In the last episode of Jarenth Plays XCOM 2, we did unto the aliens as they would do unto us. How do you like those UFO defense missions now, ADVENT? You mess with the XCOM, you better prepare for the Menace.
The UFO offense mission did show us that the alien tech level isn’t exactly static either. Another new heavily armed and armored enemy very nearly took out two of my operatives. We’re doing good, tech-wise, but we could be doing better. There’s no reason to sit on our mag rifle and plated armor laurels when there are higher, loftier plateaus to be reached.
One of those new plateaus is, in fact, being scaled as we speak…
“Ooh, I think you’ll like this one, Commander,” Lily says with barely restrained excitement, as she leads me to a rarely-used section at the back of the engineering bay. Our test firing range. It doesn’t see much use because we tend to ‘test-fire’ our new toys on aliens. But judging from the elaborate setup.
Lily almost bounds to a stack of crates and terminals near the forward end of the range. Richard is there too, reading some datapad or anything. He nods happily as we approach.
“Eeuugh. It better be.” I rub some sleep out of my eyes as I slouch after Lily. It’s hard enough for me to get enough sleep in the best of times. And I’d be lying if I said the Avenger attack has left me un-rattled, either. The ship does a fair bit of rattling and shaking during normal operations; it’ll be a little while, I think, before each of those shakes pre-emptively sends my stomach upward. But then, that’s not an excuse to shuffle around like some rookie. Focus, self, focus.
“Alright then! Get a load of…” Lily reaches down into a crate, grabs something, and withdraws… “…this!”
What Lily produces is a sleek, curved, rifle. It looks distinctly alien, both from the shape and from the strange blueish-purple colour. She turns it over in her hands, handling it as gently as a newborn and beaming with pride. Richard is beaming a little less, but he’s looking very self-satisfied all the same.
“Introducing the very first XCOM-brand plasma rifle,” Lily says. “Incredible range, pin-point accuracy, puts a magnetically-superheated bolt of plasma right between the alien eyes of your choice before they can so much as squarf about it.” She looks at Richard with something almost like kindness. “I don’t say this often, doctor, but you’ve really outdone yourself.”
“Thank you, Chief. That means much, coming from you. And I admit that my work in enacting a controlled release of energy from portable Elerium crystals was inspired. But all the same, most of the weapon’s impressive combat characteristics are derived from your excellent form factor design.”
“Aw, shucks, doctor.” Lily grips the weapon in a loose firing stance, then looks at me expectantly. “So, Commander? Whaddaya think?”
“It’s, er…” I say. “Is that it?”
“Er, excuse you?” Lily says indignantly. Her good mood evaporates in a flash, unsure of how to deal with this reaction. Richard is taken equally aback. “Commander, are you… not satisfied, with our work?”
I shake my head to get the sleep out my eyes, then raise my hands disarmingly. “No, no, not like that. Sorry, that came out wrong. It looks great, it looks like great work, I have no doubt that it’s excellent. It’s just that…”
“It’s just what?” Lily asks, a little sharply.
“It’s just… plasma weapons again?”
Lily and Richard look at each other, now both equally confused. Richard is the first one to speak up, “Commander, I must confess that I cannot follow.”
“Well, the thing is…” I gesture silently for a few seconds, trying to find the right words. “…From my perspective, we have plasma weapons already, right? Or had. I don’t want to diminish your work, I really honestly don’t. But I’ve gone through the whole ‘human plasma weapons’ reveal now. Like, your studying Elerium, I’m pretty sure Dr. Vahlen did the exact same thing twenty years ago. And we won the last war with plasma weapons that, er, your dad made for us.”
I am suddenly keenly aware that Richard and Lily are looking a little down. No, ‘down’ doesn’t cut it: they look like kittens who fell into the fish bowl. Maybe it wasn’t my best plan to approach their cool science breakthrough with dismissive disdain.
“Okay,” I say, “I’m going to apologize here, I’m sorry. I am. You guys worked really hard to prepare this thing for me and I’m just being a gloomy gus about it. The two of you have done great work in super limited circumstances, and no twenty year old war detracts from that. I’m super proud of you, I really am.” That seems to lift their spirits back a little north of neutral.
I gesture emptily some more. “I guess… what I’m really disappointed about is that we’re ‘back’ at plasma weapons. You understand? I just woke up in this cool techno-future, with EMP grenades and flying cars and power armor and hacking hover drones. And now you guys are telling me that the top of our tech three is ‘plasma weapons again’. I guess I was just hoping we could maybe surpass the aliens for once. We’ve had all that time! It feels really off that the best we can do is play catch-up again.”
