Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (8)

Chapter 8: New Blood

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

“Knock fuckin’ knock!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“Meet you there!”

And then they were both through the hatch and gone.

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s bad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“I need to get you to the bridge.”

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

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

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

Emily blushed. Realised she was blushing and blushed harder.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anyone dead?”

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

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

Cheng burst out laughing.

***

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

Or at least what looked very much like a battlefield.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or both.”

“Or both,” Cheng agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Huh. Gabby and Gerry. When did that happen?

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“You know what a platypus is mate?”

“Pardon?” the American asked.

“A platypus. Or an echidna?”

“I know what they are.”

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

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

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

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

“Where’s the fun in that though?”

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

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

“What are you doing?”

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

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

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

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

“Nice,” Li extended the word appreciatively.

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

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

“Or a brooch,” Li suggested.

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

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (7)

Chapter 7: Scar Tissue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That eyebrow is going to need stitches.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought of it just now.”

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

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

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

It was nice having a friend again.

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

***

“What are we playing?”

“It’s called ‘Two-Up.'”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does the Commander know about your gambling addiction?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nah, it’s only allowed once a year.”

“When?”

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

“What?”

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

“Why?”

He grinned, “Tradition.”

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

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

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

“Anything?”

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

***

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

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

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

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

“Do you mean Trudy?”

Cheng nodded.

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

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

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

“So were you once upon a time.”

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

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

“Do what you think is best.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How much ammunition does everyone have left?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pharaoh saw them and waved.

“Hey there girls, how’s it going?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know?”

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

“I will.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That didn’t make sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again Degroot screamed her friend’s name.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“ASSUME ALL POSITIONS COMPROMISED”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (5)

Chapter 5: Calm moments

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe, if the Commander approves.”

“Will he?”

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

Cheng nodded, “If you’ll let me.”

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

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

Lily. Huh.

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

“You can count on it.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m not that tall.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I like the spray-job.”

The Dutchwoman didn’t say anything.

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

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

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

“Wasp? Because it buzzes around?”

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

Can’t let her do that.

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

Now Degroot looked up, “Pardon?”

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

“They are.”

“No, it doesn’t sound right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck you, fuck you both. Idiots.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Navneet leant back and prayed for the moment to last.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Venom?”

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

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

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

“What kind?” Cheng had asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was also my fucking idea Sawbones.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Even I knew,” Adams piped up cautiously.

“I didn’t,” murmured O’Neill.

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

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

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

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

“You’re joking.”

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

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (4)

Chapter 4: Broken Bones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I borrowed them from the bar.”

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

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

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

“What?”

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

“Emily’s fine.”

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

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

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

“Sore.”

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

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

“Really?”

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

“You’re not sure?”

“I am.”

“You sound a little unsure.”

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

“Excuse me?”

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

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

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

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

“Is he?”

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

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

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

“Eva noticed all that?”

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

“Such as?”

Dr Lynch just smiled apologetically again.

Fine, “How do you know it’s unusual?”

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

“That’s a little creepy.”

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

“And it’s your job to prevent that?”

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

“I hope not.

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

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

“Tell me about the mission.”

“What about the mission?”

“What happened during the mission?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

“You were eight when the aliens first attacked?”

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

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

“Of course I do.”

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

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

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

“Do you remember when your basket was smashed?”

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

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

“You were fourteen.”

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

“How did your mother react to that?”

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

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

“Yeah, but I didn’t want to.”

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

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

“Yes.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Honestly? Yes.

“Fuck no.”

“Okay. What happened during your last mission.”

“You’ve read the report.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

“Do you know why you’re here Emily?”

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

“Your accent’s slipping.”

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Our what?”

“Chat.”

“Oh. No, I don’t.”

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

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

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

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

“We’ Dr Lynch?”

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

“Oh. Thankyou.”

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

Emily laughed.

