Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (13)

Chapter 13: Bonds, broken or otherwise

“Where’d the boy come from?”

“Same place as me.”

O’Brien scratched his stubbly chin and stared at the small blonde boy with sharp eyes sitting on the other side of the table, eating the last shiny green apple in the house. They had plenty of red apples in the bowl, but the boy had gone straight for the green one without any sort of hesitation. That pleased O’Brien, though he couldn’t for the life of him tell you why.

“From London?” O’Brien asked, knowing the actual answer but deciding that he’d rather ask another stupid question after receiving a stupid answer.

“No, no. His accent’s pure Belfast,” Carlyle smiled revealing a mouth almost full of perfect white teeth, “But he was in the cell next to me when the lads busted me out. Felt I owed it to bring him with us.”

“Oh? What did a boy,” who looked no older than a very scrawny twelve, “do to end up in a cage next to you?”

Carlyle ran his tongue over the gaps in his smile, left courtesy of more than a few beatings, “He nicked a car.”

“Nicked a car?”

“And drove it into an ADVENT scanner.”

“And drove it into an ADVENT scanner?”

“The ones that look like street lights.”

“I know what they fucking look like.”

“Coincidently, just before we attacked the office last Tuesday.”

“Oh?”

“Causing ADVENT to believe that he was one of us, and that his little mission was an intentional distraction.”

“Instead of just a bit of petty vandalism. So instead of just being tossed in the local lockup…”

“He was tossed in the cell next to me. Where I could hear every scream.”

“Fuck brother, I can see why you felt you owed him.”

“Taking him with us seemed the least I could do.”

O’Brien nodded, picked up one of the red apples and took a large bight. He chewed thoughtfully, swallowed and said, “That’s fair enough, but why’d you bring him here?”

Carlyle looked a little surprised at the question, “Aside from the fact that he obviously couldn’t go home, and I still felt I owed him? Kid stole a car and went after ADVENT with it. I like his instincts. I think they need some work, but I think he can do some good.”

“You want to recruit him? He’s, like, fucking eleven?”

“Thirteen. And I feel like we should stop talking about him as if he’s not in the room. I think he might be getting a bit annoyed.”

O’Brien took another bite of apple and scratched at the stubble on his chin again. It was starting to itch, probably time to shave. He looked at the boy who was switching attention between O’Brien, Carlyle and his own apple with equal suspicion. Gotta be weary of those apples. Never know when they might betray you.

“Well, all of this is a moot point if the boy doesn’t want to join. So tell me son, what are your feelings on Mister Carlyle’s proposal?”

The boy stared long and hard at O’Brien, then nodded in Carlyle’s direction.

“He English?”

“Pardon son?”

“He English?” the boy repeated, a little more firmly.

“I am.” Carlyle said.

“He is.” O’Brien agreed.

The boy nodded, “Da said never trust an Englishman. Said they’re worse bastards than the Elders.”

Carlyle burst out laughing.

O’Brien, shook his head, “Had you ever met an Englishman before today?” The boy shook his head, “And didn’t Mister Carlyle just rescue from the aliens?” The boy nodded, “And what did the aliens do to you before Mister Carlyle rescued you?”

The boy’s face clouded over, and he shook his head. Carlyle thankfully stopped laughing.

“It’s alright son,” O’Brien tried to sound gentle, “and believe me, not long ago I’d never have seen myself breaking bread with someone like Mister Carlyle. Not in a million years. But ask yourself if you’re truly a fool for trusting the man that rescued you, especially if that man wants to teach you to hurt them that hurt you.”

The boy nodded. Took a bite from his apple. He’d almost eaten through to the core.

“Alright then son, don’t worry. You can stay here tonight and think about your decision. We’ll help you either way, regardless of whether you decide to join us or not.”

“I learnt some tricks working for Her Majesty before ADVENT kicked her out of the palace,” Carlyle tried for a kind smile but his missing teeth didn’t allow it.

“As you keep reminding us, Mister Carlyle. But the fact remains the same. He’ll look after you son. Because he still owes you. Now, tell me: what’s your name?”

