In the last episode of Jarenth Plays XCOM 2, a squad trip to New Brazil uncovered us more of the aliens’ secrets. They… they were weird secrets. Purple plants, and a giant stargate, and a floating robot space orb that wasn’t a robot and that could resurrect the dead and also Mimic Beacons… And that’s before the new Chryssalids even came in. Why do the aliens still have Chryssalids? And why use exclusively Chryssalids to guard an important place like that? We’d have been golden if we’d have managed to keep one hover SHIV from the previous war.
‘Worst’ part is, though, that we can’t even get to prodding our findings yet! Partially because it’s going to take some… adjustments to the Shadow Chamber to accommodate this giant gate. But also partially because we were busy studying our previous mystery item first…
“Ah, Commander. Central. Good you could make it.” Doctor Tygan beckons me and Steve into the Shadow Chamber. On a slab-like bed in the bed, the ADVENT stasis suit we recovered from the Forge lies prone. “I believe our studies into this peculiar object have finally borne fruit.”
Steve walks over to the table and stares, his eyes suddenly lost in thought. “Just like the one we found the Commander in…”
“So what’s the deal, Richard,” I say. “Why haven’t you opened this thing up yet?”
“Oh, I have, Commander,” Richard says, with a little hesitance. “However, I closed the suit back up before you came in because the… form, inside, is unpleasant to look at. It is humanoid-looking, in the strictest sense, but… suffice it to say that it is not anything you would recognize, it is not alive and never has been, and the only thing you will gain from seeing it is an image my stomach would rather I forgot.”
He turns to Steve. “And very astute, Central. This suit is indeed ‘just’ like the one we found the Commander in. Almost entirely identical, in fact. But as interesting as that is, it is not the reason I called you here. What this form and this suit have helped me discover is nothing less than an answer to one of the greatest remaining mysteries surrounding ADVENT’s workings.”
“What do they eat?” I ask jovially.
“No, Commander,” Richard nods, “that particular question we have answered long ago. ADVENT troops are fed a specially prepared nutrient slurry…” I glance over at Steve as Richard paces around while talking, and roll my eyes exaggeratedly. He barely manages to suppress a snort.
“At any rate. The question we have answered today is perhaps a much more pressing one. Where do ADVENT get their troops?”
“In the earlier years,” Richard continues, pacing again as he talks, “we suspected that ADVENT’s forces were either brought in from beyond, or manipulated into existence here. It is not secret that current ADVENT soldiers possess human and alien characteristics, something my recent research has also shown. Preliminary analysis led me to believe that the most likely explanation was ‘direct genetic modifications to a human host’. Prisoners, perhaps, or maybe even unwitting volunteers.”
“See your local ADVENT recruiter today,” Steve mutters.
“However,” Richard says, “the reality is something else entirely. For what we have found inside this stasis suit…” He points at it for effect. “…is a template.”
“A template?” I say. “Doctor, you’re gonna have to walk us through this one.”
“I will explain.” Richard pulls up a graphic of a DNA strand. “The form inside this stasis suit is, genetically speaking, mostly ‘human’. It is not a single human, however, but rather a combination of several dozen different strands of human DNA. The result of several human victims, I am afraid to say, going through that terrible rendering process at the ADVENT blacksite.”
He points at several empty spaces in the DNA strand graphic. “Now, what is ‘interesting’, for lack of a less gruesomely inappropriate word, is that these human DNA strands come together to form a creature that is almost viable for life. But not quite. You can see that there are several key strands missing here, here, and here… Without DNA to fill these crucial gaps, any creature formed like this — like the one inside the suit — is an inert, lifeless thing.”
“I really hope I’m not right in guessing where this is going,” I say.
“I fear you might well be, Commander,” Richard says. “For what ADVENT does whenever they need new soldiers of particular breeds, is fill these gaps with the appropriate DNA strands. Be it Sectoid, Muton… even the species our soldiers refer to as ‘Berserker’. All are a simple matter of inserting the right DNA, then applying directed electric charges to start the form’s accelerated growth procedure, and…”
“ADVENT in a can,” Steve growls. “Made to order. And all it takes is dozens of innocent human lives.”
“Sadly, yes,” Richard says subduedly. “Although I suspect most of them are likely not taken alive. Ask yourself: have you ever seen the inside of one of ADVENT’s presumed ‘cremation facilities’?” I didn’t think it possible, but Steve’s face darkens even more.
