In the last episode of Jarenth Plays XCOM 2, XCOM finally did what XCOM’s been wanting to do since the beginning. We broke into the ADVENT Network Tower, hacked their signal, and broadcast the truth — ‘Soylent Green is people’ under any other name — to the masses worldwide. And just like that, the situation flipped: where once we had to operate in the shadows to avoid the overwhelming reach of ADVENT and their propaganda-indoctrinated masses, humans worldwide are now standing up to fight for their survival. The global resistance, finally in the limelight, is stepping up to combine the riots and the uprisings into a global coordinated push-back against the alien occupation.
They won’t win. Not like this. We couldn’t even win with the full might of the united human nations behind us. But in a surprising Lord of the Rings analogue, this fight isn’t important for their possible victory or loss. This fight is important because it ties up the lion’s share of ADVENT’s forces. Giving a small XCOM team the opportunity to sneak into this story’s Mount Doom equivalent, the mysterious alien ‘seat of power’, and destroy it from within.
The survival of humanity depends on the success or failure of this strike team. Luckily for them, I’m about to take a slightly more active hand in this particular outing…
“Final connection is set,” Lily says, as she frantically paces up and down the Shadow Chamber. “Power levels adequate. One more look at the buffer…”
“Shen,” Steve says firmly. “I watched you go over this thing like fifty times now. Take a breath.”
“Yeah, Lily,” I say, “relax a little! You don’t see me walking around all nervous-like, do you?” Lily spins around and looks at me with a scowl. I guess my hilarious comedy isn’t landing right now.
Lily and Steve both hunch over the final slab, where I lie. Entombed in the same stasis suit they once got me out of. I flash both of them my most exaggerated doofy smile. It works: Lily’s scowl-mask cracks into something that’s a mix of amusement and worry. “I don’t know how you’re doing it, Commander,” she says, “cracking jokes at a time like this. Aren’t you at all worried?”
I grin in earnest. “Lily, look at me. I am entombed in a horror suit that, I don’t remember much about myself, but some subconscious part of my brain hasn’t stopped raising DANGER DANGER WILL ROBINSON red flags about. I’m waiting for you to put that mask back on and plug me back in, at which point my consciousness will be transferred into our own home-grown Avatar pod.” I roll my eyes to the right as far as I can, in the direction where the Avatar body in question is suspended in a blue liquid. “And then me and and my zero practical combat experience are going to take that body through the portal, somehow, go into the alien base behind it, and again somehow figure out how we save the human race from extinction when we’re there.”
I take a sharp breath. “What else can I but crack jokes? It’s either poke fun at how weird this whole thing is, or actually realize how weird it all is. And then probably have some sort of panic attack.”
Steve puts a hand on the suit’s shoulder. “Hey Jarenth. Are you doing alright?”
“Yeah, yeah.” I nod weakly; not a whole lot of room to maneuver in this suit. “Let’s just get this over with. The sooner I don’t have to be in this suit anymore, the better.”
From the corner of my eye, I can just about see Richard fiddle with a glass tube full of glowing yellow liquid. He drains it into the Avatar pod, then taps out a series of commands. “There. This suspension has been infused with the entirety of the viable Elder DNA we retrieved from the corpse. Our own Avatar should be operational. We will not soon get another chance at this.”
“Don’t scuff the paint on the new body,” I say. Lily chuckles.
Richard walks over to my slab, holding in his hands the mask that’ll complete my stasis suit ensemble. “We are ready to begin, Commander.”
“Good,” I say. “I’m not, but let’s start anyway.”
The mask locks in place, covering my nose and mouth and replacing my vision with cracked red glass. I hear muffled sounds coming from outside: “…anesthetic supply activa-… synthesis procedure eng-… …-sciounsess transfer should s-…”
As I drift off into darkness, the subconscious part of my mind I’ve been holding back gets one last chance at ineffectually freaking out. The last thing I ‘see’ before I go under is the same thing I saw before I woke up all those months ago.
I open my eyes.
The world looks… purple. More purple than I’m used to. How much purple is too much purple? Purple Shadow Chamber, purple Richard, purple slab… but then my perception snaps into place, and a normal colour palette returns. Somewhat. There are still wisps of purple energy floating on the edges of my vision.
“Whoa,” I say, and immediately I know that the voice is wrong. This voice isn’t mind, it’s… different. Deeper, for one, and more muffled. Even the aural vibration in my bones feels off. I can’t help but test it out a little. “Mic check, mic check. Alpha Charlie Tango. Do re mi fa sol la si do. Do si la sol fa mi re do.”
“…Commander?” I focus my attention on Richard, who is close in front of me. He looks worried. “Commander, is that… you?”
“I guess,” I say. “I mean, yeah, it’s me. Sorry. Your name is Richard. Your middle name is Nathaniel.”
“I do not have middle name.”
“You don’t? Then remind me to get a different birthday card.”
Steve chuckles as he walks closer. “Yeah, that’s him alright. How you feeling, Jarenth?”
“I feel…” I raise my right hand, steeple it a few times as I look at it. “I want to say I feel ‘weird’, but how is that ever strong enough? I’ve fought two wars against alien invaders and this might be the weirdest thing I’ve ever experienced.”
“But how are you feeling mechanically, Commander?” Richard asks. “Are you able to control the Avatar body well?”
I roll my head around. I flex my arms. I bend my legs. I do a few jumping jacks. “Yeah, I think I’m doing alright.” Then I try to crack my fingers, except that doesn’t work.
“Good, good. That means that the synthesis process was a success. Your locus of consciousness has fully transferred to the new body.”
I slowly walk to the slab, where the stasis suit is lying immobile, and wave my new hand in front of my old face. “‘Fully’, huh? So there’s nobody home in there?”