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (2)

Chapter 2: Cheeky talk

There was a whooping cheer from the assembled crew members as Emily Adams and Else Krause entered the ship’s living quarters. There was barely more than a dozen people gathered to celebrate the two rookies’ triumphant return home but in the cramped, angular, metallic space their voices echoed back as if a hundred were crammed into the small space. Adams blushed furiously. Krause grinned coyly and polished her glasses with a red and yellow rag, sending a discreet wink in the direction of Navneet Banerjee when she was sure he’d be the only one to catch it. His beard twitched upwards in a knowing smile.

The two women stood just inside the hatch for a second, hesitating in front of the unexpected welcoming party. Long enough for Li Ming Cheng to sidle up between the two and gently drape a bare, muscular arm over each of their shoulders.

“You’re blocking the door,” she said, wearing her usual lazy grin, “go let them shake your hands or something.”

She pushed them into the group less gently (Cheng was stronger than she looked, and she looked very strong) and they were quickly pounced upon. Degroot tussled Adams’ hair like a proud older sibling and John Tipene, an enormous Maori and one of the Avenger’s general technicians, slapped Krause’s back hard enough she almost flew two feet and made her wish she still had her armour on. She told Tipene that and he laughed his sweet chuckle. Someone pulled a bottle of what could be loosely described as gin that it was rumoured Louise Seo (Firestarter, the primary Skyranger pilot) created using a homemade still hidden somewhere in the hanger-slash-armoury. Someone said “To your first dead alien!” as the bottle was handed enthusiastically over to Adams, who hesitated a moment and unenthusiastically eyed it suspiciously, then took a long pull to the cheers of those around her. She cringed and made a sort of soft gurgle as the vile liquid went down, but came up smiling anyway. The toast was repeated and the bottle handed over to Krause, who didn’t hesitate to take two quick swallows before coughing the third up all over the front of her armour. Good natured laughter mixed with the applause.

Cheng used the liquid distraction to work her way around the crowd to her small bunk and foot locker. Thierry Leroy, who had led the mission, was reporting to the Commander and Central while everything was still fresh. They’d each need to write up an After-Action Report later, but Cheng was of the opinion that paperwork was best done while hungover. An opinion she’d likely hate herself for in the morning.

“How did they do?” Degroot had separated herself from the throng and come to lean against the bulkhead next to Cheng’s bunk, tattooed left arm and scarred right arm folded across her chest, “Really?”

“Fine, both of them,” Cheng muttered as she peeled off her sweaty tanktop and pulled a fresh t-shirt and hoody from her footlocker, and a less fresh washcloth. She didn’t head to the sink to “freshen up,” as Seo would say, but slumped onto her bed in her sports bra and fatigue trousers. There was no real modesty in the barracks.

“Neither of them panicked,” she continued once settled, “they didn’t miss either. Emily carved up one sectoid’s face beautifully. Very tight grouping from here,” Cheng touched her chin, “to here,” she tapped the centre of her forehead about two centimetres above her eyebrows, “Looked like someone had buried an axe in its head.”

“Lovely,” nodded Degroot completely sincerely, “What about Krause?”

“Else’s more ‘spray and pray.’ She relies on the fact that if you fire enough bullets in the right general direction chances are some of them will hit the target.”

“That is how most wars have been won. So, think the Commander will give one of them a long rifle and the other a machine gun?”

“That’s what Leroy is going to recommend,” Degroot gave her a funny look and she quickly added, “with my approval. I walked him to the bridge, we discussed it on the way. Anyway, are you coming to the party?”

“Not until later. I promised I’d help Shen with some repairs first. I’m on standby so I can’t party hard anyway,” the Dutchwoman’s nodded towards Banerjee, “Neither can he, for that matter.”

“Getting old ma’am?”

Degroot allowed herself a sardonic grin. She had a young face, round with only a few wrinkles around her eyes, and a high-pitched voice that (thanks in part to a middle class Londoner’s accent when she spoke English) wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a UK university campus. She was, however, the oldest current combat operative in the new X-Com. She’d been a young lieutenant when the first X-Com had fallen and twenty years had passed since then.

“The hangovers are worse than they used to be.”

“I’ll keep an eye on him, make sure he doesn’t drink anything. Of course,” Cheng watched Banerjee hovering close to Krause as she and Adams finally fought their way to their own footlockers, “I don’t think he’s got drinking on his mind.”

