Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (7)

Chapter 7: Scar Tissue

The girl from the other side of the pit was about twenty years younger than Eva Degroot. She was almost as tall and at least as broad across the shoulders as Cheng, and though she lacked the powerful Chinese woman’s almost cartoonishly lean, toned physique she did not lack for muscle. When they’d met before the fight she’d introduced herself as Trudy and spoken with an accent similar to Adams. Smiled a lot and flirted a little, but seemed to do that with everyone. The referee, a tall man with big eyebrows and small ears wearing a dusty red shirt, introduced her as “The Hammer” and Degroot at “Venom.” The name Cheng had given her.

They met in a brown dirt pit about ten metres across surrounded by a waist high wooden fence in the middle of what had once been the warehouse of a now abandoned shoe factory. Sixty or seventy people packed against the edges of the pit or sat on the piled crates that acted as makeshift bleachers, roaring for blood. Degroot stood there, barefoot wearing just a pair of cargo shorts and a tight sports bra, uncomfortable with the fact that so many of her scars were showing. On her calf, her stomach, her right arm. Everyone could see them, and it didn’t matter if they didn’t care. The referee scrambled to the edge of the pit and someone out of view rang a bell, and the two women began to fight.

It lasted for four rounds, all except the last one going for three minutes. The other woman was taller, stronger and younger, but Degroot was faster, smarter and tougher. She danced around the girl, blocking with her right arm and striking quickly with her left. Trudy would occasionally come in for a grapple in the hopes she’d then be able wrestle Degroot to the ground and pin her for long enough to get some serious hits in, but the Dutchwoman would come in beneath her guard and spin around her, jabbing with fists and elbows on her way through. Trudy managed to hit her, but they were never more than glancing blows that always somehow managed to leave her vulnerable to Degroot’s counterattacks. The crowd roared, bet, booed, hissed, bet and cheered. Cheng hung over the edge of the pit screaming curses in Mandarin Chinese between commands to “Rip her fucking head off!”

They were both bare knuckled so mainly limited themselves to aiming at the soft spots on the body, but even still by the time the fourth round began both were bleeding and exhausted. The right side of Trudy’s face was a swollen bruised mess and she was spitting blood through red teeth. Degroot had a cut above her left eyebrow that was bleeding more than she liked, forcing her to squint through the blood.

By the time the bell rang and the fourth round began everyone knew who was going to win and had begun betting on which round would be the last. Most thought it would last another two, a few thought it would be over in the next, fewer thought it would take another three. Even still no one seemed particularly surprised when Degroot drooped her in the fourth. They were about two minutes in and Trudy was getting frustrated. She roared and swung hard and high, overextending herself. Degroot stepped forward, spun and slammed her right fist, hard as a brick, into the side of Trudy’s head. The young American staggered, fell to her hands and knees, looked up in time to see Degroot’s bare foot speeding towards her face. She hit the ground, to quote Adams, “like a sack of hammers” and didn’t get back up again.

The crowd went crazy. Degroot allowed herself a small smile and trod over to the edge of the pit where Cheng wore her lazy grin even wider than normal. The referee was yelling something about the victory and a few of the unconscious girl’s friends had hopped the fence and were rolling her onto her side. Degroot briefly thought about offering assistance but a few members of the crowd who carried the kind of bags she usually saw on combat medics were already on their way over, so she decided to stay out of their way.

She reached the end of the pit and Cheng helped her climb over, then cleared a path through the crowd (she could have given a bulldozer lessons, Degroot thought idly) towards the fighter’s locker room (one of the old factory’s former washrooms). Once inside she sat Degroot down and grabbed a wet towel, concern in her eyes despite the smile on her face.

“That eyebrow is going to need stitches.”

Cheng had originally planned on being the one in the pit, but part of getting the Commander’s permission for the fight (it was a surprise to everyone who knew about it that he agreed, so they were happy to accept all his terms) had been medical clearance from Tygen, so they wouldn’t exacerbate old wounds. Cheng had been injured in the previous mission, and while it hadn’t been anything too serious Tygen had decided that it was too risky to let her get into a bare knuckle brawl so soon after. So Degroot had volunteered.

