In the last episode of Jarenth Plays XCOM 2, I gained my first glimpse into the inner workings of the mind. The inner workings of the mind sure do look a lot like an alternate soldier advancement tree with clearly delineated powers! Who’d have guessed. Thus emboldened and enhanced, I took my squad into a ‘routine’ base-destruction missed wherein I immediately lost Captain Blackfox to Sectopods.
Okay, so psionic powers are nice. I’m not dismissing that. But not even the most extra of actions or the most guaranteed of soul damage can do much against concentrated aliens weapons fire. We need a more old-school solution for that: an engineering solution, all sweat and metal and axel grease. And as it so happens, I’ve been working on just such a solution for a few days now…
“Hey, Jarenth. Didn’t figure I’d find you here.”
Steve has just caught me in what is perhaps the Avenger’s gloomiest area. Opposite our bar — colourful, happy, brightly-lit, in what seems to be a study of contrasts — is our memorial wall. A last collection of memories for the deceased.
“No,” I say. “I don’t come here often, ‘professional detachment’ and all that. But I figured…”
“She earned it?”
“Yeah.” I pause. “Did you notice we started our winning streak when she joined? That ADVENT retaliation with the Berserkers, a few months back. It looked like we were in such a terrible spot back then… and then we just won. And every mission she was part of after that. No deaths, low injuries… I think I started to think of her as, I don’t know, some sort of good-luck charm.”
Steve smiles weakly. “Right up until the end, huh? That mission could have gone much more sour. The fact that we got out of there with ‘only’ one casualty…”
I smile back. “Suppose I can’t argue with that.”
“And hey! You did keep your promise. She’s got fame, and she’s on a wall.”
I spend some time going over the rest of the memorial wall. Most names on here I don’t recognize, unsurprisingly. Even drawing closer to my own ‘extraction’, it’s mostly Rookies McGreen and named soldiers I can’t place. But then there are the people lost on my watch. Wulf, Seabird, Tegler, McNutcase, Gottfried, Hatma…
I sigh deeply.. “I’m just not very cut out for all this death. Rather everybody gets to stay alive. But that’s war for you, I guess.”
I straighten my back and crack my shoulders. “Alright then. We’ll mourn when we’re dead. Is there something you wanted to talk about? Or are you just here for moral support?”
Steve smiles again. “Well it did look like you needed a shoulder. But yeah, there’s business as well. Two things.”
“First thing is, with Vecre out of commission for a week, we’ve got one Psi-Lab pod doing nothing. Soberano’s making good progress on his work, but I figured we could look for a third potential candidate as well. Maybe set up some sort of rotating training schedule. You know, just so we’re not doing nothing in case some of them take hits again.”
“And knowing you,” I say, “you already have someone in mind?”
“You know me too well, Commander. We have a rookie on board with promising test stats. Got the preliminary work for starting his training all taken care of; all that’s needed is your say-so.”
“Alright,” I say, “good idea, consider it approved of What’s thing two?”
“Thing two is that the tech brigade wants to talk to you,” Steve says with a small grin. “Something about a breakthrough.”
“Ooh,” I say, “fancy. Maybe we’ll get lucky and they’ll have figured out that everything proof shield I wanted.”
“Hah! Maybe. But I’d be happy with some fancy power armor, I think.”
“Or a giant robot suit?”
“Or a big sheet that reads ‘ADVENT: NOTHING TO SEE HERE, PLEASE MOVE ALONG’.”
I laugh and clap Steve on the shoulder. “Alright then, I’ll go take a look. Can you show the new Psi recruit to his hotel room?”
“Will do, Commander. Should I put a mint on his pillow?”
“See that you do.”
Turns out the breakthrough that Lily and Richard want to talk to me about is power armor.
“After last mission’s… reminder as to the aliens’ increasing firepower, Chief Shen and I thought it prudent to refocus our efforts on soldier survivability,” Richard says. I nod along as he lectures, while looking at the armor’s blueprints and concept art. “Luckily, our earlier work with alien alloys and Elerium crystals had already led us to theorize about the possibility of creating mass-produced power armor frames with our current production capabilities. We knew where to look, in layman’s terms.”
