Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (13)

Chapter 13: Bonds, broken or otherwise

“Where’d the boy come from?”

“Same place as me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Nicked a car?”

“And drove it into an ADVENT scanner.”

“And drove it into an ADVENT scanner?”

“The ones that look like street lights.”

“I know what they fucking look like.”

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

“Oh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He English?”

“Pardon son?”

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

“I am.” Carlyle said.

“He is.” O’Brien agreed.

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

Carlyle burst out laughing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

“Alessandra Mancini?”

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

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

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

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

“C-ci. Yes. I can walk.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Gerry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vicky would tell a story and shake his head.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Navneet might have loved her.

***

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

“Almost there dude. Almost clear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck. Inappropriate thoughts at inappropriate times.

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Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (12)

Chapter 12: Witches

The sun had begun to set a quarter-hour ago, casting the long grass field and outcrops of trees in a dirty orange glow, and the person they were supposed to be meeting was running late. Michelle King sat on the lowered ramp of the skyranger, whistling out of tune as she whittled a piece of wood found nearby with a short hunting knife she’d borrowed from Gerry O’Neill that morning. Guy had a lot of knives. He was standing about twenty metres away, head swivelling back and forth as he examined the landscape with those slightly crazy eyes of his, finger probably itching over the trigger. For all that she knew he was actually one of the coolest blokes on the Avenger, unlikely to start something unless the Commander told him to or he sensed a real threat. Good guy to have around during this kind of cloak and dagger bullshit.

Twenty metres in the opposite direction from the skyranger Emily Adams sat on her haunches, partly hidden in the thigh high grass and using her sniper rifle for support. She turned her head and Michelle saw the crooked outline of her nose, not broken like they’d initially thought but still badly swollen and bent out of shape. Looked painful. Sorry mate. Still, she seemed to be in better spirits than she had in weeks.

Above, Michelle could hear Simmons – the Canadian skyranger co-pilot and deck chief who apparently didn’t have a first name – pacing back and forth on the skyranger’s roof. Or was it a canopy? Hull? Shit. Anyway, he was pacing back and forth on top of the skyranger with an assault rifle, probably glaring at the trees in the distance. Trying to set them on fire with his mind. He seemed the type. Nice enough guy, despite that. Just a similar sort of intense to Gerry, the softly spoken Irishman.

There was a thump of boots on metal and Michelle looked up to see Louise Seo, as Canadian as Simmons (no relation), standing and watching the world outside the skyranger with a look of mild concern. She didn’t like staying on the ground too long. Made her feel like there was a target painted across her back, and the long they were there the bigger it got.

“How much longer is the Commander going to wait?” Louise asked no one in particular.

“Don’t know,” Michelle answered since none of the others seemed close enough to have even noticed the question, “till they arrive by the look of it.”

The Commander himself was sitting on a large rock about thirty metres from the skyranger, the landmark where they’d been told their blind date would meet them. He was punching things into a tablet computer (there’s no escape from paperwork) and sneaking glances between the screen, his wristwatch and the setting sun. The Commander wasn’t the type to look nervous. Constantly stressed out or exhausted, definitely (that came from always keeping an eye on the doomsday clock hanging over the map in the bridge) but not nervous. Even still Michelle could see the triangle shaped patch of sweat staining the back of his uniform shirt and a tension in his shoulders that wasn’t normally there.

“When you… did what you did,” Louise, like most of the crew members, was so bloody polite when it came to talking about the Michelle’s life of crime, “did you ever hear about this Night Witch lady?”

Michelle opened her mouth to just say no, but closed it again and gave the question some thought.

“I don’t think so. You’d hear fairy tales around the place. A psychic commando going on a spree through an ADVENT building or some lady who’s a friend of a friend of a friend’s third cousin who, swear to god Louise,” Michelle shifted her accent into something a little more nasally, “can control your fucking mind. Most of its shit, but you always know some of it must be true. We’ve both seen aliens control minds, why can’t a human who’s been exposed to some of their weird shit do the same? I might never have heard of a Night Witch, but we might’ve just got the name wrong.”

Emily sneezed, loudly. Really fucking loudly, honestly. Michelle and Louise both gave her a look, she smiled a little embarrassed, they turned back to staring at the Commander’s back.

“She’s doing better,” the pilot quietly.

“Yeah,” Michelle smiled, “she just needed someone to talk to.”