The boy placed the apple core on the table and tried to look at both the grown men as he said, “Gerry. My name is Gerry.”

***

The cell door hissed open to reveal a skinny woman with short dark hair shielding her sunken, terrified eyes with filthy hands. Navneet Banerjee watched as Michelle, the lady portion of the King siblings, step forward and gently but firmly push her arms away.

“Alessandra Mancini?”

The woman tried to turn away but Michelle grabbed her chin and held her face towards them, pulling a photograph from her pocket and comparing the woman in the frame to the woman in the cell. There wasn’t much likeness anymore. The woman in the photo was beautiful and happy, full cheeks, an athletic build and a nice pair of tits (not that he’d ever say that last part out loud, especially since it’d probably find its way back to Else), a far cry distant to the gaunt, battered creature trying to shrivel away from the Aussie woman’s stare.

“Alessandra?” Michelle looked at Navneet and nodded, “Confirmation it’s her,” then back at the woman, “Alessandra? My name’s Michelle. Me and my mates are here to get you out of here.” Mancini looked at Michelle, actually looked at Michelle, than at Navneet, “You understand Alessandra? We’re getting you out of here and somewhere safe.”

Navneet tried to nod reassuringly. Mancini nodded back. Damn. And ADVENT had only had her for ten days.

“Good,” Michelle smiled, “Can you walk mate?”

“C-ci. Yes. I can walk.”

“And speak English. Sweet, I was worried you might just be nodding along and my Italian’s shit.” Michelle pulled the Italian to her feet, “C’mon mate. Time to move.” She placed her left hand on Mancini’s back and kept her right hand on grip of her gatling gun.

Avenger, this is Menace One-Four,” Navneet spoke into the microphone in his suit, stepping over the corpse of the stun lancer they had found defending the dark security room at the back of the ADVENT facility, “package has been retrieved and we are proceeding to the Extraction Point. Over.”

“Good to hear Menace One,” The Commander’s voice echoed in the whole squad’s ears, “let’s get her to Firestarter before we lose control of the airspace.”

“How’s the street looking Ems?” Michelle asked her own radio, glancing approvingly at her brother James and Cheng, who were standing vigil on either side of the exit to the street.

Clear as far as I can see for the moment,” Emily Adams replied from the top of the building where she was providing overwatch with her long rifle, “Can’t see far with all these tall buildings though.”

“Gerry?”

“Might have seen movement in one of the windows opposite us,” O’Neill spoke softly into their ears in that gentle brogue of his, “But nothing I can confirm.”

The four operatives in the security room exchanged a look. Cheng nodded at each of them and grinned her lazy smile, “Nothing we can do until we spot them. Okay, Emily, Gerry, watch your fire. We’re on our way out.”

She hit the button beside the door and it slid open with a hiss similar to the cell door. Navneet saw Mancini flinch at the sound, but didn’t have much time to think about it as light flooded into the darkened room. Simple dumb luck – an imminent execution or fluke in the patrol patterns – meant that these rescue missions almost universally happened during the day, no matter how hard the Commander and Menace One would have preferred a night raid. Timing was everything for their resistance after all, as the ‘Doomsday Clock’ above the world map in the bridge was constantly reminding everybody that looked up.

Guns up and eyes narrowed against the sudden change in light they rushed through the open doors of the security centre. Navneet saw O’Neill advance forward parallel to them, his long blonde ponytail bouncing as he ran. Adams had found a corner above them and was watching the roads for signs of the enemy. The streets were clear save for a handful of civilians who had chosen to cower behind flimsy walls and beneath flimsier tables instead of running at the first sounds of gunfire. The extraction point was at the top of the building opposite, separated by a sort of park (mostly concrete, with a few fountains and trees), eight lanes of road (to be fair, four of those were for parking) and a low hedge. Navneet eyed the parked cars and trucks suspiciously. There was a lot of volatile cover separated by a lot of open space. They needed to get Mancini out, however, and there was only one direction they could go.

Menace One,” the Commander’s voice spoke in their ear again, “we’re still picking up hostile signatures. Menace One-Three,” Adams, “you’re on overwatch. Everyone else advance with caution. Charlie Three Formation.”

