Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (19)

Chapter 19: Journeys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No more ammunition. They had no more ammunition.

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

He spoke. Two words.

“Fix bayonets.”

Joseph Ballo woke up.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thankyou sir. I will, sir.”

Fuck, he was definitely slurring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“I should hope so.”

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

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

“You know I can’t eat anything.”

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

“You’re nothing if not polite.”

“I blame my parents.”

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

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

“Which way will you go?”

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

“That’ll take days.”

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

“You should eat the chicken.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (18)

Chapter 18: Nobody’s ever really ready.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right across the road.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll try to avoid it.”

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

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

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

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

Michelle laughed and began checking her grenade launcher.

***

“Do you two ever leave this fucking room?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d like to ask a favour.”

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

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

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

“I killed a lot of people.”

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

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

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

“I’d rather not tell you.”

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

“No you don’t.”

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

“Miss Annette?” Miss Tiff cocked an eyebrow.

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

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

“You want Miss Annette to find them?”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” agreed Leroy, “you don’t.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you shutting your eyes when you shoot?”

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

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

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

“See what I mean?” Emily laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I would like that.”

***

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

Then the shooting had begun.

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

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

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

It began to rain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!” Michelle screamed, “NO! NO!”

There was another screech, close behind her.

***

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

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

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

Not that it mattered. Because Else found out anyway.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (16)

Chapter 16: Life after death

According to Cesar Vargas, who had fought his way up and down South and Central America, the forests and jungles had all gotten quieter over the past twenty years. There were fewer birds and bats, insects, snakes, reptiles and other predators, all despite the fact that the jungles and forests of the world had been allowed to expand unchecked across the agricultural land that humanity had been forced to abandon.

Vargas blamed the aliens, though he didn’t know the exact cause. Dr Tygen had delivered some hypotheses – an alien virus working its way through the native fauna, an unseen and undiscovered pest species introduced into the ecosystem, hunting and trapping by the aliens for their own experiments – but it was never something he had the time to give any sort of priority. Whatever the reason the results were the same. Fewer animals. Less noise. Eerily quiet jungles and forests, especially at night.

***

They crept through the forest in a ragged line, quietly dodging from tree to tree. Cheng was more or less in the lead with Donaldson on her left and Leroy on her right, Michelle King and Dekker on the flanks and Navarro hanging slightly back with her long rifle. There’d been a flutter of wings as they’d rappelled from the skyranger but otherwise the only thing they could hear was muffled crunch of their own footsteps and their own deep breaths.

It was a clear night and a clear crescent moon provided long shadows for them to hide in as they came to the edge of the forest and spotted the ADVENT research facility. There was a new road out front, bordered by the waist-high alloy barriers that the Administration liked to strew liberally about. An empty watchtower stood on their side of the road and piles of crates made out of the same sort-of-metal as the barriers stood on the other.

Cheng pushed herself tight against her tree as she peered at the darkened facility, scanning the squat, ugly building for movement and colour. There was nothing out front, no patrols or guards as far as she could see, but there were shadows on the rooftop swivelling back and forth with inorganically perfect timing.

Turrets, Cheng thought, at least two of them. That’d be the first line of defence, but what about the rest?

Like the Blacksite they’d raided weeks before these ADVENT facilities relied more on stealth and secrecy than overt displays of brute force to deter attack. But, like the Blacksite, they were still well defended enough to warrant more than a little caution and at least a little planning.

The turrets are above us, we need to take higher ground.

“Gabby, Dori, get up into the tower when we advance. Let’s take it slow, advance to cover and take up overwatch positions. We take out the turrets first, then clear out the facility. Room by room.”

There was a second’s hesitation as the rest of the squad waited for the Commander to add any additional instructions or say anything else. King seemed to tilt her head towards the sky, as if that would make him easier to hear. The Commander stayed silent in her ear, indicating his approval. The rest of Menace One nodded.

“Okay. Let’s be quick, quiet and watch each other’s backs. Let’s go.”

***

There wasn’t much of a funeral for Gerry O’Neill. They found a hill in the north of Ireland covered in long grass, far enough away from any settlements and homesteads that the grave would go undisturbed. They scraped up what was left of him into a body bag, along with what was left of his armour, his knives and his whetstone. So he could stab any angel that looked at him funny, according to Karen Nilsen trying very hard not to stutter while she said it. Most had laughed at that in that polite, sort-of-respectful way people chuckle about the recently deceased. For all that people ask that their funerals not be sad affairs, that it be a cheerful celebration of the life they lived, it’s a rare friend that is truly capable of following through on this particular part of the will and testament.

They dug a hole in the muddy soil, about six foot deep as was the old custom, and lowered the body in. Cremation had been suggested, but Gabby Navarro had shaken her head at that. He hadn’t been fighting for the whole Earth really, just one particular patch and the people he knew from it. Someone had offered to build him a coffin. Li Ming Cheng had shaken her head. He would have hated to be trapped in a box. Far too similar to far too many memories that had haunted him until the end. Chief Engineer Lily Shen had provided a body bag she insisted was biodegradable, would melt away within a month, and O’Neill’s body would rejoin that patch of Earth he’d fought so long and so hard for.

