On DA:I, Varric Tethras and Cassandra Pentaghast.

It’s been about a month since I got back to Australia and I’ve been busy. Ish. Busy-ish. Usual stuff, meeting people I haven’t seen in nearly two years, drinking, looking for work (’cause as I’ve established before, cocaine and hookers are expensive), and replaying Dragon Age: Inquisition. One of my favourite games from one of my favourite developers (as I’ve established before, I am a raging Bioware fanboy), I figured that before I settled into a long slog with The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Rise of the Tomb Raider I’d start a new playthrough and play through the DLC I’ve missed.

So I’ve immersed myself in the world of Thedas once again, and I gotta say it is great. It’s great to once again explore the expansive universe – the lore, the gossip, the politics – and dive into the intricacies of the main plot and smaller side quests. And of course, it’s great to be back amongst old companions. It’s funny how attached you grow to fictional characters, how invested you get into their interpersonal relationships, and I’ve been loving listening to my party members’ banter with each other as we stab our way across Thedas. But as my elf rogue murdered yet another group of heavily armed strangers (who may or may not have been bandits) and the game decided it had been long enough since the last time any party members had spoken to each other, I came to a startling conclusion. Namely that Varric Tethras is a massive dick towards Cassandra Pentaghast. No, really.

Cassandra was apologising, y’see, about nearly decking Varric earlier that morning after discovering that he had in fact known the whereabouts of Hawke all along. That might count as a spoiler for DA:I (and probably DA2) but honestly you’re probably not reading this if you don’t know the exact moment I’m talking about already, and it’s otherwise not a big enough spoiler to worry about (even the characters point out how telegraphed it is). Anyway, Cassandra tries to apologise (quite sincerely, I might add) for letting her temper get the better of her and almost punching him, and Varric sarcastically remarks that “I’ll mark this on my calendar! Cassandra had a feeling!” I mean, c’mon man, she knows she did wrong and she’s trying to say sorry. Maybe you can cut her a little slack?

This was just the point that I noticed how one-sided much of the animosity was. Earlier in their conversation cycle Varric makes a point of insinuating that Cassandra doesn’t have any friends, and that the only way she was capable of recruiting people for the Inquisition was through kidnapping and threats. While Cassandra is somewhat deserving of these remarks – she certainly comes off as guarded and prickly through most conversations, obviously doesn’t have a whole lot of friends, and did actually ‘arrest’ and threaten both Varric and the player’s Inquisitor – it still feels uncalled for, partly because of all the attempts that Cassandra makes to reach out to Varric; partly because she’s a professional; and partly because she’s a massive fan of his.

On the first point, as I’ve already mentioned, Cassandra makes the point of apologising when she does wrong. She also makes the point of trying to start a conversation about the rebuilding efforts in Kirkwall, a conversation that Varric shuts down pretty harshly. And while admittedly Cassandra doesn’t show a great deal of gratitude to Varric for sticking around to help the Inquisition out shanking demons, it’s not all that surprising that she might be a touch suspicious of Varric’s motivations (he is a somewhat notorious liar and opportunist, even if he is a sentimental one).

The third point, that Cassandra is a massive fan of Varric’s work, I find his behaviour to be most unusual. Varric is protective of much of his work (when the Inquisitor asks questions about his Tale of the Champion, saying the wrong thing can lead to disapproval) even if he feigns nonchalance (I’ve really gotta use that word in more of my writing, sounds so sexy). An entire set of War Table operations is devoted to tracking down some arsehole who wrote an unnofficial and terrible sequel to Varric’s most successful work, Hard in Hightown. And Cassandra is a massive fan of his, reading Tale of the Champion twice, making a comment on the difference in writing style between Hard in Hightown and its atrocious sequel, and reading and rereading her copies of his Swords and Shields romance serial, going giddy with relief and excitement when he presents her with the next issue after a cliffhanger. She even asks him for advice writing, to make her reports more interesting. Quite frankly, while it seems that everyone has read Varric’s work, Cassandra is his only open fan in the Inquisition. Yet it just becomes another point of mockery in his arsenal against her. Writing the next issue to Swords and Shields is just another joke to him and her request for advice is met with a half dozen synonyms calling her boring. I mean, it just feels like a really shitty way to treat someone who respects your abilities and loves the work you produce.

But it’s on the second point, that Cassandra is a professional, that I really want to focus on. Because Varric generally respects professionals, but he tends to hold grudges and perhaps doesn’t fully understand Cassandra or her motivations. Cassandra is a fairly typical strong woman archetype, but not nearly so two-dimensional as to fit any single stereotype. She’s a character defined by a determination forged through faith. She has a job and wants to see it done as best she is able, is an idealist and an optimist, but never strays across that line from professionalism towards fanaticism. Because fuck fanaticism. Seriously that is probably the moral of the whole game, comparing the “at-all-costs” and “any-means-to-an-end” attitudes of the (spoiler alert) Venatori, Templars, Mages and Grey Wardens who at various points oppose the player, with the cool professionalism of the Inquisitor’s advisers and companions. The good guys fight for a cause without sacrificing the world, and are able to distance themselves (with varying levels of success) from the bloody work that needs to be done saving it. Fanatics are the evil bastards who’ll sacrifice everything to get what they think they want, and they need to be stopped.

That’s not to say that there aren’t members of the Inquisition who aren’t fanatics, and that your companions aren’t sociopaths. They absolutely are. There’s a good chance your Inquisitor is as well. But all of them, the ones you see at least, from The Iron Bull to Sera to Cassandra to Cullen, are professionals about it. Maybe not Solas. But fuck Solas. Guy’s a racist arsehole.

So Cassandra is a professional. Just doing her job. Her job is either stabbing people or threatening to stab people. She’s pretty good at it. So why doesn’t Varric respect that? He respects other people for it, as we see time and again. When the Inquisitor asks why Varric isn’t the spymaster instead of Leliana he flat out tells you that it’s because she’s better at the job, because of her ability to distance herself from her agents and informants. She’s more professional about it. Varric’s language about Cullen and Josephine follows a similar bend, with him remarking about how effective at their jobs they are. He talks about his editor – who once murdered someone over incorrect punctuation – quite highly, and while he disparages the Dwarven Merchant’s Guild, Carta and Coterie regularly he still shows genuine respect to their members who know what they’re doing and do it well. I can’t even be bothered to go into the examples from DA2 beyond just pointing at Aveline and Isabela, on opposite ends of the legal spectrum, who Varric simply accepts and befriends, completely understanding and forgiving threats of arrest or the occasional betrayal.

What I’m getting at is that Varric is supposed to be the sort of guy who would accept an excuse of “nothing personal, it’s just business.” So why doesn’t he accept that about Cassandra? She needed information about Hawke, and he was not forthcoming about that information until threats (and actual violence) were used. Well, the easy answer to that is to say that Varric holds grudges. We saw it with his brother, we see it with anyone else that directly harms him or those closest to him. But then why doesn’t he hold the same level of grudge against Leliana (who if not a direct participant, tacitly approved of Cassandra’s interrogation) or against other earlier members of the Inquisition, like Cullen?

My guess is that it’s because he thinks he understands the others’ motivations better than he understands Cassandra’s. By the time we get to DA:I Leliana has gotten dark and violent, ordering executions, assassinations and sacrifices without hesitation in the name of duty (thank god that duty includes saving the world) beyond making sure she’s shanking the right bloke, bird or miscellaneous. But she’s also an incredibly loyal person, and Varric can see that there was something more to her relationship with Divine Justinia, something unquantifiably deep, that was lost when Justinia was assassinated. Varric understands the desire for revenge and the mixed feelings it produces. Cullen is driven by his failures, as a commander and as a person, haunted by failing to prevent the spectacular destruction of the Fereldan and Kirkwall Circles of Magi and blaming perfectly innocent mages in between. Again, Varric understands feeling of failure, personal and professional (yes I know I’ve been using that word way too much in this essay, piss off, you’re not that perceptive… sorry, don’t piss off, I need you).

But Cassandra is driven in her duty not by vengeance and failure, but by her faith in the Maker, his plan and his institutions (even if she believes they needed to be changed). Varric doesn’t understand faith, quite understandably. He has issues with trust, let alone something even more indefinable and intangible like faith. It freaks him out. Cassandra isn’t the only one who suffers from Varric’s incomprehension. In DA2 Prince Sebastien, squeaky clean and fresh back from the priesthood to avenge his murdered family, is a similar subject of mockery for his virtue and righteousness despite never once stabbing a book in Varric’s lap. So because Varric is unable to understand her motivations, he is unable to brush off her actions as just “doing her job.” That makes it a personal attack, even when it shouldn’t, and Varric holds grudges. For most of the game, at least.

Towards the later game the banter between the two shifts, becoming less confrontational and even friendly. They develop a certain intimacy thanks, in no small part, to Cassandra’s own sense of fairness and genuine honesty. They appreciate each other, and become companions even they don’t necessarily become friends, joking about the book stabbing with each other instead of at each other. Attachment and sentimentality and all that. There’s even suggestion that they continue travelling together even after the Inquisition has completed its mission, something which both find crazy but not impossible.

So what’s the point to all this? Just wanted to point out some great writing, basically. I’d call this one of the most interesting and layered relationships in the game, and they do it with a couple pages of dialogue and some great voice acting. Not much more to it than that.

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Halloween night in New Orleans

It’s going to be a long night.

That’s not hard to figure out. There’s a group of about eight or nine of us, all staying at the hostel or working there or both, and we hit Bourbon street not long before midnight. Late in some cities, early in others, and in New Orleans it’s right on time.

I’ve actually dressed up (to my great shock) and there’s fake blood liberally splattered beneath my mouth, through my beard, and strategically painted across my face. I’m going for a vampire look – the violent, brutal extensions of eastern European myths and metaphors for sexually transmitted diseases kind of vampire, not the sparkly kind – and I think I pull it off. I even bought some fangs, but the instructions were more complicated than I was expecting. After about ten seconds of consideration I said “fuck it” and just touched up the blood on my neck.

We don’t care much about Halloween in Australia. Truthfully I don’t think many countries do. From what I’ve seen of the world so far Canada cares a fair bit and that’s about it. Maybe Mexico does as well, what with the Day of the Dead happening at the same time, but I’d want to ask a Mexican about that before making any claims. For the rest of us it’s just another excuse to drink (as if we needed an excuse), maybe an excuse to drink in a shitty costume that we’ve applied the bare minimum of imagination to creating. Maybe.

But in New Orleans Halloween is an event, a party that stretches across the week and weekend before until all involved are exhausted and badly hung over. Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Lights on, shirts off, knickers most decidedly in a twist as they creep up the bum of a rather sexy looking nun.

We hit the street, most of us having put some bit of effort into their costumes, one person running through the usual range of typically Aussie jokes that border on the dad-territory to laugh off not bothering (“I’m dressed as a bloody legend!” etc.) I laughed, so I guess it worked.

