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 (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?”

Reflecting on the myth, I expect I’ll always be a Nationalist. It’s who I am.

Back when I was in high school I planned on getting a tattoo. Specifically I planned on getting the Southern Cross, the five stars that adorn the Australian (New Zealand, PNG and Samoan) flag. Probably on my shoulder. Maybe my calf. Not important. Anyway, at the time the idea behind the tattoo was to demonstrate that I was an Australian and, more importantly, proud of that fact. The Southern Cross had after all long been a symbol co-opted by Aussie culture (despite the fact it is visible across the Southern Hemisphere) from the flag flying above the Eureka Stockade to the plane flown by Charles Kingsford Smith on his record-breaking journeys. Then the Cronulla Riots happened.

To my great and continued shame in the weeks before the riot I supported what was going to happen. I’d heard that a pair of surf lifesavers had been beaten up by bunch of Lebs, and I wanted to hear that those bastards got their heads kicked in for harming an Australian icon. A ‘fight’ was planned. Rumours spread a small army of Lebanese youths were going to descend upon the beach so good, honest Aussies better turn up in force. Other rumours said it was going to be a fairly multicultural affair, with Greeks, Turks and even a few ‘good’ Lebs joining up with their white Australian brethren to beat the shit out of those who were violently refusing to assimilate into our culture, our way of life. I may not have participated but I didn’t have a problem with it happening, and for that I am sorry. I was a fuckwit. I strive to be less of one now.

It did turn out to be a multicultural affair, since there was a pretty multicultural range of victims. A few thousand white morons rocked up to Cronulla and proceeded to harass (at the very best) and violently attack (at the far too frequent worst) anybody who looked remotely brown or ethnic, including Greeks, Turks and Lebs, while a thin line of brave police threw themselves in front of the mob. Watching it on the news and hearing the stories afterward you couldn’t help but be horrified at the thought of a bunch of arseholes wearing the Australian flag attacking their fellow Australians in a misguided attempt at avenging the perceived wounding of an Australian icon. Shitheads looking for an excuse to attack folk they already considered un-Australian.

The anger, the resentment, the disillusionment, the isolation of the communities that had been attacked was visible and raw. It was not the first time that nationalism was used to excuse senseless violence, but it was the first time I’d seen it and its results from more than an academic perspective. For someone who’d always associated the national identity with their own, it was a hell of a learning experience.

*****

This past April 25th marked the centenary of Anzac day, one hundred years since thousands of Australian and New Zealand troops landed on the beaches of the Gallipoli peninsula, not even a year into the First World War, at a spot that we’d come to call Anzac Cove. Over the last century the mythology that has developed around Australia’s involvement during the eight month campaign has become a key part in defining the national culture, and I would argue that this mythology is the linchpin upon which most Australian nationalism is built. We don’t have the long histories of art, architecture and enlightenment that many other nations have. We are a young nation. We have our military history, our sport, our bushrangers and then a host of things to be ashamed of like the Stolen Generation and the White Australia Policy. When we have little in the way of widely and regularly discussed positive national mythology to start with, it should be no surprise that what we do have has been latched onto to by the national consciousness. Especially when they refuse to talk about the ‘fun’ parts of colonisation (I’d recommend John Birmingham’s Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney for that) and both pre and post-colonial Aboriginal culture (instead of, I shit you not, the literal bones left behind at a turn of the 19th century butcher’s shop that counted as the ‘Australian content’ of the high school ancient history syllabus).

The key word above is mythology, because make no mistake the popular memory of Anzac Day is far more taken by the stories and legends of the campaign than the actual history. Simpson and his donkey rescuing wounded men until he was killed (he was one of many, but the only one whose name is commonly remembered). The incompetent English landing our brave lads on the wrong bloody beach. The incompetent English soldiers playing a game of football on another beach while our brave lads were butchered capturing Lone Pine (mind you there were plenty of English troops getting butchered at different beaches at the same time as well). The incompetent English officer who decided that the Light Brigade should empty their rifles for a good old fashioned bayonet charge at the Turkish machine guns (actually it was an Australian officer, but that doesn’t make for as good a movie). Aussie troops playing cricket between artillery shells on the rare bit of flat land. Two-up. Mateship. The Anzac Spirit. Humour in the face of adversity. Courage under fire. Service and sacrifice. Warrior larrikins. The baptism of blood from which our great nation was forged or united or whatever. Good stuff. Maybe. Depends.

