In the last episode of Jarenth Plays XCOM 2, XCOM went through two long-overdue, much-needed upgrades. Of those two, one was fairly immediately obvious: Lily and Richard have (re)discovered how to make human-suitable plasma weapons. Plasma rifles, plasma handguns, plasma shotguns: you name it, we can make it now. And we did! And then we put those weapons to good use in an alien retaliation mission: the first, no less, where the aliens released their NuChryssalids into a human population. And while I don’t want to suggest things would’ve gone poorly for us without the new plasma weapons… let’s just say I was happy to have them.
Our second new tech upgrade has, in contrast, been a bit of a slow burn. For five days now, our new Psi-Lab has been chugging away, quietly infusing its two occupants with powers of the mind. But for today, I’ve set a special alarm clock: the training process is finally ending, and two new very special recruits are about to join the XCOM forces…
The small Psi-Lab is crowded today. Normally, the facility is built to house two occupants, three at the most. Today, it sees almost double the number of people. I’m there, as are Steve, Lily, and Richard. Engineer Dao is here too, waiting to admire the (partial) results of her handiwork. And outside, in the hallway, a sizeable group of soldiers and engineers has gathered to catch what is essentially a glimpse of the future.
And that future is standing at attention in the center of the room. One, a tall bald black man, with intense facial features and neon green armor. The other, a white-haired man in blue-purple armor, face set for a permanent dismissive scowl.
Everybody’s waiting for me to give some sort of speech. I hate speeches.
“Soldiers,” I start. Then I pause, look from one to the other and back, steeple my hands. Then I clap them together. “The expected thing for me to do here is to say something about the two of you are ‘the next leap in human evolution’, or something like that. You can imagine the idea. But I’m not going to do that. It’s true that you are. You may not be the first-ever human psionics, but with you, we have finally proven that those of us who are psionically sensitive can always be taught to reach that potential. Not an evolution, perhaps, as much as paradigm shift. But that’s not what matters here today.”
I look at the both of them again, one after the other, locking eyes until I’m sure I have their full attention. “No, what matters here today is that you are soldiers. You are soldiers of a different breed, the brave and the few willing to tread an entirely new battleground in our fight against ADVENT. The aliens have always had the advantage on us with their psionic mastery. Yours is the unenviable task of equalizing that advantage. Of taking the aliens on in what is more than anything their home turf. And to show them that, no matter how much they think they’ve got us down…”
I turn around to face the rest of the audience, raising my arms up high, “…the human mind can not be beaten!”
As the applause dies down, I turn towards the soldier on the left, the neon-green black man. “Alright then. You are Squaddie… Soberano, is that correct? Did I remember your name right?”
“We prefer ‘Initiate’, Commander,” the man says in a thick Spanish accent. “But yes, that is my name. A pleasure to make your acquaintance.” He extends a hand, and I meet his strong handshake.
“The pleasure is mine then, Initiate Soberano. So, word through the grapevine has it you’ve developed some peculiar powers.”
Soberano nods. “I have, Commander.”
“Could you perhaps give us a demonstration of sorts?”
Soberano smiles a bit of a wicked grin. “Of course, Commander. But I will need you as a volunteer on this. Could you do for me, some sort of exercise?”
“Exercise?” I do a quick jumping jack. “You mean like that.”
“I do, Commander. Please do these until you run out of breath.”
So I do jumping jacks. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty. I’m keenly aware of muffled giggles coming from the hallway. But what kind of commander would I be if I was afraid of looking like a doofus in front of my crew? Rather that they feel free to tell me what they think than that my ego is spared. I mean, I must look like a doofus here.
I stop after thirty-odd jumping jacks, breathing heavily and building a light sheen of sweat. “Okay, that is… *gasp* …that’s enough I think, I… *gasp* …so what happens next?”
Soberano responds by retrieving the strange tool from his back. It looks a little like an oversized catapult, except with a bubble of psionic power suspended in the ‘string’. He holds the tool in one hand and waves his free hand over the bubble, causing it to warp and wobble oddly. Then, in a practiced motion, he moves his hand through the bubble, and thrusts it straight at me. The purple energy follows his motion and flows toward and around me…
“Hey,” I say, my breathing suddenly back to normal, “I feel much better now. Wow! Like I just woke up from a good nap.” I do a few more jumping jacks to demonstrate, as the audience behind me starts cheering.