“In a sense, Commander. As you know, the aliens intend to use the Avatar bodies to permanently house their consciousnesses in. Had I fully completed that procedure, your old body would have gone into a vegetative state — you would, for all intents and purposes, have become the Avatar. This is not a version of the procedure I know how to reverse, however. In our setup, your brain is sending out a low-level electrical ‘holding pattern’ over the psionic network. Anchoring your consciousness in your own mind, as it were, even while it inhabits the Avatar. If all goes well, I should be able to use this anchoring to retrieve and re-start the ‘rest’ of you once the mission is over.”
Richard shrugs. “Commander, we are on the absolute cutting edge of science here. Let us just say that it would be best if you tried to keep this body alive for the time being.”
“I’ll do my best,” I say. “But no promises.”
Footfalls outside the Shadow Chamber draw our attention. Lily walks in, carrying a long, peculiar rifle. And behind her enter the six soldiers I’ve chosen to accompany me on this mission.
It wasn’t an easy process. Fate of the world, and all that. But after some soul-searching, I decided to just go with what feels right. That means that the squad is spearheaded by Major Viel and Colonel Barr; guys, I really like Grenadiers. Colonel Twintails is a similar shoe-in, our one and only mechanical mastermind, and Major Pusey combines much-needed healing with his now-signature blue-screen rapid-fire. That’s four out of six…
As much as I like Grenadiers, I can’t say I’ve ever really felt Sharpshooters. I don’t know why. They just don’t do it for me. I could opt to bring Colonel Frederick, gravely wounded as he is, or Captain Neko. But… no. They’ll have enough to do on the outside, I figure. Instead, I’ve decided to round out the squad with my exemplars of the two classes I haven’t picked yet: my psionic renaissance man Soberano, now ‘Warlock’ in rank, and all-around stealth and survival expert Captain Jones.
“Hey, Commander,” Viel says as he walks in. “I think. Love what you’ve done with your hair.”
I nod. “Much obliged, Major. I might change it back later though. You wouldn’t believe how much hair gel this takes.” That earns me a concert of chuckles.
I turn to Steve. “This is it, then. You ready to do your part?”
Steve nods, and extends his hand. I grab it, and then he clasps his other hand over mind. “Stay safe out there, okay? I… XCOM would like its Commander back.”
“You can’t see it under this faceplate, but I’m blushing.” I break the hand-hold and clap Steve on the shoulder. “Go save the world, okay?”
We actually hear Steve’s speech a few minutes later, ship-wide, while Richard is busy spinning up the portal. He sounds grim, and serious; like a man whose sheer determination got him through twenty years of leading a hopeless resistance movement against impossible odds.
“Alright, people. The world got its wake-up call. ADVENT is a lie, and their time is up. They’ve got a full-fledged war on their hands now.”
“While the aliens struggle to contain our world, we’re gonna make a move on theirs. It won’t be easy.” He pauses. “But you’re used to that. You did what was needed. You never gave up the fight.”
I look at the squad. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’m hyped. Is anyone else hyped?” The nods and grim smiles I see tell me more than enough.
“One last thing, Commander.” Lily holds out the alien-looking rifle. “This is the weapon we got off the Avatar. Haven’t been able to figure out how it works yet, or if it even works at all. But if you can work it out someho-”
I grab hold of the rifle, and it springs to life in my hands. A bright burst of purple psionic energy bursts into existence in the open-looking chamber. From the side, Soberano nods in approval.
“…huh,” Lily says. “I won’t say that’s what I was hoping for, but… How’d you do it?” In response, I shrug; shrug, and point towards my Avatar body. Lily grins. “Gotcha.”
An eerie high-pitched whine starts up from the back of the room. We look over to see the psionic gate, active and open. Familiar purple energy swirls in the center. Richards stands next to it.
“So I just… step through?” I ask.
“Correct, Commander,” Richard says. “I suspect the alien technology inside your current body will know how to send the correct signals. And once you pass through the portal, the wake it leaves can be used by the rest. It will last for only a few seconds, but a few seconds is all we need.”
“Alright then.” I look at the squad. “Is everyone ready? One last run for the fate of the world?”
“I think I speak for all of us, Commander, when I say…” Barr steps forward, unslings her plasma cannon, and drops into an almost casual combat-ready stance. “…let’s go raise some hell.”
We walk into the portal, one by one. The last thing we all hear before psionic vertigo takes us is the final lines of Steve’s speech:
“You are XCOM. And you are going to end this. Humanity is counting on us, people. And… good luck, Commander.”
And then, darkness.
We emerge in a facility that’s incontrovertibly alien.
Elongated purple tubes stretch as far as the eye can see, forming oddly organic-looking structures. Some of them look familiar: next to our entry portal, for instance, another psionic portal looms. But others…
“W-whoa,” I hear Twintails say behind me. And Jones mutters, “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Our radios crackle to life at the same time. “*kggk*… Menace 1-5, Commander, come in.” It’s Richard. “Do you read? Did the procedure work?”
“Reading you loud and clear, Richard,” I say. “And yeah, we’re definitely through the looking glass. Wish you could see it.”
“Given that the radio connection works, Commander, I think we should be getting visual informatio-” Silence. Then, “Ah, yes. I see what you mean. Fascinating.”
“Commander, Central here,” Steve cuts in. “Good that you made it over. But I suggest we save the gawking for another time. There’s no telling what…”
Steve falls silent as a shimmering field materialized in front of us. In midair. It’s monotone purple-black at first, but quickly resolves into… images. No, videos. Crystal clear videos of ADVENT forces fighting against resistance soldiers.
And then, from everywhere and nowhere, an echoing voice starts up. It sounds close enough to human to almost be mistaken, but the reverb and the cadence trigger an almost instinctual memory in me. Ethereal. An Elder is speaking to us.