“I suppose that does tell us why all their troops are so human-like now,” I say. “So they make all their troops this way?”
“Many,” Richard says. “All species of ADVENT Trooper, Sectoids, Mutons, Berserkers, and most likely Archons as well… the addition of human DNA would explain their improved physical stature. The origins of other alien units is still a mystery, however. I doubt that either the insectoid Chryssalids or the orb-shaped ‘Gatekeeper’ have a human basis. And Vipers, of course, have become less human over time… I now believe the aliens’ original ‘Thin Man’ to be an early prototype of this development process.”
The Shadow Chamber is silent for several long seconds. Steve coughs, once. Richard fidgets a little. Finally, I speak up. “Well, that’s… good, that we know that now. That’s good, I guess. And we took out that one Forge! Not gonna pretend I believe it was their only one, but one less is one less.”
“Ah, yes!” Richard spins around to face the stasis suit again. “Good of you to remind me. I have not yet gotten to the actually fascinating part.”
“Could you try to not use that word here, doctor?” Steve asks. “It’s kind of…”
“Gruesomely inappropriate. Yes, I am aware, I apologize. It is simply that…” Richard falls silent for a few seconds. He slowly starts back up. “The reason this particular… template, I shall call it, was guarded as much as it was, is because of what went into the… design. Again, I am sorry, Central. It is hard for me not to talk about this from an engineering point of view.”
Steve nods. “I appreciate the effort. Go on.”
“Thank you. The reason this template is of special importance is because of the particular human genetic material that went into creating it. Specifically, cross-referencing the DNA of this template with the archives in the Shadow Chamber has revealed that all the humans killed for this creation shared one essential trait.” He looks at me, then Steve, then me again. “Psionic sensitivity.”
“Psionic sensitivity?” I repeat incredulously. “How is that… that can’t be a coincidence, can it?”
“Very unlikely, Commander, given the sheer number of strands involved. I now hold the belief that the aliens are carefully selecting human individuals for the psionic sensitivity genetic expression. While the trait is quite rare, we are still talking about thousands of humans world-wide that potentially qualify.”
“The screening process at the Gene Therapy clinics,” Steve says, somewhat in awe. “Avatar.”
Richard nods. “Most likely. I cannot say for certain what the ‘end goal’ of this particular project was, not without more insight. I suspect studying the remaining data we obtained from the Codex brain may provide more clues on this matter. But I can say this: the potential power of a being created with this template is… significant.”
“You’re probably not talking about, like, psionically-enhanced Mutons, are you?” I ask hopefully.
Richard shakes his head. “While that would be a potential end result, the amount of effort that has gone into creating this template seems too significant for something so trivial. I have no doubt that this template’s final intent is strongly connected to the Avatar Project. And had we not intercepted it before the process was completed…”
Richard is interrupted when the ship suddenly shakes. It’s a loud, rolling, enduring shake, as if the Avenger itself groans under some sudden weight.
With the passing of the shake, all electronics in the Shadow Chamber briefly fizzle out. The screens, the holographic projects… even the main white-yellow lightning fails with that characteristic whine, leaving the chamber temporarily aglow in the purple lights of its backup generator. And then, as the electronics across the room slowly reboot themselves, I can feel myself starting to fly upwards with a sickening lurch.
Except, no. I’m not flying upwards. The ship is going down.
The three of us make it to the bridge in record time. It’s amazing what adrenaline can do for your running speed. The place is a mess: lights are flickering, consoles are sparking, and a whole bunch of people are trying their best to look like they’re not panicking. Lily is here too, attacking some wall panel or another with a multi-tool.
Steve rushes over to the pilot’s seat and starts shouting at the inhabitant, a stocky black man with a crew cut. “Karlsson, what the hell happened? Report!”
“The aliens got us, sir,” the man replies frantically. “One moment it was clear skies, and then, bam! They dodged our tracking somehow!”
“How’d they take out our engines so fast?! I thought this tub could take a hit!”
“Some sort of EMP weapon, Central!” Lily shouts over the din. “Knocked out our whole system in one hit!”
“But everything’s back online now, right,” I say hopefully as I wave to the working lights and consoles.
“Not that easy, Commander!” Lily answers. “That hit soft-rebooted our systems! Means we’re locked out!”
“What? How does that…”
Lily drops her multi-tool in favour of a more brute-force tugging approach at the wall panel. “Alien software, Commander! This whole ship is running on OS we hardly understand! When we first found this thing it took my father weeks to work around all the safeguards! And they’re all back in place now!”
