Chapter 2: Cheeky talk
There was a whooping cheer from the assembled crew members as Emily Adams and Else Krause entered the ship’s living quarters. There was barely more than a dozen people gathered to celebrate the two rookies’ triumphant return home but in the cramped, angular, metallic space their voices echoed back as if a hundred were crammed into the small space. Adams blushed furiously. Krause grinned coyly and polished her glasses with a red and yellow rag, sending a discreet wink in the direction of Navneet Banerjee when she was sure he’d be the only one to catch it. His beard twitched upwards in a knowing smile.
The two women stood just inside the hatch for a second, hesitating in front of the unexpected welcoming party. Long enough for Li Ming Cheng to sidle up between the two and gently drape a bare, muscular arm over each of their shoulders.
“You’re blocking the door,” she said, wearing her usual lazy grin, “go let them shake your hands or something.”
She pushed them into the group less gently (Cheng was stronger than she looked, and she looked very strong) and they were quickly pounced upon. Degroot tussled Adams’ hair like a proud older sibling and John Tipene, an enormous Maori and one of the Avenger’s general technicians, slapped Krause’s back hard enough she almost flew two feet and made her wish she still had her armour on. She told Tipene that and he laughed his sweet chuckle. Someone pulled a bottle of what could be loosely described as gin that it was rumoured Louise Seo (Firestarter, the primary Skyranger pilot) created using a homemade still hidden somewhere in the hanger-slash-armoury. Someone said “To your first dead alien!” as the bottle was handed enthusiastically over to Adams, who hesitated a moment and unenthusiastically eyed it suspiciously, then took a long pull to the cheers of those around her. She cringed and made a sort of soft gurgle as the vile liquid went down, but came up smiling anyway. The toast was repeated and the bottle handed over to Krause, who didn’t hesitate to take two quick swallows before coughing the third up all over the front of her armour. Good natured laughter mixed with the applause.
Cheng used the liquid distraction to work her way around the crowd to her small bunk and foot locker. Thierry Leroy, who had led the mission, was reporting to the Commander and Central while everything was still fresh. They’d each need to write up an After-Action Report later, but Cheng was of the opinion that paperwork was best done while hungover. An opinion she’d likely hate herself for in the morning.
“How did they do?” Degroot had separated herself from the throng and come to lean against the bulkhead next to Cheng’s bunk, tattooed left arm and scarred right arm folded across her chest, “Really?”
“Fine, both of them,” Cheng muttered as she peeled off her sweaty tanktop and pulled a fresh t-shirt and hoody from her footlocker, and a less fresh washcloth. She didn’t head to the sink to “freshen up,” as Seo would say, but slumped onto her bed in her sports bra and fatigue trousers. There was no real modesty in the barracks.
“Neither of them panicked,” she continued once settled, “they didn’t miss either. Emily carved up one sectoid’s face beautifully. Very tight grouping from here,” Cheng touched her chin, “to here,” she tapped the centre of her forehead about two centimetres above her eyebrows, “Looked like someone had buried an axe in its head.”
“Lovely,” nodded Degroot completely sincerely, “What about Krause?”
“Else’s more ‘spray and pray.’ She relies on the fact that if you fire enough bullets in the right general direction chances are some of them will hit the target.”
“That is how most wars have been won. So, think the Commander will give one of them a long rifle and the other a machine gun?”
“That’s what Leroy is going to recommend,” Degroot gave her a funny look and she quickly added, “with my approval. I walked him to the bridge, we discussed it on the way. Anyway, are you coming to the party?”
“Not until later. I promised I’d help Shen with some repairs first. I’m on standby so I can’t party hard anyway,” the Dutchwoman’s nodded towards Banerjee, “Neither can he, for that matter.”
“Getting old ma’am?”
Degroot allowed herself a sardonic grin. She had a young face, round with only a few wrinkles around her eyes, and a high-pitched voice that (thanks in part to a middle class Londoner’s accent when she spoke English) wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a UK university campus. She was, however, the oldest current combat operative in the new X-Com. She’d been a young lieutenant when the first X-Com had fallen and twenty years had passed since then.
