Chapter 9: An Overshadowed Reunion
“She looked at me. She looked straight into my eyes. And she smiled.”
“Contact front!” Michelle King’s words were quickly drowned out by the roar of her gatling cannon. The trooper in her sights shuddered and spasmed and jerked as the burst of high-velocity magnetically-flung rounds pinned it against a concrete pillar and ripped through its armour. When the body fell out of sight it left a broad patch of orange blood and bits of its guts graffitied against the light grey surface. Fuckin’ gorgeous.
Across the road Karen Nilsen, the Swedish ranger who’d introduced herself by pulling a knife on Gabby Navarro and apparently freaking the shit out of Gerry O’Neill, cackled (honest to god, cackled) as she blew the head clean off a sectoid’s shoulders with her big shotgun-like shardgun. Michelle liked her. Thierry Leroy, the only bloke on this op aside from the VIP they were pulling out of the frying pan, swore colourfully in French and English both when his shot missed the red-armour (an ADVENT officer) that ran around the corner after its mates. Michelle was pretty indifferent towards him, but that was probably because she’d barely spoken twenty words in his direction since she’d joined up with X-Com. She’d need to change that. He seemed nice enough. Little shy, little nervous.
There was a boom that echoed between the glass and steel building-fronts as Emily Adams took out the red-armour with her scoped gauss rifle. Michelle gave her a grin and Emily smiled back. They were near enough age-wise but Emily had a bit more innocent girlishness to her. Michelle respected that, given what she’d heard the American had been through. Shen back on the ship had mentioned she was a survivor of the destruction of Camp Shelby, and even planting IEDs on cars back home Michelle had heard about that. It was a cautionary tale held up by resistance cells all over, “that’s why we don’t all gather in one place.” But Emily was good, kind and friendly with a great southern twang to her accent as she clumsily, obviously, tried to flirt with Shen in engineering.
The VIP they’d been sent to rescue stared about uncertainly. Dr Thulani Bengu had been near enough to Karen to have heard her laughing (cackling like a supervillain) as she put the trooper down and he was looking a little… not pale. His skin was too dark to look pale. What was that word Michelle’s dad had liked using? Ashen. The good doctor (of computer engineering or something) looked ashen.
“Eyes forward! They won’t be the last!” Eva Degroot growled as she ran forward and took up a covering position. Li Ming Cheng did the same. Not surprising given how tight those two were. Then again it was pretty hard to not like Li. It was easy to relax around the tall, muscular, unnaturally lean woman despite her statuesque physique (seriously, it was like the bitch was carved from stone).
As if summoned by Eva’s words another trio of aliens charged up the street, weaving between the parked cars and yelling in their garbled language. Eva swore loudly in Dutch as she spotted a stun lancer with his blade out heading straight for her. She pivoted about and shot him through the throat from about ten metres away, flinging his head and torso back in a spray of blood while his momentum kept him moving forward causing the whole choking mass to skid another metre along the bitumen towards Eva. The stunner was still twitching when Michelle looked away and saw Li turn another of the fuckers into smoking meat with her own mag cannon.
Michelle didn’t think, just reacted to the order and threw herself to the ground behind a big red sedan that was parked flush against the side walk. She felt the magnetically propelled rounds fly over her head and shatter the glass window on her other side, heard them slam into the car’s engine block, smelt ozone, burnt plastic, rubber and melted metal. Realised she’d heard the engine block get hit. Scrambled to her feet with the intention of sprinting away but it was too late.
With the aliens had come a shift in how energy was produced and how it was used. One of the biggest switches had been changing car engines from petrol-guzzlers to small hydrogen things that were cheap, clean, efficient, quiet, smooth and – a bit annoyingly given current circumstances – far more vulnerable to stray gun fire.
The sedan she’d ducked behind exploded in a big dramatic fireball that tossed her across the footpath and into something hard and unyielding.
For what could only have been seconds all that Michelle saw was black. Then the feeling in her body returned, painful in some places and numb in others (because yes, that does still count as feeling), and she flicked open her eyes. Well, her right eye at least. Her left was gummy. The back of her head was throbbing, but her left hand didn’t want to move when she ordered it to. Her mouth and nostrils were filled with the taste and smell of blood, her own she realised after a second. Both ears were ringing.
“Fuckin’ fuck me fuckin’ dead,” she couldn’t even hear her own words.
She saw two pairs of boots pounding in her direction and let out a groan. It hurt, but Michelle managed to convince her left eye to squint open and her left arm to help the right push herself off the concrete footpath. A second later strong hands were helping her into a sitting a position and Eva and Leroy filled her vision.