They gathered around the hole. All the combat operatives who operated in Menace One, a few members of the technical crew and the Commander himself standing in a loose circle as the rain began to fall, except for Banerjee who was pushed out in a wheelchair since he’d only recently woken up from surgery after being stabbed in the gut by an Archon. Navarro pulled the cigarette from behind her ear and lit it with a scowl, dark hair falling across her eyes and sticking to her face. Leroy produced a set of rosary beads and said a quiet prayer, then he and Cheng hefted their shovels and began scooping mud over the shapeless body bag.

“Does anyone have anything they want to say?” The Commander asked, looking in Navarro’s direction with a kind smile. She just took another drag on her cigarette, the tip glowing bright red in the approaching gloom.

“I honestly didn’t know much about him,” Adams said after the silence became uncomfortable. “It’s gonna be weird not having him around though.”

“He wasn’t the type to open up,” Michelle King agreed, “but he was always there.”

“Honest,” Cheng said as she dropped another clump of mud onto the body, “he was an honest guy. And reliable as a Swiss watch.”

There were nods around the hole. It was an odd idiom for the Chinese born and battle-raised fighter to use, but no one noticed or had reason to disagree.

“I’ll always remember the one time he opened up to me,” Cheng continued to speak, continued to shovel, “not long after we dealt with the Russian woman.” She paused her work long enough to raise thumb and forefinger against her temple and fire an imaginary bullet. “Me and him, I don’t know, we had an understanding after that. One night I told him some things that I couldn’t forget. He told me some things that he couldn’t forget. We got drunk,” Cheng laughed, “only time I think any of us would have seen him drunk.”

Navarro finished her cigarette and lit another one.

“He told this story, about how he got nabbed by ADVENT when he was a boy. All short hair and acne, he said. He borrowed his father’s pocket knife and used it to steal a car.” There were some incredulous smiles at that, “Don’t ask me how, he refused to tell me. Anyway he took this car and began driving around, a scrawny little thirteen year old who could barely reach the pedals and see over the dashboard at the same time. He drove until he found the first ADVENT security network tower he could,” she smiled at the memory, “the one’s that look like lampposts. And he rammed it. Apparently it didn’t do much beyond scratch the paint on the fucking thing. ADVENT came in and scooped him up, put him in a cell.”

Cheng hesitated for a moment, her shovel hovering over the hole for a long second before she shook her head and tossed the mud.

“What happened to him then doesn’t need to be repeated. What I’ll always remember is the smile on his face as he talked about stealing the car. He knew how ridiculous it was, barely able to see where he was going, looking for something to knock over. It was a knowing smile. He knew what he was, and didn’t try to be anything else. He was honest with us and he was honest with himself. I think that’s something we should all try and be.”

There were nods and murmurs of agreement. James King muttered a “too right” and Louise Seo rumbled out a “definitely.”

And that was it. No one said another word. They stood in the rain for a little longer than began to drift off wordlessly in ones or twos, until it was just the burial party and Navarro. Them filling the grave and her watching from its edge, smoking her cigarettes.

When it was done, not long before sunset, they built a small cairn over the freshly turned earth out of the stones they’d unearthed while digging the grave, piling the stones around a metal cross that Shen had made. There was no name, but no one thought it necessary. The location was marked and they’d find a proper headstone when they won. If they won.

Navarro was the last to leave the grave, smoking away as the sun sank and the grey clouds became a black sky and only the tip of her cigarette could be seen in the darkness. No one knew what to say to her and no one tried to coach her back onto the ship. No one knew how, Navarro having always been almost as withdrawn as O’Neill.

Perhaps that was why the two of them had found comfort in each other’s arms for a small amount of time.

***

The Commander sat in his usual place on the Bridge, elbows resting on knees, hands steepled beneath his chin and eyes glued to the ‘Doomsday Clock’ – the bright red countdowns that represented the best predictions of Resistance intelligence networks for the next ADVENT attack or advance – above the holographic world map.

Neil Perry stood at a rough idea of attention, beanie held tightly in one hand and eyes fixed firmly ahead. He’d never been any sort of military until Miss Annette had brought him with Galina to join X-Com, and they’d spent more time teaching him how to use the plasma rifles and put on the armour or preparing him for his eventual turn in the Psionic Chamber to teach him more than the basics of military discipline.

Not that they seemed to care all that much about military discipline round here anyway. Miss Michelle, standing to his right, looked more outlaw than soldier, with dark blue hair shorn short on the sides and gelled into spikes on top, and tattoos covering both her bare arms. Mister Leroy, standing to his right, wasn’t much better with his thick black beard and a stained uniform. Then there was Miss Li Ming a full head taller than everyone else and looking like she’d just come straight from the gym, arms dripping sweat and the tuft of hair on top of her otherwise cleanshaven head slicked back with more of the same. Cesar Vargas somehow seemed the worst of the lot, with cheeks covered in stubble and uncombed hair, his posture slightly slouched and irritated boredom written plain as day across his face. Hardly the highly disciplined guerrilla army Neil had expected to find when Miss Annette had asked for volunteers back at the Ranch, but then again he’d also half expected him or Galina to have exploded by now.

