In the last episode of Jarenth Plays XCOM 2, we finally encountered the eponymous Avatar. One of the eponymous avatars, at least. And then we killed it, and dragged its corpse home with us. For ‘study’. Definitely not for stringing up in the training room and using as an ersatz boxing dummy; that would just be weird. I don’t know why you’re even suggesting this.
Richard cautioned against cutting open our one and only Avatar corpse too quickly. Without evidence to the contrary, we have to work under the assumption that this is the only one we’re ever likely to get. And trying to study it without knowing what we’re really looking for is a good way to squander that unique opportunity. All other Shadow Chamber projects should be completed first, he cautioned.
And that’s what brings me to the Shadow Chamber on an early, early September morning…
“I still can’t believe,” I say, “that you managed to fit that whole thing in here.”
7:00 AM on a Saturday is no time to be awake. That’s just an immutable fact of life. You’d figure that ‘weekends’ and ‘mornings’ start losing their meaning after you spend a few months on a war-ready globe-trotting hover-ship. But that just goes to show you how resilient the human spirit is. The human drive for sleeping in, specifically. I’d nuke all of ADVENT right here and now for five more minutes.
Alas, the life of a Commander. When your highly-trained team of scientists and engineers tells you they’re on the verge of a major time-critical breakthrough, there really is no rest of the weary. And that is why my sleep-deprived self is currently staring at an oddly smaller version of the stargate we once encountered in New Brazil.
“Hah.” Richard smiles, only a little condescendingly. “You have our knowledge and mechanical know-how to thank for that, Commander. While you are correct that the original gate was significantly larger, installing that gate into the Avenger would obviously have been impossible. But Chief Shen and I managed to identify and extract only those parts vital to the gate’s operation, discarding a significant amount of material that seemed to be nothing more than ornamental.”
“Didn’t know the aliens had an artful side,” I mumble. “It’s still strange, though. It almost looks like a scale model.”
“I assure you, Commander…” Richard pushes a few buttons, and the gate springs to purple life with a crackling *woosh*.
This is usually where Lily interjects with engineering insight, or jokes at Richard’s expense, but this time nothing is forthcoming. I look around, and see her hunched over a workbench. She seems to be fiddling with her personal GREMLIN unit, the one she calls Rover. And muttering, “Hate to do this… but you’re the only one who can pull this off. You know I’d go myself if I could.”
Richard follows my gaze, and nods. “Ah, yes. The Chief is wrapping up our final preparations. Once the test subject is prepared, we can begin.”
“Doctor!” Lily’s snapping anger is tinged with some anxiety. “I told you not to call them that.”
“Ah, yes, I apologize. Once your… pet, is prepared, we can proceed.”
“You know,” I say, “I was never too clear on how capable these GREMLINs actually are. Are they intelligent?”
Still hunched over her bench, Lily nods. “Uh-huh. More or less. We base them off alien AI research. So, like, first-generation GREMLINs were about as smart as a dog. But not like a clever dog? More like, the kind of dog who falls for that ‘I didn’t actually throw the ball’ trick three times in a row.”
“We have actually tested this,” Richard adds. “It took a population of 100 early GREMLINs an average of 2.6 fake-out throws to wise to the trick.”
“The newer generation of GREMLINs we run are significantly smarter than that. We put ADVENT MEC AI subroutines in them, if you remember. IQ-wise I’d put them around the level of a five-year-old human child.”
“Impressive,” I say.
“Uh-uh. And I don’t think we’ve hit the upper limit yet. I’d love to get my hands on some real high-level ADVENT AI. Like the programming that runs their Sectopods. I’m sure I could do great things with that. But, you know. I have no idea where we’d get any of that. It’s not like we can just bring one on-board. Don’t even know if the Skyranger could lift one.”
“I guess we have never tried, huh?” I say. “We’ve never fought a Sectopod in a mission where we could clean up afterwards.”
“Well, something for the future,” Lily says. She straightens her back and wipes her hands on a nearby towel. “As for now, we’ll just have to work with what we got. And that means…”
“…This looks weird,” I say slowly, “and I can’t quite articulate why.”