(Side note: now they’re called ‘Ethereals’ again, in the cutscene! Keep your goddamn act straight, video game.)
“Such loss,” the Elder lazily intones, “such needless waste. You force our hand. But still, we offer peace. Rejoin us, and your world will be spared.”
The floating screen winks out of existence, and the voice quiets. We stand in silence for a few seconds, before Steve starts up…
“They don’t actually expect us to believe any of that, do they?”
I shake my head to clear the reverie. “Right, right. They’re throwing us off. Ignore them for now. We’re here to do a job. And that job is…”
I look around, at each of the soldiers us turn. All of them shrug or shake their heads. Finally, I tap my radio. “Er… what is our goal here, again? I was never too clear on that.”
“Commander,” Lily joins in, “we’re starting to get sensor readings from the equipment in your suits. There’s an enormous amount of psionic information data passing through this place. I think… this might actually be some sort of hub for the psionic network.”
“Excellent,” Richard adds. “I have been wondering how the network survived our take-over of the ADVENT Network Tower. If there is indeed a network hub here, this would be a prime target of opportunity for retrieval or destruction. By taking it out, we would deny the aliens the ability to communicate on a global scale — or, at least, force them to rely on more primitive measures, which we can tap, redirect, or jam.”
“Alright,” I say, “sounds like a plan. Where do we go?”
“Biggest readings seem to come… straight ahead from the portal, actually. Just keep going, and keep transmitting. Let us know about anything you find that looks weird.”
“‘Anything that looks weird’ she says,” Viel mutters, and I notice he isn’t keeping his radio on. “Should we just start shooting up the place, then?”
I chuckle. “At ease, soldier. Let’s save our bullets for when it really matters. We can always come back to smash the place later. Head straight for now, let’s see what we find.”
We proceed through the facility calmly for about a minute. The Ethereal/Elder intermittently babbles on as we go, in that same slow cadence. “You harbor such blind hatred for us. We cannot understand it. Our intentions for your world were never hostile. They are still not. You are a part of us.” I almost hear Steve choking on his drink over the radio. And Lily whispers, so quietly that I don’t know if she knows the radio’s picking it up, “tell that to my father, you assholes.”
And then we approach a low doorway…
Jones, in front, reaches for her radio. “Commander, contact!” she loudly whispers… then she lowers her hand, turns around, and looks at me sheepishly. “Er, sorry, Commander. Force of habit. Contact, over there.”
I try to grin behind the mask. Do these bodies even have mouths? “Understandable mistake, Jones. Stay out of sight, okay. Everyone else, get in position. And… er, I guess that means me as well. Get in position, Jarenth.”
“Okay, Major Pusey,” I say, when everyone else is good and ready. “First shot of the game is on you. There’s two Codices there and I’d really like that number to do down, not up. Can you make that happen for me?”
“Commander, please,” Pusey says in mock indignation. Then he draws and fires his rifle faster than I can follow; the distant *thud* of a Codex brain hitting the ground is confirmation that he has indeed made it happen.
“Alright, nice shot! Now let’s see if I can’t do something similar myself…”
“Not as easy as it looks, huh, Commander?” Pusey says with a grin.
“I guess that’s why you guys are the soldiers, and I usually have my butt in a comfy chair,” I say. “But by all means, keep showing me how…”
Then I fall silent. Because as the remaining two aliens draw closer, I notice something strange.
“…Commander?” Pusey asks. “Everything alright?”
“I can see them,” I say softly.
Barr snorts. “What? Commander, we can all see ’em, they’re right there.”
“No, you don’t get it.” I stretch my hand out toward the Andromedon. “I can see them.”
Six faces around me are scrunched in confusion. Of course they’d be. How can I explain this to them? I barely understand it myself. But… when I look at the Andromedon, it’s like it’s more present than it’s ever been before. The creature’s outline is sharper, more vibrant, more clear. And… I see threads of coruscating purple energy rising up from the creature’s top, and trailing away into the darkness beyond.
Almost instinctively, my other hand unslings an alien psi-amp that I hardly even registered I was carrying. I wave my free hand over the psionic bubble inside. Five soldiers fall quiet in confusion; only Soberano’s eyes go wide in understanding. I whisper to the energy, in my mind’s voice, control. Then I thrust my hand forward, towards the Andromedon’s threads… the energy from my psi-amp flies off, beyond my reach, entangles itself around the threads and draws them back to me…
The Andromedon is lifted up in the air for a few seconds, then lands with a *thud*. The en-suited creature orients itself towards me, shudders, and then levels its gun… at the Codex nearby.
“Wow,” Twintails says. “W-what did you do?”
“He is controlling the creature’s mind!” Soberano exclaims. “Commander, you have the Gift!”
“What?” I look at my hand, then at the Andromedon, then back at my hand. “Huh. I… guess I do?”
“Fascinating,” Richard joins in over radio. “Inhabiting the Avatar’s body seems to have given you access to the creature’s innate psionic potential. Commander, this is an incredible find. Although I have to wonder… is this power coming strictly from the Avatar’s body? Or is the body’s make-up simply amplifying the potential inside your own mind? We saw how the weapon you are holding responded to the Avatar body’s touch, but all the same… Commander, have you ever been tested for psionic sensitivity?”
“What? No, I… haven’t, actually. I was never in a position where I could take ten days off to… listen, this is interesting and all, but can we have this talk later? We’re infiltrating a base here and I don’t know how long I can keep this monster on a leash.”
Surprisingly, the last Codex falls quickly to our combined attack. It does manage to get off a big ammo-draining area, which means we have to spend a little time regrouping and reloading. Not a bad thing in and by itself, but my control on this thing is slipping. I’d rather we kill it before I lose my grasp… although I don’t know if I want to be controlling it when it dies, either.
