Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (11)

Chapter 11: What do they deserve?

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

“You alright there Jimmy?”

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

“You alright bro?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a fucking mess.

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

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

“To your health,” she smiled back.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Not bloody likely.

The war was over but the fight went on.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I like your hair.”

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

“Thank you sir.”

“Very rock’n’roll.”

“Yessir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, he was. A long time ago.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gotta get back in the fight, he said.

James left a few days later.

***

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

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

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

“‘Fanging it’?” Li asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Fourteen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey Shelly, how you doin’?”

“I’m alright. How’re you?”

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

“Do we have time to talk?”

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

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

“So am I. Love you.”

“Love you too.”

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

But it was enough.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (10)

Chapter 10: A Touch of Madness

It always felt like they arrived too late.

At least that’s what Li Ming Cheng had said when Menace One had boarded the skyranger on their way to the little resistance-controlled shantytown on the northern edge of the South American continent (or the southern edge of Central America depending on who your geography teacher was). As they dropped into the warzone it had become Doreen Donaldson, Dori to the people she liked, understood what the huge Chinese woman meant.

Huge swathes of the scrubland around the town were burning, belching thick black smoke into the sky and bathing the ramshackle buildings, caravans, trailers and vehicles in red and orange light that might have been lovely if they’d been cast by a setting sun instead of the results of an ADVENT airstrike. Clothes tattered long before the attack flapped violently from laundry lines strung between structures pieced together out of old recycled wood, sheet metal and gnatty tarps, and rusty four wheel drives and minivans that were never meant for the kind of off-road use they’d probably been put through. Smoke, ash, fuel, spent gunpowder, cooked meat, blood, cut grass and branches, all these scents fought a battle in her nostrils for dominance. A blackened corpse missing an arm, foot and its head was slumped against the passenger door of an ancient jeep with a jury-rigged hydrogen engine, a blast crater visible within spitting distance of the corpse.

“Fuck me,” Dori mumbled as she spotted a child’s t-shirt caught on a large radio antenna whipped about in the winds caused by the fires like an obscene flag, its bright colours smouldering dark grey smoke into the sky.

“Small bodies,” Gabriela Navarro spat into the dirt, looking in the same direction as Dori, “It is the fucking worst to find.”

“We’re not here to find bodies,” Li said, giving the barrels of her mag cannon whirring as she gave them a test spin, “we’re here to make them.”

Dori saw Thierry Leroy glance at Li with a bit of worry in his frown. She had the same old lazy smile on her face that everyone was used to but there was a hard edge in her voice as she said it. Then again her best friend had been killed a week ago and, as Karen Nilsen had pointed out, X-Com members were good at holding grudges.

Karen was bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet, eyes hidden beneath the shadow of her old hood but obviously twitching back and forth between the other members of Menace One and the environment around her. She held her shotgun by her side and was fiddling with a buckle on her predator armour. Cesar Vargas had already jogged off to scout ahead, looking for civilians so save and aliens to kill. The Commander was saying something in their ears that Dori only half listened to.

The Scot took a deep breath and clutched her rifle tighter, worried that her hands might start shaking as she looked at that t-shirt flickering in the wind, a tiny life probably snuffed out. CO Bradford had said there was supposed to have been a hundred thirty people in this settlement. Li said they’d save a dozen at best. Another two dozen might escape by themselves.

“Fuck it,” she said louder than intended, “let’s go kill the bastards that did this.”

***

“How do you think you are dealing with Miss Degroot’s death?”

Emily stirred uncomfortably in her stool, looking away from Doctor Lynch towards the rows of half filled bottles secured safely within plexiglass cabinets behind the bar. Funnily enough they didn’t provide the same comfort that the autopsy table had during the first few meetings she’d had with the Avenger’s in-ship shrink, back when it had been separated from the rest of the research centre within a box of bullet, blast and sound proof glass. The Commander had ordered the box disassembled not long after their second meeting, deciding its parts could be put to better use elsewhere. Emily and the doctor had been meeting in the rare moments when the bar was empty ever since.

He raised his eyebrows and she realised she needed to answer.

“Well enough I guess. I haven’t needed to cry myself to sleep or anything.”

“Did you cry yourself to sleep after your mother died?”

A few times.

“No. Why’d you ask?”

Doctor Lynch was smiling at her. He was always smiling. It was both infuriating and calming.

“I’m just trying to get a picture of how you grieve.”

“Losing people is part of the job,” she deadpanned, “you get used to it.”

“Maybe,” Doctor Lynch’s smile slipped for a half second, but only a half second, “but some losses are worse than others. I understand you haven’t been down to engineering since Miss Degroot died. I think Miss Shen has been missing you.”

“Ha- has she said something to you?” Emily couldn’t look the doctor in the eye as she asked the question.

“No, but she hasn’t really needed to. You and Miss Degroot have probably been her two most consistent helpers and friends,” he emphasised that last word, “since the Commander’s return. She’s lost one good friend, I’m sure she doesn’t want to lose another.”

“Probably not. I guess… I guess it just hasn’t felt right. Going back down there.”

“Why hasn’t it felt right?”

“I don’t know.”

She didn’t.

“I think you do,” he was right, she did, “but this isn’t a matter I want to pry into. I am capable of allowing you some private thought.”

“Thanks,” she mumbled.

“Miss Degroot meant a great deal to you. She was your friend, she taught you a great deal and you looked up to her. And I think that we both know she wouldn’t have wanted you to stop spending time with Miss Shen.”

Emily looked over at the bottles again, trying to distract herself.

She heard Doctor Lynch chuckle, “Yes, perhaps a little liquid courage wouldn’t hurt.”

***

“Grenade.”

Li’s voice lacked any urgency as her launcher made a dull whump and sent the cylindrical explosive in a shallow arc over the rest of the squad’s heads. Dori was happy to admit that it was pretty damn good shot, disappearing through the window of a two story hut and right over the shoulder of a red-armoured officer. She imagined the click of the pressure plate making contact with the corrugated iron of the wall opposite and the fuse igniting an instant before the fragmentation grenade exploded and took the makeshift structure with it. A trooper who’d been crouching behind some boxes on its roof went cartwheeling onto his neck, while the red-armour was hurled a few metres to land in a pair of smoking chunks. There was a stun lancer just outside of the blast radius that warbled something unpleasant and took aim at Li, but didn’t see Leroy charge up his flank and fire a burst into his chest from five metres away.

“Dori, civilian on the right!” Li called out from the left as she slung her launcher back over shoulder and hefted her big mag cannon.

Dori looked across the broken crates and debris silhouetted by an the increasingly wild fires surrounding the camp and spotted a tuft of dark hair poking out from within three neat stacks of old tires.

“On it!”