“Heh.” Lily pats the drone’s housing, affectionately. “I stripped one of the Codex brains we had lying around to the core, then hardwired that core into Rover. That’s what you’re look at: a little flying robot with an extra outside brain.”
“I guess that explains the weird uncanny valley-revulsion,” I say. I then turn to Richard. “And I guess you can give me the explanation for why we’re doing this.”
“Most certainly, Commander.” Richard walks over to the portal, still humming with shapeless purple energy. “Our primary goal in this project is discovering the how and why of the alien psionic gateway. I personally strongly suspect that the portal’s origin point must be a location of great importance to the aliens; perhaps even the heart of the Avatar Project itself. But so far, all our attempts to have this portal open for us have failed.”
“And I assume you unplug it in-between sessions, yeah?” I ask. “Because I’d hate to see a portal into whatever alien stronghold is on the other side open for them.”
“Of course we have taken all necessary precautions, Commander,” Richard says. “But to continue my explanation: after testing the portal itself had proven fruitless, a breakthrough came in realizing that the Codex’ enigmatic teleportation might somehow be linked. And it is! We now understand that when the Codex teleports, it actually taps into the alien psionic network to briefly create a short-range point-to-point matter transportation effect. A ‘flash portal’, if you will, although the effect is more closely related to quantum tunneling and spatial… But I will spare you the details. Suffice it to say, the portal does over the long term what the Codex does over the short term: creating psionic spatial gateways.”
“Alright. So how does that realization help us?”
“I understand now that what our portal was missing is an operator,” Richard says. “For the portal to work, an entity needs to interface with the psionic network and send a particular data stream into the portal’s system. Coordinates, I assume this data represents, although I hope this test will provide more insight.”
“You’re not sure about this?” I ask.
“I am not,” Richard admits. “We have pulled this data stream from the inner recesses of the Codex’ databanks. We know it is the right one, or at least a right one, for activating the portal. But what the effect actually entails…”
“You can see why I’m worried for Rover,” Lily says. She pats the GREMLIN again, then fiddles with its… face, a little. “There. We’re set to record across all spectra. Remember: go in, take some quick readings, then come right back through, okay?”
The GREMLIN — sorry, Rover, bobs up and down and whirrs in response. Then it flies over to the portal and waits, bobbing up and down expectantly. Richard taps out a series of commands on a console nearby…
The swirling psionic energy inside the portal opens up, and reveals… a sight. Clearly an alien facility, from the looks of it: we see strange colours and organic-looking twisting spires, as well as other psionic gateways in the distance.
“It looks like our Codex signal has been received,” Richard says. “Connection is stable and seems to be holding…”
“Connection to where, though,” Lily says quietly. That doesn’t look like anyplace we’ve been before. Or any place on Earth, for that matter.”
“I agree,” Richard says. “Perhaps this is the source. The aliens’ ‘seat of power’, if you will. Secured beyond any conventional physical access.” He nods to Rover. “There is, of course, only one way to find out for sure.”
Rover turns around to Lily and whines questioningly. Lily nods. “Go on, then. We’re counting on you.”
Rover turns back around and heads towards the portal. On the large monitor, we can see the feed from its front-facing camera. The gateway part of the portal grows wider, and wider, with every passing second… until Rover actually passes through the portal’s aperture. Suddenly there is a bright flash of purple light. And the portal slams shut and closes down as Rover is ejected violently.
Lily rushes over to the fallen GREMLIN, drops to her knees, and starts checking components and fiddling with hardware. A few tense seconds pass… and then Rover’s lights flash, and it gives off an empathic whine. The relief on Lily’s face is palpable. “That might have been a failure, but at least you’re alright.”
“Actually,” Richard says, “the experiment should a considered a success.”
Lily looks at Richard accusingly. I interject before she snaps at him, “sorry, doctor, but can you explain that? It didn’t look very successful.”
“Our data shows otherwise,” Richard says, as he brings up several charts I can’t parse. “The process did work. There was an instant when the device… sorry, when Rover was between in-between locations. A psionic travel limbo of sorts. However, at that point, the gateway called for a second signature, to complement the one we were sending out. An organic signature. When Rover could — obviously — not provide one, the portal system generated a feedback pulse.”