Truth be told it was the non-combat personnel on the Avenger, the technical crew, who were most concerned with issues of regulation and discipline. Looking around the bridge he could see Martin Singh, clean-shaven and wearing a neatly pressed uniform, snapping off a tight salute as he handed CO Bradford a tablet computer. Or Gertrude Wilders with her long locks tied back in a perfect bun (not a single hair out of place) and even sharper creases in her uniform, running through a checklist that Neil strongly suspected she knew better than her own name, but ticking things off anyway because those were the rules. She seemed a sharp difference to the members of Menace One. Tidy, controlled, disciplined with a friendly smile on her face as she went about her work. Not the lazy smile that Miss Li Ming wore, like she’d rather watch paint dry than deal with what was in front of her. Like she was only humouring you when she listened to you speak. Or Miss Michelle’s arrogant grin, like she was the only person in on some big joke and everyone else its victim. Made him nervous, Miss Michelle’s grin. No, Miss Gertrude had a much prettier smile than them. She looked like someone who was good at what she did and enjoyed doing it, like she smiled because she was happy. Much prettier.

Neil realised he was staring and looked away, finding that spot directly in front of his eyes and focusing on that. He realised that Central had begun talking to the Commander, loudly enough that it was likely best he started listening.

“… Dr Lynch would again like to remind you that he isn’t a trained psychiatrist, psychologist or counsellor, so his opinion should not be taken as-“

“Just tell me what his goddamn opinion I’ll decide what to think of it.”

“He says Navarro wants to be put back into the field straight away and he can’t think of any good reason to keep her off. She’s processed O’Neill’s death as well as can be expected and is keeping her emotions in check.”

“I sense a ‘but’ coming.”

“Dr Lynch believes she should still be kept off the next few missions. Give her time to grieve properly. He believes that she keeping a leash on your emotional state in the ship’s bar is a lot different to the stress of a battlefield.”

The Commander grunted, still not looking away from the Doomsday Clock, not even for a second.

“What do you think?”

Bradford shrugged, “If she thinks she can do it, I think we should trust her.”

The Commander nodded, sighed and finally dragged his attention away from the Doomsday clock and towards his troops still standing at attention.

“At ease,” he smiled Neil saw the exhaustion in his eyes, shot through with red and surrounded by heavy bags. Dr Tygen said he took deaths under his command harder than others. By the looks of things that still wouldn’t stop him from sending them back into the meat grinder.

Bradford took a step forward.

“The Commander,” he said in that slow, careful way of his, “has concerns about our personnel levels that he’d like to discuss with you.”

***

“They wanna get you recruiting?”

Michelle gave her brother a sideways look, “That really so hard to believe?”

“A little, yeah.”

She snorted and threw her sweaty towel at his face. James snatched it out of the air with a laugh tossed it under armed back to her. She in turn caught the damp cloth and used it to mop up her glistening forehead. They were in the Guerrilla Warfare School, better known as the Gym since that was what it was used for the most, spotting each other as they worked out.

“I’m just saying you’re not the recruiting sort.” James walked over to the pull up bar on the wall, drying his hands on his own towel before grabbing the bar and crossing his ankles.

“I’ll have you know I can be very convincing.”

“Convincing. Someone that. You nicked. A truck full. Of gold bricks. Is different. To. Convincing. Them to fight. For you.”

Michelle waited for him to finish his set before replying, not wanting to limit their conversation to what could be said between breaths and reps.

“I know that. But recruitment’s not the problem.”

“What is then?”

“We got no shortage of volunteers, but fucking half of them are children. The other half might have some experience dodging peacekeepers, but they got no experience fighting andies and muties.”

James raised an eyebrow and gave her a half grin, and she knew what his reply would be before he said it.

“Neither did you once upon a time.”

She shook her head.

“No I didn’t, but when I joined the proper fight the aliens still weren’t taking us seriously. I had time to learn how to kill’em before I had to know for certain. These kids’ll get tossed into the deep end straight away and the Commander is worried half of them won’t survive the first mission without us babysitting them all the way through.”

“So what does the Commander want you to do then?”

Michelle took a long pull from her water bottle before replying, “Ask around. Apparently me, Cesar, Leroy and Li talk the most with our old cells. He wants to see if we can get a few veterans on board. Kind’a hard bastards who’ve seen at least some of the shit we’ve seen. Won’t need their hands held when the shooting starts.”

“We’ve done well so far. Only two deaths ain’t that bad. The Commander really think we need the help?”

Michelle hesitated before she answered. She’d barely been able to blink without images of O’Neill’s corpse popping up behind her eyelids, fucking headless and mangled by a dead andromedan’s hissing metal fists. Bits of brain and bone splattered across a nearby car, blood fucking everywhere. Just. Fucking. Everywhere. Yeah, only two deaths. But Michelle wasn’t about to forget what happened to Gerry, and she knew that Li still muttered Eva Degroot’s name while she slept.

James saw the hesitation and there was a flash of panic in his eyes, “I’m not saying that their deaths weren’t tragedies. I’m just saying that during the first war most frontline combat units had, what, an eighty percent casualty rate? And we’ve achieved more than entire brigades have. We’re hardly what I’d call understrength.”

His sister shook her head, took another long drink from her water bottle.

“How many weeks have you spent in the infirmary since you got here? I’ve lost count, and I reckon you have to,” Michelle didn’t keep the edge out of her voice as she said it. She’d spent a long time worried about his suicidal tendencies. “What happens if you’re in here again for an extended stay and then Leroy gets put out of commision as well? Now I’m not too bad with a medkit, but with both our combat medics out of action that’d be just asking for trouble.” She gave her brother a firm look, the kind meant to show she’d not listen to any further argument. “Shit. Yeah, we’re not understrength yet but we’re not far fucking off it either.”