Gun pointed at the ground but finger hovering over the trigger, Dori jogged the short distance towards the tires. Caution while approaching civilians in an active combat zone had been a must ever since one such civilian had transformed into a lanky three-and-a-half metre tall blob creature that backhanded Emily Adams through a pile of crates. They have an odd sort of cunning, Vargas had told her as he shared a cigarette with Gabby – his fellow Spanish speaker – while they waited for the skyranger’s engines to warm up, they might wait until you’re within striking distance or they might wait until all their friends have been taken out. The fastest way to reveal them without the right toys, he’d looked up at the Gremlin hovering over her shoulder, relatively new and unmodified, is to get in close. Get up close and they can’t help themselves, but be prepared to start shooting when you do.

The rest of the squad moved forward at the same time while the Commander’s voice provided orders, instructions and intel straight into their ears. Dori reached the tires and knocked one pile over revealing a kid that couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen even if they were tall for their age, with short black hair in sweaty spikes and baggy clothes, well-tanned olive skin that was looking pale and soft features that were looking terrified. Dori kept her expression hard as she stared at the kid and internally counted to ten. When she (Dori reckoned it was a she and it didn’t feel like an appropriate moment to find out if the kid had a preference) didn’t turn into giant pink monster the expression changed to a smile that the Scot hoped was reassuring.

“Hello,” she said and reached towards the kid, “it’s alright. I’m here to get you somewhere safe.”

The kid stared at the hand like it was diseased and backed away as far as she could into the tires that were still standing. Crap, maybe the kid only spoke Spanish. Maybe the kid spoke English but not well enough to understand a fast talking Glaswegian. She turned away from the kid and began looking for Gabby or, preferably since this was his manor or fucking close enough to it, Vargas to help get her away from the tires and towards the relative safety of the skyranger.

“Can I get some help over-“

She realised no one was listening, or paying much attention to her at all. The rest of Menace One were facing forward, guns up and faces waiting. Dori looked in the same direction and didn’t see anything, but now that she knew something was wrong she began to hear what must have got everybody’s attention. Footsteps. Fucking huge ones by the sounds of it, getting closer and closer. She brought up her rifle in time to see an enormous creature charge around the corner and roar at them.

It was twice Li’s height and she was one of the tallest people in X-Com, and at least as wide. Pink, red and white muscles and sinews were visible between what looked like bits of bone, as if the creature had been skinned alive and now wanted to take revenge for that fact out on the half dozen humans in front of it. It roared again. The kind of roar that rattles teeth and loosens bowels. In the bottom of her vision she saw the kid cover her ears and cry out.

“Huh,” she heard the voice of the Commander in her ear, “berserkers have gotten bigger since our day.”

The alien charged forward and Dori felt herself firing at the huge creature. She heard the rip and tear of a mag cannon and a rifle that must have belonged to Leroy. The berserker just growled and kept on coming at them, not even flinching as the combined fire ripped into its exposed muscles.

Then Karen Nilsen pulled her blade from its scabbard between her shoulders and charged the beast right back, screaming a war cry that sounded far too happy to be charging towards something that wouldn’t even notice crushing her beneath one of its enormous feet.

“Waaaahhhhrrraaaahhhhhrrrraaaahhhhaaarrr!”

Absolutely fucking ridiculous.

Afterwards Dori would wonder if Karen timed her run or just got lucky. She met the creature at a halfway point between both their respective starting marks, an area littered by piles of crates, garbage, drums and general debris. Karen was short but, it turned out, springy. She leapt onto a small crate, to a large crate, to a pile of crates, gaining height and never losing momentum so that, by the time she hurled herself at the creature swinging her long blade in a two-handed reverse grip, she was at a similar height to the creature’s head. A bit higher actually, as proved when she stabbed the point straight down into what passed for the creatures forehead.

The berserker bellowed fiercely and tried to shake her off but Karen just held tight. Cackling like a witch over a cauldron she used the grip of her blade to pull her feet up onto its shoulders, giving her the leverage to pull the machete-sword out of the beast’s thick skull. And shank the fucker again. And again. And a fourth time, at which point the blade was lodged in its skull so she began punching it, still laughing and screaming obscenities in English and what was presumably Swedish without the usual stutter that marked her words.

She was still pummelling the poor creature’s head as it finally toppled backwards, riding its shoulders all the way down, straddling its neck as it landed. Grin visible beneath her long hood she threw her head back and howled like a wolf at the burnt sky. Everyone was staring at her, including the kid who Dori had forgotten for a few seconds, wide-eyed and a little stunned. She saw Vargas open his mouth as if to say something then rethink the decision and close it again.

“So,” Li said instead, “I think we should all agree to not get on Karen’s bad side.”

***

Drunk wasn’t the right word. No, she hadn’t had enough to call herself drunk. Tipsy. That was a better word for it. If she was drunk she’d actually be in there right now instead of just staring at the door feeling like the sorry coward she was. Fuck, she should have drunk half the bottle instead of half a glass. Maybe that would have made this easier. Fuck.

Emily stood outside Engineering staring at the metal hatch that led inside to where Lily Shen would be working. She raised her hand to knock but hesitated, like she had every time for the last few weeks. She hadn’t so much as seen Lily since Eva died, since she lost that vital bit of support.

With a sigh, Emily lowered her hand.

Beside her someone cleared their throat. Emily damned near jumped out of her skin as she took a step backwards and spun around to see Else Krause staring at her, head cocked to one side (the left) and an easy smile on her pretty, tanned face.

“Jesus Else, you startled the shit out o’ me,” Emily growled as she pulled the long hair on her head back and scratched at the stubble of her undercut.

Else just shrugged and crossed her arms over her chest. Emily didn’t see the German woman very often, since Else seemed to spend most of her time with Navneet Banerjee (the Oxford-educated Pakistani that she was sort-of-but-not-really-secretly fucking) but she always looked the same. T-shirt and fatigue pants, black hair tied back into a single plait, round glasses giving her face a bookish charm that made you forget she was an artist with a gatling gun.

“What are you doing here?” Emily asked, hoping to avoid the question being asked to her first.

Else just kept smiling and tilted her head to the other side.

“Yeah, whatever. I’m going.”

Emily tried to walk past her but felt a strong hand grip her arm across her stomach. She looked at Else, who just kept smiling at her. Friendly as the junkyard dog that someone had recently nicknamed her after.

“What the fuck Else?”

The German woman gave Emily a wink. She reached out and mashed the keypad besides the door and they watched the hatch slide open. They looked at each other and Else winked again, then sort of lift-pushed Emily through the open door.

“Fuck!”

Emily was strong, but Else could run five Ks carrying a mag cannon as heavy as herself without breaking a sweat (or so she’d once drunkenly bragged). The young American was through the door before she had a chance to even think about wrestling free, spinning about just in time to see Else wave and slide the door shut.

