Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (16)

Chapter 16: Life after death

According to Cesar Vargas, who had fought his way up and down South and Central America, the forests and jungles had all gotten quieter over the past twenty years. There were fewer birds and bats, insects, snakes, reptiles and other predators, all despite the fact that the jungles and forests of the world had been allowed to expand unchecked across the agricultural land that humanity had been forced to abandon.

Vargas blamed the aliens, though he didn’t know the exact cause. Dr Tygen had delivered some hypotheses – an alien virus working its way through the native fauna, an unseen and undiscovered pest species introduced into the ecosystem, hunting and trapping by the aliens for their own experiments – but it was never something he had the time to give any sort of priority. Whatever the reason the results were the same. Fewer animals. Less noise. Eerily quiet jungles and forests, especially at night.

***

They crept through the forest in a ragged line, quietly dodging from tree to tree. Cheng was more or less in the lead with Donaldson on her left and Leroy on her right, Michelle King and Dekker on the flanks and Navarro hanging slightly back with her long rifle. There’d been a flutter of wings as they’d rappelled from the skyranger but otherwise the only thing they could hear was muffled crunch of their own footsteps and their own deep breaths.

It was a clear night and a clear crescent moon provided long shadows for them to hide in as they came to the edge of the forest and spotted the ADVENT research facility. There was a new road out front, bordered by the waist-high alloy barriers that the Administration liked to strew liberally about. An empty watchtower stood on their side of the road and piles of crates made out of the same sort-of-metal as the barriers stood on the other.

Cheng pushed herself tight against her tree as she peered at the darkened facility, scanning the squat, ugly building for movement and colour. There was nothing out front, no patrols or guards as far as she could see, but there were shadows on the rooftop swivelling back and forth with inorganically perfect timing.

Turrets, Cheng thought, at least two of them. That’d be the first line of defence, but what about the rest?

Like the Blacksite they’d raided weeks before these ADVENT facilities relied more on stealth and secrecy than overt displays of brute force to deter attack. But, like the Blacksite, they were still well defended enough to warrant more than a little caution and at least a little planning.

The turrets are above us, we need to take higher ground.

“Gabby, Dori, get up into the tower when we advance. Let’s take it slow, advance to cover and take up overwatch positions. We take out the turrets first, then clear out the facility. Room by room.”

There was a second’s hesitation as the rest of the squad waited for the Commander to add any additional instructions or say anything else. King seemed to tilt her head towards the sky, as if that would make him easier to hear. The Commander stayed silent in her ear, indicating his approval. The rest of Menace One nodded.

“Okay. Let’s be quick, quiet and watch each other’s backs. Let’s go.”

***

There wasn’t much of a funeral for Gerry O’Neill. They found a hill in the north of Ireland covered in long grass, far enough away from any settlements and homesteads that the grave would go undisturbed. They scraped up what was left of him into a body bag, along with what was left of his armour, his knives and his whetstone. So he could stab any angel that looked at him funny, according to Karen Nilsen trying very hard not to stutter while she said it. Most had laughed at that in that polite, sort-of-respectful way people chuckle about the recently deceased. For all that people ask that their funerals not be sad affairs, that it be a cheerful celebration of the life they lived, it’s a rare friend that is truly capable of following through on this particular part of the will and testament.

They dug a hole in the muddy soil, about six foot deep as was the old custom, and lowered the body in. Cremation had been suggested, but Gabby Navarro had shaken her head at that. He hadn’t been fighting for the whole Earth really, just one particular patch and the people he knew from it. Someone had offered to build him a coffin. Li Ming Cheng had shaken her head. He would have hated to be trapped in a box. Far too similar to far too many memories that had haunted him until the end. Chief Engineer Lily Shen had provided a body bag she insisted was biodegradable, would melt away within a month, and O’Neill’s body would rejoin that patch of Earth he’d fought so long and so hard for.

