In the last episode of Jarenth Plays XCOM 2, I made two startling discoveries. First, I can just not seem to keep Blademasters alive. I don’t know why! I’m sure they’re really cool and powerful in right hands. They’re just not… for for me. I’ll stick to the more stealth-focused shotgun Rangers, thank you very much.
And second, I found out that ADVENT’s troopers are… made, I guess, not born. I still don’t entirely know how to parse the things we saw in that Forge. Rows and rows of production tubes, seemingly disgorging hand-made ADVENT soldiers. And in a well-guarded clean room in the center, a particular tube… holding a stasis suit of some kind. We absconded with that under heavy fire; it’ll take doctor Tygan some time, I think, to figure out just what it is we’re dealing with.
In light of these discoveries, our second planned mission — following up on the coordinates nabbed from the Codex brain — almost seems trivial in comparison. Still, though, I’m not about to let a second change to hurt the Avatar Project go to waste…
“Eeeeeugh.” I yawn exaggeratedly and stretch for effect as I casually walk onto the bridge. “Good morning, everybody! Or whatever time it is where we are now.”
“Good morning, Commander,” Steve says with a smirk. “It’s late morning in West Africa right now, you’re good. Slept well?”
“I’ll say.” I plop down in the captain’s chair. “I feel better than ever. Don’t think I had this good a nap in… hell, probably like twenty years.”
I grab for the mug in my seat cup-holder, am happily surprised to find it full of relatively warm coffee. “So, anything interesting happen while I was out.”
“Totally, Commander,” Steve says. “It was wild, aliens everywhere. You should ‘a seen it.”
“Wiseguy.” I take a deep swig. “So nothing, then?”
“Actually, we did run a little mission while you were asleep.”
“Really.” Steve taps a few buttons and brings up a post-mission report. “The Council contacted us about five hours ago with news of a lightly-guarded ADVENT VIP. They asked if we could bring them in. It seemed like a pretty straightforward case, so I decided to authorize it myself.”
A sudden tinge of realization and mild embarrassment washes over his face. “Er, I hope that was alright, Commander. I’d have gone to get you under different circumstances, but…” He falls quiet.
“Did the mission go well?” I ask. “Did you retrieve the VIP?”
“We did,” Steve answers. “Opposition was really unexpectedly light.”
“And did anyone of ours die?”
“Then…” I quickly take another sip of coffee. “Then I’m going to go ahead and congratulate you on your initiative, Central Officer. I didn’t make you second in command for you to not make informed decisions on your own.”
I think for a second. “Well, I didn’t ‘make’ you second in command, if we want to be accurate. It’s more of a legacy thing for you. But listen: that doesn’t matter. Good job either way.”
“Thanks, Commander.” Steve beams a little at that.
“Anything else happen?”
“Oh, yeah. The Council also told us that they’ve intercepted almost four times the normal amount of Avatar-related alien chatter in the last few days. They’re in disarray. It’s looking like, whatever we snagged back at that Forge, it’s even more important to the success of the Project than we thought.”
I smirk. “The fact that we wrecked the place probably didn’t help much either.”
“Oh,” Steve says, “and I took us to Africa, in case you couldn’t tell.”
“I, er, couldn’t, actually. It’s mostly clouds and open air outside. Why are we in Africa?”
“We’re helping the West African resistance establish contact with New Brazil. It’s the only viable link we have.”
“Oh, okay. That makes sense. Carry o-”
A gear shifts in my mind. “No, wait a minute. That doesn’t make sense at all! Why are we going to New Brazil from West Africa? Why aren’t we just connecting from XCOM HQ? You know, that place in Mexico?”
“Because,” Steve says, as he brings up the world map and zooms in on one particular place, “of Argentina.”
“What about Argentina?”
“Argentina is alien central, more or less. They were the first country to switch sides in the war, remember? And after the aliens took over, they set up a lot of shop there. The first propaganda centers, Gene Therapy clinics…”
“Wow,” I say. “They all drank the Kool-Aid.”
“Commander, they make the Kool-Aid.”
“And that limits our approach?”
