Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (10)

Chapter 10: A Touch of Madness

It always felt like they arrived too late.

At least that’s what Li Ming Cheng had said when Menace One had boarded the skyranger on their way to the little resistance-controlled shantytown on the northern edge of the South American continent (or the southern edge of Central America depending on who your geography teacher was). As they dropped into the warzone it had become Doreen Donaldson, Dori to the people she liked, understood what the huge Chinese woman meant.

Huge swathes of the scrubland around the town were burning, belching thick black smoke into the sky and bathing the ramshackle buildings, caravans, trailers and vehicles in red and orange light that might have been lovely if they’d been cast by a setting sun instead of the results of an ADVENT airstrike. Clothes tattered long before the attack flapped violently from laundry lines strung between structures pieced together out of old recycled wood, sheet metal and gnatty tarps, and rusty four wheel drives and minivans that were never meant for the kind of off-road use they’d probably been put through. Smoke, ash, fuel, spent gunpowder, cooked meat, blood, cut grass and branches, all these scents fought a battle in her nostrils for dominance. A blackened corpse missing an arm, foot and its head was slumped against the passenger door of an ancient jeep with a jury-rigged hydrogen engine, a blast crater visible within spitting distance of the corpse.

“Fuck me,” Dori mumbled as she spotted a child’s t-shirt caught on a large radio antenna whipped about in the winds caused by the fires like an obscene flag, its bright colours smouldering dark grey smoke into the sky.

“Small bodies,” Gabriela Navarro spat into the dirt, looking in the same direction as Dori, “It is the fucking worst to find.”

“We’re not here to find bodies,” Li said, giving the barrels of her mag cannon whirring as she gave them a test spin, “we’re here to make them.”

Dori saw Thierry Leroy glance at Li with a bit of worry in his frown. She had the same old lazy smile on her face that everyone was used to but there was a hard edge in her voice as she said it. Then again her best friend had been killed a week ago and, as Karen Nilsen had pointed out, X-Com members were good at holding grudges.

Karen was bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet, eyes hidden beneath the shadow of her old hood but obviously twitching back and forth between the other members of Menace One and the environment around her. She held her shotgun by her side and was fiddling with a buckle on her predator armour. Cesar Vargas had already jogged off to scout ahead, looking for civilians so save and aliens to kill. The Commander was saying something in their ears that Dori only half listened to.

The Scot took a deep breath and clutched her rifle tighter, worried that her hands might start shaking as she looked at that t-shirt flickering in the wind, a tiny life probably snuffed out. CO Bradford had said there was supposed to have been a hundred thirty people in this settlement. Li said they’d save a dozen at best. Another two dozen might escape by themselves.

“Fuck it,” she said louder than intended, “let’s go kill the bastards that did this.”

***

“How do you think you are dealing with Miss Degroot’s death?”

Emily stirred uncomfortably in her stool, looking away from Doctor Lynch towards the rows of half filled bottles secured safely within plexiglass cabinets behind the bar. Funnily enough they didn’t provide the same comfort that the autopsy table had during the first few meetings she’d had with the Avenger’s in-ship shrink, back when it had been separated from the rest of the research centre within a box of bullet, blast and sound proof glass. The Commander had ordered the box disassembled not long after their second meeting, deciding its parts could be put to better use elsewhere. Emily and the doctor had been meeting in the rare moments when the bar was empty ever since.

He raised his eyebrows and she realised she needed to answer.

“Well enough I guess. I haven’t needed to cry myself to sleep or anything.”

“Did you cry yourself to sleep after your mother died?”

A few times.

“No. Why’d you ask?”

Doctor Lynch was smiling at her. He was always smiling. It was both infuriating and calming.

“I’m just trying to get a picture of how you grieve.”

“Losing people is part of the job,” she deadpanned, “you get used to it.”

“Maybe,” Doctor Lynch’s smile slipped for a half second, but only a half second, “but some losses are worse than others. I understand you haven’t been down to engineering since Miss Degroot died. I think Miss Shen has been missing you.”

“Ha- has she said something to you?” Emily couldn’t look the doctor in the eye as she asked the question.

“No, but she hasn’t really needed to. You and Miss Degroot have probably been her two most consistent helpers and friends,” he emphasised that last word, “since the Commander’s return. She’s lost one good friend, I’m sure she doesn’t want to lose another.”

“Probably not. I guess… I guess it just hasn’t felt right. Going back down there.”

“Why hasn’t it felt right?”

“I don’t know.”

She didn’t.

“I think you do,” he was right, she did, “but this isn’t a matter I want to pry into. I am capable of allowing you some private thought.”

