Geopolitics and character development: Some thoughts from CA:CW

Captain America Mission Accomplished - Edited 30:5:16Alright, Captain America: Civil War is one of the best analogies for Bush-era post 9/11 American geopolitics I’ve seen in pop-culture in a long time. Seriously mate, it’s so good that I can’t help but wonder if it’s intentional. I mean, not whether the analogies to the great questions facing American and NATO foreign policy over the last fifteen years were intentional or not. They obviously are. But how good it is, well, have you ever met Yanks who are that self-aware? Nah mate, even the smart ones have got blind spots in certain areas. Not they’re fault, it just comes with being the biggest, toughest kid on the playground for so long, helped along by constantly telling yourself about how righteous your causes are. Like Captain America.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the simple analogies. The Avengers as a group are NATO (and its close affiliates) and Captain America is, as you might’ve guessed, the United States of America.

The Avengers exist as an organisation to defend and retaliate against existential threats, both defined (Loki and his army in the first film) and undefined (whatever the fuck Hydra became after Winter Soldier). And let me be very clear, they are happy to retaliate. Tony Stark makes that very clear when he has a chat with Loki The Avengers (“because if we can’t protect the earth, you can be damned sure we’ll avenge it!”) Their intervention in Sokovia at the beginning of Avengers: Age of Ultron seems more like a preemptive strike. While we learn in The Avengers that the ‘Avengers Initiative’ was initially scrapped before the events of the film because of the unreliability of some of the proposed members (*cough*Iron Man*cough*), but its founding members are brought together to fight a powerful foreign threat. Once the enemy is defeated, they more or less go their separate ways. Without having a specific threat that requires a unified front, they drift off and deal with their own problems in their own theatres (huh!) of interest. Awfully similar to NATO when you think about it.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was founded largely to deal with the existential threat posed by the USSR (which maintained an edge in conventional weapons even if it was outgunned nuclear-wise) that no single member could have handled alone. The fall of the Soviet Union at the turn of the nineties saw the Alliance’s continued role in international affairs come into question (and it still does). NATO members have come together over the two and a half decades since to do the odd bit of dirty work (an air campaign against the Serbs in the former Yugoslavia) but even then they’ve often been flying their own individual banners, flying the banners of some other international institution (the UN) or working bilaterally. You could argue that the invasion of Afghanistan was a NATO affair, but you could also argue it wasn’t just as easily. NATO has, however, seen something of a renewed raison d’etre as the world tries to deal with cross-border terrorism, the continued consequences of the Arab Spring, a resurgent Russia and ascendant China. Like the Avengers getting back together to clean up Hydra after the events of CA: The Winter Soldier.

Now, it’s not an exact parallel. I’m not even all that keen on calling it a close parallel. But it is the most easily digestible one, it being the only big, well-known military alliance still floating around. And while memberships comparisons aren’t perfect (because of the number of Avengers and that some are more better compared to countries outside the NATO alliance), it’s still the easiest matchup. Particularly Iron Man and Captain America.

Iron Man is plagued by guilt. Understandably so, but still. Someone give the guy a hug and help him deal with the PTSD. I’m looking at you Sam Wilson. And Pepper. And, y’know what? Tony’s not that big of an arsehole. He’s dealing with some serious emotional baggage and none of you are helping. Anyway, Tony Stark is plagued by PTSD from barely surviving as he saved New York city from the kneejerk reaction of our own leaders and the alien invasion that caused it (forget almost getting stuck in space, Loki threw him out a fucking window). In his desire to protect people he builds Ultron, the killer robot that wants to wipe out humanity, which gets a bunch more people killed in Sokovia. He’s able to see the full consequences of his sins and is continually reminded of them, alongside his own mortality.

A similar… let’s call it a zeitgeist… a similar zeitgeist can be seen in the politics of France, Germany and a part of the UK. That feeling that they barely survived two world wars, and the trauma of what happened during those wars. That guilt that comes from seeing the continued repercussions or colonial ambitions and imperial carelessness. Consider Tony’s guilt over Ultron and then think about Anglo-French guild over Sykes-Picot, English guilt about the partition of India and Germany’s guilt over the Second World War. Both Tony and old Europe then put their faith in higher institutions. Tony’s faith in his own judgement was shaken in Iron Man 2 where his commitment to Randian self belief (seriously America, why is Ayn Rand still a thing?) almost ends in disaster and the death of the person he cares about most, and it’s broken into a million bloody pieces during Age of Ultron when he, y’know, builds the bloke that almost ends the world. What we see with Tony in Civil War is him making a fairly mature, considered and diplomatic choice. Deciding to put his support behind international laws, regulations, institutions and, most importantly, oversight. And this has been a big part of European politics for the past few decades. Franco-German political faith and muscle has been put behind the European Union and United Nations Security Council. They’ve been all about establishing institutions that set boundaries on their own power and that of others, creating an international order and following it. Or at least claiming they do. This is international politics after all. All’s fair and all that. But for the sake of argument let’s claim they always practice what they preach. Point is Tony sees institutional oversight as the best answer to avoid causing collateral damage, same way that France, Germany and the UK do.

Captain America, on the other hand, fears being tied down by UN oversight and their shifting agendas. He sees a threat, he takes it out. Done and dusted. And honestly, who better to do it than Steve Rogers? It’s an interesting case because Captain America in the films (and comic books, but we’re discussing the films here) is not a parallel to what the United States is, but the changing way it’s viewed itself.

To start with let’s consider Steve and the USA in isolation, away from the Avengers proper. In The First Avenger, Steve Rogers is the personification of the very best parts of America the superpower. Standing up to bullies, never backing away from a righteous fight, doing the right thing without thinking of the cost, making the greatest sacrifice for the good of the world. This is the America that won World War Two. Or at least won in all those great old movies about World War Two. The Winter Soldier is, in my mind, more of a 9/11 parable than The Avengers was (yes, in other MCU properties they treat the Chitauri invasion of NYC the same way we treat the attacks of September Eleven – “New York changed everything” – but, well, nah). Past sins coming back to roost (America’s involvement in the Middle East/SHIELD’s particularly shady dealings) and a complete failure by the intelligence community to detect the threat (Al Qaeda cells learning how to pilot planes/HYDRA infiltrating every level of SHIELD) sees the personification of the nation betrayed, and a problem that only America and a handful of its most loyal allies can fix (seriously, why does he not give the rest of the Avengers a call?) Which it does, through shock and awe and a complete dismemberment of the failed system for no other reason than “Because Cap says so.” It’s unsurprising that Captain America distrusts the idea of international oversight. In The Avengers the international Council that runs SHIELD decides to launch a nuclear missile at New York and then in Winter Soldier he discovers that HYDRA are the ones running SHIELD, and even if they weren’t are getting into some really shady shit.

But America does not exist in isolation and neither does the good Captain. In this case Steve Rogers is a personification of how America sees itself in the world. You gotta remember that Captain America isn’t actually the most powerful guy on the Avengers. The Hulk is (arguably) more powerful, who just gets stronger the more you try to kill him. Thor is the fucking warrior God of Thunder. Vision can fry people with his mind and swing Thor’s hammer (giving him access to the powers of the fucking warrior God of Thunder). Iron Man built a power generator that ends the need for fossil fuels while a hostage in a cave, and had gone toe to toe in his various suits with everyone in the first Avengers movie except Black Widow. Shit, I reckon if Natasha really wanted to she could kick Steve’s arse. And yet it is Steve Rogers who is given leadership of the Avengers. Why? Because he’s a better leader? Shit, Thor’s been leading his mates for centuries and learnt enough humility in his own first movie that he probably knows how to run a fight. Because he’s a better soldier? That hardly seems like something that Tony Stark would respect, and something that Black Widow would openly laugh at. Hawkeye too if we’re being perfectly honest. So why’s he in command?

Because he’s Captain America of course. He became what he is and does what he does not in pursuit of power, control or vengeance, but because it was the right thing to do and freedom needs protecting. So because everyone else can of course see this righteous initiative they give him command. Sounds like bullshit, doesn’t it? Thing is, I reckon that’s how Americans see themselves. I mean, sure, they’re not afraid to toot their own horns (“we have the most powerful military in the history of the world!” and all that). American exceptionalism is alive and well. But they don’t like to admit that the main reason everybody listens to them is because they’ve got the biggest guns and the biggest purse-strings. They don’t like admitting that they’re an empire (see: Niall Ferguson, Empire). No, the star spangled banner is a universal symbol of free people and free markets and that is why they run any organisation or alliance they choose to be part of.

I mean it’s not, but you can understand why they might think that way, right?

The analogies get cleaner or messier from there. Black Widow is the UK proper (where Iron Man is just parts of the UK), trying to strike some sort of balance between the two sides of the conflict. The United Kingdom has long tried to position itself as the bridge between the EU and the USA (special relationships? More like open relationships! That’s not nearly as funny as I hoped it would be) and in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 Her Majesty’s government tried hard to convince the Americans to work within the United Nations, rather than unilaterally. Similarly Natasha tries to convince Steve to sign the Sokovia accords and stay out of the fight. In both instances there are feelings of, well betrayal seems too strong a word. Disappointment. There’s feelings of disappointment from the EU when the UK followed the Americans into Iraq and from Iron Man when she lets the Captain and Bucky escape in the quinjet. Hawkeye is probably Australia. Or maybe Falcon is. Maybe they both are. Someone’s Australia, the one country that’s always following the US into a fight. Black Panther is Africa and, well, I’m not opening that can of worms today. Let’s just say your fave is all sorts of problematic and leave it there for now.

Anyway, what does this all come down to? Long and short of it is, Captain America was wrong. Throughout the movie. He’s wrong.

He should’ve signed the Sokovia accords instead of being all about that personal responsibility. Strong institutions with strong regulations and strong oversight make everyone stronger. Tony recognises it. That’s why he signs the Accords without hesitation. But he also recognises the need for Captain America to be part of that. “Sometimes I want to punch you in your perfect teeth. But I don’t want to see you gone.” As angry as they get with the USA, countries like France and Germany don’t want to see them gone. But they understand the importance of convincing the Americans to work within an established order with (let’s be honest) self-imposed boundaries. They understand what happens when major powers are allowed to get away with whatever the fuck they want.

But Steve doesn’t see this. He distrusts anyone’s judgement but his own, believing “the safest hands are still our own.” Understandable considering that Hydra had found ways of controlling both him and his best friend. Understandable that a country which holds freedom and personal responsibility so highly, that everybody should have control over their own destiny, should try to embody this in the superhero that carries its name. And he’s wrong. Steve loses all credibility when he defends Bucky, and then when a legitimate threat is discovered nobody believes him. And at the end of it all? He still thinks he did the right thing.

America folks.

It’s taken most of the MCU to get here folks, but they did it. We’ve seen Captain America turn from a symbol of for the most idealistic version of what America might and could be, to a personification of what America has been for the last decade and a half.

God I love these films.

Next time, I might get into why the characterisation of Black Panther might be a bit racist.

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (11)

Chapter 11: What do they deserve?

Michelle King watched her brother James throw up against the skyranger’s landing ramp.

“You alright there Jimmy?”

His answer was a grunting noise and attempt to wipe his mouth with his armoured gauntlet, though he only succeeding in rubbing the sick deeper into his blonde ‘stache and chops. Michelle stood, putting a hand on his shoulder in an attempt to comfort him and to steady herself since the aircraft chose that exact moment to be jostled by turbulence. She waited for the angry winds to pass before speaking again.

“You alright bro?”

“Yeah,” he chose to speak this time, “just a bit of a concussion.”

He grinned at her, vomit in his facial hair and his eyes red and Michelle was transported back more than a decade-and-a-half to when she was eight years old and James was back at the family home with the war three years over (sorta), a mess of scars and beard and anger that spent most of his time “out” drinking (he never told them exactly where) or hiding in his room with a hangover. She remembered finding him slumped over a toilet one night, throw up in his beard and eyes red from the quiet sobbing that had managed to wake her up regardless.

“Are you alright Jimmy?” she’d asked back then.

“Yeah,” he’d grinned at her, “just needed a cry Shelly. Go back to bed.”

Shit, that’d been a bad time. So was right now for that matter.

“Alright,” he said, one hand keeping himself steady and the other feeling through the field first aid kit hanging from his waist, “let’s make sure I don’t chunder into any open chest wounds.”

Michelle glanced over her shoulder at Gerard Dekker lying unconscious on the deck where she’d dropped him as carefully as possible (which wasn’t carefully at all if she was being perfectly honest, since the skyranger was being shot at as it was escaping an exploding building at the time). Li Ming Cheng, ignoring the bits of shrapnel stuck in her right grieves and chest armour and the blood that was flowing just a little too freely for anyone’s liking, was carefully removing pieces of Dekker’s armour around the bloody wound where a stun lancer had managed to lance though it. Meanwhile Gabriella Navarro – the only member of Menace One on the op other than Michelle to have avoided getting tagged – was helping Else Krause (gritting her teeth and mumbling what was probably German profanity) pull off her armour as well, where a muton’s plasma rifle had burnt a hole through the alloys covering her waist.

What a fucking mess.

“There’s the bastard,” James mumbled and pulled a small blue and red tube from his kit. He fumbled a bit as he removed the cap which revealed the three sharp, short needle points and Michelle was half tempted to do it for him.

“Cheers,” he grinned and held it towards her like he was toasting with a glass of something strong, then stuck it in the side of his neck.

“To your health,” she smiled back.

James dropped the injector onto the deck and stretched as close to his full height as he could as whatever drug (or cocktail of drugs) that Tygen had cooked up did its work. His mouth worked silently and Michelle realised that he was counting. When he reached some arbitrary number that Michelle assumed was around thirty (since it coincided with about the half-minute mark after taking the drug) he stopped counting and nodded approval.

“Alright. Okay. Let’s deal with Dekker first. Junk, you’re next.”

***

At first they were given medals. There was still a government in Canberra and there was still a chain of command, and both wanted to make sure that the young fighting men and women were appropriately rewarded with the bits of shiny metal and ribbon that were supposed to convey the gratitude of a grateful nation.

Six months after the war started (and they knew it was a war) there was barely anything left of the government or its institutions, bombed to rubble and driven deep underground. The chain of command was gone and the ADF was split into a hundred odd parts each fighting their own separate, desperate battles against the invaders. A submarine torpedoing an alien barge off the coast of WA. The only two survivors of a fighter squadron still managing to scrape the resources together to harry the UFOs invading Aussie airspace. A platoon of commandos in the rainforests of Queensland, doing everything they could to ruin some poor alien bastard’s day.

Then six months after that the war was over. What was left of the government was kissing the arses of their new alien overlords alongside the rest of them. Some shithead calling himself “The Speaker” was appearing on every bit of media he could, telling everyone how great it was that another bunch of shitheads calling themselves “The Elders” had welcomed humanity into its grand galactic family.

Word began to spread. Soldiers that had been fighting were to lay down their arms, surrender themselves to the new ADVENT administration for processing. Some would be sent home, some would be offered places in the new international peacekeeping corps. Not just an order, but a request from their new alien overlords. A question. Just about everyone who’d spent the past year fighting a losing war came to the same answer.

Not bloody likely.

The war was over but the fight went on.

It was all a bit too much for a three-then-four-then-five year old Michelle to understand. All she knew was that for a couple of years she lived just with her parents and three siblings, then one day a stranger moved into the house and she was told she actually had four. Her oldest brother back home after he became tired of fighting.

***

The Commander was looking unusually rested, but the stress was still plain as he rubbed his eyes with the heel of each hand and asked in a frustrated monotone, “So what the fuck happened?”

Michelle shifted uncomfortably on her heels but felt Gabby stay still as a stone besides her. The Commander had started the debriefing looking angry, agitated, but now just looked disappointed.

“We rushed in too quickly, sir,” Michelle resisted the urge to scratch at the scars on the side of her head that she’d received when a car exploded in her face. She might not have been the kind of soldier that Gabby and some of the others were, but she could at least keep from scratching an imaginary itch in front of the bloke in charge.

“Too quickly?” the Commander’s tone didn’t change.

“Yessir. We should have been more cautious in our approach. When the aliens discovered our presence,” shit, why don’t people talk normally to their bosses? “they were in force and we were caught in the open. It’s a miracle nobody was killed.”

The Commander glanced towards Gabby with a look that asked if she had anything to add. She didn’t, so he nodded and punched something into the tablet sitting on his desk.

“I like your hair.”

Michelle realised the Commander was looking at her and unconsciously brushed a hand along her scalp. She’d shorn it close along the back and sides – not to the stubble that Li and Emily Adams kept their back and sides at, but close enough to see her scars – but left her hair on top a little longer, which she then spiked up like a mohawk. And then she’d dyed it dark purple.

“Thank you sir.”

“Very rock’n’roll.”

“Yessir.”

He nodded and turned to the tablet on his desk, “Let’s try and be more cautious in the future. You’re dismissed.”

Both women saluted, spun on their heels and marched out of the Commander’s quarters, Gabby with disciplined precision and Michelle with awkward formality. When they made it through the hatch and felt it shut behind them the Australian gave a sigh of relief.

“I really need one of you lot to teach me how to do all that properly.”

“Do what properly?” the Spaniard asked, allowing herself to slouch a little and sticking her hands in her pockets.

“All that,” Michelle pointed a thumb over her shoulder towards the Commander’s quarters, “the saluting and standing at attention and stuff.”

Gabby shrugged, “Eh, the Commander does not care about these things much.”

“Sure he does. He was proper military. They all care about discipline and shit. He’s just gotten used to some of us not knowing what the fuck we’re doing.”

“Maybe you should ask your brother? He was ‘proper military’, correct?”

“Yeah, he was. A long time ago.”

“Ah, but he must still care about ‘discipline and shit.'”

Michelle looked sideways at the Spanish woman and saw a playful smile written across her lips. It was an unusual look for Gabby, who usually limited herself to smirks and scowls, though from what everyone was saying it was becoming more common since the crew had found out she was fucking Gerry O’Neill, the brooding Irish ranger. Well, presumably they were fucking. You couldn’t really be sure with those two. They might have just been meeting up on the landing deck so that Gabby could chain smoke while Gerry sharpened his knives. Shit, that’s probably exactly what they did. When they weren’t fucking.

“Backed me into a corner with my own fucking logic. Nicely done.”

Gabby bobbed her head up and down in a sort-of bow and pulled a cigarette she’d rolled earlier from a pocket of her fatigues and stuck it behind her ear.

“I’ll ask him when he gets better. Or completely forget about this and not even bother. We’ll see.”

***

Gotta get back in the fight, he said, not safe for you if I stay here anymore. There, there, I’ll see you soon.

Michelle was nine years old and didn’t understand why her brother had to leave. Not really. One day she’d understand security, surveillance, identification and how to beat them. She’d understand that ADVENT’s web was getting too thick, too tricky for her brother to remain hidden. That he’d get caught sooner rather than later and then the whole family would suffer.

He had to leave them behind. But you can’t explain all that to a nine year old and expect them to understand, to really understand. Sure, she’d nod as you explain it and put on a brave face, but really she wonders why all these grown-ups are so stupid. He could just wear a mask or never leave the house or something. Anything. He didn’t have to leave.

The grown-ups don’t understand why she’s so upset. The others make sense, but she only really met him a few years ago and he’s spent most of that time either out drinking or sleeping it off. They don’t know about all the time they’d spent together in the last year since she first found him puking into the toilet nearest her room, when she hadn’t gone back to bed like he’d told her but sat down next to him. He was sick, she’d said, and sick people shouldn’t be left alone. She’d asked him questions and when he didn’t answer she did it for him. For two hours she sat and talked and he listened quietly. When he eventually decided it really was time for them both to go to bed (she had school the next day) he asked if it would be alright if they did this again. If she would just talk to him sometimes. And she did, sneaking into his bedroom while he was hungover so their parents didn’t find out (she didn’t know why they both kept it a secret, they just did) and telling him about whatever. School. Her friends. Her enemies (because all eight-nine year olds have enemies). The aliens. What she was watching on TV. Toys. Whatever. He’d listen patiently, kindly, laughing or growling according to the demands of the story.

Then one day, as she was about to run off to do her homework, he told her he had to leave. She asked him why. He said because if not the government would catch him and put him in a very unpleasant place. Put her in a very unpleasant place. He couldn’t allow that to happen, so he had to leave. She didn’t understand what he meant, but he told her she had to accept it. So she asked where he was going. Back to the fight.

Wasn’t he sick of fighting? Isn’t that why he came home in the first place?

He shook his head and pulled out a small red box, inside of which were four dusty medals. He told her he had to earn these. What, more of them? No, he shook his head, he needed to earn the right to wear these ones at all. People had died while he was away. He knew they had, even if he didn’t actually know. He had to earn the right to wear them again.

Gotta get back in the fight, he said.

James left a few days later.

***

“So I’m high as shit on these weird mushrooms in a stolen vehicle,” Michelle grinned at her audience as she paused to take a swig of her beer, “and I’ve decided to go skiing. Now this is the middle of summer of course – and I hope we all know how well-known Aussie summers are for their snowfalls -” there were some snorts and chuckles around the bar, “and I have never been skiing in my life. More of a beach girl. Sun, sand and surf.”

“You surf?” Cesar Vargas called from over by the bartop.

“Not even a little, but I can swim alright. Mostly I just tan and float around,” a few more laughs, “Point I’m trying to make is that there was no reason for me to have decided to go skiing, but fuck that. I’m high. So I’m fanging it-“

“‘Fanging it’?” Li asked.

“Uh, tearing it up. Hauling arse. At least that’s what I thought at the time. I could’ve been going fifty below the limit for all I know. I’m high. But I think I’m hauling arse up the highway towards the Snowy Mountains – and I was actually driving on the right road, no idea how I managed that – I’m hauling arse towards the Snowies and I hear a siren behind me. Never found out what caught their attention. Had the car already been reported stolen? Was I driving erratically? Was I actually speeding? Was it because the entire reason I remember stealing the car in the first place was ’cause it was painted the ugliest shade of lime green you’ve ever seen, and no copper before or after the aliens has ever been able to resist pulling over a brightly-coloured custom-paint job? Don’t know, but I am fucking terrified so I pull over.”

Michelle drank another mouthful of beer and looked around the bar. Everyone seemed to be having a good time except for Emily Adams, who was sitting in a corner by herself staring at a half drunk bottle of something brown. What was up with that girl? She’d been depressed for a fucking week now. Li, Thierry Leroy and Else Krause had all been trying to get her to snap out of it, and they hadn’t told anyone the reason why. Still grieving over Eva Degroot maybe? That didn’t explain why Else looked so guilty though.

“Cop pulls up behind me and begins walking up towards the car,” Michelle half remembered the tall figure walking towards the car in his dark blue uniform – ADVENT peacekeepers were more common in the cities but even then they left the job of day-to-day policing to actual humans who didn’t feel the need to wear masks, “and I’m just sitting there, watching him in the mirror thinking, ‘I’m too young to drive! I’m too young to drive!'”

“How old were you?” that was Charlie Otembe.

Shit, when did he arrive? Good guy, Charlie, proper sparky, but he spent most of his time in the bowels of the ship fixing one of the endless wiring problems that came with integrating human technology with the alien’s. This was, like, the third time Michelle’d seen him since she’d arrived on the Avenger. Needed to have a drink with him when the story was done.

“Fourteen.”

“Fourteen?” Charlie hooted with laughter. For a slim guy he had an amazingly deep voice.

“Fourteen. But, as I’ve said said many times already, I’m high as shit on weird, probably genetically altered mushrooms possibly speeding in a stolen vehicle. Being too young to have a driver’s licence is the least of my problems.”

“Fourteen!” Charlie was still laughing as if that was the funniest thing in the world, and who was she to say otherwise?

“But I take a few deep breaths and calm my heart down, wind the window down. The copper steps up and in my most adult voice I try to say ‘Can I help you officer?’ I try. I get halfway through ‘help,'” she raised her fist in front of her mouth, “and I just throw up all over him,” she pushed her hand out and opened it up, mimicking the spray all over the cop, “and I mean full-on projectile vomit, like a bloody fire hose. Just all over. Face, shirt, shoe, pants. No idea how I could fit that much into me, or when I’d gotten around to eating it all. Most vomit I’d ever seen in my life.”

Everyone was laughing except Emily. Cesar was thumping the table, Charlie and Li looked close to tears. A jokes only as funny as you can tell it. Best bit of advice her father had ever given her.

“Now the copper’s just stunned. Shocked. Surprised. Frozen in place as he stared at the most throw-up either of us have ever seen, probably. So I take my chance. Start the car, put it into gear somehow and just fucking drive. As fast as I fucking can. Off the road. Now it’s lucky that he pulled me over with farmland on either side because I would’ve taken that evasive manoeuvre even if there was a bloody forest on either side of me and probably hit a tree. Instead I just rolled onto some uncut grass and sped away. Drove until I couldn’t see the flashing lights in the rear-view mirror anymore. Don’t think the cop tried to follow me, but I didn’t care. Then I hit a tree anyway.”

Funny how high-pitched John Tipene’s laugh was. The Maori was a huge, tattooed slab of meat. He spoke in low tones, but had an almost girlish laugh. It was pretty bloody cute. You could understand why Louise Seo was practically married to the guy.