“Fuck!”

She growled and hit the keypad on the inside of Engineering. The hatch shuddered but refused to open.

“Fuck!” she hit the door with her palm, “Fuck!”

“Are you alright Emily?” a nervous voice said from behind her.

Emily spun back around and saw Lily standing across one of the workbenches from her, a worried grin on her lips and oil stains on her arms and brow. She carried a small wrench in one hand and her Gremlin, ROVER, whirred suspiciously from beneath her other.

“Yeah, I’m alright,” Emily brushed a hand through her hair – she’d been doing that a lot lately, “but I think we’ve just been locked in.”

“What?” Lily said, eyebrows climbing skyward, “How?”

She dropped the spanner and strode past Emily, leaning in close to the door and hitting the open button. The door made a sort-of growling noise and shuddered, but refused to open.

“Sounds like someone jammed something into the frame,” Lily shook her head, a little amused at the situation and wandered over to her computer terminal, “I’ll send a message to John to come and check it out…” she typed rapidly but allowed herself a small smile as she looked over the monitor at Emily, “Though I can’t help but wonder why someone would lock us in. The Commander’s going to be pissed.”

“I- I guess they were trying to keep me from escaping,” Emily realised her Southern US drawl was getting thicker and took a few deep breaths to calm her rapidly beating heart, “I’m sorry I haven’t been visiting lately.”

“It’s okay,” Lily’s smile turned a little sad, “I understand. It’s weird to not have her over there working on Wasp. Arguing with Cheng about whether or not wasp stings are venomous or not,” Lily chuckled.

“Not, no, not just that. I…” Fuck, why was this so hard? “I like you. Like I like you a lot. Like I like like you a lot,” fuck, she was sounding like one of those fucking kid’s sitcoms her mom used to put on back when they lived on the base. Why couldn’t she just talk fucking normally? “Yeah, I like like you,” fuck! “and, I want to know if you like me to. Like like,” for fuck’s sake, what the fuck was wrong with her, “and I’d be really happy if you could tell me so I’d know either way. Whether we just stay friends and I move on or, maybe, whatever we’d do if you liked me. Or whatever. So, do you? Like me?”

What a fucking rambling mess.

Lily stared at her for what must have at least been a solid minute, the gears visibly turning in that lovely mind of hers, before she finally said something.

“I’ve been waiting for you to admit that for a while now.”

Really?

“You have?”

Lily chuckled, “You’re not very good at hiding it.”

Of course.

“Right.”

“And… I thought- I thought I’d be ready for it. With an answer for you.”

There was the sudden sound of metal on metal, scratching from the other side of the door, some thumps, some more scratching, one long loud curse and the hatch slid open. John Tipene was standing on the other side holding a fighting knife in one huge hand, a look of curiosity on the big Maori’s face.

“There was a knife jammed into the crack between the door and its frame,” he said.

Emily ignored him and turned back to Lily, “So do you have an answer?”

“I don’t. I don’t know.”

“Fuck. Okay then.”

Without another word she walked past John and away. As far away as she could on this fucking ship.

***

“You’re fuckin’ joking!” Michelle King said with a laugh as she shuffled two decks of playing cards together atop the round table in the Avenger’s barracks.

Else just shrugged and took a hard slug from her beer. Gertrude Wilders, who Michelle had kept calling Gerty until everyone else had started doing the same, was not nearly so stoic.

“I am not ‘fucking joking,'” she said, already a little sloshed, “Else kneed him straight in the balls. Bam! He went down like… what do you like to say Jimmy?”

Michelle’s brother James grinned, “Like a sack of shit?”

“Yes. He eyes rolled back in his head and he went down, like a sack of shit. And Else just stepped over him without any more words and walked away.”

“Fuck me dead,” Michelle grinned and began dealing out the cards, “Junk junked him right in the junk.”

That brought another round of laughter. Gerty giggled, James laughed, Li looked like she almost had tears in her eyes and Cesar just sort of rumbled in his chair, wrapping the table with the knuckles of his good hand in approval. His left arm was in a sling after suffering a through-and-through on the last mission, rescuing civilians from an ADVENT retaliation strike. Else just blushed a little. She was a good one, smarter than she let on but – as the story just told about her smashing Gerard Dekker’s meat and two veg showed – not about to let anyone disrespect her.

“Jesus,” James smiled, “teaches him for starting a conversation with a lady by bragging about the size of his dick.”

“It’s definitely not the best way to start a conversation with anyone,” Michelle chuckled, “Just imagine, ‘excuse me sir!'” she put a high class English accent that sounded nothing like a high class Englishman and even less like the very German-sounding Dekker, “‘How are you today! Splendid, splendid. As for myself, well, my penis is as long and thick as my arm. I honestly don’t know how my trousers contain it all. That’s not what you asked? I should honestly think it doesn’t matter!'”

Everyone was laughing again, even Else was roaring approval.

“Alright, alrigh’. Settle down,” Michelle said as she finished dealing out the cards, “does everyone know how to play Snap?” She saw three heads shaking only Li nodding, “Know how to play Sign Snap?” Cheng shook her head, “easy enough. Regular snap, we each take turns putting cards face up in the middle. Two of the same number come up one after the other, like a pair of eights or a pair of sixes or whatever – suit doesn’t matter – we all reach into the middle and put our hands on the pile. Last person to do so gets the pile. Winner is the person to run out of cards first. Clear?”

There were nods around the table.

“Okay, Sign Snap is a little different. You have to perform a little action if a King, Queen of Jack comes up. You see a king come up, you salute,” Michelle demonstrated a salute, “you see a queen come up you put a hand against your heart. You see a jack come up you put a fist under your chin,” she demonstrated again, “like you’re grabbing a goatee. Now this only needs a single card to go down, not a pair. Again, last person takes the pile. Clear?”

More nods, less sure of themselves this time.

“You’ll get the hang of it. Now, we’re playing King Family drinking rules, so that means every time a round is one both the loser and the winner have to drink. Keeps everyone from staying too fast and too sobre. Everyone drinks if a joker appears. Everyone drinks the same sign card comes up after another. So if a king goes down and then the very next card is a kind. Clear?”

Everyone nodded.

“Alright then. Let’s get drunk.”

It took a few rounds for everyone to quite understand the rules and rhythm of the game, with Michelle and James winning and happily drinking alongside the losers in each case. Everyone eventually figured out what they were doing, chatting and joking between putting cards down.

“So does anyone know why they call the op team ‘Menace One’?” Michelle asked as she put down a three.

“Because we’re menacing?” James put down a two.

“No you’re not.” Gerty smiled as Li put down a four.

“Yeah we are.” James said mock seriously as Cesar put down an eight.