Bourbon Street is bedlam. Hundreds of people out and about, enjoying the last night (the actual night) Halloween. We spot a dozen Where’s Wallies (he’s usually much better at hiding) and at least two popes. Suicide Squad style Harley Quinn’s and Jokers are the most common, and that’s a little disappointing as a fan of the character. I feel better when I see a more traditional Harley roaming the streets with a Poison Ivy. Not even five minutes in there’s a drink in everyone’s hand (except one guy who doesn’t drink) and we’re crossing between bars, yelling in each others ears and watching the crowd. Up on the rafters people are screaming at random passers-by and hurling beads almost at random. A guy flashes his tits and gets a handful of beads as well. None of the female revellers are quite so bold, surprisingly enough. Or not surprising. It’s not fucking Mardi Gras. Still they get beads tossed at them by strangers, and I can’t help but feel people have a real misunderstanding of demand-side economics.

Someone swears creatively enough to get everyone’s attention and we turn to see three people in a group human centipede costume being led on a leash by a fourth. They’re bloody and wearing naught by bandages, noses near enough to each other’s arses that they’d know the exact moment the person in front of them last showered. The most frightening thing is that they’re on their hands and knees, crawling along the road. Crawling along fucking Bourbon Street, with its eternal puke and trash puddles, studded with broken glass and plastic. They’re gonna be sick tomorrow. But it’s a calculated risk, ‘cause they immediately draw a circle of admirers getting following along and trying to get that perfect shot. Good for them.

We get into a bar and there’s a band playing, a cowboy is singing and a ghoul is playing a mean guitar. One of the female singers is wearing a leather boob-tube and briefs. The cowboy remarks that he has no idea what she was dressed as, but it doesn’t matter. She still looks great. They play covers, play them well, and we pile onto the dance floor, bouncing in that way that people do when they’re trying to avoid spilling drinks. I’m on my second or third since hitting Bourbon Street, with a few before that.

It’s going to be a long night.

I fucking love New Orleans. It’s a filthy, dirty city with an incomparable life of its own. It’s a tourist town, most definitely, but one that people actually live in. There’s construction all over the place, honest industry and all that jazz (heh). More than that people are good in this city. They nod and smile as you walk past, are quick to shoot the shit and unafraid to help a stranger with a foreign accent.

And it is absolutely bonkers at the best of times, only growing more insane during its festivals and holidays and parades. The night after Halloween the local bicycle club rode past the hostel. Dozens of bikes lit up with neon and carrying blaring music from speakers on trailers or hitched to the seats. I mean, that just doesn’t happen in other cities, at least not in the same way because this, this is normal.

What’s also normal is drinking. We pass from one bar to another, hopping over puddles and picking our way through the crowd and debris of a city wide party. More bands, more music, more alcohol. Our group gradually dwindles, as is inevitable on any pub crawl. People get tired, people get too drunk and high, people need to go to work the next day (massive respect to the Brazilian who needed to attend a convention the next morning – and did – but still made it to three in the morning).

I’m on the rye and ginger ale, which I’ve got a taste for at the moment. Probably go back to scotch and cokes when I get back to Australia (can’t ever shake those bogan beginnings) but for now I’m enjoying the smooth sweetness. I flirt with people unsuccessfully. We keep drinking. It’s as easy as breathing, what with the ability to walk the streets legally with your grog in hand and the low, low prices (even in the tourist areas). I mean, it’s not always cheap, but you get a high alcoholic content for your buck (I nearly gagged on one drink that was mostly bad whiskey).

Eventually I get separated from the group. Long story that’s not very interesting. Time to make a decision. We’ve been making our way down Bourbon, with the intention to make our way to the party on Frenchman but we haven’t even made it halfway down. So that’s the way I head.

It’s not so much that the party’s winding down so much that it’s settling down. Folk have paired off or found the bar or event they want to end the night on. The crowd on the street is thinning, leaving a thicker layer of refuse than what I imagine is normal. More great costumes though, more to be seen and done.

It’s still going to be a long night.

What am I gonna miss?

It’s raining while I’m writing this. I feel like I should work that into this somehow, some sort of metaphor about the city weeping for my loss. Probably says something about my own ego that this might even occur. Probably says something else that I’d never do it even close to seriously. More than anything it reminds me of my arrival, sitting in my hotel room between exploring Vancouver and hitting up bars while the city showed how soggy it can get.

There’s a weirdness about my imminent departure. Stress maybe. I’ve got a long list of things I need to do before I leave and only a few days to do it. Less than a week and I’ll be gone. Mostly it’s just people I want to see before I go, share that one final toast and sing along to that one final song, get properly shitfaced and argue about everything from the superiority of the Australian electoral system to whether or not Suicide Squad has earned the right to sequel – sober me isn’t sure, drunken me is much more decisive in his opinions about second tier superhero movies.

The two discussions I’ve been having the most over the past few weeks though, drunk or not, have been answering, “are you excited?” and “are you gonna miss it?”

The first is easy to answer: of course I fucking am. I haven’t seen two of my siblings in over twenty months (and it’ll still be another one til I see them again, even if I’m leaving the city). I’m tired and homesick and truthfully, while I have built a life here, it’s never become anything more than an extended sideshow to the life I lived back home. The life I’m going back to. The life I have planned.

The second is more difficult to answer. The short version? Not really. The long version? Maybe. Yeah, that doesn’t sound that long but bear with me. Let’s start by saying that if you asked me what I’m going to miss I’d tell you about the much longer list of things I’m not gonna miss.

It’s raining while I’m writing this. That’s something I’m not gonna miss, the rain here. This might sound strange but there’s no drama to the rain here. It’s just constant and soaking. No thunder and lightning, no hail and, shit, most of the time it doesn’t even rain hard enough to make a sound when it hits the roof. You might not even know it’s started raining til you look outside and realise that everything’s gotten wet. No wonder everyone uses dryers here, you wouldn’t have any warning to bring the clothes in if it suddenly began to shower. So you end up with all the problems that come with rain (worse even, since some bastard decided the pave each and every walkable surface with the slipperiest substances they could find) without the fun stuff, the noise and the light shows. It’ll be nice to get back to proper thunderstorms again. Miss me some dramatic weather.

Caesars are another thing I’m not gonna miss. Take a Bloody Mary and add clam juice. Yeah, really. Fuckin’ clam juice. Made so many of these fuckin’ things, and I’m very glad that I’ll never have to make another one again. Such a boring drink and I don’t think half the people who drink them even like them, as evidenced by the number of people who ask for “easy spice.” No mate, that’s not how caesars work. You don’t like spice? Then you don’t like caesars.

Other things are more difficult. Ice hockey (or as they call it here, just hockey), for example, is something I both am and am not gonna miss on the TV. On the one hand, it’s a great sport to watch that ticks all the right boxes. On the other, it’s on all the fucking time, and often becomes the only thing people care about. But I’m still gonna miss seeing the odd game on the TV. Definitely not gonna miss baseball or CFL/NFL though. Fuck baseball and North American football.

But these are just a handful of things on a very long list of will-he-won’t-he’s, and ignore the complicated relationship you form with a place you spend any decent amount of time in. That I’m sick of Vancouver has nothing to do with the quality of the city itself. That I’m sick of Canada and North American culture in general has nothing to do with country and continent. It’s just been a long time since I’ve been home, and I miss it dearly.

Funny how I’ve never really thought of this place as home. It’s always just been where I live, not where I’m from. I was talking to an Irish girl not that long ago, who’d lived on more continents in more cities than I had. She said it takes six months to settle into a new place. I’d agree with that. But settling doesn’t mean taking root. Settling doesn’t mean a place becomes home. I don’t think I ever gave Vancouver that chance. It’s not the city’s fault, I just never saw a reason to. I’ve been here twenty months and there’s always been a sense of intransigence about the way I live. There’s no furniture for me to pack or give away, no art or decoration, there’s not even ever that much in my section of the fridge. It’s not that I don’t want things, it’s just that for the whole time I’ve been here I never planned on staying, so why the fuck bother?

Maybe if I’d met someone, but I didn’t. Maybe if I saw reason to stay through the winter, but I haven’t. So all the little flaws, irritations and annoyances built up and up and up, and without a reason to overlook them all it was inevitable that familiarity would breed contempt. And so I’m going home.

It’s not you Vancouver, it’s me. I was never ready to commit to you, and you deserve all the people who are. You’re a great city, really, but you’re just not right for me. But I’m glad we had this time together.

It’s raining while I’m writing this. It’s supposed to rain every day well past the morning I climb on a plane to Toronto. I’ll probably have caught my next flight to New Orleans by the time it stops. A constant, ugly downpour, stripping the leaves off the trees and turning walking down the fucking pavement into a battle of wits and balance.

I’m not gonna miss this place. I’ll miss the people here, but not the city, and they can come visit me down in Sydney. But I’m glad I came. I’ve learnt a lot about myself, worked out who I am and what I want to do, here. That’s what I’ll take from this. That’s why it was worth living in a place I’ve never loved, never been willing love. Always planned on leaving.

Shit, it’s still raining. I can’t hear it, and it’s too dark outside to see it, but I know it is.

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (19)

Chapter 19: Journeys

Flashes of green lightning through the haze of smoke and ash. Shining eyes floating across the horizon.

Blood on his hands, blood on his face, blood on his clothes, blood in his nose, blood in his mouth. Screaming in his ears.

Private Smit on the ground, trying to hold in his intestines while considerate boots stepped around him.

Smoke and shadow, hiding away what he wanted to see. What he hoped to see. Curling around and away from reality, revealing only the horror and despair and hopelessness of the world.

Corporal Davids pressing the barrel of a pistol beneath his chin and firing his last round. The back of his head exploding, blood and brain spurting in a graceful arc like water from the mouth of a fountain.

Private Khumalo’s chest bursting in a pulse of green light, his limbs flying away and his head bouncing towards his friends. Eyes wide. Mouth open. No pain, not even surprise on his face. Just open and slack. Neck a smoking stump.

The screaming in his ears getting louder. Being joined by roars and commands. A steady thumping that he could feel through his feet, his hands. His own heartbeat maybe?

He’d never bothered learning their first names. It seemed a waste of time. Now he wished he knew them by something other than ranks and family names he might’ve made up. No one else would remember them or how they died. He should have learned their first names.

Lieutenant Botha’s face, made of smoke and ash, peeling away, flaking away, blowing away as he nodded at the captain’s orders. Only the eyes remaining steady as he turned towards his soldiers. The last of his soldiers.

No more ammunition. They had no more ammunition.

There was no hope of retreat on Botha’s face. No chance of regrouping. His face was falling apart. Being rebuilt by the smoke.

He spoke. Two words.

“Fix bayonets.”

Joseph Ballo woke up.