“Plus,” Lily grins, “those plans you got us off the Black Market didn’t hurt either.”
(I seriously keep lucking into fancy armor plans. The first one I hacked from ADVENT, the second I bought for intel… If there is an even higher tier of armor, I expect to find the blueprints for it in a box of Lucky Charms.)
“Once we possessed both the plans and the preliminary research, actually designing the armor was almost merely a matter of putting the parts together right,” Richard says a little smugly. “Which is not to say that Chief Shen and I have not outdone ourselves again. I think you will be pleased with the new armor’s specifications.” He looks at Lily and gestures. “Which is more your department, so I will cede the floor.”
“Why thank you, Chief Researcher,” Lily says, with only a little mock reverence. I catch Richard smiling. “And yes, Commander, doctor Tygan is right to be smug. We’re calling this new armor type ‘Warden Armor’, and it is a doozy. Magnetically-strengthened alien alloy plates, on an articulation system that uses trace amounts of Elerium for power. Significantly improved protection at no cost to mobility. We even managed to incorporate the old E.X.O. suit’s angled armor plates into this design. These babies can stop a focused plasma blast at five meters without leaving the wearer more than bruised.” She theatrically stops to catch a breath. “Don’t tell our soldiers that, though. We don’t want to get them too reliant on our wonder-suit.”
I laugh. “The way the battle’s going, Lily, I’m sure they’ll find out sooner or later. But seriously, that sounds really impressive, good work. How far are we away from actually building these?”
“Well…” A sly smile plays on Lily’s lips.
“Please don’t say we don’t have enough corpses, please don’t say we don’t have enough corpses, please don’t say we don’t have enough corpses…”
Lily pulls up a spec sheet on her datapad. And…
I let out a breath I hadn’t noticed I was keeping in. “Phew. Pricey, but that’s totally within-range. The Resistance Council’s been keeping us well-supplied, so I figure we can use part of next month’s drop to fund this.”
“That’s intentional,” Lily says. “We tried our hardest to make this new armor as ‘easy’ to build as we could. Nothing more complicated than alien alloys and Elerium in these ones. The hard part was working out the fine engineering.” She nods at Richard, who beams a little. “The actual construction is fairly straightforward. In fact, we pulled some spare parts together and built a first prototype.” She turns her head to the side and yells, “Okay colonel, do the demonstration!”
I bite back the urge to whistle appreciatively — Commander-soldier professional relation and all that. But still, damn. Damn.
“You may notice,” Richard says, “that visually the Warden Armor design borrows quite heavily from our predecessors’ Titan Armor. I hope this similarity does not disappoint you.” He says the last word with a gentle sharpness, which makes me laugh.
“I’m never gonna live that down, am I? But no, yeah, I noticed, but it’s fine. I liked that design, so it’s fine. I just have one question.”
“Are those flame decals on her arm plates?”
Now it’s Lily’s turn to laugh. “Guilty as charged, Commander! I figure we finally have armor that looks good. Might as well have some fun with saving lives.”
“Good, good,” I say happily, “this’ll do us the world of good.” Then I think for a few seconds. “I guess that means we can think about scrapping the E.X.O. Suit and Spider Suits, huh? I mean, the Spider Suit’s grappling hook could still be useful. But if this new Warden Armor out-performs and out-protects the E.X.O. Suit in almost every way…”
“C’mon, Commander,” Lily says with mock indignance. “You didn’t think we’d leave you high and dry there, did you?”
“Suppose I didn’t,” I smile. “What have you got for me?”
Lily nods to Richard. “Doctor?”
“Incorporating the Warden Suit advances into our existing E.X.O. Suit frame, we have developed a particularly potent form of heavy power armor. We call it the ‘W.A.R. Suit’. This suit provides an additional layer of armor, being more resilient than the Warden Armor to about the degree the E.X.O. Suit outpaced our Predator Armor. It retains its heavy weapon power source… and, in fact, its power source is so much more potent that Chief Shen and I have already hypothesized about several ‘powered heavy weapons’ that only the W.A.R. Suit could operate. And finally, we have incorporated some of the technology we recovered from ADVENT Shieldbearers into the design. While we still do not quite know how these troopers manages to ‘spread out’ their forcefields, we have made this suit capable of extruding a limited forcefield for itself. The effect should be akin to taking heavy cover, both for the suit wearer and for any allies nearby.”