“The hangovers are worse than they used to be.”
“I’ll keep an eye on him, make sure he doesn’t drink anything. Of course,” Cheng watched Banerjee hovering close to Krause as she and Adams finally fought their way to their own footlockers, “I don’t think he’s got drinking on his mind.”
“As long as he can get his pants back on quickly. Cesar and O’Neill are on cadaver-duty. Cesar will probably join you at the bar afterwards. O’Neill will do whatever he feels like.”
“Probably head to the armoury and sharpen his machete.”
The two soldiers shared a chuckle. It was easy to relax around Cheng. She was calm, good at reading people’s moods and never took a joke too far. Yes, she might have a laugh at the quiet, determined Irishman’s habit of spending more time maintaining his equipment than with his squadmates but she was also the one who rose to his defence whenever a joke went from lighthearted banter to outright disrespect. If you made Cheng laugh you felt good. If Cheng didn’t laugh you felt like a bastard.
Degroot uncrossed her arms and pushed herself off bulkhead and scratched absently at one of the scars on her right bicep, “I need to get going, I’ll see you later.” Raising her voice to be heard above everyone else she yelled out to the two guest of honour, “Emily! Else! I need to go help Shen! I’ll join you all later!”
Krause waved vaguely, while Adams perked up visibly.
“Will Shen be coming to?” she said, half out of her shirt, brown hair falling across one half of her face.
“Most likely, depending on what time we finish. Don’t worry, I’ll drag her along if I can.” Degroot made her way out of the barracks and into the corridor beyond, “And hurry up! Louise will have already drunk all the good stuff at the rate you’re going!”
While The Avenger was small by the standards of some of the alien battleships that had made appearances over the Earth and even by the standards of many pre-war human warships, it was still pretty large. Degroot walked quickly through the collection of passages and corridors that wound their way from the top-back of the ship, where the living quarters were, to the lower front of the ship, where engineering was. Stern to bow, she thought idly, wondering if the old nautical terms counted on what was a flying aircraft carrier and troop transport converted from an alien spaceship. Central probably thought so (Bradford was like that), but he’d probably agree with whatever opinion the Commander had on the subject (Bradford was like that). If the Commander had an opinion on the subject, which he probably hadn’t (the Commander was like that).
There was a slight shift in the inertia of the ship, something felt in the inner ear and around the sinuses, indicating that they had changed direction. Degroot paused for a moment, waiting for a claxon to sound or orders for the team on standby about a possible mission. When none came she assumed that they were simply heading to look into some resistance tip-off about supplies or intelligence and continued towards engineering.
She reached the… room? Cabin? Hold? Again, should she be applying nautical terms and which ones if so? She reached engineering, knocked on the door and stepped inside.
“Sorry I’m late,” she muttered, scratching at the scars on her arm, “I needed to talk to Li Ming Cheng about-”
She stopped abruptly when she saw that Lily Shen wasn’t alone. There was the Commander, standing beside his chief engineer in front of a computer concentrating on a tablet as if it was the most important thing in the world (which it might have been). Without conscious thought Degroot snapped to attention and fired off a parade perfect salute, blurting out a “Sorry sir!” that sounded like it came from an untalented parrot. The Commander just waved absently at her and growled out an, “At ease.” Shen leant against her desk, a smirk on her face and amusement visible in her eyes. Wordlessly she pointed at a fabricator on the other side of the room from the Commander. Wordlessly Degroot nodded and wandered over to it.
The fabricator was a large box with a clear perspex top attached to a conveyer belt. Its insides were essentially, as Shen would describe it, a 3D printer with a few robotic arms, saws, drills and a laser for the finer details. Unit 3 had been acting up for a little while now. Nothing serious, but anything that delayed production or wasted resources could be lethal if left to get worse. Degroot had come in yesterday and worked her way through some fruitless software diagnostics, so today she planned on cracking it open and checking out the moving parts. Shen had already left a toolbox besides the miniature factory, so Degroot pulled off one of the maintenance panels and began examining its guts. In the background the Commander began asking questions to which Shen replied quickly enough to indicate she’d been anticipating most of his enquiries.
