.
But we easily give better than we get. The three rookies manage to clear out the street-level opposition almost entirely by themselves, giving Squaddie Frederick the time he needs to patch up his own plasma burns.
Before showing everyone else, once again, the proper pistol form.
Yup, everything is sure looking up for the XCOM extraction squad!
…right up until the point where we cross the street. And find another ADVENT response unit waiting on the ground floor of our target building.
Balls. They’re tough, they’re entrenched, and right outside from where they’re sitting is the drainpipe we need to get up. In fact, let me say that again in-character: “Balls.”
“Commander,” Steve says, “are you aware that our VIP is currently almost face-to-face with an angry Sectoid?”
Rookie overwatch fire almost kills this Sectoid flat-out too — but again, ‘almost’ isn’t quite what we need. Because — yup, it’s creating a zombie to flank us.
“Rookie one,” I bark into the microphone, “at least take out that damn Trooper!” And she does. That’s one problem down.
“Alright, doctor Phillips, now’s your opening! Climb up that drain pipe and get on board the Skyranger. The troops can take care of themselves! Your escape is paramount here. Hustle!”
“Central, this is Firebrand,” the familiar voice of the Skyranger’s pilot crackles from the radio. “Package secure. Six more clicks until I have to bug out, so you best tell those boys to get their butts up here.”
“Affirmative, Firebrand,” Steve replies. And then, to me: “You heard the lady.”
“Yeah, yeah. Let me just take down this one Sectoid first. I’d prefer not to get everyone shot in the back when they’re climbing.”
What follows next can only really be described as a ‘clusterfuck’. With Squaddie Frederick turned heel, the smoke cloud center is suddenly a bad place to be. Rookies one and two ‘solve’ this problem by charging forward into the Sectoid’s position, intent on taking it out from close range — and missing all their shots. On a three-hitpoint Sectoid. Gods my luck.
Rookie three has an even worse deal, though. He’s getting flanked by the Sectoid’s psi-zombie, and the only realistic way for him to flee is forward — putting him awfully close to the mind-controlled Frederick.
“Rookies three, bug out! Bug out!” I bark. “Get to the Skyranger!” And rookie three, to his credit, doesn’t hesitate for a moment…
…which is too bad, because I totally forgot to catch that the Sectoid dropped into overwatch.
“Goddamnit!” I slam my fists on the desk. One goddamn Sectoid!
What follows is a few more minutes of unnecessarily tense cat-and-mouse. Frederick grazes rookie two with his pistol before finally breaking the mind-control. And it’s rookie one who finally gets up-close-and-personal enough with the Sectoid to put it down for real.
In the end, the Skyranger returns with exactly as many people as it left off with. One too little.
Sensing my foul mood, Steve puts a hand on my shoulder. “You understand now why we don’t get personal too soon? Because this’ll happen again. No doubt about it.”
On the upside, the two surviving rookies receive their first promotions. Rookie ‘two’, now Squaddie Gottfried, has developed a new appreciation of the importance of battlefield medicine after seeing another rookie die of preventable injuries — and almost getting killed herself. And the Sectoid-hunting rookie ‘one’, now Squaddie Barr, joins Squaddie Viel in the combat school of ‘more bullets makes for better fighting’.
Meanwhile, newly-christened Corporal Frederick climbs further on the Sharpshooter tree. Given his sidearm proficiency, I decide to steer his development along Gunslinger lines.
And finally, lest we forget…
I’m really hoping the additional research speed gained from this outweighs the loss of one XCOM rookie. I mean, I’m almost certain that it does; ‘the loss of one rookie’ does not a high benchmark set. But still, I have to worry.
And speaking of research…
Doctor Tygan has called me and Steve to his laboratory. With even more time spend gathering supplies at the Canadian border, he’s had plenty of time by now to autopsy one of our dead ADVENT Officers. He’s very excited about the results, pacing to and fro with a manic sort of energy as he outlines his findings for us. Then again, I think he might always be like that.
“It’s a network, Commander.” Richard points at some monitors, displaying a stream of data I honestly cannot parse. “A massive, powerful, psionic information network. And the implants act as they key. With these, ADVENT Officers are always plugged in — constantly received vast quantities of information from higher-up. Directly into their brains.”
“What, like a psi-nternet?” I ask, but Richard cleverly demonstrates his intelligence by ignoring my dumb pun.
“Doctor,” Steve asks, “what kind of information are we talking about?”
“Ah! That’s the question, isn’t it?” Richard smiles enigmatically, then points at a nearby screen. “I have not been able to decipher everything at this stage, I must say. But one part that was particularly easy to identify was this…” Point. “…which is essentially identical to the Commander. Er, that is to say, it is identical to the tactical data that they were processing through your mind, Commander.”
“They were pumping me for tactics and feeding those to their soldiers.” It’s not a question. I can feel myself starting to get a little angry.
“It does look that way, Commander. But you’ll be happy to hear that this particular data is showing strong signs of decay. Removing you from their network has caused significant damage — though it is, essentially, still functional.”
“Can we use this?” Steve asks.
“Maybe,” Richard replies. “I have managed to gain some limited access to the network. Here, observe this…” He taps in a few commands on a nearby console. A monitor shows the network activating, a command spreading, and…
The dead ADVENT Officer on his table jerks around for a bit.
“Interesting,” Steve says. “But can we use this?”
“Potentially. But I’d need direct access to their network to know for sure. And for that, we would need an active link — not tinkering around with with a dead Officer’s decaying brain matter, but ‘hacking’ a living one.”
“Sure, why not,” I say. “Hacking a living thing. I love this version of the future, lemme tell you. I assume you already have a plan ready for this?”
“So…” I start counting on my fingers. “We need to make one of these Skulljacks. Which-”
“Which we’ll need a specialized facility for,” Richard interjects. “This is an idea Chief Engineer Shen and I have been working on for a while; I’m sure she can show you the blueprints.”
“Thank you, doctor. So we need a Skulljack… we’ll need a Proving Grounds, so we can make a Skulljack… we need to get into the ADVENT blacksite, which means we need to find the blacksite, which means we need to find some way of getting into radio contact… and we need to make sure we stay up to date on tech, supplies, equipment, volunteers, and intel.”
“Sounds about right, Commander.”
I hold up my two outstretched hands. “Lot of priorities for one man to juggle. You think we could look into recruiting me a secretary?”