“Fair enough,” James said, “but why tell you?”

Michelle laughed, shrugged, “‘Cause I know people.”

“You ‘know people’?”

“I know people.”

“Fair enough. Who d’you know?”

“You’ll find out if any of them decide to join up.”

“You mean I might finally get to meet your friends?”

“I promise nothing.”

***

The mission went to shit when the squad was halfway through the clearing between the trees and the barrier along the edge of the road.

Cheng heard a roar and turned to see a muton charge around the corner, followed by a second and a stun lancer. She heard curses in four different languages as she threw herself into the barrier just as the first spray of plasma fire melted the dirt and grass were her feet had been a few seconds before. Another roar from another direction and Cheng poked her head up long enough to see another muton storming out through the front door, followed by an andromedan and a red armoured officer.

“Now we’ve got ourselves a fucking party!” Cheng heard King laugh and looked over in time to see the Australian lean over the barrier nearby and let rip with her gatling cannon, unleashing a steady stream of plasma that ripped apart the andy’s armour in a hail of sparks.

The mutons roared and chased her back behind cover with a splattering of fire. One of them jerked as a pistol shot from the tower smacked into its too-thick skull, causing it to turn its attention up to where Navarro and Donaldson had managed to climb. It turned towards them and Cheng saw an opportunity, spinning the barrels on her own cannon as she stood out of cover and unleashed a torrent of plasma. Half the muton’s head disappeared in a cloud of pink and orange, the rest following the body down as it collapsed in a twitching mess. Leroy and Decker fired at the turrets, as did Dori, both of them starting to smoke and hiss and one of them exploding like a roman candle.

Then they were all forced down by a barrage of fire from the aliens. Leroy cried out and spun, hitting the ground and growling through clenched teeth. He pushed himself back against the barrier, muttering curses, right hand wrapped around his rifle and left arm a smoking mess.

Then Dori screamed at Gabby to get her fucking head down. Cheng looked up to see Navarro leaning over the railing, about to take a shot at one of the mutons distracted by King’s laughing taunts. The surviving turret twitched in her direction and fired a burst, catching the Spaniard in her shoulder and causing her to miss her shot. The muton felt the lance of energy pass by its waist and roared as it shot back.

No. No. Nononono. Not again. Not fucking again.

Donaldson screamed again. Gabby didn’t make a sound, just slapped a hand against the missing chunk of her neck and half toppled over the tower’s railing before Donaldson grabbed her belt and kept her from falling all the way. Cheng saw the blood stream down her face and hair and her arms fall slack before Donaldson managed to haul her back into the cover of the tower’s railing, screaming that Menace Three was down! Navarro was bleeding out! Gabby was hurt!

Gabby is already dead.

“Oh fuck.”

Cheng looked towards King, saw that she was staring at the facility roof, heard a loud metallic thump and felt it reverberate through the ground beneath them. She turned in time to see a second andy had just dropped from the roof, where another pair of troopers were aiming over the railing.

“I think we need to leave!” Gerard Dekker yelled from over on the left flank, his voice perfectly calm despite the rapidly escalating situation.

One dead, one wounded, heavily outgunned and outnumbered. Cheng agreed. So did the Commander when he spoke into her ear.

Firestarter’s above you now,” his voice was more strained than she was used to hearing, “Drop smoke and she’ll pull you out of there. Bring Navarro home.”

“Affirmative,” Cheng was proud of how even her voice was, all things considered, “popping smoke. Michelle, help with Gabby.”

King was already up and jogging with her head ducked towards the base of the tower. Cheng pulled a blue taped smoke grenade from her armour, pulled the pin and tossed ten paces away. It sparked and powder blue smoke began spewing into the sky. Five seconds later a half dozen roped dropped from a shadow hovering steadily a hundred metres above, close enough for them to hear the whine of skyranger’s engine as it waited for them to board.

Cheng, Dekker and Leroy were already up and firing at the aliens in wide arcs, trying to keep their heads down as the squad backed towards the smoke. Donaldson gently dropped Gabby’s limp form down into King’s waiting arms, then slid down the ladder, both women running full pelt at the waiting lines where they were pulled up by the skyranger’s powerful winches.

Cheng kept firing all the way back to the skyranger, firing in short bursts wherever she saw movement. She spotted another muton go down, and one of the troopers on the roof pitched forward and splattered on the ground below. They reached the ropes and she kept firing, screaming obscenities about the alien’s mothers and fathers and family and whatever bastards and whores they cared about.

Dekker tapped her on the shoulder and yelled into her ear that she was the last one, then she heard him pulled up towards the skyranger. She kept firing till her magazine ran dry, then wrapped her arm in the second-to-last line and was pulled into the sky with shoulder-wrenching force.

At the top Simmons, the navigator and deck-chief, and King grabbed her and pulled her onto the loading ramp. The last line, empty and unneeded, was reeled in. The ramp closed, the interior emergency light that had been bathing them in its red glow switched off.

Cheng felt the change in inertia as the skyranger’s engines whined louder and it sped away into the night, nearly stumbling backwards.