“Nah, I get the ‘Menace’ part. We’re menacing,” Michelle said as Gerty put down another eight. Everyone slapped their hands down in the middle of the table. Else won and Cesar lost. He swore and they both drank. “Like I was saying, I get the ‘Menace’ part. Why do we call it ‘Menace One’ though?” Else put down a ten, “We only ever send out one team. There is no ‘Menace Two’ is there?” Michelle put down a five.

“Military tradition?” James put down a king. Everyone snapped a salute. There was an argument about who saluted first and last but in the end Michelle and Gerty drank.

“Maybe Central just thought is sounded cooler than just ‘Menace’ or ‘Menace Team’.” Li put down a four.

“Sounds plausible.” Michelle thought out loud as Cesar put down a two, “but I’d say it’d be more likely the Commander who’d do something like that,” Gerty put down a nine, “and he was probably still sleeping when those decisions were made.” Else put down a four. Michelle put down another two, Gerty almost went for it.

“So back to the ‘military tradition’ theory?” James put down a five.

“You should know.” Michelle said as Li put down a ten, “You’re the only one at the table who was regular military before the war.”

“Yeah,” James said a little defensively while Cesar put down a three, “But it’s still been a long time since I was regular military. Still, that’s the kind of shit they’d do.”

“Fair’nuff,” Michelle nodded as Gerty dropped a jack onto the table. Everyone’s fists flew up to their chins, one a little too hard.

“Ow,” Michelle said after knocking her teeth together.

Everyone started laughing.

“You okay Shelly?” James chuckled.

“Yeah. Nearly broke my own jaw is all.”

“Well,” Li leaned forward with a bottle in hand, “you did hit yourself faster than the rest of us.”

Michelle clicked the top of her own bottle against Li’s, “Well, tits up,” then the bottom of the bottles, “arses up.”

Li grinned and both women drank.

***

Dori watched as the Avenger’s crew tried to figure out the best way to lift the berserker corpse, presumably without spilling what may have been its brains all over the landing ramp on their way up. The fires had settled down and Vargas, who’d been shot in the arm by a trooper late in the mission, was being tended to by Leroy. The black haired kid, now an orphan, was off being comforted by some of her camp neighbours who Navarro said had lost their own child in the raid. Good folk. Menace One had saved thirteen lives. Another dozen had managed to hide or run until the storm had passed. Dori wondered where they’d go now, but decided it wasn’t something she needed to know. More than a hundred dead. Fuck, she understood what Li meant by “arriving too late.”

Everyone was looking a little sombre. Well, everyone except for Karen. She was staring at the big berserker corpse, the one she’d personally hacked and pummeled to death, with a wide grin on the face you could see beneath the hood that she still had pulled low over her eyes.

“I w-wonder if Tygen will l-l-let me have the head. I-I-I want to s-st-stuff and mount it.”

Dori couldn’t help but snort out a laugh, “Jesus, I reckon he’ll be too scared ta say no.”

Karen grinned a little wider and strode off to oversee the transport of her trophy. Dori shook her head and remembered a favourite line from Hamlet as she looked out across the devastated shantytown.

“For there is nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (9)

Chapter 9: An Overshadowed Reunion

“She looked at me. She looked straight into my eyes. And she smiled.”

***

“Contact front!” Michelle King’s words were quickly drowned out by the roar of her gatling cannon. The trooper in her sights shuddered and spasmed and jerked as the burst of high-velocity magnetically-flung rounds pinned it against a concrete pillar and ripped through its armour. When the body fell out of sight it left a broad patch of orange blood and bits of its guts graffitied against the light grey surface. Fuckin’ gorgeous.

Across the road Karen Nilsen, the Swedish ranger who’d introduced herself by pulling a knife on Gabby Navarro and apparently freaking the shit out of Gerry O’Neill, cackled (honest to god, cackled) as she blew the head clean off a sectoid’s shoulders with her big shotgun-like shardgun. Michelle liked her. Thierry Leroy, the only bloke on this op aside from the VIP they were pulling out of the frying pan, swore colourfully in French and English both when his shot missed the red-armour (an ADVENT officer) that ran around the corner after its mates. Michelle was pretty indifferent towards him, but that was probably because she’d barely spoken twenty words in his direction since she’d joined up with X-Com. She’d need to change that. He seemed nice enough. Little shy, little nervous.

There was a boom that echoed between the glass and steel building-fronts as Emily Adams took out the red-armour with her scoped gauss rifle. Michelle gave her a grin and Emily smiled back. They were near enough age-wise but Emily had a bit more innocent girlishness to her. Michelle respected that, given what she’d heard the American had been through. Shen back on the ship had mentioned she was a survivor of the destruction of Camp Shelby, and even planting IEDs on cars back home Michelle had heard about that. It was a cautionary tale held up by resistance cells all over, “that’s why we don’t all gather in one place.” But Emily was good, kind and friendly with a great southern twang to her accent as she clumsily, obviously, tried to flirt with Shen in engineering.

The VIP they’d been sent to rescue stared about uncertainly. Dr Thulani Bengu had been near enough to Karen to have heard her laughing (cackling like a supervillain) as she put the trooper down and he was looking a little… not pale. His skin was too dark to look pale. What was that word Michelle’s dad had liked using? Ashen. The good doctor (of computer engineering or something) looked ashen.

“Eyes forward! They won’t be the last!” Eva Degroot growled as she ran forward and took up a covering position. Li Ming Cheng did the same. Not surprising given how tight those two were. Then again it was pretty hard to not like Li. It was easy to relax around the tall, muscular, unnaturally lean woman despite her statuesque physique (seriously, it was like the bitch was carved from stone).

As if summoned by Eva’s words another trio of aliens charged up the street, weaving between the parked cars and yelling in their garbled language. Eva swore loudly in Dutch as she spotted a stun lancer with his blade out heading straight for her. She pivoted about and shot him through the throat from about ten metres away, flinging his head and torso back in a spray of blood while his momentum kept him moving forward causing the whole choking mass to skid another metre along the bitumen towards Eva. The stunner was still twitching when Michelle looked away and saw Li turn another of the fuckers into smoking meat with her own mag cannon.

“King! Down!”

Michelle didn’t think, just reacted to the order and threw herself to the ground behind a big red sedan that was parked flush against the side walk. She felt the magnetically propelled rounds fly over her head and shatter the glass window on her other side, heard them slam into the car’s engine block, smelt ozone, burnt plastic, rubber and melted metal. Realised she’d heard the engine block get hit. Scrambled to her feet with the intention of sprinting away but it was too late.

With the aliens had come a shift in how energy was produced and how it was used. One of the biggest switches had been changing car engines from petrol-guzzlers to small hydrogen things that were cheap, clean, efficient, quiet, smooth and – a bit annoyingly given current circumstances – far more vulnerable to stray gun fire.