That bloody waste of life attempting to take the Dardanelles from the Ottomans has become our origin myth, with the Anzacs standing besides the USA’s founding fathers and Civil War leaders, the UK’s Winston Churchill and (literally on the other side of the battlefield) modern Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk as the referential arbiters of the national zeitgeist. We talk about the Anzac Spirit and what the Anzacs fought for with the same kind of conviction that Yank pundits bring to arguments about what Ben Franklin’s opinion on the gun control debate would be. Bringing up the Anzacs is a quick way to add credibility to a statement, argument or ideology. We make bold claims about what they fought for, what they would be ashamed of, what they would be proud of, their preference for lamb over tofu. There are few higher honours than associating ourselves (or our brands) with the Diggers of wars gone by, when we can get away with it. Can’t always, thank god and the law for that. This is of course failing to mention when some bastard on a bus (or train) decides to inform some poor family that the Anzacs fought specifically to keep out anyone not born on the British Isles.

Of course it’s not just the Gallipoli myth that’s used to justify or underpin Australian nationalism. Charles Bean, Australia’s official historian during the Great War, arguably did more to construct the image of the noble Australian sheep-shearer-turned-warrior courteously gunning down Germans with one hand while refusing to salute with the other than any other correspondent at the time or since, and he believed that it would be the battlefields of Passchendaele and Fromelles that would become the great Mecca for Australians coming to pay respects to their honourable dead, not Gallipoli.

Others point out that far from uniting the nation in a baptism of blood the Great War actually did more to divide it, as the reasons for entering the war (loyalty to Britain, the mother country) and the (failed) referendums over conscription split the country along class, religious and ethnic lines (that can more or less be described as “English vs Irish”). It is far easier to claim that the battles of World War Two did far more to unite Australia than the First did. The Siege of Tobruk where the second round of Anzacs earned a reputation for ingenuity and attack dog enthusiasm for a good fight. The Fall of Singapore, which shifted the mentality of many Australians away from “still a far flung British colony” to a nation that couldn’t keep relying on mum and had to start looking out for itself. The Kokoda Track where the Japanese Army was beaten for the first time, by soldiers referred to as “Chocos” because it was expected they’d “melt like chocolate” upon contact with the enemy.

The debate over which conflict should take precedence in the country’s collective consciousness is one argued by nationalists and national leaders. I’ve always been partial to the Light Horse Brigade’s campaign against the Turks in the Middle East myself, particularly the Battle of Beersheba (called the Last Great Cavalry Charge for a reason). Keating tried to push Kokoda as the fight we should focus on during his tenure as Prime Minister. But when I hear pollies talking about which bloodbath we should remember most fondly I can’t help but remember a few of my old history (and geography) teachers, back in high school, who’d joke that since it was a Liberal PM (sorta) that won the First World War and a Labor PM that won the Second neither party wanted to admit the other war happened (I myself am a bigger fan of Billy Hughes than John Curtin, mostly cause I’m a sucker for anyone who takes the piss out of an American President at important negotiations deciding the fate of the world).

Even the brutal battle at Long Tan during the Vietnam War has entered the positive national mythology. Gallipoli is still king though, and that’s not likely gonna change any time soon.

*****

At university ‘Nationalism’ and ‘Nationalist’ became dirty words, usually shorthand for some reactive leader, party or ethnic group responsible for half the unspeakable acts of violence over the last century or two. The “great disease of the twentieth century” as one of my lecturers called it. After all, it was the actions of a handful of nationalists that lit the fuse that started the Great War, and nationalist pride that allowed it to detonate so spectacularly. Or it became shorthand for the very mockable ignorant jingoists who live in perpetual fear of societal collapse, y’know, the kind of folk who took Pauline Hanson’s warning of an Asian invasion seriously, or who recently piled onto streets around the country (with their swastika-wearing kin) because some jackass reckons that Halal Certifications are being used to funnel money to ISIS or some such shit. Fucken ‘Straya cunt. At one point during a course on religion and violence, when looking at religious nationalism, the tutor asked us to raise our hands if we identified as Australians, identified Australia as our homes. Two people did, and one of them promptly dropped it when he found out that not identifying with any nationality, being a “citizen of the world” so to speak, was an option.