“Pretty sure we don’t have weeks, Shen!” Steve barks.
“I know, Central, I kno- ah!” The wall panel comes loose with a metallic snap. Lily reaches inside to grab something, then looks around and searches the crowd. “I’ve always been worried this could happen! That’s why I’ve been working on a backup plan! Patterson! We’re engaging operation Pi Omega Iota, on my mark!”
A white woman with a blonde ponytail and engineering overalls looks up from the console she was working on. “What?! Chief, we’ve never tried that before! We have no idea if-“
“Now or never, Brittany! On my mark!”
The woman nods. “Yes, sir.”
“Okay, mark!” Lily yanks something out of the wall panel, some glowing tube I can hardly see, then twists it clockwise and pushes it back it. And as the lights and consoles on the bridge go out again, one by one, the Avenger dips a thick layer of cloud that casts us into utter darkness…
“Oof.” I shake my head, blink my eyes vigorously, climb back to my feet. Ow, my aching everything. But either I’m still alive, or heaven looks an awful lot like a beat-up alien starship bridge.
Around me, I see other people starting to crawl back up. The *thunk* from our sudden stop knocked most everyone on their ass. Well, the ones that weren’t sitting, anyway. I clap my hands twice. “Okay, everyone! Status report. How we all feeling?” I get a chorus of murmured ‘okay’s and ‘alright’s in return. Some people are bleeding, and at least one engineer I can’t remember the name of right now has their left arm at a painful-looking angle. But as far as I can tell, nobody’s not getting up.
I breathe a sigh of relief. “Great work, Lily.” I look around to find her near the same panel, looking unsteady and clutching the wall for support. But smiling. “Whatever you just did, it looks like it saved our bacon.”
“Thanks, Commander.” Lily helps herself fully upright. “I’m just glad alien engineering has some fundamental overlaps with ours. Pulling out that power coupling like that forced the ship’s systems into hard reboot, not soft. And a hard reboot usually involves a systems test across the board.” She looks at the wall panel. “Like test-firing the engines. That slowed our descent enough for the impact to, well, not kill everyone.”
“…Are you saying,” I say slowly, “that you just fixed this hyper-advanced piece of galactic alien engineering by turning it off and on again?”
Lily smirks. “Like I said: fundamental overlaps.” She gestures towards the blond woman, Patterson, currently hard at work tapping on her console. “And as a bonus, that hard reboot gave Patterson there a chance to bypass those software safeguards before they were initialized. That was a theory we’ve been working on for a while.”
“Operation ‘Pi Omega Iota’?” I ask.
“Chief’s idea,” Patterson says, without looking up, “extra bit of security in case this piece of junk ever got uppity.” It takes me a few seconds to parse the joke, and bark out a few confused laughs in response.
“Alright then,” Steve says. “Think we best get ourselves airborne again, befo-“
The ship shakes and shudders again. Less violently than before, but she still groans. The lights flicker on and off in a now-familiar pattern. Over at her console, Patterson curses, and redoubles her tapping efforts.
“That can’t be good,” I say.
Lily taps out a few commands and brings up a schematic. Of the ship, and… some sort of needle? She gasps sharply. “You’re right, Commander, it isn’t.” Then another shudder passes over the ship, and the screen flickers out. Patterson curses again, louder this time.
Lily brings the schematic back up. “Looks like the aliens dropped some sort of local EMP pulse generator right outside the ship. It’s not strong, but strong enough to keep scrambling our engines. We can’t take off as long as that thing is active.” Yet another pulse, the third in about a minute, underscores the effect.
“And that’s not the only bad news,” Steve says. I see him standing over at the pilot’s console — Karlsson, his name was — staring at the radar screen. “Wide area traffic’s going haywire. ADVENT’s sending dozens of ships in our direction.”
“What kind? Fighters, bombers?”
Steve shakes his head. “Troop transports. Carriers. They don’t just want us. They want the ship.”
“Lily,” I say, “if you have any clever plans on how to deal with that spike thing, now would be a great time to share.”
“I have a plan, Commander,” Lily says. “But it’s not clever, and I don’t think you’re gonna like it.”
I sigh. “I’ll go talk to the troops.”
The barracks is in just as much disarray as the rest of the ship. Most of the soldiers are busy putting their things back in order. Twintails and Pusey are nursing minor injuries, and I see Jones sitting on a bed with a fresh bandage around her head. Everyone stops what they’re doing as I enter.