But either way, I’m not too worried about the immediate future. In fact, I think I might use this involuntary robot friend to do a little scouting around… let it take the hits of whatever’s sure to be out there.
Another Ethereal voice starts up as we move further. “So many lives risked to bring you back to them, Commander. And for what? More violence. More war. More death. Truly, you were meant for something more than this.”
“what are they talking about?” Steve mutters on the radio. “They can’t really expect to throw you off with all this nonsense.” But I’m not listening to him, not really: in the distance, our second challenge unveils itself.
“Commander!” Viel shouts. “Robot and armor, twelve ‘o clock. You want me to give ’em an acid bath?”
“Maybe later, Major,” I say. “Let’s see if our new friend can’t help with that.”
Sure, five damage — even ignoring armor — isn’t great. But combine that with a devastating blast from Viel’s plasma blaster (which also takes out one Shieldbearer), and you’ve got one seriously damaged robot on your hands. And then when Pusey sidles up and takes his careful aim…
Sadly, my control over the Andromedon starts waning not long after that. We’re forced to put it down before it turns on us.
We proceed out of the alien plant facility, chasing down the one Shieldbearer who decided that legging it had better survival chances. As we move through a mechanical hallway full of raised platforms, Steve radios in. “Getting reports from across the globe, Commander. ADVENT forces are hitting back hard. Like, really hard. They’re dropping all pretense. Our people are holding their own, but it’s not looking good. We better hope you find and break something important in there, because it looks like we really kicked the beehive this time. If we don’t win this, whatever that looks like, I don’t know if there’ll be much of an Earth for you all to come back to.”
“You only have yourself to blame for this, you know,” a familiar voice joins the radio conversation. It takes me a few seconds to place the calm baritone, and a few seconds more to mentally picture those scummy sunglasses.
“Wait, what the… are you the ADVENT Speaker? What the hell are you doing here? Weren’t you beaten to death by an angry mob?”
The Speaker laughs mirthlessly. “Ha! It would take more than human rabble to kill me, Commander. And I am here to try and convince you of your great mistake. ADVENT was never your enemy. ADVENT offered your people hope. A brighter future. ADVENT offered the chance for you to be something greater than you could ever be yourself. But still, you refuse. So tell me: what more can we offer you than the greatest gift of all?”
“Gift?!” Twintails sputters. “You call being ground up to make these disgusting fake bodies a g-g-gift?! Maybe we ought to put you through that thing, see how-how…”
“Calm down, Colonel.” I put my hand on Twintails’ shoulder. “Don’t let him get to you. He’s just trying to throw us off our game.”
“S-sorry, Commander. I just… I still have nightmares about that place.”
“So much time spent needlessly resisting,” the Speaker continues, either oblivious to Twintails’ outburst or purposefully ignoring her. “Fighting your ascension to something greater! And yet here you are, just as we had envisioned. In your efforts to prevent the Avatar’s creation, you have followed the path we set forth. Truly even exceeding even our own lofty expectations. Commander.”
That stops me dead in my tracks. “Wait, hold on. What was that?”
I wait for a few seconds, but no new taunting is forthcoming. “Hey, come on now. What did you mean by that? You can’t drop a cliffhanger like that on a guy!”
“C-Commander!” Twintails claps my shoulder. “Don’t let him… let him get to you, okay?” She winks.
“Hah! Fair cop, Colonel. Let’s keep going. He’s just lying to get to me, I understand.”
“Do you truly,” the Speaker suddenly whispers, “believe that to be the case?” Twintails and I look at each other in frozen silence for a moment. Then we both shrug, shoulder-pat each other at the same time, and actually move on.
“Steve,” I radio out. “How it’s going on your end?”
“Not too good, Commander! Alien forces are stepping up their attacks. On both resistance and civilian targets!”
“So much for their ‘show of peace’, huh?” I scoff.
“We are not to blame here, Commander,” the sing-song Elder voice from before once again emerges from everywhere at once. “Time and time again, you have rejected our wisdom. And still, we show compassion and generosity. But as with all things, this too must end. We can no longer afford to suffer your transgressions.”
“Yeah,” I say, “we’ve seen what your ‘compassion and generosity’ look like. We’ll take open warfare, thanks.”
“It need not be either,” the voice says. “There is still another way.”
“Commander!” Viel shouts from the distance. “Hate to interrupt your smack-talk, but we’ve got company! Of the metal wings and jet engines kind!”
“You think you can do that mind-control thing again, Commander?” Jones asks as Viel launches his first acid grenade of the day.
I shrug. “I don’t know! Not right now, at least, it… doesn’t feel like I can. It’s hard to explain. The part of my mind that pulled those strings is tired. I hope it bounces back later, though.”
“So do I, Commander,” Jones says. “Be real helpful.” She turns to Soberano. “How about you? You ever learned that trick?”
“Yes and no, Captain,” Soberano says, to the soothing background noise of Pusey’s plasma rifle blasts and Archons screeching. “What the Commander does, so causally taking another’s will and controlling it for a time, this I cannot do. And you will be able to do this again later, Commander, of this I am sure. But I have learned a skill that is in some ways similar…”
“Oh, really?” I say. “Care to demonstrate? I’m curious.”
“I think that I will, yes, Commander. Look carefully…”
Soberano walks to the ‘window’ of the smaller facility. One of the Archons has retreated inside, and the Shieldbearer is also still sitting there. He clasps his psi-amp and sends out a streamer of energy: in my Avatar’s view, I can see the energy entangling itself around the Shieldbearer’s thread…
But there’s a difference. In my case, I use the energy to temporarily grab hold of the aliens’ willpower. But Soberano’s attack is much more involved. His energy thread actually ties itself to the aliens’ psionic wisp, looping around and around and knotting and fusing, until I can no longer see where one ever started and the other ever ended. I simply control aliens. But Soberano is dominating this one.