“I’m fine,” Michelle said groggily, couldn’t hear herself speak so yelled them again, “I’m fine!” She saw Leroy pulling out a medkit and she shook her head, “I don’t need it!” Her hearing was starting to come back, leaving just a high-pitched whine in each ear, “I’m alright, just help me stand. Save it, we don’t have time and might need it later.”
Eva was saying something and Michelle focused on hearing whatever it was she had to say, “… your face is a fucking mess you dumb kut,” what the hell was a kut? “so is your arm. You’re most likely bleeding internally. We need to bandage you up now before blood loss or shock finishes the job.”
Michelle was shaking her head, “There’s no time, we’ll do it on Firestarter. I just need you to help me stand. Please. I’ll be alright,” she flashed her grin at them.
Eva looked at Leroy, who looked concerned but nodded. He pulled two syringes from a pouch on his webbing and passed them to Eva. With what looked like a sigh (Michelle’s hearing wasn’t fantastic at the moment so she couldn’t hear it) she stuck the first needle into the Australian’s neck.
“This is to help clot the blood and hopefully keep you from bleeding out,” she threw the first syringe away and repeated the process with the second, “this should keep you moving and help with the pain.”
With another sigh from Eva, she and Leroy pulled Michelle to her feet. She was unsteady for a second – but only a second – before she refound her footing and gave them a nod. Eva looked skeptical but nodded back. She liked to think of herself as the cold, ruthless warrior – distant and aloof. Truth was that she was a big softie who worried about everyone. And everyone loved her for it.
“Let’s get you out of here before you bleed to death.”
Emily stood outside the door to Engineering, staring at the grey painted metal and chewing on her nails. It was a bad habit she’d picked up as a kid and dropped as a teenager, but it tended to come back in moments when she was particularly nervous or anxious. Maybe it was something worth telling Doctor Colin Lynch, the scientist who also acted as the Avenger’s resident counselor and psychologist, when she next met him. She’d been seeing him semi-regularly since the time a blob creature that had been disguised as a human refugee had backhanded her through some crates, and he’d become a pretty trustworthy friend through it all.
But if she told him, well, he’d want to know why she was feeling that anxious. What she was doing. Emily didn’t want to admit it to herself let alone Doctor Lynch, but he’d keep pestering her until she told him. He was good at that.
Shit. Then again, Emily wasn’t sure herself. Why was she here, staring at a closed door, one hand balled into a fist ready to knock but too scared to get within striking distance of the door. Chewing absently on the other. Shit. She must look like a fucking coward. Shit. She was a fucking coward. Why couldn’t she just knock? She’d done it countless times before, spoken to the person inside easily and happily while tinkering with the disassembled rifles set out on what had effectively become her workbench. What made right now so difficult?
It was because Emily had something she needed to say, and she was too afraid to say it. Couldn’t say it.
She turned on her heel and walked away from the door.
Michelle woke up to clean sheets, a parched throat, pounding headache and a familiar face she hadn’t seen in years, one that didn’t look like it had changed in that time at all. Same dirty blonde hair, same lumpy nose, same mutton chops that led to the same thick mustache (both splashed with ginger), same dark brown eyes that were the same as hers.
“Mornin’ sunshine,” the same voice spoke to her with the same undertones of kindness and sarcasm, “how you feeling?”
Michelle cracked a smile at her brother James, “Like shit,” her head throbbed, “Like I’m hungover. I’m not hungover, am I?”
James grinned and shook his head, “Not from what they tell me. Apparently you passed out on the skyranger on your way back from an op.”
“Sounds right. How long was I out of it?”
“Three days all told.”
“Yeah, well, a car exploded in your face. Dr Tygen was surprised you stayed conscious and fighting all the way to the skyranger. Your insides were pretty scrambled.”
“Shit. When did you get here?”
“Two days ago. The resistance heard you lot were looking for a new combat medic so they mailed me over from the Pacific. Imagine my surprise when I heard that a certain Michelle King was passed out in the infirmary.”
His eyes drifted to her left and he winced a little, but didn’t stop grinning at her. She tried to raise her left arm but found that to be more painful than what it was worth, so she used her right hand instead to inspect the opposite side of her face. She felt bandages covering gaus over most of the left side of her head from the scalp down to her neck. Further inspection revealed that her left arm and shoulder was similarly bandaged up, as was her left hip.
“They’re gonna start calling me Twoface at this rate,” she rasped and looked for a glass of water.
“Nah, your face isn’t too bad. Couple of scratches that’ll leave a few extra laugh lines. The bad cuts were along here,” he traced a line from the edge of his sideburns back above and around his ear, “And your Frenchman-“
“-Did a pretty good job stitching them up. Grow your hair longer than an inch and nobody’ll even notice. Your arm’s a different matter. The Frenchman says Dr Tygen did the stitching there so don’t blame him.”