Soberano smiles again. “Mind over matter, Commander. I add my energy to your own. Certainly, you see how this power has battlefield applications, yes?”
“Focus fire, re-positioning under duress, emergency extraction…” I nod. “Yes, this will help us greatly. Thank you, Initiate Soberano.”
I turn to the other soldier. “And how about you, Squa- I mean, Initiate Vecre? I’ve been told your power might not have developed in the same way as Initiate Soberano’s.”
Vecre nods, then speaks in a light accent I can’t quite place. Is that French? “That’s right, Commander. And it hasn’t.”
“Would you care to give us a demonstration, then?”
“I don’t think that would be smart, Commander. My power’s less about helping people be their best self, and more about blowing up alien brains from the inside out.”
I grin. “Yeah, okay, maybe don’t do that here. But I’m sure you’ll get a chance to demonstrate your ability soon enough.”
“Would love to, Commander.”
“And as for the rest of you…” I turn around. “How about we get to work finding these men a nice psychic testing ground? C’mon, there’s gotta be a good place we can kick the aliens’ psi-teeth in. First one to make the winning suggestion goes onto the wall of fame.”
“We have a wall of fame?” a voice in the back asks.
“I’m starting one today,” I say with a grin. “Coveted first spot! Now hustle, everybody. Back to work!”
After everyone else streams out, the only people left in the room are me, Richard, Initiates Vecre and Soberano, and engineer Dao, already back at work at her training console. I turn to Richard. “Okay, so how do we proceed from here?”
“In what sense, Commander?”
“Well,” I say, “from what I’ve heard, this psychic training program of yours is much more about, er, actual training, and less about just learning things on the battlefield. Or was that just for the opening? How do these guys get even better at what they do, is what I’m asking.”
“Ah, like so! Yes, you are right, Commander. Psionic mastery is much a matter of regimented training. And as part of the development of this facility, I have set up a series of these training programs. Each corresponding to one particular psionic ‘power’, if you will. By devoting all their time to training again, and under engineer Dao’s masterful supervision…” He nods to Dao, who raises a thumbs-up without looking. “…our Initiates will be able to master new psionic disciplines in a matter of days.”
“Okay, that sounds interesting. Is this at-will? Can they choose? Which is to say, can we choose?”
“To a degree, Commander,” Richard says. “While I have no doubt that given enough time, our Initiates will eventually be able to master the full suite of psionic possibility, individual training choices follow a more… erratic path. For reasons I sadly do not fully understand myself, different psionic powers seem to ‘resonate’ with different individuals at different times. It is because of this that our two Initiates have started off with different abilities. We have tried ‘forcing’ each trainee to follow the same training path, but the training simply does not stick if the particular resonance is not present.”
“Interesting,” I say, as Richard hands me a datapad with choices. “Then… I’m going to suggest that Soberano, you should look into Stasis for your next session. And Vecre… ooh, Domination, I like the sound of that. Turning the tables on the mind-control gig, I had fun with that last time.”
“Question, though.” I hand the datapad back. “Does a new training session mean we’ll have to lock the two of you back in those training pods? Because on the one hand, you know, let’s start as soon as possible. But on the other, it kind of undercuts that whole ‘let’s embarrass the aliens with our psychic superheroes’ thing if the next mission rolls around and both of them are doing detention homework.” Vecre and Dao both chuckle.
“That will not be a problem, Commander,” Richard says. “Now that the initial psionic training is concluded, our Initiates’ focus and willpower already exceed most normal human limits. If necessary, you will be able to interrupt their training and send them into combat situations at any time, without loss of training efficacy. And training will be resumed when they return. Unless, of course, they are to get injured; obviously, in these cases, the medbay takes priority.”
“Good then.” I look at Soberano and Vecre. “Then I believe you gentlemen have your orders.” They both nod, curtly, and retreat into their respective training pods.
“Oh, and Dao?” I say as I’m leaving. “Don’t worry. Obviously there’s a place on that wall of fame for our new Psionic Headmaster as well.” Dao coolly raises another thumbs-up, and I pretend that I don’t see her blush.
Steve gets up from his chair and walks over to mine. He hands me a datapad. “Think we got a winning suggestion.”