“And as for the Spider Suit…”
“C’mon, jetpack,” I say. “C’mon, jetpack. C’mon, jetpack.”
Lily laughs again. “Sorry, Commander. No jetpack.”
“Yes,” Richard says, “while I am aware of the situational effectiveness of the early jetpack suit designs, we have opted to take our manipulation of alien technology in a more… unconventional direction. Specifically, in this particular design we have incorporated technology taken from the Codex. This unique creature’s situational awareness and information processing are exceptional; by applying this to our own design, we have created a powered suit that enhances soldier mobility, and helps with avoiding damage, sometimes by being ‘aware’ of an attack before the wearer fully is.” He adjusts his glasses. “And that is not even the ‘strangest’ ability of this suit.”
“Oh” I say quizzically.
“We have also tried to make use of the Codex’ seemingly-unique ability to ‘teleport’,” Richard says. “It does so, my team has discovered, by locally warping space-time to ensure… but I’ll spare you the details. Suffice it so say, while we could not perfect the teleportation technology, we managed to create an alternate kind of space-warping effect. That is to say: the ‘Wraith Suit’ can temporarily bring its wearer ‘out of phase’ with material reality, briefly allowing them to pass through solid objects.”
“You can imagine, Commander, that it took significant work to create a version of this technology that would not immediately send its wearer careening through the earth.” I nod mutely. “Both in this case, and in the case of the W.A.R. Suit’s shielding technology, a full Elerium core is still required for construction. Nevertheless, I think you’ll find the benefits worth the investment.”
“And,” Lily adds quickly, “it still has the grappling hook.”
“I think I’m inclined to agree with you here, doctor,” I say. I start counting on my fingers. “Let’s see, we have… four cores left. So that would make one W.A.R. Suit, two Wraith Suits, and… design me your most promising powered heavy weapon, I guess. I’ll leave the choice up to you.”
“Alright,” Lily says, “we’ll get that done. Anything else you need Engineering to do?”
“Is there anything else you have for me?”
Lily shrugs. “To be honest, Commander? Not much. We finished excavating the last Avenger room yesterday. And I think we’ve build most everything we had on the planner? Room-wise we can swing two more facilities, and that should also be doable for power if I assign more engineers there. So… maybe another comm station could be good? For if you want to make more connections later? Otherwise, I don’t really have a ton of new suggestions. We might just be flying the best ship we can, right now.”
“Sounds like you’ve mostly answered your own question, then,” I say. Then I turn to Richard. “Anything on your end?”
“Several interesting-looking projects, Commander. But nothing that immediately jumps out. I have no strong recommendations at this point.”
“Then I suggest,” I say, “that you two pick up our studies into thwarting the Avatar Project where we left off. Richard, is your team large enough now to reliably study those Codex data fragments?”
Richard nods. “I am sure of it, Commander.”
“Then that’s your order. And in the meantime, the rest of us are going to sit and wait until an opportunity to test these new armors comes knocking.”
Opportunity comes knocking an unexpectedly calm week later. Seriously, almost nothing happened for six days. I was reduced to harvesting the unclear-looking opportunity nodes on the map.
We touch down in Vancouver not two hours after receiving an emergency help request. A ranking ADVENT scientist wants to defect, and she needs our help to get out. Wow, what a blast from the past. Wasn’t this, like, my second-ever ‘real’ mission?
“Alright squad,” I say, “‘Menace 1-5’. I know we’re all eager to test out our new suits. But don’t get cocky, okay? We’ve made some good progress, but ADVENT’s been raising the security level right along with us. Our goal here is to get Dr. Parker to the extract zone safely with a minimum of fuss. So that means no getting trigger-happy unless we have to. Frederick, I’m looking at you specifically.”