They gathered around the hole. All the combat operatives who operated in Menace One, a few members of the technical crew and the Commander himself standing in a loose circle as the rain began to fall, except for Banerjee who was pushed out in a wheelchair since he’d only recently woken up from surgery after being stabbed in the gut by an Archon. Navarro pulled the cigarette from behind her ear and lit it with a scowl, dark hair falling across her eyes and sticking to her face. Leroy produced a set of rosary beads and said a quiet prayer, then he and Cheng hefted their shovels and began scooping mud over the shapeless body bag.

“Does anyone have anything they want to say?” The Commander asked, looking in Navarro’s direction with a kind smile. She just took another drag on her cigarette, the tip glowing bright red in the approaching gloom.

“I honestly didn’t know much about him,” Adams said after the silence became uncomfortable. “It’s gonna be weird not having him around though.”

“He wasn’t the type to open up,” Michelle King agreed, “but he was always there.”

“Honest,” Cheng said as she dropped another clump of mud onto the body, “he was an honest guy. And reliable as a Swiss watch.”

There were nods around the hole. It was an odd idiom for the Chinese born and battle-raised fighter to use, but no one noticed or had reason to disagree.

“I’ll always remember the one time he opened up to me,” Cheng continued to speak, continued to shovel, “not long after we dealt with the Russian woman.” She paused her work long enough to raise thumb and forefinger against her temple and fire an imaginary bullet. “Me and him, I don’t know, we had an understanding after that. One night I told him some things that I couldn’t forget. He told me some things that he couldn’t forget. We got drunk,” Cheng laughed, “only time I think any of us would have seen him drunk.”

Navarro finished her cigarette and lit another one.

“He told this story, about how he got nabbed by ADVENT when he was a boy. All short hair and acne, he said. He borrowed his father’s pocket knife and used it to steal a car.” There were some incredulous smiles at that, “Don’t ask me how, he refused to tell me. Anyway he took this car and began driving around, a scrawny little thirteen year old who could barely reach the pedals and see over the dashboard at the same time. He drove until he found the first ADVENT security network tower he could,” she smiled at the memory, “the one’s that look like lampposts. And he rammed it. Apparently it didn’t do much beyond scratch the paint on the fucking thing. ADVENT came in and scooped him up, put him in a cell.”

Cheng hesitated for a moment, her shovel hovering over the hole for a long second before she shook her head and tossed the mud.

“What happened to him then doesn’t need to be repeated. What I’ll always remember is the smile on his face as he talked about stealing the car. He knew how ridiculous it was, barely able to see where he was going, looking for something to knock over. It was a knowing smile. He knew what he was, and didn’t try to be anything else. He was honest with us and he was honest with himself. I think that’s something we should all try and be.”

There were nods and murmurs of agreement. James King muttered a “too right” and Louise Seo rumbled out a “definitely.”

And that was it. No one said another word. They stood in the rain for a little longer than began to drift off wordlessly in ones or twos, until it was just the burial party and Navarro. Them filling the grave and her watching from its edge, smoking her cigarettes.

When it was done, not long before sunset, they built a small cairn over the freshly turned earth out of the stones they’d unearthed while digging the grave, piling the stones around a metal cross that Shen had made. There was no name, but no one thought it necessary. The location was marked and they’d find a proper headstone when they won. If they won.

Navarro was the last to leave the grave, smoking away as the sun sank and the grey clouds became a black sky and only the tip of her cigarette could be seen in the darkness. No one knew what to say to her and no one tried to coach her back onto the ship. No one knew how, Navarro having always been almost as withdrawn as O’Neill.

Perhaps that was why the two of them had found comfort in each other’s arms for a small amount of time.

***

The Commander sat in his usual place on the Bridge, elbows resting on knees, hands steepled beneath his chin and eyes glued to the ‘Doomsday Clock’ – the bright red countdowns that represented the best predictions of Resistance intelligence networks for the next ADVENT attack or advance – above the holographic world map.

Neil Perry stood at a rough idea of attention, beanie held tightly in one hand and eyes fixed firmly ahead. He’d never been any sort of military until Miss Annette had brought him with Galina to join X-Com, and they’d spent more time teaching him how to use the plasma rifles and put on the armour or preparing him for his eventual turn in the Psionic Chamber to teach him more than the basics of military discipline.