***

The Commander looked pissed. Brows furrowed, eyes narrowed within the dark rings that seemed to have become a permanent part of his complexion, a slight downward twist to the corner of his mouth. Warning signs for the members of Menace One to be on their best behaviour as they filed into the armoury and gathered around the projector screen that had been set up for the briefing.

Not that the Commander was pissed off at them, Emily thought as she watched Li Ming limp over to one of the scattered chairs that had been left free for her. No, from what she’d heard from CO Bradford – via Martin Singh via Gerty Wilders – the Commander had taken the recent loss of three X-Com operatives in a single mission very personally, as if it was all his fault that Michelle and James and Dori had died.

Ambushes happen. Enemies are unpredictable. Sometimes you lose control of a situation and people die. Everyone knew it, and they still went out anyway. Emily wondered if the Commander had someone to tell him these things though. Wondered if the Commander had ever had someone to tell him these things. Christ knows she had needed someone.

“We missing anyone?” the Commander growled as Emily found a spot beside Navneet Banerjee, whose eyes were looking a little red and hair was damp from what was probably a recent shower. CO Bradford shook his head and the Commander stepped over to the projector screen, “Then let’s get started.”

A world map appeared on the screen with an audible and completely fake click (Emily wondered if the sound effects were a leftover from whatever ancient software their current had been built over, and who had been nostalgic enough to keep them). There were two red dots on the map pulsing ominously, one in central Africa and the other in south-eastern Europe.

“Alright folks it’s been a rough couple of weeks,” the Commander began and everyone seemed to nod agreement, “but thanks to some recent breakthroughs from our Dr Tygen and Miss Shen,” Emily couldn’t keep herself from picturing the locked doors of a hold far below decks and Allie’s grumblings about busted machines right before they’d begun necking last, “we’ve got two targets to hit, and maybe get some payback.”

The Commander’s eyes tracked over the gathered soldiers, then shifted to the map as he reached across the screen to point at the red dot in Africa, his arm casting a shadow like some dark god stretching a vengeful fist across the world.

“The facility here, on the border of the former Central African Republic and Chad, is going to take some preparation before we hit it. We need to establish contact and relations with some of the closer resistance cells before we can go in without fear of being flooded with reinforcements. The target in what’s left of Romania, however,” he raised his arm and tapped the second dot on the map, causing the whole screen to ripple, “is ripe for plucking. The Avenger will be heading to a resistance camp in Poland in-” he checked his watch on one wrist while redirecting his other towards the Avenger’s destination “-twenty-three minutes. From there we’ll… Are you alright there Mister Banerjee?”

The whole space, Emily included, turned to look at Navneet at the same time. He was leaning heavily against some crates, his normally darker skin looked pale and drawn, and he seemed to be paying more attention to the deck than to the briefing, at least until the briefing began paying attention to him.

“Just fine, sir!” He said, standing a little straighter and placing his full attention on the Commander, where it was supposed to be, “Perhaps a little tired.”

Fuck, was he slurring a little? Emily wasn’t sure, but…

“Alright then,” the Commander nodded, but his tone sounded like he’d noticed something in Navneet’s as well, “Make sure you get a full night’s sleep tonight.”

“Thankyou sir. I will, sir.”

Fuck, he was definitely slurring.

The Commander kept an eye on Navneet but continued the briefing, stepping away from the screen as the map clicked over to a few fuzzy pictures of a sparse tree line.

“This was as close as the locals were willing to get. They reported on strange sounds coming from the forest and generally agreed that people who enter don’t tend to come back out. Firestarter took a few long range Gremlins nearby in the skyranger. Scans didn’t show-” the Commander paused for a moment and looked at Navneet again (who seemed to be watching the wall on the opposite side of the screen with a blank smile on his face), but didn’t point it him out again, “scans didn’t show any signs of a building or structure in the area. They did, however, detect some crazy shit if Shen is to be believed.

“There’s an alien power source in the area, and it is doing something strange. I, for one, would like to find out what. Before we get into operational details, however,” the Commander looked over his shoulder, “Mr Bradford, could you please escort Mr Banerjee to the Barracks for some rest.”

A murmur ran through the assembled team, not words exactly but more like a collective gasp or growl.

“Sir,” Navneet took a step forward, “I’m fine, sir.”

“No Mr Banerjee, you’re not.” They’d dimmed the lights as the briefing started, but Emily could see the Commander’s hands tighten into white-knuckled fists, illuminated by the reflected glow of the projector screen, as he spoke, “We will discuss this at length when I think you’re actually fine enough to hear it, but first you need to sleep it off.”

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Emily wouldn’t say that she was exactly best buds with Navneet, but he wasn’t a bad guy and something about the Commander’s voice seemed to indicate that the Pakistani with the fancy English accent would be lucky to not have his face rearranged.

She cast a glance towards where Else was standing, arms crossed under her chest, to see how the German woman was reacting. Else kept her eyes on the screen, her face a blank mask as Bradford placed a firm hand on Navneet’s shoulder and led him out. That was… strange. Else wasn’t the type for emotional outbursts, but Emily would have at least expected a raised eyebrow as her boyfriend was escorted from a briefing. Unless…

Fuck, Emily had missed something. Judging by the surprised looks, she wasn’t the only one. But Else had always been a good friend… And Emily had always been a shitty one.

“Alright,” the Commander’s voice was tight as he continued, “let’s move on then.”

***

Ballo cracked two eggs into the tiny cooking pan and set them over the slightly larger fire he’d managed to get burning in the centre of the old hut, and set about rearranging the contents of his rucksack for the third time. He’d found the building a few days before with Duchess, the crumbling remains of what was once a small but proud farm, with its roof intact and a working well out back. As good a place as they were likely to find in the middle of fucking nothing to hole up and rest for a bit while Duchess healed.

She was sitting across the room, watching him carefully place the last of his canteens at the top of his pack, her leg and arms wrapped in fresh white bandages and her hair falling unusually loose around her shoulders. She grinned as Ballo lifted the bag, feeling the weight and balance of the thing that he’d be carrying on his back for hours at a time.

“There we go,” he grunted approvingly, “perfect.”

“The first sign of madness is talking to yourself,” Duchess smiled at him from across the across the fire.

“But I’m not talking to myself, I’m talking to you,” he looked around the hut and spotted the chicken that had so kindly provided breakfast, “or her. She doesn’t talk back much though.”

“I should hope so.”

Ballo stepped back over to the eggs and lifted the pan off the fire. They hissed softly as he prodded them with a fork and smelled better than anything he’d eaten in a long while.

“Would you like some?” He offered the pan towards Duchess, but she just shook her head.

“You know I can’t eat anything.”

“I do, but it seemed polite to offer.”

“You’re nothing if not polite.”

“I blame my parents.”

“Raising a well-behaved child, the monsters!”

Ball laughed and it felt good, like he hadn’t laughed in a long time. He let the pan cool for a moment then began to slowly devour the eggs, savouring every bite. The chicken, almost the same colour brown as the hard-packed dust outside, wandered over and began pecking at his boots.

“Which way will you go?”

“North,” Ballo replied around a mouthful, “then east. Step by step towards the coast.”

“That’ll take days.”

“Weeks I expect. Unless someone picks up my message.”

“You should eat the chicken.”

“What?” Ballo said, reaching down and scratching the hen’s head. It clucked appreciatively.

“You should snap its neck and take it with you,” Duchess replied, unperturbed, “Cook it tonight when you set camp. It’ll become something’s lunch eventually, it may as well be yours. I’m surprised its lasted this long.”

That made sense, and Ballo knew that she was simply voicing some very practical thoughts from the more logical parts of his brain, but still…

“No,” the hen hopped over his boots and skittered towards the entrance, Ballo watching it as it went, “no, you’ll not die today. Not by my hand at least.” He turned back towards Duchess, whose smile had turned indulgent, “Would you like to come with me? When I leave?”

She shook her head again, “You know I can’t.

“I do, but it would be impolite not to ask.”

“And you don’t want to be alone again.”

“No.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

The chicken clucked, grabbing his attention for half a second. When he looked back across the dying fire Duchess was gone, back into the grave he’d dug for her yesterday thirty paces from the well after the infection that had taken her foot and arm finally took the rest of her.

Ballo sighed and checked his watch. It was almost time to trigger a pulse with the transponder hanging from his waist. Maybe someone would hear this one and he wouldn’t have to wait so long as last time to have someone living to talk to again.

“Other then you, of course,” he said to the chicken, who didn’t speak back.

***

For some reason Neil had expected the skyranger to be louder. He wasn’t sure why, since it weren’t his first time riding its hold, but he’d expected more than the muffled whine this time. A dramatic roar like an iron-scaled dragon charging into battle, or maybe just enough noise to drown out his own thoughts.

They were finally (finally) sending him on a mission, and it was a damn important one as well. There was something powerful and alien that needed finding, and when they did it would need either blowing up or taking back to the Avenger. But it wasn’t just the objective, whatever that was, that made this mission important. They needed a win, what with all the casualties and the ‘doomsday clock’ above the world map getting closer and closer to “out of time,” and he was one of the people chosen to get that win.

They should have sent Galina. Out of the two of them the Russian had always been the fiercer one, the one that laughed at danger like it was one of those old comedy shows Miss Fatima liked to put on. If she was on the skyranger she’d probably be laughing right now. At the very least Neil doubted that she’d be damn near vibrating in her seat like he was.

How the hell did the others do it? Neil was all nervous energy, shifting and bouncing and tapping his feet like a damn fool, drumming his fingers against the grip of his new plasma rifle. James King’s old plasma rifle before he’d been blown up. Not a good thought. Need to have less of those.

The others all looked more or less normal. Mister Leroy was playing with his Gremlin, Miss Else was polishing her round glasses, Mister Dekker looked like he was checking the power levels of his damn huge storm gun. Karen Nilsen might have been twitchier than Neil, but everyone was pretty positive she was at least half crazy anyway so that was pretty normal. Even Miss Tiffany – sorry, Miss Tiff – looked relaxed. She was just leaning back against the skyranger’s hull, legs stretched out in front of her, ankles crossed and eyes closed. Her first mission as well and she might have been goddamn dozing as far as Neil could tell. How the hell was she that calm.

Then again, Galina wouldn’t have been that calm. Galina would have been excited. Eager. A damn bloodhound straining at the leash. They should have picked her for the mission. Less chance of her pissing herself before they even got there.

Hell, he needed to breath. To get out of this tiny hold. He needed to think or clear his head or something.

The Commander said they’d be running into those crab-monsters again. The ones that had killed three of theirs in a single mission. What if they did? What would he do when he saw all those teeth and all those spikes? How would he react? Would he be able to react? Or would he just freeze? Freeze, and get himself and everyone else killed.

Can’t screw this up. His fingers drummed harder against his rifle. A dead man’s rifle. Can’t screw this up. Can’t screw this up. He could hear the breath whistling through his nose and knew everyone else could hear him as well. Can’t screw this up. Can’t screw this up. Can’t screw this up.