“You see the difference, yes, Commander? My will and the alien’s will, they are now bound inexorably. From now until one of us dies, it will follow my commands and my commands alone.”
“And when it dies?” I ask. “Will you be able to do that again?”
Soberano shakes his head. “It… takes time, Commander, to recover from this attack. As its will is bound, so is mine. I dare not use this attack too often, lest I risk losing my own mind to that of the alien, instead of the other way around.”
“Commander!” Barr shouts over the sound of heavy plasma gunfire. “Multiple hostiles dead ahead! More Andromedons, and Mutons to boot! If you’ve got more of that mind-control juice, now’d be a great time!”
“Sorry, soldier,” I say, “that one’s still out for a while. But I think this body’s got some more tricks up its sleeve than just that…”
“Well, unless you’ve got some psychic carpet bombing hidden up there, we’re in a real bad spot here!”
Calmly, I grab my psi-amp. You know how it can take some time for your eyes to adjust to bright light, after you’ve been sitting in darkness for a while? That’s how this body feels for me. I’m slowly learning to see more and more of the psionic energy permeating this place. The threads of willpower emanating from the aliens — and from us, too, although ours just loop around our own heads perpetually — are easy enough to see. But wisps of energy are everywhere. And there’s a lot of things you can do with energy…
I send a streamer of psionic power to a spot close to the largest group of aliens. I think, attract, and the energy starts swirling, drawing more and more of the ambient power around it into itself. And then, when it’s large and volatile enough, I think, expand, and the collected energy roars into life, forming a corrosive swirling vortex of unbound power.
“Well.” Barr slings her gun onto her shoulder. “That works.” The Andromedon inside the area hastily runs out, but the Muton seems to think cover from our attacks is more important than psionic death energy; Barr nudges at it and says, “Can you also make that thing explode? You know, like a Codex does?”
Barr whistles appreciatively. “Alright, I’m convinced. We might stand a chance after all.”
“Not bad, huh?” I say. “And that’s not all. Look at this.”
I walk up to one of the windows, where — close by — one of the surviving Andromedons and one of the Archons from earlier are covering each other. I collect some energy, think, pierce, and thrust it towards them.
The Andromedon hunches over, ‘dead’ — until it gets back up, of course. The Archon screeches, holding on by a thread. Barr does a slow clap. “Now you’re just showing off, but fine enough. Any dead alien is good in my book.”
Soberano walks up next to me. He unslings his own psi-amp, collects energy, and I almost hear him send the mental command as he does the exact same attack I did. In a reversal of last time, it’s the Archon who collapses, while the robotic Andromedon suit… well, doesn’t give two shits about psionic attacks. You can’t win ’em all.
You can probably imagine what this section of the mission looks like. The Mutons give good opposition, and land several good hits — which all get absorbed by our Shieldbearer shields. God, this feels good.
Over the course of several minutes, we dispatch them without too much hassle, turning this one-green human experimentation sub-facility — I kind of glossed over this, but you can see it in the earlier screenshots: there are totally dead human bodies in various stages of being-experimented-upon — into an exploded, acid-covered warzone. And then, job well done, we move on.
“You view us as the conquerors of your world,” our resident Elder broadcaster says, “but that was never out intent.” Viel snorts. “Each species you’ve encountered, the aliens you have fought and slaughtered. None were given a choice. Our home was the oldest of worlds, and the first to be consumed. Billions were lost. If only that were the end…”
“What the hell are they talking about?” Pusey says. “This is one involved sob story for ‘please let us kill you’.”
“I know,” I say. “I really can’t figure out what they’re going for. Also, should you really be standing out in the open like that?”
And then things get weird. Because when we move on, we eventually find…
“What the hell is that?” Lily says incredulously. “Some kind of… human enclosure?”
“Looks like a house to me,” Steve says. “But why would they have one human house here? There were always reports of missing civilians from before the first invasion. Could this be something the aliens used them for?”
“Maybe,” Richard says, “they have used this area for some kind of psychological testing…”
“It, er…” I approach slowly. “This looks a lot like my house.”
“Get out,” Steve says, “really?”
“Yeah. Or, I mean… it feels like it looks like my house. If that makes any sense. It doesn’t actually look familiar, but at the same time…” I hit the side of my head with my fist a few times. “Ah! There’s something in the back of my mind, I just can’t get to it.”
“That,” Lily says, “is super weird.”
“At any rate,” Steve suddenly says, “we’ve got bigger issues. Resistance forces are pushing back against ADVENT, but it’s coming at a heavy price… at this rate, there might not be anything left on either side.”
“It is true,” the Elder cuts in. “From here, we can call upon an endless legion of reinforcements. You will be overrun. Yet our armies could be withdrawn at any time, Commander. Peace is within your grasp, if you would just rejoin us.”
The peaceful human house does not remain the peaceful human house for much longer. Two Berserkers charge headlong along the side, only to be mowed down by Viel, Pusey, and Barr almost immediately. Codices teleport around, doing their Codex things. And the two Gatekeepers crash through the house’s walls, seemingly intent on taking the shortest route to us; it’s only Soberano’s decision to place his Shieldbearer minion straight in the middle of the center room that gives them pause.
“For decades, you were a part of us, Commander,” the Elder blathers on, oblivious to the gunfire and alien roaring we’re embroiled in. “You are capable of so much more. And yet, you fail to grasp the true nature of your power. Return to us, and your world will live on. Resist, and there will be be nothing left to save.”