Gabby was laid out between the seats that lined either side of the skyranger’s hold, a quarter of her neck and the left edge of her jaw blown away by the muton’s shot. Blood everywhere. Her face was slack, lips slightly open, and glassy eyes still opened. No pain there, no surprise, no shock. Just blank, lifeless calm.

Donaldson looked at Cheng, the Scot’s own eyes betraying more shock than Cheng had hoped to see. She seemed right on the edge of panic.

“Gabby died Li.”

“Yes,” Cheng said, “she did.”

What the fuck else was there to say?

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (14)

Chapter 14: It’s all fun and games…

The spray can in Michelle’s hand hissed paint over the dirt and stones and grass of the clearing as she drew two white lines running more or less parallel to the outer edges of the Avenger’s main port and starboard side landing struts. There was a bit of wind blowing through the trees around them and the babble of a narrow but deep stream from which the Avenger was restocking its freshwater supplies, but not much else in the way of ambience. The birds and the rest of the wildlife in the area had been startled off by the Avenger‘s landing and the insects wouldn’t really come alive until sundown, so the crew were stuck with each other if they were looking for noise.

Almost the entire crew, including Lily Shen but not including the Commander, Dr Tygen or CO Bradford, were sitting in the shadow of the Avenger’s hull out of the burning summer sun. Doreen Donaldson (but no one except her family called her Doreen) was certainly not looking forward to stepping out of the shade and into that light, generations of Scottish rain leaving her with the tanning capabilities of a deep-sea fish. One with a light attached to its head.

She glanced over her shoulder, suddenly aware that she was outside the Avenger without her Gremlin hovering over her shoulder. She’d named it Titus Androidicus. No one seemed to get the reference but that wasn’t surprising – the Bard had been banned for a long time and she doubted that even before then many members of her present company would have been the types to sample his works. What was surprising was how weird she felt right now without it there, clicking and whining and hissing and buzzing as it floated just within her vision. She wondered if Leroy or Navneet or James felt just as weird without theirs nearby. She remembered that James wasn’t outside with the rest of them, that he was propped up in the infirmary after nearly bloody dying on the last mission. He was lucky to be alive at all. Lucky that his sister was there to carry him out.

Li said Michelle had cried quietly at one end of the skyranger during the trip back, and told Dori not to tell anyone else.

Michelle had bounced back of course. She always did, at least in front of everyone. She seemed to have finished with the spray paint, stretching out the kinks in her back from bending over as she dawdled back towards the rest of the crew. She was barefoot, with her fatigue trousers rolled up above her knees and a black tank top that allowed full view of the complex weave of tattoos that covered both arms and up onto her shoulder blades, those on her left arm run through with pale, ugly scars.

The rest of the crew were dressed similarly. John Tipene was wearing a baggy tank top (which hid the layer of flab he maintained over his impressive muscles) and a pair of rugby shorts (which hid nothing). Li had taken an old, torn jumpsuit and cut off the arms and legs, showing off long, lanky but above all leanly muscular limbs that could have been cast from bronze. Gerard Dekker had dug up a pair of bright orange board shorts and was trying to show off his muscular torso to Gerty Wilders, who was wearing a bright orange football jersey above trousers rolled up like Michelle’s. Simmons, the Canadian with no first name, wore a t-shirt with the logo from some ancient (probably also Canadian) punk rock band with the words “Fuck you Chad Kroeger!” written messily across the back. Dori herself had shed everything except her sports bra (honestly one of the least sexy things she owned) and a pair of denim shorts (that she thought made her arse look fantastic) which she’d ‘acquired’ during the last urban op she’d been in . The height of fashion on a captured and repurposed alien warship.

Michelle stepped in front of the crew, just outside the Avenger’s shade, with her usual smirk and her blue hair falling in a sweaty mess across her face. She was one of those people who just looked great when they sweat, the type of person you’d describe as ‘glistening’. It drew the eye of more than a few of the men present, and a couple of the women too. Dori looked at her own pale arms that, at best, could be called ‘pasty’ when she sweat, another curse of Scottish ancestry. Over to the right Else Krause did not seemed impressed with where Navneet Banerjee’s eyes were pointed. Dori sent a small smile in the German woman’s direction. Else spotted it and rolled her eyes. Navneet was not the type to ever follow his wandering eye, but that didn’t make it much better.

“Alright lads and ladies, time for a little game!” Michelle yelled over her audience and what was left of the conversations going on came to a halt.

“It’s too fucking hot for games!” Dori heard Kogara Hiro but couldn’t see him from where she was sitting.

“Yeah, sorry about that. It’s a gift and a curse, right Else?”

Else shrugged, smiled. There was a little laughter at the bad joke.

“Go fuck yourself King!” Hiro shouted again, his voice playful if not particularly creative.

“Probably will later, if I’m being honest. But not because you told me to,” Michelle said, mock seriously, “because I want to.” She rubbed her crotch mock seductively and there was more laughter.

Michelle waited for it to finish before continuing, “Alright, alright, the name of the game is Bull Rush. Or British Bulldog to our friends from those Isles,” the Australian nodded towards Dori and Gerry O’Neill, “and I think you North Americans,” she nodded towards Emily Adams, Louise Seo and Simmons, “call it Red Rover or something.