“So what does that mean?” I ask.
“Two-factor authentication,” Lily says. I see her carry the damaged Rover to her workbench.
“I agree,” Richard says. “Or, to use another metaphor: if the Codex’ mechanical signature creates the doorway, then the requisite organic signature must be the ‘key’. Both are needed for travel.”
“So…” I say slowly. “That means… the Codices wouldn’t be able to use this portal for travel either? Right?”
Richard thinks for a second. “Yes and no, Commander. I do not know if you remember my original report, but the Codex brain is actually not fully mechanical — there are biological components to the design as well. These presented a mystery on first study, but I believe that mystery has been solved here today. That said, I do not believe the Codices actually capable of opening and sustaining larger, longer portals. The power drain is simply too large. We had to feed a significant percentage of the Avenger’s Elerium core into this experiment.”
“Okay,” I say. “Then who does? Maybe that space orb race? The ‘Gatekeepers’?”
Richard shakes his head. “While that would make their name amusingly prescient, I am afraid that the Gatekeepers lack the mechanical integration to operate this portal network. Their outer shell is, as Chief Shen put it so eloquently, essentially power armor. No, whatever species is responsible for managing an expanded psionic portal network must exist in a narrow region of specifications. It must have the mechanical components necessary to send the first part of the signal and ‘open the door’, it must have the biological aspect necessary to ‘turn the key’, and it must have enough raw power at its disposal to set the process in motion. Elerium-driven power, most likely, although I suspect a substitute could be found in…”
Richard falls silent. He turns his head, and I follow his gaze, toward a distant corner of the Shadow Chamber. There, on a gurney, lies the familiar form of the creature we brought back home only day ago. A few tufts of bright white hair poke out from underneath its sheet cover.
“…psionic power?” I say questioningly.
“Commander,” Richard says, “I believe I have decided what goal we should put our once-in-a-lifetime find toward.”
I nod. “Make it so.”
Richard walks to the gurney and pulls off the sheet, revealing the cracked and battered form of the Avatar underneath. He traces an index finger over its chest. “If my predictions are right, the final answers to our questions mi-”
The lights around the Avatar corpse sputter and flicker. And then, as we watch, wisps of purple psionic energy leak from it. They coalesce over the head, forming the familiar (if see-through) image of an Elder. We hear a breathy voice whisper “we had such hope for you…“. And then the image pops like a bubble in a shower of purple sparks.
The silence that follows is only broken when, in the back, I hear Lily say, “I’m gonna need one of you guys to tell me that I didn’t just hallucinate that.”
There’s a palpable sense of tension on the Avenger. But a slow tension, if that makes any sense. This isn’t the pulse-pounding fight-for-your-life tension we had when the aliens shot us down, or the gung-ho fighting-for-what’s-right tension whenever an active squad is out on a mission. This tension is like the calm before the storm. For the longest time, all we’ve been doing is fighting to stay alive, see another day, and maybe make the world a little bit of a better place. There was no real consideration of ‘winning’, because we didn’t even know what that would look like. But now? We actually have something of a plan. We have a portal; an important one, if the security is anything to go on. We have the outlines of a plan for getting in. And when Richard and Lily say they’re working out the final pieces of the puzzle… we don’t say it out loud a lot, but our faith in our science and engineering departments is pretty much absolute. The tension we’re under is an anticipatory tension: it feels like we’re inching closer to a real, final resolution. Endgame, if you will.
The aliens seem to feel it too. It might be my imagination, but they seem more… withdrawn. In the several days following the portal test, we don’t see evidence of their activities at all. No openings for guerrilla ops, no supply convoys, no new bases, no retaliation strikes. Nothing. We while away the time collecting resources and strengthening the global resistance network, all the while waiting for the other shoe to drop. But that doesn’t happen. Either the aliens have gotten more secretive about their operations, which is not entirely unlikely given how much we’ve been wrecking shop… or they, too, are battening down the hatches.
Five days pass in the blink of an eye. We collect Resistance Council supply drops, buy fancy gun parts at the Black Market, and train. It’s all there is to do.
“It won’t be easy,” Lily says, “but I think it’s the only option we have at this point.”