“Commander!” Steve cuts in, conveniently right as the bulk of the fighting is over. “We’re getting some strange reports here. Randomized disruptions in enemy forces on the ground. Units suddenly dropping arms mid-battle, or turning on each other.”
“…of course!” Richard yells. “The hub! With the ADVENT Network Tower disrupted, the only way the alien psionic network could continue unabated is if the Elders are maintaining it under their own power. Commander, as of right now, the Elders are the psionic network! Imagine the strain they must be under… it must be enormous.”
“Our power does not waver,” the Elder replies, a little forcefully. “You will find our forces here loyal. They require no coercion, for they know failure here means the end for all.”
“All the same, Commander,” Steve says, “if we take out those Elders, the whole network collapses like a house of cards. It won’t get us the win immediately, but it’ll give us better odds than we’ve ever had before.”
“Commander.” That’s the Speaker again. He sounds a little more pleading. “Consider all those who have sacrificed for your cause. So many friends, so many allies… for what?”
“Hah,” I say, “‘for what’, he asks. We’re literally trying to save the world!”
“When we first encountered Earth, we wept for a broken world,” the Ethereal chimes in. “For a tortured race crying out the stars in agony. We answered your call. We saw your true potential.”
“Uh-huh,” I say.
“It is true. The first invasion was merely a test. But your people did not fail, as you believe. You succeeded beyond measure. And now, you only need to accept your place amongst us.”
“Uh-huh. And ‘our place’ wouldn’t happen to be literally the bodies you’re wearing?”
“Keep pushing, Commander,” Steve encourages. “They’re losing their grip on this world, and they know it.”
“We have lost nothing.” Do I detect a hint of anger in the voice? “For our greatest weapon returns to us. You will defeat them here as you did once before, Commander.”
“See? They’re going absolutely bonkers.”
“Oh, no,” I say, lowering my gun. “I’d say they’re about fifty percent right. I am coming back, after all.”
I’m met with some deafening radio silence. Around me, the other soldiers cast looks that range from confusion, to guarded confusion, to early-stage-angry confusion. And it takes Steve half a minute to cautiously reply to me. “…Commander, it’d be really helpful if you could tell us what that means.”
“What?” I look around. “You haven’t figured it out yet? I’ve figured it out. I was sure you guys would, too.”
“Just… enlighten us, okay?”
“Well,” I say, “remember way back at the start, how confused we were about what they did to me? Hook me up to their network? We figured back that they were ‘using me for tactical simulations’, which, you know, fine. But if that was the case, why not just kill me when they won the war? Why run the risk that I would break free, or be freed, and use that acumen against them?”
“I figured that was just hubris,” Steve says. “They’d never thought we’d get you out.”
“And remember how this Avatar procedure went off without a hitch? This was supposed to be cutting edge super dangerous science, and it just worked. Remember how I have exactly the right alien implants to make it work? And didn’t any of you think it was weird that I mastered the whole thing so quickly? Basic locomotion, talking, aiming, even goddamn advanced psychic powers? I did in ten minutes what’s taken Soberano a week.”
“It is true,” Soberano says. “Your prowess is extraordinary.”
“And then all this babbling of theirs…”
“Jarenth,” Steve interrupts me. “What are you building up to?”
“It’s me they want,” I say. “And, not just as a tactics repository or whatever. But as one of them. The Avatar bodies were made to house Elder consciousnesses, fine enough. But they’re Elder and Human combined. They can house human consciousnesses just as easily. There’s really no difference. Elder-driven Avatars, and me… we’re the same. And I think… that’s what they’ve been doing, with me, the last twenty years. Not just using me to win a war. But prepping me to become one of them. An Avatar.”
The looks around me have all gone Full Confusion. At least all weapons are lowered, which is nice.
“That’s… some idea you’ve got there, Commander,” Lily says.
“Yes, I agree,” Richard adds. “While your… hypothesis has merit, however, I fail to see the aliens’ end game in this. What would they have been making you an Avatar for?”
I shrug. “Fuck if I know. I’m not even sure how they were thinking to get me on-board with it. ‘Hey, we killed your whole planet and made you a new body from the DNA of a thousand dead humans, wanna join our club?'”
I look around, locking eyes with each soldier individually. Viel, Barr, Jones, Pusey, Twintails, and Soberano. “And that’s also why they’re only half right. Because, sure, I’m running this Avatar now, like they were hoping. But if they’re thinking that puts me on their side, they’ve got another thing coming. I am going to use this body and this power to wreck their shit as much as I’m physically able.” I hold out my hand. “But I need all of you in there with me. You guys with me on this?”
Viel is the first one to put his hand on mine, smirking that smirk of his. “Always, Commander.” And then, one by one, the rest add their hands.
“Guys, you still can’t see it, but I’m blushing again. Let’s go save the world, okay? Vigilo confido.”
We make our way towards the final compound, a blocky outcropping with a single bridge. The ADVENT soldiers nominally guarding it are quickly defeated. And then we pass into the building, and see the heart of alien power. And for the first time since we embarked on this mission, we get a good look at what’s outside this alien facility…
I tap my radio. “Er, Richard. Hey, it’s me. Listen: where did you say you thought this alien base was located again?”
“I have not really formalized any such guess, Commander,” Richard answers. “But given the portal’s space-bending nature, I would surmise that it is, at the very least, nowhere close to Earth. Perhaps on another planet the aliens have conquered, or maybe even out in the depths of space…”
“Yeah, about that,” I say, as I gesture the others closer. “I might have some evidence to the contrary for you here.”
“Oh? What evidence is that, Commander?”
“Well, I’m currently looking at a fish.”
