In the last episode of Jarenth Plays XCOM 2, it became abudantly clear that the aliens aren’t going to stop with this Avatar Project. The opening of their second facility in West-Africa — exactly the direction I wasn’t expanding towards — signifies that they’re shifting their operations into high gear. A direct result of our meddling, maybe? Whatever the case, I’ve decided that we can’t really afford to let them work unopposed anymore. And while we still don’t know where the core Project is housed, and we can’t locate the second facility until we get in touch with the West-African resistance, the first facility — the ADVENT blacksite — has been in our reach for a while now…
On the Avenger’s bridge’s main monitor, the Skyranger’s outer cameras transmit a rapidly-moving forest, dimly lit by early sunrise. It’s certainly got an audience; the bridge is packed. Almost the entire crew came up to watch this mission live. Even Richard and Lily abandoned their busy work stations. There is a sense of expectation in the recycled air. This mission — win or lose, and regardless of what we find, it’s big.
A smaller picture-in-picture shows the Skyranger’s loading bay. Five armed and armored figures are sitting here; some jocular, some twitchy, some calm. Calmer than me, on the surface, though I take care not to show my nerves too much either.
A tap on my shoulder. “Commander?” It’s Richard. “Pardon my asking, but… while I recognize the four soldiers that have been with us since your retrieval, I must admit the fifth one seems unfamiliar.”
I nod. “You’re right, Corporal Twintails is new. I hired her at the Resistance HQ during our last stop. She’s a little twitchy, but she came highly recommended as an electronic warfare expert. And we don’t really have anyone that fits that spec yet. Wanted to keep all our bases covered for this run.”
“Hope she won’t crack under the pressure,” I hear Steve say.
“I hope I won’t crack under the pressure.”
Steve smiles. “Nervous, Commander? You don’t think this is gonna be a walk in the park?”
“Oh hell no.”
The Avenger makes landfall some half hour after dawn. Our approach has gone unnoticed, thankfully; the aliens were so certain of the secrecy of their base, they didn’t think to install any early-warning systems. Which is how our squad can afford to insert right on top of an outlying facility roof.
“No time limit on this one, Commander,” Steve says. “Even if we’re detected, it would take ADVENT fighters hours to get to this area. If they’re even alerted to begin with. We don’t know how far the secrecy on this base goes. I recommend we take our time.”
“I agree. Wouldn’t want to get blindsided by God-knows-what, either.”
The troops carefully creep around the roof of their impromptu landing zone. On the surface, this facility looks a lot like any of the other ADVENT facilities we’ve seen. Clean lines, grey paneling, black-and-red aesthetic. Lots of comm towers and future cars, which everyone else here insists on calling ‘regular present cars’. But I’ve no doubt that we’ll-”
“Commander,” Seabird hisses over the closed comm. “Spotted an ADVENT turret nearby. Orders?”
“Commander,” I hear Frederick cut in with his clear Boston drawl. “Got a clear shot on that thing. Viel and I can trash it no problem. Permission to engage?”
“Negative, Corporal,” I reply. “Engaging now means giving up our element of surprise for one lousy turret. These things are dumb; just don’t get too close and you’ll be fine. Continue searching the perimeter, and don’t engage unless I give the say-so.”
We continue our careful exploration of the facility. The outlying buildings are… eerily abandoned. It doesn’t seem like there’s a living soul around. Probably an artifact of our early arrival; whatever on-site personnel runs this place is probably still well asleep at this point. Assuming this place is staffed by a kind of alien that does sleep. I’m almost certain our five soldiers are the only humans in this whole place.
No, wait. I take that back. Because when Seabird and Viel advance forward, they quickly find…
“Bodies,” Steve answers Lily’s unfinished question. “The containers, the trains… this entire facility…. the aliens are still abducting people. From the looks of it, they may never have stopped after the invasion.”
“What?” I say. “That’s… that sounds ridiculous. Why would the aliens put up their big facade of peace, and then covertly keep collecting human… corpses? Are those dead bodies?”
“I don’t know, Commander…” Lily says. “Those containers look like they have self-contained power cells. It could be some kind of stasis system, like the one they kept you in. I mean they might be dead… but it’s possible at least some of those people might still be alive.”
“That’s a lot of ifs, Lily. Richard?”
Doctor Tygan shrugs. “I defer to my colleague’s expertise on these matters. We’d be able to tell you more if could actually obtain one of these containers for study, but…”
“But there’s no way in hell I’m letting you put the Skyranger on the ground there for longer than we need to,” Steve cuts in. “I know it looks like we’re good on stealth for now, but I really don’t want to gamble our only troop transport on a hidden alien super base. If we don’t find anything more interesting, we can consider it.”
