In the last episode of Jarenth Plays XCOM 2, our new power armors certainly did the trick vis-à-vis: keeping everyone alive on the battlefield. Well, a combination of armors, heavy weaponry, psionic powers, and dumb luck. But listen: the armors definitely helped. I daresay, in fact, that it looks like we’re more or less at the top of the tech tree. No more easy examples of alien technology to steal, reverse-engineer, and improve upon: what we have now is probably what we’ll be working with for the foreseeable future.
If both we and the aliens have halted our upward mobility, that means the onus of XCOM should re-focus once again on finding and stopping the Avatar Project. We’ve been letting it slide, for the last few weeks: only reluctantly assaulting and exploding an alien facility because it was sort-of in-the-way. But there’s no putting it off any longer. Every moment we delay is another inexorable step forward in… whatever is is the aliens are planning. We’re honestly still not sure?
We’re getting closer and closer to uncovering the truth, though. For example, doctor Tygan has made some very interesting discoveries in his latest Shadow Chamber work…
“What kind of meeting time we looking at today, doctor?” I ask. Richard, Steve, and I are clustered around a particular data console in the Shadow Chamber, summoned here on Richard’s request. “I’ve got cookies on a heat source that I prefer didn’t burn.”
Steve raises one eyebrow. “You found an oven after all?”
“Well, no,” I say. “I had to balance one of those metal supply crate lids on the ridge of our main generator. That thing gets pretty hot up-close, even with alien tech. You’d figure space travelers would be good at insulating, but there you go.”
“This will not take overlong, Commander,” Richard says. “I only need a few minutes to explain…” Then he stops, suddenly processing my earlier words. “Wait, you are baking cooking in my lab?”
“That is where the generator, yeah.”
“But… but what about the risks? What if your baking overheats, or burns?”
“Relax,” I say. “Worst case scenario, your lab smells like burnt cookies for a day.”
“But that would be awful! Think of the impact on our productivity!”
I lean forward slightly. “Then I guess we should make sure that doesn’t happen, huh?” Steve chuckles. “Plus, look on the bright side: everything goes well, and your lab smells like fresh cookies instead. I can’t imagine a better productivity booster.”
“Ah, I see. Well.” Richard adjusts his glasses. “At any rate: as I was saying, I only need a few minutes to explain the significance of our new findings. With the help of our expanded research team, and Chief Shen of course, we have managed to isolate and decipher the remaining blocks of data retrieved from the Codex Brain.”
He brings up an image of a gangly, four-armed naked alien. It’s hauntingly familiar, so much that it takes me a few seconds to place the significance of what I’m looking at.
“Is that… an Elder?” Steve says quietly. “Haven’t seen one in at least a decade.”
“An ‘Elder’?” I ask. “I thought that looks like an Ethereal. What’s an Elder?”
“Ethe- Oh, yeah. You weren’t here for that. It turns out this species refers to themselves as Elders. We just called them Ethereals, because of the whole floating-alien-wizard thing. But they introduced themselves as Elders when they first went ‘legit’, and the Speaker keeps calling them that. Guess the name kinda stuck.”
“Yeah, I see how that works. One name’s as good as another.” I turn to Richard. “So, what have you learned about these ‘Elders’?”
“They are dying,” Richard says nonchalantly.
Steve’s eyes grow to dinner plates. “Wait, what?”
Richard brings up more data. Charts, graphs… a zoomed-in picture of an Elder’s head with DNA markers next to it. And then he starts explaining.
“The Elders appear to be afflicted with an aggressive form of tissue degeneration. Rapid muscular atrophy, to a degree I had not even thought possible. Were I to use layman’s terms, I would say that their bodies are ‘eating’ themselves from the inside out.”
“Wow,” I say. “Why?”
“Ironically, what we have long seen as the Elders’ greatest strength is now turning out to be their fatal weakness as well. The Elders’ psionic powers are the source of their affliction. The mental abilities they can project are so significant, their bodies simply cannot keep up with the energy demand. And as their powers slowly increase with age, so too does the strain on their bodies.”