Frederick responds by casually tossing one of his battle scanners onto the street below. The spherical sensor bounces once, twice, and then activates, revealing a first ADVENT patrol just in the distance.
I sigh deeply. “Okay, okay, you’ve made your point. Just… try to keep silent as long as you can, okay? I’d like us to go for at least one minute witho-“
“Commander,” Viel interrupts, “I dropped down the building and there’s an ADVENT patrol here!”
“Frederick, what about the Sectopod?” I ask.
“Not engaging, Commander. I think we’re just outside operational range. Shouldn’t expect things to stay that way for long, but we’re safe for now.”
“Good,” I say. “Then let’s take out this patrol before they can do much about us. Corporal Tropy, care to demonstrate how your electronic warfare training is progressing?”
“And Initiate… no, <>Acolyte Soberano. Major Viel here seems to have put himself in a poorly covered position. Could you maybe incentivize him to reposition?”
The opening battle goes as well as can be expected. I mean, it’s two high-ranking ADVENT troopers and a MEC versus my entire squad. And I got the drop on them. Our super-powered armors and weapons are helping too.
But then I bring the squad down the building and into the street, slowly, to prepare for whatever alien group is inevitably going to be waiting for us near the drop zone. And suddenly the aforementioned Sectopod just casually saunters into view.
And when I try to reposition Soberano for a slightly better shot…
Okay, deep breath. Things could be worse. There are no Chryssalids.
“Troops,” I say, “I’ll level with you, I’m open to suggestions at this point. First one to solve any one of these problems gets a cookie.”
Soberano speaks up first. “Commander, I think I can… delay the danger this Archon poses, briefly. Would that qualify?”
“Good enough, soldier. What’s your plan?”
“It is easier to demonstrate, I think.” Soberano grabs his psi-amp, does the whole hand-waving psionic-power-grabbing thing, throws a strand of purple energy towards the Archon, and…
“C-commander.” That’s Twintails. “If you want, I can try hacking that Sectopod.”
“Good thinking, colonel. Failure’s an acceptable risk here, so go for it.”
“Damnit! S-sorry, Commander, I nearly had it.”
“No problem, Twintails, it was a good idea. Viel! Plan B. EMP grenade, out.”
“Negative news, Commander,” Viel reports. “It’s still up. Might be a little easier to hack now, but…” He falls silent.
I sigh. “Alright then. Want to do the one-two opening again?”
“Looks like we’re not getting that thing down before it get a shot off. Frederick, get into better cover. Pusey, reposition for a better shot. Tropy, deploy your Mimic Beacon. An-“
“Actually, Commander,” Pusey interrupts, “is the floor still open for suggestions? Because I want to point out that I’m the one carrying the anti-robot bullets this time around.”
“You are?” I say. “Oh, yeah, you are. That’s good to know. But do you really think you can drop that Sectopod in one shot?”
On-camera, I can see Pusey’s face twist into a smug smile almost in slow-motion. “Not in one shot, Commander.”
Major Pusey coolly raises his rifle at the Sectopod. He fires, and a thin beam of turquoise energy lances the robot’s hull. A direct hit! Fourteen damage, a ridiculous amount; I hadn’t taken into consideration how effective these bluescreen rounds are. And then, before the Sectopod can even swivel, Pusey has loaded a second energy cell. Without breaking aim, he fires again…
Pusey reports back in when the crackling robot-explosions stop. “Does that qualify me for a cookie?”
“Soldier, I will bake you cookies. I don’t even know how! I don’t think we have a good oven here. I’ll figure something out.”
The rest of both patrols falls quickly. Frederick drops the weakened Viper, and Viel, Tropy, and Pusey team up on the Archon — freshly released from Soberano’s Stasis, though I’m betting it wishes it wasn’t. And the Trooper…
“I’m going to call this an excellent moment to make with the extracting,” I say. “Quickly, before that Trooper brings in reinforcements. Hustle, everybody.”
“Commander,” Frederick says, “permission to test out the suit’s wraith mode for the purposes of hustling even faster?”
“And Twintails! Scan the area. What are we running into? We’re probably running into *something*.”