The sedan she’d ducked behind exploded in a big dramatic fireball that tossed her across the footpath and into something hard and unyielding.

For what could only have been seconds all that Michelle saw was black. Then the feeling in her body returned, painful in some places and numb in others (because yes, that does still count as feeling), and she flicked open her eyes. Well, her right eye at least. Her left was gummy. The back of her head was throbbing, but her left hand didn’t want to move when she ordered it to. Her mouth and nostrils were filled with the taste and smell of blood, her own she realised after a second. Both ears were ringing.

“Fuckin’ fuck me fuckin’ dead,” she couldn’t even hear her own words.

She saw two pairs of boots pounding in her direction and let out a groan. It hurt, but Michelle managed to convince her left eye to squint open and her left arm to help the right push herself off the concrete footpath. A second later strong hands were helping her into a sitting a position and Eva and Leroy filled her vision.

“I’m fine,” Michelle said groggily, couldn’t hear herself speak so yelled them again, “I’m fine!” She saw Leroy pulling out a medkit and she shook her head, “I don’t need it!” Her hearing was starting to come back, leaving just a high-pitched whine in each ear, “I’m alright, just help me stand. Save it, we don’t have time and might need it later.”

Eva was saying something and Michelle focused on hearing whatever it was she had to say, “… your face is a fucking mess you dumb kut,” what the hell was a kut? “so is your arm. You’re most likely bleeding internally. We need to bandage you up now before blood loss or shock finishes the job.”

Michelle was shaking her head, “There’s no time, we’ll do it on Firestarter. I just need you to help me stand. Please. I’ll be alright,” she flashed her grin at them.

Eva looked at Leroy, who looked concerned but nodded. He pulled two syringes from a pouch on his webbing and passed them to Eva. With what looked like a sigh (Michelle’s hearing wasn’t fantastic at the moment so she couldn’t hear it) she stuck the first needle into the Australian’s neck.

“This is to help clot the blood and hopefully keep you from bleeding out,” she threw the first syringe away and repeated the process with the second, “this should keep you moving and help with the pain.”

With another sigh from Eva, she and Leroy pulled Michelle to her feet. She was unsteady for a second – but only a second – before she refound her footing and gave them a nod. Eva looked skeptical but nodded back. She liked to think of herself as the cold, ruthless warrior – distant and aloof. Truth was that she was a big softie who worried about everyone. And everyone loved her for it.

“Let’s get you out of here before you bleed to death.”

***

Emily stood outside the door to Engineering, staring at the grey painted metal and chewing on her nails. It was a bad habit she’d picked up as a kid and dropped as a teenager, but it tended to come back in moments when she was particularly nervous or anxious. Maybe it was something worth telling Doctor Colin Lynch, the scientist who also acted as the Avenger’s resident counselor and psychologist, when she next met him. She’d been seeing him semi-regularly since the time a blob creature that had been disguised as a human refugee had backhanded her through some crates, and he’d become a pretty trustworthy friend through it all.

But if she told him, well, he’d want to know why she was feeling that anxious. What she was doing. Emily didn’t want to admit it to herself let alone Doctor Lynch, but he’d keep pestering her until she told him. He was good at that.

Shit. Then again, Emily wasn’t sure herself. Why was she here, staring at a closed door, one hand balled into a fist ready to knock but too scared to get within striking distance of the door. Chewing absently on the other. Shit. She must look like a fucking coward. Shit. She was a fucking coward. Why couldn’t she just knock? She’d done it countless times before, spoken to the person inside easily and happily while tinkering with the disassembled rifles set out on what had effectively become her workbench. What made right now so difficult?

It was because Emily had something she needed to say, and she was too afraid to say it. Couldn’t say it.

She turned on her heel and walked away from the door.

***

Michelle woke up to clean sheets, a parched throat, pounding headache and a familiar face she hadn’t seen in years, one that didn’t look like it had changed in that time at all. Same dirty blonde hair, same lumpy nose, same mutton chops that led to the same thick mustache (both splashed with ginger), same dark brown eyes that were the same as hers.

“Mornin’ sunshine,” the same voice spoke to her with the same undertones of kindness and sarcasm, “how you feeling?”

Michelle cracked a smile at her brother James, “Like shit,” her head throbbed, “Like I’m hungover. I’m not hungover, am I?”

James grinned and shook his head, “Not from what they tell me. Apparently you passed out on the skyranger on your way back from an op.”

“Sounds right. How long was I out of it?”

“Three days all told.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah, well, a car exploded in your face. Dr Tygen was surprised you stayed conscious and fighting all the way to the skyranger. Your insides were pretty scrambled.”

“Shit. When did you get here?”

“Two days ago. The resistance heard you lot were looking for a new combat medic so they mailed me over from the Pacific. Imagine my surprise when I heard that a certain Michelle King was passed out in the infirmary.”

His eyes drifted to her left and he winced a little, but didn’t stop grinning at her. She tried to raise her left arm but found that to be more painful than what it was worth, so she used her right hand instead to inspect the opposite side of her face. She felt bandages covering gaus over most of the left side of her head from the scalp down to her neck. Further inspection revealed that her left arm and shoulder was similarly bandaged up, as was her left hip.

“They’re gonna start calling me Twoface at this rate,” she rasped and looked for a glass of water.

“Nah, your face isn’t too bad. Couple of scratches that’ll leave a few extra laugh lines. The bad cuts were along here,” he traced a line from the edge of his sideburns back above and around his ear, “And your Frenchman-“

“Leroy.”

“-Did a pretty good job stitching them up. Grow your hair longer than an inch and nobody’ll even notice. Your arm’s a different matter. The Frenchman says Dr Tygen did the stitching there so don’t blame him.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah, I saw it when they changed the bandages. Tell you right now, I’d much rather the Frenchman stitch me up if I get hurt. Guy actually seems to care about his work. Proper craftsman.”

“I don’t blame you,” she looked at her arm, imagining the crosswork of future scars beneath the bandage, then back at her brother, “What’s wrong?”

“What?”

“Something’s wrong. It’s been, what, three years? Fuck three years now. I may not have seen you in three years but I still know what you look like when something’s wrong. So what is it? Have I got cancer or something?” she chuckled.

James hesitated, and for a second Michelle actually thought that oh shit it really is cancer, then he shook his head.

“They asked me to tell you because they thought it might be easier coming from me. I dunno, I’m not sure if it’s right me telling you.”

“Tell me what?”

***

It was two hours before dawn and the team were charging up a wide two-lane street in a small town, a smell that might have been a damaged sewer or a ruptured septic tank filling their nostrils. Small houses sat behind rusted gates, far too silent for anyone’s liking. Central Officer Bradford had told them the town was one of the rare rural communities that was still populated in this part of Central America, but aside from the trio of troopers they were about to put down they had seen no other sign of life. Where were all the people?