“You’re saying their shitty bodies can’t handle the power strain?”
“Exactly, Commander. Physically, the Elders have always been quite frail. If left untreated, this added condition will surely kill them eventually.”
Steve *harrumphs*. “Sounds like our job just got a lot easier.”
“Unfortunately,” Richard replies, “as with most things involving this adversary, it is never quite that simple. The Elders’ tissue degeneration has been the driving force for their interstellar expansionism. Every species they’ve met, every world they’ve conquered: all have stood in service of finding a cure for their condition. But, so far, no clear solution has presented itself.”
“That is to say, until now. I am still unsure of the specifics, but the aliens have found something in the human race. Something important enough to cause them to take root… and set up a large-scale program to study.”
“The Avatar Project,” Steve says. “Have you figured out what it is, doctor?”
“Unfortunately, no,” Richard answers. “While the Codex brain data files we have recovered were… insightful, several key files were deleted irretrievably. The instructions to do so were labeled the ‘Avatar Directive’. I have no doubt that these files would teach us what we need to know. And I might be able to recover them fully, were I to gain access to a fully functioning Codex…”
“Are you mad, Tygan?” Steve asks in a huff. “You want to bring another one of these things on board? You forgotten what happened last time? We’re lucky we came out alive!”
“I did not say I needed the creature here, Bradford,” Richard says sharply. “Only that I needed access. Which I know I can gain remotely, provided our soldiers are willing and able to get close to one in the field without destroying it.”
Richard produces a bright blue holographic bracelet knife. “Remember this item?”
“That’s the Skulljack,” Steve says. “You’re saying you want one of our soldiers to hack into an active Codex?”
“That is exactly what I am saying, Central. With the modifications I have made to the item, I am confident doing so would allow us a moment of unguarded access to the alien psionic network.”
“Problem with that plan, though, doctor: we haven’t seen a Codex on the battlefield for months. Not since they brought the Avenger down. Do we really not have a better way forward than hoping we stumble across one of them?”
“Please, Central, you wound me. As part of planning this operation, I have devised a sort of Codex signal. This is based off the electro-psionic signatures we detected when applying the Skulljack to the ADVENT Captain. If I employ this signal before our next combat mission, whatever that mission is, I can promise you a 95% probability of at least one Codex appearing on the battlefield. And then…”
Richard suddenly stops talking. He walks over to me and waves his hand in front of my face. “Hello, Commander? Are you paying attention?”
“Huh?” I shake my head. “Oh, yeah, sorry. I was paying attention, I heard what you said. Hacking the Codex. I was just… thinking about something?”
“Cookies again?” Steve asks with a smirk.
“No,” I say, “it was… avatar.”
“Yeah, so were we. You sure you were paying attention? We were talking about the Avatar Project the whole time.”
“No, not the Avatar Project,” I say. “Or, yes, probably also that, but it was more about… just, ‘avatar’.”
“…Commander?” Richard sounds a little guarded.
“Avatar,” I say, tasting the word on my tongue. “Avatar. A-va-tar. It’s a good word, I like it. Back where I’m from, or maybe back when I’m from, we used that word for all sorts of things. Computer characters, or a movie about blue jungle cats, of a show about a bald wizard kid fighting evil firemen. Avatar.”
I look at Steve and Richard. Neither of them speak, so I continue. “But the word itself actually means something. Avatar. It dates back to Hinduism, I think. An ‘avatar’ is the physical incarnation of a distant presence. A mortal human body for divine power to inhabit, so they can act on Earth. That’s the kind of thing that ‘avatar’ originally refers to.”
“So…” Steve says slowly. “Is there a… point, to this?”
“My point is…” I gesture to an edge of the Shadow Chamber, where the strange stasis suit we recovered from the Forge still lies. “…what if the Avatar Project’s meaning is literally in its name? What if the Elders’ plan is to create avatars for themselves? New bodies, ‘human’ bodies, that can… deal with their psionic power, somehow?”