“Don’t know where it came from. One minute I’m speeding through the dark, next minute BAM!” she thumped the table loudly, “tree. Airbags. Seatbelt. Pain. Lucky the car didn’t explode,” she traced a hand along the scars that ran parallel to her eyes and brow from her hairline over and down past her left ear, “that time. It was at that point that I may have begun to cry.”

“Oh no!” always trust Gerty to show some sympathy. Gertrude Wilders, everyone had called her Trudy until Michelle had begun calling her Gerty instead. Apparently everyone else had decided that it was a better fit as well. She was too good for this bloody world.

“Don’t know how long I was crying for. Eventually pulled myself out of the wreckage and begin just sorta walking. Picked a random direction that seemed right and went that way. Walked for minutes or hours, I’ve got no idea. May have even been making progress towards getting home, when I my phone begins ringing. Now at first I’m just shocked I’ve still got my phone. The mushrooms are starting to wear off and I’m just now recognising the epicness of the night. But I’ve still got it and its ringing. So I answer. It’s my at-the-time-boyfriend who, if you can remember the beginning of the story, was the one that convinced me to do these weird-arse alien mushrooms with him. I say hello and, I shit you not, these are his exact words, calm-as-you-like, ‘Michelle? I don’t want you to panic but I’m locked in the boot of a strange green car. I think my arm’s broken for some reason. Can you come and get me?'”

It’s the way you tell the joke that gets everyone laughing.

“‘Sure,’ I say, ‘be there in a minute.'”

“Did you go back for him?” Li managed to ask between heaves of her chest.

“Of course. What kind of an arsehole would I be if I didn’t. But that story, and how we got home can wait for next time. Right now my beer’s getting warm.”

There was some boos at that but she just took a long pull from her drink and ignored them. Harder to ignore was Emily’s look of, shit, was that disgust? That might’ve been disgust. That was probably disgust. Why was Emily disgusted? What had Michelle done to disgust her? Oh-bloody-well, that was a problem to be fixed later. Right now she was heading towards Charlie’s table to have a drink.

“What did I miss?” Shen’s voice cut through the room and most of the room looked towards the door.

“Michelle has been regaling us with stories from her life of crime!” Gerty chuckled, the Dutchwoman somehow managing to sound like she spoke both better and worse than all the native English-speakers in the room at the same time. Something about the grammar just didn’t sit right in Michelle’s ears. Oh well, she had a sexy accent.

“It was very funny,” so did Charlie, for that matter.

“Can she tell it again?” Shen asked brightly.

“It’s a bit long,” Michelle said and nearly melted at how crestfallen Shen looked. The Chief Engineer had been spending a lot of time in her little world of microfactories and research since Eva had died, a lot of it likely alone.

“So I’ll tell you later, when I get the chance,” Shen perked up at that, “and before I tell everyone part two to the story. So no spoilers! C’mon, have a drink.” Michelle indicated a chair at the table with Charlie.

It was then she noticed that Emily was leaving, quietly edging her way around the table with her now three-quarters empty bottle of something brown. Shen saw it as well, Michelle realised, and while she kept smiling she also looked… disappointed? Maybe. Something.

Well, shit. Something had happened. But what issue did Emily have with Michelle?

Fuck. Worry about that later. Right now Charlie was talking.

***

She didn’t see her oldest brother again until she was thirteen. By that point Michelle hadn’t seen the rest of her family in two years anyway. They’d needed to run when a neighbour had dobbed them into ADVENT for supporting the resistance and (gasp!) even hiding a fugitive, and then been warned by another neighbour (the first one’s wife actually) about what he was planning to do. They’d got out, but they got separated.

It might have been intentional. She’d been angry with her parents for running instead of fighting, so when they’d escaped she’d slipped off and escaped in a different direction. They’d noticed almost immediately, and they looked for her. But she was good at hiding, and they had three more kids that they needed to get to safety and ADVENT on their trail. Her father had bellowed that he’d come back for her, then they’d kept running. Years later she’d call it the brutal mathematics of war. At the time her little eleven-year-old heart broke at the betrayal, even if it was exactly what she wanted. It was the right decision though. Minutes later a squad of ADVENT troops had passed through. They didn’t find her either. She was very good at hiding.

She went back to the city and spent a brutal few months on the street. ADVENT liked to push the image that there was no poverty and no homelessness on their streets, but personal experience taught her better. There were no homeless because the ones who weren’t good at hiding just disappeared. She learnt how to disappear and steal, and more importantly how to travel unmolested by cops, peacekeepers and ADVENT surveillance systems. She was very good at it.

It didn’t take long for someone to spot her talent and she found herself recruited by a black marketeer running messages back and forth. The pay wasn’t great, but she had a roof over her head and food provided, so it was alright, and no one touched her unless she let them – something that one of the other girls kept repeating, so it must have been a good thing. The messages got more important and by the time she was twelve-and-a-half she was running packages and doing other deliveries. It was about this time that guilt made her send a letter to her parents.

It wasn’t hard. She knew all the best finders and inter-city messengers by then. Slip’em a few bucks to cover expenses and look pathetic enough and they were happy to help little Shelly out. She told her parents what she was doing and that she was alright, but not where she was. She didn’t want them worrying, but she didn’t want them to risk their necks looking for her. She was doing good work anyway. Half the packages were to resistance cells anyway, so she was helping fight in her own way.

Don’t worry mum and dad, just send a letter back with the guy delivering this one. It’ll get back to me. Sorry for taking so long.

They wrote back, begging her to tell them where she was or to come back to them. But also about how her siblings were doing. What life was like. That they were as safe as possible. That they missed her. She sent more letters and they sent back.

Fuck she missed them. Sometimes so bad it felt like her heart was crawling out of her chest up her throat. Sometimes so bad she’d crawl into a ball and sob until she ran out of tears and fell asleep. But she refused to leave. She’d built a life (as much as was possible for a twelve-year old runaway) with new friends that she didn’t want to abandon (like she’d abandoned her family) and a place in the fight against the bastards that had done it. She couldn’t leave, but it was getting harder to bear staying away.

Then, when she was thirteen, she delivered a package (which her boss had strongly hinted was explosive) to a group of soldiers from another region’s resistance cell that was in town doing a favour for the locals.

She remembered giving the secret knock at a door, being let in, and seeing a blonde head that had ditched the beard but kept the moustache, eyes lighting up and a familiar smile spreading across his face.

“Jimmy!” she screamed and then she had her arms wrapped her around his waist while he crushed her in a bear hug. One of his friends was holding the package nervously and another one was laughing.

“Hey Shelly, how you doin’?”

“I’m alright. How’re you?”

“I’m alright,” he released her from his hug and led her towards the door.

“Do we have time to talk?”

He shook his head, “Nah, not this time.”

She nodded. She was in the business now, she understood, “I’m glad I saw you.”

“So am I. Love you.”

“Love you too.”

Then she was on the other side of the door and that was it.

But it was enough.

***

Michelle left the others behind after a few hours. Charlie had indicated he’d go with her, but she didn’t feel like anything tonight. She’d had a good time and felt like it was right to end it there. She found her bunk waiting patiently and climbed in with a sigh.

It’d been a good night. Shame about whatever was going on with Emily. She’d been a nice girl when Michelle had arrived, fun and bubbly, but something had changed when Eva died. Li reckoned it had happened before, after the first time she’d been wounded by an alien while fighting for X-Com, and that she’d get over it soon. Gerty said she hadn’t been this bad for this long. They needed to deal with it, but no one was sure how.

Still, that was for future Michelle to worry about. Present Michelle was in a good mood. Or so present Michelle kept telling herself. She reached into her top and pulled the small metal cross that was strung on a leather string around her neck. It had been James’. He’d left them behind when he’d left home, and it was the only one she’d managed to save over the years. She reckoned it brought her luck. She wasn’t sure she should be wearing it at all. She was worried that the men who’d earned them wouldn’t want someone like her wearing one since she hadn’t. That’s why she hadn’t told her brother she had it.

He was in a bed in the infirmary at that very moment, besides Dekker. Else and Li had already been given clearance to leave their beds, but James was being kept while Tygen ran a few more tests to make sure that there was no permanent brain damage. He’d seen something in James’ first few scans that had worried him, and that worried Michelle as well.

But, well, he hadn’t seemed that concussed on the skyranger. Shit, he’d saved Dekker’s life as far as Li was concerned. Then he’d patched her and Else up as well.

Shit. When the war began, they were given medals. What should they get now?

 

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (10)

Chapter 10: A Touch of Madness

It always felt like they arrived too late.

At least that’s what Li Ming Cheng had said when Menace One had boarded the skyranger on their way to the little resistance-controlled shantytown on the northern edge of the South American continent (or the southern edge of Central America depending on who your geography teacher was). As they dropped into the warzone it had become Doreen Donaldson, Dori to the people she liked, understood what the huge Chinese woman meant.

Huge swathes of the scrubland around the town were burning, belching thick black smoke into the sky and bathing the ramshackle buildings, caravans, trailers and vehicles in red and orange light that might have been lovely if they’d been cast by a setting sun instead of the results of an ADVENT airstrike. Clothes tattered long before the attack flapped violently from laundry lines strung between structures pieced together out of old recycled wood, sheet metal and gnatty tarps, and rusty four wheel drives and minivans that were never meant for the kind of off-road use they’d probably been put through. Smoke, ash, fuel, spent gunpowder, cooked meat, blood, cut grass and branches, all these scents fought a battle in her nostrils for dominance. A blackened corpse missing an arm, foot and its head was slumped against the passenger door of an ancient jeep with a jury-rigged hydrogen engine, a blast crater visible within spitting distance of the corpse.

“Fuck me,” Dori mumbled as she spotted a child’s t-shirt caught on a large radio antenna whipped about in the winds caused by the fires like an obscene flag, its bright colours smouldering dark grey smoke into the sky.

“Small bodies,” Gabriela Navarro spat into the dirt, looking in the same direction as Dori, “It is the fucking worst to find.”

“We’re not here to find bodies,” Li said, giving the barrels of her mag cannon whirring as she gave them a test spin, “we’re here to make them.”

Dori saw Thierry Leroy glance at Li with a bit of worry in his frown. She had the same old lazy smile on her face that everyone was used to but there was a hard edge in her voice as she said it. Then again her best friend had been killed a week ago and, as Karen Nilsen had pointed out, X-Com members were good at holding grudges.

Karen was bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet, eyes hidden beneath the shadow of her old hood but obviously twitching back and forth between the other members of Menace One and the environment around her. She held her shotgun by her side and was fiddling with a buckle on her predator armour. Cesar Vargas had already jogged off to scout ahead, looking for civilians so save and aliens to kill. The Commander was saying something in their ears that Dori only half listened to.

The Scot took a deep breath and clutched her rifle tighter, worried that her hands might start shaking as she looked at that t-shirt flickering in the wind, a tiny life probably snuffed out. CO Bradford had said there was supposed to have been a hundred thirty people in this settlement. Li said they’d save a dozen at best. Another two dozen might escape by themselves.

“Fuck it,” she said louder than intended, “let’s go kill the bastards that did this.”

***

“How do you think you are dealing with Miss Degroot’s death?”

Emily stirred uncomfortably in her stool, looking away from Doctor Lynch towards the rows of half filled bottles secured safely within plexiglass cabinets behind the bar. Funnily enough they didn’t provide the same comfort that the autopsy table had during the first few meetings she’d had with the Avenger’s in-ship shrink, back when it had been separated from the rest of the research centre within a box of bullet, blast and sound proof glass. The Commander had ordered the box disassembled not long after their second meeting, deciding its parts could be put to better use elsewhere. Emily and the doctor had been meeting in the rare moments when the bar was empty ever since.

He raised his eyebrows and she realised she needed to answer.

“Well enough I guess. I haven’t needed to cry myself to sleep or anything.”

“Did you cry yourself to sleep after your mother died?”

A few times.

“No. Why’d you ask?”

Doctor Lynch was smiling at her. He was always smiling. It was both infuriating and calming.

“I’m just trying to get a picture of how you grieve.”

“Losing people is part of the job,” she deadpanned, “you get used to it.”

“Maybe,” Doctor Lynch’s smile slipped for a half second, but only a half second, “but some losses are worse than others. I understand you haven’t been down to engineering since Miss Degroot died. I think Miss Shen has been missing you.”

“Ha- has she said something to you?” Emily couldn’t look the doctor in the eye as she asked the question.

“No, but she hasn’t really needed to. You and Miss Degroot have probably been her two most consistent helpers and friends,” he emphasised that last word, “since the Commander’s return. She’s lost one good friend, I’m sure she doesn’t want to lose another.”

“Probably not. I guess… I guess it just hasn’t felt right. Going back down there.”

“Why hasn’t it felt right?”

“I don’t know.”

She didn’t.

“I think you do,” he was right, she did, “but this isn’t a matter I want to pry into. I am capable of allowing you some private thought.”

“Thanks,” she mumbled.

“Miss Degroot meant a great deal to you. She was your friend, she taught you a great deal and you looked up to her. And I think that we both know she wouldn’t have wanted you to stop spending time with Miss Shen.”

Emily looked over at the bottles again, trying to distract herself.

She heard Doctor Lynch chuckle, “Yes, perhaps a little liquid courage wouldn’t hurt.”

***

“Grenade.”

Li’s voice lacked any urgency as her launcher made a dull whump and sent the cylindrical explosive in a shallow arc over the rest of the squad’s heads. Dori was happy to admit that it was pretty damn good shot, disappearing through the window of a two story hut and right over the shoulder of a red-armoured officer. She imagined the click of the pressure plate making contact with the corrugated iron of the wall opposite and the fuse igniting an instant before the fragmentation grenade exploded and took the makeshift structure with it. A trooper who’d been crouching behind some boxes on its roof went cartwheeling onto his neck, while the red-armour was hurled a few metres to land in a pair of smoking chunks. There was a stun lancer just outside of the blast radius that warbled something unpleasant and took aim at Li, but didn’t see Leroy charge up his flank and fire a burst into his chest from five metres away.

“Dori, civilian on the right!” Li called out from the left as she slung her launcher back over shoulder and hefted her big mag cannon.

Dori looked across the broken crates and debris silhouetted by an the increasingly wild fires surrounding the camp and spotted a tuft of dark hair poking out from within three neat stacks of old tires.

“On it!”

Gun pointed at the ground but finger hovering over the trigger, Dori jogged the short distance towards the tires. Caution while approaching civilians in an active combat zone had been a must ever since one such civilian had transformed into a lanky three-and-a-half metre tall blob creature that backhanded Emily Adams through a pile of crates. They have an odd sort of cunning, Vargas had told her as he shared a cigarette with Gabby – his fellow Spanish speaker – while they waited for the skyranger’s engines to warm up, they might wait until you’re within striking distance or they might wait until all their friends have been taken out. The fastest way to reveal them without the right toys, he’d looked up at the Gremlin hovering over her shoulder, relatively new and unmodified, is to get in close. Get up close and they can’t help themselves, but be prepared to start shooting when you do.

The rest of the squad moved forward at the same time while the Commander’s voice provided orders, instructions and intel straight into their ears. Dori reached the tires and knocked one pile over revealing a kid that couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen even if they were tall for their age, with short black hair in sweaty spikes and baggy clothes, well-tanned olive skin that was looking pale and soft features that were looking terrified. Dori kept her expression hard as she stared at the kid and internally counted to ten. When she (Dori reckoned it was a she and it didn’t feel like an appropriate moment to find out if the kid had a preference) didn’t turn into giant pink monster the expression changed to a smile that the Scot hoped was reassuring.

“Hello,” she said and reached towards the kid, “it’s alright. I’m here to get you somewhere safe.”

The kid stared at the hand like it was diseased and backed away as far as she could into the tires that were still standing. Crap, maybe the kid only spoke Spanish. Maybe the kid spoke English but not well enough to understand a fast talking Glaswegian. She turned away from the kid and began looking for Gabby or, preferably since this was his manor or fucking close enough to it, Vargas to help get her away from the tires and towards the relative safety of the skyranger.

“Can I get some help over-“

She realised no one was listening, or paying much attention to her at all. The rest of Menace One were facing forward, guns up and faces waiting. Dori looked in the same direction and didn’t see anything, but now that she knew something was wrong she began to hear what must have got everybody’s attention. Footsteps. Fucking huge ones by the sounds of it, getting closer and closer. She brought up her rifle in time to see an enormous creature charge around the corner and roar at them.

It was twice Li’s height and she was one of the tallest people in X-Com, and at least as wide. Pink, red and white muscles and sinews were visible between what looked like bits of bone, as if the creature had been skinned alive and now wanted to take revenge for that fact out on the half dozen humans in front of it. It roared again. The kind of roar that rattles teeth and loosens bowels. In the bottom of her vision she saw the kid cover her ears and cry out.

“Huh,” she heard the voice of the Commander in her ear, “berserkers have gotten bigger since our day.”

The alien charged forward and Dori felt herself firing at the huge creature. She heard the rip and tear of a mag cannon and a rifle that must have belonged to Leroy. The berserker just growled and kept on coming at them, not even flinching as the combined fire ripped into its exposed muscles.

Then Karen Nilsen pulled her blade from its scabbard between her shoulders and charged the beast right back, screaming a war cry that sounded far too happy to be charging towards something that wouldn’t even notice crushing her beneath one of its enormous feet.

“Waaaahhhhrrraaaahhhhhrrrraaaahhhhaaarrr!”

Absolutely fucking ridiculous.

Afterwards Dori would wonder if Karen timed her run or just got lucky. She met the creature at a halfway point between both their respective starting marks, an area littered by piles of crates, garbage, drums and general debris. Karen was short but, it turned out, springy. She leapt onto a small crate, to a large crate, to a pile of crates, gaining height and never losing momentum so that, by the time she hurled herself at the creature swinging her long blade in a two-handed reverse grip, she was at a similar height to the creature’s head. A bit higher actually, as proved when she stabbed the point straight down into what passed for the creatures forehead.

The berserker bellowed fiercely and tried to shake her off but Karen just held tight. Cackling like a witch over a cauldron she used the grip of her blade to pull her feet up onto its shoulders, giving her the leverage to pull the machete-sword out of the beast’s thick skull. And shank the fucker again. And again. And a fourth time, at which point the blade was lodged in its skull so she began punching it, still laughing and screaming obscenities in English and what was presumably Swedish without the usual stutter that marked her words.

She was still pummelling the poor creature’s head as it finally toppled backwards, riding its shoulders all the way down, straddling its neck as it landed. Grin visible beneath her long hood she threw her head back and howled like a wolf at the burnt sky. Everyone was staring at her, including the kid who Dori had forgotten for a few seconds, wide-eyed and a little stunned. She saw Vargas open his mouth as if to say something then rethink the decision and close it again.

“So,” Li said instead, “I think we should all agree to not get on Karen’s bad side.”

***

Drunk wasn’t the right word. No, she hadn’t had enough to call herself drunk. Tipsy. That was a better word for it. If she was drunk she’d actually be in there right now instead of just staring at the door feeling like the sorry coward she was. Fuck, she should have drunk half the bottle instead of half a glass. Maybe that would have made this easier. Fuck.

Emily stood outside Engineering staring at the metal hatch that led inside to where Lily Shen would be working. She raised her hand to knock but hesitated, like she had every time for the last few weeks. She hadn’t so much as seen Lily since Eva died, since she lost that vital bit of support.

With a sigh, Emily lowered her hand.

Beside her someone cleared their throat. Emily damned near jumped out of her skin as she took a step backwards and spun around to see Else Krause staring at her, head cocked to one side (the left) and an easy smile on her pretty, tanned face.

“Jesus Else, you startled the shit out o’ me,” Emily growled as she pulled the long hair on her head back and scratched at the stubble of her undercut.

Else just shrugged and crossed her arms over her chest. Emily didn’t see the German woman very often, since Else seemed to spend most of her time with Navneet Banerjee (the Oxford-educated Pakistani that she was sort-of-but-not-really-secretly fucking) but she always looked the same. T-shirt and fatigue pants, black hair tied back into a single plait, round glasses giving her face a bookish charm that made you forget she was an artist with a gatling gun.

“What are you doing here?” Emily asked, hoping to avoid the question being asked to her first.

Else just kept smiling and tilted her head to the other side.

“Yeah, whatever. I’m going.”

Emily tried to walk past her but felt a strong hand grip her arm across her stomach. She looked at Else, who just kept smiling at her. Friendly as the junkyard dog that someone had recently nicknamed her after.

“What the fuck Else?”

The German woman gave Emily a wink. She reached out and mashed the keypad besides the door and they watched the hatch slide open. They looked at each other and Else winked again, then sort of lift-pushed Emily through the open door.

“Fuck!”

Emily was strong, but Else could run five Ks carrying a mag cannon as heavy as herself without breaking a sweat (or so she’d once drunkenly bragged). The young American was through the door before she had a chance to even think about wrestling free, spinning about just in time to see Else wave and slide the door shut.

“Fuck!”

She growled and hit the keypad on the inside of Engineering. The hatch shuddered but refused to open.

“Fuck!” she hit the door with her palm, “Fuck!”

“Are you alright Emily?” a nervous voice said from behind her.

Emily spun back around and saw Lily standing across one of the workbenches from her, a worried grin on her lips and oil stains on her arms and brow. She carried a small wrench in one hand and her Gremlin, ROVER, whirred suspiciously from beneath her other.

“Yeah, I’m alright,” Emily brushed a hand through her hair – she’d been doing that a lot lately, “but I think we’ve just been locked in.”

“What?” Lily said, eyebrows climbing skyward, “How?”

She dropped the spanner and strode past Emily, leaning in close to the door and hitting the open button. The door made a sort-of growling noise and shuddered, but refused to open.

“Sounds like someone jammed something into the frame,” Lily shook her head, a little amused at the situation and wandered over to her computer terminal, “I’ll send a message to John to come and check it out…” she typed rapidly but allowed herself a small smile as she looked over the monitor at Emily, “Though I can’t help but wonder why someone would lock us in. The Commander’s going to be pissed.”

“I- I guess they were trying to keep me from escaping,” Emily realised her Southern US drawl was getting thicker and took a few deep breaths to calm her rapidly beating heart, “I’m sorry I haven’t been visiting lately.”

“It’s okay,” Lily’s smile turned a little sad, “I understand. It’s weird to not have her over there working on Wasp. Arguing with Cheng about whether or not wasp stings are venomous or not,” Lily chuckled.

“Not, no, not just that. I…” Fuck, why was this so hard? “I like you. Like I like you a lot. Like I like like you a lot,” fuck, she was sounding like one of those fucking kid’s sitcoms her mom used to put on back when they lived on the base. Why couldn’t she just talk fucking normally? “Yeah, I like like you,” fuck! “and, I want to know if you like me to. Like like,” for fuck’s sake, what the fuck was wrong with her, “and I’d be really happy if you could tell me so I’d know either way. Whether we just stay friends and I move on or, maybe, whatever we’d do if you liked me. Or whatever. So, do you? Like me?”

What a fucking rambling mess.

Lily stared at her for what must have at least been a solid minute, the gears visibly turning in that lovely mind of hers, before she finally said something.

“I’ve been waiting for you to admit that for a while now.”

Really?

“You have?”

Lily chuckled, “You’re not very good at hiding it.”

Of course.

“Right.”

“And… I thought- I thought I’d be ready for it. With an answer for you.”

There was the sudden sound of metal on metal, scratching from the other side of the door, some thumps, some more scratching, one long loud curse and the hatch slid open. John Tipene was standing on the other side holding a fighting knife in one huge hand, a look of curiosity on the big Maori’s face.

“There was a knife jammed into the crack between the door and its frame,” he said.

Emily ignored him and turned back to Lily, “So do you have an answer?”

“I don’t. I don’t know.”

“Fuck. Okay then.”

Without another word she walked past John and away. As far away as she could on this fucking ship.

***

“You’re fuckin’ joking!” Michelle King said with a laugh as she shuffled two decks of playing cards together atop the round table in the Avenger’s barracks.

Else just shrugged and took a hard slug from her beer. Gertrude Wilders, who Michelle had kept calling Gerty until everyone else had started doing the same, was not nearly so stoic.

“I am not ‘fucking joking,'” she said, already a little sloshed, “Else kneed him straight in the balls. Bam! He went down like… what do you like to say Jimmy?”

Michelle’s brother James grinned, “Like a sack of shit?”

“Yes. He eyes rolled back in his head and he went down, like a sack of shit. And Else just stepped over him without any more words and walked away.”

“Fuck me dead,” Michelle grinned and began dealing out the cards, “Junk junked him right in the junk.”

That brought another round of laughter. Gerty giggled, James laughed, Li looked like she almost had tears in her eyes and Cesar just sort of rumbled in his chair, wrapping the table with the knuckles of his good hand in approval. His left arm was in a sling after suffering a through-and-through on the last mission, rescuing civilians from an ADVENT retaliation strike. Else just blushed a little. She was a good one, smarter than she let on but – as the story just told about her smashing Gerard Dekker’s meat and two veg showed – not about to let anyone disrespect her.

“Jesus,” James smiled, “teaches him for starting a conversation with a lady by bragging about the size of his dick.”