“Say what you will about ADVENT headquarters, but they sure have their propaganda down pat. Not much resistance in the greater South American region, period. Adn even the resistance we do find there isn’t immune to what they hear all day, every day. There’s not a whole lot of information flow between South America and Mexico, is what I’m saying, for reasons that I don’t think they really understand themselves.”
“Which means that a connection from Mexico, to the Eastern US, to Western Europe, to Western Africa, and then to New Brazil, is genuinely our best option?”
“Well.” I drain my mug, then put it down with a *clank*. “Que sera, sera, I guess. What’s the ETA on us finding those coordinates?”
“Won’t be long now, Commander. Half a day. Maybe less.”
“Good. Any more intel on what we’re flying into?”
Steve shrugs. “Sorry, nothing. Local cells have no idea. Whatever this site is, it’s not much of an attention grabber. No traffic, no strong signatures… It’s a good thing we have those coordinates, because I don’t know if we’d ever have just heard of it.”
“Huh. That’s actually pretty interesting. Like an alien secret. But, like, secret secret.”
“Oh, but it gets even worse,” Steve says. “YOu know how we’ve been using the Shadow Chamber to predict these missions a little?”
“Yeah? Yeah, I do. Why’s that important? What are we seeing around this site?”
“That’s just the thing, Commander. We’re not seeing anything. We can tell that there are aliens there, but… Whatever this place has in store for us, it’s either heavily scrambled, or something we’ve never seen before.”
“Okay, I’m officially curious now. Keep me posted, okay?”
Steve nods. “Will do, Commander. What’ll you be doing in the meantime?”
“Oh, you know.” I get up, crack my shoulders. “I figured I’d look around the ship a little. Check on the progress of that new Power Relay. Maybe see if engineering has any new toys they want to share.”
“And then,” I say, “I’m going to go see if any of our soldiers share my sense of curiosity.”
“Alright, troops,” I say to the assorted squad over the roar of the Skyranger’s departure. “You all remember what I told you? We have no idea what’s down here, but there’s something down here. And we’re going to find out what it is. Stay low and move softly, you know the drill.”
I turn toward Richard, who’s joined us on the bridge for this mission. Lily, too; they both tend to want to see the real important missions up-close. “We really don’t have any idea what’s down there, do we?”
Richard shakes his head. “Not a clue, Commander. This entire site seems non-reactive even from relatively close-by. It is only with Firebrand being as close as she is, that we can take some of the necessary readings. And…” He taps something out on his console. “…Ah, yes. It is faint, but there is a source of… psionic energy, I think, a few dozen feet to the north of your soldiers. This also seems to be the source of the strange luminescent phenomena we are seeing. I would recommend we start out investigation there.”
” And… hmm, this is strange. There is also some kind of low-grade seismic turbulence. Like something is gently disturbing the site’s subterranean layer.”
“What’s that mean, doctor?” I ask. “Anything concrete? Because I’d rather we send our troops out with a-”
And then I stop talking. Because I’ve just heard a sound.
It’s a faint sound, barely audible on the soldiers’ omnidirectional mics over the wind and the rustling of the leaves. But it’s there. It sounds like… like rough plates of carbon being rubbed across each other. But faster, with a tempo, with a rhythm. It sounds animalistic. It sounds like chittering.
For a moment, I’m hyper-aware of the rest of the bridge’s total lack of reply. Didn’t they…? Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I misheard. It’s a sound I didn’t think I’d ever forget, not even in the depths of my nightmares, but twenty years of stasis can do strange things to a man. Maybe I misheard.
But then I look at Steve. His face has turned an ashen grey; the same colour as mine, I have to imagine. The look in his eyes is something like frantic apprehension. He’s heard it too.
For seconds afterward we sit there, listening silently; almost daring the sound to come back. It’s starting to earn us some strange looks. Lily waves her hand in front of my eyes, “Er… Commander?” But then Sergeant Blackfox checks in.
“Commander! I climbed to higher ground, and now I’ve got a visual on some sort of… bug-looking thing. Big, spiky. I don’t think it’s seen me yet. Got any intel? What are these things?”
