Chapter 15: … until someone gets hurt.
“Fuck! Fuck! It’s an Andy!”
Michelle King’s voice carried loudly enough that Leroy didn’t need his radio to hear her as he shimmied up a service ladder towards one stretch of one of the elevated highways that seemed to snake through every major city centre these days. The aliens seemed to have a serious aversion for tunnels and a preference for building up and on top of what humanity had already built. There was a metaphor there, if Leroy had the time and mind to think of it.
He reached the top and pulled himself over the concrete barrier on the edge of the highway, his Gremlin buzzing overhead and the hydraulics in his armour whirring, just as he heard King’s big cannon roar to life somewhere out of sight beneath him loud enough to drown out the racket of incredibly heavy footsteps and the garbled yells of surprised X-rays.
They were pushing their way through the outskirts of one of the larger cities in what was once Brazil (and was now rather uncreatively referred to as New Brazil). It was a working class neighbourhood, several steps above a slum but several below the shining worker’s paradises that ADVENT was constantly advertising across its networks. The streets were grimy, the pavement cracked and half the walls sported graffiti. The people living here were also aware enough to know that the Administration wasn’t always benign. When the peacekeepers and the aliens holding their leashes showed up in force the residents were smart enough to clear off the streets, unlike some of the nicer, more obedient neighbourhoods Menace One had raided.
Barriers had been erected along the highway and there were several ADVENT armoured ground cars idling unattended in either direction. Leroy felt the detonation of a plasma grenade rumble through the concrete beneath his feet as he threw himself against the corner of one of the dull-black vehicles. He heard the crack of Navarro’s long rifle go off and looked over in time to see O’Neill – who’d climbed onto the highway first – lean over the barrier and fire his shard gun at an unseen enemy.
The Irishman cursed in that soft voice of his (too quiet for Leroy to hear the exact words though he could guess what they were) and ducked back just as a burst of plasma fire blew chunks out of the concrete barrier and a burnt a hole into O’Neill’s armour, burning off his left pauldron.
“Shit! Shit!” King’s voice held a note of panic that Leroy wasn’t used to in the Australian woman’s voice when her brother wasn’t in immediate danger, “The pilot’s dead but the Andy’s still moving.”
Leroy heard a burst from Banerjee’s rifle and then heard the Pakistani specialist’s voice in his ear, “It’s on the move, heading in your direction on the overpass Gerry.”
The door to the infirmary slid open with a hiss that was as close to silent as it was likely to get, it being the most regularly and recently oiled door on the ship for the sake of its occupants sleep and sanity. Leroy gently helped Emily Adams through the hatch and towards an empty bed.
“I’m fine,” Adams tried to drag herself away from his grip and the bed, only to be pushed back down.
“No you are not. Not until I say otherwise.”
Over in one of the other beds James King looked up from the book he was reading, blonde mutton chops fuzzy and untrimmed after nearly two weeks in that bed. One pale eyebrow cocked upwards as he saw the scuff-mark like bruise on Adams’ forehead and a bloody scratch in the stubble of her undercut.
“Doreen, she kicked Emily.”
“Dori did what?”
“Kicked me in the head,” Adams said matter of factly, not hiding her drawl like she usually did, “it was an accident, but I hit a rock when I went down,” she brushed her fingertips along the new wound on her scalp and winced.
King snorted out a laugh, “How’d that happen?”
Leroy opened a draw and began pulling out bandages, antiseptic, whatever else he needed, and placed them on a tray beside Adams’ bed.
“Your sister organised a game-”
“Bull Rush!” Adams grinned.
“Oui, Bull Rush. We had reached the end of the game, Doreen was the last one. We lifted her up, she continued to struggle-”
“And she kicked me in the head.”
King chuckled as Leroy began to clean the wound, gently dabbing at it with a damp cloth. Adams flinched away but he held her head firmly in place, squinting at the scratch as he decided whether or not it would need stitches.
“I’m more surprised that Shell organised a game and only one of you got your head kicked in. Not surprised that it was you though Em.”
“Because it is always you.” Leroy said with a small laugh that shook his dark beard.
“Oh fuck off! It is not always me.” Adams pouted.
“Yeah,” King feigned disinterest by looking back at his book, “it is.”
“It is,” Leroy agreed.
“Fuck you both,” she said to them, “What are you reading?” She said to King.
“The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha,” King said, not looking up, “a book Cesar lent to me.”
“Kee-hout-ee,” Leroy corrected carefully, “not quix-oat. An English translation?”
“Well, I obviously can’t read Spanish. I like it, I can relate to this guy.”