“It’s my own fault for letting her hit me.”

“Yes it is,” Cheng said but didn’t mean, “Do you want me to stitch it up now or wait until we get back to the Avenger.”

“With all respect due to your abilities as a surgeon, I think I’ll wait until I see Tygen.”

“It doesn’t sound like you respect my surgical abilities all that much if you want to fucking Tygen to do it.”

“It didn’t know it was possible to apply a bandage backwards until I met you.”

Cheng barked out a laugh and pulled out the first aid kit she’d brought along.

“How long did it take you to think of that?”

“I thought of it just now.”

“Ha, you’re really getting used to this whole ‘social interaction’ thing.”

“Maybe. I did, however, just beat the last person I met unconscious.”

Cheng laughed again, Degroot smirked proudly. The Chinese woman was about ten years younger but, unlike Adams or Krause or most of the Avenger’s crew, she didn’t feel old around Cheng. Probably because Cheng was always so relaxed. She didn’t respect anyone’s rank except the Commander’s and certainly didn’t treat Degroot any better just because she had been there with the original X-Com (something that even Banerjee and Leroy, who had been fighting since the first war, were prone to do).

It was nice having a friend again.

“I’ll get myself cleaned up. You go get our winnings.”

***

“What are we playing?”

“It’s called ‘Two-Up.'”

It was the early days of X-Com and Degroot was watching skeptically as Pharaoh instructed Aori and Hobbit on the art of stretching a blanket between them. Singh and Higgins watched curiously from their bunks and Naidu stubbornly buried herself further in her book.

“And why are we playing ‘Two-Up’?” Degroot asked, hands on hips and trying very hard to be taken seriously by the Australian sniper fussing over a blanket.

“Because we’re bored and someone,” he directed a mock glare in Hobbit’s direction, the New Zealander stuck her tongue out in response, “lost our deck of cards.”

“Uh-huh,” she tried to sound as unconvinced as possible, “and we play this game by throwing two coins onto a blanket?”

“And betting on whether they come up heads or tails.”

“That doesn’t sound nearly as interesting as you seem to think it does.”

“Bet enough money and it’ll make watching fucking paint dry exciting.”

“Does the Commander know about your gambling addiction?”

Pharaoh grinned at her, “How’s your arse feeling Starburns? Healing alright?”

Singh, Higgins and Aori all chuckled. Hobbit giggled. Even Nairu snorted behind her book. Degroot blushed furiously and unconsciously covered the star-shaped wounds on her posterior.

“Kut,” she spat at him and he laughed.

“I know what that means and it and it doesn’t bother me. You might hurt Hobbit’s sensitive ears though.”

“Fuck you Dave!” Hobbit sang and Pharaoh just laughed again.

He liked to laugh. He liked to make other people laugh.

Degroot backed away and sat carefully on her bunk, “This game. You played it often back home?”

“Nah, it’s only allowed once a year.”

“When?”

Pharaoh looked at his watch, “About a week ago.”

“What?”

“We were only allowed to play it one day a year.”

“Why?”

He grinned, “Tradition.”

Degroot thought that, and the game itself, sounded stupid and told him so.

“If you’re bored let’s go watch a movie.”

“Can’t mate,” he’d produced a coin and begun flipping and catching it, flipping and catching it, flipping and catching it, “Commander’s using the screening room for something important. Conference call or something. We’ll watch a movie later, anything you want.”

“Anything?”

Pharaoh sighed, but still smiled when he said, “Yeah mate, anything.”

***

The Black Market was located in one of those small Middle American towns that once littered family movies meant to call back to ‘simpler times.’ Like most of those towns it had been abandoned after the US Government had surrendered and ADVENT had been formed, its residents moving to the city centres, joining the mobile camps that fed the resistance or simply disappearing. Unlike the rest it had found new life as a hub for illegal and underground trade, with everybody from arms dealers to tobacco farmers to religious leaders selling their wares in the broken storefronts and old warehouses along the town’s main roads. Inns, bars, theatres and fighting pits had been set up to accommodate the flow of free people and keep them entertained, and it wasn’t hard to believe that the people who ran the Black Market spent a fortune in resources and plundered tech ensuring that their operation stayed off of ADVENT’s RADAR. As such it was the only place where a pair of fugitive rebels could still do a little shopping.

