In the last episode of Jarenth Plays XCOM 2, a routine information retrieval mission turned into an unexpected hacking windfall. Not only did we stop an ADVENT scheme involving shape-shifting murder-monsters, but they just happened to have detailed notes on Plated Armor research! Right on the vault server we were hacking! As a result, what was once a distant dream has overnight become a possibility well within our grasp. In fact, I think the research project is finishing up as I’m writing this…
“Lily!” I throw up my arms as I walk into the engineering workshop. “There’s my favourite Chief Engineer. Still being an asset to XCOM, I take it. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you start telling me right here and now that we’ve got better armor for the troops.”
“Well…” Lily sounds a little hesitant. “You know how Central likes to do that ‘good news and bad news’ bit?”
“Ah.” I sit down in one of the folding chairs that litter the place. “Alright, sure. Start with the good news.”
“Good news is,” Lily says as she tosses me a datapad, “that Tygan totally pulled it off. New armor specs, right in there. They’re tougher than what we have, they’re lighter than our current Kevlar, and they’re particularly good at stopping magnetic weapon rounds. Like ADVENT’s gauss rifle rounds.”
I feel myself smiling like a doofus. “That sounds excellent and then some. What’s the bad news?”
“The bad news is what it takes for us to make these things.”
“Well, it’s three things.” Lily starts counting on her fingers. “First, we need a bunch of supplies…”
“We’re low on that right now,” I say, “but that can be arranged.”
“…second, we need a few dozen of those alien alloys…”
“Pretty sure our stores are packed with those.”
“…and third, the last thing we need is…”
She looks me directly. “…ADVENT Trooper corpses.”
That one catches me off-guard. “…What?”
“…ADVENT Trooper corpses,” I say slowly. “You mean, like, the ADVENT Trooper corpses that I mass-sold to the Black Market a week ago to fund our mag rifles?”
Lily nods. “ADVENT Trooper corpses.”
“Because we need their armor.” A few button presses bring up a schematic. “Most of our proposed Predator armor is made by integrating alien alloys into our existing Kevlar suits. That’s what allows us to upgrade the whole supply on the cheap. But we need some ADVENT Trooper armor plates to get the right level of resilience. And for that whole ‘magnetic repulsion’ thing.”
“Okay. I, er…” I strum my chin with my fingers while I think. “But we have other corpses, right? Officers and Stun Lancers. Can’t you use those instead?”
Lily shakes her head. “Sorry, Commander, not the right material. Officer armor isn’t actually as tough as it looks: it’s packed full of electronics and Elerium wires, it’s what taps them straight into the alien network. They’re tougher than normal Troopers because of special implants, not because of their armor. And Stun Lancers… well, their armor is honestly pretty interesting. But it’s mostly really light and flexible, not tough. Wouldn’t work with these plans.”
“Ugh.” I rub the bridge of my nose with my hand; I do that when I’m frustrated, I’ve noticed. “So you’re telling me we’ve got some really cool plans for advanced armor… but until we murder and drag home some more ADVENT Troopers — which we haven’t seen in weeks now — there’s nothing we can do with it?”
Lily’s face lights up. “Ah! I didn’t say nothing, Commander. We need more Troopers for the basic Predator armor, but…”
She brings up two more sets of schematics. “I did draft a few experimental plans for fancier stuff. The Predator armor is very basic, non-powered, so that it’s easy to make. But I figure we can take the handful of Trooper armor we still have, and integrate it into one of our early power armor prototypes. Buff the whole thing with alien alloys, use an Elerium core and Elerium crystal wires to power the whole contraption.”
“Interesting,” I say. “How about the other one?”
“Remember what I said about that Stun Lancer armor? It’s no good for us on its own, but we can do something similar with that, I think. That’ll be less ‘power armor’, and more… well, it’s actually based on an old armor prototype of my dad’s. A ‘Spider Suit’. I don’t think you ever really used it much? The basic idea is that assisted movement makes the wearer more agile. And then we build a grappling hook in to let them go places quickly.”
“Heh. Improving on your dad’s work, huh? It looks good, I like it. How soon could you build me one of those?”
“We’d use the Proving Grounds for that sort of work, so… as soon as we’re done with the second experimental grenade you commissioned.”