“As long as he can get his pants back on quickly. Cesar and O’Neill are on cadaver-duty. Cesar will probably join you at the bar afterwards. O’Neill will do whatever he feels like.”

“Probably head to the armoury and sharpen his machete.”

“Again.”

The two soldiers shared a chuckle. It was easy to relax around Cheng. She was calm, good at reading people’s moods and never took a joke too far. Yes, she might have a laugh at the quiet, determined Irishman’s habit of spending more time maintaining his equipment than with his squadmates but she was also the one who rose to his defence whenever a joke went from lighthearted banter to outright disrespect. If you made Cheng laugh you felt good. If Cheng didn’t laugh you felt like a bastard.

Degroot uncrossed her arms and pushed herself off bulkhead and scratched absently at one of the scars on her right bicep, “I need to get going, I’ll see you later.” Raising her voice to be heard above everyone else she yelled out to the two guest of honour, “Emily! Else! I need to go help Shen! I’ll join you all later!”

Krause waved vaguely, while Adams perked up visibly.

“Will Shen be coming to?” she said, half out of her shirt, brown hair falling across one half of her face.

“Most likely, depending on what time we finish. Don’t worry, I’ll drag her along if I can.” Degroot made her way out of the barracks and into the corridor beyond, “And hurry up! Louise will have already drunk all the good stuff at the rate you’re going!”

***

While The Avenger was small by the standards of some of the alien battleships that had made appearances over the Earth and even by the standards of many pre-war human warships, it was still pretty large. Degroot walked quickly through the collection of passages and corridors that wound their way from the top-back of the ship, where the living quarters were, to the lower front of the ship, where engineering was. Stern to bow, she thought idly, wondering if the old nautical terms counted on what was a flying aircraft carrier and troop transport converted from an alien spaceship. Central probably thought so (Bradford was like that), but he’d probably agree with whatever opinion the Commander had on the subject (Bradford was like that). If the Commander had an opinion on the subject, which he probably hadn’t (the Commander was like that).

There was a slight shift in the inertia of the ship, something felt in the inner ear and around the sinuses, indicating that they had changed direction. Degroot paused for a moment, waiting for a claxon to sound or orders for the team on standby about a possible mission. When none came she assumed that they were simply heading to look into some resistance tip-off about supplies or intelligence and continued towards engineering.

She reached the… room? Cabin? Hold? Again, should she be applying nautical terms and which ones if so? She reached engineering, knocked on the door and stepped inside.

“Sorry I’m late,” she muttered, scratching at the scars on her arm, “I needed to talk to Li Ming Cheng about-”

She stopped abruptly when she saw that Lily Shen wasn’t alone. There was the Commander, standing beside his chief engineer in front of a computer concentrating on a tablet as if it was the most important thing in the world (which it might have been). Without conscious thought Degroot snapped to attention and fired off a parade perfect salute, blurting out a “Sorry sir!” that sounded like it came from an untalented parrot. The Commander just waved absently at her and growled out an, “At ease.” Shen leant against her desk, a smirk on her face and amusement visible in her eyes. Wordlessly she pointed at a fabricator on the other side of the room from the Commander. Wordlessly Degroot nodded and wandered over to it.

The fabricator was a large box with a clear perspex top attached to a conveyer belt. Its insides were essentially, as Shen would describe it, a 3D printer with a few robotic arms, saws, drills and a laser for the finer details. Unit 3 had been acting up for a little while now. Nothing serious, but anything that delayed production or wasted resources could be lethal if left to get worse. Degroot had come in yesterday and worked her way through some fruitless software diagnostics, so today she planned on cracking it open and checking out the moving parts. Shen had already left a toolbox besides the miniature factory, so Degroot pulled off one of the maintenance panels and began examining its guts. In the background the Commander began asking questions to which Shen replied quickly enough to indicate she’d been anticipating most of his enquiries.

“So ammunition and explosives won’t be a problem?”

“No, but any advanced grenades or specialty equipment will require investment in supplies. I’ve listed what we’d need specifically on page five.”