“Oh.” Lily grins slyly. “Is that what you meant? Because in that case, lemme tell you: we’ve done more that just ‘play catch-up’ this time around.”
“For instance…” She raises the rifle and points it across the range, at a target with a stylized drawing of a twenty-year-old Muton in on it. She pulls the trigger; the gun whines for a fraction of a second, and then blasts forth a thin lance of glowing energy.
“Took us a bit of time to get that colour just right,” Lily says with a grin. “Nothing says ‘professional alien-fighting group’ like beam weapons that match the colour of your logo.”
I perk up. “Okay, yeah. I’m down with this now, I’m excited. What else have you got?”
“Well…” Lily gestures towards the range, where the Muton test dummy lies on the floor, scattered into a dozen broken pieces. And there’s a clearly visible smoking hole in the boxes that were holding it up. And a glowing turquoise spot on the ship wall twenty feet behind those boxes.
I whistle appreciatively. “Nice.”
“The accuracy and destructive power of our plasma weapon designs is unsurpassed among human firearms,” Richard says, “and quite probably outdoes many of the aliens’ lighter designs as well. You can already see the effect they have when wielded by Chief Shen here. In the hands of one of our experienced soldiers… I need not impress on you how much the aliens will come to regret this development, I think.”
“Not to mention our weapons are much safer to use, too,” Lily says. “Did you know how fragile those alien guns are? They take one big hit, and they basically fracture on the inside. And at that point they’re just time bombs with a trigger.”
“That’s the reason we haven’t been using any alien guns, then?”
“Correct,” Richard says. “Our initial tests along that line nearly cost engineer Kjeldsen the use of his hands. But once we identified the issue, we spared no expense in correcting it in our own designs. These weapons would survive a fall from the Avenger’s cruising altitude without loss of functionality.”
“And finally,” Lily says, “we made these puppies easy to use, too. There’s a lot of alien engineering under the hood here, but as far as the form is concerned, it looks and works and handles just like a regular gun. We even managed to make them work with our existing weapon upgrades.”
“Yes, that is correct,” Richard adds. “While I feel this plasma beam technology will eventually lead to revolutionary new types of weaponry, for the moment, we have incorporated them in firearm types our soldiers are familiar with. For ease of immediate adoption, of course.”
“Alright,” I say, crossing my arms. “So what have you got?”
“Well, you’re already looking at our ‘rifle’ range of guns,” Lily says, raising the weapon she’s holding for effect. “They’re assault rifles that fire beams of plasma, simple as that. And if you shrink them, you get handguns instead.”
“We have also had some success with testing a fracturing prism made of alien alloys. Channeling a beam of plasma through this prism results in a multidirectional blast of several beams of only slightly reduced intensity. While this weapon is practically useless at longer ranges, at shorter ranges, this beam-splitting effect will result in impressive injuries.”
I nod. “Plasma shotgun, I gotcha.”
“I also had a neat idea for adapting the rotating barrel frames of our old assault cannons to use a plasma reactor. Barrel overheating’s a big problem in the pistols and rifles, but if we rotate and cool ’em well enough…”
“Plasma minigun?” Nod nod.
“And finally,” Richard concludes with something of a flourish, “I have some highly experimental plans drawn up for an advanced plasma focusing chamber. I suspect I need not spell out what weapon type we would enable with a plasma beam that loses coherence not after meters, but after miles.”
“You need not,” I say. “Great work, both of you. Sorry I was so down earlier. This is exactly the power boost this organization needs right now!”
“Well,” Richard says sheepishly, “when we actually finish designing and building all of them.”
“You’re right! Designing those things is now your top priority, Richard. I want a plasma gun in every soldier’s hands before Christmas, you hear me?” I turn to Lily. “And as for you…”
Lily smirks. “You want me to build ’em?”
“I was actually going to ask about our other little project. How’s that going along?”
“Oh! Er, I’m not actively building that myself, I’ve been busy with this. But I have three engineers working on it. And I haven’t seen any problem reports or delay requests yet. I figure… one week, that should do it.”
“Then unless the aliens pull some stunt on us,” I say, “I hope to see the results of your hard work in one week.”
Then I realize what I just said, and I facepalm loudly. Lily laughs.
Contrary to expectations, however, nothing at all happens for a full week.
“This room,” I say, “is very purple. Again. Is purple your colour or something?”
“Come on now, Commander,” Lily says with a grin. “It’s the psionics! Can’t build a psionic facility that’s not purple.”
“I suppose you’re right about that.”
“So,” I say. “Walk me through the place. How does this work.”
“Well, er,” Lily replies sheepishly, “Tygan can probably walk you through the theory of it better. If you want the lecture later. All I know is the basics of how it works.”