“You?”

“We had words.”

“Huh. She could have spoken to the rest of us. Me, Cheng, Leroy. And she’s been having meetings with Doctor Lynch for months now.”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s the difference between having someone to talk to and knowing you have someone to talk to.”

“She could have come to anybody else.”

“She didn’t really want to come to me.”

“Vehicle approaching,” Gerry’s voice cut through the conversation, soft as silk and raised just high enough for everyone to hear his brogue.

Everyone looked in the same direction that he was staring, just off to the west where any approach was hidden by the setting sun. After a few minutes she heard the sound of an engine rumbling over the uneven ground.

“Christ, you’ve got good hearing Gerry,” Michelle grinned as a black spot emerged from in front of the sun, “fucking wonder considering the noise from that big shotgun.”

“Louise!” the Commander stood up from his rock and straightened his uniform, watching the approaching four-by-four with a frown, “Get the skyranger ready to start at a moment’s notice. I want us gone as soon as this is done, no matter how this goes down.”

Apparently the Commander had an itch between his shoulderblades as well. Seemed right. They were about to meet a witch after all, and she was very late.

***

Emily sat in the corner of the Guerilla Warfare School, or ‘the gym’ as everyone preferred to call it, resting her head against the cool metal of the equipment lockers. Her limbs were numb from running and lifting and her chest ached, but the real pain came from the brutal hangover from the bottle of ship-made whiskey she’d finished the night before. Her head was pounding and her guts were churning, and she sincerely regretted getting out of bed that morning, let alone climbing onto a treadmill. Fuck, she’d been drinking too much lately.

There was a click and a hiss and the hatch slid open. The young Australian, Michelle King, strode in barefoot whistling something out of tune and carrying a small satchel slung over her shoulder. She took a glance across the gym, not even looking Emily’s way where she was tucked into the corner, then stepped over to a punching bag hanging from the ceiling by the high wall.

Still whistling that off-tune song she pulled a small speaker from her satchel and sat it far enough away from the punching bag that it wouldn’t get in the way, switched it on.

The music started fast, hard, a little angry and stayed that way. Michelle nodded along with the music as she began to stretch out, bouncing on the balls of her feet. About halfway through the song she began punching the bag in time with the music, beating out the rhythm with her fists and falling into a pattern that Emily couldn’t pick, sometimes ducking low and sometimes kicking the bag with the side of her leg.

“Can you turn that shit off?” Emily heard herself yell across the room.

Michelle turned around, startled eyes wide before her face fell into that grin she always wore. Not the lazy, relaxed smile that Li Ming Cheng always wore. This one was more arrogant smirk, like she was playing a joke on the whole world and she was the only one in on it. Fuck her.

“Sorry Ems, didn’t see you there!” she bent over and switched the music off, “Shoulda told me. Bit of a long one last night, yeah?”

“I’m fine.”

“Y’sure? Looking a little pale over there.”

“I told you I’m fuckin’ fine. I jus’ don’t need to hear your shitty-ass songs right now.”

“Said I was sorry.”

“Yeah well be more fuckin’ considerate in the fuckin’ future.

“Calm ya’ farm mate, no harm was done.”

Calm my fucking farm? “What the fuck does that even mean?” Emily realised she was yelling, when did she start yelling, “Do you even listen to yourself or do you just say the first thing that pops into your stupid fuckin’ head?”

She saw Michelle take a deep breath and mutter something towards the bag, “What the fuck is your problem with me Ems?” she was still smiling as she said it.

“My problem? Well let’s start with you fuckin’ callin’ me ‘Ems’ to start. It’s not my fuckin’ name. Next is the way you strut around here-“

“The way I ‘strut around here’ Ems?” The smile was getting bigger on her stupid goddamn face. She was always fucking smiling. Always joking. Telling her stories and getting people to play her games to whoever was around. Fuck, this was the first time Emily had seen her alone since she’d arrived on the Avenger.

“The way you strut around like you fuckin’ own the place. And the people. Well you don’t own the place. You haven’t even been here that long. I have. I’ve been here since the fuckin’ start! I’ve been fighting! While you were off stealing cars and getting high I’ve been fighting. And killing. And watching my friends die.”

“Ah. It’s about her.”

“No it’s fuckin’ not!”

“Yeah it is.”