“Good. I assume weapon parts won’t be a problem either?”

“For the most part. The heavy machine guns might be an issue if they aren’t maintained properly, since they have the most moving parts. I don’t think any of the troops are careless enough but if you’d make a point of reminding our grenadiers to brush their teeth and triggers regularly I’d appreciate it.”

“‘Teeth and triggers,’ heh, I like that. Might use it myself. Do you need anything else for the construction of the new facility?”

“More help. Aside from that we’re good Commander.”

“Alright I’ll see what I can do. What about- Lieutenant Degroot.”

Degroot paused for a second at her name, but didn’t look away from her work. That would have felt inappropriate. Shen seemed surprised as well, though she overcame it quickly enough.

“Eva is helpful, but I wouldn’t want to impose on her and her other duties. And honestly, skilled as she is she’s not qualified for some of the work we’re going to need-”

“No,” the Commander said, a slight hitch in his voice, “no, I just… I just remembered Lieutenant Degroot.”

Degroot looked up from her work, saw the Commander staring at her intently, felt ridiculously self-conscious. Then his face burst into a smile.

“Starburns!” he damn near shouted, victory in his voice.

Shit. Degroot’s face went bright red.

Shen looked confused (with good reason).

“Starburns Commander?” she asked (the bitch).

“Yeah,” the Commander began (the bastard), speaking fast and cheerful and obtuse, “the lieutenant was wounded while raiding a downed UFO during the first war. Shot by a sectoid with a plasma pistol right in the arse,” he pointed two fingers at her rear end and mimicked the action of shooting a bolt of plasma, “She couldn’t sit for two weeks. The doctors did all they could, but it left a star-shaped scar on both cheeks. One of her friends, a captain we called… Pharaoh? Pharaoh. He was a fan of this show about college with a character named Starburns, and the name stuck. Though he was the only one who ever called her that to her face.”

The Commander grinned like a schoolboy at the end of his story, then finally saw the resemblance of Degroot’s face to a ripe tomato, glanced at Shen who was holding back laughter, then back at Degroot.

“Shit, I’ve embarrassed you lieutenant. My apologies. I… really. I’m sorry. I don’t… I don’t remember everything from then. It’s very… very fragmented. When I do remember things, I get excited. I trust Miss Shen will not share this outside this room?”

“Of course Commander,” Shen said not entirely seriously.

“She will not share this outside this room,” a harsher tone from the Commander.

“Of course Commander,” entirely seriously this time.

“Good. Again, apologies lieutenant.”

“Thank you sir.”

“I will say it is nice to see another familiar face in all of this.”

Degroot smiled, “Likewise, sir.”

“Well, I’ll take my leave then. Lieutenant. Miss Shen. I believe there’s a party going on above us. Do make sure you both head up there before it ends.”

With that he turned and left, leaving the engineer and the soldier alone. Degroot turned back to the fabricator and went back to searching through the machine’s equivalent of a small intestine. It was an embarrassing story, and she still had the embarrassing scars to remind her of it, but it was nice to know that someone remembered it. There were few enough people left who could. It was nice that the Commander remembered her from back then. There were few enough left from back then. She felt good. Red-faced but happy.

A feeling that disappeared when Shen walked over and, in a conspiratorial voice asked “Both cheeks?”

***

Emily was drunk. Very drunk if Gertrude Wilders was to be believed. The… fuck, she was Dutch right? Emily knew where Trudy was from most of the time. Dutch. She was Dutch like Eva. Who was Dutch. Of course. Anyway, Trudy would stumble up every so often and point at the empty bottle of what passed for gin that Emily couldn’t seem to get rid of and ask if she’d drunk the whole thing. Emily would say something like “most of it” and Trudy would laugh and tell Emily that she was really drunk. Trudy was pretty drunk as well though, so her opinion may have been off. She was on the other side of the bar now dancing with John Tipene and Martin Singh, both of whom were sobre because their shifts on the bridge started soon.