“Thanks,” she mumbled.

“Miss Degroot meant a great deal to you. She was your friend, she taught you a great deal and you looked up to her. And I think that we both know she wouldn’t have wanted you to stop spending time with Miss Shen.”

Emily looked over at the bottles again, trying to distract herself.

She heard Doctor Lynch chuckle, “Yes, perhaps a little liquid courage wouldn’t hurt.”

***

“Grenade.”

Li’s voice lacked any urgency as her launcher made a dull whump and sent the cylindrical explosive in a shallow arc over the rest of the squad’s heads. Dori was happy to admit that it was pretty damn good shot, disappearing through the window of a two story hut and right over the shoulder of a red-armoured officer. She imagined the click of the pressure plate making contact with the corrugated iron of the wall opposite and the fuse igniting an instant before the fragmentation grenade exploded and took the makeshift structure with it. A trooper who’d been crouching behind some boxes on its roof went cartwheeling onto his neck, while the red-armour was hurled a few metres to land in a pair of smoking chunks. There was a stun lancer just outside of the blast radius that warbled something unpleasant and took aim at Li, but didn’t see Leroy charge up his flank and fire a burst into his chest from five metres away.

“Dori, civilian on the right!” Li called out from the left as she slung her launcher back over shoulder and hefted her big mag cannon.

Dori looked across the broken crates and debris silhouetted by an the increasingly wild fires surrounding the camp and spotted a tuft of dark hair poking out from within three neat stacks of old tires.

“On it!”

Gun pointed at the ground but finger hovering over the trigger, Dori jogged the short distance towards the tires. Caution while approaching civilians in an active combat zone had been a must ever since one such civilian had transformed into a lanky three-and-a-half metre tall blob creature that backhanded Emily Adams through a pile of crates. They have an odd sort of cunning, Vargas had told her as he shared a cigarette with Gabby – his fellow Spanish speaker – while they waited for the skyranger’s engines to warm up, they might wait until you’re within striking distance or they might wait until all their friends have been taken out. The fastest way to reveal them without the right toys, he’d looked up at the Gremlin hovering over her shoulder, relatively new and unmodified, is to get in close. Get up close and they can’t help themselves, but be prepared to start shooting when you do.

The rest of the squad moved forward at the same time while the Commander’s voice provided orders, instructions and intel straight into their ears. Dori reached the tires and knocked one pile over revealing a kid that couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen even if they were tall for their age, with short black hair in sweaty spikes and baggy clothes, well-tanned olive skin that was looking pale and soft features that were looking terrified. Dori kept her expression hard as she stared at the kid and internally counted to ten. When she (Dori reckoned it was a she and it didn’t feel like an appropriate moment to find out if the kid had a preference) didn’t turn into giant pink monster the expression changed to a smile that the Scot hoped was reassuring.

“Hello,” she said and reached towards the kid, “it’s alright. I’m here to get you somewhere safe.”

The kid stared at the hand like it was diseased and backed away as far as she could into the tires that were still standing. Crap, maybe the kid only spoke Spanish. Maybe the kid spoke English but not well enough to understand a fast talking Glaswegian. She turned away from the kid and began looking for Gabby or, preferably since this was his manor or fucking close enough to it, Vargas to help get her away from the tires and towards the relative safety of the skyranger.

“Can I get some help over-“

She realised no one was listening, or paying much attention to her at all. The rest of Menace One were facing forward, guns up and faces waiting. Dori looked in the same direction and didn’t see anything, but now that she knew something was wrong she began to hear what must have got everybody’s attention. Footsteps. Fucking huge ones by the sounds of it, getting closer and closer. She brought up her rifle in time to see an enormous creature charge around the corner and roar at them.

It was twice Li’s height and she was one of the tallest people in X-Com, and at least as wide. Pink, red and white muscles and sinews were visible between what looked like bits of bone, as if the creature had been skinned alive and now wanted to take revenge for that fact out on the half dozen humans in front of it. It roared again. The kind of roar that rattles teeth and loosens bowels. In the bottom of her vision she saw the kid cover her ears and cry out.

“Huh,” she heard the voice of the Commander in her ear, “berserkers have gotten bigger since our day.”

The alien charged forward and Dori felt herself firing at the huge creature. She heard the rip and tear of a mag cannon and a rifle that must have belonged to Leroy. The berserker just growled and kept on coming at them, not even flinching as the combined fire ripped into its exposed muscles.

Then Karen Nilsen pulled her blade from its scabbard between her shoulders and charged the beast right back, screaming a war cry that sounded far too happy to be charging towards something that wouldn’t even notice crushing her beneath one of its enormous feet.