“Troops,” I say. “I’m not gonna mince words. The aliens got the drop on us pretty badly. The Avenger’s a lame duck until some of you go outside and blow up their weird EMP generator. And if we can’t get that done before they get their big transports here… Well, you get the idea. That means that everyone is eligible for deployment right now, you hear? This is literally do or die for us.”
A few people nod. Nobody objects.
“Let’s see… Barr, Viel, Frederick, Twintails, Gilbraith, Blackfox. You guys are going out. The rest of you, stay inside and watch the ship. Any one of these aliens gets in, I want them dead before they can do any damage. Understood?”
“Good. Let’s go save our home, then.”
I stand at the Avenger’s main window, looking out over the battlefield. Clutching a walkie-talkie. Lily dug up a few of these; they’re the only communications tech we have right now that isn’t affected by this ‘EMP’ thing — which, to hear Lily tell it, is less of a proper EMP and more of a directed scrambling pulse. It’s really impressive: the pulse doesn’t knock out any of the other alien ship systems, and their units on the ground are good to go too. It’s just the Avenger that’s dead in the water. I guess I never realized how much we rely on its built-in comm systems, too.
Not that the troops would necessarily need my guidance. The alien pulse spike is clearly visible about thirty meters in the distance. It shoots big pulses of orange light into the sky at regular intervals. The shadows it casts illuminate the small alien patrol guarding it; a few other patrols are marginally visible in the intervening distance.
“Okay, soldiers,” I say, “make your way to that big glowy thing and take it out. Be careful about alien patrols! But don’t go out of your way. If one or two of them slip by you, the ship-board contingent can probably take them out.”
“Oh, oh, no!” Lily waves her hands frantically. “No, Commander, don’t say that! You can’t let any of them inside!”
“They’re after the ship, right? That’s why they have that pulse generator. But if they knew that we’re vulnerable to that…”
“…Sorry, I’m still not following.”
“Commander, this ship runs on a very old version of the alien operating system. That’s the one my dad learned to crack, and it’s what we’re used to. But if any of the ADVENT soldiers makes it onto the ship, they’ve probably been instructed to hack into the ship network and upload a software update. And if that happens…” Lily fidgets for a few seconds. “Put it like this: remember how difficult it is for us to reliably hack current alien technology, in the field? Imagine us having to do that for every single thing we want the Avenger to do.”
“…Oh,” I say.
“Yeah. Don’t let them get on the ship, Commander. Or I guarantee you we’re not making it out of here.”
“Alright then.” I grab the walkie-talkie. “Troops, change of plan. Main objective is still that ADVENT EMP spike. But I’ve just been told we’re not to let any ADVENT soldiers through. Don’t let them get on the ship. Do you copy?”
“We copy, Commander,” Barr answers. “Don’t think we were planning on lettin’ them slip anyway.”
Steve suddenly perks up and runs off of the bridge. I stare after him quizzically for a little bit, but I can’t afford to get distracted — the troops just encountered their first ADVENT patrols.
On the Avenger’s right side, an ADVENT Officer and Shieldbearer run into cover positions. Gilbraith gets a good hit on the Officer, but otherwise, no luck. On the left side, an Archon whooshes into view, flanked by two burly Mutons. It’s not a great situation. But I’ve seen worse. It’s just a matter of determining which threat to tackle first. The Mutons present the bigger danger for damage, but obviously I don’t want to let the Shieldbearer get its trick off. And then there’s the Archon, which-
A stream of bullets bursts forth from the Avenger’s ramp, pinning the Archon in place.
It’s not until the battlefield camera recovers from the latest EMP pulse that I see Sergeant Gardes blasting away.
“Sergeant? What are you doing on the battlefield? I mean, glad to have you here, sure. But didn’t I tell you to stay put?”
“Hey, Commander,” Gardes replies, in-between cannon bursts. *trrrr* “Central told me to go outside.” *trrrr* “Said we couldn’t do much good in here…” *trrrr* “…since the aliens can’t get on board anyway.” *trrrr*
“That right, Steve,” I ask. “Is that why you ran off?”
“Affirmative, Commander,” Steve’s voice crackles from the walkie-talkie. “Sorry, I just had the thought, no time to explain. Figured there’s no reason to stick to only six troops in this case, it’s not like they need to fit in the Skyranger. Makes for more chaotic command, but if push comes to shove you can just yell out of the window.”