“Agreed,” Richard says. “We must inform the Commander immediately.”
“Go right ahead,” Steve says, as both he and I walk into the Shadow Chamber. I wave jovially and say, “Yeah, what he said. What have you got for me?”
Richard gestures at the table we are all standing around. The Avatar is lying there, seemingly no worse for its autopsy wear.
“The Shadow Chamber has completed its analysis of the Avatar’s DNA. We now have a full overview of the creature’s unique makeup. And I am… in retrospect somewhat surprised to say, Commander, that your earlier prediction was more or less entirely accurate.”
“Wait,” Lily says in faux shock, “he guessed it?”
“Predicted, thank you,” I say with a wink. “And people say linguistics isn’t a useful skill set.”
Richard nods, and starts pacing as he talks. “As you surmised, the Avatars are clearly intended to serve as ‘new bodies’ for the Elders. The specimen is a near-perfect fusion of human and Elder DNA, in much the same way as we have seen with the other alien races. But using only psionically-sensitive human DNA in the process has created a being that is uniquely suited for the draining burden of this power. The template is furthermore specifically designed to suppress the creature’s natural higher brain functions. This leaves it in a ‘vegetative’ state until such time as an outside force, like an Elder, psionically connects to it. I am unsure how this process works exactly, but I hypothesize that it involves some sort of transfer — the Elder essentially ‘uploading’ their mind into the specimen. Swapping bodies, if you will. And then…”
He stops, and looks directly at the Avatar’s faceplate. “The aliens have built an elaborate new society here on Earth, a government system, and a system of careful disguised culling, all to fuel the creation of this. Their Avatars. And at the cost of countless human lives, they are now on the cusp of succeeding.”
“On the cusp?” Steve asks. “Doc, it seems to me they’re already there.”
“Ah!” Richard raises a hand. “But there, you would be wrong. This particular Avatar still seems… incomplete. I am unsure what to attribute this to, but the genetic makeup of this particular specimen is still not ‘whole’, in a developmental sense. There are gaps that I cannot explain, gaps that I would have expected to be filled with Elder DNA. Whatever the reason, it means that this Avatar is, essentially, a work in progress. It would not be able to sustain and bring to bear the full brunt of its psionic potential, I think, until whatever development process it must still go through is complete.”
“…You’re saying we beat a baby Avatar?” I ask incredulously. “I guess that does explain why the aliens’ top-tier unit went down like a chump.”
“Yes.” Richard nods. “Were we to face an Avatar at the height of its abilities, I do not believe the exchange would end in our favour quite as much.”
I shiver. “Chilling.”
“Anyway,” Lily cuts in, “back to the present!”
“Ah, yes,” Richard says. “In scanning this Avatar’s DNA, the Shadow Chamber has identified the particular genetic sequence necessary to travel through the psionic gateway. The ‘key’ sequence, if you will.”
Steve chuckles. “Great work, doctor. We’re ready to take the fight to the aliens, then?”
“Yes and no, Central. There is a… complication. The DNA sequence in and by itself is not enough to initiate transmission. It has to be part of a live subject.”
“Oh,” I say. “That’s bad, isn’t it? That means we need a live subject that has… how did you say it? The biological and the mechanical and the psionic parts all in the right way?”
Richard nods. “We could theoretically substitute Elerium power for psionic power here on the Avenger. But yes, whatever creature opens the portal still must adhere to its stringent entry demands.” He looks down at the table. “And so far, the only creature we have seen that does…”
“What,” Steve says, “you’re saying we need an Avatar? We don’t have time to find another one of those things. Let alone capture it!”
“No, don’t worry,” Lily says with a slight smirk. “That part we can handle. We make our own.”
“Er.” Steve and I look at each other, then back at Lily and Richard. “You’re, eh. You’re gonna have to explain that to us, I think.”
“The process is in reality quite simple,” Richard says, only a little haughtily. “Three things are needed to ‘create an Avatar from scratch’: Human genetic material rendered from psionically active humans, Elder genetic material, and a template for casting them together. And we possess all three.” He gestures widely, across the depths of the Shadow Chamber. “The stasis suit we recovered from the Forge provides us with a base Avatar template, a ‘blueprint’ if you will. We can extract Elder DNA from our current Avatar specimen. And while the circumstances of its creation were exceedingly horrible, the human genetic material recovered from the blacksite is the final needed component. There is some sense of justice, maybe, in this gruesome product being used to fight off the alien invasion once and for all.”