I might sound cynical. I tend to sound cynical. It’s part of my sense of humour. I blame my parents for letting me watch too much Blackadder growing up (though you could argue there’s no such thing). The thing is I am a nationalist. I always have been and likely always will be. I was the guy in that class above that kept his hand up (I remember jokingly stating that the rest of them could “get the fuck out of my country”). There was a time when I tried different labels, like ‘patriot’ (which carries its own clichéd baggage), but the substance hasn’t changed. I identify as an Australian first and foremost, and embrace the heritage and history that comes with it. Good or bad. I still call Australia home an’ all that implies. Living across the world on another continent with a different culture, sports and traditions, I have embraced this identity more than ever. I’ve fallen back on my accent, old slang and old profanity more than I even did back home. I talk about it every chance I get. I love Canadian beer, but I use it as an excuse to talk about Australian beer more than anything else. Poutine’s alright, but you really wanna get a meat pie inta yah. Stuff baseball, cricket’s way better. Good god I miss Aussie coffee, as I keep telling people. And thunderstorms. You can bet that when Anzac Day rolled around, I was happy to talk to anyone who asked about what it meant, and meant to me.

Because I’m proud of what I am. There’s an argument against national pride that effectively amounts to “why be proud of an accident of birth?” The fact that I was born in Australia and not some other nation was random chance, why should it matter that was where I came from? Add to this the fact that I’m the son of immigrant parents (my dad was born in Iraq, mum was born in England, they both came to Australia when they were kids), so I don’t even have that strong a claim over Australian history and heritage. I don’t have a grandfather who was an Anzac or a great-great-grandfather who arrived on a convict ship. Definitely don’t have any First Australian in me. But I’ve never felt this argument had much credibility. I am proud of Australian culture and history because it was part of creating who I am today.

I like who I am today, or at least who I try to be. I hope I’m a good person, though that’s for others to judge. I definitely strive to be one. This is because of the people that raised me, my parents, family, teachers and friends. It is also because of the culture that raised me. Like so many kids growing up I sucked up the mythology around the Anzacs every chance I got, and loved every bit of it. Good or bad. The virtues I aspire to are, rightly or wrongly, tied into that mythology. Egalitarianism, giving everyone a ‘fair go’, mateship, generosity, determination, humour in the face of tragedy, grace in defeat, sacrifice. These are all ideas that are embodied somehow within the mythology of Anzac Day. The Anzac Spirit. They might not always be the best virtues to aspire to, but I aspire to them nonetheless.

Now I’m not saying that other countries and cultures don’t produce good, noble, virtuous people. Nor that our mythology has a monopoly on any of those things above. I’m definitely not saying that Australia and Australian nationalism hasn’t produced more than its share of cunts (see the story at the beginning). That would be fuckin’ stupid. I am simply saying that if I can be called a decent person (and as I said, I hope I can), I can be proud of the people, places and culture that made me that way. I can be proud of my identity.

About six months to a year after I raised my hand and got a few laughs telling everyone else to fuck off, a friend from that class brought it up in conversation. At the time, she said, she’d felt like she was closer to being an Italian than an Australian, identified more closely with her family’s heritage than with that of the country she’d grown up in. This changed after actually going to Italy and learning, explicitly, that she was not Italian. After that, she told me, if asked the question again she’d raise her hand. She’d come to the conclusion that she was an Aussie. It was not her whole identity, she was not a nationalist, just that she identified as Australian.

*****

National myths, especially the ‘origin stories’ as I’ve heard them called, are often problematic. They’re often bloody. There is the mythos around first the Revolution and then the Reign of Terror from which Modern France was born. The long, bloody civil war in China against the Kuomingtang and Japanese invasion that ended with the Communist victory. The US Civil War which divided the nation then sort of united it. Kemal Ataturk’s successful defence of the Dardanelles against the Entente invaders, as I mentioned above, and the rise of the Young Turks as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the Turkey we know and love emerged.

It seems you need a “baptism of blood” to inspire a nation’s existence, self-worth, values and purpose. Dumping a bunch of crooks onto a beach (guarded by another bunch of crooks) and telling them to build a city, or a bunch of old white men convincing other old white men that maybe life would be easier if everyone on the continent shared in a common defence, immigration laws, currency and rail gauge doesn’t exactly excite the popular imagination the same way that a brutal assault on an easily defined ‘other’ for politically malleable reasons, full of daring do and a healthy dose of sacrifice. As I said, we haven’t got much else well-known history that isn’t a dark stain on our national soul.