A hand reached across and came to rest on his, silencing his drumming fingers. He followed the hand to an arm, to a shoulder, to the face of Miss Else who was sitting beside him. She gave a wink then turned towards the intercom where Louise Seo was saying something, but didn’t remove her hand. He felt his own turn into hers and grab it tight. Still she didn’t pull away. Left it there until they swung over the LZ and the ramp lowered, finally letting in the sound that Neil had been waiting for.

Maybe he saw Miss Tiff give her a grateful smile as they all stood up and turned towards the waiting zip lines.

Neil jogged to the end of the ramp and grabbed one of the lines. They should have picked Galina for the mission, he thought, but as he rappelled towards the twilight forest below he was glad they’d chosen him.

***

Ballo walked for hours, stopped sometime after midday to eat something, then walked again. He had enough ration packs – old pre-war things long past an expiration date that didn’t seem to matter – to last him a few days before he’d feel the need to start trapping, skinning and gutting his meals, but he had no idea where he was and how long he’d be walking. There was a very real possibility he’d die out here. That didn’t bother him all that much. Not much did these days.

He set up camp when it grew too dark to keep walking without stumbling into something’s home or turning his ankle on a stray root. He ate again and sang a song to himself. Duchess didn’t make an appearance. That was disappointing.

That night he dreamt of faces he could barely remember the names for and injuries he could never forget, fire and blood and screaming. A final order, “Fix bayonets!” And then he woke up, like he always did. Funny, the nightmares didn’t bother him like they used to either.

Around mid-morning he found an old road. It was cracked and overgrown, barely more than packed earth and gravel, and didn’t look like it had been used for years. But it led in the right direction and was easier than picking his way through the scrub that had started to grow thicker and thicker. That was a good sign. He’d need to find water soon.

“In that case perhaps sticking to the road is a bad idea,” Ballo told himself.

“We’ll see,” he replied, and kept to the road anyway.

At certain times of the day he’d switch on the transponder on his waist, hoping that someone would pick up the ping and then come to pick him up. It was an old code that few still alive would remember, but there was still those few, and Ballo had become an optimist in his old age. Well, old by his standards.

“It doesn’t matter one way or the other,” he told a gnarled, dead tree that he was pissing on, “but I would prefer to not have to walk halfway across the continent. It gets boring after a while.”

The tree didn’t reply, but he felt like it agreed with him. And still, he kept walking.

View from across the Ocean (18/9/2016)

Gotta say, when the chips are down and he’s against the wall Mr Turnbull doesn’t back down from anyone.

Except for the right-wing arseholes of his own party of course. Seems like he’s willing to do anything they fucking well tell him too, like a well-groomed sixteen year old boy for a Gold Coast retiree in the steamy imagination of a certain Queensland Senator we all know and suspect is a collection of King Brown snakes wearing a human suit possessed by the soul of a xenophobic blowfish. Fucking Queenslanders.

Watching the Battle of the Marriage Equality Plebiscite unfold from over here in Canada (where it’s been legal for quite some time now) has been one of the most entertaining things I’ve seen in the rather drab and dreary first year of Mr Turnbull’s stint as ‘Captain.’ I mean, yeah, I had a great time during the election, but that was probably because I only saw the good bits (*cough*fake-tradie-memes*cough*) without having to endure the actual campaigns themselves. But watching the Plebiscite fail before it even had a chance to be voted on has been just fuckin’ wonderful. And terrible, because there’s a very good chance that the failure of the plebiscite will push back marriage equality for another couple of years.

It doesn’t take a professional journalist with decades of experience reporting, predicting and commentating on Australian politics to figure out that the plebiscite was going to fail before it even reached a vote. I’m certainly not a professional journalist with decades of experience and I’ve figured it out. Shit, I reckon even a collection of King Brown Snakes wearing a human suit possessed by the soul of a xenophobic blowfish would have figured it out by now. I mean, there’s evidence suggesting that a particularly stupid collection of King Brown Snakes wearing a human suit possessed by the soul of a particularly xenophobic blowfish might not have, but let’s give Mr Christensen the benefit of the doubt.

The Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team (I’m sorry mate, you’re a decent pollie and I know the acronym can be pronounced ‘next’ but could you not have come up with a better name for you party? How about the Nick Xenophon Experience?) and a few other crossbenchers have all said they’d block it in the Senate, while the first openly gay Liberal in the Australian Parliament (also in the Senate) has clearly and passionately said he would not support such an “abhorrent” bill. As for Labor? Well, they haven’t outright said that they’d block it. But there are a few signs…

Meanwhile public opinion in favour of the plebiscite has fallen, not least because while the Coalition plans on making it compulsory they have no intention of making it binding. Which means that Coalition MPs would still be able to “follow their consciences” and vote however they want in Parliament. As far as I can tell it means there would be no legislative trigger whatsoever, so we still might not get marriage equality in Australia until Labor wins the next election (and they will win the next election) even if the ‘Yes’ vote wins. Funnily enough, people don’t like the idea of wasting 160 million dollars on a decisive “opinion poll.” At least that’s what the opinion polls are saying.

But shit guys, both Mr Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis* have said they’re open to compromising on the bill! I mean, not on the policy, question, legislative impact and the fifteen million dollars to be split between the two campaigns. That shit’s non-negotiable. But they’re willing to make changes to… the colour of the ballot papers I guess? Yeah. Maybe they can be coloured a nice, ironic rainbow. Labor’s response to this we’re-only-now-realising-how-embarrassing-losing-this-is-going-to-be-so-we’re-getting-desperate olive branch? Well, since shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus’ first instinct was to call both PM and AG dishonest and lacking backbone, the signs are not positive.

So, why has the PM taken this so far? Good question. Apparently the Coalition believe they had a mandate to see this thing through, and the Coalition doesn’t back down when it has a mandate! Except when it comes to superannuation reform. They’ve gone awfully quiet about that, haven’t they? Despite the fact that changes to super are something they could actually negotiate with Labor and the Greens and pass in a timely manner, saving the budget billions of dollars. But surely members of the Coalition (Tony Abbott’s old mob and collections of King Brown Snakes wearing human suits possessed by the souls of xenophobic blowfish) wouldn’t try and stop prevent something that the Coalition brought to the election and therefore has a mandate to see through?

I feel like I’ve been asking a lot of rhetorical questions in this post. I apologise.

It’s funny, Mr Brandis came out today saying the Malcolm Turnbull could go down as one of Australia’s greatest Prime Ministers, alongside Menzies and Howard (and I’ll just throw in Whitlam, Curtin, Hawke, Keating, Billie Hughes – who’s actually, technically a Coalition great – and Julia Gillard). I can’t help but feel he should show some leadership first. Stand-up to the King Brown Snakes wearing a human suit possessed by the souls of xenophobic blowfish that occupy the right wing of the backbench. Of course, nothing scares a PM like the thought of being courageous.

Then again, maybe we should really stop electing them. Fucking Queenslanders.

One thing you can be sure of is that Bill Shorten is laughing his arse off right now (SCHADENFREUDE!) as the Coalition hands them yet another easy win and a boost onto the moral high ground. This is going to haunt Mr Turnbull, no matter the result.

*More articles from the Sydney Morning Herald being linked than I usually like – for balanced readings sake – but they were the first ones that came up when I did searches.

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (18)

Chapter 18: Nobody’s ever really ready.

The three men in suits came on a monday when Neil was eight. His ma offered them sweet tea and cookies that she said she’d baked that morning but Neil knew she’d bought from a store the day before. They shook their heads and said thanks but no thanks, there was a girl waiting in the car. Another “special” child that they were taking to the “special” school halfway across the country.

They asked if Neil was ready to go. Asked him, not his parents. He nodded and hugged his ma tight, the straps of his heavy backpack digging deep into his shoulders, then turned to his pa standing in the shadows with an angry look on his face.

Pa didn’t like this, didn’t trust the government men who’d come to take Neil away. Didn’t trust the government before the aliens took over, started hating them after they took away his work. He’d been a ranch-hand once upon a time, would make Neil laugh til it felt like his gut was about to burst with his stories about being a real cowboy. Then they’d banned cows, and pa weren’t a cowboy no more. Now they were coming to take his son, and he weren’t gonna be a father either.

But he couldn’t stop them. They had papers with signatures that gave them no choice. Neil was going with the men in suits, whether pa wanted it or not. Whether Neil wanted it or not. But ma was prouder than he’d ever seen her before about her “special” son, and that was something at least. She began to cry as he climbed into the back seat beside a girl about the same age as him, who said her name was Bell and had hair the colour of dried grass tied back in a messy ponytail.

One of the men stayed behind with Neil’s parents – to fill out paperwork or something – while the other two climbed into the front seats. The car started with a low hum and Neil pressed his face against the window for one final look at his parents. Ma was standing at the edge of the footpath, sniffling and waving but with a big smile on her face. Pa stood in the doorway, arms crossed, still scowling but his eyes locked on Neil’s face. Bell reached out and took his hand as the car rolled away from the curb and his parents disappeared from sight. It would be the last time he ever saw them.

The men didn’t talk as they drove, just switched on the radio to some random music station (the kind pa hated, made with computers instead of real instruments) and kept their eyes on the road ahead. Bell didn’t talk either, but she held on to Neil’s hand as tight as a bird with a worm. He got the feeling she was scared. He sure as heck was.

It weren’t long before they’d driven past the town limits and were driving down one of the long, straight highways towards the city-centres. In a visit before they’d come to pick Neil up the men had said they’d be taking him to Dallas, where they’d put him on a train that’d take him to the new school. He’d been excited about the idea of getting on one of the ADVENT trains. His teacher said they used magnets to float across the tracks faster than a jet plane, and that had sounded like the coolest things ever. Now, watching the sun set over the miles and miles of what his ma would’ve called desert and his pa would’ve called scrublands, he weren’t so excited. Eventually the sun went down completely and he couldn’t even see anything past the white lines on the edge of the road.

The driver cursed something fierce and the car came to a screeching stop, throwing Neil and Bell against forward against their seatbelts. Neil leaned around the driver’s seat and stretched his neck as far as he could to see above the dashboard. There was another car parked across the road lit up by their high beams, with its hood up. There was a man perched on the roof, smoking a cigarette and playing with an old-fashioned looking laptop. A lady was walking slowly towards them, shielding her eyes with one hand and waving with the other, a large, sorry smile on her face.

“Think it’s an actual breakdown?” the driver asked the second man.

“I doubt it, but nobody else should know we’re out here so it might actually be.”

“Right across the road.”

“I’ve seen stranger. Still, safeties off and call it in.”

The second man climbed out of the car, unbuttoning his jacket as he went then  raising his left hand like a stop sign and resting his right hand on his hip. No, not his hip, on a gun hanging from his belt. Neil’s eyes went a little wide and he glanced at the driver, wondering if he had a gun as well. Wondered why these men from this “special” school needed guns at all. The driver was frowning at his phone, punching buttons and not seeming to like the results. Outside the lady had stopped.