“Good enough for now. Hit me.”
“Well, it’s kind of a three-step process.” She walks to the computer screens on the left side of the room, sits down in the fancy-looking chair, and brings up some dossiers. “First, we use a simple screening procedure to test potential candidates for psionic sensitivity. I, er, suspect that Tygan might’ve adapted some of the Gene Therapy screening algorithms we recovered from the Forge for that. But for a good cause, I guess. It’s working like a charm so far; we’ve already got two potentials.”
“Oh,” I say. “Who are they?”
“Er… two rookies. I don’t know if you know them.”
“Huh. Only our rookies are psi-sensitive. That’s a coincidence. Or haven’t you gotten around to testing the senior soldiers yet?”
“Oh,” Lily says. “No, no, we don’t test them.”
That takes me aback. “Why not?”
“Well, you have to understand that we’re taking a different approach to psionics in here. I know that back in your day you just awakened psi powers in whoever had them and then let them work it out on the field. But Tygan, I have to give him credit, he actually designed a whole training schedule for this place. Very rigorous, real serious. Our Psi Operatives don’t just flail around, they actually train.”
Lily sits still for a moment, then gestures sheepishly. “Well, you know. There’s some flailing involved. It’s still not an exact science. But listen, the point is this: there’s not really room to follow psi training, and keep regular soldier skills up. It just doesn’t overlap. Not enough hours in the day.”
“Huh. Okay then. That makes some sense, I guess.” I cross my arms. “Go on.”
“Step two,” Lily says, “is that our chosen volunteers spend most of their day in the pods.” She gestures to the right and back sides of the room, where I see two sealed-off areas. There is a bed and a holographic projector in each ‘room’. “And when I say ‘most of their days, I mean we couldn’t figure out how to fit a bathroom in there. But otherwise, they study here, they sleep here, they get their meals delivered. It’s serious stuff.”
“I’ll say,” I say. “They just sit here alone all day?”
“They can,” Lily says. “But it’s actually easier if there’s an engineer here, to help them with the training programs. You know, just load the right procedures and stuff. Gao actually volunteered for that duty, so that works out.”
“Fascinating stuff, this psi-work,” I hear a voice come from one of the pods. A bald white woman rises up from behind one of the holo-projectors. She waves sheepishly. “Hey, Commander. Sorry, didn’t mean to spook you.” I nod to her with a grin.
“And, well, that’s it,” Lily says. “Our volunteers train for a few days, and when they get out, they have psychic powers. Or better psychic powers. I think? This is actually the part that Tygan lost me on, you’ll have to ask him.”
“I’m sure I will,” I say, “sometime.” Lily grins. “In the meantime, what kind of wait can I expect?”
“Five days, give or take. We’re prepping the volunteers for their stay now.”
“Then unless the aliens pull some stunt on us…” I say with an eyebrow waggle.
“Commander to the bridge,” Steve’s voice suddenly blares from the ship intercoms. “Commander to the bridge. Urgent alien situation requires your attention.”
“Shouldn’t have tempted fate twice, Commander,” Lily grins. “But don’t worry. I’ll take care of our little psi-guys while you go solve this.”
“Alright!” I walk onto the bridge with my arms outstretched. “I’m here now. Sit-rep me!”
“ADVENT retaliation strike, Commander,” Steve says without skipping a beat. “Eastern European wilderness. Officers, Troopers, Shieldbearers, all elites. Heavy MECS.” He looks at me seriously. “And Chryssalids.”
I swallow loudly. “Okay then. I’m thinking alpha squad. What do you think? Viel, Barr, Twintails, Frederick, Gilbraith, Pusey?”
“Already sent them to get equipped, Commander.”
The Skyranger reaches the impact zone two hours later. It’s nightfall as we touch down outside the Resistance Haven; all-too-familiar flecks of burning ash are visible on the air. And, of course, there are screams in the distance.
“Okay, troops,” I say slowly, “I know I say this stuff all the time, but you’re really gonna have to pay attention now. Be. Careful. There are Chryssalids in this civilian area. And you better ask whatever god you believe in to help us get to those civilians before they do, or you’re going to learn just why I had such a panic attack the first time around. Is that clear?”
“Clear, Commander.” “Clear.” “Crystal.” “Y-yes sir.” I get a chorus of affirmative replies. Let’s just hope they actually mean it.
Because we have to move out.
“Contact, Commander! Heavy MEC and a Trooper!” I relax for a moment, then tense right back up. Sure, they’re not Chryssalids. But these new Chryssalids burrow. They could still be everywhere.