“Nice,” I say. “Who, what, and where?”
“You know Kjeldsen, who runs comms? He’s not the one, but he intercepted something interesting half an hour back. Another Avatar Project base being built. We have an approximate location.”
“Please be an area we have contacts,” I mumble, exaggeratedly, “please be an area we have contacts, please be an area we have contacts…”
“But,” Steve continues, “then doctor Boonitz — works over in R&D, have you met him? Anyway, he had the idea to sort of ‘equalize the score’. Aliens build a new base where we can’t get to it? We knock down one of theirs that we do know. Bonus points if it’s a base that does doubly important Avatar work: that really sends a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ message.”
“Do we… know any of those bases?” I ask.
“There’s one in East Asia,” Steve says. “Got its second progress pip last week.”
“And we are currently operating over…”
“Well then.” I get up. “Wanna go put our new operatives to the test?”
Join XCOM, they said. See the world, they said. As the Skyranger touches down a few miles outside of Zhengzhou, China, I reflect on the fact that ‘seeing the world’ has involved quite a lot more temperate-looking forests than I’d have imagined.
“Same idea as last time, Menace 1-5,” Steve radios out. “There’s an alien facility somewhere within walking distance, and we’re not leaving until there’s an armed X4 charge on the inside. We’ve got the stealth, they’ve got the numbers, so be careful of any giant robots.”
“I’d call that mean if I hadn’t seen the Shadow Chamber manifest,” I say off-mic as the squad starts hustling.
Steve nods. “Looks like our last attack hit a nerve. I always expected defenses to be tougher this time. Still, for the aliens to actually use-”
“Commander,” Gilbraith radios in, “contact!”
“Permission to engage?”
“Not yet, soldiers,” I reply. “Try to get better vantage first. We don’t know what else is out there, and without scouts-”
“C-commander, contact,” Twintails interrupts. “One of those big robots here.”
I look at Steve, who shrugs, and say, “I guess we should be glad they’re using those things just for defense, now.”
He nods. “I’ve seen them used for warfare, Jarenth. Not a pretty sight. I’ll take giant robot guard dogs any day. As long as we can take ’em out before they do any real damage-”
“Commander,” I hear Vecre hiss. “contact! Another patrol just walked within range.”
“This,” I say, “is starting to look not good.”
“They certainly have our welcome ready,” Steve says. I hear some apprehension in his voice. This is a lot of bogeys at once. And without scouts, they’ll all spot us and turn hostile if we open fire on any one of them. We’ve only got one shot at surprise. So maybe if I…
“Twintails,” I whisper, caught in the moment, “what’s the over-under on you hacking that Sectopod to work for us for a bit? Never tell me the odds, but tell me the odds anyway.”
“S-sorry, Commander,” Twintails stammers after ten seconds, “not looking too good. One in three for the hack, tw-two in three for the stun. You want me to give it a sh- a shot?”
“Hmm.” I think the situation over. We have the element of surprise now. Sixty-six percent chance of keeping it with a successful stun attack, and that would take the Sectopod out for a while. But if she fails, or if I have her go for the hack… regardless of outcome, we’re in the open. And if any try fails, we’re looking at a turbo-charged Sectopod. Plus everything else. Is it really worth…
I shake my head. “Negative, soldier. Thanks for the assessment, but it’s too great a risk. Major Viel! How about you do the one-two opening on Sectopod and friends instead? Like we discussed!”
“One-two opening?” Steve says quizzically.
“It’s real simple,” I say, as I gesture at the screen. “The ‘one’ is that Viel blasts one of his acid grenades into the largest, meanest-looking group he can find.”
“And what’s the two?” Steve asks, as comm chatter spikes up and surprised, sizzling ADVENT troops run — or clunk into position.
“The two,” I say with a grin, “is the second verse.”
“Oh, and Twintails?” I say. “That’s a no on the hacking, but weren’t you carrying something else special today?”
“What are you talk- Oh! Oh, th-the special ammo. The Bluescreen rounds! You’re right, Commander, s-sorry, I forgot. Should I load those now?”
“See that you do,” I say. “And when you’re done loa…” I fall quiet for a second. “Colonel, gimme a second.”
I switch my headset to in-ship only, then ring up Lily. “Shen speaking. What can I help you with?”