“It’s definitely not the best way to start a conversation with anyone,” Michelle chuckled, “Just imagine, ‘excuse me sir!'” she put a high class English accent that sounded nothing like a high class Englishman and even less like the very German-sounding Dekker, “‘How are you today! Splendid, splendid. As for myself, well, my penis is as long and thick as my arm. I honestly don’t know how my trousers contain it all. That’s not what you asked? I should honestly think it doesn’t matter!'”

Everyone was laughing again, even Else was roaring approval.

“Alright, alrigh’. Settle down,” Michelle said as she finished dealing out the cards, “does everyone know how to play Snap?” She saw three heads shaking only Li nodding, “Know how to play Sign Snap?” Cheng shook her head, “easy enough. Regular snap, we each take turns putting cards face up in the middle. Two of the same number come up one after the other, like a pair of eights or a pair of sixes or whatever – suit doesn’t matter – we all reach into the middle and put our hands on the pile. Last person to do so gets the pile. Winner is the person to run out of cards first. Clear?”

There were nods around the table.

“Okay, Sign Snap is a little different. You have to perform a little action if a King, Queen of Jack comes up. You see a king come up, you salute,” Michelle demonstrated a salute, “you see a queen come up you put a hand against your heart. You see a jack come up you put a fist under your chin,” she demonstrated again, “like you’re grabbing a goatee. Now this only needs a single card to go down, not a pair. Again, last person takes the pile. Clear?”

More nods, less sure of themselves this time.

“You’ll get the hang of it. Now, we’re playing King Family drinking rules, so that means every time a round is one both the loser and the winner have to drink. Keeps everyone from staying too fast and too sobre. Everyone drinks if a joker appears. Everyone drinks the same sign card comes up after another. So if a king goes down and then the very next card is a kind. Clear?”

Everyone nodded.

“Alright then. Let’s get drunk.”

It took a few rounds for everyone to quite understand the rules and rhythm of the game, with Michelle and James winning and happily drinking alongside the losers in each case. Everyone eventually figured out what they were doing, chatting and joking between putting cards down.

“So does anyone know why they call the op team ‘Menace One’?” Michelle asked as she put down a three.

“Because we’re menacing?” James put down a two.

“No you’re not.” Gerty smiled as Li put down a four.

“Yeah we are.” James said mock seriously as Cesar put down an eight.

“Nah, I get the ‘Menace’ part. We’re menacing,” Michelle said as Gerty put down another eight. Everyone slapped their hands down in the middle of the table. Else won and Cesar lost. He swore and they both drank. “Like I was saying, I get the ‘Menace’ part. Why do we call it ‘Menace One’ though?” Else put down a ten, “We only ever send out one team. There is no ‘Menace Two’ is there?” Michelle put down a five.

“Military tradition?” James put down a king. Everyone snapped a salute. There was an argument about who saluted first and last but in the end Michelle and Gerty drank.

“Maybe Central just thought is sounded cooler than just ‘Menace’ or ‘Menace Team’.” Li put down a four.

“Sounds plausible.” Michelle thought out loud as Cesar put down a two, “but I’d say it’d be more likely the Commander who’d do something like that,” Gerty put down a nine, “and he was probably still sleeping when those decisions were made.” Else put down a four. Michelle put down another two, Gerty almost went for it.

“So back to the ‘military tradition’ theory?” James put down a five.

“You should know.” Michelle said as Li put down a ten, “You’re the only one at the table who was regular military before the war.”

“Yeah,” James said a little defensively while Cesar put down a three, “But it’s still been a long time since I was regular military. Still, that’s the kind of shit they’d do.”

“Fair’nuff,” Michelle nodded as Gerty dropped a jack onto the table. Everyone’s fists flew up to their chins, one a little too hard.

“Ow,” Michelle said after knocking her teeth together.

Everyone started laughing.

“You okay Shelly?” James chuckled.

“Yeah. Nearly broke my own jaw is all.”

“Well,” Li leaned forward with a bottle in hand, “you did hit yourself faster than the rest of us.”

Michelle clicked the top of her own bottle against Li’s, “Well, tits up,” then the bottom of the bottles, “arses up.”

Li grinned and both women drank.

***

Dori watched as the Avenger’s crew tried to figure out the best way to lift the berserker corpse, presumably without spilling what may have been its brains all over the landing ramp on their way up. The fires had settled down and Vargas, who’d been shot in the arm by a trooper late in the mission, was being tended to by Leroy. The black haired kid, now an orphan, was off being comforted by some of her camp neighbours who Navarro said had lost their own child in the raid. Good folk. Menace One had saved thirteen lives. Another dozen had managed to hide or run until the storm had passed. Dori wondered where they’d go now, but decided it wasn’t something she needed to know. More than a hundred dead. Fuck, she understood what Li meant by “arriving too late.”

Everyone was looking a little sombre. Well, everyone except for Karen. She was staring at the big berserker corpse, the one she’d personally hacked and pummeled to death, with a wide grin on the face you could see beneath the hood that she still had pulled low over her eyes.

“I w-wonder if Tygen will l-l-let me have the head. I-I-I want to s-st-stuff and mount it.”

Dori couldn’t help but snort out a laugh, “Jesus, I reckon he’ll be too scared ta say no.”

Karen grinned a little wider and strode off to oversee the transport of her trophy. Dori shook her head and remembered a favourite line from Hamlet as she looked out across the devastated shantytown.

“For there is nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (9)

Chapter 9: An Overshadowed Reunion

“She looked at me. She looked straight into my eyes. And she smiled.”

***

“Contact front!” Michelle King’s words were quickly drowned out by the roar of her gatling cannon. The trooper in her sights shuddered and spasmed and jerked as the burst of high-velocity magnetically-flung rounds pinned it against a concrete pillar and ripped through its armour. When the body fell out of sight it left a broad patch of orange blood and bits of its guts graffitied against the light grey surface. Fuckin’ gorgeous.

Across the road Karen Nilsen, the Swedish ranger who’d introduced herself by pulling a knife on Gabby Navarro and apparently freaking the shit out of Gerry O’Neill, cackled (honest to god, cackled) as she blew the head clean off a sectoid’s shoulders with her big shotgun-like shardgun. Michelle liked her. Thierry Leroy, the only bloke on this op aside from the VIP they were pulling out of the frying pan, swore colourfully in French and English both when his shot missed the red-armour (an ADVENT officer) that ran around the corner after its mates. Michelle was pretty indifferent towards him, but that was probably because she’d barely spoken twenty words in his direction since she’d joined up with X-Com. She’d need to change that. He seemed nice enough. Little shy, little nervous.

There was a boom that echoed between the glass and steel building-fronts as Emily Adams took out the red-armour with her scoped gauss rifle. Michelle gave her a grin and Emily smiled back. They were near enough age-wise but Emily had a bit more innocent girlishness to her. Michelle respected that, given what she’d heard the American had been through. Shen back on the ship had mentioned she was a survivor of the destruction of Camp Shelby, and even planting IEDs on cars back home Michelle had heard about that. It was a cautionary tale held up by resistance cells all over, “that’s why we don’t all gather in one place.” But Emily was good, kind and friendly with a great southern twang to her accent as she clumsily, obviously, tried to flirt with Shen in engineering.

The VIP they’d been sent to rescue stared about uncertainly. Dr Thulani Bengu had been near enough to Karen to have heard her laughing (cackling like a supervillain) as she put the trooper down and he was looking a little… not pale. His skin was too dark to look pale. What was that word Michelle’s dad had liked using? Ashen. The good doctor (of computer engineering or something) looked ashen.

“Eyes forward! They won’t be the last!” Eva Degroot growled as she ran forward and took up a covering position. Li Ming Cheng did the same. Not surprising given how tight those two were. Then again it was pretty hard to not like Li. It was easy to relax around the tall, muscular, unnaturally lean woman despite her statuesque physique (seriously, it was like the bitch was carved from stone).

As if summoned by Eva’s words another trio of aliens charged up the street, weaving between the parked cars and yelling in their garbled language. Eva swore loudly in Dutch as she spotted a stun lancer with his blade out heading straight for her. She pivoted about and shot him through the throat from about ten metres away, flinging his head and torso back in a spray of blood while his momentum kept him moving forward causing the whole choking mass to skid another metre along the bitumen towards Eva. The stunner was still twitching when Michelle looked away and saw Li turn another of the fuckers into smoking meat with her own mag cannon.

“King! Down!”

Michelle didn’t think, just reacted to the order and threw herself to the ground behind a big red sedan that was parked flush against the side walk. She felt the magnetically propelled rounds fly over her head and shatter the glass window on her other side, heard them slam into the car’s engine block, smelt ozone, burnt plastic, rubber and melted metal. Realised she’d heard the engine block get hit. Scrambled to her feet with the intention of sprinting away but it was too late.

With the aliens had come a shift in how energy was produced and how it was used. One of the biggest switches had been changing car engines from petrol-guzzlers to small hydrogen things that were cheap, clean, efficient, quiet, smooth and – a bit annoyingly given current circumstances – far more vulnerable to stray gun fire.

The sedan she’d ducked behind exploded in a big dramatic fireball that tossed her across the footpath and into something hard and unyielding.

For what could only have been seconds all that Michelle saw was black. Then the feeling in her body returned, painful in some places and numb in others (because yes, that does still count as feeling), and she flicked open her eyes. Well, her right eye at least. Her left was gummy. The back of her head was throbbing, but her left hand didn’t want to move when she ordered it to. Her mouth and nostrils were filled with the taste and smell of blood, her own she realised after a second. Both ears were ringing.

“Fuckin’ fuck me fuckin’ dead,” she couldn’t even hear her own words.

She saw two pairs of boots pounding in her direction and let out a groan. It hurt, but Michelle managed to convince her left eye to squint open and her left arm to help the right push herself off the concrete footpath. A second later strong hands were helping her into a sitting a position and Eva and Leroy filled her vision.

“I’m fine,” Michelle said groggily, couldn’t hear herself speak so yelled them again, “I’m fine!” She saw Leroy pulling out a medkit and she shook her head, “I don’t need it!” Her hearing was starting to come back, leaving just a high-pitched whine in each ear, “I’m alright, just help me stand. Save it, we don’t have time and might need it later.”

Eva was saying something and Michelle focused on hearing whatever it was she had to say, “… your face is a fucking mess you dumb kut,” what the hell was a kut? “so is your arm. You’re most likely bleeding internally. We need to bandage you up now before blood loss or shock finishes the job.”

Michelle was shaking her head, “There’s no time, we’ll do it on Firestarter. I just need you to help me stand. Please. I’ll be alright,” she flashed her grin at them.

Eva looked at Leroy, who looked concerned but nodded. He pulled two syringes from a pouch on his webbing and passed them to Eva. With what looked like a sigh (Michelle’s hearing wasn’t fantastic at the moment so she couldn’t hear it) she stuck the first needle into the Australian’s neck.

“This is to help clot the blood and hopefully keep you from bleeding out,” she threw the first syringe away and repeated the process with the second, “this should keep you moving and help with the pain.”

With another sigh from Eva, she and Leroy pulled Michelle to her feet. She was unsteady for a second – but only a second – before she refound her footing and gave them a nod. Eva looked skeptical but nodded back. She liked to think of herself as the cold, ruthless warrior – distant and aloof. Truth was that she was a big softie who worried about everyone. And everyone loved her for it.

“Let’s get you out of here before you bleed to death.”

***

Emily stood outside the door to Engineering, staring at the grey painted metal and chewing on her nails. It was a bad habit she’d picked up as a kid and dropped as a teenager, but it tended to come back in moments when she was particularly nervous or anxious. Maybe it was something worth telling Doctor Colin Lynch, the scientist who also acted as the Avenger’s resident counselor and psychologist, when she next met him. She’d been seeing him semi-regularly since the time a blob creature that had been disguised as a human refugee had backhanded her through some crates, and he’d become a pretty trustworthy friend through it all.

But if she told him, well, he’d want to know why she was feeling that anxious. What she was doing. Emily didn’t want to admit it to herself let alone Doctor Lynch, but he’d keep pestering her until she told him. He was good at that.

Shit. Then again, Emily wasn’t sure herself. Why was she here, staring at a closed door, one hand balled into a fist ready to knock but too scared to get within striking distance of the door. Chewing absently on the other. Shit. She must look like a fucking coward. Shit. She was a fucking coward. Why couldn’t she just knock? She’d done it countless times before, spoken to the person inside easily and happily while tinkering with the disassembled rifles set out on what had effectively become her workbench. What made right now so difficult?

It was because Emily had something she needed to say, and she was too afraid to say it. Couldn’t say it.

She turned on her heel and walked away from the door.

***

Michelle woke up to clean sheets, a parched throat, pounding headache and a familiar face she hadn’t seen in years, one that didn’t look like it had changed in that time at all. Same dirty blonde hair, same lumpy nose, same mutton chops that led to the same thick mustache (both splashed with ginger), same dark brown eyes that were the same as hers.

“Mornin’ sunshine,” the same voice spoke to her with the same undertones of kindness and sarcasm, “how you feeling?”

Michelle cracked a smile at her brother James, “Like shit,” her head throbbed, “Like I’m hungover. I’m not hungover, am I?”

James grinned and shook his head, “Not from what they tell me. Apparently you passed out on the skyranger on your way back from an op.”

“Sounds right. How long was I out of it?”

“Three days all told.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah, well, a car exploded in your face. Dr Tygen was surprised you stayed conscious and fighting all the way to the skyranger. Your insides were pretty scrambled.”

“Shit. When did you get here?”

“Two days ago. The resistance heard you lot were looking for a new combat medic so they mailed me over from the Pacific. Imagine my surprise when I heard that a certain Michelle King was passed out in the infirmary.”

His eyes drifted to her left and he winced a little, but didn’t stop grinning at her. She tried to raise her left arm but found that to be more painful than what it was worth, so she used her right hand instead to inspect the opposite side of her face. She felt bandages covering gaus over most of the left side of her head from the scalp down to her neck. Further inspection revealed that her left arm and shoulder was similarly bandaged up, as was her left hip.

“They’re gonna start calling me Twoface at this rate,” she rasped and looked for a glass of water.

“Nah, your face isn’t too bad. Couple of scratches that’ll leave a few extra laugh lines. The bad cuts were along here,” he traced a line from the edge of his sideburns back above and around his ear, “And your Frenchman-“

“Leroy.”

“-Did a pretty good job stitching them up. Grow your hair longer than an inch and nobody’ll even notice. Your arm’s a different matter. The Frenchman says Dr Tygen did the stitching there so don’t blame him.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah, I saw it when they changed the bandages. Tell you right now, I’d much rather the Frenchman stitch me up if I get hurt. Guy actually seems to care about his work. Proper craftsman.”

“I don’t blame you,” she looked at her arm, imagining the crosswork of future scars beneath the bandage, then back at her brother, “What’s wrong?”

“What?”

“Something’s wrong. It’s been, what, three years? Fuck three years now. I may not have seen you in three years but I still know what you look like when something’s wrong. So what is it? Have I got cancer or something?” she chuckled.

James hesitated, and for a second Michelle actually thought that oh shit it really is cancer, then he shook his head.

“They asked me to tell you because they thought it might be easier coming from me. I dunno, I’m not sure if it’s right me telling you.”

“Tell me what?”

***

It was two hours before dawn and the team were charging up a wide two-lane street in a small town, a smell that might have been a damaged sewer or a ruptured septic tank filling their nostrils. Small houses sat behind rusted gates, far too silent for anyone’s liking. Central Officer Bradford had told them the town was one of the rare rural communities that was still populated in this part of Central America, but aside from the trio of troopers they were about to put down they had seen no other sign of life. Where were all the people?

It was a thought Eva Degroot had to put aside as they opened fire on the troopers in front of them. One in red, two in black, standard formation. They squealed and scattered, but were cut down regardless. They needed to be taken down quickly, Menace One was on a time limit to reach the objective and they’d wasted to much time on a cautious dash across town.

Maybe that was why they’d stopped being cautious. Maybe it was the new armour, straight from Shen’s micro-factories, that made them overconfident. It didn’t matter. Leroy was suddenly yelling about multiple contacts and Degroot looked over in time to see Cheng plaster a stun lancer against a car and see Nilsen fire her shard gun at a viper, see the viper twist around and the shards graze off its armour. Then Leroy was firing in a different direction and Degroot turned around to see a muton lumbering behind an old truck that looked like it had been there since before the first war and it probably had and she saw another viper circling past it, the muton growled loudly and she turned back to see it aim its plasm rifle.

Saw it fire.

Felt it hit her in the chest.

***

James looked at Michelle and he looked uncomfortable as he deadpanned the words.

“Eva Degroot was killed in an op this morning.”

“Shit.”

***

The bar was quiet as Louise Seo walked around the table pouring the last of her good rye whiskey into the glasses of the gathered mourners. The only sound was her footsteps and the splash of liquid into the chipped but reliable glassware. When the bottle was nearly empty and the glasses were full she stepped around to her place at the table and raised her own, everyone else following suit. Navneet Banerjee, Cesar Vargas and Gabriela Navarro from the ranks of X-Com’s combat operatives. John Tipene, Simmons, Gertrude Wilders and Kogara Hiro from the Avenger’s crew. Everyone would get a chance to mourn and right now it was theirs.

“Rest easy Eva,” Louise said, a catch in her voice.

Everyone decided that it was all that needed to be said, and together they downed their drinks. Louise produced another bottle and began refilling their glasses. It wasn’t quite the quality of her last bottle of rye but it would do.

“Do we know what they’re going to do for the funeral?” Tipene asked, breaking a long silence after the toast.

“The Commander’s already been through her will,” Louise replied, “she wanted to be cremated, her ashes thrown into the wind from the deck.”

“The Commander,” Navarro added, “talked of a funeral pyre. On the deck in a few days.”

“How very Viking of him,” Wilders replied with a small smile.

“Well we haven’t exactly got a lot of crematoriums handy,” Simmons threw in and everybody nodded agreement.

They sat in silence for a while. Everyone at the table, everyone on the ship, had lost someone. Had lost more than one. For most it was the reason why still fought the aliens instead of merely rolling over and enjoying the gifts of their benevolent dictators. Everyone had lost someone. But it still hurt.

“How did she die?” Wilders asked in a quiet voice.

“The same as everyone else,” Vargas replied, “badly.”

***

The others watched her go down, staring horrified as she was spun about by the splash of plasma fire and tossed heavily onto her stomach, bouncing once and then being still. Navarro and Vargas were swearing from behind their cover. Cheng yelled her name. Then her nickname.

“Venom!”

Then she moved. Slowly, moving one arm and then her knees and then the other arm she growled and pushed herself onto her elbows. Cheng grinned, different to how she usually did, relief clear on her face.

The viper that Nilsen had grazed shot its tongue across the twenty metres between it and Degroot. It caught on her armour and dragged her backwards across the road and rubble until she thumped into its armoured torso. Cheng screamed something incoherent as it wrapped its lithe body around Degroot’s struggling form. The Dutchwoman had a chance to turn her head back towards them. Back towards her friends. Then her face disappeared behind yet another coil. The snake creature squeezed.

Afterwards nobody would be sure whether they heard the crack of bones, the snap of their friend’s neck, or if their minds simply filled in the blank space. When the viper uncoiled Eva Degroot fell to the ground, limp as an armoured pillow.

Cheng screamed.

***

“I th-think she b-blames me,” Karen Nilsen said as she passed the flask over to Doreen Donaldson. Technically the Scot was on duty, but she didn’t think anybody would mind her having a sip or two given the mornings events.

“Who?”

“Cheng. I-I think she blames me. I-I d-didn’t kill the snake th-that k-killed her friend. I-I should have killed it. I m-missed.”

Doreen shook her head, “I don’t think she blames you,” she spoke slowly so that her Glaswegian accent wasn’t too difficult to decipher for the Swede whose stuttering English was at least a second language, “Cheng wouldn’t do that. She’s not the type to hold grudges.”

“How do y-y-you know that?”

That was a good point. She, Karen and Michelle had only been on the Avenger for a few weeks. They hadn’t spent much time with Eva Degroot or Cheng or any of the others. But still.

“Because I do.”

“Y-your wrong. She does hold g-gr-grudges. We all do. I-it’s why we’re here.” Karen shook her head, “You should h-have s-s-seen her. A-A one woman army.”

***

Cheng stood in the middle of an intersection breathing raggedly. Her gun was empty, as was her grenade launcher. There was more than a half dozen bodies splattered around her and three houses were one fire. Some part of her mind was vaguely trying to tell the rest that she was responsible for the bodies and the flames. That she had charged amongst them, spitting curses and death and promises of hell. That she’d killed them all. That she needed to kill more. Another part of her said it didn’t matter.

She turned around and saw the limp form lying on the road. A pile of scorched black armour around a pale face, her Gremlin lying shut down beside her like a faithful hound at its master’s side.

“Eva!”

Cheng let out a sob and charged towards her friend, throwing her mag cannon aside and scooping the boneless form into her arms. Eva’s eyes were still open, her head lolled at an angle it shouldn’t have been able to, her armour was crushed and dented, her limbs twisted underneath.

“No Eva, please don’t be dead! Please!”

Cheng kissed her friend’s forehead and stroked her hair. Rocked back and forth, begging for her to say something, to wake up, to fucking breath. But no matter how hard she begged, Eva just wouldn’t. Cheng rocked back and forth, crying, head buried in her friend’s chest, small, shaking sobs. And that was where she stayed until the skyranger landed to pick them up.

***

It was a hunch, but Michelle remembered overhearing Eva talk to Cheng about meeting in one of the recently cleared rooms on the lower decks a week or two before. No one had seen Cheng in hours and Michelle figured it was worth a try.

The door slid open and Michelle heard the sounds of gunfire and a man’s clipped dialogue, saw lights flashing against the far wall. She crept forward on bare feet, her left arm in a sling and her face still swaddled in bandages. Cheng was sitting in a small incline between support struts, out of view of the door but not the rest of the room, also barefoot with a bottle of Louise’s ship made spirits in one hand and screen playing some sort of movie resting on her knees. She looked up at Michelle but said nothing.

“Can I join you?”

Cheng nodded and indicated the space beside her. Not in an inviting sort of way, mind you. More in an “I don’t give a shit” sort of way. Michelle sat down regardless and joined Cheng watching the screen.

“What are you watching?”

Die Hard: With a Vengeance.

“I don’t think I’ve seen it.”

“It was Eva’s favourite film.”

Shit. What do you say to that?

“I’m sorry your friend died.”

Shit. Not that.

“Thankyou. I appreciate it.”

Huh. Well whatever works.

“How are you doing?”

“Good, I guess. No, not good, just… I don’t know.”

“Alright?”

“Yes. That. Alright.”

Cheng was quiet for a moment, staring at the screen as a white guy and a black guy jumped onto a boat, but she clearly wanted to speak.

“She smiled at me.”

“What?” Michelle asked.

“Eva smiled at me. She looked at me. She looked straight into my eyes. And she smiled,” she gave Michelle an incredulous look, “she fucking smiled. I don’t… I don’t think she minded dying. I don’t think she wanted to die, but I think she was ready for it. She has a lot of friends waiting for her on the other side. She smiled at me. She was ready.”

There were tears in the big woman’s eyes.

“Please don’t tell anyone I said that.”

“Not even my brother.”

Cheng nodded, “Thank you.”

“Anytime. Now let’s watch the movie.”

“I’ll start it again.”

“Thanks, I’d like to watch it from the beginning. Did Eva watch this with you?”

“It was her favourite.”

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (8)

Chapter 8: New Blood

If it was possible for a viper to be surprised, than the bizarrely feminine reptile on the other side of the hatch looked surprised as it saw the woman grinning across the barrels of Magnetic Cannon.

“Knock fuckin’ knock!”

Michelle King pulled the trigger and traced a line across the alien’s waist (or whatever you might call the part where the torso turned into tail), pinning the creature against the wall opposite with the high velocity fire until she was positive the snake-lady wouldn’t have the opportunity provide any resistance. She chuckled to herself as the creature fell apart into two bloody chunks, the tail end still twitching a little as it flopped to the ground. Beside her Adams opened her mouth as if to say something but seemed to think better of it and closed it again. Cheng and Degroot were already charging through the door, followed a second later by Banerjee and Gerard Dekker, guns up and grim.

Well except for Li, who Michelle had noticed always had a smile on her face as well. Li’s smile was more relaxed or calm though, a lazy smile, whereas Michelle liked to think of her own as ‘cheeky.’

Everyone else was looking very grim. Well she understood Gerard, the German ranger who’d joined X-Com around the same time that Michelle and rugged Scotswoman Doreen Donaldson. He was limping along after being grazed by a plasma burst from one of those fucking Codex things, but thankfully was one of those manly blokes who just grin-and-bear-it. Or grimace and bear it. Must have been the (honestly, pretty fucking impressive) mutton chops that covered his cheeks and most of his jaw.

The rapid charge into the corridor where the snake-lady had been patrolling (probably) turned out to be unnecessary as it just led into another corridor with more hatches on either end.

Resistance intel say that the layout of these UFO’s has changed a bit since the old days,” CO Bradford’s voice crackled in their ears, “but odds are that the main bridge and generator room should be on the other side of this corridor.”