“No, no, it’s alright,” I say, “good plan, I approve. You sending anyone else out?”
“As soon as we can scrounge up some comms and equipment,” Steve answers. “The armory’s a mess. “It’s gonna be basic armor and grenades for everyone. But yeah, I’ll keep sending ’em out.”
“Good man.” I move to switch frequencies, then remember that these walkie-talkies are strictly broadcast. “Er, I guess you heard the man, everyone. Numbers might just be in our advantage this time around.”
“Er, Commander?” Karlsson timidly raises his hand, then seems to realize how silly that gesture is. “I, I wouldn’t be too sure about that. ADVENT is sending in a lot of troop transports. I expect the first ones to get here in just a few minutes. And, er…”
“And what?” I try my best not to snap the follow-up question.
“And, er, troop transports aren’t the only thing they’re sending? You see these big blips, here?” He points to the radar, full of red dots of varying sizes. “These are… battleship, I think. Launching from ADVENT’s main Argentinian air base. ETA, about half an hour. I’m sure the aliens want to capture us, but…”
“…but they’ll still blow us to bits before they let us escape.” I clasp Karlsson’s shoulder. “Good work. Keep an eye on the status for me, will you?”
“Y-yes Commander. I will.”
I throw my walkie-talkie up in the air, let it spin a few times, then catch it. I don’t know why. “Good then. We have the numbers advantage now. So let’s press it. I want each of you to go in full-force, as hard as you can. Let’s blast this ground resistance out of the way before they know what hit ’em, and be out of here before the cavalry arrives.”
And go hard my soldiers do. One killing shot lands after another. Gas grenades, acid grenades, rockets, critical hits…
But I have to give ADVENT credit: they put up a good fight from their end, too. What I initially assumed to be a small defensive force turns out to be a significant complement of troops. ADVENT Troopers, Mutons, Archons, MECs… they even field a Codex. And while our soldiers give much better than they get, that doesn’t mean they don’t get.
We hack, we blast, we stun, we more forward. Barr and Viel’s overlapping fields of grenade fire take out clumps of ADVENT troops at once, and Neko’s timely arrival on the battlefield spells bad luck for the nearest alien’s head cavity.
But in spite of our best efforts, the first ADVENT reinforcements land when we’re not even in sight of the EMP spike.
“Commander!” That’s Karlsson again. “There’s a lot more ADVENT incoming. Except a new ADVENT dropship every minute or two. Er, for now. It’s only gonna pick up from here.”
“Goddamnit.” I rub my eyes. “Steve, I’m gonna need some suggestions. We made good early progress, but we’re running out of explosions and mimics here. If this keeps up… we need a way to that beacon, fast, or we’re gonna get overwhelmed.”
“Commander.” DeHaan’s quiet voice whispers from the walkie-talkie. “Maybe I can help with that.”
“DeHaan!” I shout. “You stealthy bastard. Just what I needed. Tell me the aliens don’t know you’re here.”
A short pause. Then, “I don’t think the aliens know I’m here. My squadmates are doing a good job keeping their attention occupied.”
The next few minute are… tense. DeHaan can only slowly, carefully make his way over to the spike: one mistake, and he’ll get spotted, and that’s the end of that plan.
And it’s not like the rest of the team has it easy either. The ADVENT forces don’t just keep coming, they keep coming from everywhere. Left, and right, and forward, and back… every time I decide to make some sort of forward surge towards the spike, I trigger some alien group or another, or a new flare pops into existence. And then I have to swivel everyone into the nearest cover I can find. Which is fast becoming a challenge all by itself, given how vigorously I’ve exploded most of this forest.
But finally, after long minutes of fighting…
“Commander,” DeHaan whispers, “I have a visual on the spike. It’s guarded by… one Archon and two Vipers. Do you want me to engage?”
“Negative, DeHaan,” I say, “not yet. Let’s get you some breathing room first. Oh, Neko? You think you can draw their attention a little?”
The ADVENT spike guards rush out to meet their attackers. It would buy DeHaan the moment he needs even if they weren’t rushing into certain death.
But one moment is all it takes.
“C’mon, c’mon…” Lily counts on her fingers, baiting out the next EMP pulse like clockwork. Three, two, one… But nothing happens. “Yes!” She starts tapping away. “Alright, Commander, that did it! I should have us ready to go airborne in about sixty seconds.”