Thierry… Thee-ary? Tee-ary? Terry? This was why everyone just called him Leroy. Leroy had provided the music, coming down after briefing Central and checking on Navarro in the infirmary and plugging an old smartphone into the sound system. Mostly pre-war French electro-swing, to everyone’s great surprise. He was with Li now, singing along to the current mix of synthesised beats, wind instruments and sultry vocals. That Li seemed to know the words were more surprising. Was. Was more surprising. The two of them had been working their way through the bar’s supply of bottled beer, and at some point had produced a pair of fighting knives which they were now taking turns to hurl at the dartboard next to the bartop. Li had better aim, but couldn’t get the knife to strike the board point first so was just hitting the bullseye again and again with the handle (and laughing every time it did). Leroy’s throws sunk the knives into the board, but nowhere near the centre. Cesar Vargas, sobre as well since he was on standby like Eva, Gerry and Navneet, watched the two drunks handle knives with horror in his eyes, but couldn’t look away.

“Like watching a train wreck,” Emily said, then realised she’d slurred the words out loud.

“What?” yelled Louise over the music.

“Nothing,” Emily shook her head a little to hard, tried to take a swig from her bottle, realised it was empty, placed it on the bartop a little too loudly.

She sat with Louise and Simmons (she didn’t know his first name, no one seemed to), who acted as deck-chief and navigator for the Skyranger. Like Louise he was also a Canadian. Like Louise he had a half-empty bottle of rye whiskey in front of him, bartered from a resistance contact who seemed to know how to make the stuff without anyone going blind. Else sat with Navneet and Charlie Otembe (a short, slim Nigerian who handled most of the ship’s basic wiring), discussing something that both men obviously found very interesting. Or maybe they just found her boobs very interesting. Else had very nice boobs, and Emily wasn’t entirely sure she was wearing a bra under her standard issue t-shirt.

Shit, she was staring at Else’s boobs. She needed to stop staring at Else’s boobs. She wrenched her attention away from the two, and refocus on Louise and Simmons. They were talking about… electronics? Something about the Skyranger’s fuses? Emily had no fucking idea. She sighed and wished that Shen was here, that Eva would hurry up and bring her.

There was a cheer from the trio at the dartboard, even Cesar, and Emily saw Li pulling a knife out of the centre of the board. She cheered as well, and tried to take a celebratory pull from the gin bottle in front of, realised it was empty, put it back down and pushed it away in disgust. Emily was bored and staring at the wrong pair of boobs. Time to fix this. Be decisive.

“Right,” she said pushing herself out of her chair unsteadily, “I am going to go pee. I am going to go get Eva and Shen. Then I am going to get another bottle of something. In that order.” Decisive.

Louise and Simmons looked at her, gave her a nod, then went back to their chat. Emily turned and left the bar, holding tight to every bulkhead she passed and feeling the ship swaying around her.

There was a head just next to the bar, a small metal room with a large toilet and sink, both with rounded edges and corners so that if violently shaken a falling crew member might only end up with a concussion instead of cracking their head all the way open. She peed, stood, flushed, bent over and puked loudly into the toilet. Then puked again, a little less loudly. She groaned when it was done, spun around to the sink and washed her hands and face, rinsed out her mouth. There wasn’t a mirror handy, so she couldn’t be completely sure it was all gone, but a quick check seemed to show she’d missed her clothes. Thank God for small mercies.

“Right,” she said again and staggered towards engineering.

The bar was, effectively, right above engineering, but getting from one to the other required either going through the armoury hangar or winding your through a corridor, down a narrow staircase and past a pair of rooms yet to be cleaned up, cleaned out and generally patched up. Heading through the armoury was faster, but required going down a ladder, and Emily didn’t trust her… laddering… abilities at that exact moment. The stairs seemed safer. Even then, if they weren’t so narrow she might not have made it, one step at a time with her arms pressed against either wall to keep her steady. Shit, she made it though. Barely, but she still made it. Fucking most terrifying thing she’d done that day, and a few hours ago she’d shot an alien. An alien with no lips and a lot of teeth. She shuddered, and wished she hadn’t left her bottle of gin behind. Still, she was in the final stretch. One foot in front of the other, steadier than she’d been for some time, she made her way slowly towards Shen. And Eva, but mostly Shen.