“Right,” the Commander rumbled, “We’ve got the time to do this properly. Two points of entry. Menace One-One,” Degroot, “and One-Two,” Cheng, “on the closest door, One-Four,” Banerjee, “and One-Six,” Dekker, “are on the other. One-Three,” Adams, “One-Five,” King, “stay put for the moment and keep an eye out for X-rays coming up behind you. Sensors say the last hostiles will be in there but I don’t want to take chances if I don’t have to. Dekker, Cheng, you’re first in. Degroot, Banerjee, you’re covering them. Proceed when ready.”

The others lumbered over to either side of their respective hatches while Michelle and Adams watched them move. Emily had slung her long-barrelled gauss rifle over her shoulder and drawn her sidearm, not nearly as powerful but easier to aim and fire quickly in the tight confines of the downed UFO. She’d proven she was still a pretty fucking good shot with the pistol when they’d caught the bulk of the aliens guarding the craft with their sometimes metaphorical pants around their sometimes metaphorical ankles, snapping off a quick shot that had blown apart a codex that had decided to clone a version of itself onto the ridge next to her. They’d taken the high ground early on, sneaking onto a low cliff line overlooking the alien ship that had been brought down by nearby resistance fighters, and after dealing with the Codex things that had a nasty habit of popping into inconvenient spots it had been a shooting gallery. It was only dumb luck that had seen Dekker get hurt at all.

Degroot reloaded and raised a hand, began counting down her fingers. Michelle didn’t doubt that the remaining X-rays had heard her tearing their mate in here apart and knew that Menace One was about to barge in and ruin their day, but it still wouldn’t do to let them know exactly when they were going to do it. Emily shuffled about a little nervously, probably a bit uncomfortable about being so close to their targets instead of watching them down the scope of her rifle, but there was nothing for it. Degroot finished her countdown. Cheng and Dekker opened the doors.

***

Alarm bells went off when Michelle stuck out her hand towards the other X-Com operatives the first time they met. Literally. A klaxon went off and red lights began flashing throughout the barracks and the rest of the ship. There was a second of surprise and hesitation as everyone stared at the nearest speaker or flashing bulb then the whole room sprung into action, with the exception of Michelle King, Doreen “call me Dori” Donaldson and Gerard Dekker. They had no idea what was going on.

The few tech crewmembers that had been in the barracks to welcome the new fighters were the first to run. One of the snipers, Michelle thought she’d been introduced as Emily, grabbed a bandolier and her flak jacket before she ran towards the hatch at the same time as the main Skyranger pilot, Louise Seo.

“Shen’s probably in Engineering!” Michelle heard the pilot yell.

“I’ll make sure she gets to the bridge safe,” the sniper replied.

“Meet you there!”

And then they were both through the hatch and gone.

The others were all sliding into their own body armour and strapping on equipment and weapons. It seemed like the thing to do, so the three rookies grabbed their own equipment (still packed away) and began preparing for what was probably going to be a fight.

“What’s happening?” Dori yelled over the wailing sirens.

The big Chinese woman, Michelle remembered her name was Cheng, looked in the Scot’s direction calm as you like with an easy smile still on her face.

“That,” she pointed up towards one of the speakers, “that wee-oooo-oo pattern,” she did a passable impression of the klaxon, “means a UFO has spotted us. Not an ADVENT interceptor, a real live alien spaceship.”

“Probably the Abductor-class my people told us about,” said the Mexican ranger, Cesar.

“That’s bad?”

“Maybe,” Cheng continued, “Louise has always managed to throw them off before. But the Commander wants us to be ready in case they manage to catch up.”

“During the first war,” the English-sounding one with the scarred right arm agreed, “We landed on the back of an alien battleship and brought it down from the inside. I think the Commander believes that to be worst case.”

“I would’ve thought worst-case would be them just shooting us out of the sky,” Michelle said, adjusting the straps on her kevlar vest.

“I believe the Commander is betting on the aliens wanting to take the ship back whole,” Cheng said, still relaxed, “and take a few prisoners while they’re at it.”

“I’d just shoot us out of the sky,” Michelle chuckled, but no one joined in.

“Yes, well,” the English-sounding one said (was her name Eve? Eva?), looking a little uncomfortable, “let’s hope we don’t have to find out.”

***

Emily Adams raced through the corridors, using the walls as brakes and grabbing or pushing against any adjacent surface to make turns. She’d shrugged into her flak jacket while moving as soon as she left the barracks and had managed to pull the bandolier with her holstered pistol round her waist well enough that it didn’t obstruct her movements.

She ran just behind Louise Seo, Firestarter, at first then split apart at the junction that led towards the bridge and instead hurled herself down the shortest route to Engineering. She reached a set of stairs and slid down the railing on her hands, danced around John and Hiro who were heading in the opposite direction, round a corner towards a ladder and was about to throw herself down it when a mop of black hair suddenly peaked through the hatch. Emily ground to a halt and nearly slid over, then reached out with a hand to help Lily Shen up off the ladder.

“I need to get you to the bridge.”

Lily just nodded. She was looking a little flustered at having been made to run all the way up from Engineering, but calm otherwise. Emily would tell anyone that might ask about how good Lily was at working under pressure, but the alarm had been sudden and everyone was surprised.

The ground beneath their feet lurched sideways and Emily had to catch Lily before she could fall backwards through the hatch and down the ladder. That would be Louise taking evasive maneuvers. She’d been a fighter pilot in the Canadian Air Force during the first war, when the roles for women in armed forces across the world had rapidly expanded as the men were slaughtered. And she’d been a good fighter pilot, at least according to CO Bradford. Louise would definitely give the bastards a hard time.

The ship lurched in the other direction as they began to run and Emily had to keep one hand on Lily’s arm to keep her steady as they raced to the bridge. Lily’s arm was bare beneath her grip and Emily’s fingers tingled as she felt the ropy muscles of her bicep.

Emily blushed. Realised she was blushing and blushed harder.

She got Lily to the bridge before the UFO hit them.

***

The alarm cut off, then the lights flickered and died. Michelle felt her stomach drop like in an elevator and suddenly her feet were leaving the ground. It took her a moment to realise that the artificial gravity had been cut, a moment longer to realise that the fact they needed gravity meant that the ship was probably starting a freefall.

“Fuck!” she yelled, “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”

She wasn’t the only one swearing. All around her in the pitch darkness she could hear people cursing and yelling. Someone might have throwing up their lunch as well. Gross.

“Everyone find a bunk!” she heard Cheng bellow over the sound of everyone else, “Find a bunk! You’re going to want to land on something soft when the gravity comes back! Find a bunk!”

The English-sounding one took up the call, as did an Irish brogue and a German male. It seemed like a good idea, so Michelle reached out in the rough direction she thought the bunk where she left her duffel bag was. Her hand brushed against what felt an awful lot like an armoured tit (or a shoulder, or an elbow… no… no, definitely a tit) and she almost retracted it again. Thankfully she didn’t and another hand grabbed her own and pulled her into a tight hug within what she hoped was the space between the top and bottom bunks.

“Got you!” said a voice she didn’t have time to identify, as the Avenger lurched again into what must have been an even freer fall. Suddenly both bodies were thrown upwards against what must have been the underside of the top bunk, limbs and bits flattened beneath (above?) the G-Forces of thousands of tonnes of metal hurtling downwards at well above a terminal velocity.

The seconds took hours to tick by, Michelle thought she heard someone praying. Then the red emergency lighting flickered on and the world staggered back into place. Michelle dropped onto the bottom bunk and bounced straight off it, landing on the metallic floor hard. Pins and needles shot through her arm from jarring her elbow and she tasted blood from biting her tongue. She groaned.

“Ow, fuckin’ shit fuck,” apparently she hadn’t bit it hard enough to make her talk any less clearly. Or perhaps years of movies and television had lied to her.

“Anyone dead?”

Michelle looked up towards the bunk that she’d just bounced off. Cheng was sitting there, cross-legged and still grinning widely (though now there was an edge of weariness in her eyes). There were a few groans and complaints around the room. The Pakistani toff was swearing like a proper working-class man and it sounded odd coming from his smooth, deep, refined voice and accent. Michelle sighed and rolled onto her back.

“Think I might lie here for a few,” she stared at the ceiling for a few seconds then remembered her manners and looked towards Cheng, “Sorry for copping a feel mate. Desperate times calling for desperate measures. Very nice by the way. I don’t swing in that direction but if I did I would have been very happy.”

Cheng burst out laughing.

***

A week after the UFO shot them down in the middle of what was once the US state of Louisiana the Skyranger touched down in what had been their intended destination before they were spotted: the rumoured location of a squad of possible recruits. What they found was a battlefield.

Or at least what looked very much like a battlefield.

Because of the recruitment possibilities CO Bradford had decided to lead the mission himself, striding from the Skyranger wearing a battered kevlar vest and carrying his oversized machine-gun/sniper-rifle hybrid that everyone referred to as “the monster,” while the rest of Menace One stomped out around him. Cheng liked Bradford but he had a flair for the dramatic that could be most diplomatically described as amusing. They left Gabby Navarro behind to guard the Skyranger with Simmons, the Canadian co-pilot without a first name, who was sitting on the ramp with an assault rifle across his lap, while everyone fanned out to search the ruins in front of them.

It looked like some sort of abandoned supply depot hanging off a road that hadn’t seen much use since the ADVENT administration took over. Grass and weeds had invaded the tarred surface and the nearby forest looked like it had expanded over across the chain-link fence that had once separated human lands from the wild.

There had been no signs of active alien activity before they’d landed but the place showed too many signs of battle for Menace One not to be wary (even if Simmons didn’t seem concerned). Burn marks from energy weapons scorched the brickwork and entire sections of wall had been knocked over or melted to slag. Guns up and both eyes open they divided up into pairs (Cheng and Gerry O’Neill, CO Bradford and Else Krause, Eva Degroot and the new ranger Gerard Dekker), and entered the main building. Inside it was even more obvious that something large and violent and bloody had happened. The floor was littered with spent shells and covered in blast marks. Bullet holes mixed in with the burns on the walls and everywhere were the dark stains that a half-dozen experienced eyes knew was blood. The only thing missing was all the bodies, but that wasn’t surprising. ADVENT wasn’t fond of letting good meat go to waste.

“How many of them do you think there were?” O’Neill asked with his soft voice as they poked around the splintered remains of a pile of empty crates.

“I don’t know,” Cheng thought about the question, “But there must have been quite a few to have left this much mess.”

“Maybe,” O’Neill said carefully, “or they might have just been really good. This is the kind of mess we would leave behind.”

“Numbers or skill, we could have used either.”

“Or both.”

“Or both,” Cheng agreed.

The crack of an gunshot broke the silence around their conversation like thunder through stormclouds. Cheng looked expectantly in the direction it came from and spent an embarrassingly long second trying to stare through a brick wall before O’Neill nearly whispered, “That came from the Skyranger.” A few heartbeats later Simmons’ radioed voice confirmed it.

“Hostile by Firestarter! Hostile’s got Gabby!”

Cheng looked towards O’Neill but he was already loping back the way they arrived, longish wavy blonde hair trailing behind him. Cheng grunted something to herself about “staying together” and followed, nearly losing her footing on the loose shell-casings for her trouble.

When she made it outside the others were already there and mostly pointing their guns at a hooded figure standing behind Gabby Navarro, who was looking a little nervous with a long, wicked looking knife at her throat and a shotgun pointed over her shoulder. Bradford was the only one not pointing a gun (even Louise Seo had appeared with big automatic pistol) and also seemed like the only one who wanted to end the standoff without bloodshed.

“Let’s everyone just calm down a second,” he growled in a voice that he probably thought sounded non-threatening.

“Who the f-fuck are you people?” the hooded figure bellowed and Cheng was a little surprised to hear a woman’s voice from within the hood.

“We’re not ADVENT if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“I d-didn’t ask who you’re n-not I-I asked who y-you are, yes?”

Bradford puffed out his chest a little bit as he replied, “We’re X-Com!”

Cheng rolled her eyes and saw Navarro’s attacker’s head twitch beneath its hood.

“I d-don’t know what that f-fucking is! Wh-why would y-you think I know what that is?”

Bradford didn’t let X-Com’s lack of fame or infamy phase him. Chest still puffed out, “I assume you’re part of the team that the local resistance cell told us about. We came here to try and recruit you.”

“A-and why would I join you?” she had an accent, something northern or central European.

Bradford pointed at the skyranger, then at the powerful magnetic weapons the squad was carrying, “Because we’ve got the tools needed to bring down ADVENT, and I think you want to avenge,” Bradford loved that word, “your fallen comrades.”

The woman laughed and Navarro flinched a little as the knife vibrated at her neck, “Buy me a d-drink before you try and f-fuck me. The only people I’ve s-seen with weapons like y-yours are ADVENT or their friends, yes? So you m-must be ADVENT or their friends, yes?”

Bradford didn’t have a chance to reply. There was a blur of movement behind the woman and suddenly O’Neill was standing behind her, with the blade of his machete resting against her neck. Cheng couldn’t keep the surprise off her face and when she glanced at the others they all looked just as surprised. She hadn’t seen him work his way around Navarro’s attacker at all. Shit, now that she thought about she hadn’t spotted him when she’d initially run outside as well. The Irishman hadn’t revealed himself to start with. Clever.

The woman’s hood twisted as if she was examining the blade pressed against her neck.

“Hurt her,” O’Neill said, surprisingly audible, “and I’ll cut you into tiny little pieces you stuttering bastard.”

A simple threat but delivered with more promise than anything Cheng believed herself capable of. The woman seemed to think about it for a moment, then removed the knife from Navarro’s throat.

“I only s-stutter in English. When I’m scared, yes?”

***

Her name was Karen Nilsen and she was from Sweden. They didn’t get much else from her, including why her and her Swedish friends had managed to find themselves attacked by the aliens in Middle America. They cuffed her and lay her face down on the deck of the Skyranger where a quick kick would stop any attempt to cause trouble.

Navarro looked shaken and irritated that she’d been caught unawares by the Swede. She sat next to Gerry O’Neill on the trip back. Cheng noticed that they were quietly holding hands.

Huh. Gabby and Gerry. When did that happen?

***

Three days after the Avenger was shot down Michelle King, Degroot, Adams, Banerjee, Dekker and Cheng were gathered on the bridge with the Commander and Bradford. The Commander was looking more strained than when Michelle had first met him a few days before, with dark circles around his eyes and the kind of bed hair that usually indicates someone didn’t sleep in a bed, but he still managed a smile as everyone entered. They’d managed to get through the alien attempt to take the Avenger, with only one casualty (Thierry Leroy had been wounded, Cheng had sighed very loudly and jokingly cried, “What? Again!”), but the Commander and Bradford had probably both been reminded of the fall of the first X-Com. Funnily enough Eva Degroot didn’t seem to be bothered at all, and from what Michelle had heard she’d seen some of the worst of it.

“I’d like to start by thanking all of you for your efforts defending the Avenger,” the Commander began without much need for a hello, “and getting it flying again,” he nodded towards Michelle, “Miss Shen says you and Miss Donaldson were invaluable in getting the engines running so quickly.”

Michelle nodded back. During the attack her and Dori had been sent to help Shen get some of the systems up and running. While the Avenger had just enough crewmembers and engineers to keep things running smoothly recovery from a catastrophic loss of power had required more hands than they had. Dori had a bit of electrical experience and Michelle was good at doing what she was told and lifting things, so they’d been handed over to Shen while the rest of X-Com’s operatives destroyed the device that was keeping them grounded. Michelle didn’t mind, someone had to do it, but Dori had chafed at not being sent to kill aliens.

“I’ll tell Miss Donaldson you said thanks,” Michelle grinned and this seemed to please the Commander.

“Good. Now the business at hand,” he waved a hand and the giant holographic globe changed to an aerial view of an alien UFO craft sitting in the middle of a sparse forest clearing, “Half an hour ago we received word from contacts in one of the North Eastern US cells that they’d managed to bring this baby down in one of their forests. It didn’t blow up like they hoped it would and they don’t have the strength to clear and capture it before it takes off again, so they passed the information onto us.”

“Do we know how they managed to bring it down so intact?” Eva asked a little skeptically.

“We do not. The cell said it was a ‘trade secret’ that they’d rather not share.”

“We sure it’s not a trap than?” Emily asked, in her soft southern drawl.

“We are not, but the Spokesman,” Michelle saw a few shudders at the title but didn’t know why, “assures us that they’re trustworthy, even if they’re not always willing to share. I’m inclined to agree with him that this isn’t a trap for at least one reason. Shen failed to explain exactly how she came to the conclusion – a lot of maths was involved – but she’s pretty certain that this,” he pointed at the hologram, “is the same bastard who shot us down a few days ago,” the Commander grinned, “Who wants to get some payback?”

Looking at the faces around her Michelle was pretty sure the answer was “everyone”.

***

The last alien haunting the UFO was another viper, making for four total. Bradford and the Commander informed them that the scanners were picking up no further hostile signatures in the area but they did a perimeter sweep just in case. When it came up empty everyone relaxed a little while they waited for the Avenger to arrive so that Shen and the engineering and science crews could rapidly strip it for anything useful, tied down or not. Michelle decided to do something similar.

She found one of the viper corpses outside the ship and bent over it, inspecting the armour shaped around the oddly female form, the black eyes and the long fangs of its jaw, hanging loosely open. She realised that Emily Adams was watching and grinned in her direction.

“You know what a platypus is mate?”

“Pardon?” the American asked.

“A platypus. Or an echidna?”

“I know what they are.”

“Mammals that lay eggs. Still lactate and all that, but they hatch out of eggs first.”

“Okay,” Emily sounded unsure of where this was going.

“Just thinking. Looking at the boobs on this thing I’m just wondering if it’s the other way around for snakes where they come from,” Michelle nudged the corpse with her toe.

“Maybe,” Emily still sounded unsure, “maybe they’re venom glands or something?”

“Where’s the fun in that though?”

Still smiling Michelle brought her booted foot down on the the viper’s face. Emily blanched and took a step backwards as she watched the grinning Australian stomp on the viper three, four, five times. Heard its skull and jaw crack and crunch.

Satisfied that it was thoroughly broken, Michelle drew a thick glove from one of her many pouches and slipped it over her right hand, then bent over her handiwork. Disgusted but intrigued Emily stepped around to see what she was doing and saw her carefully but brutally working one of the viper’s teeth out of its gums.

“What are you doing?”

Emily nearly jumped out of her skin at the sound of Li Ming Cheng’s voice right behind her. The big, lean Chinese woman could be very quiet when she wanted to, though she rarely did.

“Getting some souvenirs,” Michelle said, as cheerfully as if she was selecting seashells to take home from the beach. She managed to get one fang free and then set to work on the other.

“Okay,” Li said, far more casually than Emily honestly expected, “just the teeth?”

Michelle nodded, “Going to turn them into a necklace, mate.”

“Nice,” Li extended the word appreciatively.

Emily glanced between the two others, discomfort written plainly across her face. It felt wrong, disrespectful, to be pulling the teeth from the heads of their vanquished enemies, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on why. She had no issue with Tygen cutting them into mincemeat back on the autopsy table and the aliens certainly showed no courtesy with the treatment of human remains. And honestly, in this world watching two women calmly discuss turning the teeth of a giant snake lady into a necklace was not nearly as surreal as it would have been two decades ago. But it still felt wrong. What was that term Doctor Colin Lynch, her part-time psychologist, had once told her? Cognitive dissonance. That’s what this was.

Michelle finished pulling the second fang from the snake’s jaw, “Maybe I’ll make a bracelet as well.”

“Or a brooch,” Li suggested.

Emily let out a slightly hysterical laugh, both Li and Michelle gave her a funny look.

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (7)

Chapter 7: Scar Tissue

The girl from the other side of the pit was about twenty years younger than Eva Degroot. She was almost as tall and at least as broad across the shoulders as Cheng, and though she lacked the powerful Chinese woman’s almost cartoonishly lean, toned physique she did not lack for muscle. When they’d met before the fight she’d introduced herself as Trudy and spoken with an accent similar to Adams. Smiled a lot and flirted a little, but seemed to do that with everyone. The referee, a tall man with big eyebrows and small ears wearing a dusty red shirt, introduced her as “The Hammer” and Degroot at “Venom.” The name Cheng had given her.

They met in a brown dirt pit about ten metres across surrounded by a waist high wooden fence in the middle of what had once been the warehouse of a now abandoned shoe factory. Sixty or seventy people packed against the edges of the pit or sat on the piled crates that acted as makeshift bleachers, roaring for blood. Degroot stood there, barefoot wearing just a pair of cargo shorts and a tight sports bra, uncomfortable with the fact that so many of her scars were showing. On her calf, her stomach, her right arm. Everyone could see them, and it didn’t matter if they didn’t care. The referee scrambled to the edge of the pit and someone out of view rang a bell, and the two women began to fight.

It lasted for four rounds, all except the last one going for three minutes. The other woman was taller, stronger and younger, but Degroot was faster, smarter and tougher. She danced around the girl, blocking with her right arm and striking quickly with her left. Trudy would occasionally come in for a grapple in the hopes she’d then be able wrestle Degroot to the ground and pin her for long enough to get some serious hits in, but the Dutchwoman would come in beneath her guard and spin around her, jabbing with fists and elbows on her way through. Trudy managed to hit her, but they were never more than glancing blows that always somehow managed to leave her vulnerable to Degroot’s counterattacks. The crowd roared, bet, booed, hissed, bet and cheered. Cheng hung over the edge of the pit screaming curses in Mandarin Chinese between commands to “Rip her fucking head off!”

They were both bare knuckled so mainly limited themselves to aiming at the soft spots on the body, but even still by the time the fourth round began both were bleeding and exhausted. The right side of Trudy’s face was a swollen bruised mess and she was spitting blood through red teeth. Degroot had a cut above her left eyebrow that was bleeding more than she liked, forcing her to squint through the blood.

By the time the bell rang and the fourth round began everyone knew who was going to win and had begun betting on which round would be the last. Most thought it would last another two, a few thought it would be over in the next, fewer thought it would take another three. Even still no one seemed particularly surprised when Degroot drooped her in the fourth. They were about two minutes in and Trudy was getting frustrated. She roared and swung hard and high, overextending herself. Degroot stepped forward, spun and slammed her right fist, hard as a brick, into the side of Trudy’s head. The young American staggered, fell to her hands and knees, looked up in time to see Degroot’s bare foot speeding towards her face. She hit the ground, to quote Adams, “like a sack of hammers” and didn’t get back up again.

The crowd went crazy. Degroot allowed herself a small smile and trod over to the edge of the pit where Cheng wore her lazy grin even wider than normal. The referee was yelling something about the victory and a few of the unconscious girl’s friends had hopped the fence and were rolling her onto her side. Degroot briefly thought about offering assistance but a few members of the crowd who carried the kind of bags she usually saw on combat medics were already on their way over, so she decided to stay out of their way.

She reached the end of the pit and Cheng helped her climb over, then cleared a path through the crowd (she could have given a bulldozer lessons, Degroot thought idly) towards the fighter’s locker room (one of the old factory’s former washrooms). Once inside she sat Degroot down and grabbed a wet towel, concern in her eyes despite the smile on her face.

“That eyebrow is going to need stitches.”

Cheng had originally planned on being the one in the pit, but part of getting the Commander’s permission for the fight (it was a surprise to everyone who knew about it that he agreed, so they were happy to accept all his terms) had been medical clearance from Tygen, so they wouldn’t exacerbate old wounds. Cheng had been injured in the previous mission, and while it hadn’t been anything too serious Tygen had decided that it was too risky to let her get into a bare knuckle brawl so soon after. So Degroot had volunteered.

“It’s my own fault for letting her hit me.”

“Yes it is,” Cheng said but didn’t mean, “Do you want me to stitch it up now or wait until we get back to the Avenger.”

“With all respect due to your abilities as a surgeon, I think I’ll wait until I see Tygen.”

“It doesn’t sound like you respect my surgical abilities all that much if you want to fucking Tygen to do it.”

“It didn’t know it was possible to apply a bandage backwards until I met you.”

Cheng barked out a laugh and pulled out the first aid kit she’d brought along.

“How long did it take you to think of that?”

“I thought of it just now.”

“Ha, you’re really getting used to this whole ‘social interaction’ thing.”

“Maybe. I did, however, just beat the last person I met unconscious.”

Cheng laughed again, Degroot smirked proudly. The Chinese woman was about ten years younger but, unlike Adams or Krause or most of the Avenger’s crew, she didn’t feel old around Cheng. Probably because Cheng was always so relaxed. She didn’t respect anyone’s rank except the Commander’s and certainly didn’t treat Degroot any better just because she had been there with the original X-Com (something that even Banerjee and Leroy, who had been fighting since the first war, were prone to do).

It was nice having a friend again.

“I’ll get myself cleaned up. You go get our winnings.”

***

“What are we playing?”

“It’s called ‘Two-Up.'”

It was the early days of X-Com and Degroot was watching skeptically as Pharaoh instructed Aori and Hobbit on the art of stretching a blanket between them. Singh and Higgins watched curiously from their bunks and Naidu stubbornly buried herself further in her book.