“Great!” I turn to Karlsson. “How’s the radar looking?”
“Mad, Commander. They know. I-I suggest we try to get away as soon as possible. They’re burning hard to get to us.”
“Good. Keep your foot on the pedal, then. And-” I suddenly realize something. “What about the ship that shot us down? Is that still nearby?”
“Not in operational range, Commander. It withdrew when we crashed. I… I think the aliens thought they really had us, this time. It’s also turning back around, though, so…”
“The sooner we leave, the better?” I bring up my walkie-talkie. “Great job, everybody! Engineering tells me we’re good to go. Get your butts back on-board fast. I don’t want to leave without any of you, but we can’t stay grounded for much longer.”
If the battle to the spike was difficult, the battle from the spike is a slog. Alien reinforcements touch down literally every turn. It’s one ship after another, over and over.
And, I mean, it’s not like I can just hoof it. Sure, I win if I can get everyone in the designated Avenger Loading Bay area. But the designated Avenger Bay Loading Area is a small, open area, almost entirely devoid of cover. I’d almost be inviting ADVENT to grenade and rocket-blast my entire team to death. So the retreat becomes more of a fighting withdrawal: slowly moving from cover to cover, blasting those enemies closest to the extraction zone or those that I know have strong AoE attacks, and hoping against hope that the next alien dropship puts its payload far, far away from us.
Minute after minute, the air is filled with gunfire, metallic screams, heavy footfalls, and cursing. Until finally…
“Alright,” I say, “that’s everyone. Karlsson! Pedal to the metal!”
“Commander,” Steve crackles, “are you sure? Sensors readings indicate there’s still one XCOM friendly outside the extraction zone!”
“What? That shouldn’t be…” I slap my forehead loudly. “Steve, is your sensor picking up our goddamn second Mimic Beacon?”
And then the Avenger’s loading bay doors close with a screeching groan. And for the second time in as many hours I feel myself lurching; towards the ground, this time, as our home-away-from-home blasts off into the clouds and carries us far, far away from alien danger.
One day later, the Defense Matrix facility finishes building.
“Knock knock.” I peek into Steve’s little office. He’s not normally here, preoccupied as he usually is with flying the Avenger. But I catch him with his head in a stack of papers today.
“Oh, hello, Commander,” he says absent-mindedly. “Can I help you? I was just wrapping up some promotion paperwork. Lots of bonuses, this time. Figure they all earned that. Neko and Blackfox are overdue for Captain, Viel and Barr both qualify for Major status, and I think DeHaan’s done more than enough to get that Sergeant badge.”
“And then there’s Twintails. I don’t think we have any ranks left for her.”
“And once’s that’s done,” Steve continues, “we have to look into structural repairs. We’re still flying, sure, but who knows what damage that crash did? And our targeting and detection algorithms need work too. You know Shen told me how ADVENT snuck up on us? They figured out how we were detecting them. And then they just, worked around that. So that’s gonna be a whole new thing for us to deal with. And then…”
“Steve.” I walk inside and put my hand on his shoulder. “You feeling alright there, pal?”
Steve breathes in deeply, then out. I can feel him shaking a little. “The aliens hurt my baby, Jarenth. This ship’s been my home for twenty years now. And they just…” He gestures limply. “They just dropped it.”
“Yeah, I think I get you,” I say. “I feel that too. Not as much as you, probably, but this place is my home, too. I think everyone’s a little shaken up about this.”
“Well…” A small grin creeps across Steve’s face. “Not everyone. You heard about Viel?”
“What about Viel?”
“That bastard’s doing better than ever. Haven’t seen him in this much of a good mood since… hell, since Wulf died. You know what the other soldiers say? That he was laughing all the way through that last deployment? Aliens dropping left and right, bombs going off everywhere, and Viel was just laughing like a madman, all the way through.”
“Huh,” I say.
“Anyway! I came here to check on you, not him. And I think what you need is some distraction. So, you know what I think will make you feel better?”
“Sending out a team with two rookies to effortlessly blow up another alien communication relay and net us some valuable intel?”
“No,” I say a sly smile, “my idea’s a little different. I figure, the aliens grounding us, bringing the fight to us, that’s them changing the implicit rules of this game, yeah? Rushing into combat zones is our thing, not theirs. So if they appropriate something of ours…”
“…you have something of their in mind to ‘appropriate’ right back?”
“I do, Steve, I do.”