Then stopped. She was in front of a sliding hatch left open a crack thanks to a bit of piping that had fallen between it and the frame. Probably one of the dozen rooms filled with alien junk that needed sorting out and rewiring into something useful. But Emily could hear voices, mumbling, grunting, groans, muffled words. Curious, she leant heavily on the frame and peered through the crack. Saw two bare, pale legs (socks still on) wrapped around a waist above a bare, brown ass thrusting fast and hard in time to the moans, groans and grunts of the intertwined couple.

Surprised, cheeks suddenly burning, Emily took a step back, but not far enough away that she couldn’t still see part of the furious fucking through the narrow opening, a shuddering leg crossed over a socked foot and a pulsing ass-cheek still very clear in her sight now that she knew what she was looking at. So she took another step back and felt herself run into something lean and muscled. A hand clamped over her mouth before she could make a sound, and if she’d been sober she might have fought back. Might have driven an elbow right into Eva Degroot’s gut. Thankfully her brain was running slow enough that by the time she thought to aim a pointed body part at her attacker, her eyes had found Eva’s smiling face. The older woman winked, raised her free hand to her lips to indicate silence, waited for Emily to nod back before releasing her. Lily Shen was just behind, grinning wickedly as the voices from just past the door began to get louder. Eva pointed towards the stairs that Emily had struggled so hard to get down. The two other women nodded and gave the lovers some privacy.

The trip back up was much easier with Eva and Shen behind her providing physical and moral support. They kept quiet until reaching the top, where Emily spun around on the other two (and almost kept spinning but luckily managed to grasp a bulkhead and catch herself before going down).

“Who was that?” she hissed in a slurred whisper.

“Well,” Eva shrugged, “I’m pretty sure I heard German, so probably Krause and Banerjee.”

“Else and Nav? What? Since when?”

Eva shrugged again, “A few weeks maybe? They started not long after they both joined the Avenger.”

“I thought everyone knew,” Shen said with a small, embarrassed smile that made her look very pretty in the artificial lighting, “They aren’t really good at being discreet about it.”

“I had no idea!”

“That is because you’re a sweet and innocent hardened killer,” Eva wrapped a strong arm around her (probably to help hold her up) and tousled her hair, “with little experience in these areas.”

“I am not innocent,” even drunk Emily regretted how childish she sounded, especially in front of Shen.

“Yes you are. Nothing to be ashamed of.”

Eva began to walk again, arm still wrapped around Emily and dragging her along. Shen fell into step besides them.

“I suppose we’re not technically military,” the chief engineer said thoughtfully, “so there aren’t really any rules against fraternisation.”

Emily felt rather than saw Eva nod, “Yes, but I remember even during the first X-Com the Commander wasn’t too bothered about enforcing them. If you might die in a week you don’t want to do so with regrets. As long as it didn’t affect the job and you didn’t use his quarters.”

Emily looked sideways at Shen, smiling on the other side of Eva as they walked.

“Where are we going?” she asked Eva.

“Back to the bar of course. Miss Shen here owes you a drink.”

“She does?”

“You killed your first alien. Of course she does.”

“You did. I do.” Shen nodded faux-seriously, “May Tygen cut it up into tiny little pieces,” then she smiled again.

“Oh. Okay. Why are you being so nice Eva?”

Eva chuckled, “I’m in a good mood. Don’t get used to it.”

“Oh. Okay. What were they saying?”

“What was who saying?”

“You said you heard German.”

“Germa- Oh. It was just Krause who was speaking German. I don’t think Banerjee speaks it, though he’s probably learning it a little. I’m a little rusty, but I believe she was repeating the word ‘schwerer.'”

“What does that mean?”

“Harder.”

Emily’s cheeks went scarlet. Absently, she wondered if there was any gin still in that bottle she’d left behind.

A good, honest, hardworking jackass, or why I loved Emergence: Dave Vs the Monsters

As always with my reviews, spoilers ahead. Not too bad, but a few.