“And why are we playing ‘Two-Up’?” Degroot asked, hands on hips and trying very hard to be taken seriously by the Australian sniper fussing over a blanket.

“Because we’re bored and someone,” he directed a mock glare in Hobbit’s direction, the New Zealander stuck her tongue out in response, “lost our deck of cards.”

“Uh-huh,” she tried to sound as unconvinced as possible, “and we play this game by throwing two coins onto a blanket?”

“And betting on whether they come up heads or tails.”

“That doesn’t sound nearly as interesting as you seem to think it does.”

“Bet enough money and it’ll make watching fucking paint dry exciting.”

“Does the Commander know about your gambling addiction?”

Pharaoh grinned at her, “How’s your arse feeling Starburns? Healing alright?”

Singh, Higgins and Aori all chuckled. Hobbit giggled. Even Nairu snorted behind her book. Degroot blushed furiously and unconsciously covered the star-shaped wounds on her posterior.

“Kut,” she spat at him and he laughed.

“I know what that means and it and it doesn’t bother me. You might hurt Hobbit’s sensitive ears though.”

“Fuck you Dave!” Hobbit sang and Pharaoh just laughed again.

He liked to laugh. He liked to make other people laugh.

Degroot backed away and sat carefully on her bunk, “This game. You played it often back home?”

“Nah, it’s only allowed once a year.”

“When?”

Pharaoh looked at his watch, “About a week ago.”

“What?”

“We were only allowed to play it one day a year.”

“Why?”

He grinned, “Tradition.”

Degroot thought that, and the game itself, sounded stupid and told him so.

“If you’re bored let’s go watch a movie.”

“Can’t mate,” he’d produced a coin and begun flipping and catching it, flipping and catching it, flipping and catching it, “Commander’s using the screening room for something important. Conference call or something. We’ll watch a movie later, anything you want.”

“Anything?”

Pharaoh sighed, but still smiled when he said, “Yeah mate, anything.”

***

The Black Market was located in one of those small Middle American towns that once littered family movies meant to call back to ‘simpler times.’ Like most of those towns it had been abandoned after the US Government had surrendered and ADVENT had been formed, its residents moving to the city centres, joining the mobile camps that fed the resistance or simply disappearing. Unlike the rest it had found new life as a hub for illegal and underground trade, with everybody from arms dealers to tobacco farmers to religious leaders selling their wares in the broken storefronts and old warehouses along the town’s main roads. Inns, bars, theatres and fighting pits had been set up to accommodate the flow of free people and keep them entertained, and it wasn’t hard to believe that the people who ran the Black Market spent a fortune in resources and plundered tech ensuring that their operation stayed off of ADVENT’s RADAR. As such it was the only place where a pair of fugitive rebels could still do a little shopping.

After cleaning herself up, tying her hair back in a bun and putting on some long sleeves and trousers to cover her scars Degroot had left the locker room and found Cheng being paid by the promoter, a lanky Brazilian with with scars running from his chin, down his neck past the collar of his shirt (red like the referee’s). Trudy was there as well, sitting on an old crate with an ice pack covering the right side of her head. She smiled genuinely at Degroot and congratulated her on her win. Degroot shook her hand, asked a few questions about the girl’s injuries and made a few vague but honestly meant compliments that she hoped sounded encouraging. The Brazilian finished paying Cheng and Degroot said goodbye to Trudy.

Outside the shoe factory the air was fresh and warm. There was a few dozen people on the cracked streets and broken pavements but most people tried to stay inside whenever they could. Paranoia was a hard thing to break and most of the traders and customers here had survived this long by assuming that no location was safe from ADVENT drones and satellites.

“What did you think of The Hammer?” Cheng asked as she led Degroot down the main street.

“Do you mean Trudy?”

Cheng nodded.

“A strong fighter with a lot of potential. Why?”

“Central wants us on the lookout for potential recruits.”

“Of course,” Degroot thought harder about the fight with Trudy, “she’s tough but she’s young.”

“So were you once upon a time.”

“Yes, I know,” Degroot unconsciously rubbed at the scars that covered her right arm, thought of Adams and Krause, then more pragmatically said, “she can definitely hold her own in a fistfight. That doesn’t speak much about her abilities in a firefight.”

“Maybe,” Cheng nodded agreement, “I might point Central in her direction anyway though.”

“Do what you think is best.”

They wandered until they reached what looked like it had once been a middle-end designer clothes shop which still had its windows. Most of the lettering was missing from the storefront, there were cobwebs in the doorway and the interior was dark and musky. Degroot decided to wait outside while Cheng went looking for the trader that she’d heard had made camp in the old shop, carrying their bag of winnings over her shoulder. They’d been paid in valuable scrap, mostly precious metals needed for more intricate electronics and batteries, mostly still in the form of circuit boards and batteries. Useful bits. The Unofficial currency for individuals in the Black Market. The higher-ups traded for and with the most valuable commodity of all: information.

A minute later Degroot heard a muted conversation fluctuated in volume as Cheng haggled with the trader inside. It took longer than expected for Cheng to haggle him down to a reasonable price, mostly because he didn’t sound intimidated at all by Cheng’s size or the pistol strapped to her thigh. Then again the man was probably better armed than Cheng even when she was fully equipped for a mission. Still, Degroot could still hear her being her infuriatingly calm self, could almost hear the lazy grin in her voice as she convinced the trader to lower his price to something more reasonable. After about ten minutes she rejoined Degroot, shoving a lacquered case the size of a shoebox into her satchel.

“Alright,” she smiled at Degroot and the two women began walking back in the general direction of the factory, “primary objective completed. Now we’ve got to find the alcohol for Louise and John. Anything else we should try and find while we’ve got the money to spend?”

“Tobacco for Gabriella and Vargas has been complaining about needing a new book, I think.”

“Let’s try and find him something good then.”

***

The klaxons bellowed and red lights flashed through the smoke that had suddenly filled every room and corridor. Fires burned and voices screamed, begging for help. Every breath tasted of ash and gunpowder and shit and oil and blood. There had been so much blood in the hangar and when Degroot, Hobbit and Nairu had escaped through one of the emergency corridors, away from the disastrous attempt to hold the main entrance, the flashing alarm and emergency lights had kept them washed in a bloody red.

They’d had so little warning of the attack, so little time to prepare a defensive line, so quickly overwhelmed. Singh was dead, his chest had been melted and splattered across the walls by a burst of plasma fire from the smoky darkness beyond the hangar doors. Higgins’ legs and right arm had been ripped off by a grenade, but he’d been crying for help right up until Degroot and the others had bolted. Vodka, a hard-drinking Russian stereotype of a sniper, had screamed and hurled herself from the catwalk for no obvious reason, landing on her head. Munóz had been hit just as he was throwing a grenade. It had rolled out of his dead hand and blown away the entire left side of the the base security trooper next to him. Another trooper, who Degroot had seen often enough to recognise but had never learnt her name, had her her head crushed by a muton using its plasma rifle like a club. Completely crushed. Like one moment she had a head, then she just had a neck and part of her jaw left.

Then the order had come, a desperate cry over the intercom in the Commander’s voice, “They’ve already infiltrated the Base! Code Orange! I repeat, Code Orange!”

Retreat. Escape. Regroup elsewhere. X-Com had fallen.

No one needed the encouragement. The handful of survivors had immediately run for the nearest exit. Nairu and Hobbit had converged on the same hatch as Degroot, all three of them firing blindly to their rear as they went. Nairu made it through, so did Degroot. But Hobbit, smaller than both the Dutch and South African women, had been hit. She went down feet from the door with a ragged leg wound, and it was all Degroot could do to reach down and drag her through before Nairu slammed the hatch shut.

There was a brief respite where the three of them could catch their breath, leaning against the rough stone walls while the flashing red lights danced across their faces, but it didn’t last long before they snapped back into action. Degroot began bandaging Hobbit’s leg while Nairu checked and reloaded their rifles, Degroot pulling a magazine from her and Hobbit’s webbing to do so.

“How much ammunition does everyone have left?”

“I’ve got five full magazines left after that,” replied Degroot.

“I’ve got four,” Hobbit said through clenched teeth.

“I have five also. Can you walk on that leg Katie?”

“I think I have to. A little help would be appreciated though.”

Degroot nodded and helped Hobbit stand and lean on her shoulder.

“Which way should we go?” the New Zealander hissed as she put weight on her bad leg.

“We should head towards the Command Centre,” Degroot suggested.

“The aliens have probably already taken it,” Nairu pointed out.

“I said towards it. We can see what exits are still open on the way. If all other possibilities are blocked than we won’t have much of a choice anyway.”

“Alright,” Nairu handed the others their rifles back, “I’ll lead the way.”

And so they’d fled down the corridor. The smoke grew thicker and the sound of gunfire more sporadic. They shut and locked hatches behind them whenever they could, trying to move generally upwards towards the exits to the surface, occasionally running into a hatch locked by someone in front. Twice they encountered the enemy, first running into an enemy floater and then running into a lonely sectoid. Nairu gunned them both down before they even had a chance to cry out. She was fast and alert, and had a reputation for close quarter combat for a reason. Eventually they came upon a large metal door that all three of them recognised. Degroot leaned Hobbit against a wall and flicked the safety off her rifle.

“Do you think they have made it through here already?” Nairu asked quietly, calmly.

Degroot looked over at the door in front of them, at Hobbit (who was looking paler and paler) and then back at Nairu. Beyond the door was the main warehousing and supply structure, a vast, cavernous space that linked to the hangar via an enormous blast door that had doubtless been one of the aliens’ first objectives. The door led to the catwalk that ran along the edges of the space, which meant they might not be spotted immediately if the aliens had the warehouse occupied, but opening the door and using the catwalks always made noise.

“I’d put money on it. Especially if they’ve already hit the Command Centre. We have to go through here though.”

Nairu nodded, waited for Degroot to get into position on the other side of the doorframe and Hobbit to indicate she had their backs then slowly swung the door open.

Pharaoh saw them and waved.

“Hey there girls, how’s it going?”

He was in the middle of the catwalk, propped against a metal crate with his rifle besides him, sitting in a pool of his own blood. Too much blood. He still managed a weak smile as he gestured them over. Nairu rushed over and Degroot grabbed Hobbit and followed. Inside the warehouse was a bloody, brutal mess. Alien corpses were piled amongst X-Com personnel, crates were burning, the walls and columns were scored with bullet holes and the burns of energy weapons. But whatever had happened, Pharaoh seemed to be the only survivor.

“You’ve been busy,” Degroot said, unable to keep the concern out of her voice.

“Yeah, y’know, I like to be useful mate,” his teeth were bloody but his voice was steady, “I, uh, I think I’m fucked Starburns.”

Degroot wanted to comfort him, wanted to say something hopeful, but she saw him putting pressure on a hole in his gut and just couldn’t bring herself to lie to him. Just nodded.

“That’s fine mate. Kind of expecting it,” he kept smiling, how the hell did he keep smiling, “We stopped them. Forced them back and Damien managed to close the blast doors before he bled out somewhere over there,” he thumbed generally over his shoulder, “But they’ll be back any second now. Either that or they’ll come from a different direction. It was just me and him left. Now it’s just me. You three, you three should run.”

“We can take you with us,” Degroot said, her eyes suddenly blurry, “We can get you out of here.”

“Nah. Already told you, I’m fucked mate. I’m- I’m fucked. I can’t feel my legs,” he let out a choking sob there, but he never stopped smiling, “I’m fucked. I can’t feel them. I can’t go. But you three need to run. You go through that door,” he pointed in the opposite direction to where they’d entered, “you head to Workshop 2. Central and a few others were heading that way. They said there was still a clear path out through the ventilation. You go there and you get out.”

Degroot realised she was nodding, but her legs refused to move.

“Go on,” Pharaoh said gently, “get Katie and the Gazelle out safe. We’ll see each other in whatever comes left.”

“How do you know?”

He laughed, “‘Cause I fucking do. Now, you protect them. You don’t stop trying to protect them.”

“I will.”

“Good,” that seemed to satisfy him, “Goodbye Eva. You look after yourself and everybody else.”

Degroot nodded, turned and left him behind. Hobbit limped along with her and Nairu followed. Neither of them had said anything that Degroot had heard and she was glad. They were all friends, but Pharaoh and her had been the closest. Her “best mate in all the world,” and she’d left him to bleed out on the catwalk.

Halfway to Workshop 2 they heard the sound of ripping metal, followed by the echoing crack of a sniper rifle. Then another. And another. A fourth. A fifth. Silence. They reached Workshop 2 and closed the door behind them. There was a fire burning in one corner of the room, pouring acrid smoke against the opening in the roof.

“There’s the vent,” Hobbit said and limped over, sadness on her features but hope in her eyes.

“No signs of violence,” Nairu said eyeing the fire.

“Machine probably wasn’t switched off properly and overloaded when the emergency evacuation started,” Degroot agreed.

“We should still be cautious, I’ll go first.”

Nairu used a workbench to climb up to the vent, then climb into it. They heard her shuffling around in the vent, than her muffled voice yell “It seems clear.”

And it was because Nairu was up in the vents that, when the fire ignited a barrel of hazardous chemicals, she was not caught in the explosion.

There was a crackling whoosh and Degroot was thrown across the room to slam bodily against the wall. There was a second of shock, the soreness of a what was probably fractured ribs, then the smell of cooking meat filled her nostrils and she felt a throbbing, excruciating pain all over her right arm. She screamed and looked at it, saw that it was wrapped in flames from her armour pauldron to sleeve cuff, screamed harder, shook her arm stupidly in an attempt to put out the fire, kept screaming until Nairu swaddled the demon limb in a fire blanket and wrestled Degroot still while whispering soothing words.

“Shhh, shhhh, be still. Be still. The fire is out, we need to leave.”

Degroot was shaking uncontrollably, tears rolled down her face and her throat was scorched from all the smoke and screaming. When she spoke her voice cracked.

“Where’s Hobbit? Is Katie okay? Where’s Katie?”

Nairu shook her head, “Katie is already gone. We need to leave.”

That didn’t make sense.

“No, Katie wouldn’t have left without us. She couldn’t. She needs me to help her walk.”

“No, Katie is gone,” the smell of cooking meat still hung in the air over the smoke, despite the vent, “Katie is- Katie is dead.”

It was like being hit with a hammer. Degroot was shaking harder, realised she was sobbing. Nairu was inspecting her arm, wincing as she looked at the charred skin beneath the tattered bits of armour and clothing.

“No,” Degroot begged, “nononono not Hobbit. Not Katie,” she hiccoughed, “No, not Katie. I said I’d protect her,” her voice was getting louder, “I told him I’d look after her. He told me to look after her!” she thrashed about, looking for her friend, ignoring what was left.

“We have to leave. We have to get out of here.”

“No!” she was yelling now, “No! Katie!” screaming, “Katie! No Katie! Katie!”

“She is fucking dead! We are leaving now!”

Again Degroot screamed her friend’s name.

***

Cheng and Degroot sat in the bar of the Avenger with a beer each, watching Adams, Shen and Navarro drinking fresh apple juice that the fighter and her manager had spent the last of their winnings on. Navarro was demonstrating how to roll a cigarette to the other two using the tobacco that Cheng and Degroot had found for her, something that seemed to fascinate the sniper and chief engineer. Smokers had gone almost extinct in North America (where both women had spent the majority of their time since the invasion), Europe, most of Africa and northern Asia. There were a handful of diehards like Navarro who put a great deal of effort into maintaining the habit, but outside of South America and Southern Asia most people had been forced to give up. Listening to the Spanish woman, normally quiet and withdrawn, explain the art of rolling the perfect cigarette must have felt like watching a new play or film for the first time.

Cheng and Degroot had returned with the Commander and Central (who had been off bartering for weapons and supplies while Degroot had been fighting and the two women had been shopping) bearing the fruits of their labours. John Tipene and Louise Seo had been happy to receive the crate of decent alcohol with which to restock the bar. Gertrude Wilders, one of the other members of the Avenger’s technical crew, had been given a few vital ingredients and was at that very moment baking cupcakes in the mess kitchen. They’d bought a half dozen books, real books, for the barracks and Cesar Vargas in particular and Cheng had found and insisted on buying a whetstone for Gerry O’Neill, the Irish ranger who was constantly, unnervingly sharpening his blades (something that seemed to bother everyone except Cheng).

The real prize (aside from their first purchase) had been a checkers board, which the trader had practically given away. Everyone had been excited to see it and most of the crew (combat and noncombat alike) had already played a match or two and begun forming heated by friendly rivalries. It was being played on the bartop by Hiro and Nguyen, who worked the Avenger’s radar and comms respectively. The two men were, in Degroot’s opinion, taking the game far too seriously, staring at the board as if one wrong move would cause a muton to spontaneously appear out of thin air. She hadn’t even seen them take a sip of their now warm beers since the game started. It was just fucking checkers.

Navarro finished her demonstration and finished her apple juice so that she could go smoke the results. Both her and Emily were on standby, and neither were the types to knock back a quiet drink when the klaxon could sound at any moment. She said her goodbyes to Shen and Adams, sent a nod in Cheng and Degroot’s direction and walked through the hatch.

“Aren’t we too high up for her to go outside to smoke that?” Cheng asked, watching the Spaniard leave.

“We are but the Commander said she’s allowed to smoke in the Hangar occasionally,” Degroot unconsciously scratched at the new stitches beneath the bandage above her eyebrow, “since it has the best ventilation.”

They were small things but they’d done a wonder for morale. They’d finally raided the ADVENT blacksite a week before and what they’d seen there… hadn’t been pleasant, to say the least. Everyone had come back from the ‘processing plant’ with their confidence shaken. It reminded Degroot of her time in the first X-Com, during those first successful missions. Even back then, before the full horror of the alien invasion was revealed, those small victories often felt hollow. Small. They’d see stasis pods filled with kidnapped victims and battlefields littered by civilians torn to bloody, burnt pieces.

Back then it had been Pharaoh who had tried to keep spirits high. He was always trying to put together card games and competitions, races and wagers. Once he organised a ten-person Monopoly tournament, putting two boards side by side (an English and an American version to keep things from becoming too confusing) and hopping around the boards in a figure-eight. The best thing had been the movie nights though. The Commander, understanding the need for the odd bit of R&R had allowed film screenings in the main conference room or allowed projectors and screens to be set up in the barracks. The battle over what film would be watched had become a running joke amongst the X-Com staff, as Degroot and Pharaoh battled it out to get their favourite films played before each others. There was one film, however, that they both believed was a masterpiece and watched until they could recite the whole film by heart.

When Degroot realised that Cheng had started to fill the void, she’d been happy to help.

The door hissed open and Leroy stepped into the bar. He’d let his beard grow out again, leaving him looking particularly scruffy again. Cheng waved him over and he pulled up a stool at their little round table.

“Eva, Li,” he nodded to each woman in turn, quick eyes darting around the room. At first Degroot had thought them to be paranoid eyes, constantly looking for threats and danger, like a cornered animal. Eventually she’d realised they were just restless, drawn to colour and movement in the same way that Degroot constantly needed to keep her hands busy. Give her a sheet of paper and she’d tear it to confetti or fold it into a paper airplane or something. The checkers game caught Leroy’s eyes and he smiled, “Enjoying the match?”

“Enjoying how seriously Hiro and Nguyen are taking it,” Cheng grinned, “we might have to introduce a three drink minimum rule before letting someone play.” Leroy chuckled at that. Cheng pulled the lacquered box from somewhere underneath the table and slid it towards Leroy, “This is for you.”

The Frenchman’s eyes went wide as he pulled the case over, “For me?”

“From me and Degroot. Little something we’d spotted on the last trip to the market and thought you might like.”

Leroy opened the case and his eyes went wide. Three weeks before the three of them had gotten drunk and begun talking about their families, their loves, their friends before and after the first war. Degroot had finally opened up about her time in the first X-Com and Cheng had told them about her father (still alive and fighting) and missing mother. Leroy had told them about bonding over music lessons with his older sister, getting an ice cream on the steps of the Cathedral his father had loved so much in their home city of Lyon. How he’d kept playing after his father had died (heart attack due to complications caused by a stun lance while protesting against the demolition of that Cathedral). How he’d had to stop a few years ago when his instrument broke and finding replacement parts had been next to impossible.

Leroy smiled and began pulling pieces of the clarinet out of the case. Slowly, carefully, he began putting them together and by the time he was done Adams, Shen, Hiro and Nguyen had noticed what was happening and even the latter two had managed to pull their attention away from the match they cared about so much to watch Leroy.

Still smiling Leroy put the instrument to his lips and began to play.

***

The vent from Workshop 2 was intersected by a rough tunnel that neither Nairu or Degroot had any idea existed, but CO Bradford obviously did. Some sort of Plan B that he’d marked with a glow stick that was now dying in the darkness. After about half a kilometre the tunnel connected to a collection of old mine shafts (Pharaoh would have laughed at the cliche) which took some time to navigate, since Bradford hadn’t left any other markings to help them get out. So they followed rusty cart lines and tunnels that led ‘up’ until they saw light and emerged into the outside world what felt like miles from where they’d started.

If the other survivors had used that exit than they’d already left. Nairu used the moment to examine and dress Degroot’s wound, cutting away the remains of her burnt sleeves and armour and wincing at the raw, scorched flesh.

“It looks worse than it is,” she’d said but Degroot had known she was lying, was too numb to care, “The workshop had a full medkit, I will dress the wound but it is going to hurt.”

There were some painkillers in the medkit, which Degroot didn’t want to take but Nairu stabbed a syringe straight into her shoulder anyway. Nairu then applied some sort of gel to the afflicted area and wrapped the entire arm in bandages.

“I do not know much about burns, but it doesn’t look like anything important was damaged. We should find a proper doctor though. I expect at the very least it will leave a wicked scar.”

Degroot said nothing. She hadn’t said anything since they left the base.

The first rallying position was a town near the base. If the base was compromised and if it was possible, X-Com staff and operatives were supposed to fall back to the town and set up a new defensive or help evacuate the civilians. Nairu said it was a bit of foolish sentimentality to place the safety of the townsfolk higher than the continued survival of X-Com but Degroot thought that very sentimentality was X-Com’s entire raison d’etre. When the two of them reached it the next morning they found it empty. Signs of battle but, unsurprisingly, no bodies. They managed to put together some supplies, and find a working vehicle. As they drove out of town they noticed the normal welcoming sign had recently been graffitied on in big red letters.

“ASSUME ALL POSITIONS COMPROMISED”

They didn’t know when CO Bradford or any of the other survivors would have had time to paint the warning. Perhaps X-Com had left someone in the town (just in case) and that person had painted across the sign. Regardless, they took the warning as gospel and drove in the opposite direction from the second rallying point.

The next few weeks were a blur in Degroot’s memory. If the aliens were scouring the countryside for survivors then they would have found Degroot and Nairu easy prey. Perhaps they were just lucky and the aliens missed them in their sweeps. More than likely the aliens no longer cared. The only credible threat to their invasion had been thoroughly smashed, what did they care about a few stragglers? Either way, they found the next town populated and managed to get proper treatment for Degroot’s burns. The doctors said she was very lucky that Nairu had put the flames out so quickly, that there was some nerve and muscle damage but that she’d more or less have full use of her right arm. They spent two weeks there and at some point she began practicing shooting with her left hand while her right hand recovered.

When they didn’t hear anything from anyone in the X-Com chain of command Nairu sent word to their respective militaries asking for orders. Not long afterwards both were ordered to return to their own countries to assist in the rapidly deteriorating resistance against the aliens. The local government wasn’t able to spare any help, so when Degroot was feeling well enough they travelled to the coast. Nairu had delicately hugged her before they parted and Degroot had muttered a “thank you.” Then they climbed on separate ships (the aliens controlled the skies but hadn’t got around to taking control of the seas just yet) and went their separate ways.

It took weeks to get back to the Netherlands, since the ship she’d chosen changed course three times to avoid port cities that had been attacked by the aliens. By the time she arrived the Dutch government was on the verge of surrender. She joined up with a mechanised infantry battalion that managed to fight a guerilla war across Europe for nearly two years before being whittled down to nothing.

It was while fighting with the battalion that she met her tattoo artist, a corporal named Johann. It took weeks for him to research what she wanted and months to etch the design onto her left arm. From shoulder to wrist, a swirling black Maori pattern that traced around her muscles and joints, surrounding an Egyptian Ankh on the inside of her forearm like a vine.

Pharaoh had worn a small silver version of the symbol around his neck on the same chain as his dogtags, a gift from his “loving, hippy mother” before he’d gone off to basic training. He’d loved that little piece of tarnished silver. It was the reason everyone had started calling him Pharaoh.

Nairu made it back to South Africa. They’d managed to keep in touch, barely. Every year or two they’d find a way to send a few letters back and forth before the lines of communication were cut again. When Degroot had finally rejoined CO Bradford and the new X-Com she’d sent a message to Nairu to convince her to come along as well. Nairu had politely refused.

“I’m old,” the letter had said, “I have been fighting for a very long time. So have you. But you still fight for the rest of the world. I only fight for home.”

Degroot didn’t blame her. It was still disappointing to not fight side by side with her friend again.