“No it’s not!” Emily didn’t know when it had happened, but she’d crossed the floor and was screaming into Michelle’s face.

“Yeah. It is. Ems.

Emily swung. It surprised her when she did it, so she assumed that it would surprise the Aussie as well. Apparently it didn’t. She just seemed to move around Emily’s hard right hook, stepping forward and bringing her own right fist at the same time. Emily felt her nose crunch against Michelle’s knuckles and her head snap back, then felt another punch connect with her stomach driving the wind out of her lungs and doubling her over forward.

Eyes shut and stars dancing behind her lids anyway, gasping for breath with blood pouring from what felt like a shattered nose, her stomach turned over and she vomited up what was left of last nights dinner and the granola she’d forced herself to swallow when she’d woken up. She felt a hand pull back her hair and rub her back as she coughed up the contents of her stomach, a voice trying to be soothing. She opened her eyes and saw that someone had grabbed the trashcan from the corner and dropped it beneath her mouth, ready to catch what had come out. She vomited again. Heard the voice talking. Realised she was crying. Realised the voice belonged to Michelle and they were still alone.

“All out?” There was surprisingly little condescension in Michelle’s voice. Definitely no anger.

Emily nodded.

“Good. Let’s get you sat down,” she guided Emily back over to the bench by the lockers, sat her down and squatted in front of her, wincing as she examined Emily’s face, “I may have broken your nose mate. Sorry about that.”

“I tried to hit you first.”

“I should’ve let you hit me. Assuage,” she over-pronounced the word to be understood with her accent, “the guilt.” She produced a small towel from somewhere and held it against Emily’s nose.

“I forgive you for not getting hit. Where’d you learn to move like that anyway? You were so fast?”

Michelle chuckled, “I’m not fast mate. Decent puncher, mind you, but I usually just take the hit. Nah, you’re just tired and hungover, so even slower than me.” She stood up and eased into the seat next to her, “Now if you want to see fast you should watch Kaz – Karen – practice some time. Girl moves like water.”

“I’m sorry I was yelling. And tried to hit you.”

“You are forgiven. But you’ve been sending me dark looks for weeks now, and I’m feeling we’ve got some issues that need sorting. So what’s the problem?”

Emily was quiet for what may have been seconds or minutes, trying to think of what to say. Organise her thoughts into something coherent.

“You’re younger than me.”

“You’re jealous of my youthful good looks?”

Emily laughed softly, though it was hard enough to hurt her nose, “No, it’s just. How are you so much better than me?”

“I’m not better.”

“Yes you are. You do-” how do you explain it properly, “I don’t know, you talk so much easier than me,” just let it all gush out, “and everyone wants to listen to you,” hope it sounds right, “Everyone wants to talk back or be your friend or be…” hope she understands, “something more. You haven’t been here half the time I have and you… you’re not having trouble with anyone. Except me, but that’s because I’ve been a bitch lately. But I don’t, I don’t know how to do this. Talk to people. Be a friend.” Emily let out a defeated breath, “I should’ve been there for Li. After Eva died. But I wasn’t, and you were. And then I just felt in the way. Or something.”

Michelle nodded, “Sorry about that.”

“It’s. It’s not your fault. It’s mine. But you didn’t have any trouble talking to her, and you even had her laughing again. And I was jealous,” Emily sighed, “And then I talked to Lily. I- I’ve had a crush on Lily since… I don’t know. Since I first saw her I guess.”

“That’s so fucking romantic.”

Emily let out a giggle that was half sob, “You mean a fuckin’ cliche.”

“A romantic fucking cliche. Which is still romantic. What happened when you talk to Shen?”

“I told her how I felt. That I liked her. I asked if she liked me back.”

“What did she say?”

“She said ‘I don’t know.’ She said ‘I don’t know’ and I sorta, just, ran. Didn’t know what else to do so I just said ‘okay’ and ran. And now… and now I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to do and I want to ask someone but the two people I can trust, the two people I’d ask, well one’s dead and the other’s spending all her time with you, and, and, I figured you’d know what to do! You wouldn’t have this problem. But I didn’t want to ask, because then you’d know how fuckin’ pathetic I am as well. But everything’s gone wrong and I don’t know what to do!” Emily was crying again, big tears falling down her face, “I don’t know what to do! I think I fuckin’ love her and I don’t think she loves me back and I don’t know what to do!”