Navneet bolted behind a fountain on the left flank while Cheng moved right, skidding behind a park bench that wouldn’t provide much cover against magnetic or plasma weapons but probably felt better than nothing. The two Kings went straight up the middle, Michelle still guiding Mancini, taking position on either end of a large flatbed truck. O’Neill was already on the left and jogged further forward than the others, with fluid efficient movements and a low profile. Everyone had started calling him ‘Phantom’ due to his talent at just melting into the environment. When he decided he didn’t want to be seen, well, he wasn’t seen. He drifted behind a holographic news projector, somehow managing to fit his not insubstantial self into the tiny space. Sometimes Navneet wished he could hide so easily.

“Fuckin’ shit!” Michelle King swore from her spot on the opposite end of the flatbed, “CONTACT! CONTACT! CONTACT!”

Navneet heard her cannon roar, like ripping paper through a whining loudspeaker, saw a stun lancer appear in his sights and fired. Saw the lancer go down, disappear behind one of the parked cars opposite. He saw a flash of red armour follow it, then the edge of a helmet and a gun barrel poking up above the hood.

Someone swore into their radio and into everyone else’s ears. Adams, probably. The Commander growled that he “thought it was too easy” with the absolute calm of someone watching things go tits up from a few hundred kilometres away.

Someone else yelled “Viper!” and Navneet realised that it was him who’d yelled the warning. The snake lady slithered forward, firing from the hip in a different direction. Michelle screamed her brother’s name.

Adams’ long rifle cracked and the viper’s innards exploded out its back and across the pavement. It actually looked surprised as it flopped to the ground, scales and blood collapsing in a boneless pile.

Cheng bellowed “There’s a fucking codex!” and let rip with her own cannon, then muttered a string of curses in Mandarin, then in English. “It’s fucking cloning itself!” Navneet saw a shape flicker into existence (literally) straight ahead from where he was taking cover. Then O’Neill’s shotgun boomed and the shape ceased to exist. But that meant there was still another one.

“Fucking Vortex! MOVE!” Michelle sounded almost hysterical as she grabbed Mancini and pulled her out of the swirling cloud of purple psionic energy that was forming around the flatbed, tossed her behind a car and turned around to see James screaming, spitting and firing his rifle blindly ahead of him with one hand, the other a burnt and bloody mess. Navneet saw frustration followed by hurt followed by worry followed by more frustration flash across her face. She opened her mouth to say something and the psionic cloud collapsed on itself. James stopped screaming, stopped firing and fell to his knees. The truck exploded. Both Kings were thrown backwards. Michelle just onto her arse and elbows, James far further and harder than was healthy. Michelle screamed his name. Screamed his name again. He didn’t move.

There was a thunk from a grenade launcher and the front of the target building was blown into smoking chunks. Brickwork collapsed on either side of the new hole. Cheng growled, “Codex is down.”

O’Neill’s shotgun boomed again and there was a gurgled cry from where that advent officer had hidden. Then nothing. Or at least nothing that Navneet could hear over the sound of his own heavy breathing, his blood rushing and his heart beating. The fight was over.

And too his right, James King still wasn’t moving.

***

Two months after Michelle King was arrested, tried and convicted she met a bloke named Vicky who reckoned she reminded him of someone he knew back when he was proper army, before the war. Yeah, Michelle had this guy’s eyes. Similar colour and size, same shape. Same eyebrows as well. But also calm as a salt lake most of the time, with a hint of crazy whenever either of them was in a fighting mood.

Michelle often found herself in a fighting mood. The other prisoners learnt not to fuck with her early on, after she broke a few of them with her bare hands, a lunch tray, a sock filled with gravel and, on one memorable occasion, a prosthetic arm. She earned a reputation as one of the hardest bastards in the facility, and she wore it well. Other prisoners began trading favours for the right to use her name as a shield against the other violent folk who populated the other cells and she kept a close eye on them. And when she couldn’t? Well, you might have been able to shank that poor fucker in the shower while she was unprotected in the shower, but expect a visit from Michelle King and don’t expect to ever be able to walk again after your meeting.

