Chapter 12: Witches
The sun had begun to set a quarter-hour ago, casting the long grass field and outcrops of trees in a dirty orange glow, and the person they were supposed to be meeting was running late. Michelle King sat on the lowered ramp of the skyranger, whistling out of tune as she whittled a piece of wood found nearby with a short hunting knife she’d borrowed from Gerry O’Neill that morning. Guy had a lot of knives. He was standing about twenty metres away, head swivelling back and forth as he examined the landscape with those slightly crazy eyes of his, finger probably itching over the trigger. For all that she knew he was actually one of the coolest blokes on the Avenger, unlikely to start something unless the Commander told him to or he sensed a real threat. Good guy to have around during this kind of cloak and dagger bullshit.
Twenty metres in the opposite direction from the skyranger Emily Adams sat on her haunches, partly hidden in the thigh high grass and using her sniper rifle for support. She turned her head and Michelle saw the crooked outline of her nose, not broken like they’d initially thought but still badly swollen and bent out of shape. Looked painful. Sorry mate. Still, she seemed to be in better spirits than she had in weeks.
Above, Michelle could hear Simmons – the Canadian skyranger co-pilot and deck chief who apparently didn’t have a first name – pacing back and forth on the skyranger’s roof. Or was it a canopy? Hull? Shit. Anyway, he was pacing back and forth on top of the skyranger with an assault rifle, probably glaring at the trees in the distance. Trying to set them on fire with his mind. He seemed the type. Nice enough guy, despite that. Just a similar sort of intense to Gerry, the softly spoken Irishman.
There was a thump of boots on metal and Michelle looked up to see Louise Seo, as Canadian as Simmons (no relation), standing and watching the world outside the skyranger with a look of mild concern. She didn’t like staying on the ground too long. Made her feel like there was a target painted across her back, and the long they were there the bigger it got.
“How much longer is the Commander going to wait?” Louise asked no one in particular.
“Don’t know,” Michelle answered since none of the others seemed close enough to have even noticed the question, “till they arrive by the look of it.”
The Commander himself was sitting on a large rock about thirty metres from the skyranger, the landmark where they’d been told their blind date would meet them. He was punching things into a tablet computer (there’s no escape from paperwork) and sneaking glances between the screen, his wristwatch and the setting sun. The Commander wasn’t the type to look nervous. Constantly stressed out or exhausted, definitely (that came from always keeping an eye on the doomsday clock hanging over the map in the bridge) but not nervous. Even still Michelle could see the triangle shaped patch of sweat staining the back of his uniform shirt and a tension in his shoulders that wasn’t normally there.
“When you… did what you did,” Louise, like most of the crew members, was so bloody polite when it came to talking about the Michelle’s life of crime, “did you ever hear about this Night Witch lady?”
Michelle opened her mouth to just say no, but closed it again and gave the question some thought.
“I don’t think so. You’d hear fairy tales around the place. A psychic commando going on a spree through an ADVENT building or some lady who’s a friend of a friend of a friend’s third cousin who, swear to god Louise,” Michelle shifted her accent into something a little more nasally, “can control your fucking mind. Most of its shit, but you always know some of it must be true. We’ve both seen aliens control minds, why can’t a human who’s been exposed to some of their weird shit do the same? I might never have heard of a Night Witch, but we might’ve just got the name wrong.”
Emily sneezed, loudly. Really fucking loudly, honestly. Michelle and Louise both gave her a look, she smiled a little embarrassed, they turned back to staring at the Commander’s back.
“She’s doing better,” the pilot quietly.
“Yeah,” Michelle smiled, “she just needed someone to talk to.”
“We had words.”
“Huh. She could have spoken to the rest of us. Me, Cheng, Leroy. And she’s been having meetings with Doctor Lynch for months now.”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s the difference between having someone to talk to and knowing you have someone to talk to.”
“She could have come to anybody else.”
“She didn’t really want to come to me.”
“Vehicle approaching,” Gerry’s voice cut through the conversation, soft as silk and raised just high enough for everyone to hear his brogue.
Everyone looked in the same direction that he was staring, just off to the west where any approach was hidden by the setting sun. After a few minutes she heard the sound of an engine rumbling over the uneven ground.