“Rules are simple, one person starts as the Bull in the middle of the field between these two lines that I’ve put so much effort into drawing straight. Everyone else stays on the other side of one of the lines. Bull yells ‘Bull Rush’ and everyone has to run across the field to the opposite line. Bull tries to catch you. Grab, hold, pin if necessary, I’ll leave the how up to you. Just nothing that’ll cripple or kill,” a few more laughs, a little more nervous now, “Bull catches you, you become a Bull as well. This continues until there’s no one but Bulls left on the field. Simple? Simple.”

Dori realised she was grinning. She hadn’t played this game since she was a child and it had always been one of her favourites. It didn’t look like many of the others were as excited as her. Most were probably not happy with the idea of playing a kid’s game, scrambling in the dirt beneath a hot sun.

Michelle didn’t seem surprised by the disappointed faces staring back at her from the shade. She just kept grinning back, waiting for the inevitable.

“Do we have to?” Hiro was brave enough to yell back.

Michelle just grinned harder.

“Well no, not everyone. Allie over there,” Michelle gestured towards Dr Alessandra Mancini, the engineer they’d recently recovered starving and terrified from an ADVENT prison cell, “for example, doesn’t have to-”

That made sense, the Italian was looking better but not that much better.

“-but the Commander wants us up and moving,” Michelle continued, “He’s worried that some of the crew haven’t been getting enough sun-”

Dori looked at her arms again. She was looking forward to the games, but not the inevitable sunburn.

“-so yeah. You have to. You in particular Hiro,” Michelle was smiling so wide Dori was worried her jaw might unhinge, “since you just volunteered to be our first Bull.”

Well, thought Dori, there was really no one he could blame but himself.

***

The room was cold because it had to be. That was about the only thing that Neil Perry had heard Dr Tygen say to either himself or Galina Zinchenko since the process had started a few days before. He didn’t have a great bedside manner but from what little he’d learnt from the older members of X-Com – the gist of it being that the good doctor was happier cutting up corpses than stitching up wounds – that wasn’t all that surprising. Still, it would have been nice if he’d been a little more talkative, or perhaps a little bit happier to explain exactly what the holy hell he was doing.

Galina didn’t worry much. She didn’t seem to feel the cold much either. Neil would complain and she’d just make a joke about life back in St Petersburg, maybe tell him a story about a trip with her family to Finland. Say something like, “the only thing colder than a Finnish glare when they find out you are Russian is their winters.” But Neil was from Texas and had experienced neither a Russian or a Finnish winter, and he was damn cold.

Cold didn’t seem to bother the Commander none. Couldn’t be sure if that was because he was a tough son-bitch or if he was just one of those leader types who was allergic to showing weakness in front of those he was meant to be leading. Couldn’t be sure if there was a difference. Either way he just stood there, hands clasped behind his back and shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, watching Galina where she sat on the other side of the blast-proof glass where any damage could be contained if she, well, exploded. Or something.

That had been one of the possible side-effects according to Dr Tygen. Well according to that CO Bradford fella, but the grizzled officer had told them that’s what Dr Tygen had said. Untested technology. Didn’t know the consequences. That much psionic energy pouring into you might cause an aneurysm. Might cause all your hair to fall out. Might cause you to explode. You sure you want to do this?

Galina thought it was damn hilarious. Neil figured it was why they were here, may as well give it a go. Still, he was damn relieved when Galina had volunteered to go first.

Three days ago she’d stepped into the machine they’d built in the deep dark of the Avenger. Because the machinery needed to be kept cool. Probably because it might explode as well. For three days Galina had been surrounded by purple light as she ate, read, talked, shit, slept, exorcised and occasionally looked bored. Neil had kept her as much company as he could, but it was awkward talking to her through the glass. She seemed happy to just have him there. Then again she’d probably have seemed happy even if he wasn’t. He was happy to be there. Happy to see that she didn’t explode.

Her hair hadn’t fallen out either. It had turned white, pure as new fallen snow back at the campus. Only a few strands at first, then a line like a vein of silver running through a rock face, then half her head. And her eyes, kind of a dull blue when she walked in, had gone a bright purple. They also glowed sometimes. It was a mite worrying.

But she hadn’t exploded. More importantly she was lifting her tablet computer with her fucking mind.

It was just floating there, surrounded by that same purple… aura? Was that the right word? Energy maybe? It was surround by that same energy that Galina had been absorbing for the better part of three days, faint but visible. Galina was grinning to herself like a damn fool, proud as punch and rightfully so. Neil was grinning as well, and he’d bet everything down to his left nut that if Miss Annette was here – the Night Witch to this bunch – she’d be smiling as well.

That brought a bit of ache. It’d only been a few weeks since Miss Annette and Miss Fatima had said goodbye and handed Galina and Neil over to the Commander’s care but he missed them badly. Galina was too excited at the opportunity to show it, but he knew she missed them as well. Still, this was something to celebrate so the pain passed quick.

The Commander seemed as happy as well. Seemed as relieved as Neil that Galina hadn’t exploded. Had probably been even more worried about that then Neil about it happening. That was why he’d ordered as much of the crew as possible off the Avenger for this final phase, in case the glass couldn’t contain it.

“Extraordinary work Doctor,” the Commander rasped, like he’d just released a held breath and didn’t have anything left to speak with.

Doctor Tygen was positively beaming, “Thank you Commander. Much of the credit for this success should go to Miss Shen and her engineers of course, and I will be sure to pass on your compliments.”