“So ammunition and explosives won’t be a problem?”
“No, but any advanced grenades or specialty equipment will require investment in supplies. I’ve listed what we’d need specifically on page five.”
“Good. I assume weapon parts won’t be a problem either?”
“For the most part. The heavy machine guns might be an issue if they aren’t maintained properly, since they have the most moving parts. I don’t think any of the troops are careless enough but if you’d make a point of reminding our grenadiers to brush their teeth and triggers regularly I’d appreciate it.”
“‘Teeth and triggers,’ heh, I like that. Might use it myself. Do you need anything else for the construction of the new facility?”
“More help. Aside from that we’re good Commander.”
“Alright I’ll see what I can do. What about- Lieutenant Degroot.”
Degroot paused for a second at her name, but didn’t look away from her work. That would have felt inappropriate. Shen seemed surprised as well, though she overcame it quickly enough.
“Eva is helpful, but I wouldn’t want to impose on her and her other duties. And honestly, skilled as she is she’s not qualified for some of the work we’re going to need-”
“No,” the Commander said, a slight hitch in his voice, “no, I just… I just remembered Lieutenant Degroot.”
Degroot looked up from her work, saw the Commander staring at her intently, felt ridiculously self-conscious. Then his face burst into a smile.
“Starburns!” he damn near shouted, victory in his voice.
Shit. Degroot’s face went bright red.
Shen looked confused (with good reason).
“Starburns Commander?” she asked (the bitch).
“Yeah,” the Commander began (the bastard), speaking fast and cheerful and obtuse, “the lieutenant was wounded while raiding a downed UFO during the first war. Shot by a sectoid with a plasma pistol right in the arse,” he pointed two fingers at her rear end and mimicked the action of shooting a bolt of plasma, “She couldn’t sit for two weeks. The doctors did all they could, but it left a star-shaped scar on both cheeks. One of her friends, a captain we called… Pharaoh? Pharaoh. He was a fan of this show about college with a character named Starburns, and the name stuck. Though he was the only one who ever called her that to her face.”
The Commander grinned like a schoolboy at the end of his story, then finally saw the resemblance of Degroot’s face to a ripe tomato, glanced at Shen who was holding back laughter, then back at Degroot.
“Shit, I’ve embarrassed you lieutenant. My apologies. I… really. I’m sorry. I don’t… I don’t remember everything from then. It’s very… very fragmented. When I do remember things, I get excited. I trust Miss Shen will not share this outside this room?”
“Of course Commander,” Shen said not entirely seriously.
“She will not share this outside this room,” a harsher tone from the Commander.
“Of course Commander,” entirely seriously this time.
“Good. Again, apologies lieutenant.”
“Thank you sir.”
“I will say it is nice to see another familiar face in all of this.”
Degroot smiled, “Likewise, sir.”
“Well, I’ll take my leave then. Lieutenant. Miss Shen. I believe there’s a party going on above us. Do make sure you both head up there before it ends.”
With that he turned and left, leaving the engineer and the soldier alone. Degroot turned back to the fabricator and went back to searching through the machine’s equivalent of a small intestine. It was an embarrassing story, and she still had the embarrassing scars to remind her of it, but it was nice to know that someone remembered it. There were few enough people left who could. It was nice that the Commander remembered her from back then. There were few enough left from back then. She felt good. Red-faced but happy.
A feeling that disappeared when Shen walked over and, in a conspiratorial voice asked “Both cheeks?”
Emily was drunk. Very drunk if Gertrude Wilders was to be believed. The… fuck, she was Dutch right? Emily knew where Trudy was from most of the time. Dutch. She was Dutch like Eva. Who was Dutch. Of course. Anyway, Trudy would stumble up every so often and point at the empty bottle of what passed for gin that Emily couldn’t seem to get rid of and ask if she’d drunk the whole thing. Emily would say something like “most of it” and Trudy would laugh and tell Emily that she was really drunk. Trudy was pretty drunk as well though, so her opinion may have been off. She was on the other side of the bar now dancing with John Tipene and Martin Singh, both of whom were sobre because their shifts on the bridge started soon.