***

Leroy was out of practice, but no one cared. He started slow, then sped up as his confidence grew and the old muscle memory kicked in. Degroot leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, cutting out everything but the sound of the music. It was a fast, happy song, the kind you can dance to if so inclined. She remembered Leroy’s love of electro-swing from previous parties and chuckled inwardly at the imagined thought of Adams finally having the courage to dance about the room with Shen.

Something was placed on her lap and her eyes opened, thoughts interrupted. She looked down and saw a small brown paper parcel sitting across her legs.

“I found that while you were using the bathroom,” Cheng said, eyes still watching Leroy play, “I hope you like it.”

Degroot’s brow furrowed as she tore open the packaging and promptly unfurrowed as she saw what was inside. A scuffed blu-ray cover with a shiny disk inside, the words Die Hard: With a Vengeance within its blue border. A smile stretched across Degroot’s face as she stared down at what she and Pharaoh had both agreed was the greatest film ever made. Cheng seemed to notice and her own lazy grin stretched a little wider.

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (6)

Chapter 6: Torture doesn’t always work

It was early morning and the Avenger was flying low and slow enough for people to walk the flight deck unaided. The sky was clear and the sun was still close enough to the horizon to cast everything in a light orange. According to Bradford the Commander had been up there since dawn, watching the sunrise or something else that sounded vaguely poetic. According to Bradford he’d been up there for longer than normal, but no one would hold it against him. The Commander often spent days at a time in the situation room, napping between updates in his chair and leaving only to use the bathroom (rarely enough that his bladder had become legendary amongst anyone that worked on the bridge) and taking meals while still staring at the monitors. Everyone thought he deserved a little fresh air every now and again.

Cheng and O’Neill found him standing on the rear observation deck, leaning on the railing and watching the treetops disappear behind them. The twenty years since the aliens had invaded had seen a sharp reduction in the world’s agricultural output and logging operations, and an expansion by the forests across the many abandoned farms and fields. The Amazon was apparently doing very well if Cesar Vargas was to be believed. The Mexican commando had fought ADVENT across Central and South America, so he probably knew what he was talking about. Then again he also claimed to have spotted a cow in a clearing recently, and when was the last time anyone had seen a cow?

“If the maps are right,” he said hearing the hatch slide open and shut, and their footsteps stop a few metres away, “we’re above a lumber plantation right now. All of this should have been chopped down a decade ago, then replanted, then chopped down again. That’s why they’re planted in straight lines. See?” He pointed down towards the trees that did in fact look like they stood in roughly straight lines, “Instead it’s just grown and grown. It probably doesn’t matter, but it feels like it should.” He sighed then raised a hand in a half-bored come forward motion.

Cheng stepped aside and O’Neill pushed their prisoner forward.

***

Li Ming Cheng was fourteen when the aliens invaded. Her father was an upper-middle ranking member of the Communist Party, a popular and hard-working man who had spent time in China’s vast and sometimes over-complicated diplomatic corps. Her mother was also a member, less well-known but still highly respected. She managed a local branch of the party, coordinating with members from the business community and overseeing annual recruitment. By that age Li Ming was taller than both of them, to everyone’s great surprise.

No one knew quite why, but everyone found it endlessly amusing. Her father blamed the four years spent in the United States (where she’d learnt to speak English) and all the rich American diet. Li Ming’s mother pointed out that while her uncle wasn’t significantly taller, his son was. Perhaps the genes just skipped a generation. Li Ming was strong as well. Years playing soccer (as the goalkeeper of course) and rowing (doubles and quads) left her with broad shoulders and thick limbs on what would normally have been a lanky frame. She tried basketball, but to everyone’s surprise was awful at it.

Then the aliens invaded. No one knew at first. There was some sort of attack in Hamburg. An explosion some said. A chemical or biological attack someone said later. Likely culprits were suggested than dismissed. Others claimed responsibility. Terrorist groups and, both bizarrely and unsurprisingly, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. They were all similarly dismissed. Then Edmonton in Canada was attacked. Mumbai. Adelaide. Johannesburg. Seoul. Rio. Singapore. People dying. People disappearing. Her father heard rumours about involvement by the People’s Liberation Army with some sort of joint special operations unit trying to stop those responsible. But no one seemed sure who was responsible, or at least the people who did know kept it to themselves. The Chinese propaganda and censorship machine went into overdrive and Li Ming’s father, forever the diplomat, complained constantly in private about the nation’s increasing isolation.

Eventually, as it always does, the truth became known. Li Ming would never be sure exactly when it happened, or why, but one day everyone seemed to know the culprits were not from earth. Perhaps not even from the same dimension that earth occupied. Fierce beasts, little grey creatures with psychic powers, incredibly powerful machines and weapons from another world or worlds. The air force was practically wiped out not long after everybody found out that humanity was at war. A force fifty thousand strong mobilised to help their neighbours, the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, was destroyed before it even crossed the border. Her father heard rumours that the international joint task force that was meant to stop the aliens had failed. Had been destroyed.

A little over nine months after the first attack in Hamburg the central government surrendered to the aliens and the rapidly forming ADVENT Administration. No one was quite sure how many had to die before the simple mathematics of attrition forced the PLA to admit defeat, but it was estimated to be in the millions. Not everyone surrendered, however. Before the war the Party stood as the single largest political organisation in the world, eighty-seven million strong. Those at the very top may have been forced to give in, but far too many had lost a son, a wife, a cousin, a mother, to simply stop fighting.

A month before Beijing surrendered Li Ming’s mother disappeared during an attack on a shopping district. There were a lot of bodies but none of them belonged to her mother, one of two hundred and ninety-three people who simply disappeared during the attack. Well, two hundred and ninety-four. Li Ming’s mother was pregnant. With the relaxing of the One Child Policy, her parents had applied successfully for permission to have a second child. Even with the attacks increasing, even when everyone realised that humanity was at war, they had kept trying for another child. Were overjoyed when the results were positive.

Her father cried all night when her mother disappeared. Then went back to work the next day.

When the leadership in Beijing surrendered Li Ming and her father went into exile.

***

Vargas leaned against the wall on one side of a metal sliding door that led to the security room of their target location, Krause the other, Cheng watched over her shoulder. Behind them the enormous, expansive lobby of the administration’s regional something-or-other headquarters was a mess of broken glass from shattered windows, splintered furniture and pillars pockmarked with bullet holes. The corpses of several black-armoured troopers were scattered about the lobby and just outside the building, a viper was bent backwards over a window frame with its jaw agape, a red-armoured officer lay face down at the bottom of the large fountain decorating the exterior of the entrance, a sectoid was still twitching behind the receptionist’s counter. Navarro and Banerjee were running across the roof. They’d provided fire support through the lobby’s skylight and were now moving towards the opposite side of the building to provide overwatch during exfiltration.

Two deep breaths then Cheng nodded at Vargas. He nodded back, made sure his shotgun was cocked and opened his hand over the door panel. Cheng raised her own hand so it was visible to Krause without the German taking her eyes off the door, used it to count up and gave the ‘go’ signal on five. Vargas mashed the keypad.

The door slip open with a whoosh and suddenly all three of them had charged into the darkened room beyond. One wall was just a mass of screens covered in camera feeds and scrolling information in the senseless alien language hanging above a mass of consoles, providing the only light in the room yet somehow filling every corner. The other wall was occupied by a large door that led to the opposite side of the building to where they entered, flanked by an empty gun rack on one side and another console on the other.

Gun up, sweeping the room, Cheng heard a scream and looked over to where Krause was standing over a woman with straight black hair, pale olive skin and a nice black pantsuit, who’d stumbled onto her ass backtracking away from the three heavily armed intruders. Krause let her gatling gun fall to her side, batted away a weak attempt by the woman to protect her face and hit her once, twice, watched her head fall against the floor, pulled it up by the hair and hit her a third time.

“Shit,” the Commander’s voice rang in their ears, “Menace One we just detected another alarm sound. She must have hit a panic button. They know you’re in there.”

It wasn’t much of a warning, but it was enough. The door to the outside slid open and a trooper and viper charged in. Vargas’ shotgun boomed, cutting off the commando’s curse and throwing the dead viper against the doorframe in a clatter of scales and armour. A burst from Cheng’s gatling gun cut the trooper nearly in two, carving it apart from right armpit to left hip.

They stared at the door, waiting for a third enemy to appear, heard the sounds of another sectoid warbling nearby. It didn’t choose to peak its head around the corner just yet, however. Krause, not wasting time, pulled a photo from one of her many pockets and compared the face in the picture to the battered and bleeding face of the woman she’d just punched out. The German turned the woman’s head left and right, then turned to Cheng and nodded.

Avenger this is Menace One-One,” Cheng said into her throat mic, “target confirmed and in custody,” Krause had spun the unconscious woman over and was zip-tying her hands behind her back, “proceeding to extraction zone. Over.”

“Understood Menace One. Be aware, there’s still at least one more hostile in the area and we detect enemy reinforcements en route. This is capture or kill mission. If getting her out alive becomes to difficult put a bullet in her head and leave the body.”

“Roger that,” Cheng replied, and hoped it wouldn’t be necessary.

Krause picked up the woman and threw her over her shoulder.

***

In a fledgling resistance movement everyone must work. Li Ming, fifteen when she and her father joined the government in exile and stronger than most kids her age by a wide margin, was no different. She ran messages through towns, helped set up defences in mobile camps, tailed ADVENT officials, VIPs and patrols, collected salvage from junkyards, derelict buildings (sometimes hours before demolition) and battlefields, anything that could be useful.

Her father quickly became a powerful personality in what continued to call itself the People’s Liberation Army. He had many friends in the surviving bureaucracies and a talent for making new ones that had and continued to make him a good diplomat. He was good at putting information together and predicting the alien administration’s response to PLA strikes. He quickly endeared himself to the rest of the leadership, particularly General Xing, arguably the man in overall control of the resistance forces, a cunning fighter who understood better than anyone they couldn’t win the kind of wars they were used to fighting. Attrition had failed, especially with so much of the old PLA having surrendered to ADVENT on the orders of the (“traitorous sons of whores”) central government. He was also prone to quoting Mao at awkward moments in order to stop arguments.

When Li Ming turned 16 her father agreed to let her join the fighters. The training was not as thorough as it once would have been, and facilities were limited, but she showed a talent for killing aliens and the early breeds of ADVENT troops. One particularly messy mission saw General Xing himself call her an “artist with a rocket launcher.”

It’s odd to say it, given the desperate situation, but for two years she was content. Not happy, exactly, but content.

That changed six months after her eighteenth birthday when Li Ming was promoted. She was sent to Shanghai to the militant arm of the local resistance cell led by a woman who called herself Fox. Li Ming was young but had time and again shown great tactical aptitude and the ability to get more experienced soldiers to do what she wanted. The Shanghai cell had been gutted by recent raids and most of its fifty remaining fighters were raw and inexperienced. Fox needed skilled squad leaders to keep her fighters alive and Li Ming jumped at the chance to kill aliens in a different city, even if it meant leaving her father behind.

What she found in Shanghai was politics.

***

The woman’s name was Elena Volkova and she had information that the Spokesman needed. The names of several informants, what resistance locations and spies had already been compromised and the schedules of a number of supply shipments that travelled between New York and Boston. She had a mother and a dog. She worked within the ADVENT security apparatus managing the human faces they employed to betray their own. They didn’t know anything else about her and didn’t need to.

She was tied to a chair in one of the recently cleared holds of the Avenger, a stark, spartan room that the Commander had already slated be where a second power generator would be built. It was kept purposely cold and permanently lit. The Commander visited her at the beginning, sipping coffee and offering her a chance to tell them what they wanted to know before things got unpleasant. The woman refused, told him defiantly to go fuck himself, warned what would happen when her employers arrived to get her back, swore she wouldn’t talk. The Commander nodded and left without another word. An hour later Cheng and O’Neill, still wearing bandages on his shoulder and jaw from a stun lancers strike a few weeks back, entered and cut away her expensive pantsuit with their fighting knives.

Then Cheng began to hit her. Over and over again. Simple strikes around her kidneys, hard slaps across the face and breasts, slowly Volkova became bloody, black and blue. O’Neill had brought in a chair and would ask her questions between blows in his quiet, reasonable voice. Demand answers. Occasionally he’d reach forward and slap her, as if to remind her whose side he was on despite his tone, but it was Cheng who did most of the work. They kept it up for a few hours, then went for lunch.

When they came back a few hours later Cheng hit her again. And again. And again. Then she started breaking fingers.

***

What Li Ming discovered in Shanghai was politics. While the other cells she and her father had spent time in had always had a clear chain of command, usually beneath some pre-surrender PLA officer who’d survived the war, the Shanghai group was worryingly democratic. Fox was a good soldier, good at planning operations and better at executing them, but she shared control of the group with a man named Cho.

Cho had been a low ranking member of the Ministry of State, claimed to have been part of the counterintelligence arm of the Ministry in fact. Even though he never quite managed to convince Fox (or Li Ming for that matter) of his credentials he managed to run the group’s intelligence network relatively competently, and he managed to inspire a surprising amount of loyalty from his underlings.

Most of the fighters hated him. He constantly demanded that targets of his choice (often of no strategic or military value) be attacked, usually claiming that the death or destruction incurred would have some intrinsic propaganda value. A pop-music station that played too many ADVENT Burger commercials. A factory that made billboard screens. But because Fox needed his intelligence network in order to strike at real targets she would usually accede to his demands, coming up with some justification to blow up the office where ADVENT issued fishing licenses. Li Ming understood. She didn’t like it, but she understood. What she couldn’t abide by were Cho’s “penal expeditions.”

Every so often Cho would learn the location of a traitor. Someone who’d provided information to the administration, spied on a neighbour, maybe even just called the police when they saw someone skulking around behind their building in the middle of the night. Fox would need to provide an escort to a few of Cho’s cronies as they paid the “traitor” a visit and made an example of them. Li Ming led an escort team once. She saw the mess they made of the poor woman and her family (her fucking children) and refused to lead another. Or participate in any mission that Cho demanded. He was a paranoid, psychotic bastard and she would “not participate in his little revenge fantasies.” Doing his petty dirty work made her feel less like a resistance fighter against a dangerous, otherworldly oppressor and more like plain and simple terrorist. She didn’t like that.

Fox warned her that she was making an enemy of Cho. That she might not be around to protect Li Ming forever. Li Ming didn’t care, and for all that she went through later never regretted the decision.

***

It took a single night to break Volkova. Truthfully everyone involved was surprised she lasted that long. Cheng turned her once pretty face into a bloody, swollen mess, bruised her sides and broke six fingers. Meanwhile O’Neill kept asking her questions. As the night wore on he only became more reasonable, more sympathetic, asking the necessary questions in his quiet Irish brogue but also offering relief. Release. Return. An end to her current suffering. Safety for her mother. Someone to feed her dog. When Cheng broke her fifth finger she just began muttering “I cannot, I cannot,” over and over again. And O’Neill simply replied, “yes you can, of course you can,” as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

The end finally came when Cheng produced a pair of pliers from a pouch on her belt and clicked them menacingly in front of Volkova.

“We’ll start with teeth, then move on to fingernails.”

Volkova shuddered and began to cry, big body-racking sobs that lasted for what felt a long time. Then she told them everything they wanted to know.

It took half-hour to get all the information they were likely to get from Volkova and another half-hour for Central to compare the information against what little they already had and confirm it was good. Volkova was cut free, wrapped in a blanket and given a shot of painkillers and led out of the room, empty save for a chair and her blood. Central told them over their radios that the Commander was on the rear observation deck, do that was where they brought her. The Commander told them about the forest below.

“It probably doesn’t matter, but it feels like it should,” Cheng stepped aside and O’Neill pushed their prisoner forward, the Commander looked at the beaten woman seemed sorry about the whole thing.

“I want to go home please,” Elena said and it was the most pitiful sound Cheng had heard in a long time.

“Tygen and Shen are working on some drugs so if there’s a next time you two won’t have to get your hands so dirty,” he was talking to Cheng and O’Neill but staring at the woman, “Have we gotten everything we can from her?”

“Yessir,” Cheng said robotically.

“Alright. Are you sure you still wish to be the one to do it Mr O’Neill?”

“I am sir.”

“When you’re ready then.”

O’Neill nodded and pushed Elena against the railing in a quick but gentle motion. Her eyes went wild with surprise and fear, but Cheng doubted she had a chance to register O’Neill’s big revolver being pushed underneath her chin before he pulled the trigger. The top of her head blew off in a spray of blood that drifted away behind them. Elena’s body went limp and slumped backwards over the railing, O’Neill reached down and lifted her by the knees the rest of the way. All three of them watched her body cartwheel away into the forest canopy.

***

Li Ming awoke tied to a chair in the centre of a small dark cellar that smelled strongly of piss and mould.

“Good morning Miss Cheng,” Cho was leaning beside the door, a cruel glint in his eye and a calm smile on his face, “I trust you slept well?”

Her head felt like it had been split open and her left eye was swollen shut and why the fuck was she tied to a chair? Fuck, she was naked as well and that smell of piss was probably her as well. She looked groggily at Cho, then saw one of his henchman on the other side of the doorway, swore loudly, looked back at Cho.

“Why… What’s happening? Why am I here?”

“Because we need answers Miss Cheng. We need to know why you betrayed the group.”

“Wh-what?”

“Fox was killed last night, during the raid. Another failure.”

“What?”

“Another failure and now our leader is dead.”

Fox was dead. Fuck. Fuck. She’d warned her not to lead the mission last night. Less a raid and more a purposeless attack on a minor radio transmitter, it was nonetheless in one of the most heavily guarded parts of Shanghai. They’d been racking up losses lately, bleeding fighters at an unsustainable rate. Simple attacks on factories and warehouses had been costing more lives than they ever had before. Cho had grown more paranoid and more worried. He’d demanded that they make a statement. Something to show that they couldn’t be stopped, no matter what. He’d pointed out the radio transmitter near the centre of the city and, after threatening to disappear with his all his intelligence sources to find someone new to supply the information to, Fox had belatedly agreed. Morale was low, so she’d decided to lead the ten-member team herself. And now she was dead. Fuck.

“ADVENT was ready for them,” Li Ming realised Cho had continued talking, “cut them off then cut them to pieces. It was almost as if someone had told them about the raid beforehand. And I began to ask myself, who could possibly have told ADVENT about the raid? Who would?” Fuck, “It must be someone who was never as committed to the cause as the rest of us,” fuck, “someone who has shown sympathy for traitors,” fuck, “someone who has not participated in the last few disastrous missions but was involved in their planning,” fuck, “someone like you Miss Cheng.”

Cho smiled even wider, and Li Ming was scared then. She felt small, sitting in that chair, a sensation she’d never felt before and it was not something she ever wanted to feel again. Yet she still managed to force a reply.

Just three words, but for the next two weeks they would become the only thing that kept her sane. A mantra she repeated over and over again.

“I am loyal.”

“No, you’re not,” the smile on Cho’s face slipped slightly, “and you know what I do to the disloyal. But first I want to know why you betrayed your comrades, and believe me I will find out. I’ve been planning this for some time. It may take a while, but you will tell me. They always do. Then we will make an example of you.”

Li Ming had forgotten about Cho’s henchman until he strode up and punched her in the face.

***

Sometime later Shen asked Cheng why they had bothered to shoot Elena Volkova at all. Why not just push her over the side? The fall would have killed her. Cheng told her it was a morbid question. Shen said she needed to know.

“Because we don’t know if the aliens are looking for her, or if they can find her somehow, and we don’t know what kind of information they can get out of a dead brain. We thought it was best not to leave it intact.”

Shen said she’d watched parts of the torture and the execution. Said she threw up when O’Neill pulled the trigger.

“Good, it shows you’re still a little normal.”

Elena Volkova was going to die no matter what. They had nowhere to imprison her once they had information they needed and the local resistance insisted she deserved it. The Commander had suggested drawing straws with Central, O’Neill and Cheng to see who would be the one to pull the trigger. O’Neill had volunteered instead. Insisted he do it, in fact.

***

For two weeks they hurt her. She was beaten first and most regularly. The soles of her feet were hit with bamboo poles and the palms of her hands were branded with firepokers. She spent the first three days tied to the chair, sitting in her own filth, until Cho decided the smell offended him. She was released from the chair and rinsed off with a high pressure hose that left her feeling like someone had taken a belt sander to wherever it touched raw skin. A few days later she was stripped naked and left there shivering in the dark. The next day they replaced the rooms single bulb with a more luminescent one and left it on, alongside a constant stream of death metal for three days. The high-pressure hose made a reappearance and this time it was all bare skin.

But every time they asked her a question she answered with the same three words.

“I am loyal.”

They were a lifeline and she clung to them, repeating them over and over in her head until there was nothing left but those words and what they represented. What she needed to do because of them.

They continued to feed her regularly and decently. Twice a day, bread and stew. Not much, but not starvation rations. They’d also didn’t leave her tied up again after releasing her from the chair. Meanwhile the guards outside her door never stopped chatting. For members of Cho’s intelligence team they certainly had trouble keeping their mouths shut. She learnt much about them, their families, their friends and the fate of the Shanghai group. Apparently most of the fighters had decided that Li Ming’s arrest after Fox’s death was the last straw and most of them had left. Some disappeared into the city, while others had gone to find other resistance cells and continue the fight under saner leadership. Cho, according to his people, didn’t seem to care. Good riddance. He would build a new force in his own image. His remaining people were worried though. What would happen when General Xing found out that the daughter of one of his most trusted advisors had been arrested on, at best, circumstantial evidence and tortured for days? Cho was sure she’d confess before Xing found out, but the guards were increasingly unsure. All Li Ming needed to do was last a little while longer.

“I am loyal.”

Li Ming was no expert in torture but it all felt very amateurish. Less like a professional interrogation and more like someone who’d seen it work in a film. By the tenth day she was positive that none of her captors, Cho included, knew what they were doing. All she needed to do was bide her time and wait for the right opportunity.

It came on the fifteenth day.

She was woken in the night by the telltale sound of an alien plasma grenade going off, less an explosion and more like an enormous match being lit. She heard the guards at her door swear and run off down the hall. She hadn’t thought of the aliens much since her imprisonment, but as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes she realised that if this was the same building they’d been in before her capture (she hadn’t explored the basement levels fully so couldn’t be sure) it meant they’d been in the same building for nearly a month. Far longer than anyone with half a brain knew to stay in the same location.

Everything hurt but Li Ming knew an opportunity when she heard one. She pushed herself gingerly to her bare feet and padded over to the door, leaning heavily against it and listening through the wood. She heard automatic weapons fire, magnetic rifles, alien plasma weapons. She heard footsteps coming back down the corridor outside, she heard keys clinking, she threw herself away from the door and flattened herself against the wall beside the doorframe.

The boy swore when the door swung open and Li Ming wasn’t huddled in view. He entered stupidly, not checking the corners when he entered. Li Ming didn’t recognise him as one of her torturers and she didn’t care. She grabbed the boy around the knees and lifted, he screamed and hit the ground hard flat on his chest. She didn’t give him any chances, put a knee on his back and slammed his face into the concrete floor twice. Content that he could no longer fight back she put a hand on his jaw and a hand on the back of his head and twisted. They really shouldn’t have fed her so well.

His clothes were too small but they’d do. The boots were too small so barefoot would have to do. He’d entered the room with an old AK-47 and a Makarov tucked into his belt. Both weapons felt small in her hands. But it was enough. The sound of the alien assault was louder now. They were being methodical, but Li Ming had been doing this for long enough that she wasn’t concerned about escaping, even as badly injured as she was.

As she set off down the corridor to her freedom she wondered if Cho was dead yet. Perhaps she’d get to meet him on her way out.

***

They left the Commander alone on the balcony and headed towards the barracks. O’Neill still carried the revolver by his side instead of holstering it. He looked edgier than normal, meaner, angrier. Yet when he spoke his voice was still calm and quiet.

“You’re like me aren’t you?”

The Commander had suggested drawing straws with Central, O’Neill and Cheng to see who would be the one to pull the trigger. O’Neill had volunteered instead. Insisted he do it, in fact. When they asked him why he’d replied that “It’s how I learnt to deal with traitors.”

Cheng had looked in his eyes when he’d said it and expected to see Cho. The cruelty and the pride. But instead she’d just seen sadness. It was the same now. His body language may have looked fearsome but his eyes were upset. He didn’t like it, but it was his self-imposed duty.

“I think I am. I think we’ve both been through what we’ve just done ourselves.”

He nodded, “Was it the aliens that did it to you?”

“No. You?”

“Yeah. You seem… better than me though. Not as… whatever I am.”

“Maybe I’m just better at hiding it.”

“No. No. You… you handle this shit better. Better than anyone.”

“We’ll just have to agree to disagree on that.”

They walked in silence for a few minutes longer, then O’Neill turned to her again, finally holstered his pistol.

“Did you get the guys who did… who did it to you?”

“Yes,” Cheng said, the lazy grin that characterised her face appearing for the first time since the morning before, “Yes I did.”

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (5)

Chapter 5: Calm moments

One of the problems with living in a ship like the Avenger was how easy it was to lose track of time. Nights merged with days and dates slipped past without knowledge or notice, for there were no windows to look out and see the sun or the stars.