“Yeah, I saw it when they changed the bandages. Tell you right now, I’d much rather the Frenchman stitch me up if I get hurt. Guy actually seems to care about his work. Proper craftsman.”
“I don’t blame you,” she looked at her arm, imagining the crosswork of future scars beneath the bandage, then back at her brother, “What’s wrong?”
“Something’s wrong. It’s been, what, three years? Fuck three years now. I may not have seen you in three years but I still know what you look like when something’s wrong. So what is it? Have I got cancer or something?” she chuckled.
James hesitated, and for a second Michelle actually thought that oh shit it really is cancer, then he shook his head.
“They asked me to tell you because they thought it might be easier coming from me. I dunno, I’m not sure if it’s right me telling you.”
“Tell me what?”
It was two hours before dawn and the team were charging up a wide two-lane street in a small town, a smell that might have been a damaged sewer or a ruptured septic tank filling their nostrils. Small houses sat behind rusted gates, far too silent for anyone’s liking. Central Officer Bradford had told them the town was one of the rare rural communities that was still populated in this part of Central America, but aside from the trio of troopers they were about to put down they had seen no other sign of life. Where were all the people?
It was a thought Eva Degroot had to put aside as they opened fire on the troopers in front of them. One in red, two in black, standard formation. They squealed and scattered, but were cut down regardless. They needed to be taken down quickly, Menace One was on a time limit to reach the objective and they’d wasted to much time on a cautious dash across town.
Maybe that was why they’d stopped being cautious. Maybe it was the new armour, straight from Shen’s micro-factories, that made them overconfident. It didn’t matter. Leroy was suddenly yelling about multiple contacts and Degroot looked over in time to see Cheng plaster a stun lancer against a car and see Nilsen fire her shard gun at a viper, see the viper twist around and the shards graze off its armour. Then Leroy was firing in a different direction and Degroot turned around to see a muton lumbering behind an old truck that looked like it had been there since before the first war and it probably had and she saw another viper circling past it, the muton growled loudly and she turned back to see it aim its plasm rifle.
Saw it fire.
Felt it hit her in the chest.
James looked at Michelle and he looked uncomfortable as he deadpanned the words.
“Eva Degroot was killed in an op this morning.”
The bar was quiet as Louise Seo walked around the table pouring the last of her good rye whiskey into the glasses of the gathered mourners. The only sound was her footsteps and the splash of liquid into the chipped but reliable glassware. When the bottle was nearly empty and the glasses were full she stepped around to her place at the table and raised her own, everyone else following suit. Navneet Banerjee, Cesar Vargas and Gabriela Navarro from the ranks of X-Com’s combat operatives. John Tipene, Simmons, Gertrude Wilders and Kogara Hiro from the Avenger’s crew. Everyone would get a chance to mourn and right now it was theirs.
“Rest easy Eva,” Louise said, a catch in her voice.
Everyone decided that it was all that needed to be said, and together they downed their drinks. Louise produced another bottle and began refilling their glasses. It wasn’t quite the quality of her last bottle of rye but it would do.
“Do we know what they’re going to do for the funeral?” Tipene asked, breaking a long silence after the toast.
“The Commander’s already been through her will,” Louise replied, “she wanted to be cremated, her ashes thrown into the wind from the deck.”
“The Commander,” Navarro added, “talked of a funeral pyre. On the deck in a few days.”
“How very Viking of him,” Wilders replied with a small smile.
“Well we haven’t exactly got a lot of crematoriums handy,” Simmons threw in and everybody nodded agreement.
They sat in silence for a while. Everyone at the table, everyone on the ship, had lost someone. Had lost more than one. For most it was the reason why still fought the aliens instead of merely rolling over and enjoying the gifts of their benevolent dictators. Everyone had lost someone. But it still hurt.
“How did she die?” Wilders asked in a quiet voice.
“The same as everyone else,” Vargas replied, “badly.”
The others watched her go down, staring horrified as she was spun about by the splash of plasma fire and tossed heavily onto her stomach, bouncing once and then being still. Navarro and Vargas were swearing from behind their cover. Cheng yelled her name. Then her nickname.
Then she moved. Slowly, moving one arm and then her knees and then the other arm she growled and pushed herself onto her elbows. Cheng grinned, different to how she usually did, relief clear on her face.
The viper that Nilsen had grazed shot its tongue across the twenty metres between it and Degroot. It caught on her armour and dragged her backwards across the road and rubble until she thumped into its armoured torso. Cheng screamed something incoherent as it wrapped its lithe body around Degroot’s struggling form. The Dutchwoman had a chance to turn her head back towards them. Back towards her friends. Then her face disappeared behind yet another coil. The snake creature squeezed.