Steve and Richard are silent for a long time. Richard is the first to speak up. “That is an… interesting theory, Commander. While I would not suspect the aliens to take the archaic meanings of old human words as literal… I have to say your idea aligns with a lot of what we now know about the Elders’ motivations. I am unable to make any meaningful value judgement on your theory, at this moment, but… I will certainly take it under consideration.”
(Future Jarenth’s Note: It’s worth noting that, while playing this section and taking episode notes, I didn’t actually have any real idea of what the Avatar Project was building to. Commander Present Jarenth’s reasoning here is all my own reasoning, thought up at the time of getting to this project.)
“Anyway,” I say, “you’re certain that signal of yours will get us a Codex?”
Richard nods. “Certain, Commander.”
“Then I guess our current game is the waiting one. It probably won’t take long for the aliens to try and pull something we can use. Do you have something to keep yourself entertained in the meantime?”
“I have several autopsies I could still conduct. The Andromedon, the Berserker, the orb-like creature we have taken to calling ‘Gatekeeper’…”
“Sure enough,” I say, briskly walking to the Shadow Chamber’s exit. “Before you start cutting up disgusting aliens, though, let me get my cookies out of the way first.”
“Looks like we got our choices laid out for us,” Steve says.
I’m inclined to agree. The so-called ‘guerrilla ops’ — directed operations to counter ADVENT’s incipient Dark Events, if that wasn’t abundantly clear by now — are normally quite the devil’s choice. We can always only do one at a time — we only have one Skyranger! So do I want to counter the event that increases recruitment costs, the event that increases intel costs, or the event that guarantees ADVENT reinforcements for a month? And then there’s the ‘rewards’ to consider: do I want a new engineer, a new high-level Ranger, or a hefty batch of Supplies?
This time, though, the choice seems almost… trivial. None of the Dark Events seem like they’ll particularly influence me; there’s nothing on the level of ‘the Avatar Project jumps ahead by two blocks’, only more spending and more fighting. And the rewards aren’t particularly enticing either. All that matters for me right now is doing a mission where we face a Codex… and true to his word, Richard’s signal has ensured that happens no matter where we go.
And so off to Saint Petersburg we go!
“Who should we give the Skulljack to?” Steve asks while we’re going over troop loadouts. “Jones again? That worked last time… sort of. Or did you have another idea in mind? Should probably be someone with a Wraith Suit, for the reach and the mobility, but otherwise…”
I nod. “Agreed. But not Jones this time. I’m nominating DeHaan.”
“Cause he’s got the training,” I say. “You’ll see. Plus, maybe we’ll get lucky and some of that family name has rubbed off on him. Remember that other DeHaan? The Claw?”
Steve chuckles. “How could I forget. You think they’re related?”
“You know, I never asked. It felt insensitive.”
You can feel some mild excitement in the air in this late St. Petersburg afternoon. Much like the last time we took the Skulljack out for a spin, there is the sense that failing to use it right here means failing. We have to nab a Codex to proceed with stopping the Avatar Project. The fact that we’re sure now a Codex will even be here helps, but the whole plan is still shaky. So many things could go wrong…
I turn to Richard, who — as usual for ‘important’ missions — has joined the rest of the senior staff on the bridge. “Richard, question. Would the Skulljack actually work on one of those Codex clones? If it came to that?”
“Hmm.” Richard scratches his chin. “Tell you the truth, Commander, I am unsure. We have never been able to study the Codex ‘cloning’ process in controlled circumstances, for obvious reasons. I do not know if the copies possess a similar electronic brain to the originating Codex. That would imply an advanced level of instantaneous matter duplication… While this is an interesting question indeed, I think it would be best if we try not to answer it today.”
I nod. “Agreed. Getting to the Codex in one piece, if we can help it.”