“Tilting at windmills?” Leroy asked.
“You’ve read it mate?”
“Non, I saw the opera.”
“You saw the opera?” Adams asked, a little surprise and more than a little curiosity in her voice.
“It was an opera?” King looked up, a little curiosity and more than a little surprise in his eyes.
Leroy pulled out a local anesthetic and his suture kit and began to disinfect it. It was a nasty scratch, Adams would need stitches. She was probably also concussed, though he’d confirm that after her head was whole again.
“It was an opera. And a film, and a ballet I believe. It was a very well known book. I only ever saw the opera though.”
He used a cotton bud to numb a spot just above Adams’ cut, then stuck a needle into her scalp. She let out a small squawk, just an octave lower than a squeak, but managed to keep from flinching away.
“You’re so cultured Leroy,” she said with mock grin.
“I am French,” he grinned back, “of course I am. Especially compared to you barbaric Americans. And Australians.” King raised an obscene middle finger, Leroy chuckled, then grew thoughtful, “I did not care much, I was more interested in football. But my father, now my father, he believed in making sure we were cultured. He would take us to plays, operas, museums. I hated so much of it. If I regret nothing else from my childhood, it is hating those outings so much.”
Leroy smiled, memories of a father forcing his eleven year old son into a borrowed suit and his fifteen year old daughter, tall for her age, into one of her mother’s best dresses (an awkward fit at that awkward age). Lining up, tickets, plush red seats near the aisle. People singing in a language that Leroy couldn’t understand while his father leaned across the armrest and whispered what was happening in his grounded, workmanlike way – the same way the experienced electrician might have explained where to lay down wires to a new apprentice. Stuffy, uncomfortable boredom at the time, but understanding would come later. Leroy’s sister loving every moment, the dressing up, the pageantry, the art, the sets, the music, the story. Their mother smiling indulgently at their father’s excitement.
Both King and Adams had the good grace to remain silent while Leroy drifted into the past. The intercom on the wall did not.
“Sorry boys and girls,” CO Bradford’s voice crackled through the speaker, “looks like the fun and games are over. All hands report to your posts, lift off in ten minutes. Leroy, Banerjee, Miss King, Krause, Adams and O’Neill, mission briefing in the armoury in twenty. Back to work everyone.”
“Fun’s over than,” King growled, and placed his book down tray-table beside his bed, “were the others still playing?”
“Oui,” Leroy nodded and stepped over to the tablet computer bolted to the wall next to the infirmary entrance, “your sister was organising another round, with Doreen as the first Bull.”
“Reward and punishment,” Emily smiled sympathetically, “better skip the stitches and just bandage me up Sawbones.”
Leroy shook his head, “You’re no good to us concussed.”
“I might not be concussed.”
Leroy played with the screen and sent a call to the bridge, “I think you are. It is not worth the risk.”
The tablet beeped and Martin Singh’s voice drifted tinnily from its tiny speakers, “Bridge here.”
“It is Leroy, in the infirmary,” an unnecessary bit of information since they could easily see where Leroy was calling from, “Adams had a small fall during the game. She needs stitches and it is possible she is concussed. I must recommend she is excused from this mission.”
“Acknowledged, I’ll inform the Commander,” there was a thirty second silence while Singh relayed the information, the three in the infirmary staring at the tablet in silence.
“Anyone else injured Mister Leroy?” the Commander’s voice, full of a surprising good humour.
“No sir, just Adams.”
“Very good. I’ll have Miss Navarro fill her spot on the squad. Will you be able to make the briefing or do you need to patch her up?”
Leroy brushed his fingers through his beard and looked towards King, who gave a small nod.
“Non, I will be at the briefing. Monsieur King will look after Adams.”
“Very good. See you at the briefing Mister Leroy.”
King was already climbing out of his bed, Adams gave Leroy a lazy wave.
“Have fun Sawbones.”
The kitchen was small but clean. It had a large oven, which Monique had always been very happy with, and small cupboards, which she complained about at every given opportunity. Thierry sat at the small breakfast table opposite his sister clutching a warm mug of tea between his bloody knuckles.
“I don’t know if I should thank you.” Monique said, thoughtful frown not quite reaching her eyes.
“I would prefer it if you didn’t.”
“I didn’t mean for it to go that far,” Thierry’s eyes tracked across his sister’s black eye to the bruises running down her neck and beneath her t-shirt, “I just wanted to make him stop.”
“It’s been hard. Since I came back. Since dad died.”