“Sorry to bother you,” she had a funny accent, not local and not even from up north or down south, “but we went over something and spun-”

“Ma’am,” the second man spoke over her, “you’re going to have to move your vehicle off the road now.”

“Yes,” still smiling, “that’s what I was trying to ask you for help doing before you interrupted me.”

“Shit,” the driver growled and climbed out of the car, “our signals are being jammed. It’s a trap!”

Neil looked over the dashboard at the lady and saw her eyes flash purple. No, really, purple. Then the second man spun around and his face was scared and he had his gun out and he began firing and his shots were so loud. Cracks louder than fireworks that rolled like lightning through the car into Neil’s eardrums. Bell began to scream and Neil pulled her towards him, tried to hold her whole body like she’d held his hands.

The driver began jerking as blood began squirting from new holes in his chest and neck, like miniature red fountains. He collapsed on the hood of the car and the second man kept firing. Blood sprayed across the windshield and the second man kept firing and Neil shut his eyes tight. Kept them tight until well after the shots finally stopped.

There was a tap on the window and Neil nearly jumped clear of his skin. He opened his eyes and looked up to see the woman give him a small wave through the glass. Neil looked around and saw that the second man was still standing in the same spot, his eyes wet with tears and the gun pressed up under his chin. His finger was pulling the trigger, but the gun must have been out of bullets. Then the man who had been on the roof of the other car with the laptop walked up beside him and blew half his head away with a big shotgun. The body collapsed out of sight like it didn’t have no bones left. Like how Neil imagined an octopus would fall over if it was crawling over land.

There was a thunk and the lady opened the door, Neil looked back at her and pulled Bell in tighter. The girl had stopped screaming but had buried her face deeper into Neil’s shoulder. He tried to look threatening as the lady came down on one knee – he guessed so she could look him in the eye – and it must’ve worked a little ’cause she stayed out of arm’s reach.

“Hello there,” she said in her funny accent, “Would you be Mister Neil Perry?”

Neil nodded and the lady seemed to become a little brighter. She had short black hair and a tan like pa used to have when he still worked outdoors, with a square jaw and small, pretty mouth. Younger than ma and pa, but not by much.

“I presume the young lady you’re doing such a fine job of comforting is Miss Isabelle Franco?”

Neil shrugged, hard to do when he was holding Bell so tight. He didn’t know her full name.

“Excellent. My name is Annette and that man over there is my friend, Monsieur Said.” She raised her voice a little on that last part, and Monsieur Said smiled behind his cigarette and gave Neil a little wave, “I am sorry you just saw what you did. That was…” her eyes flicked to the blood on the windscreen, “messier than I had hoped it would be. But I need you to trust me right now when I say that I did it to keep you and Miss Isabelle safe.”

The lady, Annette, reached towards him slowly, like Neil was a wild animal. She stopped halfway, smile never leaving her face.

“I need you to come with me, so I can take you somewhere safe. You need to know I will force you if I have to. But that is not something that I want to do. Please. Please, take my hand.”

Neil looked down at Bell, then back at the lady. Something in the back of his brain told him that she didn’t need to ask him to trust her, that all she needed was for her eyes to flash purple again and Neil would do whatever she wanted. Just like the man in the suit shooting the driver. But her eyes remained the same colour, and her smile stayed the same and instead she was asking him.

Maybe that was why he reached out towards her outstretched hand.

***

The skyranger bounced as it hit some turbulence. Michelle King felt her stomach drop, then her ears pop as the air pressure began to change. One of the red lights above turned green and she heard Louise Seo’s voice speak into her ear, “Beginning our descent, five minutes to the L-Z.”

Michelle sighed and gave the scarred photograph one final look. Three little girls sat around a smallish dog with a reddish coat and its tongue hanging out, laughing at the camera. A real laugh, with lots of teeth and tears in the eldest girl’s eyes. Tiff Martz couldn’t remember what she’d said to make the girls laugh like that when she’d taken the picture, just mumbled that she was “always fucking hilarious” and proceeded to tell her all about the dog (half-dingo apparently, making it bloody difficult to fence in). Michelle smiled, folded the photo and slid it into a makeshift pocket of her armour.

Those three girls were a different part of her very compartmentalised life, a part that she hadn’t given herself time to think about since arriving at X-Com. It was easy enough to ignore between all the training and nearly getting her face blown off and James’ annoying-as-shit deathwish, but then Tiff had turned up. And brought photos.

She still had the same smile on her face as she pulled out her gatling gun and spun the barrels, performing those last minutes checks and rechecks to make sure the weapon would fire when she told it to. It took her a minute to realise that her brother James kept glancing at her as he did the same.

“What?” she asked sharper than she meant to, subconsciously scratching at the scar on the side of her head.

“Nothing. Just haven’t you smile like that in a while.”

“Like what?” Shit, again more defensive than she was planning.

“Fucking honestly happy, I think,” there was a laugh behind the words, “Don’t die on me today, alright?”

“Alright,” Michelle rolled her eyes, then added, “you too.”

“I’ll try to avoid it.”

“I think we should all avoid dying,” Li Ming Cheng added, and elbowed Michelle in the ribs.

“Seconded,” Doreen Donaldson piped up as she fiddled with her Gremlin.

“It would be my preference as well,” Thierry Leroy added sombrely.

“Yes,” Cesar Vargas grinned around the hold, “let us all try not to die.”

Michelle laughed and began checking her grenade launcher.

***

“Do you two ever leave this fucking room?”

Neil was startled enough at the voice coming from right outside his chamber that he nearly jumped out of his chair. He looked up into the smiling face of Miss Tiff, leaning her forehead against her forearm against the ballistic glass.

She seemed to read his mind as she said, “Sorry, door was open and I thought I’d let myself in.”

She was wearing a black t-shirt emblazoned with a white, long-haired, somehow female-looking skull and the words “Violent Soho,” fatigue trousers rolled up to her calves and a great deal of dark eye-shadow. It was… a hell of a lot different to what she looked like when she first turned up in the Psionic Lab. It made Neil feel overdressed in his neatly pressed coveralls. Over in her own chamber Galina Zinchenko raised her hand in a sort of fist, with her pinky and pointer finger extended.

“Rock and roll?” she asked, one eyebrow cocked.

“Yeah,” Miss Tiff chuckled, “rock’n’roll. Seriously though, you two ever even been on a mission?”

“Have you?” Neil asked, a little more defensively than he would have preferred.

“Not for X-Com, but I’ve only been here a few days. You two have been here for weeks, yeah?”

Neil looked at his feet sheepishly. This had been a sore point between him and Galina for a while now. She thought they were ready for action, was chomping at the bit to fry some poor alien S-O-B’s mind with her newly learnt powers. Neil was happy waiting until the Commander felt they were ready. Yeah, he’d volunteered for this and figured the ability to float things around with his mind was a pretty good trade-off for eventually fighting the war, but he was in no rush to get into combat. Miss Tiff didn’t need to hear all that though.

“We’ll be sent on a mission when we’re sent on a mission,” he said with a bit of a growl in his voice, “that’s all there is to it.”

Neil went back to what he’d been reading before Miss Tiff had come in – some old paperback called ‘Don Quixote’ that Dr Tygen had found for him in Cesar Vargas’ growing library of random books – trying very hard to ignore the dark-haired woman who was still smiling down at him.

“I’d like to ask a favour.”

That weren’t what Neil was expecting her to say. He looked up and saw that she was pressing an envelope against the glass of the chamber. Neil stood up and stepped closer to get a closer look at the letter. Not that there was much to see, it was just a plain white envelope after all. His eyes were drawn instead to the pattern of tattoos that he now saw ran from beneath Miss Tiff’s shirt, down her arms and hands to the her short fingernails, an intricate pattern of vines that looked like a solid mass of black green from any distance surrounding a few larger images – on her right arm he could see a clock face, a stylized castle, a rifle crossed over a bunch of arrows.

“Got the rougher ones done when I was in prison,” she said and Neil realised she’d seen his eyes wander, “the finer stuff done when I got out.”

“Why were you in prison?” Neil asked, them mentally kicked himself for asking such a personal question. Ma and Miss Annette hadn’t raised him to pry.

“I killed a lot of people.”

“Why?” Galina asked and probably didn’t give a damn about prying.

“I had my reasons,” Miss Tiff answered in a tone that said she wouldn’t be spending anymore time on the subject, “Bradford says you write regularly to your Night Witch. Next time I want you to send this letter along with yours. Please.”

“What’s on the letter?” Neil asked and wasn’t able to keep the suspicion out of his voice.

“I’d rather not tell you.”

“I need to know what I’m sending before I send it.”

“No you don’t.”

“That’s right, but I wanna know anyway before I send Miss Annette anything.”

“Miss Annette?” Miss Tiff cocked an eyebrow.

“You don’t think everyone walks around calling her the damned Night Witch all the time, do you?”

“Huh,” her eyes narrowed, as if she’d never considered someone with Miss Annette’s reputation might have been given a real name, “I suppose not.” She tapped the envelope with her finger thoughfully for a second than said, “They’re names and a location. Two little girls. ADVENT came for them when they were younger because… because I think they’re like you. Whatever you are.”

“You want Miss Annette to find them?”

“I want Miss Annette to be able to find them. They’re safe enough now, but if this,” she rolled her head around swivelled her eyes to gesture the whole ship, “all goes tits up that might change.”

“Of course we’ll send your letter,” Galina said and Neil saw no reason to disagree.

“Thanks,” Miss Tiff shot the Polish woman in the other chamber a gratefull grin, “I owe you both one.”

“You don’t owe us anything,” Neil grinned, “helping other kids escape whatever the aliens have planned’s part of the job. Who’re the little girls.”

“They’re my reasons,” Miss Tiff said and her smile became a little more… honest.

***

Michelle’s smile had lasted until they’d made it off the Skyranger.

The air was thick with smoke coloured black and grey or stained orange and red by a dozen different fires. The air tasted of soot and metal and stank of burning shit in a very literal, gag-inducing way. Shadows danced in the half-light followed by twitching barrels and twitchy trigger fingers as Menace One leap-frogged through the wreckage of what had been a small but bustling resistance community, looking for survivors as they made their way towards the sound of gunfire on the opposite edge of the camp.

Pickings were slim and there were a lot more bodies without a pulse than with. They found a small girl huddling with her father hiding behind a woodshed made of scrap-metal, and a teenage boy hiding up in a tree. They were given instructions to head where the skyranger was hovering where Simmons would swing down to pick them up. Dori looked pale as a ghost as she watched the civilians race towards the treeline, and it occurred to Michelle that this might have been the first time the Scotswoman had seen this side of the alien occupation. Wondered if any of the others had made it all the way to X-Com without seeing them murder a bunch of people and then convince everybody else it was all their victims fault.