Firebrand has dropped the squad on one corner of a large single-story shop of some kind. Our ‘goal’ — a chemical composition report of some kind that I’m honestly not even sure how it would help us counter the ADVENT ‘Raise All Intel Costs’ Dark Event’ — is on exactly the other side of the complex. Because Firebrand likes trolling us, that’s why. I make the executive decision to send the Wraith Suit wearers, DeHaan and our new trainee Sharpshooter Cordy, up the roof for scouting purposes, while the rest of the squad goes… let’s say right.
The decision pays off almost immediately.
“Oi, C’mmander,” Cordy radios in in a mild Scottish twang. “Contacts here. Trooper ‘n a Stun Lancer, and also one of those robots you want’d.”
“Excellent work, Cordy,” I say. “Stand down for now, stay out of sight. Let the rest of the team get in position first. And DeHaan? This is gonna be your moment. Get ready!”
It takes the team about a minute to more-or-less get in position. It’s a tricky proposition: we want to get this as ‘right’ as possible, because we’re only likely to get one real shot at it. But all the same, as with like 60% of the missions we go on, there is a time limit on this one. And I would actually like to get this mission right as well, if at all possible.
But then the Codex patrol walks to right underneath the roof that my Wraith grapplers are hiding on. And if that’s not a sign that it’s now or never…
“Alright, DeHaan,” I say, “activate your suit and run-and-gun it. Look sharp, everyone! It’s go time!”
See, what makes DeHaan so suitable for this operation is that he alone has the Ranger skill ‘Run And Gun’, the XCOM 1 holdover that lets the user move twice (or dash) and still take an action. And I am really hoping that this applies here, too.
“Understood, Commander.” DeHaan activates the Wraith Mode on his suit and runs to the roof edge, through the roof edge, and to a spot right next to the Codex. This actually only takes him a single move action; if the Codex could just stand around for a few seconds…
Obviously, the Codex does no such thing. Wraith Mode does nothing to prevent DeHaan from being spotted, and — as usual — the ‘surprised’ ADVENT patrol gets a free move to whatever cover they fancy. But I’m not bitter about this or anything. The ADVENT Trooper and Stun Lancer opt to scatter to the various benches and garbage pails scattered around the little neo-park they stand in. But the Codex plays it smart: the Codex runs inside the house. It probably thinks it’s pretty clever, sitting in good cover away from possible XCOM attacks and guarding the only real direction of entry. I have to imagine it feels some robotic equivalent of surprise when DeHaan runs straight through the wall, winds up his secondary throwing arm, and smashes the Skulljack straight through the Codex’ robo-brain.
“We are in, Commander!” Richard says triumphantly. He’s tapping away hastily on the console he claimed. “Avatar Directive has been disabled. We have full unrestricted access to the Avatar Project files. Attempting to download now…”
I turn to Steve. “So, what do you think’ll happen? Feedback, reinforcements, explosion?”
Steve shrugs. “Wouldn’t know, Commander.”
“Well, last time we hacked that ADVENT Captain, we got our first-ever Codex to appear. So now that we’re hacking the Codex… what do you think? Double Codex?”
From behind me, Lily chuckles. “Codex riding a larger four-legged Codex?”
“Now you’re getting it!”
Steve grunts a half-chuckle. “You really think something new’s gonna show up?”
“It happened last time. And weird techno-nonsense aside, the aliens have been pretty predictable so far.”
“Fair enough. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see wha-”
“Commander!” Richard hastily interrupts us. “I am detecting a massive spike of energy on the alien network! Coming our way! Reading as psionic, and mechanical, and… biological? Can that be right? Is…”
But the rest of Richard’s thought is lost as we all watch another psionic explosion warp into being, similar to the one that first brought us the Codex.