After cleaning herself up, tying her hair back in a bun and putting on some long sleeves and trousers to cover her scars Degroot had left the locker room and found Cheng being paid by the promoter, a lanky Brazilian with with scars running from his chin, down his neck past the collar of his shirt (red like the referee’s). Trudy was there as well, sitting on an old crate with an ice pack covering the right side of her head. She smiled genuinely at Degroot and congratulated her on her win. Degroot shook her hand, asked a few questions about the girl’s injuries and made a few vague but honestly meant compliments that she hoped sounded encouraging. The Brazilian finished paying Cheng and Degroot said goodbye to Trudy.

Outside the shoe factory the air was fresh and warm. There was a few dozen people on the cracked streets and broken pavements but most people tried to stay inside whenever they could. Paranoia was a hard thing to break and most of the traders and customers here had survived this long by assuming that no location was safe from ADVENT drones and satellites.

“What did you think of The Hammer?” Cheng asked as she led Degroot down the main street.

“Do you mean Trudy?”

Cheng nodded.

“A strong fighter with a lot of potential. Why?”

“Central wants us on the lookout for potential recruits.”

“Of course,” Degroot thought harder about the fight with Trudy, “she’s tough but she’s young.”

“So were you once upon a time.”

“Yes, I know,” Degroot unconsciously rubbed at the scars that covered her right arm, thought of Adams and Krause, then more pragmatically said, “she can definitely hold her own in a fistfight. That doesn’t speak much about her abilities in a firefight.”

“Maybe,” Cheng nodded agreement, “I might point Central in her direction anyway though.”

“Do what you think is best.”

They wandered until they reached what looked like it had once been a middle-end designer clothes shop which still had its windows. Most of the lettering was missing from the storefront, there were cobwebs in the doorway and the interior was dark and musky. Degroot decided to wait outside while Cheng went looking for the trader that she’d heard had made camp in the old shop, carrying their bag of winnings over her shoulder. They’d been paid in valuable scrap, mostly precious metals needed for more intricate electronics and batteries, mostly still in the form of circuit boards and batteries. Useful bits. The Unofficial currency for individuals in the Black Market. The higher-ups traded for and with the most valuable commodity of all: information.

A minute later Degroot heard a muted conversation fluctuated in volume as Cheng haggled with the trader inside. It took longer than expected for Cheng to haggle him down to a reasonable price, mostly because he didn’t sound intimidated at all by Cheng’s size or the pistol strapped to her thigh. Then again the man was probably better armed than Cheng even when she was fully equipped for a mission. Still, Degroot could still hear her being her infuriatingly calm self, could almost hear the lazy grin in her voice as she convinced the trader to lower his price to something more reasonable. After about ten minutes she rejoined Degroot, shoving a lacquered case the size of a shoebox into her satchel.

“Alright,” she smiled at Degroot and the two women began walking back in the general direction of the factory, “primary objective completed. Now we’ve got to find the alcohol for Louise and John. Anything else we should try and find while we’ve got the money to spend?”

“Tobacco for Gabriella and Vargas has been complaining about needing a new book, I think.”

“Let’s try and find him something good then.”

***

The klaxons bellowed and red lights flashed through the smoke that had suddenly filled every room and corridor. Fires burned and voices screamed, begging for help. Every breath tasted of ash and gunpowder and shit and oil and blood. There had been so much blood in the hangar and when Degroot, Hobbit and Nairu had escaped through one of the emergency corridors, away from the disastrous attempt to hold the main entrance, the flashing alarm and emergency lights had kept them washed in a bloody red.