I try to reply, but the word get stuck in my throat. It’s Steve who finally manages to croak out an answer…
It’s like saying that name — actually acknowledging that, yes, I heard what I heard and they’re actually here — shakes me out of my reverie. I grab my mic and start — if not yelling, then at least talking at a significantly raised volume.
“Listen up, everyone, change of plans. We have confirmed Chryssalid sightings in the area, I repeat, we have confirmed Chryssalid sightings. Under no circumstances are you to let these things get anywhere within melee range! Do you hear me? They’re lethal from up close! Use whatever force you need to kill them from as far away as you can. Forget about stealth!”
“I must say, Commander,” Richard says as the soldiers on-screen start scuttling into position, “I am surprised to see you react so… anxiously. You are normally quite calm when new alien types are discovered. Surely this one ‘Chryssalid’ does not merit such a panicked response?”
“Yeah, Commander,” Lily says with a half-giggle, “overkill much?”
I turn around and look at the both of them with the iciest stare I can muster. “Do either of you,” I ask slowly, “know what Chryssalids are?”
Lily shrugs. “My dad used to tell me stories. But I don’t remember much.” Richard seems lost in thought for a moment, and then answers, “I have read the official early XCOM reports. These creatures are some sort of terror weapon, correct? I must admit to having little personal experience with them, however.”
I start to reply, but Steve beats me to the punch. “‘Terror weapons’ is right, doctor. These things are killing machines. Living, breathing hunter-killers, of the worst kind. They’ll slaughter anything they’re pointed at. Soldiers, civilians, men, women, children. Pets. And then they’ll use whatever they’ve killed to reproduce” — he almost spits out that last word — “right there and then, on the battlefield. There’s never one Chryssalid. There never is.”
He looks at me wit almost an air of desperation. “I don’t understand. Sectopods, sure, I’d get why they’d un-mothball those. Those’re just big tough defense robots. But Chryssalids? I figured the only good thing to come out of losing the war was that we’d never have to worry about these things again.”
“I don’t know, Steve,” I say, shaking my head. “I don’t know. There’s probably some reason for it. Hell, we might even find some clues here.”
“We’re not leaving the area without making sure they’re all exterminated, though, right?”
“Oh hell no.”
On the battlefield, Blackfox has just initiated combat with the Chryssalid through a grazing sniper bullet. It responds by screeching, and scuttling down from its perch to better face the rest of the squad.
“No celebrating yet, soldiers!” I caution. “There’s almost bound to be more of these things. Move slowly, stay in overwatch. And Major Twintails, if you could do that area-scanning thing?”
The chittering noises intensify, and three more Chryssalids emerge from a valley clearing up front. As they rush up close, but then hide behind a rocky outcropping, I can see on Lily and Richard’s faces that they’re slowly starting to grasp the nature of the situation.
“Commander,” Barr whispers over the comm. “I think I have an angle on where we last saw those bug things. Permission to shell the area?”
“Soldier,” I say, “not only is that permission granted, but for the rest of this one mission, none of you even have to ask. Fire at will! Just… remember that there’s more of them out there.”
Nobody moves far from their current position. We’re all waiting for the inevitable bug charge. Kudos to our soldiers: they’ve grasped the nature of what they’re fighting much quicker than the Egghead Two over here.
The noise quiets down. I take the opportunity to wipe off the sweat I hadn’t noticed was building. “Good job, everyone. The immediate area seems clear. Stay careful, though. Cluster up, and never move anywhere without overwatch fire.”
While the soldiers move into their respective positions, I use the temporary lull to check up on a niggling feeling. I replay some of the battlefield camera footage, taken during the last attack, to get a closer look at one of the Chryssalids…
I tap Steve and point towards the screen. “Look at that. They’re different, aren’t they?”
Steve looks closely, then nods. “Yeah. It’s subtle, but they’re different. Little smaller, for one. Still spiky and purple, but… the teeth are new, that’s for sure.”
“I’m not sure I like these new expressive eyes, either. It makes them look more…”
“Human?” Steve suggests. The thought makes me shiver. But he’s not wrong.