Steve crosses his arms. “Suppose I accept all that. What’s the catch?”
“‘The catch’?” I ask.
“There’s always a catch.”
“Central is right, I am afraid,” Richard says. “While we have all components necessary to create an Avatar specimen physically, I have already explained that these creatures have no higher brain functions. Without an Elder consciousness to ‘drive’ it, our specimen would remain as lifeless as the one on our table right now. And while I can develop the body from scratch, I cannot do so for the mind.”
“But I can,” Lily says chipper. “Well, in a way. The Elders connects to their Avatars through the psionic network, right? I’ve found a way to emulate that connection. Without the ‘brain downloading’ part. But it’s totally possible to manipulate this new Avatar remotely.”
“You gotta be kidding me,” Steve says. “You wanna operate one of these things… by remote control?”
“Not exactly,” Lily says. “And definitely no me.”
“The only way a creature of this complexity could effectively be ‘manipulated’,” Richard says, “is by directly interfacing with it over the psionic network. The operator would effectively cast their consciousness into the Avatar body, experiencing and controlling it as if it were their own for the duration. But interfacing with the alien network is this way is highly dangerous. Normal human nervous systems are in no way designed to handle this type and quantity of data: the results would likely be fatal, and almost certainly severely debilitating, to any unprepared individual.”
“That kinda puts a damper on the plan,” Steve says. “So what’s your solution? I assume you have one.”
“As it so happens, our solution is serendipity. The nervous system alterations necessary for surviving the psionic network are also necessary for surviving any amount of time in an alien stasis suit. In a sense, the two concepts are identical: the body is confined, while the mind is cast somewhere else. And as ‘luck’ would have it, we have one individual among us who we know for sure has survived this ordeal before. Who we know for sure has survived interacting with the network, in fact, as well as getting getting extracted from it. Due to the extensive modifications to their nervous system, this individual alone would be capable of providing ‘consciousness’ to our Avatar, opening the gateway to the heart of alien power, and ending the Avatar Project once and for all.”
All three turn to look at me.
“Let me tell you,” I slowly say, “how much I’ve come to hate everything about my life since I woke up aboard this ship. There are 37.2 trillion cells inside the human body. If the word ‘hate’ was engraved on each nanoangstrom of those hundreds of cells…”
“C’mon, Jarenth,” Steve says, almost pleadingly. We’re sitting on the Avenger’s command bridge, arguing over the revelations of the last hour. Well, ‘arguing’. Steve doesn’t seem to like the idea of me undergoing a radically dangerous, completely untested procedure that might let us defeat the aliens. I, on the other hand…
I sigh. “What choice do we really have, Steve? You heard Richard. We need an Avatar to get through that portal. It’s probably gonna be our only shot. Within the time we have, anyway. I wish there were alternatives, but we have to play the hand we were dealt.”
“You don’t know that, though! Look at how much everything keeps changing all the time! We might run into a better option on our next mission! I don’t see how it’s defensible to let yo-”
“Sir!” We’re interrupted by engineer Patterson, who’s taken up more or less permanent residence on the bridge since our EMP incident. “Sorry to interrupt, but we’re receiving a high priority message.”
“A message?” Steve asks. “From where?”
“Looks like it’s coming from… the ADVENT Network Tower, sir.”
“The Tower?” I say quizzically. “What, are they broadcasting something?”
“Negative, sir. It’s narrow-band, directly straight at us.”
“So they know where we are, huh.” I look at Steve, who shrugs. “Alright, put it up.” Patterson taps out a series of commands, and we soon find ourselves face-to-face with…
“Cato?” I say incredulously. “What the hell? What are you doing? You’re broadcasting straight at us! From the Network Tower? What do we even have security protocols for?”
“Hello, Commander,” the Councilman intones. “I apologize for this… unorthodox method of contact. But ADVENT has increasingly been cracking down on our communications channels. Our previously-secure channel is no longer in place. And tell me: how many weeks ago have we last spoken like this?”