For many of the personnel on the ship time simply became a series of alarms. An alarm to tell you when to wake up. When your shift began. When a meal was being served. When your shift ended. When it was your turn to head outside, onto the deck or landing pad, to enjoy some fresh air in the sun or moonlight. Personal tablets, digital watches, comm units, anything with a clock, their main role became deliverer of rhythmic chirping, synthesised whistles, maybe some music, whatever an individual could stand to hear repeated every few hours. Until it drove them into the wall anyway and they found something new.

This wasn’t the case for everyone of course. Anyone on the bridge could tell you about CO Bradford’s constant warnings that “time is running out.” Kogara Hiro, who was one of the techs that worked the radar, famously declared that he was going to get the phrase printed “on a fucking T-shirt” so that Bradford could point at it whenever the Commander looked over. Famous because Bradford walked through the door to the bar as it was being drunkenly promised. Everyone went silent as stone when he placed a strong hand on Kogara’s shoulder and casually remarked that “it would save a lot of time.”

Everyone knew the Commander was also painfully aware about the passing of time, but he was less directly vocal about it. He was constantly asking for reports from Dr Tygen on the expected due date of the latest research project, or from Lily Shen about estimated delivery dates on ammunition or improvements from Engineering and the Proving Ground. How long would it take to scan an area for supplies or locate the signal of a possible new recruit. His eyes constantly strayed to the ‘Doomsday Clocks.’ A collection of timers displayed above the holographic world map, counting down the days to when intelligence and informers predicted, roughly, when bad things were supposed to happen. Retaliation strikes. New ADVENT facilities constructed. UFOs launched to hunt the Avenger.

Everyone else tried to ignore the red numbers ticking towards atrocity. The Commander couldn’t. Didn’t. Sometimes it is good to be the king. Your own personal quarters is definitely a perk. Being able to blissfully ignore the weeks before a slaughter is a good reason to remain a peasant.

***

The door hissed open and Li Ming Cheng stepped into Engineering, a satchel bag hung over her shoulder and the lazy grin permanently painted on her features a little wider than usual. She looked fresh, neat. The sides and back of her head were clean-shaven while the tuft on top was slicked back in a fresh-out-of-the-shower sort of way. Water was usually carefully rationed but they’d landed next to a river recently so everyone was enjoying being able to bathe regularly while it lasted. Everyone still had an allotted time and limit when they were allowed to use the communal showers, but no one really had the guts to try and stop Cheng from using them when she wanted. Within reason.

Emily Adams (inspecting the individual components of a disassembled assault rifle, she looked up and smiled shyly) and Eva Degroot (fiddling with a Gremlin drone, her eyes slid towards Cheng briefly and nodded without turning her head) were in the big space with Lily Shen. They had been helping the young Chief Engineer (as far as Cheng was aware) all day for the past week.

Degroot working such a long stretch was not unusual, she had more than a little experience with electronics and mechanics, skills learnt (if the rumours were true) joining a Dutch mechanised infantry battalion after the first X-Com fell, one which continued fighting independently well after the government officially surrendered. She could often be found helping Shen or the other engineers and techs, even with a busted leg that hadn’t quite healed properly. Adams, on the other hand, had little experience with anything close to the advanced machinery, robotics and fabricators that filled Engineering. But when Shen had been complaining about the backlog of replacement weapon-parts that needed fabricating and fitting Emily had immediately raised her hand and volunteered to help.

“Yo!” Cheng waved and dropped her satchel onto a free workbench, “How are you Shen?”

Shen leaned back from the row of screens she’d been studying, swivelled her chair around to face Cheng and stretched out like a cat.

“Okay, I guess,” she said sleepily, “just going over some new specs that Tygen sent me.”

“Oh? Are we getting some new toys soon?”

“Maybe, if the Commander approves.”

“Will he?”

“Eh,” Shen stretched her arms out and cracked her knuckles, she’d probably been sitting in the same position for hours, “it’s less a matter of “will?” and more a matter of “when?” He’ll authorise me to develop them eventually when the resources become available, but there’s some construction that he wants to take priority at the moment. Are you here to take Eva and Emily away?”

Cheng nodded, “If you’ll let me.”

“Be my guest. I think we all need a break.”

“I’ll be ready in a sec,” Adams called out, stepping away from the workbench and picking up an oil-stained rag and wiping her oil-stained hands, “do you want me to put this away Lily?”

Lily. Huh.

“No, you’re planning on coming back tomorrow to finish it right?”

“You can count on it.”

“If you want to take a break yourself Shen,” Cheng said moving over to the workbench where Degroot was still working on the Gremlin, “you can come with us.”

“I’m okay, thanks. I think I’m just going to go pass out in my bunk for a few hours. Besides, I don’t think I was invited.”

“It’d be alright. I’m not technically invited either.”

“Yeah, but you’re Li Ming ‘Artillery’ Cheng. You’re seven foot tall and made of muscle, nobody would dare tell you that you couldn’t come because you weren’t invited.”

“I’m not that tall.”

“Pretty damn close,” Degroot monotoned from her chair, speaking for the first time since Cheng entered the room, “I’ll be done in a moment.”

Both Adams and Degroot had been wounded rescuing civilians in an ADVENT raid a few weeks back. Degroot’s left calf had been shredded by a red (one of the red-armoured ADVENT officers) and Adams’ ribs and collarbone had been broken when what everyone was now calling a faceless had backhanded her through a pile of crates. Both women had been more or less patched up, Degroot no longer needed crutches and Adams no longer needed a sling, but neither was still allowed to do any heavy lifting or anything too physically strenuous.

Cheng looked over the Gremlin that Degroot was working on. It twitched and whirred as she made adjustments with a screwdriver, occasionally glancing at the screen of a tablet computer that seemed to be displaying diagnostic information from the small drone. The outer casing and repulsors looked like they’d been painted black and grey in a camouflage pattern similar to what the aliens used, recently as well given the lack of scratches or peeling.

“Is that your Gremlin you’re working on?”

Degroot nodded and grunted something that could have been a yes.

“I like the spray-job.”

The Dutchwoman didn’t say anything.

“She did it today,” Shen said, “and we even managed to convince her to name it.”

“Really?” Cheng cocked an eyebrow at Degroot, surprised and yet not, “What did you call it?”

A moment of hesitation, then Degroot said “Wasp,” still not looking away from her work.

“Wasp? Because it buzzes around?”

“And has a venomous sting,” there was a bit of pride in Degroot’s voice as she said it. She obviously thought she was being clever.

Can’t let her do that.

“Huh,” Cheng said and gently scratched the clean-shaven left side of her scalp, “Are wasp stings venomous? That doesn’t sound right.”

Now Degroot looked up, “Pardon?”

“I don’t think wasp stings are venomous.”

“They are.”

“No, it doesn’t sound right.”

“It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t sound right, it is.”

“Are you sure? Aren’t they just sticking you with a barb?”

“Yes, a venomous barb. Why do you think they do so much damage?”

Cheng thought for a moment, “Because of an allergic reaction to the barb?”

“Yes, to the venom in the barb. An allergic reaction to the venom in the barb.”

“I don’t know, that still doesn’t sound right.”

Degroot, exasperated, sighed and rolled her eyes. She leant back from her workbench rubbed her eyes. The sleeves of her sweater slipped giving Cheng a view of her forearms. Mass of scars on the right, intricate tattoos on the left.

“Just because it ‘doesn’t sound right’ it doesn’t make it wrong,” she turned left and right looking for allies, “Shen? Emily? Help me out here.”

“I’m not getting involved in this,” Shen said, swivelling back towards the monitors behind her and visibly focusing her attention on them.

“Sorry Eva,” Emily grinned from over by a large sink where she was washing the gun oil from her hands, “I’m with Li on this one. You don’t exactly think ‘wasp’ when you think ‘venomous.'”

“Fuck you, fuck you both. Idiots.”

“Maybe,” Cheng walked back to where she’d left her duffel and gave it a shake, “but we’ve got somewhere to be. So you should hurry up Venom, or else I’m just going to keep arguing about it.”

***

There are always moments when time seems to slow and stop, seconds and minutes that seem to linger on and on for good or ill. Navneet Banerjee’s father had told him these moments were one of the most dangerous things a man can face in life. Moment that you could get stuck in. An accomplishment that you wished to relive or a failure that never ended. An extinguished romance you wished to rekindle or a death that you can never stop mourning. The present always turns into the past, his father had said, and if you spend all your time in the past then you’re never able to move into the future. It was a tautology and, as a tutor in that one philosophy course he took would always say, hardly the greatest use of the language. The sentiment, however, carried a wisdom he’d remembered and always respected.

On the other hand Navneet’s mother preached the opposite. Whenever he would begin talking about far-flung goals, or planning further than she thought her son had any right to, she would say something about how those who spend too much time reading palms never enjoy what is there on hand. It wasn’t that she didn’t want him to dream big and prepare for the future, it was merely that she didn’t want him to miss out on the joys to be had in the here and now. Like with his father, Navneet respected the wisdom carried within by sentiment.

Live in the here and now, but do not become trapped by moments. Perhaps that would be what he told his children. If he ever had children. Sometimes, despite his parent’s advice, he still wished for a moment to stretch out forever.

Navneet twisted his arm ever so gently to check the time on his wristwatch careful not wake Else Krause, who was leaning against his chest and shoulder snoring softly. The wristwatch had been given to him by his father the day he’d climbed onto a plane at Dera Ghazi Khan Airport in Lahore for the first leg of his journey to England a lifetime ago. As expected the second hand kept ticking regardless of Navneet’s fervent wishes, perhaps encouraged by the old man’s ghost.

He sighed and let his arm fall, again careful not to disturb the napping Else. They were propped behind a large console in the newly built power generator room, where they wouldn’t immediately be seen if someone decided to enter. It wouldn’t be hard for an intruder to figure out what they’d been doing since Navneet was naked above the waist and, more damningly, Else was naked below, but it might give them time to become a little more modest before being noticed.

Well, she wasn’t completely naked from the hips down. She was still wearing a pair of forest green socks. She always kept her socks on. Navneet liked to tease that she’d probably leave them on in the shower if she could, one of those little habits that made her so… he wanted to say adorable but that sounded too condescending, even just to himself in his own head. So did ‘cute’. They just didn’t seem to apply to the fierce young woman who could level streets with her gatling gun, who didn’t laugh often but laughed hard when she did, who would wrestle Navneet to the ground and command him to fuck her. Who was snoring ever so softly on his shoulder, her round glasses sitting slightly ascue having slipped halfway down the bridge of her nose after she forgot to take them off before falling asleep. Like she always did. Bloody adorable.

Maybe he was just being too aware of his age again. He was older than Else, much older than Else. Not quite enough to be throwing around cliches like “I could be her father,” but enough to sometimes make Navneet feel uncomfortable about what exactly he had with her. About not knowing exactly what he had with her. It was not something he’d ever bring up with Else, she could make her own choices and have her own worries. Besides, she’d never accept the age gap as a valid reason for ending what they had. Or was that a projection of his own desires onto her, an excuse to not end something he thought was unhealthy for both of them?

Damn, perhaps he was just overthinking things. Two decades ago, a lifetime ago, he would have asked Marjia over a Turkish coffee at a small Lebanese restaurant they both loved in London. Neutral ground given that he was an Oxford boy and she was studying at Cambridge. She had long raven-black hair like Else, but thicker. She had so much more of it, and certainly wouldn’t have been able to wrestle it into the single plaited ponytail that Else did.

Marjia was his first crush, first love, he’d cried for hours on the night her parents (wealthier by far than Navneet’s own not-badly-off-at-all parents) sent her to be schooled in England, deciding it was the best and safest place for her to be educated. Tricks of time and place meant that he did not see her again until years later, when his own parents sent him to that same island for his own higher education. She’d greeted him wearing a leather jacket and tight velvet trousers far different than anything he’d seen her wear in years. Long hair worn loose around her shoulders. She’d changed from what Navneet remembered. She was louder, brasher, smoked and drank. But she was still kind, and had an ability to help him organise his thoughts, to cut right to the point of what his brain was trying to tell him, making her a lifeline during the more difficult years and relationships while attending university in a foreign land.

She’d married a nice girl, “a native born to a good, honest Paki family that were absolutely shocked when I was introduced as a prospective suitor” Marjia would laugh, about a year before the aliens invaded. Her own parents had disowned her not long afterwards. Navneet had needed to lie to his parents about cutting ties with her as well. Her friendship was something he couldn’t afford to lose then. Now he didn’t know where she was or even if she was still alive.

Else’s breath hitched for a half second and Navneet wondered if she was waking up. A half-second, then she went back to softly snoring. Half-a-smile on her face. Adorable.

Navneet leant back and prayed for the moment to last.

***

The door to the infirmary slid open and Cheng slid in sideways carrying a long but narrow folding table.

“Yo!” she called out to Thierry Leroy (who was reading on his bed) and Gerry O’Neill (who was just sitting stoically, staring at the wall), “Is Gabby here yet?”

“Non, not yet,” Thierry said, marking his place by folding the corner of the page he was up to and closing the book.

“Probably finishing that pack of smokes she got last time we visited the black market,” Emily said, following Cheng into the room and propping herself on the edge of an empty bed, “she smokes like a fuckin’ chimney.”

Degroot followed the both of them in sliding the door shut behind her, wincing a little as she limped along on her damaged leg and carrying Cheng’s satchel over her shoulder. She probably still should have been using crutches, but they could be a real hindrance in the Avenger’s narrow corridors.

“Merde, you actually did manage to get Eva to come along,” Leroy smiled as he watched Cheng walk over and begin unfolding the table between his and O’Neill’s bed.

“It wasn’t too hard to get Venom here. You just have to make all other options seem more annoying.”

“Venom?”

Cheng winked, “Inside joke,” then noticed O’Neill suspiciously staring at the table, “Don’t you give me that look. If I can get Eva to play you can fucking bet that I’m going to make you play to. Now sit up straight and scooch over before I break your crippled ass.”

O’Neill growled but did as he was told, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed and allowing Cheng room to plant herself next to him. Degroot handed the satchel over to Cheng and sat next to her with a contented sigh, obviously glad to be off her still sore leg. Adams wandered over and sat next to Leroy.

While both Adams and Degroot had been medically cleared enough to return to the barracks (which meant they could dress themselves without curling up into the fetal position in pain), Leroy and O’Neill had both been hurt badly in the last mission. O’Neill had been zapped by a stun lancer’s stun lance. The double sided blade had cut a deep thorough in O’Neill’s jaw and shoulder, meaning that one side of his face and mouth was covered in bandages giving him yet another reason not to speak. Leroy had taken a round in the shoulder during last mission (and should have had his arm in a sling), something that annoyed him because the same shoulder had been badly grazed the mission before that. Both men would be in the infirmary for at least another week. Since O’Neill had been knocked unconscious he would be in for even longer, and Leroy had mentioned that Tygen had ordered more than a few scans.

“What kind?” Cheng had asked.

“All of them as far as I can tell,” Leroy had replied.

Cheng opened up her satchel and pulled out six glasses and a bottle of whiskey. Good black market stuff as well, not the dubious spirits that Louise Seo distilled somewhere in the hangar. She saw O’Neill’s eyes widen at the sight of the bottle and made sure to slide him the first glass. He took it greedily in both hands but didn’t, to her surprise and approval, immediately swallow it down. He took a small sip, smiled thankfully in her direction (genuinely fucking thankfully) and put the glass down on the table. Central had said O’Neill would appreciate the taste of real whiskey, but didn’t say why. Maybe she’d find out later. At least he wasn’t acting the Irish stereotype.

“I feel bad for not inviting the others,” Adams said after taking a careful sip from her own glass.

“I thought we agreed the rule to this little club was that you had to have suffered a wound fighting for X-Com,” Leroy said.

“And Li Ming,” Degroot said and scratched the scars on her right arm. She’d been scratching them a lot lately. Probably agitated about being stuck injured on the ship.

“Yes, well, Artillery brought the alcohol,” Leroy agreed.

“It was also my fucking idea Sawbones.”

“I just feel like we’re leaving the others out,” Adams continued, “Not just Cesar and Else and Navi, the crew too.”

“The crew’s too large to play poker with,” Cheng replied, “Vargas is on cooking duty, and Else and Navi? Well, they’re probably… you know…” she made a circle with the thumb and forefinger of her right hand and extended her left forefinger through it, back and forth, until she felt the point was made.

Leroy laughed, Degroot chuckled, Adams giggled. O’Neill huffed.

“If those two were more open about it fewer people would care,” the Irishman was softly spoken at the best of times, but he was close enough that no one had trouble hearing him.

Cheng couldn’t help but agree, “They are pretty awful at hiding their relationship.”

“Are they even still trying anymore?” Leroy asked, “Surely they know that everyone else knows by now?”

“You’d think so wouldn’t you,” Degroot said, “and neither of them are stupid. But they must keep trying to keep it secret for a reason. But if they stopped trying to hide it then everyone would cease to care within a week. Like Tipene and Seo.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Cheng said, “John Tipene and Louise Seo? Techie John is fucking Firestarter?” nods around the table, “Since when is John fucking Louise?”

“Since before they joined X-Com I believe,” Leroy said, bemused surprise inflecting his voice, “Were you not aware?”

“Even I knew,” Adams piped up cautiously.

“I didn’t,” murmured O’Neill.

“You don’t count,” said Cheng, “John and fucking Firestarter. Crazy,” she took a long sip of whiskey.

She wasn’t supposed to be drinking, was technically on standby along with Krause, Banerjee and Cesar Vargas, but one glass of whiskey wouldn’t wreck her aim.

“Where is Gabby?” Degroot asked, definitely starting to get agitated sitting still with nothing to think about or tinker with. She was the type that needed a task or challenge at all times, “Can we start the game without her?”

“Unfortunately no,” Cheng shook her head, “she’s the one bringing the deck of cards.”

“You’re joking.”

“I am not. If she isn’t here in five minutes I’ll go find her. In the meantime, does everyone know how to play Texas Hold’em?”

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (4)

Chapter 4: Broken Bones

The room was small and cold. It’s walls were made of thick glass, it’s floor and ceiling made of the same metal as the rest of the ship’s decks. Adams stepped through the sliding door with a small and up to the large metal table bolted to the deck. It was the only notable feature in the room aside from a pair of glossy black domes built into opposite corners of the ceiling. Obvious cameras being obvious.

She ran her left hand over the table. Its surface was polished smooth and cool, cooler than the deck beneath her slippered feet. Emily wished she was wearing her boots. She felt weird with just the flimsy cloth wrapped around her feet, taking smaller steps and fearing every bulkhead would end in a stubbed toe and every heavy object being carried around her would inevitably be dropped onto her delicate tootsies (shit, that’s what her mother used to call them wasn’t it?) while they weren’t protected by hard leather and steel. But she couldn’t bend over enough to pull her boots on without help just yet, or socks for that matter, and the embarrassment of asking for that help outweighed the fear of stubbed or crushed toes. So slippers would have to do.

There was a loud knock on the glass behind her and Emily spun around, coming out of one slipper, feeling the skin around her stitches pull and sending an ache through her ribs as she backed against the table like a cat hiding from water. She let out a breath when she saw Dr Colin Lynch smiling apologetically from the other side of the glass with a high stool in each hand and tablet computer in an X-Com standard rubber case tucked beneath one armpit.

Dr Lynch stood for a moment, just staring and smiling at Emily before she realised he wanted her help opening the door. She took a step forward and pressed the button that caused the door to hiss sideways then stepped aside to let him passed. He strode in hurriedly, setting down one stool on the side of the table nearest the door then striding to the other side.

“Hello, terribly sorry I’m late. Terribly sorry for startling you,” Dr Lynch dropped the stool down and on the deck and the tablet on the table in front of it, “I tapped the door with one of the stools and I expect it was louder than anticipated.”

He sat down and gestured for Emily to take the other stool. She sat down carefully, trying to avoid aggravating her wounds. Dr Lynch watched her sit then picked up the tablet and began punching at its screen, eyes half focused on whatever he was doing and half focused on her.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t get anything more comfortable, but nothing else was high enough that we’d be able to see over this thing,” he wrapped the table with his knuckles then went back to the screen.

Emily nodded then decided to say, “It’s fine.”

“I borrowed them from the bar.”

Dr Lynch had changed since they’d rescued him from ADVENT surveillance and eventual arrest about two weeks before. He’d been thin and hollow then, with messy hair, a big crooked nose and gaunt cheeks, terrified for most of their hike through the city towards the E.Z. He’d put on weight since then, his face had filled out making his nose look less oversized and his blonde hair had been trimmed and combed. He’d ditched the suit he’d worn during the escape and instead wore the grey coveralls and white coat that Tygen planned to make the uniform of his scientists as they arrived. Emily felt underdressed in front of him, wearing just a pair of sweatpants and sports bra beneath a jacket hung over her shoulders like a cape, as raising her arms high enough to put a t-shirt on was a challenge at the moment. It had been bad enough needing help pulling on the sweatpants. She’d kicked off the other slipper as she climbed onto the stool.

There was a good minute of silence between the two before Dr Lynch lowered the tablet and rested it at a forty-five degree angle against the edge of the table, so that Emily couldn’t see it, he could, but it was still out of the direct line of sight.

“Now, how would you like me to address you?” Dr Lynch began.

“What?”

“How would you like me to refer to you? Would you like me to call you Emily or Miss Adams or Corpor-”

“Emily’s fine.”

“Thankyou,” he seemed genuinely pleased by that, “and please call me Colin.”

“I’d rather keep calling you Dr Lynch,” that came out with less spite than Emily was trying for.

“Whatever you’re most comfortable with,” his smile didn’t even twitch, “Now, how are you feeling?”

“Sore.”

“I’m not surprised. Dr Tygen and his machines may speed up the healing process, but even rapid healing will be painful. What hurts you more, the broken ribs or the wound on your waist?”

“The ribs,” she said after a moment of hesitation.

“Really?”

“I guess.” Emily scratched absently at what would be a new scar hidden under a layer of bandages beneath her coat, a dent in her waist a little above the right hip bone.

“You’re not sure?”

“I am.”

“You sound a little unsure.”

“Fuck you. I’m sure,” then a moment later, “the collarbone’s worst of all.”

“Excuse me?”

“I fractured my collarbone as well,” she shifted slightly to show that one of her arms was sitting in a loose sling, “That hurts the most,” she pouted unconsciously “no one seems to care about my fucking collarbone.”

Dr Lynch chuckled, “Okay then. Do you know why you’re here Emily?”

“Yes. It’s not necessary though, I just need to get back into it. It’s just that I’ve got too much time to think right now.”

“The Commander’s worried about you,” Dr Lynch said, ignoring her, “so is Central Officer Bradford. The Commander agrees that you just need to be fielded as soon as possible,” or not, “‘Kill a few X-rays and she’ll be good as new’ I believe were his words. Bradford is a little more concerned.”

“Is he?”

“Indeed. Apparently a few other have expressed their own concerns to him. Miss Degroot, for example, is very observant. You’ve been sitting relatively still for a few minutes now. Tell me, has your leg started twitching?”

Emily looked down and realised her right leg was practically vibrating up and down against the stools foot-rest-bar. She pressed her hands down on her leg to stop it before looking up at Dr Lynch again. There was no point in lying so she didn’t say anything at all. He seemed to be expecting that.

“Other unusual behaviours have been noted. You seem to be hesitant to step into large open spaces, aren’t talking as much and appear to be having nightmares most nights.”

“Eva noticed all that?”

“Not just her. Others are worried about you as well.”

“Such as?”

Dr Lynch just smiled apologetically again.

Fine, “How do you know it’s unusual?”

“We have several veterans of the First War, yourself included, who watched literally thousands of their comrades die. Others escaped from prisons that they may have deserved to be in. We’re giving you all the best weapons we have and sending you to fight genetically altered monsters that we know are bent on the destruction of the human race in order to achieve their nefarious purposes. Monsters whose mind-control abilities, as I understand it, may have been responsible for the fall of the first X-Com. Believe me, mental health is of great concern to the Commander and Central. Unusual behaviour is always noted.”

“That’s a little creepy.”

“It is,” that sorry smile seemed to be a permanent feature of Dr Lynch’s face now, “if you think about. But a panicked shot coming from a freaked out squaddie might lead to the kind of casualties that Dr Tygen’s machines can’t fix.”

“And it’s your job to prevent that?”

“One of them. I did a few a psychology courses during college, which unfortunately makes me the closest thing The Avenger has to a counselor. We might be spending a fair bit of time together.”

“I hope not.

“So do I. Do you know why you’re here Emily?”

“I’ve already told you. Yes. I know why I’m here.”

“Tell me about the mission.”

“What about the mission?”

“What happened during the mission?”

“Eva did the debriefing. Look up what she said.”

“Yes, Miss Degroot apparently delivered her mission report while Mister Leroy stitched her leg up. Tough woman. I’ve read her report, I’d like to hear it from your perspective.”

“If you’ve read it, then you don’t need to hear about it from me.”

***

The air smelt of smoke and ash, grass, trees, engine exhaust, the lingering scent of a pair of septic tanks that had been blown open about fifty metres behind the squad. Eva Degroot advanced towards a two story brick building at the end of an until-recently unused gravel road, rifle up and tucked firmly against her shoulder smelling of gunpowder and oil, her Gremlin hovering a pace behind and above her head.