They’d had so little warning of the attack, so little time to prepare a defensive line, so quickly overwhelmed. Singh was dead, his chest had been melted and splattered across the walls by a burst of plasma fire from the smoky darkness beyond the hangar doors. Higgins’ legs and right arm had been ripped off by a grenade, but he’d been crying for help right up until Degroot and the others had bolted. Vodka, a hard-drinking Russian stereotype of a sniper, had screamed and hurled herself from the catwalk for no obvious reason, landing on her head. Munóz had been hit just as he was throwing a grenade. It had rolled out of his dead hand and blown away the entire left side of the the base security trooper next to him. Another trooper, who Degroot had seen often enough to recognise but had never learnt her name, had her her head crushed by a muton using its plasma rifle like a club. Completely crushed. Like one moment she had a head, then she just had a neck and part of her jaw left.

Then the order had come, a desperate cry over the intercom in the Commander’s voice, “They’ve already infiltrated the Base! Code Orange! I repeat, Code Orange!”

Retreat. Escape. Regroup elsewhere. X-Com had fallen.

No one needed the encouragement. The handful of survivors had immediately run for the nearest exit. Nairu and Hobbit had converged on the same hatch as Degroot, all three of them firing blindly to their rear as they went. Nairu made it through, so did Degroot. But Hobbit, smaller than both the Dutch and South African women, had been hit. She went down feet from the door with a ragged leg wound, and it was all Degroot could do to reach down and drag her through before Nairu slammed the hatch shut.

There was a brief respite where the three of them could catch their breath, leaning against the rough stone walls while the flashing red lights danced across their faces, but it didn’t last long before they snapped back into action. Degroot began bandaging Hobbit’s leg while Nairu checked and reloaded their rifles, Degroot pulling a magazine from her and Hobbit’s webbing to do so.

“How much ammunition does everyone have left?”

“I’ve got five full magazines left after that,” replied Degroot.

“I’ve got four,” Hobbit said through clenched teeth.

“I have five also. Can you walk on that leg Katie?”

“I think I have to. A little help would be appreciated though.”

Degroot nodded and helped Hobbit stand and lean on her shoulder.

“Which way should we go?” the New Zealander hissed as she put weight on her bad leg.

“We should head towards the Command Centre,” Degroot suggested.

“The aliens have probably already taken it,” Nairu pointed out.

“I said towards it. We can see what exits are still open on the way. If all other possibilities are blocked than we won’t have much of a choice anyway.”

“Alright,” Nairu handed the others their rifles back, “I’ll lead the way.”

And so they’d fled down the corridor. The smoke grew thicker and the sound of gunfire more sporadic. They shut and locked hatches behind them whenever they could, trying to move generally upwards towards the exits to the surface, occasionally running into a hatch locked by someone in front. Twice they encountered the enemy, first running into an enemy floater and then running into a lonely sectoid. Nairu gunned them both down before they even had a chance to cry out. She was fast and alert, and had a reputation for close quarter combat for a reason. Eventually they came upon a large metal door that all three of them recognised. Degroot leaned Hobbit against a wall and flicked the safety off her rifle.

“Do you think they have made it through here already?” Nairu asked quietly, calmly.

Degroot looked over at the door in front of them, at Hobbit (who was looking paler and paler) and then back at Nairu. Beyond the door was the main warehousing and supply structure, a vast, cavernous space that linked to the hangar via an enormous blast door that had doubtless been one of the aliens’ first objectives. The door led to the catwalk that ran along the edges of the space, which meant they might not be spotted immediately if the aliens had the warehouse occupied, but opening the door and using the catwalks always made noise.

“I’d put money on it. Especially if they’ve already hit the Command Centre. We have to go through here though.”

Nairu nodded, waited for Degroot to get into position on the other side of the doorframe and Hobbit to indicate she had their backs then slowly swung the door open.

Pharaoh saw them and waved.

“Hey there girls, how’s it going?”

He was in the middle of the catwalk, propped against a metal crate with his rifle besides him, sitting in a pool of his own blood. Too much blood. He still managed a weak smile as he gestured them over. Nairu rushed over and Degroot grabbed Hobbit and followed. Inside the warehouse was a bloody, brutal mess. Alien corpses were piled amongst X-Com personnel, crates were burning, the walls and columns were scored with bullet holes and the burns of energy weapons. But whatever had happened, Pharaoh seemed to be the only survivor.