“I just… I see them everywhere. See the peacekeepers and their propaganda. I see people listening to it. Everyone’s forgotten what we’ve lost so quickly.”
“Not everyone has lost what we have. Not everyone has been through what you have.”
“I’m angry. I’m always so angry, and I try to hide it but… but when it comes out, when I let it out, I can’t stop.”
Monique reached out and covered his hands with hers. They were warm and calloused and gentle. Like their mother’s had been.
“I know.” She looked him straight in the eye, “What will you do?”
“The Administration keeps telling us about all these dissidents that keep trying to separate humanity from the Elders. I think I’ll try and find them, offer my services.”
“Dad didn’t want you to keep fighting,” there were tears in his sister’s eyes now, “Mum didn’t want you to fight at all. Neither did you. You joined the army to learn how to best help people.”
“What I have learnt is that right now fighting is the only way I can help people.”
Monique began to sob, head bowed, shoulders shuddering, her hands still covering his own, but quietly enough that the children wouldn’t be woken. They stayed that way for a long time, Thierry staring at his tea, unsure what to do so he did nothing. Only when she finally ran out of tears did he speak again.
“Don’t lie to the children about me, please. Tell them why they don’t have a father anymore. Tell them why I left. They deserve to know.”
She nodded, eyes red. Thierry smiled sadly at her. He’d be gone long before a knock on the door alerted her that her husband’s body had been found.
“I love you.”
“I love you too. And I love them.”
The andromedon must have weighed the same as a small truck but you wouldn’t have known that from the speed with which it was able to hurl itself over the elevated highway’s concrete barrier, landing heavily on its metal feet and leaving cracked dents in the road. The glass-like canopy had been shattered and the dead pilot spilt out of the cockpit like the tongue of some monstrous undead dog, spitting and hissing acidic chemicals and gases from its gaping maw.
It swivelled in O’Neill’s direction, the ranger backtracked away from it, tripped over his own feet and landed on his ass. There was no fear on his face when it happened. Just a bare hint of concern as he kept going, sliding himself backwards so that his eyes didn’t leave the zombie machine watching him retreat. Gears ground together, clicked, spun, screeched, its wounded internal workings like a desperate roar, and it charged.
Charged faster than Leroy would have thought possible in its crippled state. He snapped up his rifle and fired a long burst at the creature, hoping to catch its attention or at least slow it down before it reached O’Neill. It was faster than he expected it to be.
“Oh fuck!” O’Neill yelled, louder than Leroy had ever heard him before, raised his shard gun and fired straight into the robot’s ruined face.
The Andromedon may have flinched at that, or it might have been Leroy’s imagination. Then it raised both fists up above O’Neill, dripping acid and hissing poisonous gas, and swung them down on his head.
Leroy heard the sound of bones crunch and metal grind and screech.
Perhaps three or four seconds had passed.
There was more noise in the armoury than you would expect six people to make. The squad members chosen for the mission were in good spirits, laughing about the game and embellishing their own parts as they peeled off their ‘civvies’ and pulled on their fatigues and armour.
Michelle King giggled about John Tipene – the enormous Maori mechanic – going bright red when he “accidentally copped a feel” while lifting her up above his head, only to have Louise Seo slap him over the back of the head. Navarro, brighter and standing straighter than she usually did, tucked one of her hand-rolled cigarettes behind her ear while showing of the scrapes earned clutching onto Tipene’s right leg. The enormous fucker had dragged her through the dirt several metres, but she’d slowed him down long enough for everyone else to dogpile on top of him.
“That man is a monster,” Banerjee remarked while he inspected Navarro’s skinned knees and elbows, “I suspect that if one day the skyranger’s engines failed beyond repair he’d simply pick the damn thing up and throw it in the direction we needed it to go.”
“Landings would be difficult.” O’Neill joked, taking everyone by surprise. The Irishman didn’t lack a sense of humour, but it was always a little startling when he exercised it.
“Let’s hope the engines don’t stop working than,” King grinned and pulled her cannon from its locker.
“I’ll add it to my prayers,” Leroy muttered as he sat down next to Krause, clipping on his armoured grieves while the German re-braided her long black hair. Her round glasses were hanging precariously from the tip of her nose, but it didn’t seem to bother her.
“And I’ll rest easier knowing your praying mate,” King grinned and punched him playfully on the shoulder.
If there was one building that Thierry’s father loved more than any other it was the Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, the grand old church less than a stone’s throw from the River Saone running through the heart of Lyon.
