What’s what? A bit of blog news.

Alright guys, so I’m typing this from my hostel room in Toronto right now. I’m about to take a nap (because my body clock is fucked), then I’m gonna go drinking. Hooray for me! But first I wanted to explain the spotty update schedule.

So as has been mentioned, I’m taking the long road back to Australia. That means I’m basically gonna spend the next four weeks on the move without the time, internet access and (if I’m being honest) inclination for most of that period to consistently update the site. Adding new content is hard. That doesn’t mean I won’t, it just might be randomly spaced and topically random. Couple of things, however, I’d like you to know:

1. Life in the Avenger’s Barracks is on a sort of hiatus. Not that it won’t be updated, just it… won’t be updated. Fuck. Alright, so we’re coming onto the last few chapters now, coming to the end and I want to get this right. I’m gonna come right out and say it’s probably not going to be as satisfying as I want, but that’s alright. This has always been an experiment and practice. But I don’t want to release chapters until they’re done. And that’s gonna be hard for the next few weeks. I’m so sorry to those who have had to deal with my already unreliable update schedule, and I appreciate everyone who’s still reading and will finish this adventure with me.

2. I’ll be rejiggering the schedule when I get back. I’ve got a few new semi regulars I wanna try out and maybe the dramatic return of irrational irritations. Maybe. We’ll see.

3. I love you guys.

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (19)

Chapter 19: Journeys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No more ammunition. They had no more ammunition.

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

He spoke. Two words.

“Fix bayonets.”

Joseph Ballo woke up.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thankyou sir. I will, sir.”

Fuck, he was definitely slurring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“I should hope so.”

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

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

“You know I can’t eat anything.”

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

“You’re nothing if not polite.”

“I blame my parents.”

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

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

“Which way will you go?”

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

“That’ll take days.”

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

“You should eat the chicken.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (18)

Chapter 18: Nobody’s ever really ready.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right across the road.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll try to avoid it.”

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

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

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

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

Michelle laughed and began checking her grenade launcher.

***

“Do you two ever leave this fucking room?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d like to ask a favour.”

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

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

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

“I killed a lot of people.”

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

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

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

“I’d rather not tell you.”

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

“No you don’t.”

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

“Miss Annette?” Miss Tiff cocked an eyebrow.

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

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

“You want Miss Annette to find them?”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” agreed Leroy, “you don’t.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you shutting your eyes when you shoot?”

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

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

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

“See what I mean?” Emily laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I would like that.”

***

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

Then the shooting had begun.

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

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

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

It began to rain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!” Michelle screamed, “NO! NO!”

There was another screech, close behind her.

***

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

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

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

Not that it mattered. Because Else found out anyway.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life in the Avenger’s barracks (17)

Chapter 17: For the Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You don’t hesitate in a fight.

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

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

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

You don’t hesitate in a fight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please I have children t-too!”

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

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

Two deep breaths to calm herself.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are they?”

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

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

“You can ask them.”

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

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

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

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

“Are you alright Artillery?”

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

“Hmm?”

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

Well, shit, what do you say to that?

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

Probably not that.

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

“This ain’t the armoury, is it.”

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

“Hello.” Galina said cautiously,

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

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

“I’m alright, thanks for asking.”

“You’re welcome.”

“And how are you darl?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s short for Tiffany.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Neil. Neil Perry.”

Miss Tiff nodded, “And you?”

“Galina.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn, damn weird.

***

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

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

“Guess it’s going to be me then.”

“Thank you Michelle.”

“Fuck you Li.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When did you get here?”

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

“I didn’t get it.”

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

“Nope.”

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

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

“You done yet Michelle?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah? Who?”

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (5)

Chapter 5: Calm moments

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe, if the Commander approves.”

“Will he?”

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

Cheng nodded, “If you’ll let me.”

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

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

Lily. Huh.

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

“You can count on it.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m not that tall.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I like the spray-job.”

The Dutchwoman didn’t say anything.

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

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

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

“Wasp? Because it buzzes around?”

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

Can’t let her do that.

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

Now Degroot looked up, “Pardon?”

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

“They are.”

“No, it doesn’t sound right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck you, fuck you both. Idiots.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Navneet leant back and prayed for the moment to last.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Venom?”

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

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

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

“What kind?” Cheng had asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was also my fucking idea Sawbones.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Even I knew,” Adams piped up cautiously.

“I didn’t,” murmured O’Neill.

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

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

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

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

“You’re joking.”

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

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (4)

Chapter 4: Broken Bones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I borrowed them from the bar.”

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

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

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

“What?”

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

“Emily’s fine.”

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

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

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

“Sore.”

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

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

“Really?”

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

“You’re not sure?”

“I am.”

“You sound a little unsure.”

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

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

“Is he?”

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

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

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

“Eva noticed all that?”

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

“Such as?”

Dr Lynch just smiled apologetically again.

Fine, “How do you know it’s unusual?”

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

“That’s a little creepy.”

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

“And it’s your job to prevent that?”

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

“I hope not.

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

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

“Tell me about the mission.”

“What about the mission?”

“What happened during the mission?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

“You were eight when the aliens first attacked?”

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

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

“Of course I do.”

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

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

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

“Do you remember when your basket was smashed?”

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

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

“You were fourteen.”

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

“How did your mother react to that?”

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

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

“Yeah, but I didn’t want to.”

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

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

“Yes.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Honestly? Yes.

“Fuck no.”

“Okay. What happened during your last mission.”

“You’ve read the report.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

“Do you know why you’re here Emily?”

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

“Your accent’s slipping.”

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Our what?”

“Chat.”

“Oh. No, I don’t.”

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

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

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

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

“We’ Dr Lynch?”

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

“Oh. Thankyou.”

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

Emily laughed.