“You’ve been busy,” Degroot said, unable to keep the concern out of her voice.

“Yeah, y’know, I like to be useful mate,” his teeth were bloody but his voice was steady, “I, uh, I think I’m fucked Starburns.”

Degroot wanted to comfort him, wanted to say something hopeful, but she saw him putting pressure on a hole in his gut and just couldn’t bring herself to lie to him. Just nodded.

“That’s fine mate. Kind of expecting it,” he kept smiling, how the hell did he keep smiling, “We stopped them. Forced them back and Damien managed to close the blast doors before he bled out somewhere over there,” he thumbed generally over his shoulder, “But they’ll be back any second now. Either that or they’ll come from a different direction. It was just me and him left. Now it’s just me. You three, you three should run.”

“We can take you with us,” Degroot said, her eyes suddenly blurry, “We can get you out of here.”

“Nah. Already told you, I’m fucked mate. I’m- I’m fucked. I can’t feel my legs,” he let out a choking sob there, but he never stopped smiling, “I’m fucked. I can’t feel them. I can’t go. But you three need to run. You go through that door,” he pointed in the opposite direction to where they’d entered, “you head to Workshop 2. Central and a few others were heading that way. They said there was still a clear path out through the ventilation. You go there and you get out.”

Degroot realised she was nodding, but her legs refused to move.

“Go on,” Pharaoh said gently, “get Katie and the Gazelle out safe. We’ll see each other in whatever comes left.”

“How do you know?”

He laughed, “‘Cause I fucking do. Now, you protect them. You don’t stop trying to protect them.”

“I will.”

“Good,” that seemed to satisfy him, “Goodbye Eva. You look after yourself and everybody else.”

Degroot nodded, turned and left him behind. Hobbit limped along with her and Nairu followed. Neither of them had said anything that Degroot had heard and she was glad. They were all friends, but Pharaoh and her had been the closest. Her “best mate in all the world,” and she’d left him to bleed out on the catwalk.

Halfway to Workshop 2 they heard the sound of ripping metal, followed by the echoing crack of a sniper rifle. Then another. And another. A fourth. A fifth. Silence. They reached Workshop 2 and closed the door behind them. There was a fire burning in one corner of the room, pouring acrid smoke against the opening in the roof.

“There’s the vent,” Hobbit said and limped over, sadness on her features but hope in her eyes.

“No signs of violence,” Nairu said eyeing the fire.

“Machine probably wasn’t switched off properly and overloaded when the emergency evacuation started,” Degroot agreed.

“We should still be cautious, I’ll go first.”

Nairu used a workbench to climb up to the vent, then climb into it. They heard her shuffling around in the vent, than her muffled voice yell “It seems clear.”

And it was because Nairu was up in the vents that, when the fire ignited a barrel of hazardous chemicals, she was not caught in the explosion.

There was a crackling whoosh and Degroot was thrown across the room to slam bodily against the wall. There was a second of shock, the soreness of a what was probably fractured ribs, then the smell of cooking meat filled her nostrils and she felt a throbbing, excruciating pain all over her right arm. She screamed and looked at it, saw that it was wrapped in flames from her armour pauldron to sleeve cuff, screamed harder, shook her arm stupidly in an attempt to put out the fire, kept screaming until Nairu swaddled the demon limb in a fire blanket and wrestled Degroot still while whispering soothing words.

“Shhh, shhhh, be still. Be still. The fire is out, we need to leave.”

Degroot was shaking uncontrollably, tears rolled down her face and her throat was scorched from all the smoke and screaming. When she spoke her voice cracked.

“Where’s Hobbit? Is Katie okay? Where’s Katie?”

Nairu shook her head, “Katie is already gone. We need to leave.”

That didn’t make sense.

“No, Katie wouldn’t have left without us. She couldn’t. She needs me to help her walk.”

“No, Katie is gone,” the smell of cooking meat still hung in the air over the smoke, despite the vent, “Katie is- Katie is dead.”