“Waaaahhhhrrraaaahhhhhrrrraaaahhhhaaarrr!”

Absolutely fucking ridiculous.

Afterwards Dori would wonder if Karen timed her run or just got lucky. She met the creature at a halfway point between both their respective starting marks, an area littered by piles of crates, garbage, drums and general debris. Karen was short but, it turned out, springy. She leapt onto a small crate, to a large crate, to a pile of crates, gaining height and never losing momentum so that, by the time she hurled herself at the creature swinging her long blade in a two-handed reverse grip, she was at a similar height to the creature’s head. A bit higher actually, as proved when she stabbed the point straight down into what passed for the creatures forehead.

The berserker bellowed fiercely and tried to shake her off but Karen just held tight. Cackling like a witch over a cauldron she used the grip of her blade to pull her feet up onto its shoulders, giving her the leverage to pull the machete-sword out of the beast’s thick skull. And shank the fucker again. And again. And a fourth time, at which point the blade was lodged in its skull so she began punching it, still laughing and screaming obscenities in English and what was presumably Swedish without the usual stutter that marked her words.

She was still pummelling the poor creature’s head as it finally toppled backwards, riding its shoulders all the way down, straddling its neck as it landed. Grin visible beneath her long hood she threw her head back and howled like a wolf at the burnt sky. Everyone was staring at her, including the kid who Dori had forgotten for a few seconds, wide-eyed and a little stunned. She saw Vargas open his mouth as if to say something then rethink the decision and close it again.

“So,” Li said instead, “I think we should all agree to not get on Karen’s bad side.”

***

Drunk wasn’t the right word. No, she hadn’t had enough to call herself drunk. Tipsy. That was a better word for it. If she was drunk she’d actually be in there right now instead of just staring at the door feeling like the sorry coward she was. Fuck, she should have drunk half the bottle instead of half a glass. Maybe that would have made this easier. Fuck.

Emily stood outside Engineering staring at the metal hatch that led inside to where Lily Shen would be working. She raised her hand to knock but hesitated, like she had every time for the last few weeks. She hadn’t so much as seen Lily since Eva died, since she lost that vital bit of support.

With a sigh, Emily lowered her hand.

Beside her someone cleared their throat. Emily damned near jumped out of her skin as she took a step backwards and spun around to see Else Krause staring at her, head cocked to one side (the left) and an easy smile on her pretty, tanned face.

“Jesus Else, you startled the shit out o’ me,” Emily growled as she pulled the long hair on her head back and scratched at the stubble of her undercut.

Else just shrugged and crossed her arms over her chest. Emily didn’t see the German woman very often, since Else seemed to spend most of her time with Navneet Banerjee (the Oxford-educated Pakistani that she was sort-of-but-not-really-secretly fucking) but she always looked the same. T-shirt and fatigue pants, black hair tied back into a single plait, round glasses giving her face a bookish charm that made you forget she was an artist with a gatling gun.

“What are you doing here?” Emily asked, hoping to avoid the question being asked to her first.

Else just kept smiling and tilted her head to the other side.

“Yeah, whatever. I’m going.”

Emily tried to walk past her but felt a strong hand grip her arm across her stomach. She looked at Else, who just kept smiling at her. Friendly as the junkyard dog that someone had recently nicknamed her after.

“What the fuck Else?”

The German woman gave Emily a wink. She reached out and mashed the keypad besides the door and they watched the hatch slide open. They looked at each other and Else winked again, then sort of lift-pushed Emily through the open door.

“Fuck!”

Emily was strong, but Else could run five Ks carrying a mag cannon as heavy as herself without breaking a sweat (or so she’d once drunkenly bragged). The young American was through the door before she had a chance to even think about wrestling free, spinning about just in time to see Else wave and slide the door shut.

“Fuck!”

She growled and hit the keypad on the inside of Engineering. The hatch shuddered but refused to open.

“Fuck!” she hit the door with her palm, “Fuck!”

“Are you alright Emily?” a nervous voice said from behind her.

Emily spun back around and saw Lily standing across one of the workbenches from her, a worried grin on her lips and oil stains on her arms and brow. She carried a small wrench in one hand and her Gremlin, ROVER, whirred suspiciously from beneath her other.

“Yeah, I’m alright,” Emily brushed a hand through her hair – she’d been doing that a lot lately, “but I think we’ve just been locked in.”

“What?” Lily said, eyebrows climbing skyward, “How?”