“Christ, you’ve got good hearing Gerry,” Michelle grinned as a black spot emerged from in front of the sun, “fucking wonder considering the noise from that big shotgun.”
“Louise!” the Commander stood up from his rock and straightened his uniform, watching the approaching four-by-four with a frown, “Get the skyranger ready to start at a moment’s notice. I want us gone as soon as this is done, no matter how this goes down.”
Apparently the Commander had an itch between his shoulderblades as well. Seemed right. They were about to meet a witch after all, and she was very late.
Emily sat in the corner of the Guerilla Warfare School, or ‘the gym’ as everyone preferred to call it, resting her head against the cool metal of the equipment lockers. Her limbs were numb from running and lifting and her chest ached, but the real pain came from the brutal hangover from the bottle of ship-made whiskey she’d finished the night before. Her head was pounding and her guts were churning, and she sincerely regretted getting out of bed that morning, let alone climbing onto a treadmill. Fuck, she’d been drinking too much lately.
There was a click and a hiss and the hatch slid open. The young Australian, Michelle King, strode in barefoot whistling something out of tune and carrying a small satchel slung over her shoulder. She took a glance across the gym, not even looking Emily’s way where she was tucked into the corner, then stepped over to a punching bag hanging from the ceiling by the high wall.
Still whistling that off-tune song she pulled a small speaker from her satchel and sat it far enough away from the punching bag that it wouldn’t get in the way, switched it on.
The music started fast, hard, a little angry and stayed that way. Michelle nodded along with the music as she began to stretch out, bouncing on the balls of her feet. About halfway through the song she began punching the bag in time with the music, beating out the rhythm with her fists and falling into a pattern that Emily couldn’t pick, sometimes ducking low and sometimes kicking the bag with the side of her leg.
“Can you turn that shit off?” Emily heard herself yell across the room.
Michelle turned around, startled eyes wide before her face fell into that grin she always wore. Not the lazy, relaxed smile that Li Ming Cheng always wore. This one was more arrogant smirk, like she was playing a joke on the whole world and she was the only one in on it. Fuck her.
“Sorry Ems, didn’t see you there!” she bent over and switched the music off, “Shoulda told me. Bit of a long one last night, yeah?”
“Y’sure? Looking a little pale over there.”
“I told you I’m fuckin’ fine. I jus’ don’t need to hear your shitty-ass songs right now.”
“Said I was sorry.”
“Yeah well be more fuckin’ considerate in the fuckin’ future.
“Calm ya’ farm mate, no harm was done.”
Calm my fucking farm? “What the fuck does that even mean?” Emily realised she was yelling, when did she start yelling, “Do you even listen to yourself or do you just say the first thing that pops into your stupid fuckin’ head?”
She saw Michelle take a deep breath and mutter something towards the bag, “What the fuck is your problem with me Ems?” she was still smiling as she said it.
“My problem? Well let’s start with you fuckin’ callin’ me ‘Ems’ to start. It’s not my fuckin’ name. Next is the way you strut around here-“
“The way I ‘strut around here’ Ems?” The smile was getting bigger on her stupid goddamn face. She was always fucking smiling. Always joking. Telling her stories and getting people to play her games to whoever was around. Fuck, this was the first time Emily had seen her alone since she’d arrived on the Avenger.
“The way you strut around like you fuckin’ own the place. And the people. Well you don’t own the place. You haven’t even been here that long. I have. I’ve been here since the fuckin’ start! I’ve been fighting! While you were off stealing cars and getting high I’ve been fighting. And killing. And watching my friends die.”
“Ah. It’s about her.”
“No it’s fuckin’ not!”
“Yeah it is.”
“No it’s not!” Emily didn’t know when it had happened, but she’d crossed the floor and was screaming into Michelle’s face.
“Yeah. It is. Ems.“
Emily swung. It surprised her when she did it, so she assumed that it would surprise the Aussie as well. Apparently it didn’t. She just seemed to move around Emily’s hard right hook, stepping forward and bringing her own right fist at the same time. Emily felt her nose crunch against Michelle’s knuckles and her head snap back, then felt another punch connect with her stomach driving the wind out of her lungs and doubling her over forward.