It was like being hit with a hammer. Degroot was shaking harder, realised she was sobbing. Nairu was inspecting her arm, wincing as she looked at the charred skin beneath the tattered bits of armour and clothing.

“No,” Degroot begged, “nononono not Hobbit. Not Katie,” she hiccoughed, “No, not Katie. I said I’d protect her,” her voice was getting louder, “I told him I’d look after her. He told me to look after her!” she thrashed about, looking for her friend, ignoring what was left.

“We have to leave. We have to get out of here.”

“No!” she was yelling now, “No! Katie!” screaming, “Katie! No Katie! Katie!”

“She is fucking dead! We are leaving now!”

Again Degroot screamed her friend’s name.

***

Cheng and Degroot sat in the bar of the Avenger with a beer each, watching Adams, Shen and Navarro drinking fresh apple juice that the fighter and her manager had spent the last of their winnings on. Navarro was demonstrating how to roll a cigarette to the other two using the tobacco that Cheng and Degroot had found for her, something that seemed to fascinate the sniper and chief engineer. Smokers had gone almost extinct in North America (where both women had spent the majority of their time since the invasion), Europe, most of Africa and northern Asia. There were a handful of diehards like Navarro who put a great deal of effort into maintaining the habit, but outside of South America and Southern Asia most people had been forced to give up. Listening to the Spanish woman, normally quiet and withdrawn, explain the art of rolling the perfect cigarette must have felt like watching a new play or film for the first time.

Cheng and Degroot had returned with the Commander and Central (who had been off bartering for weapons and supplies while Degroot had been fighting and the two women had been shopping) bearing the fruits of their labours. John Tipene and Louise Seo had been happy to receive the crate of decent alcohol with which to restock the bar. Gertrude Wilders, one of the other members of the Avenger’s technical crew, had been given a few vital ingredients and was at that very moment baking cupcakes in the mess kitchen. They’d bought a half dozen books, real books, for the barracks and Cesar Vargas in particular and Cheng had found and insisted on buying a whetstone for Gerry O’Neill, the Irish ranger who was constantly, unnervingly sharpening his blades (something that seemed to bother everyone except Cheng).

The real prize (aside from their first purchase) had been a checkers board, which the trader had practically given away. Everyone had been excited to see it and most of the crew (combat and noncombat alike) had already played a match or two and begun forming heated by friendly rivalries. It was being played on the bartop by Hiro and Nguyen, who worked the Avenger’s radar and comms respectively. The two men were, in Degroot’s opinion, taking the game far too seriously, staring at the board as if one wrong move would cause a muton to spontaneously appear out of thin air. She hadn’t even seen them take a sip of their now warm beers since the game started. It was just fucking checkers.

Navarro finished her demonstration and finished her apple juice so that she could go smoke the results. Both her and Emily were on standby, and neither were the types to knock back a quiet drink when the klaxon could sound at any moment. She said her goodbyes to Shen and Adams, sent a nod in Cheng and Degroot’s direction and walked through the hatch.

“Aren’t we too high up for her to go outside to smoke that?” Cheng asked, watching the Spaniard leave.

“We are but the Commander said she’s allowed to smoke in the Hangar occasionally,” Degroot unconsciously scratched at the new stitches beneath the bandage above her eyebrow, “since it has the best ventilation.”

They were small things but they’d done a wonder for morale. They’d finally raided the ADVENT blacksite a week before and what they’d seen there… hadn’t been pleasant, to say the least. Everyone had come back from the ‘processing plant’ with their confidence shaken. It reminded Degroot of her time in the first X-Com, during those first successful missions. Even back then, before the full horror of the alien invasion was revealed, those small victories often felt hollow. Small. They’d see stasis pods filled with kidnapped victims and battlefields littered by civilians torn to bloody, burnt pieces.

Back then it had been Pharaoh who had tried to keep spirits high. He was always trying to put together card games and competitions, races and wagers. Once he organised a ten-person Monopoly tournament, putting two boards side by side (an English and an American version to keep things from becoming too confusing) and hopping around the boards in a figure-eight. The best thing had been the movie nights though. The Commander, understanding the need for the odd bit of R&R had allowed film screenings in the main conference room or allowed projectors and screens to be set up in the barracks. The battle over what film would be watched had become a running joke amongst the X-Com staff, as Degroot and Pharaoh battled it out to get their favourite films played before each others. There was one film, however, that they both believed was a masterpiece and watched until they could recite the whole film by heart.