“Er…” I start counting on my fingers.
The Councilman nods. “Exactly. I have been content to let you work independently. You and your crew are to be commended for your great efforts in forging a unified resistance, and uncovering the truth about the Avatar Project; news that has, through slower channels, managed to reach all of us.”
He straightens his shoulders. “But the news I have today bears breaking this enforced silence in this drastic way. In finding and taking out the Avatar, you have done what few before you have ever managed to do: kill an Elder. But ADVENT is not taking the death of an Elder lightly.”
Images fill the screen as the Councilman talks. Containment cocoons, like we saw in the blacksite, vaguely filled with human shapes. DNA sequences. And then human profiles, one after the other, quickly overlapping until they fill the entire screen.
“The Avatar Project has now entered its final stage. A plan is now in place for the rapid processing of all ‘non-essential’ human life. To begin immediately.”
“What do you mean,” Steve asks softly, “by processing?”
“It means what you fear it means, Central,” the Councilman answers. “Very soon, in a matter of days, the ADVENT Speaker will announce a ‘new breakthrough’ in gene therapy. Nothing less than a final treatment for the human condition: the permanent end of death itself. To be offered freely to all willing. Billions will flock to Gene Therapy clinics across the globe. They will never return.”
“But…” I spend a few seconds looking for words. “Why?”
“The aliens, it seems, have found what they came for. And with our resistance in place, our planet is no longer worth the effort of suppressing. The DNA of psi-sensitive humans will likely be stored for the creation of future Avatars; the DNA of all others, turned into soldiers, like they have been doing all along.”
Gene Therapy images flash across the screen. The Councilman’s right. These places are pretty packed under normal circumstances. Nobody’s going to want to miss out on a chance to cure death.
“Luckily,” the Councilman says, “this event also provides us with a unique opportunity to strike back. I have managed to secure tactical data and access codes to the ADVENT Network Tower — not just for communications purposes, like what I do right now, but actual physical access. The Speaker’s address will be broadcast across ADVENT’s entire network using this facility. That makes it a weak point we can exploit.
Incomprehensible data starts appearing on a side monitor. Charts, codes, blueprints…
“The information I am sending you now should allow doctor Tygan and chief engineer Shen to take control of the transmission. We can disrupt their entire network from within; disable their propaganda broadcast and get out the truth in a single blow.”
Steve nods. “I have some ideas for what we could show people instead. We do this right, we have a global revolution on our hands.”
“Exactly, Central. It is my hope that this disruption will confuse ADVENT’s forces for long enough to allow your final assault on their stronghold a real chance of success.”
Suddenly, a loud knocking is heard. Followed by the characteristic barks of ADVENT Troopers. And to the Councilman’s right, his normally smooth black background shows intermittent cracks of white light. They coincide with the knocks.
The Councilman looks over his shoulder, then back at us. “Commander. It seems our time together is coming to an end. I would ask only one more thing of you.” I nod, quietly, unable to formulate words that sound right.
“Take what you have learned. Let the world know what is happening here. Wake them up. Broadcast the truth. Before there is no one left to listen.”
The knocking and the alien barking grow louder, accompanied by a sound not unlike cracking wood. The Councilman reaches under his desk, and withdraws a gun with his right hand.
The Councilman spins around as the door to his right is finally broken down by ADVENT Troopers. Light streams in, illuminating his silhouette, as he starts firing on the intruders. One of them goes down, then another… Then the aliens adjust to the darkness and start firing back. A stray shot takes out the camera before I see any of them land, but the sheer volume of fire tells me everything I need to know.
I look at Steve’s ashen face. He looks back, probably seeing me in a similar state. I swallow hard.
“This is it, then, huh? We’re going in for all the marbles?”
Steve nods. “Seems like. Step one, we hijack that broadcast and disrupt the network. Step two, we… link you to that Avatar, I guess, and assault that alien base. I still don’t like it, but we’re officially out of time at this point.”
“Neither do I,” I say. “But if we want to get to step three, I don’t think we have a choice in the matter.”
“What’s step three?”
“Step three is that we take our planet back.”