“Chief Engineer Shen,” I say slowly, “I have a sudden question for you. Remember those ‘bluescreen rounds’ I had you make?”
“I do, Commander,” Lily answers. “Didn’t you hand those out to the squad? How are they doing?”
“That’s actually what I’m calling about. I had something of a realization just now, and it’s this: how does it make any sense to load special electronics-disabling rounds… in a plasma rifle? How should I picture that working?”
Lily sighs. “Commander, couldn’t this have waited until after the fight?”
“What can I say, I like to know what I’m sending my troops into. Or out with, as it were.”
“Alright,” Lily says, “fair enough. And you’re right, it doesn’t make any sense. Plasma weapons use energy cells, not conventional ammo. That’s why the ‘bluescreen rounds’ are actually a sophisticated targeting system written into the gun’s targeting firmware. The ‘clip’ contains a miniature sensor that scans robotic enemies for weaknesses, weak plating and exposed wires and the like, and adjusts targeting solutions accordingly. I didn’t feel the need to explain all that to our soldiers, though. They have enough on their minds as it is, don’t you think?”
I remain quiet for a few seconds. “Suppose I understand your reason there, yeah. They’ll work as advertised, then?”
“Come on, Commander. When has my work ever not delivered?”
I laugh. “Your bravado is earned, Chief Engineer. Sorry for disturbing you. Jarenth out.”
“Good hit, Commander!” Twintails reports. “It’s still standing, though.”
I curse. Everyone else’s had their shot by now. Except for Gilbraith, who’s too far away to meaningfully hit the Sectopod, and…
“Vecre! I don’t suppose your psychic attack works on robot brains?”
“‘Fraid not, Commander,” Vecre answers. “But if you want any of these ADVENT goons taken out, just say the word.”
“That Shieldbearer could be a problem soon,” I say. “What’s the range slash accuracy on that attack of yours? You sure you won’t miss?”
Vecre laughs a self-confident laugh, and I see him unsheathe his psionic tool. A Psi-Amp, it’s called. He starts waving his hand over it. “Range is no object for the power of the mind, Commander. I can hit what I can see. And as for accuracy…”
He stretches his hand out, like Soberano earlier, and a streak of purple energy follows the gesture. It speeds towards the ADVENT Shieldbearer, unerringly accurate, slamming into the creature’s head before I can even blink. Or well, ‘slamming’: the energy swirls around the Shieldbearer two, three times, and then sort of phases into it.
The Shieldbearer slumps over, dead.
Gilbraith closes out our first combat turn by deploying his mimic beacon. The score so far: three ADVENT soldiers are down, two from Viel’s bombardment and one from Vecre’s… let’s just call it magic. Two ADVENT Stun Lancers are hiding in the distance, a second ADVENT Shieldbearer is currently knee-deep in two overlapping acid pools, and an angry Archon is making evil eyes at the holo-Gilbraith. And the Sectopod…
The Stun Lancer and the Archon team up to take down the Mimic Beacon, leaving the Sectopod free to do something I don’t like.
I inhale sharply through closed teeth. “This cannot be good.”
The leggy Sectopod swivels towards Colonel Twintails, whose poor cover behind a pile a low rocks is looking exceedingly pitiful now. It unleashes a withering hail of magnetic rounds in her direction; it’s only through some form of divine providence that she makes it out without a scratch. It then walks forward with powerful strides, crushing trees and a small shed effortlessly. Why don’t these things operate like this all the time? And finally, it does… something. Another new trick.
“Commander!” Richard chimes in over intercom. “I am detecting a massive energy build up from the Sectopod! Whatever action it is currently preparing, I would recommend our soldiers not be anywhere near when it goes off.”
“I read you, doctor,” I say. “Hate to say it, but this is starting to look like an evac situation. Firebrand, you nearby? We might need you to-”
A sudden explosion rocks the Sectopod. Red arcs of lightning dance from a gaping hole in the left side of its ‘head’. And as the concentric laser pointers fade out, the robot crashes to the ground with a long, metallic groan. It impacts with a loud, dull *thud*; then it explodes.
The five-second silence that follows is broken when Blackfox starts talking in her Bostonian drawl. “Y’see, Commander. When things make themselves really big so they can see everyone else, they sometimes forget that it makes them easy to see too.”