But what we see this time is…
“Fascinating,” Richard says softly. “It appears we are looking at an entirely new breed of alien combatant. Something that has eluded all observation by resistance forces up until this point…”
“Alien?” Lily asks, almost indignantly. “Doctor, I’m sorry, but are your glasses on wrong? That’s a human being! It’s a human psi-op, just like ours! Look, it even has a psi-amp on its back.”
“C’mon, Lily,” Steve says, “didn’t you hear what the doctor said? It’s biological and mechanical and psionic? Whatever that thing is, it’s some sort of human-looking alien thing.”
“I think you’re wrong. That’s a human.”
“That’s an alien.”
“That,” I say sharply, “is an Avatar.”
All three of them look at me quizzically. I rub the bridge of my nose with my fingers. “Look, do I really have to spell this out for you people?”
Richard recovers soonest. “Well, regardless of ‘what’ this creature is… we will have to find some way of taking it out, and bringing it back to the Avenger. As much in one piece as possible, though I understand that circumstances might dictate otherwise.”
I tap my headset. “Menace 1-5, you heard the doctor. There’s a new alien in town and it’s coming home with us. But be careful, stay on guard. We have no idea what these things are capable of.”
Unfortunately, the two ADVENT soldiers still on the field take out the Mimic Beacon before it can distract the Avatar. Which leaves it free to walk up to DeHaan’s hiding place, and…
“Commander! The new alien is right here! It’s… it’s whispering to me, it’s… it’s in my head, it’s in my…” I cut off DeHaan’s audio feed with a sigh.
“Commander,” Steve says, “DeHaan was our only visual on that thing!”
“I know, I know.” I switch comm frequencies to… “Major Barr! One of your teammates just got mind-controlled by that Avatar thing. So we need to take that out as soon as possible. I know it’s a long shot, it’s out of vision range on the other side of a building and all that. But do you think you can put an acid grenade in its last-known location?”
“Commander,” Barr answers lazily, “you wound me.” This is followed by a familiar *thunk*. “I was calculating the shot angle before you even picked up that radio.”
A strange cacophony of sounds emerges from the building’s blind side. First the familiar acid blast, of course. Then, sort of a deep semi-electronic howl, equal parts anguish and static. And finally, the tell-tale sound of psionic fuckery…
“C’mmander,” Cordy radios in, “that ‘Avatar’ just appeared in the distance! Jus’… popped right up!”
“Shit,” I say. “Richard, check the signatures! Did it clone?”
“It did…” Richard quickly taps away on his console. “…not, Commander! I still only detect one Avatar energy source. The cloning capability seems limited to just the Codex.”
“Phew.” I wipe my forehead theatrically. “Then all we have to worry about is that it can teleport.”
Now that the Avatar is in a more visible place, we have a chance to actually look at it. It does really look human, at a distance; the form factor is perfect. Only two things distinguish it from your garden variety XCOM Psi-Op. One, where normal humans have a face, the Avatar seems to have some kind of… metal visor on the front of its head. And two, close to the Avatar wherever it moves, floats an eerie purple hologram of sorts. It’s a familiar-looking hologram, even for me: the Ethereals may have changed their name and their dress, over the last twenty years, but their image is burned into my mind enough to recognize it almost instinctively.
“‘Scuse me, C’mmander,” Cordy interrupts our musing. “But that thing just jumped straight into m’ line of sight. Permissi’n to show it why y’ never stop downwind of a sniper?”
I grin. “Permission granted, soldier.”
The Avatar static-howls again, them teleports again… almost right back to where it started. Just outside the acid, sadly. But now that I’ve moved some other soldiers around a little, that puts it right in vision range of…
“Initiate Vecre,” I say. “Right in front of you is what might well be the ultimate expression of alien psionic power. Would you maybe care to demonstrate how little that means for us humans?”
“Gladly, Commander,” Vecre grins. He brings out his psi-amp, sends a streamer of psionic energy towards the Avatar, and…
“Commander, I have some strange news and some good news.”
“Strange news, you say?”