“Good call, Commander,” Twintails reports after a short while. “Multiple bogeys on the other… other side of this building. Can’t quite tell what, but… that Trooper, I think, two Archons, and something heavily armored. Might be one of those Andromedon suits. Or-or another Sectopod!”
“Grand,” I say. “Well, let’s get as close as possible to our extraction roof before they spot us. Maybe we can get Dr. Parker out of here before more bullets start flying. Or plasma, whatever.”
So the squad slowly sidles up to our exit du jour. One turn goes by, two, three… It feels tense: at any moment the aliens could swing into view and trigger another shootout.
“Commander, we’re all in position,” Viel whispers. “Should we climb the roof? If they haven’t spotted us yet…”
“Ask Dr. Parker to go up first,” I say. “If they do spot us, she’ll be in a prime position to extract — before they have time to set up overwatch.”
Dr. Parker goes up, as asked: another scientist remarkably good at intensive parkour. She climbs up a drainpipe and runs to the middle of the low building roof, where Firebrand’s extraction flares burn a bright blue. And then…
“Er, excuse me? Er, ‘Commander’, I suppose? This is Jill Parker. The nice man in the orange sunglasses lent me his communications device. He told me to tell you when I got to the designated zone, and also to say if there were any ADVENT troops nearby. I, er, don’t think I see any, though. What do I do next?”
“Huh,” I say. “See, if there had been ADVENT troops nearby, I’d have told our dropship pilot to get you aboard as soon as possible. To get you out of the danger zone while our soldiers took care of it.”
“The thought is appreciated. I will refrain from any comment using the word ‘bait’.”
“Fair enough, but… now that you’re not in danger anyway… hang on for a second.”
“We’re all up here, Commander,” Viel radios in. “And not an ADVENT soldier in sight. I mean we can hear movement, they’re probably close. But no contacts. Should we just… leave?”
“I, er…” I look at Steve with a confused expression. He nods back. “I don’t see why not. If ADVENT’s willing to just let us go, then…”
The inside of the Skyranger looks like a fancy car showroom. Fancy, colourful chrome, in all shapes and sizes. But it’s happy chrome, and that’s what matters. I’m willing to call this mission an unqualified success.
Everyone walks away from this mission unharmed! Man, that’s a rare one. I don’t know if I remember that ever happening before? And two promotions to boot. Corporal-now-Lieutenant Tropy continues their training in electronic warfare, becoming only the second soldier we have capable of hacking ADVENT robots. And not only does Major Frederick reach the vaunted rank of Colonel Frederick… he actually picks up an Advanced Warfare Center bonus ability on his last possible rank! Specifically, he gets…
Well, I guess they can’t all be winners. Colonel Frederick’s new rank ability is pretty cool anyway, so it balances out. I like Serial, and I totally hope I’ll get Neko up to this level at some point in the future. But for gun-slinging Frederick, Fan Fire is the perfect way to cap off his training. Combine this with Quickdraw and Lightning Hands, and he can theoretically fire his pistol five times in a single turn.
And with that taken care of…
“Seems like the armor did the trick, huh?” Steve grins.
I grin back. “Wiseguy. But I’ll be honest: if we never actually have to find out if these plates work as well as advertiser, I’ll probably be a happy man.”
“Same here.” Steve sighs. “But that’s wishful thinking if I ever heard some. The aliens aren’t going to stop, Jarenth. We’ve been having a good few weeks, but the Avatar Project has been creeping forward all that time as well. Not nearly as urgent as it once was, but…”
“No, I feel you,” I say. “We’ve been letting it slide for the most. Consciously, because we had to tech up. But it’s probably time we start taking some more active interest in this again.”
I shrug. “I asked Richard and Lily to look into that Codex data. So far, their Shadow Chamber work got us nothing but progress. I’ve got good hope they’ll produce some new leads soon.”
“Bet you one of those fresh cookies that they’ll figure out something horrible again,” Steve says with a weary grin.
“Oh, shit, you’re right! Cookies. Steve, listen, I have an important question.”
Steve’s grin grows a little more energetic. “What’s that, Jarenth?”
“Do you know if we have any flour on-board this ship?”