“And I’ll pass on yours,” the Commander smiled, then went dead serious, “aside from dropping bricks on ADVENT heads, what kind of combat applications are we talking?”

Small talk over, time for business. There was a war to fight after all.

“Right now? I’m not sure, we’ll need to test Miss Zinchenko further. But, if what the Night Witch says is true, our psionic operatives could be capable of mind control, psionic explosions and beams, panic and shields. They could become our most powerful operatives on the field.”

The Commander nodded, then looked at Neil where he stood all swaddled in his thick coat and beanie.

“How long before we can stick Ginger over here into the chamber?”

Neil blushed and scratched at the red stubble beneath his beanie. Soon to be white apparently. Normally he hated being talked about like he wasn’t in the same room, but his excitement was taking hold at the thought that real soon he’d be able to do the same things as Galina, Miss Annette, Miss Fatima and her brother Mr Said.

“Now that we know the design works Shen and I can have a second chamber up and running as soon as the supplies become available.”

“Have two of them developing at the same time.”

“Exactly Commander.”

The Commander nodded, thoughtfully.

“The next supply drop will be in three days. Make this a priority.”

“Of course Commander.”

Only a few days until he’d be put in a machine as well.

The ship’s intercom buzzed and Bradford’s voice came in through the speakers. The Commander made some apologies and left. Neil was no longer listening. Didn’t even salute (not that he was sure whether he should’ve saluted or not anyway). He was too busy watching Galina float stuff around her little glass room.

Only a few days until he’d be able to do that as well.

Unless he exploded, of course.

***

Hiro tried to protest. Tried to claim old injuries, the dangers of skin cancer, how he couldn’t be trusted to tackle a mouse let alone someone like Li Ming ‘Artillery’ Cheng or John “no nickname but he was still fucking huge” Tipene. The two responded to having their names said in vain by grabbing Hiro by the armpits and dragging him into the middle of the field, both of them giggling at his attempts to struggle free while Michelle told him to “start small, grab a few of your mates and get them to help you with the big ones.”

Realising that resistance was useless almost everyone else soon followed them into the sun, grouping behind the white line on the Avenger’s starboard side and leaving a terrified looking Hiro between them and the port side line. Lily Shen, Doctor Colin Lynch, Doctor Mancini (Allie) and a few others stayed in the shade, too fragile or too important to be risked in a contact sport against professional soldiers (and John Tipene, who really was fucking huge).

Dori watched as Michelle walked over to where Allie was sitting and tossed her the can of white spray paint, taking the Italian woman by surprise. She juggled it awkwardly, bouncing between her palms a few times before finally grabbing it properly with an embarrassed grin. Michelle laughed out a loud “Sorry mate!” then leant in and said something quietly, causing Allie to laugh and narrow her eyes towards one of the knots of people loitering behind the line (Dori couldn’t be sure who, but she suspected). That joker’s smile still on her face, Michelle turned to Shen, who was looking in the same direction as Allie.

“You not gonna play Shen?”

Shen smiled and shook her head, “No, I’m here to just cheer people on.”

“Uh-huh,” Michelle spun around, “You hear that Ems?” Emily Adams looked in their direction, “You’ve got a bit of a cheer squad over here!”

Just a few weeks ago that kind of comment about her and Shen would have seen Emily fall into bashful and largely incoherent muttering (Shen’s cheeks certainly went bright red). Now she just laughed and yelled back.

“Are you a jealous Michelle?”

“Of course not. I’ve got Allie cheering for me! Don’t I Allie?”

Allie just shrugged, a movement that saw her whole body move and her hands go wide in a very Italian way, “I don’t know, Emily is prettier.”

Michelle slapped a hand over her heart as if she’d been shot and cried out, “Traitor!”

Emily blushed now, and muttered something about how Michelle shouldn’t be surprised.

Shen suddenly became very interested in her shoes.

Dori wondered if she should join in.

***

The game started with everyone except Hiro standing awkwardly on one side of the starboard-side line, and the Bull in question standing between the two. For two or three minutes he just stood there, not doing or saying anything, petulantly punishing Michelle, Li Ming and John for forcing him into the middle and everybody else for letting them.

“Aren’t you supposed to be running or something?”

Or he just hadn’t been listening properly when Michelle had explained the rules.

“You’re supposed to say the words first.” If Michelle smiled any harder her head was collapse.

“What words?”

“The name of the game.”

“Bull Rush?”

“GO!” Michelle yelled and charged forward, dragging the bodies on her immediate left and right with her. John Tipene did the same and after a second’s surprised hesitation everyone followed them, a wave of sweating, muscled humanity charging towards a line of white spray paint.

Hiro’s eyes went wide and he seemed to try to shrink into himself as Dori ran past at full pelt, dust kicking up in her wake, heart beating far too fast for a grown woman playing a kid’s game. She skidded to a stop just past the port-side line and turned to see Hiro still in the middle of the field, with his arms wrapped around Gabby Navarro.

“Hola,” she said politely and Hiro jumped away from her, a little shocked at what he’d done.

“Holy fucking shit Hiro! You caught someone! Or did you let him catch you out of pity Gabby?”

Gabby gave a shrug and look that was meant to indicate “maybe” but most likely indicated “probably not.” Hiro grinning like a schoolboy.