Alright, Jesus, Jarenth. Get it together. You have advanced armors and a small set of plasma weapons. You’ve dealt with Chryssalids before. You can deal with them again.
The first patrol falls soon enough, partially due to some clever maneuvering…
…and partially due to our entirely excellent new plasma rifles.
And with one human rescue under our belt, we move into the first alien turn of the day.
I don’t really know how to deal with the fact that nothing happens during the alien turn. The sounds of gunfire and dying in the distance, I could handle. Chittering and biting and hatching, I’m afraid of, but at least prepared for. But nothing? Surely this has to be some sort of… delayed plan, right? I can’t just be lucky right now?
“Commander,” Twintails reports shakily, “C-Chryssalids spotted on the GREMLIN scan! Three of them, across the river. And one of those mud monsters too, bu-but I figured you’d want to know this first.”
“Good call, colonel,” I say. “Are they aware of our presence yet?”
“Great. Major Barr, do you want to make the Chryssalids aware of our presence?”
A guttural chorus of cries goes out as three battered, bleeding Chryssalids rip from the underbrush.
Back in the relative safety of the Avenger bridge, Steve shakes his head. “Not your best move, Jarenth. Figured you’d have hit ’em with something harder while we still had surprise. Now they’re coming for us.”
“I want them coming for us,” I say, “specifically because I want to hit them hard.”
Steve raises an eyebrow quizzically. “What’re you talking about?”
“Well,” I say, “remember those Elerium cores we scrounged out of that UFO? And how we’ve mostly been using those to make fancy grenades, and armor? Well this time around I asked Lily to put one of them in a special heavy weapon instead. For the E.X.O. suit.”
“Special heavy weapon, huh? You gonna tell me what that is?”
“I’ll do you one better.” I tap my comm headset. “Hey, Major Viel? I don’t know about you, but I’m thinking it looks like we have a dangerous bug infestation on our hands. Would you mind showing Central Officer Bradford here the recommended way of dealing with dangerous bug infestations?”
“Okay,” Steve says, “I’ll admit that was impressive.” We watch as the squad mops up the remaining heavily damaged Chryssalids. “Not particularly practical, mind you. Limited range, limited cone of effect, doesn’t shred armor like the rocket does. But impressive.”
“Just enjoy the Chryssalid barbecue, okay.”
Unfortunately for everyone who isn’t us, the next few turns are… less civilian casualty-free. I have to move forward slowly in this map, I have to: there could be buried Chryssalids in any location. And I flat-out refuse to have soldiers die to such amateur-hour bullshit as ‘moving too far and triggering an invisible enemy that I then can’t take down in time’. Sadly, this means that the aliens have plenty of time to enact their gruesome work in the distance. One civilian dies to magnetic rifle fire, then two, then three…
Making matters worse is the fact that there are almost no civilians near my starting area. Only two people have been rescued so far. I am not doing too hot on the performance statistics here, is what I’m trying to say. And to complicate stuff even more, I can see clusters of civilians in two distinct directions. Which means I have to order the squad to split up, and go in two directions at once… which only reinforces the absolute need to take things slow and steady.
Which means we’re too late to stop this from happening in the distance:
A chill goes down my spine as we hear tell-tale sounds of gnashing jaws and chittering legs put an end to a drawn-out scream of fear. We can’t actually see what happened, but I know. I just know. Steve knows too; I catch him shaking his head and muttering softly from the corner of my eye. It sounds like he’s whispering “goddamnit” over and over.
When Frederick’s battle scanner finally gets a limited visual on the area, the result is even more horrible than expected. Which is strange, because what I expected to see was a grotesque, shambling zombie. But instead, it’s… a disgusting orange cocoon. A wet, translucent, fluid-filled sac about the size of a small dog house, that pulsates in a regular, shuddering rhythm. Several dark forms can be seen moving beneath the surface.
The last thing we see before the battle scanner’s camera battery gives out is a section of the cocoon rupturing, violently, as familiar spindly purple legs burst forth.
“Steve, I really don’t want to be here,” I say with a cracked voice.
“Me neither, Jarenth.”
“I really really don’t want to be here.”
“I know.” Steve puts a hand on my shoulder. “I know.”
I grab his hand in my own. “But if we don’t take care of this…”
Steve looks at me with a sad smile. “…who will?”
“Vigilo Confido,” I say. “I hate that phrase sometimes.”
We move forward, hesitantly. Viel is the one who first spots the second ADVENT patrol. Civilian-saving has put him in a bad spot with regard to this, so I have him move — just a tiny little bit — three feet to the side, the adjacent side of a large headstone he’s already standing beside.