One of my least favourite tropes in film, television and literature in general is that of the tortured badass searching for (or receiving) a chance at redemption. Y’know the type. Some ex-cop (always a bloke) who left the force after he accidentally shoots an innocent woman or fails to save a child (or shoots an innocent child, fails to save a woman), drowning himself in a depressive spiral of substance abuse and random women (bonus points if they’re hookers) working as a PI until that one case comes along to shake them out of it back onto the straight and narrow, or some such shit. But, goddamnit, before the incident happened they were the best damn whatever on the whichever, with a loving partner and 2.3 adorable kids. Or perhaps the character is the type to have spent so much time at work becoming the best whatever on the whichever that he’d neglected his family life, drowning out the guilt of a rightfully angry ex-partner and a couple of kids who went off the rails (or died) without a present and accountable father figure (it’s always a bloke) in a spiral of substance abuse and random women (bonus points if they’re hookers), working until they meet the little girl or boy who reminds them so much of their own neglected spawn that they’re able to shape up and be the spouse and parent they always meant to be. Don’t get me wrong, it’s made for some amazing and iconic characters over the years, but it too often seems to simply become a lazy way of providing a reason why this or that dark-loner-antihero still has a heart of gold despite all the bourbon and strange, and why he’ll suddenly go from being that filthy, drunken bastard to flawless action hero by the end of the movie/book/season. What I love about Dave Hooper – the protagonist of Emergence: Dave vs the Monsters, John Birmingham’s latest written adventure – is that he never stops being a selfish bastard.

The book never allows any allusions contrary to this fact. It starts with Dave in a helicopter on his way to his job as the safety boss on a BP oil rig off the coast of Florida that was in the midst of completing a record drill deep into the earth’s crust beneath the ocean (FORESHADOWING!). He’s hungover from an extended binge involving unholy amounts of grog, a pair of top shelf prostitutes flown in from Nevada and a lot of toppier shelfier blow probably not flown in from Nevada, paid for with a six month bonus that he himself admits should have been put towards paying his taxes or soon-to-be ex-wife (who he’d been habitually cheating on for years prior to their separation), with time he should have spent heading north for an access visit his two sons (that he hasn’t seen or spoken to in far too long). He stares out at the coast, dreaming of traveling to his boys instead of to the rig and finding a way to redeem himself in their eyes, while admitting to himself that he never would.

His world is flipped on its head when he arrives at the rig and discovers that it has been attacked by man-eating monsters from the under realms, gets lucky and kills the leader of the pack and in so doing is granted super speed, strength, senses, an increased metabolism, perfect physical form, the memories of the guy he killed and an enchanted splitting maul (basically a cross between an axe and sledgehammer used for splitting logs), gifts that will come in handy after he hooks up with a bunch of Navy Seals and helps deal with the monsters coming from the literal portals to hell that are starting to emerge.

In most other stories this would be considered by the protagonist as their chance at redemption, to become better people. Thankfully, Dave is not one of those protagonists. Throughout the novel he remains a selfish and conceited arsehole. He keeps important information from the men (and woman) planning for a war against the monsters out of fear they’d consider him crazy, despite all assurances otherwise that everything was already pretty batshit and they were pretty willing to listen to everything the inexplicable superhero had to say. His first concerns when providing a urine sample to the navy doctors trying to figure out what happened to him is whether or not they’d rat him out to his old employers at BP when they found all the blow in his system (they don’t find any traces, a result of his increased metabolism). Some of his first thoughts when he finally begins to get a grasp on the changes to his body are what chugging a bottle of spirits will do to him and how he’d react to snorting a line of cocaine, something he wants to try as soon as possible. He’s crude, occasionally has to catch himself before saying something racist (a problem he willingly admits to, thankfully) and more often lets it slip past, openly homophobic, a chauvinist who judges women immediately on how pretty they are and seems to allocate respect according to how unattractive they are or how unlikely they are to fuck him (case in point, if you read the book, his shifting thoughts on Professor Ashbury). Dave’s charming and friendly, definitely, quickly ingratiating himself with the other characters we meet in the book, but he’s still a twat, and at no point does he improve on any of these issues (though the book is part of a planned trilogy, so we’ll see what Dave’s like at the end).