“I fucking caught someone! Of course I fucking caught someone. I am the pinnacle of humanity!”

“Is that so?” Michelle laughed.

“Yeah, and you’re next.”

“Alright then,” Michelle bent forward ready to sprint, “say the words.”

***

They missed Michelle on that run. Then the next. She was shorter and squatter than Li or Else, but just as muscled and moved like a cannonball. After the second attempt Hiro and Gabby switched targets and worked together to take down Cesar Vargas.

Then Gerry O’Neill. Then Gerry O’Neill caught Thierry Leroy while the other three caught Emily and Gerty Wilders.

It took all six to catch, tackle and hold John Tipene. That guy was fucking huge. And smart. And surprisingly quick on his feet. Gerry asked in that quiet voice of his why he wasn’t part of Menace One. John just shrugged and said, “Then who’d fix the skyranger?”

Karen Nilsen went next, alongside Simmons and Martin Singh (who maintained the medical equipment that Tygen built and everybody had been surprised to see leave the Avenger, instead of hiding in the research lab like he always did).

With John amongst the Bulls, no one stood a chance. They were whittled down until it was just Michelle, Charlie Otembe (one of the technical crew) and, somehow, Dori.

“Three against-” Michelle said and scanned the crowd in front of them, “you know what, I cannot be arsed to count.”

“Understandable.” Charlie laughed, his voice a deep baritone.

Dori looked at her arms, red as alarm lights as she’d expected.

In the joking, jostling wall of sweat and sunburns in front of them, Hiro finally grew bored and yelled out, “Bull Rush!”

“Guess, we better go then.” Michelle said.

“I think you’re right,” Charlie agreed.

“Good luck, yeah?” Dori added.

And then they charged.

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (13)

Chapter 13: Bonds, broken or otherwise

“Where’d the boy come from?”

“Same place as me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Nicked a car?”

“And drove it into an ADVENT scanner.”

“And drove it into an ADVENT scanner?”

“The ones that look like street lights.”

“I know what they fucking look like.”

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

“Oh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He English?”

“Pardon son?”

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

“I am.” Carlyle said.

“He is.” O’Brien agreed.

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

Carlyle burst out laughing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

“Alessandra Mancini?”

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

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

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

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

“C-ci. Yes. I can walk.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Gerry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vicky would tell a story and shake his head.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Navneet might have loved her.

***

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

“Almost there dude. Almost clear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck. Inappropriate thoughts at inappropriate times.

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (12)

Chapter 12: Witches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You?”

“We had words.”

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

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

“She could have come to anybody else.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine.”

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

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

“Said I was sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah. It’s about her.”

“No it’s fuckin’ not!”

“Yeah it is.”

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

“Yeah. It is. Ems.

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

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

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

Emily nodded.

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

“I tried to hit you first.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re younger than me.”

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

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

“I’m not better.”

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

Michelle nodded, “Sorry about that.”

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

“That’s so fucking romantic.”

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

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

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

“What did she say?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

The Commander stood a little straighter as he watched them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you need to.”

“So people keep telling me.”

“They will be powerful additions to your ranks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As well as I can.”

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

“Was it necessary tonight?”

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

“An old friend?”

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

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

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

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

“Welcome to Menace One.”

And that was it for the night.

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (11)

Chapter 11: What do they deserve?

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

“You alright there Jimmy?”

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

“You alright bro?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a fucking mess.

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

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

“To your health,” she smiled back.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Not bloody likely.

The war was over but the fight went on.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I like your hair.”

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

“Thank you sir.”

“Very rock’n’roll.”

“Yessir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, he was. A long time ago.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gotta get back in the fight, he said.

James left a few days later.

***

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

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

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

“‘Fanging it’?” Li asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Fourteen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey Shelly, how you doin’?”

“I’m alright. How’re you?”

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

“Do we have time to talk?”

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

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

“So am I. Love you.”

“Love you too.”

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

But it was enough.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (7)

Chapter 7: Scar Tissue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That eyebrow is going to need stitches.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought of it just now.”

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

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

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

It was nice having a friend again.

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

***

“What are we playing?”

“It’s called ‘Two-Up.'”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does the Commander know about your gambling addiction?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nah, it’s only allowed once a year.”

“When?”

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

“What?”

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

“Why?”

He grinned, “Tradition.”

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

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

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

“Anything?”

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

***

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

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

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

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

“Do you mean Trudy?”

Cheng nodded.

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

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

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

“So were you once upon a time.”

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

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

“Do what you think is best.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How much ammunition does everyone have left?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pharaoh saw them and waved.

“Hey there girls, how’s it going?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know?”

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

“I will.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That didn’t make sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again Degroot screamed her friend’s name.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“ASSUME ALL POSITIONS COMPROMISED”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (6)

Chapter 6: Torture doesn’t always work

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

What she found in Shanghai was politics.

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yessir,” Cheng said robotically.

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

“I am sir.”

“When you’re ready then.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Wh-what?”

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

“What?”

“Another failure and now our leader is dead.”

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

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

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

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

“I am loyal.”

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“I am loyal.”

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

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

“I am loyal.”

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

It came on the fifteenth day.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

“You’re like me aren’t you?”

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

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

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

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

“No. You?”

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

“Maybe I’m just better at hiding it.”

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

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

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

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

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