Leroy screamed a warning over on their left flank and the whole squad swung in his direction. Leroy was firing as something emerged from the smoke, something big and purple running around on too many legs with sharp looking spikes running down its spine and sharp looking mandibles and sharp looking claws, drooling from a gaping mouth like the gates of hell. It screeched out a high-pitched roar (Michelle had thought those were two seperate actions until right that moment) that reverberated through her bones and made her insides feel like jelly, charging at Leroy too quickly, Michelle thought, to stop it from grabbing him between those fucking horrific looking mandibles.

Thankfully she was wrong. Li fired a long burst that tore through the creature’s armoured hide, making it stumble but not killing it, then Cesar finished the job with his shotgun.

“Shit,” Michelle’s voice was calmer than she expected it to be, “shit, shit, fucking shit. What the fuck is that?”

“We called them Crabs when I fought them during the invasion,” Leroy said, with a look on his face that Michelle hadn’t seen before. Not anger, not shock, not worry…

Terror, she realised, shit, he’s fucking terrified of these things.

“We called them Chryssalids,” the Commander spoke into all their ears from the Avenger’s bridge, “Though Bradford informs me there haven’t been any confirmed sightings since the end of the first war.”

“Don’t let them get too close,” Leroy said, breathing hard, his eyes twitching across their surroundings, “or they will impregnate you.”

“What?” Dori growled, “What the fuck do you mean impregnate?”

“I get the feeling that we don’t want to find out,” Michelle said and touched the armour over the photograph.

“No,” agreed Leroy, “you don’t.”

***

When the gun went off the first time Allie squealed and nearly dropped it. The bullet hit the very edge of the paper target and while Emily hadn’t been able to see them, she guessed that Allie had probably squeezed her eyes shut as she’d squeezed the trigger. Still, a hit was a hit and the Italian engineer’s face lit up like a fireworks show as she spotted the small chunk missing half a metre to the left of the bullseye.

“Ha!” she yelled triumphantly as she turned grinning towards Emily, though thankfully remembered to keep her pistol aimed downrange, “I got it!”

“Yes you did,” Emily tried one of those for one of those ‘cheeky’ grins that Michelle was fond of giving, “now let’s see if you can hit any closer to the bullseye.”

“I assure you,” Allie said, her voice pure confidence as she turned back towards the targets, “it is only a matter of time.”

The sound she made on the second shot could probably be best described as a “squawk.” She missed the target completely this time and Emily couldn’t contain a giggle.

“Are you shutting your eyes when you shoot?”

“No!” Allie replied a little too quick and a little too defensively to be believable.

“It’s a lot easier to aim when you can actually see the target.”

Allie fired again, squeaked as she did so, but this time managed to hit the target only twenty centimetres wide of the bullseye.

“See what I mean?” Emily laughed.

The two women had been spending a lot of time together since Allessandra Mancini had joined the crew, rescued from an ADVENT cell by a Menace One team that had included Emily. It had taken Allie a few weeks to recover physically from whatever it was that the aliens had done to her, and so far Dr Colin Lynch (effectively the Avenger’s on-staff therapist) was the only one who she talked to about it, but she and Emily had quickly fallen in together. Having a few drinks off-duty, watching a film together, playing checkers in the common room, working on Allie’s English and teaching Emily a few words of Italian. It had been a time, even with the deaths.

Truthfully Emily had noticed the other crewmembers pushing them together. Michelle and Li Ming had been the most obvious about it, but Cesar, Gerty Wilders and Charlie Otembe had made efforts to get them in the same room and then leave them alone to their own devices. It’d seemed… what’s the word? Presumptive. It’d seen presumptive at first. Yeah, Emily had forced herself past an unrequited crush on Lily Shen and was very prepared to look somewhere else, but just pushing two people together who had, presumptively, compatable sexual orientation doesn’t make them compatable relationship. Being gay can’t be the only thing you have in common the same way that being straight can’t be the only thing you have in common. But it had been a good time, and Emily really did enjoy spending time with Allie.

It had still been a surprise when Allie had asked to be taken down to the firing range in the belly of the Avenger, next to Engineering, and taught how to shoot. Emily had scratched at the bandage still covering the newest scars on her arm and asked why. Allie had laughed and said that she wanted to see what Emily did to relax. Other than drink Louise Seo’s ship-made gin, of course.

Allie kept firing until the magazine was empty and the hammer clicked on an empty chamber, squeaking all the way through. Emily wondered how anybody could be that fucking cute while holding a loaded weapon. She’d managed to get closer to the bullseye with her last two rounds, though thankfully all the other shots had still hit the target.

“Nice,” Emily had a fresh magazine in her hand already and was reaching towards the pistol still pointed downrange to reload it, “you’re still a little tense when-“

Allie stepped in close and kissed her, a touch really, a peck on the corner of her mouth, then stepped back and turned away. Emily’s eyes went wide. She heard the sound of something metal landing on the deck and realised she’d dropped the magazine.

“I’m sorry,” Allie said, all the confidence having left her voice and a blush starting to spread across her features, “I should have asked.”

“N-no. It’s alright. May I kiss you back?”

“I would like that.”

***

Were they smart enough to have used the corpse as bait, Michelle wondered, or had they simply not given a shit? Left it in the middle of the road because that’s where whoever he’d been had fallen and moved on to find their next victims? A bloody mound of meat with terror written across a middle-aged face, torso split apart and a purple pod (that had already burst open) grown from his guts. They’d approached, morbidly curious, and for a second everyone had focused on this violent artwork that not even Leroy had seen before.

Then the shooting had begun.

Cesar was behind a tree towards the front yelling numbers and Cheng was scrambling behind thick, jagged stump.

James was firing at something Michelle couldn’t see through the smoke. A screeching roar ripped through the air as Dori slid behind a fence. She stood up. Aimed somewhere to their rear. Fired. Smiled as another roar was cut short. A burst of plasma fire slammed into her back and she toppled forward into the mud, shock on her face and blood spilling out her mouth.

Michelle might have screamed then. Or it could have been someone else.

It began to rain.

There were chryssalids coming now, left and right, burrowing up from the ground. Michelle fired a burst and saw one stumble a little but then hurl itself behind a pile of boxes.

Heavy drops struck her face, her arms, splattered and hissed as they touched the barrels of her cannon.

A muton appeared forward of her position only to be cut down by Cesar’s shotgun. Maybe it was the one that had shot Dori. Another chryssalid charged around Cesar’s tree but the Mexican commando already had his sword out and swung it at waist height into the creature, through claw and exoskeleton deep into the crab monster’s neck. Pieces of it fell in different directions as it slid off the hissing blad onto the ground.

Rain tickled Michelle’s neck and slid down her armour. She had no idea where the rain had come from, where the clouds had been until this moment. They were firing as fast as they could at whatever they could but it wasn’t enough. Shit, Michelle couldn’t even see everything they needed to kill, rain and smoke turning the world to vague shadows and flashes of colour.

Cheng tried to move towards Dori only to have a burst of plasma force her back behind cover. Dori’s gremlin, Titus, was buzzing over her body in tight circles, as if it was unsure what to do now that its master couldn’t give it instructions.

There was a roar, a proper growling roar, and something big and maybe pink began stomping towards them, alongside two other somethings. Leroy fired at and it seemed to shudder but not fall.

Shit, why would nothing just fucking go down when they shot it?

There was a scream that Michelle knew too well and she turned to see James on his back trying to fight off another one of the chryssalids as it trampled over him, orange spines and feet like knives stabbing down again and again and again. Blood, spraying in gouts from his stomach.

“Jimmy! Jimmy!” she bellowed hoarsely and spun her gatling cannon towards the fucking crab monster and fired, watched as it shuddered and jerked and fell aside into a steaming heap. Watched as James reached towards his Gremlin, hovering a few feet away, waiting for instructions. Watched as something landed in a puddle not too far away. Watched as it exploded and tossed her brother through the air.

He landed in the mud, a few feet from his Gremlin, and didn’t move.

“No!” Michelle screamed, “NO! NO!”

There was another screech, close behind her.

***

Her name was Dr Mary Song, and she was the daughter of an American soldier and South Korean mathematician. She was a physicist, having developed something of her father’s love of numbers, and had been sent to join Dr Tygen’s team six weeks before by the resistance in return for recovering some key intelligence. Unlike the soldiers of Menace One, who were rotated regularly to avoid being burnt out by the stress of combat, it often seemed like Tygen’s scientists were only occasionally let out of the lab. Dr Song had just happened to decide to spend her one night off in a fortnight getting drunk in the Avenger’s bar at the same time that Navneet Banerjee had decided to do the same.

He’d called her Songbird. She’d laughed and called him unoriginal. Later that night they’d fucked behind some crates in a storage room just off the armoury.

Since then they’d seen each other a few times discreetly, when Else was on bridge duty or otherwise distracted, though never while she was on a mission. Screwing around behind her back while she was risking her life somewhere was a step further than he was willing to go. It was a small thing, but he wasn’t a complete bastard.

Not that it mattered. Because Else found out anyway.

He sat in the bar, alone, with a bottle of the rotgut Louise Seo distilled somewhere in the hangar, trying to forget the look on Else’s face. Angry, yes. Sad, definitely. The worst part though? The complete lack of surprise. Maybe because of his age, maybe she’d spotted his wandering eye, he didn’t know exactly how but as he looked at her upset, furious face he’d seen no sign of disappointment. She’d known this day was coming, and whatever they’d had (and Navneet still wasn’t sure what it had been) was over.

So he went to the bar, wished he had someone to talk to, and decided to get very, very drunk.

Maybe he wasn’t a complete bastard, but he sure as hell felt like one.

***

There was pain, hot and cold at the same time, as the chrysalid slid its mandibles through her armour and into her guts. Michelle felt herself lifted off the ground, the creature raising her up like an umbrella, arms and legs dangling, eyes watching drops of water slip down her nose and land on its spiked back. Then she was flying through the air and the rain, hitting the ground, bouncing along and leaving pieces of her insides as she went, until finally coming to rest on her side.

Someone yelled her name. Or at least Michelle thought she heard her name. She realised she’d lost her gun, tried to look around. There it was, next to the cunt that had gutted her. That was a bit of her intestines stuck to its face, wasn’t it?

A hail of gunfire ripped apart and Michelle gurgled out a laugh. Probably Li. That was probably Li yelling her name as well. Someone was definitely yelling her name…

She managed to reach a hand around and hit a buckle, unfastening the grenade launcher from her back, clutching it to her chest and rolling off her side. It didn’t hurt as much as she would have expected. But it felt weird, wrong, like there was something moving inside of her. Probably like whatever had come out of that poor bastard in the middle of the road. Shit, she didn’t want that to happen to her as well. Didn’t want to be torn to pieces from the inside out, giving birth to something that wanted to murder her friends. She could fucking feel it though.