It was a thought Eva Degroot had to put aside as they opened fire on the troopers in front of them. One in red, two in black, standard formation. They squealed and scattered, but were cut down regardless. They needed to be taken down quickly, Menace One was on a time limit to reach the objective and they’d wasted to much time on a cautious dash across town.

Maybe that was why they’d stopped being cautious. Maybe it was the new armour, straight from Shen’s micro-factories, that made them overconfident. It didn’t matter. Leroy was suddenly yelling about multiple contacts and Degroot looked over in time to see Cheng plaster a stun lancer against a car and see Nilsen fire her shard gun at a viper, see the viper twist around and the shards graze off its armour. Then Leroy was firing in a different direction and Degroot turned around to see a muton lumbering behind an old truck that looked like it had been there since before the first war and it probably had and she saw another viper circling past it, the muton growled loudly and she turned back to see it aim its plasm rifle.

Saw it fire.

Felt it hit her in the chest.

***

James looked at Michelle and he looked uncomfortable as he deadpanned the words.

“Eva Degroot was killed in an op this morning.”

“Shit.”

***

The bar was quiet as Louise Seo walked around the table pouring the last of her good rye whiskey into the glasses of the gathered mourners. The only sound was her footsteps and the splash of liquid into the chipped but reliable glassware. When the bottle was nearly empty and the glasses were full she stepped around to her place at the table and raised her own, everyone else following suit. Navneet Banerjee, Cesar Vargas and Gabriela Navarro from the ranks of X-Com’s combat operatives. John Tipene, Simmons, Gertrude Wilders and Kogara Hiro from the Avenger’s crew. Everyone would get a chance to mourn and right now it was theirs.

“Rest easy Eva,” Louise said, a catch in her voice.

Everyone decided that it was all that needed to be said, and together they downed their drinks. Louise produced another bottle and began refilling their glasses. It wasn’t quite the quality of her last bottle of rye but it would do.

“Do we know what they’re going to do for the funeral?” Tipene asked, breaking a long silence after the toast.

“The Commander’s already been through her will,” Louise replied, “she wanted to be cremated, her ashes thrown into the wind from the deck.”

“The Commander,” Navarro added, “talked of a funeral pyre. On the deck in a few days.”

“How very Viking of him,” Wilders replied with a small smile.

“Well we haven’t exactly got a lot of crematoriums handy,” Simmons threw in and everybody nodded agreement.

They sat in silence for a while. Everyone at the table, everyone on the ship, had lost someone. Had lost more than one. For most it was the reason why still fought the aliens instead of merely rolling over and enjoying the gifts of their benevolent dictators. Everyone had lost someone. But it still hurt.

“How did she die?” Wilders asked in a quiet voice.

“The same as everyone else,” Vargas replied, “badly.”

***

The others watched her go down, staring horrified as she was spun about by the splash of plasma fire and tossed heavily onto her stomach, bouncing once and then being still. Navarro and Vargas were swearing from behind their cover. Cheng yelled her name. Then her nickname.

“Venom!”

Then she moved. Slowly, moving one arm and then her knees and then the other arm she growled and pushed herself onto her elbows. Cheng grinned, different to how she usually did, relief clear on her face.

The viper that Nilsen had grazed shot its tongue across the twenty metres between it and Degroot. It caught on her armour and dragged her backwards across the road and rubble until she thumped into its armoured torso. Cheng screamed something incoherent as it wrapped its lithe body around Degroot’s struggling form. The Dutchwoman had a chance to turn her head back towards them. Back towards her friends. Then her face disappeared behind yet another coil. The snake creature squeezed.

Afterwards nobody would be sure whether they heard the crack of bones, the snap of their friend’s neck, or if their minds simply filled in the blank space. When the viper uncoiled Eva Degroot fell to the ground, limp as an armoured pillow.

Cheng screamed.

***

“I th-think she b-blames me,” Karen Nilsen said as she passed the flask over to Doreen Donaldson. Technically the Scot was on duty, but she didn’t think anybody would mind her having a sip or two given the mornings events.

“Who?”

“Cheng. I-I think she blames me. I-I d-didn’t kill the snake th-that k-killed her friend. I-I should have killed it. I m-missed.”

Doreen shook her head, “I don’t think she blames you,” she spoke slowly so that her Glaswegian accent wasn’t too difficult to decipher for the Swede whose stuttering English was at least a second language, “Cheng wouldn’t do that. She’s not the type to hold grudges.”

“How do y-y-you know that?”

That was a good point. She, Karen and Michelle had only been on the Avenger for a few weeks. They hadn’t spent much time with Eva Degroot or Cheng or any of the others. But still.

“Because I do.”

“Y-your wrong. She does hold g-gr-grudges. We all do. I-it’s why we’re here.” Karen shook her head, “You should h-have s-s-seen her. A-A one woman army.”

***

Cheng stood in the middle of an intersection breathing raggedly. Her gun was empty, as was her grenade launcher. There was more than a half dozen bodies splattered around her and three houses were one fire. Some part of her mind was vaguely trying to tell the rest that she was responsible for the bodies and the flames. That she had charged amongst them, spitting curses and death and promises of hell. That she’d killed them all. That she needed to kill more. Another part of her said it didn’t matter.

She turned around and saw the limp form lying on the road. A pile of scorched black armour around a pale face, her Gremlin lying shut down beside her like a faithful hound at its master’s side.

“Eva!”

Cheng let out a sob and charged towards her friend, throwing her mag cannon aside and scooping the boneless form into her arms. Eva’s eyes were still open, her head lolled at an angle it shouldn’t have been able to, her armour was crushed and dented, her limbs twisted underneath.

“No Eva, please don’t be dead! Please!”

Cheng kissed her friend’s forehead and stroked her hair. Rocked back and forth, begging for her to say something, to wake up, to fucking breath. But no matter how hard she begged, Eva just wouldn’t. Cheng rocked back and forth, crying, head buried in her friend’s chest, small, shaking sobs. And that was where she stayed until the skyranger landed to pick them up.

***

It was a hunch, but Michelle remembered overhearing Eva talk to Cheng about meeting in one of the recently cleared rooms on the lower decks a week or two before. No one had seen Cheng in hours and Michelle figured it was worth a try.

The door slid open and Michelle heard the sounds of gunfire and a man’s clipped dialogue, saw lights flashing against the far wall. She crept forward on bare feet, her left arm in a sling and her face still swaddled in bandages. Cheng was sitting in a small incline between support struts, out of view of the door but not the rest of the room, also barefoot with a bottle of Louise’s ship made spirits in one hand and screen playing some sort of movie resting on her knees. She looked up at Michelle but said nothing.

“Can I join you?”

Cheng nodded and indicated the space beside her. Not in an inviting sort of way, mind you. More in an “I don’t give a shit” sort of way. Michelle sat down regardless and joined Cheng watching the screen.