“Oh yeah!” I say. “The first one should be ready, right? What did your team come up with?”
“I think you’ll like this,” Lily grins. “Remember those poison rounds from before? We figured, if it was good enough for guns…”
“Alright then!” I say as I get up and make for the exit. “Tell Olsen to wrap up that second grenade soon, and then make me that armor.”
“Wait,” Lily says, “which one? The Spider Suit or the E.X.O. Suit?”
“Yes!” I yell, before I duck out the exit. I swear I can almost hear her eyes roll.
“Commander!” Steve says jovially as he enters my office. “How’s the budget looking?”
I look up at him with one raised eyebrow. On my left, a stack of papers is starting to reach decimeters in length. On my right, my computer desktop is lousy with files. “I don’t know, Steve. Why don’t you tell me?”
That elicits a laugh from him and a smile from me. I continue, “No, but it’s alright. Alright. We could do with more supplies, I guess. The Advanced Warfare Center coming online was a nice achievement, but it’s costly to keep up. And I’d prefer not to have to sell our whole inventory to the Black Market again the next time something big happens.”
Steve’s smile doesn’t falter. He drops a datapad on my desk. “I got just the thing for you, then. We’ve received word of another ADVENT supply train moving through a lightly guarded area in western Canada. Remember what kind of supply boost that was last time?”
“I dunno, Steve,” I say with a sigh. “It was a windfall, I’ll give you that. But is it really worth the risk? I’m sure ADVENT upped the guard on their convoys after that first hit. And, okay, sure, we’re not particularly low on manpower right now, I’ll give you that. But I’d have really liked to at least get some better armor going before we went out again. All in all, I just don’t know-“
“Commander,” Steve interrupts my rambling. “This time we’re holding up an actual train.”
I’m out my office and on my way to the bridge before my desk chair stops spinning.
For the second time in as many weeks, XCOM boots hit arboreal Alberta soil. You know the drill by now: trees, cars, snow, XCOM soldiers, no visible enemies, concealment.
It takes me one move to spot the first enemy patrol. A Muton and two Vipers. I bite back the desire to snark at Firebrand again, and instead start plotting a turn-one ambush attack.
“Hey Viel. Remember when I told you to look for a good moment to field-test those poison grenades?”
Okay, so the Vipers are actually immune to poison. Of course they would be, they’re poisonous snakes themselves. The grenade effect is still impressive: the blast covers a much wider area than normal frag grenades, and the Muton particularly doesn’t look all that happy about the sudden current state of its lungs.
I mean, right after that, the whole patrol scatters into the overwatch fire of three other soldiers. So the Muton doesn’t have a lot of time to worry about long-term poison effects. But still.
I leave Sergeant Jones out of the overwatch fusillade. Her Phantom power leaves her concealed when the rest of the squad is unveiled, allowing her to scout the area out a little bit further. This decision pays off when she manages to catch the second ADVENT patrol unawares.
“Well,” I say, “that’s a new one. Steve, Richard, Lily, any idea what that white-looking soldier could mean?”
“No idea, Commander,” Lily answer, “but it sure looks tough.”
“I concur with Chief Engineer Shen here,” Richard adds. “Whatever this new soldier is capable of, its bearing and armor alone suggest a strong opponent. I would advise caution.”
“Alright, troops, you heard the eggheads,” I say. “Approach with caution if you can. So that means absolutely no dancing on top of the train, under any circumstances. Viel, I’m talking to you specifically.”
The air shimmers around the white-clad soldier as it gesticulates threateningly. I don’t know what that means, and I have no intention of finding out.
On the right side of the train, most of the ADVENT patrol falls quickly: between Viel, Tegler, and Jones (who swung around and dropped her cover to help) both the new soldier and the Stun Lancer don’t stand a chance. On the left side, Twintails and Barr have a surprising amount of trouble taking down a single Officer, though: I hadn’t noticed before, but this one is also much tougher than expected.
“Whew.” I wipe a sheen of sweat off my forehead. “That’s probably it, right? That looks like a good amount of defense for a supply convoy. We done here?”
“Fraid not, Commander,” Steve says. “Still some chatter on the comms. And we can’t put the Skyranger down until the area is absolutely secure.” I’d grumble at this, but no: the man’s got a point.