“Commander!” Frederick checks in hurriedly. “Contacts in the distance! Three more on the Battle Scanner.”
With the Chryssalids dropping like flies, I find some of my early panic slowly subsiding. We can do this. Sure, I’m using buckets of heavy ordinance to just keep these monsters at bay, but we can do this. We have the tech, we have the preparation, and we have the height advantage to spot them before they spot us.
And, actually, speaking of being spotted…
“Jones,” I say, “you’re not gonna like this, but I’m going to send you out ahead of the rest. We need to find out where more of these things are hiding, and you’re the only one who can trace them down without getting caught out. Are you good for that, soldier?”
I hear Jones doing her best to suppress a sigh. “If you say so, Commander. Guess I’ve survived worse already.”
A few minutes pass with no Chryssalid engagements. I’m worried about this: I feel like there should be more bug monsters around here. But still, it gives us a chance to move further towards the source of the psionic radiation. We can already see the outlines of some facility in the distance. What is this place?
But that sense of calm is quickly interrupted when a Chryssalid suddenly bursts out of the fucking ground.
“Pusey! Come in, Captain!”
I hear coughing on the other end of the line, and then, “I’m alright, Commander, I’m… ‘alright’. The armor helps. And I think these things have some sort of venom, too, but that’s nothing the medkit can’t prevent.”
I sigh in relief. “Good to hear, soldier. And the rest of you, pay. Attention. Apparently these things can burrow now. Until further notice, assume that no place is safe. That goes double for you, Jones!”
Behind me, Richard jots something down in a notebook. “I suppose that does explain the strange seismic reading we were seeing. The area is, quite literally, infested.”
What follows is a slow, slow advance forward. I decide to leave Frederick and Blackfox on a nearby ‘safe’ rock perch, given that they have excellent sight lines from up there. Pusey, Twintails, and Barr creep forward in a triple-cover formation. And even the nominally-undetectable Jones, leader of the pack, tries not to rush too far out of sight.
It’s hard to pay proper attention to the Chryssalids, because the terrain keeps growing… more alien, as we proceed. We run across what is undeniably a constructed trench of some kind, studded on both sides with spiky purple tentacle growths. More purple tentacles spread out across the landscape, like some sort of Starcraft cosplay gone mad. And the ephemeral, floating violet lights are still everywhere. But pay attention we do, and it does pay off: two more Chryssalids are spotted this way, and intercepted from long range before they can do more damage.
And then Jones finally gets up close enough to give us a real good look at what’s in the center of the alien landscape. And what we find is…
“Bull,” I say, “fucking shit. Is that a stargate?”
Richard almost gasps for breath. “Fascinating. It appears to be some sort of… psionic gateway.” He taps out a rapid series of commands on his nearby console. “Yes, yes. It’s a combination of psionic manipulation and Elerium-driven electronics, seemingly embedded in some sort of organic mesh. Not unlike the Codices. Remarkable overlap. And given from the plant life around, it looks like it must have been here for a while. Years, maybe.”
“That’s a stargate,” I say, still stuck on the early part of the revelation. “Why would the aliens need a stargate? Don’t they have, like, spaceships?”
Next to me, Lily shrugs. “I dunno, Commander. If this thing really is some sort of matter portal… spaceships are nice, but long-distance teleportation? Without travel? That’s on a whole different level.”
“Not to mention stealthy,” Steve says. “We didn’t even… we had no idea.”
A low humming noise starts emanating from the portal, grabbing everyone’s undivided attention. As the noise intensifies, the purple swirl in the center pulses, then… opens up, like an iris, revealing a dark plateau of stars beyond. And before we can quite take in the view, something comes through.
I point at the screen. “That…” Beat. “I don’t have a good reference for what that is. I want to say… a Personality Core? Would that reference land? I don’t think it lands.”
“I do believe we’re looking at a giant metal eyeball, Commander,” Lily says.
“So, what,” I say, “is this some sort of robot? It looks like a robot. Is this Cyberdisc 2.0, is that what we’re doing?”