I nod. “My thoughts too. Plus, it looks like we won’t stay undetected for all that much longer.”
While Corporal Tegler explores the inside of our starting building, I set up the rest of the squad in ambush. Seabird goes here, Twintails goes there, Viel up here…
Finally, Frederick’s shot pierces the silence of the early morning. And the ADVENT Officer’s chest armor. It doesn’t drop immediately… but when it and its two Stun Lancer cronies make for cover, they’re all cut down in an absolutely withering hail of reaction fire.
Is it weird that I’m getting inured to people applauding for murder? Because I’m actually sort of basking in it right now. Man, that felt good. Probably the cleanest Overwatch setup I ever pulled off in my life. And the best part: we didn’t get any unexpecte-
“Commander!” That’s Tegler on the radio, from the Norwegian accent. “Contacts outside the facility! A Viper and a Trooper, probably drawn by the noise.”
Ì sigh. “Alright, everyone. Not a big deal. Tegler, stay where you are, you’re covered alright. Viel, flank that snake, and-”
“Commander, doin’ that puts me in line-of-sight of the turret.”
I sigh again, and look at Lily. “Probably too much to hope these things have a limited vertical firing range?” She just shakes her head in reply.
“Alright then. Tegler, keep watch. Viel, take down that turret. Frederick, get in position. Twintails, support Viel. Seabird, take point. And whatever any of you do, don’t move out of the current engagement area too far! You never know when-”
“Contacts, Commander,” Seabird yells. “Sectoid, Trooper, Stun Lancer. And another turret on top of that facility!” I sigh again, deeply, a third and final time; a sigh of resignation, this one is.
What happens next is mostly easily summarized as ‘and then everything went to hell’. The Viper poisons Viel with its spit, causing him to panic. A berserk-panic, sure, in which he frantically unloads his cannon on the offending snake, but still a panic. The Sectoid throws a line of mental mumbo-jumbo at Twintails, causing her to panic. The Trooper injures Frederick, the turret blasts Seabird, and the Stun Lancer moves in to finish her off — but thankfully misses.
This is not the best of all possible worlds.
“Okay, alright,” I mutter. “We’re down to three, two seriously injured, against six, and they’ve got the position advantage. That’s bad, but it’s not technically hopeless. Let’s see, priorities, priorities…”
I grab the mic. “Seabird! Gonna need you to take the initiative here. You stick around that Stun Lancer, it’s gonna get a hit in sooner or later. Why don’t you show it just how much those electric swords hurt?”
The radio echoes the sound of footsteps, jumping, and then a crackling metallic swing — courtesy of Seabird’s new Arc Blade, hand-crafted by Lily only hours before takeoff. Then, the sound of a thud, and soon after, a familiar voice. “Taken care of, Commander.”
“Good.” I switch frequencies. “Tegler! Seabird and Frederick are in a bad way right now. I don’t know if you can reach either of them, but it’d sure be us-”
“Commander,” Tegler cuts me off, “if you need me to heal ’em, my GREMLIN can do that at a distance. Remember? I trained for that, you gave the authorization.”
“Can you get both of them, actually?” I ask hopefully.
“Frederick! How good were you with that pistol again?” Once again, my only reply is a loud *blam* sound.
Okay. We’ve regained some momentum. The aliens still aren’t giving up, of course: the Viper continues to hassle Tegler, the Sectoid raises a zombie, and the lone remaining Trooper runs from cover to cover as in slow-motion…
…before shooting Seabird and then slide-teleporting back to where it started.
But we’re back on even footing now. It’s no longer three against six, it’s five against five. The aliens drop unremarkably quickly after that. Frederick and Twintails take care of the close-by Trooper, Tegler and Viel blast the Viper and its distant Trooper friend to smithereens (though not before Tegler takes a hit in trade) and Seabird demonstrates to the Sectoid why you don’t mess with a Blademaster from up close.
And the second turret? It turns out that it’s so high up, and so sheltered, that it only has line of sight on a really select area around the battlefield. I have to order Seabird up a ladder to even get a good view of it. In the end, though, the turret becomes Twintails’ first kill: her more combat-oriented GREMLIN can deliver a 100%-guaranteed electric jolt hit on enemies, which hits significantly harder against robotic enemies.
And with that out of the way — and with some light healing from Twintails’ medkit — we’re finally ready to enter what is obviously the site’s main facility.
I don’t remember what we expected to find here. Or if we ‘expected’ to find anything, really. But whatever it is, it probably wasn’t…
“What the hell?…” I hear Steve mutter, as we start to get visuals from inside the facility. It’s just… tubes. Rows and rows of tubes, stacked two-high. Filled with green fluid, and unmistakingly human bodies. In various states of decomposition.