Truth be told she spent most of her time terrified out of her mind. Yeah, she knew how to pick a fight and she knew how to win it. Six years of climbing buildings and running streets had left her strong and lean, and half of those years spent doing the kind of jobs where a courier like her would occasionally find themselves floating face down in Sydney Harbour had forced her to learn how to throw a solid punch (and more importantly how to take one and keep standing). But the Rehabilitation and Realignment Facility, nicknamed Richmond Correctional as a throwback to old pre-ADVENT days, was a completely different animal to what she was used to. Outside, well, running away was always an option. In here her fellow dangerous felons were all crammed together and the guards didn’t care. If someone decided they wanted you dead you couldn’t just run, you couldn’t just avoid them. Sooner or later you’d end up in the same room, the guards would look away and your best bet was hoping you were just that little bit more dangerous than whoever it was had come after you and whoever it was they’d brought with them. Michelle was eighteen, then nineteen, then twenty, then twenty-one, and at no point did she know how to handle the constant paranoia that came from being surrounded by some of the most dangerous people in a thousand kilometre radius except for fighting hard enough and often enough to make fucking with her or her friends not worth the effort and cost of doing so.

At the same time came the struggle to stay below the radar of the ADVENT prison’s peacekeeper guards. Scary fuckers in black armour and glossy helmets that didn’t talk much but were quick to pull out their stun lances whenever there was trouble. Most of the guards were proper humans in simple black uniforms carrying simple but still electrified batons, but if a fight ever got too large or went on too long, the black armour would appear and anybody caught nearby would start dropping. Gave Sorry John and Tilda Brown both heart attacks about eight days apart. John didn’t survive his. Tilda did but wasn’t ever the same afterwards. Worse still, get caught a time to often by the black armours and you’d find yourself “randomly selected” to trial a brand new rehabilitation program. You’d be taken from your cell. You wouldn’t be seen again. Nobody wanted to be rehabilitated.

Michelle would stay awake for hours, eyes red with unshed tears, unsheddable tears, waiting for the sound of armoured boots to stop in front of her cell to take her away, night after night, for weeks and months at a time. She hid her exhaustion and terror as well as she could, but she couldn’t from Vicky. Maybe it was because he was the only person who could always meet her eyes. Maybe it was because he knew what to look for in those eyes. He could always tell though. Never told her he did, just knew when to put a hand on her shoulder or pat her hand. Simple gestures that kept her from collapsing as the long years wore by. And he’d tell her how much she reminded him of his mate from the army, Jim.

“Toughest bastard I’ve ever known. Scary brave. Saw him kill one of the big pink aliens – the ones with all the tattoos – I saw him kill one of those with a fucking broken bayonet. Just climbed on top of it and began stabbing away. Stab, stab, stab. Fucking alien trying to shake him off, slapping at him with those big armoured fucking fists. But Jim just held on and kept stabbing till the big cunt finally gave up and died. Think they gave him a medal for that. Seemed worth giving a medal for.”

Vicky would tell a story and shake his head.

“Good guy. Relaxed and easy to talk to most of the time. But, he could… he could never stop himself, you know? He’d see danger and he’d just get this look in his eye. Charge straight into it. He was the kinda guy who’d run into a burning building to save a goldfish. Just get a look in his eye and go.”

He’d look at her seriously then, nod towards her most recent bruises.

“People like that don’t usually survive long. Not dead necessarily, at least not right away. But they burn out. They stop caring. They might still be in the fight, but they’re not actually fighting. They’re just going through the motions. That’s what happened to Jim. He was just going through the motions, didn’t give a shit win or lose. But then again,” Vicky shook his head guiltily, “none of us ever tried to hold him back.”

***

He’s still alive,” the Commander’s words seemed to run through the squad like a wave of electricity, “Michelle, move fast.”

Navneet watched Michelle lurch to her feet, trip, keep moving forward on all fours till she was beside her brother, pulling the nano-medkit from its pack at her waist as she dragged him onto his back. Navneet saw a flash of mangled flesh and looked away. It seemed wrong to watch her try and save her brother’s life, and Navneet wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was because he didn’t want to see her fail. Maybe it was that desperate look in her eyes, a terrified panic he’d not seen in the Australian woman’s eyes before that was a far cry different to the collected calm and joker’s smile that usually marked her face.