As far as these baptisms go though, the Gallipoli campaign and the legend of Anzac isn’t too bad. Yes, they don’t really provide us with the cast iron legal foundations upon which our nation is built in the same way that The Revolution gave France “Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité”. But the mythology also doesn’t carry around the same sort of baggage that many other nations and cultures have to (or refuse to). Not like the problematic aftermath of the US Civil War, where the courage, bravery, sacrifice and determination of the Confederate soldiers defending goddamn slavery is still honoured by Americans on both sides of the line. And, while definitely not all angels, the Anzacs certainly don’t carry the weight (or have to live in denial) of a genocide round their necks like the Young Turks do with their treatment of hundreds of thousands of Armenians, Greeks and other ethnic groups. (Of course there is far, far too little official recognition of the Frontier Wars that plagued the Black Australia pre-and-immediately-post-Commonwealth during white settlement and expansion, something that needs to be fixed).

Both the strength and weakness of any mythology is that it is open to interpretation by the popular conscious. Anzac Day certainly has its problems, like the glorification of war, the often one-sided hagiography of our returned and fallen servicemen and women, the commercialisation of commemoration, and the militarisation of Australian culture far too frequently used to create, justify and enforce a dangerous attitude of ‘us versus them’. But we can also use it do great good as well. It’s taken us long enough to admit that there were probably a fair few Aboriginals in the ranks, and that when they returned they were probably treated almost universally like shit (taking us another fifty years before we stopped treating them as part of the local fauna), but whose general experience of army life was one of equality of pay and treatment. It’s a history that can push a simple message through the thick skulls of white Australia: if the Diggers didn’t have a problem with indigenous Australians, then how bloody dare you? Well, it should be simple. One day we’ll get there. Then one day it might not even be needed.

Deconstruction of the myth is a necessary thing, and there are many great examples floating around academia and journalism worth reading. But reconstruction should not be ruled out if it can be used to promote the best values of our culture. We learn from history, but we’re inspired by legends. We need to make sure we’re inspiring people in the right direction.

*****

The non-Australians I’ve met and know are frequently surprised by how we act on Anzac Day. Yes, there is commemoration, as should be expected of the day but there’s just as much celebration. We mark Anzac Day with drinking and gambling, going to the pub to play two-up, punctuated by moments of contemplation. So different to the sombre ceremonies and minute of silence on Remembrance Day. I’m not entirely convinced this is a bad thing. It might seem disrespectful, but isn’t a healthy irreverence one of those traits that we, ironically, revere about the legendary Anzac? We’re certainly quick to step in when someone comes off as overly disrespectful, and it keeps things in perspective. We celebrate the lives of those who went to war for us, still put the uniform and still go to war for us, rather than mourn the dead. It keeps the focus on those who fought for us and still fight for us, rather than on those we fought. War is hell, but peace is great, and most of us have been able to only enjoy the latter because a few have suffered through the former. Maybe it still sounds disrespectful, maybe I sound disrespectful, but I don’t believe that’s the intention. I think, at worst, it’s the only way we know how to do things.

Is that a problem? Maybe. I don’t think so. But I might be part of that problem.

*****

I know the dangers of nationalism. I know the problems its caused. The wars it’s started. I’m not trying to excuse it. Simply trying to explain my own.

I didn’t get that tattoo. There were more than a few marking the skin of those draped in Aussie flags slinging racial slurs and informing the world that the Anzacs fought for Cronulla Beach, that the Lebanese had no right to come and interfere with an imagined social order. The Southern Cross tattoo, at least in Sydney, found a secure place on the uniform of the angry, discriminating Bogan. I’m not saying that everyone who bears that icon is a racist, they’re not, I know plenty who aren’t, it would be ridiculous to make that claim. But in my mind and those of plenty of others including the members of my Middle Eastern, dark-skinned dad’s family, it became part of the stereotype of the ignorant, racist bastards that make their presence known every so often in the worst possible ways. It’s not the worst part (the violence and abuse that makes people feel like outsiders is), but the fact that they try and legitimise the behaviour, legitimise the hate, with a claim of defending Australian culture, the Australian way of life, leaves me angry.

Because I’m an Aussie nationalist. I love the positive parts of that heritage, accept the bad, apologise and promise to always do better. To accept everyone who looked at Australia, or even arrived without knowing better, and decided it seemed like a decent place to live.

A decent place to live, which we can be proud of. That might not be what the original Anzacs fought for, that might not be what our current Diggers fight for. But it’s something I ascribe to the myth. That’s what I drink to on Anzac Day.

Hope that makes sense.

Thoughts and prayers with those currently serving, and those that have in the past.

Quick note: this is not an academic article or an extensively researched piece of writing. Mostly I’m just working off memory. There’s probably more than a few factual errors, and there are a definitely a few half-truths. This is a personal opinion piece, and no disrespect was intended towards most of the folk (live or dead) I mentioned in this post that I didn’t refer to with profanely. I have a sarcastic way of writing and talking.