“So many victims,” doctor Tygan says almost reverently, as we watch the facility spring to life, “processed with such brutal efficiency. Test subjects for some sort of weapon, perhaps?” The tubes are lowered into a dark green liquid on the bottom, stack by stack, until none of them remain in sight. A brighter green liquid is then visibly pumped through several large pipes, each culminating in…
“Commander.” Steve turns towards me. “Much as it disgusts me, we should get our hands on that vial. It’s important to the Avatar Project, I can just feel it. And I don’t know if we can reliably bring anything else out of this place, so-”
“Commander!” Viel cuts in over comms. “More contacts! ADVENT patrol on our left flank. Two Troopers and one of those MECs.”
“Alright, soldiers,” I snap back into my role, “you heard Central. Take that patrol out and get that vial.”
Everyone falls in position. Frederick takes the high ground, Twintails and Tegler take up cover inside the facility, and Viel and Seabird swing around outside. Let’s see if this robot falls as instantaneously as the previous one.
The Troopers rush inside through side entrances. The MEC, however, does not. It walks up to Viel and Seabird, bends its knees, and…
Shell-shocked by the grenade impact, Viel panics. It’s one of his berserk-panics again, though: he runs into cover behind a nearby tree and then unloads an unerringly accurate barrage on the MEC. Which is.. what I’d have him do next turn, anyway. And this way he’s in cover again, and in less immediate danger. It’s honestly a pretty clever move. It’d be really super helpful if Seabird has a similar panic attack right about now.
But Seabird is carrying a Mind Shield.
You remember the Mind Shield? It’s an item you make from dead Sectoids. Pretty nifty thing, on paper: it protects the wearer from psionic attacks, and from all sorts of negative effects. Like panic.
Whether or not Seabird would have panicked without the Mind Shield, I’ll never know. Maybe she’d just have been too stubborn to flee. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that she doesn’t panic now, resolutely standing in the rubble of her once-safe cover. A nearby Trooper seizes the initiative and hits her with a devastating flanking shot. The force of the center-mass magnetic projectile impact throws Seabird back several feet, slamming her body into and over one of the holographic roadblock walls with a crack and a thud.
The only sound that penetrates the bridge’s hushed silence is me, slamming my fists down on my console desk.
“Okay. We can mourn when we’re dead. When they’re dead. Joshua, I need you to…”
The only sound that comes from Corporal Viel’s commlink is frenzied muttering. Oh yeah, he’s panicked.
“Trym,” I switch frequencies, “I need you to…”
More frenzied muttering, in Norwegian this time. Corporal Tegler is panicking too. Can you blame him? He was like, three feet away from Seabird.
“David,” I try my luck. “Tell me you’re still with me, pal.”
“Still here, Commander,” David’s slightly-shaken voice replies. “But I’m in no position to hit that robot. Can get the drop on that outside Trooper, though.”
“Do your thing,” I reply, and am rewarded with the most satisfying *blam* I’ve heard all day.
“Okay then.” I switch frequencies to the last soldier. “Volatar.”
“Y-yes, Commander?” Corporal Twintails has been a little twitchy throughout the mission, but she doesn’t sound any more out of it right now than usual.
“Don’t wanna put too much pressure on you, soldier, but either you live up to that reputation o’ yours, or there’s a good chance you’re all coming home in body bags. If at all. If you were ever thinking of impressing me, now’s the time.”
“Alright, I-I’ll try.” Twintails cuts the connection, and I watch on the viewscreen…
First, she sends the GREMLIN to do its electronic jolt thing on the MEC Trooper — it carries two charges. And not only does the MEC Trooper totally count as a robot, the GREMLIN attack completely bypasses its heavy armor.
The MEC Trooper keels over with a loud metallic clank. This distracts the inside Trooper opposite Twintails for a fraction of a second…
“Is that… that impressive enough for you, Commander?”
“Soldier, I will personally pin some kind of medal on your chest if you make it back,” I say. “I don’t know if we even have any medals, but so help me God I’ll make some.”
I wouldn’t say the situation returns to ‘calm’ after that. There’s something about the death of a teammate that leaves a lingering tension in the air; a reminder of mortality, if you want. But when Tegler and Viel finally calm down, my mood has improved enough that I can send them forward into the facility without my voice cracking.
Carefully, obviously. I don’t believe for a second we’re out of the metaphorical — and literal — woods yet.
But when the immediate area is declared free of danger, I carefully — carefully — allow myself to hope that we’re through the worst of it.
Twintails approaches the canister. Everyone is hushed, here and there; who knows what can happen if she grabs it? But Lily declares the readings safe, and there don’t seem to be any obvious traps nearby, so…
Nothing happens. Twintails grabs the vial, and nothing happens: no alarms go off, no explosions, no immediate death and danger.