Not that they seemed to care all that much about military discipline round here anyway. Miss Michelle, standing to his right, looked more outlaw than soldier, with dark blue hair shorn short on the sides and gelled into spikes on top, and tattoos covering both her bare arms. Mister Leroy, standing to his right, wasn’t much better with his thick black beard and a stained uniform. Then there was Miss Li Ming a full head taller than everyone else and looking like she’d just come straight from the gym, arms dripping sweat and the tuft of hair on top of her otherwise cleanshaven head slicked back with more of the same. Cesar Vargas somehow seemed the worst of the lot, with cheeks covered in stubble and uncombed hair, his posture slightly slouched and irritated boredom written plain as day across his face. Hardly the highly disciplined guerrilla army Neil had expected to find when Miss Annette had asked for volunteers back at the Ranch, but then again he’d also half expected him or Galina to have exploded by now.

Truth be told it was the non-combat personnel on the Avenger, the technical crew, who were most concerned with issues of regulation and discipline. Looking around the bridge he could see Martin Singh, clean-shaven and wearing a neatly pressed uniform, snapping off a tight salute as he handed CO Bradford a tablet computer. Or Gertrude Wilders with her long locks tied back in a perfect bun (not a single hair out of place) and even sharper creases in her uniform, running through a checklist that Neil strongly suspected she knew better than her own name, but ticking things off anyway because those were the rules. She seemed a sharp difference to the members of Menace One. Tidy, controlled, disciplined with a friendly smile on her face as she went about her work. Not the lazy smile that Miss Li Ming wore, like she’d rather watch paint dry than deal with what was in front of her. Like she was only humouring you when she listened to you speak. Or Miss Michelle’s arrogant grin, like she was the only person in on some big joke and everyone else its victim. Made him nervous, Miss Michelle’s grin. No, Miss Gertrude had a much prettier smile than them. She looked like someone who was good at what she did and enjoyed doing it, like she smiled because she was happy. Much prettier.

Neil realised he was staring and looked away, finding that spot directly in front of his eyes and focusing on that. He realised that Central had begun talking to the Commander, loudly enough that it was likely best he started listening.

“… Dr Lynch would again like to remind you that he isn’t a trained psychiatrist, psychologist or counsellor, so his opinion should not be taken as-“

“Just tell me what his goddamn opinion I’ll decide what to think of it.”

“He says Navarro wants to be put back into the field straight away and he can’t think of any good reason to keep her off. She’s processed O’Neill’s death as well as can be expected and is keeping her emotions in check.”

“I sense a ‘but’ coming.”

“Dr Lynch believes she should still be kept off the next few missions. Give her time to grieve properly. He believes that she keeping a leash on your emotional state in the ship’s bar is a lot different to the stress of a battlefield.”

The Commander grunted, still not looking away from the Doomsday Clock, not even for a second.

“What do you think?”

Bradford shrugged, “If she thinks she can do it, I think we should trust her.”

The Commander nodded, sighed and finally dragged his attention away from the Doomsday clock and towards his troops still standing at attention.

“At ease,” he smiled Neil saw the exhaustion in his eyes, shot through with red and surrounded by heavy bags. Dr Tygen said he took deaths under his command harder than others. By the looks of things that still wouldn’t stop him from sending them back into the meat grinder.

Bradford took a step forward.

“The Commander,” he said in that slow, careful way of his, “has concerns about our personnel levels that he’d like to discuss with you.”

***

“They wanna get you recruiting?”

Michelle gave her brother a sideways look, “That really so hard to believe?”

“A little, yeah.”

She snorted and threw her sweaty towel at his face. James snatched it out of the air with a laugh tossed it under armed back to her. She in turn caught the damp cloth and used it to mop up her glistening forehead. They were in the Guerrilla Warfare School, better known as the Gym since that was what it was used for the most, spotting each other as they worked out.

“I’m just saying you’re not the recruiting sort.” James walked over to the pull up bar on the wall, drying his hands on his own towel before grabbing the bar and crossing his ankles.

“I’ll have you know I can be very convincing.”