She dropped the spanner and strode past Emily, leaning in close to the door and hitting the open button. The door made a sort-of growling noise and shuddered, but refused to open.

“Sounds like someone jammed something into the frame,” Lily shook her head, a little amused at the situation and wandered over to her computer terminal, “I’ll send a message to John to come and check it out…” she typed rapidly but allowed herself a small smile as she looked over the monitor at Emily, “Though I can’t help but wonder why someone would lock us in. The Commander’s going to be pissed.”

“I- I guess they were trying to keep me from escaping,” Emily realised her Southern US drawl was getting thicker and took a few deep breaths to calm her rapidly beating heart, “I’m sorry I haven’t been visiting lately.”

“It’s okay,” Lily’s smile turned a little sad, “I understand. It’s weird to not have her over there working on Wasp. Arguing with Cheng about whether or not wasp stings are venomous or not,” Lily chuckled.

“Not, no, not just that. I…” Fuck, why was this so hard? “I like you. Like I like you a lot. Like I like like you a lot,” fuck, she was sounding like one of those fucking kid’s sitcoms her mom used to put on back when they lived on the base. Why couldn’t she just talk fucking normally? “Yeah, I like like you,” fuck! “and, I want to know if you like me to. Like like,” for fuck’s sake, what the fuck was wrong with her, “and I’d be really happy if you could tell me so I’d know either way. Whether we just stay friends and I move on or, maybe, whatever we’d do if you liked me. Or whatever. So, do you? Like me?”

What a fucking rambling mess.

Lily stared at her for what must have at least been a solid minute, the gears visibly turning in that lovely mind of hers, before she finally said something.

“I’ve been waiting for you to admit that for a while now.”

Really?

“You have?”

Lily chuckled, “You’re not very good at hiding it.”

Of course.

“Right.”

“And… I thought- I thought I’d be ready for it. With an answer for you.”

There was the sudden sound of metal on metal, scratching from the other side of the door, some thumps, some more scratching, one long loud curse and the hatch slid open. John Tipene was standing on the other side holding a fighting knife in one huge hand, a look of curiosity on the big Maori’s face.

“There was a knife jammed into the crack between the door and its frame,” he said.

Emily ignored him and turned back to Lily, “So do you have an answer?”

“I don’t. I don’t know.”

“Fuck. Okay then.”

Without another word she walked past John and away. As far away as she could on this fucking ship.

***

“You’re fuckin’ joking!” Michelle King said with a laugh as she shuffled two decks of playing cards together atop the round table in the Avenger’s barracks.

Else just shrugged and took a hard slug from her beer. Gertrude Wilders, who Michelle had kept calling Gerty until everyone else had started doing the same, was not nearly so stoic.

“I am not ‘fucking joking,'” she said, already a little sloshed, “Else kneed him straight in the balls. Bam! He went down like… what do you like to say Jimmy?”

Michelle’s brother James grinned, “Like a sack of shit?”

“Yes. He eyes rolled back in his head and he went down, like a sack of shit. And Else just stepped over him without any more words and walked away.”

“Fuck me dead,” Michelle grinned and began dealing out the cards, “Junk junked him right in the junk.”

That brought another round of laughter. Gerty giggled, James laughed, Li looked like she almost had tears in her eyes and Cesar just sort of rumbled in his chair, wrapping the table with the knuckles of his good hand in approval. His left arm was in a sling after suffering a through-and-through on the last mission, rescuing civilians from an ADVENT retaliation strike. Else just blushed a little. She was a good one, smarter than she let on but – as the story just told about her smashing Gerard Dekker’s meat and two veg showed – not about to let anyone disrespect her.

“Jesus,” James smiled, “teaches him for starting a conversation with a lady by bragging about the size of his dick.”

“It’s definitely not the best way to start a conversation with anyone,” Michelle chuckled, “Just imagine, ‘excuse me sir!'” she put a high class English accent that sounded nothing like a high class Englishman and even less like the very German-sounding Dekker, “‘How are you today! Splendid, splendid. As for myself, well, my penis is as long and thick as my arm. I honestly don’t know how my trousers contain it all. That’s not what you asked? I should honestly think it doesn’t matter!'”

Everyone was laughing again, even Else was roaring approval.

“Alright, alrigh’. Settle down,” Michelle said as she finished dealing out the cards, “does everyone know how to play Snap?” She saw three heads shaking only Li nodding, “Know how to play Sign Snap?” Cheng shook her head, “easy enough. Regular snap, we each take turns putting cards face up in the middle. Two of the same number come up one after the other, like a pair of eights or a pair of sixes or whatever – suit doesn’t matter – we all reach into the middle and put our hands on the pile. Last person to do so gets the pile. Winner is the person to run out of cards first. Clear?”