Thierry… Thee-ary? Tee-ary? Terry? This was why everyone just called him Leroy. Leroy had provided the music, coming down after briefing Central and checking on Navarro in the infirmary and plugging an old smartphone into the sound system. Mostly pre-war French electro-swing, to everyone’s great surprise. He was with Li now, singing along to the current mix of synthesised beats, wind instruments and sultry vocals. That Li seemed to know the words were more surprising. Was. Was more surprising. The two of them had been working their way through the bar’s supply of bottled beer, and at some point had produced a pair of fighting knives which they were now taking turns to hurl at the dartboard next to the bartop. Li had better aim, but couldn’t get the knife to strike the board point first so was just hitting the bullseye again and again with the handle (and laughing every time it did). Leroy’s throws sunk the knives into the board, but nowhere near the centre. Cesar Vargas, sobre as well since he was on standby like Eva, Gerry and Navneet, watched the two drunks handle knives with horror in his eyes, but couldn’t look away.
“Like watching a train wreck,” Emily said, then realised she’d slurred the words out loud.
“What?” yelled Louise over the music.
“Nothing,” Emily shook her head a little to hard, tried to take a swig from her bottle, realised it was empty, placed it on the bartop a little too loudly.
She sat with Louise and Simmons (she didn’t know his first name, no one seemed to), who acted as deck-chief and navigator for the Skyranger. Like Louise he was also a Canadian. Like Louise he had a half-empty bottle of rye whiskey in front of him, bartered from a resistance contact who seemed to know how to make the stuff without anyone going blind. Else sat with Navneet and Charlie Otembe (a short, slim Nigerian who handled most of the ship’s basic wiring), discussing something that both men obviously found very interesting. Or maybe they just found her boobs very interesting. Else had very nice boobs, and Emily wasn’t entirely sure she was wearing a bra under her standard issue t-shirt.
Shit, she was staring at Else’s boobs. She needed to stop staring at Else’s boobs. She wrenched her attention away from the two, and refocus on Louise and Simmons. They were talking about… electronics? Something about the Skyranger’s fuses? Emily had no fucking idea. She sighed and wished that Shen was here, that Eva would hurry up and bring her.
There was a cheer from the trio at the dartboard, even Cesar, and Emily saw Li pulling a knife out of the centre of the board. She cheered as well, and tried to take a celebratory pull from the gin bottle in front of, realised it was empty, put it back down and pushed it away in disgust. Emily was bored and staring at the wrong pair of boobs. Time to fix this. Be decisive.
“Right,” she said pushing herself out of her chair unsteadily, “I am going to go pee. I am going to go get Eva and Shen. Then I am going to get another bottle of something. In that order.” Decisive.
Louise and Simmons looked at her, gave her a nod, then went back to their chat. Emily turned and left the bar, holding tight to every bulkhead she passed and feeling the ship swaying around her.
There was a head just next to the bar, a small metal room with a large toilet and sink, both with rounded edges and corners so that if violently shaken a falling crew member might only end up with a concussion instead of cracking their head all the way open. She peed, stood, flushed, bent over and puked loudly into the toilet. Then puked again, a little less loudly. She groaned when it was done, spun around to the sink and washed her hands and face, rinsed out her mouth. There wasn’t a mirror handy, so she couldn’t be completely sure it was all gone, but a quick check seemed to show she’d missed her clothes. Thank God for small mercies.
“Right,” she said again and staggered towards engineering.
The bar was, effectively, right above engineering, but getting from one to the other required either going through the armoury hangar or winding your through a corridor, down a narrow staircase and past a pair of rooms yet to be cleaned up, cleaned out and generally patched up. Heading through the armoury was faster, but required going down a ladder, and Emily didn’t trust her… laddering… abilities at that exact moment. The stairs seemed safer. Even then, if they weren’t so narrow she might not have made it, one step at a time with her arms pressed against either wall to keep her steady. Shit, she made it though. Barely, but she still made it. Fucking most terrifying thing she’d done that day, and a few hours ago she’d shot an alien. An alien with no lips and a lot of teeth. She shuddered, and wished she hadn’t left her bottle of gin behind. Still, she was in the final stretch. One foot in front of the other, steadier than she’d been for some time, she made her way slowly towards Shen. And Eva, but mostly Shen.