I find the final alien patrol when, like some sort of inexperienced doofus, I run Twintails far forward on the last move of our entire turn. Waiting in the last pod of the train, guarding the actually valuable cargo (and thus ensuring we can’t just grenade-blast them into oblivion) are two Sectoids… and an unexpected third guest.
“Hey, look,” I say, “it’s another one of those Codex creatures. Why would that be here? We didn’t hack anything in the area, did we? Or are the aliens just using these as troops now?”
Steve grunts. “Might be ADVENT was holding them back for shock value. But now that we ruined the surprise…”
“Well, it’s not like it matters. Guess we’re bringing R&D home a second brain today.” I tap the comms. “Hey, Jones? Dunno know about you, but I’m seeing a second weird network alien with your sword’s name on it.”
Jones dashes up to the Codex and swings. No similar luck to last time: she only scores a weak glancing blow on the monster. That’s not great, she’s exposed this way. So I make a mental note to have Tegler deploy his Aid Proto-
The Codex reacts to Jones’ attack. It leaps into the air, hovers for a moment, shimmers wildly, and then… drops back down. For a moment, it looks like nothing happened… and then I hear Viel’s panic-y yell over the intercom:
“Commander! A second Codex just appeared here!”
“What!?” I scramble for my mic. “Richard, are you seeing this? What just happened?”
“Fascinating,” Richard replies, as I damn well knew he would. “I detect similar energy readings to the first Codex… no sign of decoy or optical illusion. Commander, I think the creature just… well, I want to say it ‘cloned’ itself.”
“They can do that? That’s not fair!”
“I do see some good news, Commander: since even the aliens have to obey conservation of energy laws, it seems like the Codex somehow divided its vital energy across the two instances. Both new Codices should be weaker than the original. But yes, otherwise, I agree with your assessment that this is ‘not fair’.”
He pauses for a second, then continues, “I suppose we should be glad Sergeant Jones’ Arc Blade stunned the first Codex we encountered. The thought of several of these creatures running amok in a resistance haven…”
I’ve already stopped paying attention, though. This clean and orderly battlefield is quickly going to shit. The original Codex is still threatening Jones and Tegler, but now this new one just flanked Viel hard. And the Sectoids aren’t sitting still either: one of them makes a dead zombie out of the ADVENT Officer Twintails killed, while the other one makes a very alive zombie out of Twintails herself.
And then, just to prove that all good things come in threes…
Well, remember that psionic weapon draining bubble that the Codex cast? The previous Codex did that too, right before we killed it and the mission ended. But today, here and now, I learn that this power has a secondary sting: the turn after coming into existence, the collected psionic energy explodes outward, in a violent purple burst.
The world goes into slow motion as the still mind-controlled Twintails climbs into the rail car that leads to Tegler. I’ve had a lot of relative luck with mind-control so far, but it looks like that luck was overdue for running out.
The Codex near Viel teleports into a better flanking position and blasts him head-on, causing him to panic. The Sectoid near Barr throws a psionic mind-spin at her, causing her to panic.
The bridge hushes.
“Jones.” I try my best to project a calm voice into the microphone. “I don’t mean to put too much pressure on you, but this mission is kind of going into a tailspin and I think you’re the only one with her head still in the game. You still with me, soldier?”
Jones’ reply comes a few seconds later. “I’m… I’m here, Commander. Really wanting to call for evac, but I’m here. What do you need me to do?”
What do I need her to do? There’s nothing she can do for Barr and Viel, and that Codex near her is a clear and present danger I don’t know she can take down alone. And then there’s Twintails…
But wait! A stroke of luck. “Jones, you see that Sectoid in the other car? That’s the one controlling Lieutenant Twintails. It’s a tricky shot, but if you can take it out, she gets back to us and we just might make it out alive.”
I’ve never been… I mean, I’m always happy to hear Sectoid death-gargles. But I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to hear a Sectoid death-gargle than right now. Jones’ shard-blast drops it in a single hit; it was already damaged, but that wouldn’t have mattered.
“Commander, I’m- I’m back. Oh, God, I… I killed him, I…”
“Twintails!” I bark. “We’ll mourn when we’re dead! Jones is super exposed right now and I need you to go thank her for saving your life!”