When Degroot realised that Cheng had started to fill the void, she’d been happy to help.

The door hissed open and Leroy stepped into the bar. He’d let his beard grow out again, leaving him looking particularly scruffy again. Cheng waved him over and he pulled up a stool at their little round table.

“Eva, Li,” he nodded to each woman in turn, quick eyes darting around the room. At first Degroot had thought them to be paranoid eyes, constantly looking for threats and danger, like a cornered animal. Eventually she’d realised they were just restless, drawn to colour and movement in the same way that Degroot constantly needed to keep her hands busy. Give her a sheet of paper and she’d tear it to confetti or fold it into a paper airplane or something. The checkers game caught Leroy’s eyes and he smiled, “Enjoying the match?”

“Enjoying how seriously Hiro and Nguyen are taking it,” Cheng grinned, “we might have to introduce a three drink minimum rule before letting someone play.” Leroy chuckled at that. Cheng pulled the lacquered box from somewhere underneath the table and slid it towards Leroy, “This is for you.”

The Frenchman’s eyes went wide as he pulled the case over, “For me?”

“From me and Degroot. Little something we’d spotted on the last trip to the market and thought you might like.”

Leroy opened the case and his eyes went wide. Three weeks before the three of them had gotten drunk and begun talking about their families, their loves, their friends before and after the first war. Degroot had finally opened up about her time in the first X-Com and Cheng had told them about her father (still alive and fighting) and missing mother. Leroy had told them about bonding over music lessons with his older sister, getting an ice cream on the steps of the Cathedral his father had loved so much in their home city of Lyon. How he’d kept playing after his father had died (heart attack due to complications caused by a stun lance while protesting against the demolition of that Cathedral). How he’d had to stop a few years ago when his instrument broke and finding replacement parts had been next to impossible.

Leroy smiled and began pulling pieces of the clarinet out of the case. Slowly, carefully, he began putting them together and by the time he was done Adams, Shen, Hiro and Nguyen had noticed what was happening and even the latter two had managed to pull their attention away from the match they cared about so much to watch Leroy.

Still smiling Leroy put the instrument to his lips and began to play.

***

The vent from Workshop 2 was intersected by a rough tunnel that neither Nairu or Degroot had any idea existed, but CO Bradford obviously did. Some sort of Plan B that he’d marked with a glow stick that was now dying in the darkness. After about half a kilometre the tunnel connected to a collection of old mine shafts (Pharaoh would have laughed at the cliche) which took some time to navigate, since Bradford hadn’t left any other markings to help them get out. So they followed rusty cart lines and tunnels that led ‘up’ until they saw light and emerged into the outside world what felt like miles from where they’d started.

If the other survivors had used that exit than they’d already left. Nairu used the moment to examine and dress Degroot’s wound, cutting away the remains of her burnt sleeves and armour and wincing at the raw, scorched flesh.

“It looks worse than it is,” she’d said but Degroot had known she was lying, was too numb to care, “The workshop had a full medkit, I will dress the wound but it is going to hurt.”

There were some painkillers in the medkit, which Degroot didn’t want to take but Nairu stabbed a syringe straight into her shoulder anyway. Nairu then applied some sort of gel to the afflicted area and wrapped the entire arm in bandages.

“I do not know much about burns, but it doesn’t look like anything important was damaged. We should find a proper doctor though. I expect at the very least it will leave a wicked scar.”

Degroot said nothing. She hadn’t said anything since they left the base.

The first rallying position was a town near the base. If the base was compromised and if it was possible, X-Com staff and operatives were supposed to fall back to the town and set up a new defensive or help evacuate the civilians. Nairu said it was a bit of foolish sentimentality to place the safety of the townsfolk higher than the continued survival of X-Com but Degroot thought that very sentimentality was X-Com’s entire raison d’etre. When the two of them reached it the next morning they found it empty. Signs of battle but, unsurprisingly, no bodies. They managed to put together some supplies, and find a working vehicle. As they drove out of town they noticed the normal welcoming sign had recently been graffitied on in big red letters.