Eyes shut and stars dancing behind her lids anyway, gasping for breath with blood pouring from what felt like a shattered nose, her stomach turned over and she vomited up what was left of last nights dinner and the granola she’d forced herself to swallow when she’d woken up. She felt a hand pull back her hair and rub her back as she coughed up the contents of her stomach, a voice trying to be soothing. She opened her eyes and saw that someone had grabbed the trashcan from the corner and dropped it beneath her mouth, ready to catch what had come out. She vomited again. Heard the voice talking. Realised she was crying. Realised the voice belonged to Michelle and they were still alone.
“All out?” There was surprisingly little condescension in Michelle’s voice. Definitely no anger.
“Good. Let’s get you sat down,” she guided Emily back over to the bench by the lockers, sat her down and squatted in front of her, wincing as she examined Emily’s face, “I may have broken your nose mate. Sorry about that.”
“I tried to hit you first.”
“I should’ve let you hit me. Assuage,” she over-pronounced the word to be understood with her accent, “the guilt.” She produced a small towel from somewhere and held it against Emily’s nose.
“I forgive you for not getting hit. Where’d you learn to move like that anyway? You were so fast?”
Michelle chuckled, “I’m not fast mate. Decent puncher, mind you, but I usually just take the hit. Nah, you’re just tired and hungover, so even slower than me.” She stood up and eased into the seat next to her, “Now if you want to see fast you should watch Kaz – Karen – practice some time. Girl moves like water.”
“I’m sorry I was yelling. And tried to hit you.”
“You are forgiven. But you’ve been sending me dark looks for weeks now, and I’m feeling we’ve got some issues that need sorting. So what’s the problem?”
Emily was quiet for what may have been seconds or minutes, trying to think of what to say. Organise her thoughts into something coherent.
“You’re younger than me.”
“You’re jealous of my youthful good looks?”
Emily laughed softly, though it was hard enough to hurt her nose, “No, it’s just. How are you so much better than me?”
“I’m not better.”
“Yes you are. You do-” how do you explain it properly, “I don’t know, you talk so much easier than me,” just let it all gush out, “and everyone wants to listen to you,” hope it sounds right, “Everyone wants to talk back or be your friend or be…” hope she understands, “something more. You haven’t been here half the time I have and you… you’re not having trouble with anyone. Except me, but that’s because I’ve been a bitch lately. But I don’t, I don’t know how to do this. Talk to people. Be a friend.” Emily let out a defeated breath, “I should’ve been there for Li. After Eva died. But I wasn’t, and you were. And then I just felt in the way. Or something.”
Michelle nodded, “Sorry about that.”
“It’s. It’s not your fault. It’s mine. But you didn’t have any trouble talking to her, and you even had her laughing again. And I was jealous,” Emily sighed, “And then I talked to Lily. I- I’ve had a crush on Lily since… I don’t know. Since I first saw her I guess.”
“That’s so fucking romantic.”
Emily let out a giggle that was half sob, “You mean a fuckin’ cliche.”
“A romantic fucking cliche. Which is still romantic. What happened when you talk to Shen?”
“I told her how I felt. That I liked her. I asked if she liked me back.”
“What did she say?”
“She said ‘I don’t know.’ She said ‘I don’t know’ and I sorta, just, ran. Didn’t know what else to do so I just said ‘okay’ and ran. And now… and now I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to do and I want to ask someone but the two people I can trust, the two people I’d ask, well one’s dead and the other’s spending all her time with you, and, and, I figured you’d know what to do! You wouldn’t have this problem. But I didn’t want to ask, because then you’d know how fuckin’ pathetic I am as well. But everything’s gone wrong and I don’t know what to do!” Emily was crying again, big tears falling down her face, “I don’t know what to do! I think I fuckin’ love her and I don’t think she loves me back and I don’t know what to do!”
Michelle wrapped an arm around Emily and let her heave and cry into her shoulder, despite the blood and snot from Emily’s nose.
“It’s alright mate. You aren’t the first one to not know which way to go. Won’t be the last either. Now, let’s get you cleaned up. Then we should go find Li and talk this through properly.”