In spite of the circumstances, I find I’m overcome with curiosity. We killed one of the two cloned Codices. Does that impact the other, somehow? Can it tell what happened? Do they share information?
We can’t tell, obviously, not really. But I do find it fascinating that the second Codex ignores the panicked out-of-position Viel, nearby, and instead lands an improbably accurate distant shot on Twintails.
Combine that with a nasty psi-zombie bite — the first time one of these shambling doofuses has ever landed an attack, I think — and Twintails is now in a terrible state mentally and physically. Really, she’s down to her last hitpoint. If I hadn’t given her that second health-increasing PCS earlier, she’d be dead on the ground right now. It’s only neurological conditioning and pure grit that keep her going.
It doesn’t matter, though. The balance of mission success swings in our favour again, for the necessary final time. Twintails and Jones drop the zombie as a precaution while Barr takes out the second Codex, and then Barr and Viel work together to clean up the Sectoid — Barr’s close-range shot doesn’t quite kill it, but her holographic targeting array gives Viel all the incentive needed to finish the job.
And so Operation ‘Winter Beast’ concludes with four soldiers riding home on a Skyranger loaded with loot. It’s a mixed victory at best. On the one hand, the supplies, alien alloys, Elerium crystals, and fancy corpses are nice. On the other hand, there are no promotions for anyone. And we did lose Trym ‘Ingarson’ Tegler, another one of my oldest soldiers and my first medic worth his healing salt.
I was right to be cautious about this mission after all, huh?
“How you doing, Commander?” Steve asks.
“Been better, been worse. You know how it goes.” The mood on the Avenger has normalized again after a few days. You don’t survive as an underground resistance on alien-controlled Earth for twenty years without getting a little hardy, I guess. And we got a nice little morale boost when a long-shot digging project worked out: resistance contacts led us to some abandoned radio equipment that we managed to use to boost the Avenger’s power output.
“Been worse, I get,” Steve smirks. “But been better? Anything happen while I was asleep?”
“A few things, yeah.” I bring up some reports on the main screen. “We got word that ADVENT put one of their Dark Events in motion yesterday.”
Steve frowns. “Which one? The hidden plan or the UFO?”
“That’s subpar, but we can deal with it. I’ve made this bird dodge patrols before, I’ll do it again. Anything else?”
“We got word of their new plans, too,” I say. “And… well, I’ll let you see for yourself.”
Steve whistles. “Wow. ADVENT is really stepping up production, huh?”
I nod. “I spoke to the Councilman earlier. The communications are clear: ADVENT knows that we know about the Project, and they’ve probably guessed we’re trying to stop it. And yes, they are stepping it up. Another new facility was opened recently. Care to guess where they built it?”
“Somewhere we don’t have access to?”
“It’s like they know where we can and can’t go,” Steve says. “Wouldn’t surprise me if they’ve been analyzing our operational area. That’s no good. We need to get less predictable.”
He sits down across from me. “Any good news?”
I smile as I bring up another screen. “For one, doctor Tygan and his team finished their analysis of the alien encryption methods. It’s… it’s quite something, I’ll say that much. I’m pretty sure I don’t understand half of what’s in this report. But the long and the short of it is that it’s tough.”
“How tough? Too tough to break, or…”
“Richard thinks he can probably break it, but not without the right tools. He and Lily designed some sort of specialized testing area — like the Proving Grounds, but for special alien studies. They call it the ‘Shadow Chamber’.”
“Heh. She takes after her old man when it comes to naming things. So are we building this thing?”
I nod. “As soon as we get the supplies for it, anyway. Might take a while, so I’m having Richard study Viper anatomy and gauss weapons in the meantime. But yeah, I want this done as soon as possible. With the aliens making the progress they’re making, we can’t afford to lag behind anymore.”
“And on that note…”
Steve perks up. “How close are we to making contact?”
“A few days,” I say. “After the radio relay in Western Europe went up, it was easy enough to get enough intel. We’ve got one of Lily’s workshop drones working our upgraded comms, too. With any luck, this time next week, we’ll have new friends in West Africa and a smoking crater where an alien facility used to be.”
“Sounds like you have quite the plan ready, Commander,” Steve says as he gets up. “Wanna go put it into action?”
“Yes, Steve. Yes, I do.”