While he’d be the first to admit he wasn’t a religious man (it was Thierry’s mother who instilled a deep Catholicism in her children) or an educated man, Thierry’s father was most definitely an idealistic man. A practical idealist, but an idealist nonetheless. For him the Cathedral was an example of what could be built by humanity when they came together for the common goal of serving something higher than themselves. An enormous piece of art and architectural beauty that, in celebrating God’s glory, stood as a monument for the power of humanity’s desire to create and overcome. It was his favourite place in the city he loved most.
Thierry would always remember being taken to eat ice cream in its shadow on the hottest summer days, and drink cocoa and coffee across the square on the coldest winter evenings. Charging through flocks of seagulls and pigeons in the park beside while his parents yelled encouragement and chasing his sister around the ornate columns in front of the entrance. Listening to the bells chime and his mother singing hymns during morning mass.
He returned home a year after the war was officially lost, having spent months bouncing from unit to unit watching friends slaughtered until he none left and no desire to make any more. The surviving French forces that continued to refuse to surrender had gone underground, thumbing their noses at the ‘Vichy’ government and preparing for a long and bloody resistance.
And it was very, very bloody. Thierry would find himself on the frontlines in the morning making wounds and in whatever clean space acted as field hospital that afternoon tending to them, since he was usually the closest thing they had to a doctor wherever he was. One summer evening he had to remove the leg of a girl not even seventeen years old, who had lost half her foot to a plasma carbine. The wound had become infected and he’d needed to saw off foot and calf to just below the knee. She died later that night anyway. Thierry was three years older than her. He left for home the next day, his commanding officer just nodding and wishing him luck.
When he reached that familiar flat, and knocked on that familiar door, his father had been the one to open it.
“Killed enough of the fuckers, have you?”
“There’s too many for me to ever kill enough. That’s why I had to stop.”
His father hugged him then, tears in his eyes.
“I’m so happy to have you back.”
“I’m happy to be back,” Thierry had said, and wondered if it was a lie. Wondered if he had killed enough of the fuckers.
It was a small thought that haunted his dreams even as he reconnected with his family. His sister was expecting her second child, the first having been born while he was fighting aliens a year before. His mother was working at a maternity clinic, something that she was enjoying far more than her old job at the ER. She still felt like she was achieving something, but it was nice to be helping balance the other side of the scales. His father was still an electrician, and he still loved that old Cathedral.
When ADVENT took over it began dismantling and outright demolishing the old institutions that had been intrinsic to human existence for so long. Religion was effectively outlawed, churches, mosques and temples of all sorts were torn down and replaced with shiny new Administration offices and Gene Therapy Clinics. It was a slow process, because too much change too quickly might make people realise what they are losing. At least that’s what Thierry’s father said.
“It’s not about competition, it’s about reliance,” the old man had said while painting a placard, “They want us to rely on them for everything, to forget what we can achieve when we put our minds to it. The fuckers want humanity to forget that we never needed the Elders to uplift us, we would have done it ourselves eventually.”
It was year after Thierry had returned home and the Administration had announced that the Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste would be demolished, to be replaced by an enormous statue, a monument to humanity’s relationship with the aliens. Perhaps if it had been a gene clinic fewer people would have minded, but hundreds of people turned out to protest the destruction of such an important piece of the city’s history. Thierry’s father was one of them.
“Do you want me to be there?”
His father had shaken his head, “You’re an unregistered resident and there will be many peacekeepers there. It’s far too dangerous.”
“But this is important to you.”
“So are you.”
The protest was on the news, a sea of people with placards chanting against the destruction while an anchorwoman spouted one-sided drivel about reactionaries impeding the march of progress. Thierry watched from the small flat beside his mother as ADVENT peacekeepers hemmed the protest in, stun lances flaring amongst the cordon visible even from the aerial cameras. Tighter and tighter, boxing the angry and ungrateful humans into the square outside the Cathedral, the anchorwoman droning on and on…
No one knew who threw the petrol bomb. It could have been an Administration plant, or it could have been a frustrated protester with more militant tastes than their fellows. But there was a streak of yellow from the edge of the mass of protestors and a sudden fireball amongst the peacekeepers. The anchorwoman suddenly became extremely animated, excited, frenzied. Thierry and his mother watched in horror as stun lances came to life in a circle surrounding the protest, a noose made out of light that immediately tightened around the people who simply didn’t want to see a piece of their home destroyed.
The camera feeds cut out, the anchorwoman promised to keep people updated. Thierry felt like there was a frozen fist wrapped around his heart. His mother wept.
Dozens were arrested, dozens more were injured. Thierry’s father was one of the dead. His body was found on one of the steps of the old Cathedral, the official cause of death being a heart attack likely caused by the liberal use of a stun lance while the protest was pacified.