Then stopped. She was in front of a sliding hatch left open a crack thanks to a bit of piping that had fallen between it and the frame. Probably one of the dozen rooms filled with alien junk that needed sorting out and rewiring into something useful. But Emily could hear voices, mumbling, grunting, groans, muffled words. Curious, she leant heavily on the frame and peered through the crack. Saw two bare, pale legs (socks still on) wrapped around a waist above a bare, brown ass thrusting fast and hard in time to the moans, groans and grunts of the intertwined couple.
Surprised, cheeks suddenly burning, Emily took a step back, but not far enough away that she couldn’t still see part of the furious fucking through the narrow opening, a shuddering leg crossed over a socked foot and a pulsing ass-cheek still very clear in her sight now that she knew what she was looking at. So she took another step back and felt herself run into something lean and muscled. A hand clamped over her mouth before she could make a sound, and if she’d been sober she might have fought back. Might have driven an elbow right into Eva Degroot’s gut. Thankfully her brain was running slow enough that by the time she thought to aim a pointed body part at her attacker, her eyes had found Eva’s smiling face. The older woman winked, raised her free hand to her lips to indicate silence, waited for Emily to nod back before releasing her. Lily Shen was just behind, grinning wickedly as the voices from just past the door began to get louder. Eva pointed towards the stairs that Emily had struggled so hard to get down. The two other women nodded and gave the lovers some privacy.
The trip back up was much easier with Eva and Shen behind her providing physical and moral support. They kept quiet until reaching the top, where Emily spun around on the other two (and almost kept spinning but luckily managed to grasp a bulkhead and catch herself before going down).
“Who was that?” she hissed in a slurred whisper.
“Well,” Eva shrugged, “I’m pretty sure I heard German, so probably Krause and Banerjee.”
“Else and Nav? What? Since when?”
Eva shrugged again, “A few weeks maybe? They started not long after they both joined the Avenger.”
“I thought everyone knew,” Shen said with a small, embarrassed smile that made her look very pretty in the artificial lighting, “They aren’t really good at being discreet about it.”
“I had no idea!”
“That is because you’re a sweet and innocent hardened killer,” Eva wrapped a strong arm around her (probably to help hold her up) and tousled her hair, “with little experience in these areas.”
“I am not innocent,” even drunk Emily regretted how childish she sounded, especially in front of Shen.
“Yes you are. Nothing to be ashamed of.”
Eva began to walk again, arm still wrapped around Emily and dragging her along. Shen fell into step besides them.
“I suppose we’re not technically military,” the chief engineer said thoughtfully, “so there aren’t really any rules against fraternisation.”
Emily felt rather than saw Eva nod, “Yes, but I remember even during the first X-Com the Commander wasn’t too bothered about enforcing them. If you might die in a week you don’t want to do so with regrets. As long as it didn’t affect the job and you didn’t use his quarters.”
Emily looked sideways at Shen, smiling on the other side of Eva as they walked.
“Where are we going?” she asked Eva.
“Back to the bar of course. Miss Shen here owes you a drink.”
“You killed your first alien. Of course she does.”
“You did. I do.” Shen nodded faux-seriously, “May Tygen cut it up into tiny little pieces,” then she smiled again.
“Oh. Okay. Why are you being so nice Eva?”
Eva chuckled, “I’m in a good mood. Don’t get used to it.”
“Oh. Okay. What were they saying?”
“What was who saying?”
“You said you heard German.”
“Germa- Oh. It was just Krause who was speaking German. I don’t think Banerjee speaks it, though he’s probably learning it a little. I’m a little rusty, but I believe she was repeating the word ‘schwerer.'”
“What does that mean?”
Emily’s cheeks went scarlet. Absently, she wondered if there was any gin still in that bottle she’d left behind.