“Convincing. Someone that. You nicked. A truck full. Of gold bricks. Is different. To. Convincing. Them to fight. For you.”

Michelle waited for him to finish his set before replying, not wanting to limit their conversation to what could be said between breaths and reps.

“I know that. But recruitment’s not the problem.”

“What is then?”

“We got no shortage of volunteers, but fucking half of them are children. The other half might have some experience dodging peacekeepers, but they got no experience fighting andies and muties.”

James raised an eyebrow and gave her a half grin, and she knew what his reply would be before he said it.

“Neither did you once upon a time.”

She shook her head.

“No I didn’t, but when I joined the proper fight the aliens still weren’t taking us seriously. I had time to learn how to kill’em before I had to know for certain. These kids’ll get tossed into the deep end straight away and the Commander is worried half of them won’t survive the first mission without us babysitting them all the way through.”

“So what does the Commander want you to do then?”

Michelle took a long pull from her water bottle before replying, “Ask around. Apparently me, Cesar, Leroy and Li talk the most with our old cells. He wants to see if we can get a few veterans on board. Kind’a hard bastards who’ve seen at least some of the shit we’ve seen. Won’t need their hands held when the shooting starts.”

“We’ve done well so far. Only two deaths ain’t that bad. The Commander really think we need the help?”

Michelle hesitated before she answered. She’d barely been able to blink without images of O’Neill’s corpse popping up behind her eyelids, fucking headless and mangled by a dead andromedan’s hissing metal fists. Bits of brain and bone splattered across a nearby car, blood fucking everywhere. Just. Fucking. Everywhere. Yeah, only two deaths. But Michelle wasn’t about to forget what happened to Gerry, and she knew that Li still muttered Eva Degroot’s name while she slept.

James saw the hesitation and there was a flash of panic in his eyes, “I’m not saying that their deaths weren’t tragedies. I’m just saying that during the first war most frontline combat units had, what, an eighty percent casualty rate? And we’ve achieved more than entire brigades have. We’re hardly what I’d call understrength.”

His sister shook her head, took another long drink from her water bottle.

“How many weeks have you spent in the infirmary since you got here? I’ve lost count, and I reckon you have to,” Michelle didn’t keep the edge out of her voice as she said it. She’d spent a long time worried about his suicidal tendencies. “What happens if you’re in here again for an extended stay and then Leroy gets put out of commision as well? Now I’m not too bad with a medkit, but with both our combat medics out of action that’d be just asking for trouble.” She gave her brother a firm look, the kind meant to show she’d not listen to any further argument. “Shit. Yeah, we’re not understrength yet but we’re not far fucking off it either.”

“Fair enough,” James said, “but why tell you?”

Michelle laughed, shrugged, “‘Cause I know people.”

“You ‘know people’?”

“I know people.”

“Fair enough. Who d’you know?”

“You’ll find out if any of them decide to join up.”

“You mean I might finally get to meet your friends?”

“I promise nothing.”

***

The mission went to shit when the squad was halfway through the clearing between the trees and the barrier along the edge of the road.

Cheng heard a roar and turned to see a muton charge around the corner, followed by a second and a stun lancer. She heard curses in four different languages as she threw herself into the barrier just as the first spray of plasma fire melted the dirt and grass were her feet had been a few seconds before. Another roar from another direction and Cheng poked her head up long enough to see another muton storming out through the front door, followed by an andromedan and a red armoured officer.

“Now we’ve got ourselves a fucking party!” Cheng heard King laugh and looked over in time to see the Australian lean over the barrier nearby and let rip with her gatling cannon, unleashing a steady stream of plasma that ripped apart the andy’s armour in a hail of sparks.

The mutons roared and chased her back behind cover with a splattering of fire. One of them jerked as a pistol shot from the tower smacked into its too-thick skull, causing it to turn its attention up to where Navarro and Donaldson had managed to climb. It turned towards them and Cheng saw an opportunity, spinning the barrels on her own cannon as she stood out of cover and unleashed a torrent of plasma. Half the muton’s head disappeared in a cloud of pink and orange, the rest following the body down as it collapsed in a twitching mess. Leroy and Decker fired at the turrets, as did Dori, both of them starting to smoke and hiss and one of them exploding like a roman candle.