Michelle twisted her head around. There was Li, still fighting. So was Leroy and Cesar. Three shapes in the rain, taking cover close to each other that weren’t friends then. No, ’cause Dori was dead. ‘Cause James was dead. Shit, who tell their mum and dad? Got to at least give them something to bury. Somewhere for Tash to visit one day. She smiled and felt blood dribble down the corners of her mouth, hot and thick where the rain was cold and sharp. It splatted on her face and fell into the big fucking hole in her guts.

“Li!” Michelle’s voice sounded huge in her ears but it might have been a whisper for all she knew, it was raspy enough, “Li Ming Cheng!” no point waiting for an answer, she doubted anyone would hear it, “You kill whatever’s inside me! You fucking kill it Li! I don’t… I want to be in one piece Li! When they bring me to her. I want her to see me,” shit, she could feel it getting bigger inside of her, “not some fucking cocoon.”

She couldn’t hear the answer, not over the rain hitting her skin, her armour. The hostiles were still moving in the corner of her vision, but Michelle still had a grenade launcher. Maybe. It was worth a shot.

Twisting slightly, she rested one elbow on the ground and wrapped the opposite hand around the grip. Couldn’t raise her head high enough to look down the sights but it was pointing in the right general direction. Maybe.

Fuck it. Michelle pulled the trigger. Heard the whomp of the grenade leaving the barrel and felt the launcher nearly fly out of her numbing hands. A second passed and she heard the crunch of the explosion, a scream that was not human.

Michelle breathed deep and let the grenade launcher slip into the mud, looked up into the sky. Couldn’t see much, just grey and black and a little white. Always thought she’d die in the sunlight. Not sure why, just seemed like when she’d go. Outside, hot sun blaring down. If she was lucky, Tash would’ve been nearby. But not here, not in the mud, not in the rain. Wrong. Right. It didn’t matter, did it.

Worst thing was she’d been writing a letter to Tash. She wouldn’t be able to finish it now.

Michelle hoped they’d send it anyway as she rested her head in the mud.

Life in the Avenger’s barracks (17)

Chapter 17: For the Children

There was a knock on the hotel room door just as Tiffany Martz pushed her eldest daughter, Elle, into the wardrobe after her sister Lizzy. The two little girls hugged each other close and looked at their mum with big scared eyes, but didn’t make a sound. Tiffany whispered an “I love you,” just in case, then quietly slid the door shut.

They had been sleeping soundly until about two minutes before when some errant sound – an elevator perhaps or too many footsteps for this time of night – had set every well-honed instinct in Tiffany’s body screaming in alarm. The girls had woken up without fuss and staggered over to the wardrobe in the dark, rubbing sleep out of their eyes but not complaining. They knew it wasn’t a game, knew what to do when mummy woke them up in the middle of the night.

Hide, don’t make a sound, don’t come out till mummy said you could.

There was another knock on the door, louder and more aggressive this time.

“Coming!” she yelled, trying to make her voice sound as groggy as possible (not hard since she was actually tired as fuck).

She switched one of the bedside lamps on and looked around the room. Two queen beds (but her and the girls had only been using one), bags packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice, beige curtains drawn and the walls and bedsheets coloured an oddly ugly shade of eggshell white. Her pistol was hidden beneath the pillow of the unused bed, and for a moment Tiffany considered tucking it into the waistband of her trackies then decided against it. Talking her way past whoever was on the other side of the door was always the best option, but that wouldn’t be possible if they spotted her ceramic handgun hanging out of her trousers.

Two deep breaths to calm her nerves and she opened the door. Just a crack, just someone who’s been woken in the middle of the night and wasn’t sure who could possibly be on the other side. Two women – one blonde and one redhead – and two men – both brunettes but one was quite tall and the other a bit of a short-arse. Christ, sounded like the start of a mildly sexist joke.

The taller of the two men had his hand raised to knock for a third time but stopped when he saw her peeking at him the gap between door and frame. He smiled at her, as did the three others. The kind of fake-arse smiles you saw on dead-eyed salespeople just going through the motions.

“Miss Platt?” he said through his too-good-to-be-true grin.

It was always odd to hear other people say the lies she told, as if it made them true somehow through the stranger’s belief. She nodded anyhow, gave them a meek smile and said, “Can I help you?”

“We work for the government, Missing Persons,” the knocker kept smiling as he produced a badge, the ADVENT sigil besides a Southern Cross, the Coalition’s local lapdogs. “Would you mind letting us in? We have some questions for you.”

“I would mind actually, it’s very late and-”

“We know what time it is, and we’re going to have to insist Miss Platt,” he was still smiling but there was an edge to his voice now.

Not much choice then. Tiffany nodded and opened the door wide, stepping out of the way as the knocker and redhead walked past.

“Thankyou,” knocker’s voice was all sweetness and love again, “Y’see we’re looking for some missing-”

Tiffany swung the door as hard as she could into the short-arse’s face as he tried to follow his friends in. It bounced off the bastard and back into her hand. He staggered back into the blonde and Tiffany hurled the door back into its frame, slammed, shut, locked.

The knocker stared at her, open-mouthed and wide-eyed as her open palm crunched against his nose. Redhead was faster, pulling a mean-looking pistol from a holster that had been well-hidden within the lines of her suit. There was an even meaner looking suppressor fitted over its barrel, probably so they wouldn’t bother the other hotel guests. Tiffany grabbed the redhead’s hand before she could draw a bead, twisting it to the side while grabbing her hair and pulling her head back, making her screech.

You don’t hesitate when you’re fighting for your life. Doesn’t matter how unpleasant a thing you have to do is, you fucking well do it without blinking. You hesitate and you die.

Tiffany came in close and bit down on redhead’s bare neck. Redhead’s screech became a choked gurgle. Hot blood filled Tiffany’s mouth, poured down her chin, her chest. She ground them in deeper, deeper, pulled, tore, ripped back with skin and whatever else clamped between her teeth. Redhead clutched her neck, shock written across her face, blood spurting between her fingers. Then she fell backwards onto the bed.

The knocker was only just getting up. Tiffany spat the blood and whatever else onto the carpet (beige, like the curtains) and charged at him, using the second bed as a platform, leaping and bringing her knees together against his chest. She felt his ribs crunch as they came down together. He gasped, gasped again, and it sounded dangerously wet. Tiffany rolled off him and realised that short-arse and blonde were slamming their shoulders into the door, trying to break it down. She wondered why they didn’t have a key, decided that knocker or redhead must have had it.

The door began to splinter as Tiffany stomped on the knocker’s face, neck, neck again, felt the bone crack against her bare foot, keeping in time with the thumping against the door. The knocker finally stopped trying to breath though his feet were still twitching. Satisfied she looked around for redhead’s gun, couldn’t see it, realised that the knocker was probably armed as well, then remembered her own gun was two steps away beneath her pillow.

Too late. The door finally gave way with an angry creak and short-arse and blonde charged in behind it, an ugly bruise on short-arse’s furious face, guns out but down, not having had time to process their dead mates.

You don’t hesitate in a fight.

Tiffany charged, crossing the tiny distance before her two new dance partners had time to react. She went low, hooking an arm between short-arse’s legs and lifting up so that his own momentum helped carry him over her shoulder and onto the floor. Then she was slamming into blonde, shoving her hard against the doorframe and driving the wind out of her. Cracked blonde’s head against the painted wood once, twice, threw her aside and turned back on short-arse.

He was on his hands and knees, pistol up. Fired a shot, the suppressor reducing the sound to a still-loud hissing pop instead of its normal roar.

Tiffany was already charging forward, the bullet missing her by a wide mark as she kicked him in the head with a snarl. Short-arse rolled backwards, gun still in hand. She jumped on top of him, grabbed at the pistol. He punched her, she punched back, writhing on the floor, growling, swinging, trying to get leverage on the pistol. They rolled and short-arse was on top, using his weight to twist the barrel of the gun slowly towards Tiffany’s face. She snarled again, kicked him between the legs, then again, then a third time, snarled once more.

You don’t hesitate in a fight.

Tiffany threw her head up and bit into his cheek, felt new, fresh blood stream into her mouth and nearly gagged this time. The gun went off beside her head, grazing and deafening her left ear. Short-arse screamed and pulled back, a ragged chunk of skin hanging off his face. Tiffany twisted the gun up, her finger finding his over the trigger. Pop, pop, pop, pop. Short-arse shuddered, then collapsed limply on top of her.

No time to stop. There was one still breathing. Tiffany rolled the corpse off of her and stood up on shaky but still strong legs just in time to see the blonde crawling out the door. Couldn’t have that now. She walked up behind the fleeing woman, grabbed her by the hair (bloody from where Tiffany had smashed her head against the doorframe) and dragged her back inside the bloody hotel room.

“No! No, no. Please! Please no!” The blonde was whimpering, crying, begging.

Tiffany kicked her in the head, laying her flat. She rolled blonde onto her stomach and straddled her back.

“N-No! P-p-please! I have children too!”

One hand on the blonde’s jaw, the other on her crown.

“Please I have children t-too!”

“Then you shouldn’t have come after mine.”

Jaw and crown, twist and lift. Tiffany felt the crunch of vertebrae, the body shudder, the legs continuing to kick for what felt like a long time before finally going completely still.

Two deep breaths to calm herself.

Tiffany grabbed one of the lapdogs’ pistols and tucked it into the waistband of her trackies, fished out two spare magazines from within the blonde’s suit. Then her wallet, then the others. She grabbed her own pistol and dropped it into the backpack sitting with the other already packed bags and zipped it up tight.

Only then did she step over to the wardrobe and slide the door open.

The girls looked up into her face and rushed forward, wrapping their arms around her and sobbing quietly as she clutched them back, clutched them like a drowning woman grabbing onto a piece of driftwood in a storm. They didn’t care that their was blood on her face, her chest, up her arms, splattered across her legs, in her hair, in her teeth, surrounded by the corpses she had just made. She was alive, she had won, and they loved her.

That was the only thing in this whole fucked up world that could make Tiffany Martz cry.

***

Michelle King tilted her head against the cold metal of the skyranger’s hull and shut her eyes, just for the moment. Shit, she was tired. Her armour felt like it weighed a tonne (almost as much as her eyelids) and every movement tiny movement made her muscles ache.

There was a clank and clunk of armour being readjusted and Michelle felt a head lay itself on her shoulder, hair tickling her cheek.

“Are you alright Bull Rush?” she heard Li Ming Cheng ask softly over the hum of the engines through the hull.

The big Chinese woman couldn’t see her smile, but smile she did. Michelle liked the nickname. The others had started using it after she’d organised a game, right before Gerry O’Neill had been smashed into bloody pulp by a half-dead andy.

“Yeah, I’m alright,” Michelle’s voice sounded unconvincing in her own ears, “just feeling a little burnt at the moment.”

She felt Li nod at that, “Perhaps it’s time for a holiday?”

Michelle snorted back a laugh at that, “Go kick up our heels on a beach somewhere?”