“What are you watching?”

Die Hard: With a Vengeance.

“I don’t think I’ve seen it.”

“It was Eva’s favourite film.”

Shit. What do you say to that?

“I’m sorry your friend died.”

Shit. Not that.

“Thankyou. I appreciate it.”

Huh. Well whatever works.

“How are you doing?”

“Good, I guess. No, not good, just… I don’t know.”

“Alright?”

“Yes. That. Alright.”

Cheng was quiet for a moment, staring at the screen as a white guy and a black guy jumped onto a boat, but she clearly wanted to speak.

“She smiled at me.”

“What?” Michelle asked.

“Eva smiled at me. She looked at me. She looked straight into my eyes. And she smiled,” she gave Michelle an incredulous look, “she fucking smiled. I don’t… I don’t think she minded dying. I don’t think she wanted to die, but I think she was ready for it. She has a lot of friends waiting for her on the other side. She smiled at me. She was ready.”

There were tears in the big woman’s eyes.

“Please don’t tell anyone I said that.”

“Not even my brother.”

Cheng nodded, “Thank you.”

“Anytime. Now let’s watch the movie.”

“I’ll start it again.”

“Thanks, I’d like to watch it from the beginning. Did Eva watch this with you?”

“It was her favourite.”

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (8)

Chapter 8: New Blood

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

“Knock fuckin’ knock!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

“Meet you there!”

And then they were both through the hatch and gone.

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s bad?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“I need to get you to the bridge.”

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

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

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

Emily blushed. Realised she was blushing and blushed harder.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Anyone dead?”

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

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

Cheng burst out laughing.

***

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

Or at least what looked very much like a battlefield.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Or both.”

“Or both,” Cheng agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Huh. Gabby and Gerry. When did that happen?

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“You know what a platypus is mate?”

“Pardon?” the American asked.

“A platypus. Or an echidna?”

“I know what they are.”

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

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

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

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

“Where’s the fun in that though?”

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

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

“What are you doing?”

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

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

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

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

“Nice,” Li extended the word appreciatively.

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

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

“Or a brooch,” Li suggested.

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

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (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.”

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (3)

Chapter 3: He only wanted to help.

Thierry Leroy crouched behind a barrier, the kind of thin sort-of metal waist high walls that ADVENT used for everything from crowd-control to (as was the case this time) separating the sidewalk from the road. He clutched his rifle tightly in hands clammy beneath his gloves and watched a pair of ADVENT troopers shining lights through car windows. A red-armoured officer watched their search with that odd detachment that would have marked them as something not-quite human in his mind even if he’d never seen the oversized eyes on a dozen of their comrades corpses. His Gremlin hovered quietly at his side, also hidden by the barrier, mechanical eyes twitching in a fashion similar to its master.

Across the road Cesar Vargas and on the other side of another barrier Cesar Vargas watched the enemy trio with cool eyes and a slowly moving jaw. The young Mexican had an almost magical ability to produce chewing gum (both the kind for blowing bubbles and the kind that freshens the breath) and was constantly, to borrow a line from Eva Degroot, “doing his best impression of a cow.” A few car lengths to their rear Li Ming Cheng and Emily Adams crouched beside a parked sedan. Adams had a reassuring hand on the shoulder of a terrified Doctor Colin Lynch, the man Menace One had been sent to rescue. Cheng looked edgier than normal. Leroy knew she hated bringing up the rear, probably resented being on babysitter duty with Adams. Front and centre spitting death and destruction was where she wanted to be, but her heavy cannon and the grenade launcher slung between her shoulderblades meant that she was ill-suited to leading the way when stealth was required. Like this mission had until these three fuckers had appeared around the corner and begun searching the parked cars in front of them.

“Menace One,” the Commander’s voice crackled slightly in Leroy’s ear, “we’ve confirmed other active patrols in the area and hostile aircraft inbound. We don’t have time find a way around these guys or make it to an alternate extraction zone. We’re going to have to go through them. Over.”

Leroy’s eyes darted between the troopers, the officer and Vargas. His posture had shifted slightly, shoulders a little more slumped, his back and neck a little straighter. Not by much, of course, it was barely noticeable unless you knew the man well and knew what to look for. But still, it made him look meaner, better prepared for violence.

Avenger this is Menace One-Two,” Cheng’s voice was soft in his ear, “Has Firestarter got a location for the other patrols? Over.”

“You know that’s a negative Menace One-Two. But I expect they’ll come to us. Menace One-Four,” that was Adams, “take out the Trooper on the left. Menace One,” Leroy, “Menace One-Three,” Vargas, “Hit them while they scatter. Menace One-Two move forward and hit anything still moving. Weapons free. Adams, you may fire when ready. Over.”

“Roger that,” Adams kept her voice low like Cheng. Not a whisper, since it can be difficult to control the volume of a whisper, more like a low murmur.

Leroy crossed himself (an unconscious habit) and looked back at Adams for a moment. She’d taken her hand off Doctor Lynch’s shoulder and now bent over the bonnet of a surprisingly large hatchback, elbows propped on the bright red surface, staring down the scope of her long rifle. Her target was maybe a hundred metres away, and the girl had the talent to hit it with her (admittedly also oversized) sidearm. The Commander – monitoring the battlefield on a dozen monitors displaying blueprints, street maps, passive scanners, body cameras, hacked security cameras and whatever drones could safely be put into the air – would probably put her on a rooftop as soon as possible to watch over their advance up the street, up high where she’d be able to put her superior range and accuracy to most use. For now though, unable to get onto a rooftop without passing the ADVENT patrol in front of them, she’d take the easy shot.

Cheng meanwhile had made her way to the left side of the street, west by Leroy’s reckoning, and was unhurriedly padding up the sidewalk towards them. They all wore specialised soft soles on their boots to muffle their footsteps, but the aliens would notice her approach in moments.

Leroy turned his attention back to the enemy in front of him. They had moved to the next car, again shining flashlights through its windshield and windows, one trooper taking the trouble to get on his (her? Its?) knees and check beneath the undercarriage. Leroy wondered if they actually expected to find Menace One just sitting in the back of a sedan, waiting to be discovered. Wondered if they even knew of X-Com’s involvement in Doctor Lynch’s disappearance and escape. Perhaps they just expected some terrified scientist shivering in the back seat. Perhaps they didn’t even know what it was they were looking for.

Adams’ target stepped over to the opposite side of a parked car from her. Leroy expected her to shift targets. She didn’t.

“Firing.”

There was an enormous crack that echoed between the high glass and steel building fronts surrounding them, like the end of the world compared to the silent streets and muffled words that had preceded the shot. And it was a decent shot, shattering its way through passenger window and windscreen of the vehicle that had been in the way, catching the trooper in the centre of the chest and sending her (him? It?) sprawling backwards and out of Leroy’s line of sight.