“Do not be too hasty with your appraisal, Commander,” Richard says. He’s gone back to console-tapping almost immediately. “Readings from this entity are… surprisingly similar to the portal. There are mechanical components, certainly, but… Give me some time.”
“Commander,” the comm channel sounds. It’s Captain Jones. “Sorry to have to break in, but I don’t think we have that kind of time. Billy Eyeball here just spotted me.”
No less than four Chryssalids skitter out from behind the portal, too. And suddenly, my nice clean situation has become a clusterfuck.
“Jones, this sounds like an excellent opportunity to deploy that Mimic Beacon of yours. And then get you in some sort of cover. The rest of you, hit that space orb with everything you have. Let’s throw some Independence Day at this thing.”
I immediately find a flaw in my plan: the space orb takes a ridiculous amount of punishment. Barr is able to strip two of its six armor points, but four points of armor still absorb tremendous damage. Frederick’s pistol shots hardly penetrate, and even Blackfox’ critical hit only packs so much wallop.
I try to have Twintails bypass the creature’s armor with her GREMLIN attack, only to find that — to everyone’s surprise — this thing doesn’t actually count as a mechanical enemy. The idea is only further reinforced when Frederick’s venom rounds manage to poison it.
“Doctor,” I say, “what are we looking at here?”
“I am afraid I cannot tell you much at the moment, Commander. Whatever this creature is, it is definitely not mechanical. Looks might be deceiving. We will have to wait until the entity is subdued, and back in my lab, before I can give any further analysis.”
“If we subdue it,” I mumble.
“Okay, troops, change of plans. This thing is tough and we need to kill it, but there’s also four Chryssalids around. Let’s try to take those out first. Whatever this thing can do, it can’t be more dangerous than four murder bugs.”
I pore over the map for a second. “Barr, care to take the first shot?”
Three seconds of intense artillery noises play out before Barr checks in. “Good hit, Commander. But the bug’s not down yet! It’s standing on its last legs.”
“Alright then. Frederick! Ignore that weakened one for now. I’m pretty sure you should be able to take another one out. Make me proud, soldier.”
A *click*, a *blam*, and then, “Sorry, Commander! It’s still standing. Near-death, but still standing.”
I rub my forehead in exasperation. “Okay then. Blackfox. Care to show these other two how it’s done?”
“Sorry, Commander! Mine’s still standing too! Stiff breeze’ll knock it over, though.”
I look at Steve and gesture at the screen in confusion. “Are you seeing this? This isn’t actually happening, is it?”
“Commander, why are you having them attack different targets in the first place?” Steve asks. “We could have had one down already.”
“Because I don’t want to waste these good shots,” I say. “I’m not gonna use a killing shot on a crippled Chryssalid!” Steve just shrugs.
“Watch,” I say, “this one’ll work for sure. Pusey! Do your double tap! Show those bugs who’s boss.”
“Affirmative, Commander.” The sound of gunfire echoes. “First hit confirmed! It’s a good one. Taking aim for second shot…”
“Tell me you got it, Pusey,” I say after another gun barrage falls silent. “I need to hear that you got it.”
“…Negative, Commander. Sorry. Glancing hit on the second burst. It’s, er… it’s still standing. Barely.”
I sit down in the captain’s chair, lower my head into my hands. Breathe in deeply, hold, breathe out. Breathe in deeply, hold, breathe out. Breathe in deeply…
“Okay!” I snap back up. “This is absolute nonsense, but fine. Twintails! You still have a Mimic Beacon, right? I’m calling a repeat performance.”
“Affirmative, Commander. Deploying Holotar.”
I snicker in spite of the situation. “Holotar? Major, do I need to give you and the Mimic Beacon some private time after this mission?”
“I can’t help it, Commander,” Twintails answers. “Something that handsome d-deserves a handsome name.”
The Chryssalids swarm around Twintails’ beacon. They swing wildly, one after another. Three of them swing wildly with no effect, but halfway during the fourth’s attacks, the beacon suddenly fizzles out.
“Wait,” I say, “what just happened? Lily? I thought these things lasted longer?”
Lily shrugs. “Lucky shot, Commander. Look at that.” She points at the screen, and sure enough — a split and broken Mimic Beacon is seem clinging to the Chryssalid’s talon.