The four-by-four was a big Toyota Hilux, once white now stained and faded to cream, a pre-war design with a post-war engine that hadn’t fit perfectly beneath the hood so they’d cut holes in it through which bits of machinery stuck, with tinted windows reminiscent of two-way mirrors. Michelle half expected to see a big arse machine gun welded to the tray, like in the bootleg movies she’d seen set in the desert conflicts before the aliens had arrived. Instead there was just a lady with a shotgun, standing over the carriage with a suspicious look in her eye.
The ute stopped and the driver’s side door swung open. A lady in cargo trousers and a white t-shirt emerged from the cabin and treated them all with a half-hearted smile. She had dark skin, though not as dark as the woman with the shotgun, who looked as if she were from somewhere in the Middle East and then spent every second she could in the sun. Both birds had black hair which they wore relatively short, and both women looked like they were in their late thirties or early forties but, like, younger. It was a look they both had that was hard for Michelle to put her finger on. They were firmer. Fewer wrinkles maybe. Like they aged but not in the same way that most mortals did. Similarly there was some indefinable thing about the way they looked, the way they carried themselves, that made Michelle believe they were dangerous, even if they were unarmed.
The Commander stood a little straighter as he watched them.
“Which one of you is the Night Witch?” he said staring straight at the woman in white.
“That’s one name I go by,” she said with a nod and an accent, “though I’d prefer you call me Annette, Commander.” French maybe? Something European, “It is a pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise,” the Commander growled, then didn’t say anything.
For like five minutes. Well maybe two. Enough for things to start to feel awkward as the Avenger crew stared at Annette and the bird with the shotgun, who stared right back. Michelle kept one hand on the trigger of her mag cannon, but she found herself fiddling with the gatling gun’s strap with the other, while she exchanged glances with Emily and Gerry. Thankfully Annette finally broke the silence.
“You do not want to ask me, do you Commander?”
He shook his head, “No, I suppose I don’t.”
“But you need to.”
“So people keep telling me.”
“They will be powerful additions to your ranks.”
“The facilities are untested. We don’t know what they’ll do. We haven’t even finished building the fucking things yet.”
Facilities? Must have to do with whatever had almost been completed in the recently cleared space on Deck 2.
“I’m aware of that. It’s why I have only allowed two volunteers to join you. I have faith, however, that the facilities will perform as expected. When that happens you may contact me again and I will see if there are any more volunteers among my people.”
The Commander nodded, “Alright. I suppose we’ll need them.”
Annette nodded and looked at her reflection in the tinted glass windscreen. It was getting dark, the sun was almost completely past the horizon, and Michelle wondered if it was hard driving over such rough country with glass as black as the night. The passenger side door opened and two people stepped out, a bird with long blonde hair and a bloke who’d shaved his head down to thin stubble. Annette said a few words in French to the two, they said something in French back, there were smiles and frowns and the two newcomers walked towards the skyranger. They smiled at everyone as they approached, even sending one Simmons’ way on top of the skyranger, and Michelle tried to look as friendly as was possible while pointing a big-arse gatling gun at who was probably the closest thing they had to a mum.
“Look after them as well as you can, Commander.”
“As well as I can.”
“Good. If you require them, your Spokesman will handle any further recruiting. Avoid all this needless cloak and dagger bullshit.” She had the cutest accent when she said ‘bullshit.’
“Was it necessary tonight?”
“No,” Annette smiled, “but I was hoping to see an old friend.”
“An old friend?”
Annette just smiled coyly, “Goodbye Commander. Good luck with your new war.”
God-fucking-damn. Dark and mysterious was an understatement.
She opened the door to the Hilux and climbed in, “Come on Fatima. Your brother will be worrying.”
Fatima stayed on the tray as the ute started, switched on its lights and gingerly turned around. Michelle and the others watched it drive away. The sun was completely set now and the world was a shade of dark blue, stained with the red wash of the skyranger’s interior lights. The Commander watched the lights disappear behind a distant plateau, then turned to his new recruits.
“Welcome to Menace One.”
And that was it for the night.