I wait for a moment while the video feed back on the Avenger catches up. I can almost hear the bridge crew gasp for breath. “Incredible,” Richard says. “All this time spent looking up and hypothesizing, and it never occurred to us to look down on our own planet… they must have constructed this base during the latter days of the war. With enough chaos to cover their movements, and human sensor networks already mostly destroyed.”
“Wait, wait,” Steve says, “hold the fuck on. Are you saying that… when we needed a spot on the map to represent ‘the Avatar Project’, and you picked a random spot in the Atlantic Ocean because ‘there’s nothing important there anyway’… that was actually the right spot?”
“Huh,” Lily says. “Knowing what we know now, about the Commander and all… how ‘random’ was that pick, really?”
“Your subordinate speaks truth, Commander,” the Elder pipes up before I have a chance to crack a bad joke. “You were always destined to return to us.”
“Well,” I say, as I stretch out my hands, “I’m here now! Aren’t you happy?”
“We will be, once you stop this foolish crusade and retake your rightful place amongst us.”
I reload my psionic repeater. “Got some bad news for you about that.”
“This is your last warning, Commander,” the voice booms angrily. “If you intend to destroy all we have worked so long to attain, then we will have no choice but to take up arms against you.”
The ‘heart of alien power’ is… pretty. Almost like an underwater temple, studded with Elder statues. And from inside here, clear venues show the Atlantic waters everywhere.
“Overestimate yourself not, Commander,” the voice booms again. “Your current form is but a shadow of our truth. We seek to defy that which would consume us all. Your efforts here deny the sacrifice of all those who came before. You leave us no choice.”
And then, in front of our eyes — another Avatar materializes.
Before we can take proper aim, the Avatar disappears, teleporting away in a puff of purple smoke. But it’s still here, somewhere. I can feel it.
We advance, slowly. Taking in the sights, but also being on our guard. Who knows what’s hiding behind these towers and statues. If the aliens have some final trick up their sleeve, now would be an excellent time to use it…
But then Twintails’ scanning protocol finds the Avatar, surrounded by Archons. And it’s on.
“Though I find the possibilities proposed by this creature intriguing,” Richard says, “I believe we have passed the point of rational discourse.”
“Couldn’t agree more, doctor,” I say. “Let’s end this.”
“Oh, Commander,” the Speaker butts in. “Your persistence is admirable, but tired. It is time to accept the path laid out before you.” But nobody listens to them, because they’re the ADVENT Speaker — seriously, who cares at this point? We have an Avatar to kill.
“Return to us,” the voice implores, now clearly originating from the Avatar before us. “You were once our greatest asset against this world. You can be so aga-” And then it cuts off. I glance over, and see Soberano going through the familiar motions of inflicting a Stasis attack. His teeth-revealing grin doesn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Nice job, Warlock,” I say. “That should give us some time to clear out the bodyguards. And then…”
I fall silent as one of the portals in the edges of the hall springs to life.
“Change of plans!” I shout, as green plasma bolts start flying. “Looks like they weren’t kidding on that whole ‘endless reinforcements’ thing. Focus on the Avatars first and foremost! I don’t know how many there are, but those can’t be infinite! We kill all of them, we win this battle for humanity.”
“And when there’s no Avatars around, Commander?” Barr yells back.
“Then feel free to thin the herds a little!”
What follows is the longest, most intense fight of our lives. Despite my earlier warnings, ignoring all the aliens around us is tantamount to suicide. Jones distracts the Mutons with poison gas, while I mind-control an Archon who came to pick a fight with Soberano — and then send the Archon away, to run interference among the Sectoids.
All the same, anyone who can pump bullets into the Avatar is instructed to do so. It’s not easy, since these suckers teleport around whenever they take damage. But we try.
What doesn’t help is that the Avatar heals over time. Richard says something over the radio about ‘the resilience of human bodies’ and ‘the answer to containing their psionic eminence’. I can’t really claim to be paying attention, though. Because what really doesn’t help is that the Avatar does what Avatars do, and mind-controls Barr.
“All units,” I yell, temporarily forgetting my own place on the battlefield, “either that Avatar dies, or Barr tears us to shreds!” Jones rushes in, fires from close range, and misses. Soberano uses Inspire to give Jones a second chance, which she misses. Viel and Twintails can’t really reach the Avatar, and neither can I. Which leaves only Pusey…
The Avatar lets out a scream. I hear it in my ears, I hear it in my bones, and I hear it in the back of my mind, as its death wail resonates psionically. Soberano clasps his hands over his ears too, ineffectually trying to shut it out. And then, as the Avatar’s physical form slumps over, the mental shape of the Elder behind it rises, quivers, and then explodes into strands of psionic energy.
“Woo,” Barr says, shaking her head rapidly. “Sorry about that, Commander. But one down, huh?”
I raise a thumbs-up. “One down, Colonel. We can do this.”
The second Avatar is holed up on the other side of the room, guarded by Sectoids and Adromedons. I send the mind-controlled Archon to run interference — surprisingly effectively, seeing as how the Sectoids can’t seem to land a single hit on a high-flying Archon preparing its aerial rocket strike attack — while we try to pick off the support and engage the Avatar from a distance. But then, in a corner close to us, a third Avatar appears, flanked by Codices and Faceless.
“Alright, gang,” I say, “just… fire at will. Avatars are priority targets, but so is us staying alive. So use your best judgement. This is what you’ve been training for. Do what you’re good at.”
And then, as these things so often do, it all comes down to a single turn.
The Sectoids and Andromedons advance on our position, taking out The Last Holotar as they go. Our group destroys the Faceless and the Codices with heavy firepower and damages the Avatars heavily, with acid and explosions and dimensional rifts and even a sword, for old times’ sake. But they repay in kind: Barr gets mind-controlled a second time. And then they scatter. Teleport off to God knows where…
Except, no, I know where. I can see and feel both of them, off in the distance, just beyond our sight. And… both remaining Avatars are heavily weakened. And they’re sitting close together. More or less in a straight line from where we are.