“ASSUME ALL POSITIONS COMPROMISED”

They didn’t know when CO Bradford or any of the other survivors would have had time to paint the warning. Perhaps X-Com had left someone in the town (just in case) and that person had painted across the sign. Regardless, they took the warning as gospel and drove in the opposite direction from the second rallying point.

The next few weeks were a blur in Degroot’s memory. If the aliens were scouring the countryside for survivors then they would have found Degroot and Nairu easy prey. Perhaps they were just lucky and the aliens missed them in their sweeps. More than likely the aliens no longer cared. The only credible threat to their invasion had been thoroughly smashed, what did they care about a few stragglers? Either way, they found the next town populated and managed to get proper treatment for Degroot’s burns. The doctors said she was very lucky that Nairu had put the flames out so quickly, that there was some nerve and muscle damage but that she’d more or less have full use of her right arm. They spent two weeks there and at some point she began practicing shooting with her left hand while her right hand recovered.

When they didn’t hear anything from anyone in the X-Com chain of command Nairu sent word to their respective militaries asking for orders. Not long afterwards both were ordered to return to their own countries to assist in the rapidly deteriorating resistance against the aliens. The local government wasn’t able to spare any help, so when Degroot was feeling well enough they travelled to the coast. Nairu had delicately hugged her before they parted and Degroot had muttered a “thank you.” Then they climbed on separate ships (the aliens controlled the skies but hadn’t got around to taking control of the seas just yet) and went their separate ways.

It took weeks to get back to the Netherlands, since the ship she’d chosen changed course three times to avoid port cities that had been attacked by the aliens. By the time she arrived the Dutch government was on the verge of surrender. She joined up with a mechanised infantry battalion that managed to fight a guerilla war across Europe for nearly two years before being whittled down to nothing.

It was while fighting with the battalion that she met her tattoo artist, a corporal named Johann. It took weeks for him to research what she wanted and months to etch the design onto her left arm. From shoulder to wrist, a swirling black Maori pattern that traced around her muscles and joints, surrounding an Egyptian Ankh on the inside of her forearm like a vine.

Pharaoh had worn a small silver version of the symbol around his neck on the same chain as his dogtags, a gift from his “loving, hippy mother” before he’d gone off to basic training. He’d loved that little piece of tarnished silver. It was the reason everyone had started calling him Pharaoh.

Nairu made it back to South Africa. They’d managed to keep in touch, barely. Every year or two they’d find a way to send a few letters back and forth before the lines of communication were cut again. When Degroot had finally rejoined CO Bradford and the new X-Com she’d sent a message to Nairu to convince her to come along as well. Nairu had politely refused.

“I’m old,” the letter had said, “I have been fighting for a very long time. So have you. But you still fight for the rest of the world. I only fight for home.”

Degroot didn’t blame her. It was still disappointing to not fight side by side with her friend again.

***

Leroy was out of practice, but no one cared. He started slow, then sped up as his confidence grew and the old muscle memory kicked in. Degroot leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, cutting out everything but the sound of the music. It was a fast, happy song, the kind you can dance to if so inclined. She remembered Leroy’s love of electro-swing from previous parties and chuckled inwardly at the imagined thought of Adams finally having the courage to dance about the room with Shen.

Something was placed on her lap and her eyes opened, thoughts interrupted. She looked down and saw a small brown paper parcel sitting across her legs.

“I found that while you were using the bathroom,” Cheng said, eyes still watching Leroy play, “I hope you like it.”

Degroot’s brow furrowed as she tore open the packaging and promptly unfurrowed as she saw what was inside. A scuffed blu-ray cover with a shiny disk inside, the words Die Hard: With a Vengeance within its blue border. A smile stretched across Degroot’s face as she stared down at what she and Pharaoh had both agreed was the greatest film ever made. Cheng seemed to notice and her own lazy grin stretched a little wider.

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