Around the squad caravans and mobile homes were scattered, broken and occasionally burning between intact or splintered trees and occasional worn out wooden fences. A few terrified looking faces peaked out from behind stumps and wreckage, watching them pass then ducking away again. The building in front of them (Eva suspected it was an old warehouse) was the last place they’d heard enemy gunfire, and a chilling, strangled-off scream.

Cesar Vargas was on point, shotgun swivelling between windows as he moved, and Emily Adams was in the rear, running between close cover with one hand on her big revolver. Degroot was a little behind Vargas on the left flank while Li Ming Cheng trudged up the right with her big rotary cannon. It may have been the ADVENT body-count they’d left behind them, it may have been Cheng’s usual relaxed optimism, it may simply have been that her face was permanently stuck with a lazy grin, but it looked like she was enjoying herself. It was far different to the professional indifference that had been fixed on Vargas’ face since they’d dropped from the Skyranger or the concern that had been growing on Adams’ since before they’d even reached this little patch of rusted, rural Americana, as Central had been constant providing updates on the deteriorating situation within the resistance camp all the way over.

Vargas raised a fist as he reached a pile of crates and everyone froze. Degroot counted to one hundred then began making hand signals. Cheng ducked behind a splintered tree trunk and Adams jogged to another pile of crates. Not fantastic cover. Barely protection at all against the kind of firepower ADVENT usually brought to bear, but better than nothing.

The squad in place, Vargas still swivelling his shotgun between windows, Degroot took a deep breath and advanced towards an upright maple barely thirty metres from the old warehouse. She strode halfway there and sprinted the rest, slamming bodily into the trunk of a gnarled maple to brake herself. Another deep breath and Degroot swung around the side to see what she could see.

The sectoid spotted her the same moment Degroot spotted it. It screamed in her direction and threw itself through the nearest window, skittering like a spider across the long grass outside the warehouse to yet another pile of crates (did the resistance just unload crates fucking everywhere? Why the hell did they have so many crates?) moving outside Vargas’ line of sight. The red armoured officer that followed the spindly alien through the window wasn’t nearly as quick. Vargas’ big shotgun boomed angrily, catching the officer in the hip. It made a gargled scream but managed to stay upright and stumble behind the same cover as the sectoid. A black armoured trooper wasn’t nearly so lucky. Cheng’s cannon tore through the brick wall it had chosen to hide behind and ripped through its armour, flinging it backwards into a smoking pile of meat.

The sectoid screeched in Degroot’s direction, then so did Adams.

***

“You were eight when the aliens first attacked?”

Emily knew she was being petulant, childish, and didn’t care. She felt like being a little petulant after being ordered to sit through this useless chat with Dr Lynch.

“That’s what your file says. Your father flew cargo planes for a shipping firm, he was killed early in the invasion when the Aliens began cutting off supply lines. Your mother was a US Marine. When the situation,” Dr Lynch hesitated for a moment, as if searching for the right word, “deteriorated, she brought you to Camp Shelby. Do you remember that?”

“Of course I do.”

“One of the really surprising things I learnt after joining the resistance, and now X-Com, was how long the first war actually went for. The aliens, and ADVENT, took control of the cities quickly enough. Most of us assumed that our militaries had simply surrendered. Given in to the greater good of the new regime. But many soldiers kept fighting. You kept fighting. It was six years before Camp Shelby was destroyed by the aliens. Do you ever wonder why?”

Emily looked at the table, at the tablet in Dr Lynch’s hands, at the darkened room beyond the glass walls. Anywhere but actually at him. She wasn’t sure why she didn’t want to look at him, but she didn’t.

“The theory I heard,” Emily said slowly, uncommitedly, as if discussing who she thought the murderer might be at the end of a crime novel, “was that the aliens let us be so we’d all gather in one place. Soldiers an’ possible resistance fighters an’ their families,” she nearly spat the last word, “anyone who’d fight back and keep fighting back. We heard of places like Camp Shelby an’ that’s where we went. And when the aliens thought they had enough eggs in one basket,” she swallowed, “they smashed it.”

“Do you remember when your basket was smashed?”

Emily swallowed again. Her mouth was watering and her stomach was roiling. Of course she remembered that day. The screech of approaching jet engines. The roar of machine guns being overwhelmed by the pulse of magnetic rifles. The garbled alien language being spoken by an earlier version of ADVENT’s new footsoldiers, sounding more human than they ever had since. The ground shaking as Sectopods slowly demolished their way through heavy weapons. The glowing purple eyes of the men and women who had shut down the Camp’s defences, forced to betray their friends and fellow soldiers by psionic enemies nowhere near the battle. Fire, so much fucking fire.

“Parts of it,” Emily still wasn’t looking at Dr Lynch but she could feel him twitch at that, “I fought.”

“You were fourteen.”

“I was a soldier. Didn’t matter how young, you pulled your weight in Camp Shelby. But they needed bodies to hold the line when the aliens decided to come. When you turned thirteen, you were drafted.”

“How did your mother react to that?”

“She didn’t like it, but it was either I picked up a rifle or we had to leave. She didn’t think we’d last long on the outside.”

“But you did. You lasted fourteen years after the base was destroyed.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t want to.”

“Do you remember what happened the day Camp Shelby was destroyed?”

So much fire. Emily’s mother dead amongst a half dozen others. A man with purple eyes had gunned them down, shot her mother in the back of the head. She didn’t have a face anymore. Just a bloody mess of shattered bone and brain. But Emily recognised her, recognised the tattoo on her arm, E.T in someone’s crosshairs. The man who shot her, eyes still glowing purple, flat on his back choking on his own blood. A burning building nearby casting everything red and orange and yellow.

“Yes.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Honestly? Yes.

“Fuck no.”

“Okay. What happened during your last mission.”

“You’ve read the report.”

***

“Eva!” it was a panicked sound, broken and high-pitched in Degroot’s ear.

The Dutchwoman twisted in place, making sure she remained in cover, looking in Adams’ direction as the American drew her pistol and fired. Degroot followed the line of the barrel towards a capsized caravan and the abomination in front of it.

One of the civilians, a woman with short bleached blonde hair, was changing. Mouth wide in an expression of agony, her left arm had suddenly blown up into a grotesque pink tree-trunk of a limb ending in three sharp talons as long as Degroot’s shoulders were wide. The woman… The creature roared a primitive bellow that rolled over the scorched remains of the camp and the rest of its body shifted. Legs, torso and head, then its remaining arm, until it was just a dripping, oozing, neckless pink blob sitting on long footless legs with longer clawed arms. For a second Degroot was reminded of an old McDonalds mascot, the goofy purple monster thing. Maybe this was a distant cousin that had been tied to one of those medieval torture racks. And melted. Cheng was swearing rapidly in Mandarin and Vargas mattered a long, appreciative “puté madré.”

The creature roared again and lumbered forward, faster than Degroot would have thought possible. Adams fired her big revolver again, hitting the thing square in the chest. It didn’t stop, slow down, didn’t flinch, didn’t seem to notice at all. It just seemed to absorb the bullet, the big hole filling in the blink of an eye.

“Fuck!” Adams yelled, loud enough for Degroot to hear without her com-link, “Fucking shitty fuck!”

She fired again, trying to back up, but the creature was fast, its long legs eating up the distance. Adams barely squawked when its arm, as thick as her torso, hit her in the chest. It lifted her off her feet and sent her twisting into the stack of crates she’d been ducking behind a moment ago. They buckled with a violent crack when her back struck them, enough to make Degroot wince as she watched Adams drop onto the ground in front of them. The creature bellowed yet again and advanced on Adams.

It all seemed to happen in the space of a few terrifying heartbeats. Degroot released the breath she’d been holding since Adams yelled her name and raised her rifle.

She hadn’t forgotten about the ADVENT officer and sectoid, nor did she expose herself, but the maple tree she was hiding behind had not evolved with magnetic rifles in mind. Most of the officer’s burst went well wide of the tree, but one round ripped through the edge of the trunk and into Degroot’s left calf. The leg gave like someone had kicked it out from under her and she went down, jarring her elbows and teeth when she hit the ground hard.

Cheng was already reacting. There was the hollow metallic thunk of a launcher and a split second later one of her grenades exploded amongst the pile of crates the officer and the alien had been hiding behind, turning their cover to splinters and tearing through the officer’s breastplate. The sectoid was knocked backwards, but not killed outright. It was screeching stupidly as it tried to stand back up, but Vargas was already running forward, pulling his machete out as he ran, putting the momentum of his sprint into the swing as he dropped it down on the sectoids neck. Its head bounced once, twice, stopped. The body went limp.

Degroot looked back towards Adams, who was pushing herself back onto her feet. She’d lost her pistol but still had managed to keep her long rifle as she was spun into the crates. Her left eye was swollen shut, and Degroot didn’t doubt that she didn’t have at least a few broken ribs, but she didn’t let it stop her. As the creature began stomping towards her again she raised her rifle and fired.

It was a messy shot hitting around the creature’s waist. To everyone’s surprise, however, the creature was staggered, even taking a step backwards. Degroot didn’t let herself miss the chance. Still on the ground she took quick aim and fired. The shots slammed into the creature’s head. It swayed on the spot for a second that felt like an eternity, then fell backwards in a messy, slimy heap. Like someone had emptied a massive pile of lard onto the grass.

“Hold your position Menace One,” the Commander’s voice filled their ears, “we’re scanning for signs of other hostiles in the A.O.”

Degroot released another breath that she’d been holding and looked at her leg. The bullet gone through the back of her grieve, leaving a bloody black hole, but had been stopped by the front. She pulled a bandage from her field kit and began winding it as tightly as possible around the wound. Cheng and Vargas were watching everything, including the other civilians, for any further surprises.

Looks like that’s a wrap Menace One,” Central Officer Bradford now, “Looks like you got them all. Firestarter’s on the way, let’s get these civilians out of-“

Fuck,” the Commander again, still his usual calm self but concern clear in his voice, “Fuck. Menace One-Four’s vitals are dropping. Degroot, Adams is hurt worse than we thought. Get to her NOW.”

Degroot looked up just in time to see Adams sink to her knees, trying to use her rifle to keep herself upright.

“Kut!” Degroot swore as she pushed herself up onto her wounded leg, “Kut!” as she began painfully limping towards Adams, “Kut!” again as Adams collapsed forwards onto her face.

Vargas was already running towards the prone woman and after a few limping steps Cheng arrived by Degroot’s side, letting Degroot drape an arm over her shoulders and acting as a crutch. It still took an age to get to Adams, though it was really only long enough for Vargas to reach her first and roll her over after quickly checking her back for wounds. Degroot through herself besides the young American woman, whose eyes were open and breaths shallow. There was a lot of blood leaking onto the grass, too much blood. She found a gash, not too deep but two fingers wide on Adams waist just above the hip, more worrisome was that the edges of the wound had the look of recent chemical burns. Vargas had backed away to start herding the civilians towards the E.Z but Cheng seemed to recognise the oddity as well. Both women looked towards the dead creature, which seemed to be melting away already.

“Shit,” Cheng swore again, this time in English.

Degroot nodded agreement as she pulled out her combat knife and began cutting away Adams’ clothes and armour. Above them Firestarter’s engines whined, signalling its approach.

***

“Do you know why you’re here Emily?”

“I’ve already told you, yes! Why do you keep asking me that?”

“Your accent’s slipping.”

“What?”

“You have a bit of a southern drawl most of the time, but you hide it most of the time. I’ve been told it becomes more noticeable when you’re tired or drunk. I see it also happens when you’re irritated. It’s quite charming.”

Emily looked at Dr Lynch for the first time in what felt like ages but could only have been a few minutes, unable to think of a comeback either clever or vulgar. Dr Lynch’s eyes twinkled (honest to God, twinkled).

“Before the war,” he said, “I was a forensic scientist. Every so often I’d have to testify in court and there was one prosecutor I became quite good friends with. He had this habit of asking suspects and witnesses the same question, over and over, but always between other questions. One day I asked him why he did this, and he said that if they didn’t understand the question he’d keep asking until they did. So, Emily, do you know why you’re here?”

Emily squirmed a little, her ribs throbbed, “Because the Commander an’ Central want to know if I’ve gone round the bend. They’re worried I might freak out next mission and get the whole squad killed.”

“That might be what I’m asking. Maybe I’m asking why it is you think they’re worried about that? After all, they’ve not yet asked me to speak to Miss Navarro yet. In fact she’ll be going back onto active duty very soon.”

She thought for a moment, “All that unusual behaviour bullshit you dragged up a minute ago.”

“Maybe. Your friends are concerned about you. Mister Leroy has noted your difficulty sleeping. Miss Cheng says she hasn’t heard you laugh in the days since the mission. Mister Vargas says you were worryingly insistent about acquiring a bottle of Miss Seo’s ship-made rotgut. Miss Shen said you were rather bitchy when she came to visit you.”

Adam’s heart skipped a beat, “Sh-Shen said that?”

Dr Lynch’s eyebrows rose the barest noticeable fraction, “In the nicest way possible. She’s worried about you. We all are. Believe me, the Commander doesn’t think so little of his soldiers that one bad day could break them. But he is concerned that a small traumatic incident may trigger memories from a greater trauma. Memories of being betrayed by friends you were supposed to protect, as an example, may be reawakened by being wounded when someone you were supposed to save turned into a literal monster.”

They were both silent for a moment. Emily back to staring at the table, Dr Lynch watching her.

“Of course maybe I’m asking if you know why we chose the autopsy room for our little tête-à-tête.”

“Our what?”

“Chat.”

“Oh. No, I don’t.”

Dr Lynch looked around them at the glass walls and the room beyond, the smile slipping for the first time since he arrived if only for a moment.

“Truthfully neither do I. Maybe because it’s the only private space on the whole damn ship save for the Commander’s quarters.”

Emily chuckled, “Honestly, that’d have been even weirder than doing this here.”

“Yes, I agree. It might have also been so I could show you the place where Tygen and I are going to cut that creature into tiny little bits,” again his smile slipped, again only for a moment, “We’re going to keep having these meetings while your healing. Perhaps afterwards as well. We want to make sure you can take whatever is coming.”

“We’ Dr Lynch?”

“I was recently rescued by a charming young lady with a southern drawl, a young lady who never let me out of her sight and kept me moving no matter how terrified I was. I’d like to try and return the favour.”

“Oh. Thankyou.”

“The pleasure’s mine, my dear. Now tell me truthfully, do you want to find somewhere else to do this or should I bring a space heater next time?”

Emily laughed.

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (3)

Chapter 3: He only wanted to help.

Thierry Leroy crouched behind a barrier, the kind of thin sort-of metal waist high walls that ADVENT used for everything from crowd-control to (as was the case this time) separating the sidewalk from the road. He clutched his rifle tightly in hands clammy beneath his gloves and watched a pair of ADVENT troopers shining lights through car windows. A red-armoured officer watched their search with that odd detachment that would have marked them as something not-quite human in his mind even if he’d never seen the oversized eyes on a dozen of their comrades corpses. His Gremlin hovered quietly at his side, also hidden by the barrier, mechanical eyes twitching in a fashion similar to its master.

Across the road Cesar Vargas and on the other side of another barrier Cesar Vargas watched the enemy trio with cool eyes and a slowly moving jaw. The young Mexican had an almost magical ability to produce chewing gum (both the kind for blowing bubbles and the kind that freshens the breath) and was constantly, to borrow a line from Eva Degroot, “doing his best impression of a cow.” A few car lengths to their rear Li Ming Cheng and Emily Adams crouched beside a parked sedan. Adams had a reassuring hand on the shoulder of a terrified Doctor Colin Lynch, the man Menace One had been sent to rescue. Cheng looked edgier than normal. Leroy knew she hated bringing up the rear, probably resented being on babysitter duty with Adams. Front and centre spitting death and destruction was where she wanted to be, but her heavy cannon and the grenade launcher slung between her shoulderblades meant that she was ill-suited to leading the way when stealth was required. Like this mission had until these three fuckers had appeared around the corner and begun searching the parked cars in front of them.

“Menace One,” the Commander’s voice crackled slightly in Leroy’s ear, “we’ve confirmed other active patrols in the area and hostile aircraft inbound. We don’t have time find a way around these guys or make it to an alternate extraction zone. We’re going to have to go through them. Over.”

Leroy’s eyes darted between the troopers, the officer and Vargas. His posture had shifted slightly, shoulders a little more slumped, his back and neck a little straighter. Not by much, of course, it was barely noticeable unless you knew the man well and knew what to look for. But still, it made him look meaner, better prepared for violence.

Avenger this is Menace One-Two,” Cheng’s voice was soft in his ear, “Has Firestarter got a location for the other patrols? Over.”

“You know that’s a negative Menace One-Two. But I expect they’ll come to us. Menace One-Four,” that was Adams, “take out the Trooper on the left. Menace One,” Leroy, “Menace One-Three,” Vargas, “Hit them while they scatter. Menace One-Two move forward and hit anything still moving. Weapons free. Adams, you may fire when ready. Over.”

“Roger that,” Adams kept her voice low like Cheng. Not a whisper, since it can be difficult to control the volume of a whisper, more like a low murmur.

Leroy crossed himself (an unconscious habit) and looked back at Adams for a moment. She’d taken her hand off Doctor Lynch’s shoulder and now bent over the bonnet of a surprisingly large hatchback, elbows propped on the bright red surface, staring down the scope of her long rifle. Her target was maybe a hundred metres away, and the girl had the talent to hit it with her (admittedly also oversized) sidearm. The Commander – monitoring the battlefield on a dozen monitors displaying blueprints, street maps, passive scanners, body cameras, hacked security cameras and whatever drones could safely be put into the air – would probably put her on a rooftop as soon as possible to watch over their advance up the street, up high where she’d be able to put her superior range and accuracy to most use. For now though, unable to get onto a rooftop without passing the ADVENT patrol in front of them, she’d take the easy shot.

Cheng meanwhile had made her way to the left side of the street, west by Leroy’s reckoning, and was unhurriedly padding up the sidewalk towards them. They all wore specialised soft soles on their boots to muffle their footsteps, but the aliens would notice her approach in moments.

Leroy turned his attention back to the enemy in front of him. They had moved to the next car, again shining flashlights through its windshield and windows, one trooper taking the trouble to get on his (her? Its?) knees and check beneath the undercarriage. Leroy wondered if they actually expected to find Menace One just sitting in the back of a sedan, waiting to be discovered. Wondered if they even knew of X-Com’s involvement in Doctor Lynch’s disappearance and escape. Perhaps they just expected some terrified scientist shivering in the back seat. Perhaps they didn’t even know what it was they were looking for.

Adams’ target stepped over to the opposite side of a parked car from her. Leroy expected her to shift targets. She didn’t.

“Firing.”

There was an enormous crack that echoed between the high glass and steel building fronts surrounding them, like the end of the world compared to the silent streets and muffled words that had preceded the shot. And it was a decent shot, shattering its way through passenger window and windscreen of the vehicle that had been in the way, catching the trooper in the centre of the chest and sending her (him? It?) sprawling backwards and out of Leroy’s line of sight.

The other two reacted as expected, scattering quickly and immediately at the sound of the shot. The flash of red armour sprinting towards the relative safety of another traffic barrier drew Leroy’s eye and Vargas’, who shot first. A full burst straight into the right side of the ADVENT officer’s chest. The fucker was staggered for a moment but seemed like it (it) would keep going, until Leroy pulled the trigger and caught it in the unprotected neck and jaw. The officer was pitched sideways in a spray of orange blood, bone and teeth. Momentum caused it to bounce and roll forward a few times upon hitting the ground before coming to a rest laying on its stomach.

The other trooper managed to hurl itself behind one of the parked cars it had just searched along the east side of the street. Cheng didn’t give it a chance to get its bearings. At the sound of Adams’ shot the big, lean Chinese woman had started to sprint forward, sliding into the side of a bus shelter to break her momentum, the barrels of her rotary cannon already spinning. The ADVENT trooper didn’t see her coming, didn’t know she was there until her long burst tore through its armour and sent it flying into the gutter. Cheng held down the trigger until she was quite sure it wasn’t getting up again, not as long as it seemed due to the echoes of her heavy weapon, like the roar of a chainsaw. Afterwards, Leroy would run past the trooper and see that its right arm had nearly been severed from its torso, white bone showing through red and orange flesh held on by a few scraps of tendon and a few intact pieces of its armour.

For a long second after there was nothing at all. Everyone stood still, peering at the street ahead or the street behind. North or south. Then Leroy’s hearing began to some back. He heard a few screams and remembered that ADVENT hadn’t completely cleared this area of civilians. He heard alarms and knew that more than just the few patrols ahead now knew where the armed human soldiers were. He heard his own breathing, deep but rapid, chest moving in time with his eyes. What he did not hear was the sound of footsteps. The piercing screeching warcry of the sectoids or the garbled language of the ADVENT troopers.

The other patrols were holding position, or far enough away that they weren’t about to come spilling out of the buildings. The others were waiting for it as well, and everybody seemed to come to the same conclusion at the same time.

“Nice shooting everyone,” the Commander’s voice again crackled in his ear, “let’s move Doctor Lynch forward and find a decent vantage point for Menace One-Four.”

Behind him, Adams nudged Doctor Lynch and pointed him in Leroy’s direction.

***

It sounded odd when said out loud but, back when everyone called him by his christian name instead of his surname, Thierry Leroy had joined the army because it seemed the fastest way to learn how to help people.

Thierry’s father was an electrician, his mother a nurse. She named him after a grandfather she never talked about, but always seemed to remember fondly. They raised him in Lyon, walking distance from the Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste which seemed to be the centre of his world for much of his young life. His father was not overly religious (Thierry’s mother was the devout Catholic) but loved the old church, and would often take his son for ice cream by its steps.

When he was twelve years old a friend of the family gave him a book written by a nurse who had been an aide worker in a dozen different countries from Haiti to Somalia to Sri Lanka. To everyone’s great surprise, the pre-teen Thierry had loved the book, reading it three times before he turned thirteen and searching for similar books, movies and magazines. By fourteen his walls were covered with posters adorned by Croix-Rouge française and Médecins Sans Frontières between the more stereotypical kind that advertised bands, movies and tv shows.

At fifteen everyone knew what the young man believed his calling to be. Everyone had plenty of advice on how to get there, but he only listened to a few of them. When, aged sixteen, Thierry asked for his father’s permission to travel with a church youth group to go build an orphanage in Central Africa (a first step, he believed, to becoming a real aid worker). Being a practical man Thierry’s father made a great show of going through the pamphlets, brochures, websites and booklets provided about the trip. Being a practical man he of course said no.

“First thing is first, we can’t afford it,” he told his son over a coffee at a place not far from the Cathedral, “Second, you don’t want to do this. This is tourist shit. The Red Cross wants people who actually know what they’re doing, not some little fucker who went on holiday and pretended to build a wall.”

The refusal hurt, but he was a practical young man and he saw sense in the words. So he began looking for other ways. Considered getting into nursing (his grades weren’t high enough to become a doctor), carpentry and becoming an electrician like his father. He began volunteering at an aide agency, calling people asking for donations.

Six months after that chat with his father, Thierry’s sister (older, at university) dropped a pamphlet on his keyboard. The front page showed a picture of a man in camouflage with a red cross on his arm giving a small African child an inoculation.

“You should join the army,” she said with the kind of confidence that only older siblings possess for talking to their inferiors, “You’d get paid to learn how to do what you want to do, and they might send even send you on aid missions.”

Thierry had told her to mind her own fucking business, but kept the pamphlet. He began to check the army’s recruitment website, and consider how useful it might be in, say, a refugee camp in a combat zone to have some military experience. He’d certainly know what he was doing then. He was seventeen when he told his parents of his plan to enlist. They supported him. His sister took the credit. He enlisted a month after turning eighteen and climbed onto the bus to a CFIM for his initial training.

They were just starting to hear about a strange terrorist attack that had occurred in Frankfurt, which killed dozens. No one knew who did it, but everyone knew who didn’t do it, which seemed to be everyone else.

Within a month there was talk about strange aircraft, attacks on other civilian centres and remote communities across the globe just disappearing. Everyone thought, but no one wanted to say it out loud.

Within two months no one cared anymore. It was aliens.

At the end of his training Leroy was given a rifle and his regiment sent to fight in the south. It wasn’t just aliens. It was a war. A week after that it was called a slaughter, and the aliens didn’t care if you were wearing a red cross armband or not.

***

Cheng grinned as she fired her grenade launcher, grinned harder when it exploded and sent another ADVENT trooper cartwheeling backwards. The sectoid that had been beside it screeched and waved about its shredded left arm. Vargas put a tight burst into its skull and bits of brain streaked the road. Adams guided Doctor Lynch forward cautiously towards the extraction zone.

Leroy caught movement to his left, spun, fired without thinking, caught a second ADVENT trooper in the neck. The black clad fucker went down in a gurgling pile, clutching at its mess of a throat as orange blood pooled through its fingers. Cheng jogged up beside him and watched the mess cooly.

“Leave him to bleed out?” she asked.

Leroy scratched his beard. It had gotten long recently.

“Non, I like to help when I can.”

He raised his rifle, took careful aim and pulled the trigger.