“Swim in the ocean. I haven’t swum in a long time.” There was something in Li’s voice as she said it, something beneath the casual, offhand tone she usually used, that made Michelle wonder if Li Ming was actually being serious.

“Beaches in West Australia are the best in the world.”

“Are they?”

“I only went to the west coast once, on a job before I got locked up, but shit, I fucking loved it. Met this guy. We went to this beach a few hours out of Perth. Purest, whitest sand I’ve ever seen. Clearest water.”

“That sounds nice,” Li sighed, “do you think the aliens would let us lay on a pure white beach for a week?”

“You can ask them.”

Li laughed at that, “You’re the one who’s good at talking.”

That earned a gentle punch to the arm, which Li responded to with an elbow beneath the ribs.

There was an adorable squeak that was probably Emily being tended to by James. She’d been grazed by a muton’s plasma rifle. Unfortunately, when it came to energy weapons, “grazed” usually at the very least meant “severe burns.” Still, she was breathing and upright, as was Gerard Dekker whose leg had been sliced open pretty bad. The Dutchman had endured James’ patch-job in stoic silence, face barely betraying any of the pain that he was no doubt in. Only ’cause there were ladies present, mind you. He didn’t want them to think less of him by admitting that getting your leg cut up and then bandaged back together hurt. James had told Michelle that when there was nobody else within earshot he moaned and groaned like the best of them. Fucking idiot.

Dekker was actually a good guy. Dependable too. But he cared a little too much about what the opposite sex thought of him, and he had some pretty backwards ideas when it came to the subject. Macho shit. A bit stupid when the biggest, hardest bastard in the room was the person right now laying her head on Michelle’s shoulder and talking about going to the beach.

“Are you alright Artillery?”

“I’m a bit burned out as well,” she said and then added offhandedly, “I’d stopped making friends before I joined X-Com.”

“Hmm?”

“I had… I had trouble trusting new people, and so many old friends were killed or left the movement,” there was regret in the quaver of her voice as she said, “I can’t think of a single friend I had left before Central recruited me.”

Well, shit, what do you say to that?

“Wanna watch ‘Die Hard’ when we get back to the Avenger?”

Probably not that.

“No, not tonight.” Li Ming chuckled gently and didn’t remove her head, so it actually might have been.

Emily squeaked again, even more fucking adorably, and Michelle heard James call her a big baby. Li and Michelle both began to shake with laughter. It might have been the mental exhaustion, but right then and there everything seemed fucking hilarious.

***

The day after Gabriella Navarro died a handful of the Avenger’s crew gathered on the rear observation deck, which was outside but protected from the wind and gave them a clear view of the sun sinking over the treetops to the west. Cesar Vargas brought a bottle of Mezcal that he’d been saving for the right occasion. Li Ming Cheng brought the dead woman’s tobacco pouch. Emily Adams, Lily Shen, Thierry Leroy and Gerty Wilders brought themselves and a few stories worth sharing.

They each rolled a cigarette – exactly how Gabby had taught them – and leaned against the railing, passing the bottle around and coughing up smoke, telling the stories about the Spanish woman that they felt were worth sharing. If they were being honest (and they were being honest), the only person who actually knew her well had been Gerry O’Neill, and they’d buried him a week before. But she had always been there taking another drag on her cigarette, a private individual who tried to keep herself surrounded by people.

They finished the bottle and tossed it and their cigarette butts into the trees trying to hide within the dark of the approaching night. They cheered at the sound of glass shattering somewhere out of sight.

***

The door to the Psionics Lab was going to need oiling soon. There was a slight squeak as it hissed open that’d only get worse if nothing was done. Neil Perry wondered if he should tell someone or even just do it himself when they next let him out of the chamber. Dr Tygen and his scientists weren’t the sorts who’d notice a squeaky door, and none of the engineering staff had been needed to maintain the machinery lately so they hadn’t been around to notice. It was probably part of the scheduled maintenance but maybe it needed moving up.

“This ain’t the armoury, is it.”

Neil looked up from his voice at the unfamiliar voice coming from the doorway, where an unfamiliar woman was smiling at him and Galina, who was in the other Psionic chamber.

“Hello.” Galina said cautiously,

“How’s it going?” The woman asked back, casual and relaxed, maybe even a little amused.

“Good, thankyou. How are you?” Neil could see that Galina’s reply was automatic, would’ve done the same if she hadn’t beaten him to it.

“I’m alright, thanks for asking.”

“You’re welcome.”

“And how are you darl?”

Neil realised she was looking at him and squawked out, “I’m good man, how about you?”

“I’m alright,” the woman was definitely enjoying herself.

She seemed to take their greetings as permission to enter and stepped through the door, staring about the place with sharp eyes. She looked like she was in her mid-thirties, on the taller side, with a wiry build, black hair tied back in a messy ponytail. A lot of laugh lines around her eyes, or maybe they were worry lines. Neil wasn’t sure why he thought that, but he did. There was something in her eyes, maybe, that made her look like she’d seen and done more than a lot. Something that made Neil feel like a little kid in comparison.

Galina turned to Neil and gave him a look that seemed to say, “should we be letting her in here?” Neil shrugged back a, “not sure.” He didn’t see how they could stop her from inside the psionic chambers. It weren’t like they were locked in, but there was a procedure for leaving outside of an emergency (like the ship being about to explode), ’cause of the unknown dangers of unshielded psionic energy to the rest of the crew (Neil’s and Galina’s heads hadn’t exploded yet, but that didn’t discount anybody else’s). If the stranger meant harm, there wasn’t much they could do to stop her in time.

“Call me Tiff,” the woman said, a bit absentmindedly with her attention focused on the machinery now.

“Tiff?” Sounded wrong for this lady. Too childish for this person with her old eyes.

“It’s short for Tiffany.”

“Oh,” Neil tried to think of something clever to say back, but thinking of clever things to say had never been a talent of his so he simply said, “you’re looking for the armoury?”

“Yeah. Just got here and a guy named Leroy was showing me the way, but he got called away to prep the infirmary or something. Pair of injured coming back from a mission or something. He gave me directions, but…” She shrugged and gestured around the room.

“Well you are on the wrong floor to start with,” Galina said, a little more relaxed after hearing Mr Leroy’s name but still suspicious since the Psionics Lab was pretty clearly marked. ‘Cause of the dangerous psionic energy that might make you bleed out of your eyes and ears. She also seemed far more interested in the machines than Neil had seen anyone else, most people keeping their distance from the strange blend of alien and human technology. ‘Cause of the dangerous energy that might make your head explode.

“The Armory’s up one level,” Neil continued when Miss Tiff didn’t reply to Galina, “on the far end of the ship.”

“Yeah, alright. Up and across. What’s your name darl?”

“Neil. Neil Perry.”

Miss Tiff nodded, “And you?”

“Galina.”

“You two are the ones who can float stuff around with your minds, right?”

“Yeah,” there was something off about the question, but no point in lying that Neil could see. Didn’t stop Galina from shooting him a look. He shrugged.

“Could you float stuff around before you came here, got put in those glass rooms?”

“No.” Neil said, still not seeing a point to lying.

“How’d they know you’d be able to afterward then?”

“I don’t know. Miss Annette just did.”

Miss Tiff’s smile wavered slightly at that, quick as a blink but Neil still spotted it.

“Miss Annette,” smile back and perfectly friendly, “I’ve heard of her. The Night Witch. Yeah. Well, upstairs and far end of the ship. It was nice meeting you both.”

“Nice meeting you too.” Neil said, as automatically as Galina had earlier.

And then she was gone, waving as she walked through the door.

“That was fucking weird, yes?” Galina said in her hodgepodge accent.

“Yes,” Neil agreed, “that was damn weird.”

Damn, damn weird.

***

Michelle didn’t fall asleep on the skyranger, but she came fucking close to it. If it wasn’t for the fact that the technical crew had to unload all the supplies they’d nicked from the aliens’ train she might have stripped off her armour and left in a pile on top of her plasma cannon for someone else to carry back to the armoury. But they did, so she slung her big gatling gun over her shoulder and headed towards the hatch.

Managed to make it five steps before Li pointed out that someone should grab Emily’s gear, her long rifle and webbing, left behind in the skyranger. Michelle groaned and looked towards Dori and her brother James, both standing by the hatch waiting for them and pretending to have not heard Li, then at her Chinese friend who already had Dekker’s storm gun and blade hung over her shoulder by their straps.

“Guess it’s going to be me then.”

“Thank you Michelle.”

“Fuck you Li.”

Tired as she was, tired as they all were, everyone was in a good mood as they tromped down to the armoury. After two missions in a row that had ended with someone being buried or burned, it felt good to get through with only a couple of burns and bloody leg. They were chatting and joking and generally feeling pretty positive.

So none of them noticed the noise coming from the armoury until they were right outside the closed hatch and James asked, “Is that singing?”

They all paused then, listening. Someone was indeed singing inside, sweetly and a little off-key (just enough to notice). Not a voice from the Avenger’s crew, but Michelle knew it like a muggy Sydney morning. Judging by the look on his face, so did James.

Michelle shouldered past Dori and James as the Scotswoman opened the door and found a familiar face inside sitting on a bench, singing to herself as she fiddled with a familiar looking plasma lance. When the door opened she looked up and said, casual as if she was sitting in a cafe nursing a flat white, “Hey Michelle, how’s it going?”

“TIFF!” Michelle yelled and made a sound that she didn’t quite recognise as she rushed forward and scooped up Tiffany in a bear hug, her cannon and Emily’s lance falling to the deck behind her.

“Easy darl, you’re a bit jagged at the moment.” Tiff grinned, probably talking about Michelle’s armour. Michelle didn’t care.

“When did you get here?”

“‘Bout an hour ago. Sent a letter saying I was coming.”

“I didn’t get it.”

“Probably arrive in a week then. You gonna let go sometime soon?”

“Nope.”

“Seems like you haven’t changed much then,” Tiff waved over Michelle’s shoulder, “Hey Jimmy. Your parents send their love.”

“Hey Tiff, I’ll give you a hug when Shelly’s done.”

“You done yet Michelle?”

“No. Yes.” Michelle finally let go, “Did the girls get my last presents? How are they?”

“The necklaces made out of snake teeth?” Tiff rubbed her shoulders and neck but stayed within arms reach, “yeah, they got those. They’re doing good. Lizzy’s still reading everything she can get her greedy mitts on. Elle’s been moping around the camp like a proper teenager. Tash,” her voice became just a bit less casual for a moment, “is Tash. Misses you more and more every fucking day.”

“I miss her as well.” James would’ve definitely noticed the strain in Michelle’s voice, Li might have, “So much. She’s the reason I’m here. They’re all safe?”

“Yeah, nowhere safer than with your parents I reckon.”

“I reckon you’re right. It’s good to see you,” she wrapped her arm across Tiff’s shoulders, “C’mon let me introduce you to the others. Then we can talk about Tash and the girls.”

“Alright. I’ve already met a few people.”

“Yeah? Who?”