Then they were all forced down by a barrage of fire from the aliens. Leroy cried out and spun, hitting the ground and growling through clenched teeth. He pushed himself back against the barrier, muttering curses, right hand wrapped around his rifle and left arm a smoking mess.

Then Dori screamed at Gabby to get her fucking head down. Cheng looked up to see Navarro leaning over the railing, about to take a shot at one of the mutons distracted by King’s laughing taunts. The surviving turret twitched in her direction and fired a burst, catching the Spaniard in her shoulder and causing her to miss her shot. The muton felt the lance of energy pass by its waist and roared as it shot back.

No. No. Nononono. Not again. Not fucking again.

Donaldson screamed again. Gabby didn’t make a sound, just slapped a hand against the missing chunk of her neck and half toppled over the tower’s railing before Donaldson grabbed her belt and kept her from falling all the way. Cheng saw the blood stream down her face and hair and her arms fall slack before Donaldson managed to haul her back into the cover of the tower’s railing, screaming that Menace Three was down! Navarro was bleeding out! Gabby was hurt!

Gabby is already dead.

“Oh fuck.”

Cheng looked towards King, saw that she was staring at the facility roof, heard a loud metallic thump and felt it reverberate through the ground beneath them. She turned in time to see a second andy had just dropped from the roof, where another pair of troopers were aiming over the railing.

“I think we need to leave!” Gerard Dekker yelled from over on the left flank, his voice perfectly calm despite the rapidly escalating situation.

One dead, one wounded, heavily outgunned and outnumbered. Cheng agreed. So did the Commander when he spoke into her ear.

Firestarter’s above you now,” his voice was more strained than she was used to hearing, “Drop smoke and she’ll pull you out of there. Bring Navarro home.”

“Affirmative,” Cheng was proud of how even her voice was, all things considered, “popping smoke. Michelle, help with Gabby.”

King was already up and jogging with her head ducked towards the base of the tower. Cheng pulled a blue taped smoke grenade from her armour, pulled the pin and tossed ten paces away. It sparked and powder blue smoke began spewing into the sky. Five seconds later a half dozen roped dropped from a shadow hovering steadily a hundred metres above, close enough for them to hear the whine of skyranger’s engine as it waited for them to board.

Cheng, Dekker and Leroy were already up and firing at the aliens in wide arcs, trying to keep their heads down as the squad backed towards the smoke. Donaldson gently dropped Gabby’s limp form down into King’s waiting arms, then slid down the ladder, both women running full pelt at the waiting lines where they were pulled up by the skyranger’s powerful winches.

Cheng kept firing all the way back to the skyranger, firing in short bursts wherever she saw movement. She spotted another muton go down, and one of the troopers on the roof pitched forward and splattered on the ground below. They reached the ropes and she kept firing, screaming obscenities about the alien’s mothers and fathers and family and whatever bastards and whores they cared about.

Dekker tapped her on the shoulder and yelled into her ear that she was the last one, then she heard him pulled up towards the skyranger. She kept firing till her magazine ran dry, then wrapped her arm in the second-to-last line and was pulled into the sky with shoulder-wrenching force.

At the top Simmons, the navigator and deck-chief, and King grabbed her and pulled her onto the loading ramp. The last line, empty and unneeded, was reeled in. The ramp closed, the interior emergency light that had been bathing them in its red glow switched off.

Cheng felt the change in inertia as the skyranger’s engines whined louder and it sped away into the night, nearly stumbling backwards.

Gabby was laid out between the seats that lined either side of the skyranger’s hold, a quarter of her neck and the left edge of her jaw blown away by the muton’s shot. Blood everywhere. Her face was slack, lips slightly open, and glassy eyes still opened. No pain there, no surprise, no shock. Just blank, lifeless calm.

Donaldson looked at Cheng, the Scot’s own eyes betraying more shock than Cheng had hoped to see. She seemed right on the edge of panic.

“Gabby died Li.”

“Yes,” Cheng said, “she did.”

What the fuck else was there to say?

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