Thing is though Dave still constantly and consistently does the right thing. When he learns that his oil rig is on fire his first thoughts are on getting down there and keeping his people safe. When he gets superpowers he doesn’t need to be threatened, bribed or otherwise convinced to help fight the monsters. It’s not part of some epic quest for redemption either. He just does the job that needs doing. Because if he doesn’t a lot of innocent people will die. Because it’s the right thing to do. Because he can.

The other characters are all competently written, though not all are as interesting as Dave is. If Birmingham has a flaw I’d say that he uses stereotypes to shorthand minor characters a little too often. Professor Emmeline Ashbury’s abrupt, direct, wonderfully profanity laden attitude is explained away by the fact that she has Aspergers. Professor Compton with his neckbeard, stature and constant whine is a fedora short of an internet meme, meant to immediately generate the ire of us lefties, feminists and SJWs as well as ignite our resentment of the sheltered bureaucrat. It’s a shame because when he does put the effort in, he writes some fantastic characters (I’m particularly fond of a certain Polish soldier in one of his previous series). I’d argue that the main navy personnel we meet are the most interesting of the minor characters. CPO Zachary Allen and Captain Heath are great counterbalances to Dave’s planned and past debauchery. They’re straight up good guys, honest when their jobs allow it, courageous, tough, kind and loyal. We only ever see them through Dave’s eyes, so while their characters are never entirely fleshed out beyond an outline and a few acts within their chosen profession of destroying enemies of the state, they still provide a starkly noble image against that created by constant internal monologue of Dave’s ignoble thoughts and general arseholery. What they provide is a standard of action, so that when Dave does right we know it, we have a perspective from which to judge.

The monsters of Emergence are gruesome and violent, their thoughts are brutal, primal and animalistic, their social hierarchy based on size, strength, power, intelligence and a feudal code of honour. The only perspectives other than Dave’s we ever get to see through is that of the monsters he fights, so they’re experienced more than explained. Some will find this irritating, annoyed by the lack of worldbuilding, but I honestly think it’s unneeded and can name a few stories where the exposition dumps about a society are unnecessary and out of place (I love you Bioware, but did you really feel that explaining dwarven society, law and custom and lore to a dwarven noble or commoner would ever not seem awkward?). There are the occasional bits of exposition, but they always feel contextually appropriate and are never too long. The prose is similar. You never feel like a character is using language that they never would, or that they’re misusing a pop culture reference (mind you, if I have one issue it’s that sometimes it feels like there’s too many references in too short a time). At the same time the story is graphic, going into every gory detail of every scene, though like the occasional bit of exposition it always seems appropriate and never out of place. The monsters are vividly detailed, though only when there’s time or need and only from Dave’s perspective (after all, what possible points of reference could a completely alien being use to describe itself?) The fights are usually quick but filled with chewed entrails and exploding heads. I enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone squeamish.

Honestly I purchased this book expecting to really enjoy it. I’ve been a big John Birmingham fan for a lot of years now, starting back with his Axis of Time trilogy and going on to his non-fiction work. His books are serious, but always contain an undercurrent of black humour that isn’t for everyone. I remember watching an interview in which he remarked that he still had right wing Americans complain about naming the aircraft carrier from a near future US Navy the USS Hilary Clinton (“after the toughest wartime president in history”), because they didn’t understand that it was just him taking the piss (of course this interview was before it looked like such a prediction might come true). Emergence is not the lighthearted adventure that the simple and very descriptive title implies. But it is self-aware. It knows exactly how unlikeable Dave Hooper is and there’s a subtle wink’n’nudge as it points out exactly how bad the hero is.

Dave Hooper is an arrogant, racist, lazy, selfish, homophobic, chauvinistic, cheating, lying, substance abusing bastard. He spends half the book whining about his lot in life and half of the rest whining about other people whining. He’s never so bad, however, that you want to see him lose. He’s never so bad that you want to see him beaten down, injured or dead like some other protagonists I won’t mention now (SCHADENFREUDE!). He’s never so bad that he stops being the hero.

That’s the clever part about the character. I didn’t like Dave, but I still wanted him to win.