If Thierry had been there he might have been able to save his father. Perhaps. Perhaps not. But watching his father’s protest destroyed on television? He’d never felt that powerless before, not while watching his friends die on the battlefield or the operating table. He hated it, and hated himself.
But he loved his father, and was glad that he’d died before having to watch his beloved Cathedral ripped down.
The andromedon raised its fists triumphantly, dripping O’Neills blood and bone and brains onto the ground, hissing and squealing with glee, shattered glass canopy like a toothy predator’s smile as it pivoted towards Leroy.
And he froze. Not in fear, but in anger. Burning, boiling rage as much at himself for missing as with the robot for killing O’Neill. And shock. He’d never even considered that the soft-spoken Irishman could be killed. He’d always seemed so permanent, with his knives and his tendency to sneak up on people (accidently or otherwise).
The damaged machinery seemed to growl as the Andromedon advanced on him, and Leroy just stood there, staring at the machine in impotent rage and surprise. Its heavy footsteps cracked the road as it marched forward, the slow beat of a metal drum promising doom. Clang bam! Clang bam! Clang bam!
“Over here dickhead!”
The thing twisted towards Michelle as she spun the barrels of her cannon before pulling the trigger in a blaze of armour-shredding rounds. The andromedon jerked and spasmed beneath the barrage, sparks and bits of metal ground away and the tongue like corpse of the pilot falling off like it was cut from the roots. She released the trigger and it fell backwards with a clatter, and didn’t get back up again. Then she was running towards the barrier next to O’Neill’s body and yelling in Leroy’s direction.
“Wake the fuck up Sawbones! There’s more of the cunts coming!”
Leroy didn’t so much wake up as realised that he was running towards the barrier. The next few minutes were a blur. Banerjee yelling that they were being overwhelmed, as an archon flew beneath the highway towards him. King bellowing about another ‘Andy’ appearing on the left. Krause roaring as she fired her cannon in a wide arc in front of her. Taking aim at an archon, pulling the trigger, watching it spin in circles spraying orange blood before crashing into the side of a parked car, never to move again. Blood. Troopers in black armour coming towards them. The Commander calling in the skyranger to get them out of there. King screaming that they could hold. Navarro asking about O’Neill over the radio. Her rifle booming. Asking about O’Neill again. The thump of a grenade. More heavy footsteps. Firing his rifle at the black shapes running in front of him, again and again. A grenade destroying the corner of a building they had been heading towards. Louise on the radio telling them she was there and ready for pickup. Navarro asking about O’Neill. What happened to Gerry? Why wasn’t anyone telling her what happened to Gerry? Her rifle booming. Something that weighed the same as a small truck hiting the ground. Not getting back up again.
It must of been minutes but it felt like seconds.
Then suddenly there were no enemies left to kill. Banerjee was advancing towards the target building, trailing blood and clutching his side. Even from a distance he looked pale and drawn. Krause was backing him up, limping after him on an injured right leg.
“Jesus fucking fuck me dead.” Michelle said, finally getting a chance to look at O’Neill’s body.
What was left of his body. The thing had crushed him, smashed his head into nothing, leaving just a ragged mess of blood in armour that closely resembled a can of tomato soup that had been bashed in with a brick.
Leroy didn’t have anything to add to that. He just stared between the metal bag of broken bones that once been his comrade and his very alive comrade, probably trying to work out how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
“Fucking shit shit fuck shitty FUCK!”
King turned and puked over the barrier, Leroy suddenly realised his own gorge was rising and threw his last meal up against the tail light of an ADVENT ground car. He’d seen bad before, but this… this…
Leroy looked towards King, saw a new horror in her expression, turned in the direction she was looking. There was Navarro, stumbling towards them, a blank look on her face.
“Merde,” Leroy muttered, but didn’t move.
“I want to see Gerry.”
King ran forwards and grabbed Navarro by the shoulders, spinning her away and towards the ladder back down.
“I want to see Gerry!”
“No Gabby, you don’t. You don’t want to see him.”
“I want to see Gerry! I WANT TO SEE GERRY!” Navarro’s voice was hysterical, but her face was still blank.
“No you don’t mate. Please Gabby, you don’t want to see him like this!”
Leroy leaned against the ADVENT vehicle, heedless of the vomit, and slid to the ground. Exhausted and angry, watching one woman struggle with the other.
“I WANT TO SEE GERRY!”
He just watched, and hated himself for just watching. But he didn’t know how to help.