And this isn’t great, because the space orb hasn’t had its move yet. I was hoping to divert whatever attack it comes up with through the Beacon, bu-
The space orb hovers to a secluded position, in-between the Chryssalids. Then it… opens up? Its armor plates shift aside, revealing a fleshy organic mass on the inside. Several tentacles poke out, visibly charged with psionic energy.
“It’s power armor!” I hear Lily say. “It’s not a robot, it’s tentacle monster power ar-” But the rest of her sentence is cut off when the space orb conjures up a ball of psionic energy that explodes with massive force.
“Troops, come in! Twintails, Jones? You alright?”
“Jones here. I’m… shaken, but alright. That explosion packed a punch. I’m a little hurt, and… there’s something weird going on with Major Twintails. And, er… I guess it also killed all of the Chryssalids? That definitely just happened.”
“Fascinating,” Richard says. “Readings show an incredible amount of psionic power in that attack. The explosion component is obviously reminiscent of the Codex’ psionic attack, but I am detecting strands of the Sectoids’ psionic signature in here as well. I wonder what…”
“Later, doctor,” I say. “Jones, I don’t know about you, but I am just about fed up with this. You want to go see what happens if you sword this thing a question?”
I let out a sigh of relief. “Whew. Great job, everyone. Looks like we’re in the clear.”
I look at Richard pointedly. “We are in the clear, right?”
“Not quite yet, Commander. Seismic scans show some little activity. I think there may be one or two Chryssalids left in the area.”
“Oh, we’re getting those,” Steve says.
“I agree, don’t worry. Troops, you heard the ma-”
“Er, Commander?” Twintails interrupts me before I can do my spiel. “I, er, I’m sorry to interrupt you here, I’m really glad we won and all that. B-but, er… I’m sort of looking at my own dead body right now. And it’s- it’s starting to freak me out a little.”
The bridge goes absolutely quiet. I’m talking pin-drop hush. Nobody knows quite how to parse what was just said.
“Major,” I say slowly, “I don’t know if we quite got your meaning, there. Would you mind repeating what you just said to me?”
“I’m… I-I’m looking at my own dead body, Commander.”
“Pusey here, Commander. Can confirm. I’m a few feet away from Major Twintails, and… well, there’s a second dead Major Twintails on the ground at her feet.”
I stare at the screen with a mix of baffled amazement and amazing bafflement. “Richard…” I start, before finding I have no idea how to proceed from here. “Richard… what the hell?”
Richard, to his credit, is already hard at work. “Commander, I… I am afraid I cannot give you a clear answer. Whatever we are seeing here, it… The body seems to be emanating a strong psionic residual, identical to the orb’s attack earlier. But that residual is mixed, somehow, with… electronic signals? Photonic interference? The body has a physical presence, but lacks physicality, somehow. It is… the matter seems off, somehow, as it was… I think if I…”
And then slowly, ever-so-slowly, the weirdest-ever penny starts dropping in my mind. “Doctor, you said that part of orb’s psionics looked like a Sectoid, right? So if that attack wasn’t just an explosion… and if we have a body that doesn’t exist, and that shouldn’t exist, then…”
I look at the screen, and then back at Richard. “Did that thing somehow reanimate the Holotar?”
“Commander,” Richard says, after a silence that stretches well into the double digits, “I have been working with ADVENT and the alien forces for decades. I have seen technological advances that I would never even have considered, get solidified in a matter of days. I have had my essential paradigms shifted more times since joining XCOM than there are people on-board this ship that even know what that means. And what you are saying right now is still, by far, the most all-around impossible idea I have ever heard.”
“And yet…” I gesture at the screen.
“C-Commander? Permission to get aboard the Skyranger and, er, lose my goddamn marbles for a minute?”
“Permission granted, soldier. And the rest of you, clean up that last Chryssalid. We’ll start coordinating recovery teams from here. Might take us a little bit to figure out how to get all that stuff back on the Avenger.”
I close my mic as the soldiers move out. “Or which impossible thing we’re gonna tackle first.”