Michelle wrapped an arm around Emily and let her heave and cry into her shoulder, despite the blood and snot from Emily’s nose.

“It’s alright mate. You aren’t the first one to not know which way to go. Won’t be the last either. Now, let’s get you cleaned up. Then we should go find Li and talk this through properly.”

***

The four-by-four was a big Toyota Hilux, once white now stained and faded to cream, a pre-war design with a post-war engine that hadn’t fit perfectly beneath the hood so they’d cut holes in it through which bits of machinery stuck, with tinted windows reminiscent of two-way mirrors. Michelle half expected to see a big arse machine gun welded to the tray, like in the bootleg movies she’d seen set in the desert conflicts before the aliens had arrived. Instead there was just a lady with a shotgun, standing over the carriage with a suspicious look in her eye.

The ute stopped and the driver’s side door swung open. A lady in cargo trousers and a white t-shirt emerged from the cabin and treated them all with a half-hearted smile. She had dark skin, though not as dark as the woman with the shotgun, who looked as if she were from somewhere in the Middle East and then spent every second she could in the sun. Both birds had black hair which they wore relatively short, and both women looked like they were in their late thirties or early forties but, like, younger. It was a look they both had that was hard for Michelle to put her finger on. They were firmer. Fewer wrinkles maybe. Like they aged but not in the same way that most mortals did. Similarly there was some indefinable thing about the way they looked, the way they carried themselves, that made Michelle believe they were dangerous, even if they were unarmed.

The Commander stood a little straighter as he watched them.

“Which one of you is the Night Witch?” he said staring straight at the woman in white.

“That’s one name I go by,” she said with a nod and an accent, “though I’d prefer you call me Annette, Commander.” French maybe? Something European, “It is a pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise,” the Commander growled, then didn’t say anything.

For like five minutes. Well maybe two. Enough for things to start to feel awkward as the Avenger crew stared at Annette and the bird with the shotgun, who stared right back. Michelle kept one hand on the trigger of her mag cannon, but she found herself fiddling with the gatling gun’s strap with the other, while she exchanged glances with Emily and Gerry. Thankfully Annette finally broke the silence.

“You do not want to ask me, do you Commander?”

He shook his head, “No, I suppose I don’t.”

“But you need to.”

“So people keep telling me.”

“They will be powerful additions to your ranks.”

“The facilities are untested. We don’t know what they’ll do. We haven’t even finished building the fucking things yet.”

Facilities? Must have to do with whatever had almost been completed in the recently cleared space on Deck 2.

“I’m aware of that. It’s why I have only allowed two volunteers to join you. I have faith, however, that the facilities will perform as expected. When that happens you may contact me again and I will see if there are any more volunteers among my people.”

The Commander nodded, “Alright. I suppose we’ll need them.”

Annette nodded and looked at her reflection in the tinted glass windscreen. It was getting dark, the sun was almost completely past the horizon, and Michelle wondered if it was hard driving over such rough country with glass as black as the night. The passenger side door opened and two people stepped out, a bird with long blonde hair and a bloke who’d shaved his head down to thin stubble. Annette said a few words in French to the two, they said something in French back, there were smiles and frowns and the two newcomers walked towards the skyranger. They smiled at everyone as they approached, even sending one Simmons’ way on top of the skyranger, and Michelle tried to look as friendly as was possible while pointing a big-arse gatling gun at who was probably the closest thing they had to a mum.

“Look after them as well as you can, Commander.”

“As well as I can.”

“Good. If you require them, your Spokesman will handle any further recruiting. Avoid all this needless cloak and dagger bullshit.” She had the cutest accent when she said ‘bullshit.’

“Was it necessary tonight?”

“No,” Annette smiled, “but I was hoping to see an old friend.”

“An old friend?”

Annette just smiled coyly, “Goodbye Commander. Good luck with your new war.”

God-fucking-damn. Dark and mysterious was an understatement.

She opened the door to the Hilux and climbed in, “Come on Fatima. Your brother will be worrying.”

Fatima stayed on the tray as the ute started, switched on its lights and gingerly turned around. Michelle and the others watched it drive away. The sun was completely set now and the world was a shade of dark blue, stained with the red wash of the skyranger’s interior lights. The Commander watched the lights disappear behind a distant plateau, then turned to his new recruits.

“Welcome to Menace One.”

And that was it for the night.

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.