There were nods around the table.

“Okay, Sign Snap is a little different. You have to perform a little action if a King, Queen of Jack comes up. You see a king come up, you salute,” Michelle demonstrated a salute, “you see a queen come up you put a hand against your heart. You see a jack come up you put a fist under your chin,” she demonstrated again, “like you’re grabbing a goatee. Now this only needs a single card to go down, not a pair. Again, last person takes the pile. Clear?”

More nods, less sure of themselves this time.

“You’ll get the hang of it. Now, we’re playing King Family drinking rules, so that means every time a round is one both the loser and the winner have to drink. Keeps everyone from staying too fast and too sobre. Everyone drinks if a joker appears. Everyone drinks the same sign card comes up after another. So if a king goes down and then the very next card is a kind. Clear?”

Everyone nodded.

“Alright then. Let’s get drunk.”

It took a few rounds for everyone to quite understand the rules and rhythm of the game, with Michelle and James winning and happily drinking alongside the losers in each case. Everyone eventually figured out what they were doing, chatting and joking between putting cards down.

“So does anyone know why they call the op team ‘Menace One’?” Michelle asked as she put down a three.

“Because we’re menacing?” James put down a two.

“No you’re not.” Gerty smiled as Li put down a four.

“Yeah we are.” James said mock seriously as Cesar put down an eight.

“Nah, I get the ‘Menace’ part. We’re menacing,” Michelle said as Gerty put down another eight. Everyone slapped their hands down in the middle of the table. Else won and Cesar lost. He swore and they both drank. “Like I was saying, I get the ‘Menace’ part. Why do we call it ‘Menace One’ though?” Else put down a ten, “We only ever send out one team. There is no ‘Menace Two’ is there?” Michelle put down a five.

“Military tradition?” James put down a king. Everyone snapped a salute. There was an argument about who saluted first and last but in the end Michelle and Gerty drank.

“Maybe Central just thought is sounded cooler than just ‘Menace’ or ‘Menace Team’.” Li put down a four.

“Sounds plausible.” Michelle thought out loud as Cesar put down a two, “but I’d say it’d be more likely the Commander who’d do something like that,” Gerty put down a nine, “and he was probably still sleeping when those decisions were made.” Else put down a four. Michelle put down another two, Gerty almost went for it.

“So back to the ‘military tradition’ theory?” James put down a five.

“You should know.” Michelle said as Li put down a ten, “You’re the only one at the table who was regular military before the war.”

“Yeah,” James said a little defensively while Cesar put down a three, “But it’s still been a long time since I was regular military. Still, that’s the kind of shit they’d do.”

“Fair’nuff,” Michelle nodded as Gerty dropped a jack onto the table. Everyone’s fists flew up to their chins, one a little too hard.

“Ow,” Michelle said after knocking her teeth together.

Everyone started laughing.

“You okay Shelly?” James chuckled.

“Yeah. Nearly broke my own jaw is all.”

“Well,” Li leaned forward with a bottle in hand, “you did hit yourself faster than the rest of us.”

Michelle clicked the top of her own bottle against Li’s, “Well, tits up,” then the bottom of the bottles, “arses up.”

Li grinned and both women drank.

***

Dori watched as the Avenger’s crew tried to figure out the best way to lift the berserker corpse, presumably without spilling what may have been its brains all over the landing ramp on their way up. The fires had settled down and Vargas, who’d been shot in the arm by a trooper late in the mission, was being tended to by Leroy. The black haired kid, now an orphan, was off being comforted by some of her camp neighbours who Navarro said had lost their own child in the raid. Good folk. Menace One had saved thirteen lives. Another dozen had managed to hide or run until the storm had passed. Dori wondered where they’d go now, but decided it wasn’t something she needed to know. More than a hundred dead. Fuck, she understood what Li meant by “arriving too late.”

Everyone was looking a little sombre. Well, everyone except for Karen. She was staring at the big berserker corpse, the one she’d personally hacked and pummeled to death, with a wide grin on the face you could see beneath the hood that she still had pulled low over her eyes.

“I w-wonder if Tygen will l-l-let me have the head. I-I-I want to s-st-stuff and mount it.”

Dori couldn’t help but snort out a laugh, “Jesus, I reckon he’ll be too scared ta say no.”

Karen grinned a little wider and strode off to oversee the transport of her trophy. Dori shook her head and remembered a favourite line from Hamlet as she looked out across the devastated shantytown.

“For there is nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

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