Obviously, this 5-foot-step move triggers a hidden Chryssalid. It bursts through the wooden floor of a burning church, rushes out, and immediately slashes Viel with its poisoned claws.
I slam my console desk hard. “Frederick, Twintails! Take that thing out!”
“Commander!” Gilbraith’s voice cuts through my anger. “Pusey and I are under fire on the east flank! We’re giving as good as we’re getting, but it’s chaos over here! And ADVENT’s still targeting civilians — not sure we can stop ’em alone!”
“Jarenth, we have to do something,” Steve says urgently. “If we don’t stop ADVENT from killing soon, we might as well not have shown up in the first place. These people are counting on us!”
“Yeah, I understand,” I say. “Don’t worry, we got this.”
“Commander,” Frederick crackles over comms. “Orders?”
“Frederick! You, Pusey, Gilbraith, take out those ADVENT troopers as fast as you can. Unshielded ones first, then target the Shieldbearer as a priority.”
“Commander,” Barr cuts in, “a Chryssalid just crawled up real close to me. Looks a lot weaker than the ones we saw earlier, I think it might’a just come from that cocoon. But I don’t like the way it’s looking at me right now. Permission to blast it? Though, be advised: I’ll probably shoot it anyway regardless of your answer.”
I’m interrupted by loud, hacking coughs. Viel is the one who speaks afterwards. “Commander, I… sorry, but I’m not feeling very good. I, er…” Silence for a few seconds. “I don’t think this poison is like that Viper stuff. I… think I might just die if you don’t help me.”
“No, you’re right,” I say, “I’m sorry. Doctor Tygan warned me about this. Pusey, can you do the honors?”
Under concentrated fire, the ADVENT patrol and the visible baby-Chryssalids fall quickly enough. The cocoon has long since burst, thin translucent skin layers the only gory reminder of its horrible origin. And I hear no more gunfire in the distance… the carnage seems to be dying down…
“Sorry, Jarenth,” Steve says, as if reading my mind — or my face. “I checked the seismic readings. There’s still activity in the area. Must be more Chryssalids underground, waiting for the right moment. We can’t leave until they’re all dead. If they get even a single kill in…”
“C-Commander,” Twintails checks in, “did… did you have something you wanted me to do?”
“Not right now, colonel,” I start. “Not much we can while those bugs are underground. Get the remaining people to safety, I guess. Because unless we have a safer way of getting them…”
Gears click into place in my head. “Actually, colonel, belay that order. I want you to deploy your Mimic Beacon… somewhere we haven’t been yet. Try west of the church. Call it a hunch.”
“Will do, Commander,” Twintails answers. “It, er… it won’t go all alive on me again, will it?”
“I don’t see any space orbs around here, soldier. Do you? Just deploy it, you’ll be fine.”
Twintails tosses her beacon in a lazy arc. It hits the ground, rolls to a stop, and actives, projecting forth a completely normal blue-white Holotar beacon. One that projects targeting information, if memory serves, in both electronic and psionic formats. And now, let’s just hope that…
Success! Two hissing, screeching Chryssalids unburrow almost immediately. As the real Twintails slowly backs away, almost visibly shaking, the two monsters fall on her holographic doppelganger, trying to tear it to shreds with their razor-sharp poison claws.
And then, just as suddenly, a second objects thuds to the ground, next to the beacon. The Chryssalids have only a fraction of a second to process this information before this one, too, activates.
Gunfire rattles for half a minute before one wet crunch follows another. I look at Steve hopefully. “Are we done now?”
“Sorry, Commander. More seismic signatures still.”
I sigh. “Gilbraith?”
I turn toward Steve as the tell-tale sound of Barr’s mag cannon winds down. “Are we done no-”
I sigh, again. “Pusey?”
I look at Steve with almost pleading eyes. “Are we done now?”
Steve taps out some commands on his sensors, then looks up with a broad smile. “Yes. Yes, Jarenth, we’re done. Menace 1-5, you’re done. That was the last one! Come on home, everybody! And make sure you bring all our resistance friends with you.”
“Not many this time,” I say quietly.
“Enough,” Steve says warmly. “Barely, but enough. It’s still a rescue. They’re gonna see it as a rescue. And they’re gonna tell everyone XCOM came through when their world was fire, and death, and bug monsters from outer space.”
I smile weakly. “Just like Tijuana twenty years ago, huh?”
“Anyway.” I get up. “Can you take care of promotions this time?”
“Sure,” Steve says. “Why? What are you going to do?”
“I am going to see,” I say, “if I can book some alone time in those Psi Lab pods. Because, right now? Five days of solitary confinement and psychic homework sounds like an excellent idea.”