I look at the alien forces, spawning in still from the portals, threatening to overrun our positions. I look at Viel and Jones and Pusey fighting for their lives, as Barr blankly swivels her cannon on them. I look at Soberano, and he at me. He nods. We break into a run, towards the exhausted Elder Avatars, clasping our psi-amps as we move. And then we both collect our energy, and we both think, pierce, and we both stretch out our hands…
I shake off the daze of a double Avatar death scream. Next to me, Soberano carefully unclasps his ears. “Did we do it, Commander? Are they gone?”
“Commander!” Barr shouts in the distance. “Whatever you did, it worked! All the aliens here just… dropped dead! Some sort of psionic backlash.”
“Nice!” I say, as we walk over to the main group. Then the radio crackles on.
“…mmander? This is…” Silence “…ral, do you copy? The network i…” Silence. “…et out of there! We sent you a portal, but they might stop wor… ” Silence.
I look at the soldiers, and see the beginnings of panic show up on their faces. We look around: none of the alien portals are currently working, save for one. It wasn’t on when we started. Without a word, we all rush towards it…
“Fuck!” Barr throws her gun on the ground, hard. “I fucking knew it! I knew we wouldn’t come back from this!”
“Hey, relax, P,” Viel says. “You really think they’re not trying to get us out?”
“Well why would they?” Barr spits. “They’re all high and dry up in the Avenger! Central, and the eggheads, and the Commander. Why would they care about…”
Barr abruptly stops and looks at me sheepishly, blushing a little. “Er, I mean. I’m sorry, Commander. That was uncalled for. I guess you’re not any better off than us, huh?”
“Wait, though,” Jones says, “isn’t he? Sorry, Commander, but you’re just driving this body, right? Your real body’s somewhere in the Avenger? Won’t you just… wake up there? If you die here?”
“I dunno, Jones,” I say, “that’s not how life has been going for me lately. So there’s probably some bullshit thing like…” I take some time to get my dr. Tygan voice right and cadence right. “‘If the Commander were to perish right now, the weakened psionic network connection would not be capable of returning his consciousness to his body.'” Everyone chuckles weakly. “So yeah, I’m working under the assumption that we’re all in the same boat here.”
“Well,” Pusey says, “in that case, it was an honor to fight with you, Commander. And die with you, I’m afraid. I don’t see the Avenger doing anything to help us. And with all the battle damage this place has taken…” He points his gun upwards, where we can already see the beginning of water leaking in through small cracks in the see-through ceiling.
“Well, it was an honor for me too, Major,” I say, as I walk closer to the portal. “But you’re taking my ‘in the same boat’ comment wrong, I think. I wasn’t saying that I’m stuck in here with you…”
Steve’s voice suddenly crackles back into life. “…mmander? Are you reading? Whatever you’re doing, it’s working! The portal’s open on our end!”
“Commander…” Barr says softly. “After this whole thing is over, I’m getting you one of every type of complimentary mug in the world.”
“Appreciated, Colonel,” I say, strained. “Now, if you would all please exit in an orderly line? And kindly hurry. This isn’t as much fun… as it looks like.”
One by one, they walk through time and space to appear on the Avenger. Barr, Viel, Jones, Pusey, Twintails, Soberano. And then, all that’s left is for me to take the final few steps…
And that’s when something hits me in the back of the self. I black out.
“Oof.” I crawl to my feet unsteadily. “Someone got the license plate of that…” I stop talking as I realize there’s nobody else here. All the soldiers crossed back to the Avenger. And the portal’s closed. Really closed. No radio either. I can feel in my bones, somehow, that the psionic network is teetering. Cracking, quickly. There’s not enough of it left at this point to piggyback electronic signals onto. If I want to do anything to get out of here…
“Betrayer!” The screaming voices seem to come from everywhere at once. Psionic power streams from alcoves around the room, Elder psi-forms emerging from them. They force me to the ground through sheer raw power.
“We will reclaim what was given,” the voices scream, and I feel them trying to force me out of my own mind. “We will be whole once more.”
“W…what happened…” I struggle to my feet, tap the power inside myself, and push the presences out. A little. “What happened to me being one of you, huh?”
“You betrayed us,” the voices drone, “as you have betrayed all others! Your victory here means the end for every one.”
I extend my power — turquoise, now, instead of purple — to withstand the Elders’ constant onslaught. The exertion makes it near-impossible to talk, so I grunt. “What… do you… mean?”
“It will come,” the voices screech. “It will follow you, as it followed us.”
“You’re… still… not gonna tell me… what any of that means… are you?”
“You are not ready!” the voices cry out. “We must not fail!” But they’re losing our duel, I can feel it. My Avatar power exceeds theirs. And even though this battle is rapidly pushing the facility over the edge of breaking…
I gather all my power into a single charge, think, explode, and trust it towards the ceiling. The Elders follow the ball, screeching, “you are dooming all! Your folly will be the end of all life on your planet. You will…”
A loud cracking noise. I look up, and smile, as the cracks I added to the ceiling are rapidly losing against the Atlantic.
I look at the Elders, now frantically floating around my Avatar. “We might not beat whatever’s coming.”
“You will fail!”
“But I sure as hell beat you.”
And then the water rushes in.
“Vitals stabilizing. Synaptic activity returning to acceptable levels.”
My eyes squint as the mask is removed from my face. My eyes, my face. Then Steve hunches over me, his face a barely-constrained expression of elated relief.
“Hey there, handsome,” I croak, my throat dry from hours of disuse. “We gotta stop meeting like this.”