The medkit hissed as Michelle sprayed her brother with the medical nanites, muttering into her radio with every step of the procedure, a slight quiver in her voice. In front of Navneet, O’Neill watched her work with a concerned frown on his square features. That seemed odd. Navneet rarely saw the blonde Irishman look worried about anything, his face usually stitched with nothing but intense concentration as if everything was a puzzle that needed solving. Hell, aside from his well-known and often gossiped about relationship with Gabriela Navarro, Navneet hadn’t thought that O’Neill cared about or was friends with anyone else in X-Com.

“Alright,” the Commander said again, “monitors are saying he’s stabilised. Michelle, I’m assuming you can get him onto Firestarter?”

“Yeah,” Michelle growled and, carefully as their limited time allowed, lifted James up and over her shoulder, maimed arms bouncing of her back as she began to move towards the extraction point and blood sliding down her armour.

“Emily, I need someone to look after Mancini.”

“Already on it!” Adams slid down a drainpipe with the greatest of ease, jogged over to the VIP they’d come to rescue and pulled her up, “C’mon, let’s get you out of here.”

“Alright everyone. Let’s get you all home.”

That would be nice. Navneet wanted to get back to Else.

***

The bedroom door burst open and the room was suddenly filled with people in black and red armour. Navneet was pulled from his bed, too dazed with the sleep he’d just been ripped from to realise what was happening or resist in any meaningful way, eyes squinting in the bright white lights that were flooding the room. Through the broken door, the window, from the torches on the ends of the armoured men’s rifles. Rifles that Navneet somehow realised were pointed at him as he was forced onto his knees and told to put his hands on his head. Voices were shouting at him in English and what sounded an awful lot like gibberish to his exhausted mind. He tried to ask what was going on but only managed to squeak out an “Okay” at one of the voices telling him to hurry up and put his hands on his head.

There was an angry scream and Navneet turned slightly to see Alina thrashing about in the hands of two soldiers in black, with glossy helmets that covered most of their faces save for jaws filled with gritted teeth. She was screaming and cursing, naked as she’d been while they were fucking just a few hours before, red hair flipping back and forth and the large, freckled breasts that had drawn Navneet’s attention in the first place swinging around bizarrely and probably painfully. She turned, swung, elbowed, kicked, bit, swore, kicked again.

Then she managed to get loose of one, spun around in the grip of the other and wrapped an arm around his neck. Navneet wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but watching her pull the soldier to the ground, twisting her body around his while keeping a grip on his head so that they turned in different directions wasn’t it. The sound of a neck snapping wasn’t it. The howl of triumph as Alina pushed herself to her feet like a runner off the starting line wasn’t it. The twitching foot of the dead soldier wasn’t it.

Navneet wasn’t sure what he was expecting to happen after that. Alina charging through the window in a crash of broken glass, running bare-arsed naked across the lawn outside the little groundfloor flat they rented, red hair and freckled white skin bright in the moonlight, blood spilling from where the broken glass had cut her, well, that wasn’t what he expected either.

One of the other soldiers raised his rifle and almost casually fired off a burst. Alina’s torso just exploded in a mess of blood and guts. Her body did a cartwheel, spraying innards across the lawn, then landed in a red pile at its edge. Navneet’s mouth was open in shock and he was finally wide awake.

And just like that it was over. Thirty seconds, maybe, and Alina was no more than meat strewn across the grass. The dead soldier’s body still twitched. Navneet was thrown, still naked, into the back of an ADVENT paddy wagon.

The wagon was stopped and Navneet was freed by Alina’s ‘friends’. They’d heard she’d been informed on and had immediately begun planning a rescue. If she hadn’t fought back right then, they might have saved her as well. Such is life, amirite?

He’d been dating her for nearly half a year, and never knew what she did away from him. Her talent for blowing up ADVENT targets and dropping their patrols. He was an unemployed engineer at the time, so he asked if they had any openings.

Navneet might have loved her.