“Soldier, I’m drawing up your wall of fame plaque right now,” I say with barely-controlled excitement. “And as for the rest of you, follow that goddamn example!”
And follow the example, they do. It doesn’t always go as smoothly as I’d like…
But what goes around, comes around.
The remaining aliens, determined not to be outdone, put up a decent fight. The Archon even unleashes a new ability of its own!
I wipe sweat off my forehead after Soberano drops the Archon, and Pusey takes care of the injured Blackfox. “Whew. Bloody aliens. Every time you think you have them down…”
“Just be glad everyone’s still alive. And they can’t have much more in tow. Some turrets on the facility roof, probably. But that’s gotta be it.”
We creep towards the facility slowly. The clustered explosions unleashed have reduced anything that once even looked like viable cover to dust and splinters. But Steve’s prediction seems to hold true. Apart from two super-heavy ADVENT turrets on the roof, the facility approach seems eerily empty.
Soberano’s Inspire power helps a lot in this approach. It turns out that it’s a lot easier to meaningfully attack the turrets if another can run in-range, then get refreshed and immediately attack on the same turn.
One explosion rocks the roof, then a second, then a third. Then the facility quiets down again.
“Alright then,” I say. “Blackfox, do you want to do the honours? There’s a prime X4 spot just beyond the main entrance. Just hop in, place the bomb, hop out, and we can be out of here before any ADVENT reinforcements show up.”
“Affirmative, Commander,” Blackfox answers. “Spotted a good rooftop entrance just now. Moving to access.”
I watch Blackfox on the team’s suit cameras, as the rest of them swing into a superfluous covering position. To the facility, up the ladder, down the hatch, and moving inside until we can just barely see here. She retrieves a familiar package from her belt, looks around for a good place to put it, and-
“Oh, shit!” Blackfox’ voice is suddenly eight shades of panic.
“Oh shit what?” I ask. “Soldier, what’s going on?”
“Enemy contact inside the facility, Commander! I’ve been spotted!”
“What kind of contact?”
“What?” I shout. “There’s a Sectopod inside that building? That’s not fair! How does that even fit?”
“Soldier, extract!” I shout. Needlessly, as I can see her running and hear her frantic footfalls. “Get to some cover, quickly! Hustle!”
But it’s to no avail. This time, when the Sectopod fires, there is no miraculous divine intervention.
I suck in another breath through clenched teeth as the rest of the bridge goes dead quiet. And hiss it back out. In, out, in, out, in…
Snap back to reality. “Viel! You still have your EMP grenade, right?”
“The rest of you,” I say, as the Sectopod fizzles from the blast and slumps over, incapacitated, “I’m calling evac as soon as that thing is down. We can’t risk bringing Firebrand here when it’s still up. Plus, fuck that thing. Light it up!”
“Got it down, Commander,” Twintails reports after a full minute of shooting. “Hit a weak spot. S-sorry I didn’t get it earlier.”
“That’s alright, soldier, it’s not your fault. Let’s just get the hell out of here. Viel, you deploy your X4 instead. And can someone pick up Captain Blackfox? She deserves a better outro than what’s coming here.”
The Skyranger departs, the facility explodes, the Avatar Project is suitably set back. It all feels a little hollow. Not only does Captain Blackfox permanently leave the roster, but Initiate Vecre took a serious hit as well; enough to prevent him from doing more psionic training in the immediately future. And while everybody else is physically unharmed…
“What a ‘test run’, huh?” Steve says quietly. “You alright?”
“Yeah,” I say, deflatedly. “I’m fine. Well, ‘fine’. We got our victory, and the psionics work. We’re doing good, objectively; I understand that. I’d just like there to be less deaths.”
“Same here, Jarenth. Same here. But there’s nothing we can do about it. No single armor’s gonna stop every alien war machine.”
I sigh wistfully. “Wouldn’t that be a thing. Should I ask Richard if he can make us an everything proof shield?”
That elicits a weak grin. “Worth a shot, huh? Who knows, he might’ve been hiding one all along.”
“Hah. I’d be disappointed if that was the case.” I get up from my chair. “Anyway. You’ve got the situation in hand? I have to, er…”
Weak grin again. “It’s alright, Jarenth, I got it. You can go mourn, and sulk.”
And that is exactly what I intend on doing.