Vecre nods. “It’s like… this ‘Avatar’ doesn’t have a mind of its own. It’s being controlled, by some other force, across the psionic network. Without that connection, this thing would just be a… vegetable. It’s a meat puppet. I don’t even know it it’d survive that.”
I waggle my eyebrows at Richard, in sort of an I told you so motion. “I suspect I can guess what the good news is, then, soldier.”
“You probably can, Commander. All the damage this shell has taken has severely weakened the strength of the link. I don’t know if I could do this under ‘optimal’ circumstances, but as things stand now…”
Vecre makes a particular hand gesture, and the Avatar howls again. But it’s an extended howl this time, almost bestial, that gradually decays in stronger and stronger static. And the ghostly Elder floating behind it raises all four of its arms defiantly… before shattering into a million strands of psionic energy.
The Avatar slumps over forward, dead.
“Excellent work, soldiers,” I say, as the bridge breaks into applause. “Now make sure you bring that spooky corpse back home with you.”
“Will do, Commander,” Barr answers. “You want us to finish the actual mission here as well?”
I look at Steve, who nods. “Might as well, right? I can’t imagine there’ll be anything you guys can’t handle. Take care of the turrets on that facility, and Pusey, you do the hacking. Get that report and then we can all go home.”
Am I being overly optimistic here? Probably. Are things going to go wrong that I have no control over? Oh, almost definitely.
The facility exterior isn’t incredibly well-defended. Two turrets, which we take care of, and one Heavy MEC, that lazily walks outside only to be greeted with overwatch fire. Some more ADVENT troops on the inside, that help me remember Barr still hasn’t used her W.A.R. Suit rocket yet.
The only spot of real danger comes when I order Pusey into the building, to — with one minute left — disarm the container bomb. This exposes him to the final alien patrol: two Archons, and… another one of those Gatekeepers, oddly enough.
Sure, I know what you’re thinking: Pusey is inside the building, and those aliens are outside. Problem solved, right?
“Commander!” Pusey radios in hurriedly, just seconds after we get confirmation of the bomb being disarmed. “It’s getting real busy here! That Gatekeeper orb just smashed straight through the bloody wall!”
“And… *oof* …it just tried to grab me, or something!”
“And… *oof* …Oh, great, now the Archons are flying in as well. Commander I’m… *oof* …in a real bad situation here!”
“Soldier, I’m not sure I heard you right,” I say. “Did you just say, ‘all the aliens we need to kill to complete this mission just clustered up in an easily bombardable area’?”
“No, Commander, I…” Brief silence. “Okay, yeah, I see what you mean. Making my way out now.”
Again, I ask: do I really have to spell this out for you?
The conquering heroes return home a few hours later. Light wounds here and there, but spirits are high. Not only did our armors do the trick a second time — they actually worked, this time around — but we did it. We really did it. We brought back home an Avatar.
I watch with Richard as volunteers carry the Avatar corpse towards the Shadow Chamber. “This is it, then, huh?”
“It is… something, alright,” Richard says carefully. “Although, to be honest, Commander… I do not quite know how to study this specimen. I do not even know where to begin. There is so much we could learn from this single…”
“Richard,” I say, “focus.”
“Yes, certainly. Sorry. I believe this ‘Avatar’ can provide us with a wealth of different study trajectories. But it is simply implausible to pursue all of them on only a single specimen. Were we to get our hands on more… But no. Working under the assumption that this is the only Avatar we are likely to get, I have to make the decision to postpone investigating it until we are absolutely sure what it is we want to study.”
“Understandable. What would be your suggestion?”
“I would suggest investigating the ‘psionic gate’ we retrieved on our first Codex-inspired mission,” Richard says. “Chief Shen and I have made remarkable progress in returning this artifact to some semblance of functionality. It is highly likely that a study like this will raise more questions than it answers… but maybe, if we are lucky, these will be questions that our Avatar can answer.”
I nod. “Sounds like you have a good plan, then. Take your time, work things out, and report to me when you have anything to share.”