I turn to Steve, see him wipe a sheen of sweat off his forehead. “Whew. I don’t know about you, but I’m about ready to call this mission over. Yeah? Let’s not push our luck too far.”
“Agreed,” Steve nods. “Let’s get those troops and that vial home before any-”
He clamps his own mouth shut, but the damage has already been done. “Commander! Incoming ADVENT reinforcements!”
“How is that even possible?” I ask out loud, to nobody in particular. “I thought we checked this place was off the radar.”
It’s Richard who answers, in that (currently) infuriatingly calm voice of his. “This must be a quick-response squad keyed to incorrect removal of the vial. Probably stationed nearby. Measures like these suggest that we did, indeed, capture an important prize. I don’t think we have to worry about larger-scale intervention, but all the same, it is probably wise to make haste here — an artifact like this should not be wasted.”
“Thanks for the empathy, doctor,” I say with a sneer that I don’t think he picks up on. “Alright, troops, you heard the man. Defensive positions for now, but evac as soon as you can!”
The following battle is… well, more annoying than anything. The response squad is ‘only’ two Stun Lancers and an Officer — a medium-level threat for a hale and healthy squad, but our current squad is nothing like healthy. They land near our extraction spot, which means they have the high ground, and those Stun Lancers can probably reach and kill anyone in a single combat turn, which means we can’t afford to not take it slow and steady.
Which means we’re still very much dealing with positioning and cleanup when the second reinforcement squad appears.
The second Stun Lancer-Stun Lancer-Officer combo almost kills Corporal Tegler. Almost. He’s already injured, and caught out of place by an electric sword. But…
And after the second patrol is taken care of…
“Is that it?” I ask carefully. “Are we done? Can we go now, or are they just gonna keep coming?”
“Radar shows… no incoming bogeys,” Steve replies. “But ADVENT chatter in the area has steadily been building since we grabbed that vial. Think doctor Tygan was probably right about that vial. So yeah, let’s get out of here as soon as we can.”
“Troops!” I bark into the microphone. “I don’t need to relay that order twice, do I?”
“Fascinating,” doctor Tygan whispers. He rolls the blacksite vial around in his hands, watching the glowing liquid inside slosh. “Simply… fascinating.”
“I’m glad you’re happy with this, Richard,” I say with a tired voice. “Can you tell me what it is?”
Richard lets out a short bark-laugh. “Hah! Commander, not only can I not tell you what this is, I cannot even tell you how I’m going to tell you what this is. This… whatever this vial is, it is so far beyond comprehension that I have no idea how to study it. We’d…” He pauses. “As a first step, we’d have to do a comprehensive study into the aliens’ encryption methods. I’m certain this vial is encrypted in some way. If not electronically or mechanically, then maybe biologically, or even psionically. I wouldn’t dare run any tests on his vial until we’re 100% sure what we’re even looking for.”
“Alright, Richard,” I nod. “I’ll let you know when to put that on your day planner. Now if you’ll excuse me…”
I find Steve in the Skyranger loading bay, talking to the soldiers. The promotions round this time around is comprehensive, but also brief. All four survivors are promoted to the rank of Sergeant. For Frederick, that means he unlocks Lightning Hands, an ability that lets him fire his pistol for free every now and again. Viel unlocks the Demolition ability, which plays to his strength — destroying objects and cover with wild abandon. Tegler’s drone is further specialized for medic duty with a Revival Protocol, which — contrary to expectations — means that it can now remove negative status effects, like panic, from allies. And Twintails’s drone, in contrast, gains the ability to hack mechanical enemies, temporarily turning them to XCOM control.
“What a day, huh Steve?” I say as everyone else leaves.
“You can say that again, Commander,” he replies with a smile. “Still, we did good. Shame about Corporal Seabird, but we did good. The Resistance Council has been monitoring alien communications closely since we got back. Our raid has them quite upset. They’ll actually be scuttling the facility soon, we’ve overheard: now that they know we know the whereabouts, it’s obviously no good anymore as a secret lab.”
“Little reason for us to go back there again and loot the place, then?” I ask hopefully.
“Good. Because the last thing we need right now is more reason to send people out. The troops are beat-up, and to be honest, we’ve earned a few days of peace and quiet.”
Steve’s comm-unit starts buzzing. I pre-emptively smack my forehead as he toggles it on. “I just jinxed it, didn’t I?”
He turns the unit towards me. “Fraid so, Commander. We got some leads on guerrilla operations that we can’t really afford to let go.”
I breathe in, deeply, then out. “Alright then. I’ll go talk to the troops.”