***

Emily Adams put one hand on Alessandra Mancini’s shoulder and pulled her sidearm with the other. The Italian woman looked like she hadn’t been fed in the week and a half since ADVENT had taken her, but she’d managed to get up the ladder to the top of the building where the skyranger hovering with a minimum of assistance, though she was panting pretty bad by the end of it.

“Almost there dude. Almost clear.”

Jesus, she hadn’t called someone dude in years. Maybe she should start again. It certainly slipped off her tongue pretty comfortably.

Emily looked back and saw Michelle haul herself and her wounded brother over the edge of the building. Li had suggested they go inside and find some stairs but Michelle had just grumbled that there wasn’t enough time and begun climbing, with surprising ease and speed considering the hundred odd kilos of muscle and equipment slumped over her shoulder. The Aussie woman was shorter than most of the other women on the Avenger, and stocky with muscle. Not unattractively so, if Emily was being honest, and with the her spiky hair recently dyed dark blue and the dark make-up she’d been wearing recently she was rocking the whole punk metal look and Emily was having inappropriate thoughts given the current situation.

There was a roar above them that didn’t sound like the skyranger and Li screamed out “Eyes front! X-rays incoming!”

Emily had been having inappropriate thoughts a fair bit lately. After Michelle had punched her the other day (or pulled her punches, maybe) they’d sat and talked. Then found Li and sat and talked some more. The gist of the conversation was the same: Shen would either answer her question, yes or no, or she wouldn’t, but no matter what Emily had to keep on moving forward regardless.

Jet engines whined as the ADVENT troop carrier swung over the rooftop. It’s door swung open and a mech, lancer and red-armoured officer leapt to the roof from its hold. Its cargo deposited the carrier turned and powered away, before Li would have been able to get a shot off with her grenade launcher.

So Emily had moved forward. And part of that had apparently included checking out the other ladies of X-Com. Michelle was pretty and solid, full of stories and jokes, with a mischievous smile and a few statements that indicated she wasn’t beyond a bit of lady love, but had not indicated that there was any attraction towards Emily. Karen Nilsen was a little crazy, and probably wouldn’t be the healthiest half of an ongoing relationship. She was pretty though. High cheekbones and a nice ass. Maybe for one night… Doreen Donaldson was sweet and kind and wickedly smart. Smarter than she tried to let anyone see. But neither Karen or Dori had hinted they swung in her direction and she wasn’t going to try and force the issue again. Maybe Gerty Wilders? The Dutch crewmember was undeniably hot, but she was young and seemed to just be saying what she thought everyone wanted her to say. Flirt because that was part of the joke. Nothing wrong with that, of course, just that Emily was as inexperienced herself with this sex and romance thing. Probably better if they weren’t both amateurs.

Michelle snarled and shot a grenade straight between the mech and the officer. Navneet fired a burst straight into the mech’s chest. It sparked and sputtered, its gears slowing as it ran. Cheng’s cannon roared and the machine’s left arm and right leg came off. Momentum carried it forward and it crashed straight into a vent cover, metal on metal screeching across the rooftop.

O’Neill’s shotgun boomed and the lancer was falling backwards through a nearby skylight. If somehow it survived the gunshot it wouldn’t survive the fall.

Emily pushed Mancini forward, hand on her filthy, boney shoulder. The officer popped up to their left, his armour half melted and blackened by Michelle’s plasma grenade. Bang, bang, bang. Emily’s sidearm barked and the officer jerked backwards as the high velocity rounds pierced its armour and sent it sprawling onto its back, mouth wide and bubbling orange blood. Emily watched it fall, waited for it to finish dying. Realised she’d pushed Mancini over and went to help her up.

The Italian woman smiled and, as thin and haggard as she was, she had a very pretty smile. Nice boobs as well. Who knows, maybe this was one of those fairytales where it turns out the princess rescued from the tower falls in love with one of the lady knights that did the rescuing. That would be a stroke of luck.

Emily became aware that Michelle was almost crying as she dragged her brother towards where the skyranger had just dropped ropes to lift them up and out of there.

Fuck. Inappropriate thoughts at inappropriate times.

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