Afterwards nobody would be sure whether they heard the crack of bones, the snap of their friend’s neck, or if their minds simply filled in the blank space. When the viper uncoiled Eva Degroot fell to the ground, limp as an armoured pillow.
“I th-think she b-blames me,” Karen Nilsen said as she passed the flask over to Doreen Donaldson. Technically the Scot was on duty, but she didn’t think anybody would mind her having a sip or two given the mornings events.
“Cheng. I-I think she blames me. I-I d-didn’t kill the snake th-that k-killed her friend. I-I should have killed it. I m-missed.”
Doreen shook her head, “I don’t think she blames you,” she spoke slowly so that her Glaswegian accent wasn’t too difficult to decipher for the Swede whose stuttering English was at least a second language, “Cheng wouldn’t do that. She’s not the type to hold grudges.”
“How do y-y-you know that?”
That was a good point. She, Karen and Michelle had only been on the Avenger for a few weeks. They hadn’t spent much time with Eva Degroot or Cheng or any of the others. But still.
“Because I do.”
“Y-your wrong. She does hold g-gr-grudges. We all do. I-it’s why we’re here.” Karen shook her head, “You should h-have s-s-seen her. A-A one woman army.”
Cheng stood in the middle of an intersection breathing raggedly. Her gun was empty, as was her grenade launcher. There was more than a half dozen bodies splattered around her and three houses were one fire. Some part of her mind was vaguely trying to tell the rest that she was responsible for the bodies and the flames. That she had charged amongst them, spitting curses and death and promises of hell. That she’d killed them all. That she needed to kill more. Another part of her said it didn’t matter.
She turned around and saw the limp form lying on the road. A pile of scorched black armour around a pale face, her Gremlin lying shut down beside her like a faithful hound at its master’s side.
Cheng let out a sob and charged towards her friend, throwing her mag cannon aside and scooping the boneless form into her arms. Eva’s eyes were still open, her head lolled at an angle it shouldn’t have been able to, her armour was crushed and dented, her limbs twisted underneath.
“No Eva, please don’t be dead! Please!”
Cheng kissed her friend’s forehead and stroked her hair. Rocked back and forth, begging for her to say something, to wake up, to fucking breath. But no matter how hard she begged, Eva just wouldn’t. Cheng rocked back and forth, crying, head buried in her friend’s chest, small, shaking sobs. And that was where she stayed until the skyranger landed to pick them up.
It was a hunch, but Michelle remembered overhearing Eva talk to Cheng about meeting in one of the recently cleared rooms on the lower decks a week or two before. No one had seen Cheng in hours and Michelle figured it was worth a try.
The door slid open and Michelle heard the sounds of gunfire and a man’s clipped dialogue, saw lights flashing against the far wall. She crept forward on bare feet, her left arm in a sling and her face still swaddled in bandages. Cheng was sitting in a small incline between support struts, out of view of the door but not the rest of the room, also barefoot with a bottle of Louise’s ship made spirits in one hand and screen playing some sort of movie resting on her knees. She looked up at Michelle but said nothing.
“Can I join you?”
Cheng nodded and indicated the space beside her. Not in an inviting sort of way, mind you. More in an “I don’t give a shit” sort of way. Michelle sat down regardless and joined Cheng watching the screen.
“What are you watching?”
“Die Hard: With a Vengeance.“
“I don’t think I’ve seen it.”
“It was Eva’s favourite film.”
Shit. What do you say to that?
“I’m sorry your friend died.”
Shit. Not that.
“Thankyou. I appreciate it.”
Huh. Well whatever works.
“How are you doing?”
“Good, I guess. No, not good, just… I don’t know.”
“Yes. That. Alright.”
Cheng was quiet for a moment, staring at the screen as a white guy and a black guy jumped onto a boat, but she clearly wanted to speak.
“She smiled at me.”
“What?” Michelle asked.
“Eva smiled at me. She looked at me. She looked straight into my eyes. And she smiled,” she gave Michelle an incredulous look, “she fucking smiled. I don’t… I don’t think she minded dying. I don’t think she wanted to die, but I think she was ready for it. She has a lot of friends waiting for her on the other side. She smiled at me. She was ready.”
There were tears in the big woman’s eyes.
“Please don’t tell anyone I said that.”
“Not even my brother.”
Cheng nodded, “Thank you.”
“Anytime. Now let’s watch the movie.”
“I’ll start it again.”
“Thanks, I’d like to watch it from the beginning. Did Eva watch this with you?”
“It was her favourite.”