The other two reacted as expected, scattering quickly and immediately at the sound of the shot. The flash of red armour sprinting towards the relative safety of another traffic barrier drew Leroy’s eye and Vargas’, who shot first. A full burst straight into the right side of the ADVENT officer’s chest. The fucker was staggered for a moment but seemed like it (it) would keep going, until Leroy pulled the trigger and caught it in the unprotected neck and jaw. The officer was pitched sideways in a spray of orange blood, bone and teeth. Momentum caused it to bounce and roll forward a few times upon hitting the ground before coming to a rest laying on its stomach.

The other trooper managed to hurl itself behind one of the parked cars it had just searched along the east side of the street. Cheng didn’t give it a chance to get its bearings. At the sound of Adams’ shot the big, lean Chinese woman had started to sprint forward, sliding into the side of a bus shelter to break her momentum, the barrels of her rotary cannon already spinning. The ADVENT trooper didn’t see her coming, didn’t know she was there until her long burst tore through its armour and sent it flying into the gutter. Cheng held down the trigger until she was quite sure it wasn’t getting up again, not as long as it seemed due to the echoes of her heavy weapon, like the roar of a chainsaw. Afterwards, Leroy would run past the trooper and see that its right arm had nearly been severed from its torso, white bone showing through red and orange flesh held on by a few scraps of tendon and a few intact pieces of its armour.

For a long second after there was nothing at all. Everyone stood still, peering at the street ahead or the street behind. North or south. Then Leroy’s hearing began to some back. He heard a few screams and remembered that ADVENT hadn’t completely cleared this area of civilians. He heard alarms and knew that more than just the few patrols ahead now knew where the armed human soldiers were. He heard his own breathing, deep but rapid, chest moving in time with his eyes. What he did not hear was the sound of footsteps. The piercing screeching warcry of the sectoids or the garbled language of the ADVENT troopers.

The other patrols were holding position, or far enough away that they weren’t about to come spilling out of the buildings. The others were waiting for it as well, and everybody seemed to come to the same conclusion at the same time.

“Nice shooting everyone,” the Commander’s voice again crackled in his ear, “let’s move Doctor Lynch forward and find a decent vantage point for Menace One-Four.”

Behind him, Adams nudged Doctor Lynch and pointed him in Leroy’s direction.

***

It sounded odd when said out loud but, back when everyone called him by his christian name instead of his surname, Thierry Leroy had joined the army because it seemed the fastest way to learn how to help people.

Thierry’s father was an electrician, his mother a nurse. She named him after a grandfather she never talked about, but always seemed to remember fondly. They raised him in Lyon, walking distance from the Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste which seemed to be the centre of his world for much of his young life. His father was not overly religious (Thierry’s mother was the devout Catholic) but loved the old church, and would often take his son for ice cream by its steps.

When he was twelve years old a friend of the family gave him a book written by a nurse who had been an aide worker in a dozen different countries from Haiti to Somalia to Sri Lanka. To everyone’s great surprise, the pre-teen Thierry had loved the book, reading it three times before he turned thirteen and searching for similar books, movies and magazines. By fourteen his walls were covered with posters adorned by Croix-Rouge française and Médecins Sans Frontières between the more stereotypical kind that advertised bands, movies and tv shows.

At fifteen everyone knew what the young man believed his calling to be. Everyone had plenty of advice on how to get there, but he only listened to a few of them. When, aged sixteen, Thierry asked for his father’s permission to travel with a church youth group to go build an orphanage in Central Africa (a first step, he believed, to becoming a real aid worker). Being a practical man Thierry’s father made a great show of going through the pamphlets, brochures, websites and booklets provided about the trip. Being a practical man he of course said no.

“First thing is first, we can’t afford it,” he told his son over a coffee at a place not far from the Cathedral, “Second, you don’t want to do this. This is tourist shit. The Red Cross wants people who actually know what they’re doing, not some little fucker who went on holiday and pretended to build a wall.”

The refusal hurt, but he was a practical young man and he saw sense in the words. So he began looking for other ways. Considered getting into nursing (his grades weren’t high enough to become a doctor), carpentry and becoming an electrician like his father. He began volunteering at an aide agency, calling people asking for donations.

Six months after that chat with his father, Thierry’s sister (older, at university) dropped a pamphlet on his keyboard. The front page showed a picture of a man in camouflage with a red cross on his arm giving a small African child an inoculation.

“You should join the army,” she said with the kind of confidence that only older siblings possess for talking to their inferiors, “You’d get paid to learn how to do what you want to do, and they might send even send you on aid missions.”

Thierry had told her to mind her own fucking business, but kept the pamphlet. He began to check the army’s recruitment website, and consider how useful it might be in, say, a refugee camp in a combat zone to have some military experience. He’d certainly know what he was doing then. He was seventeen when he told his parents of his plan to enlist. They supported him. His sister took the credit. He enlisted a month after turning eighteen and climbed onto the bus to a CFIM for his initial training.

They were just starting to hear about a strange terrorist attack that had occurred in Frankfurt, which killed dozens. No one knew who did it, but everyone knew who didn’t do it, which seemed to be everyone else.

Within a month there was talk about strange aircraft, attacks on other civilian centres and remote communities across the globe just disappearing. Everyone thought, but no one wanted to say it out loud.

Within two months no one cared anymore. It was aliens.

At the end of his training Leroy was given a rifle and his regiment sent to fight in the south. It wasn’t just aliens. It was a war. A week after that it was called a slaughter, and the aliens didn’t care if you were wearing a red cross armband or not.

***

Cheng grinned as she fired her grenade launcher, grinned harder when it exploded and sent another ADVENT trooper cartwheeling backwards. The sectoid that had been beside it screeched and waved about its shredded left arm. Vargas put a tight burst into its skull and bits of brain streaked the road. Adams guided Doctor Lynch forward cautiously towards the extraction zone.

Leroy caught movement to his left, spun, fired without thinking, caught a second ADVENT trooper in the neck. The black clad fucker went down in a gurgling pile, clutching at its mess of a throat as orange blood pooled through its fingers. Cheng jogged up beside him and watched the mess cooly.

“Leave him to bleed out?” she asked.

Leroy scratched his beard. It had gotten long recently.

“Non, I like to help when I can.”

He raised his rifle, took careful aim and pulled the trigger.

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (2)

Chapter 2: Cheeky talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Getting old ma’am?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Again.”

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

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

Krause waved vaguely, while Adams perked up visibly.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shit. Degroot’s face went bright red.

Shen looked confused (with good reason).

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course Commander,” entirely seriously this time.

“Good. Again, apologies lieutenant.”

“Thank you sir.”

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

Degroot smiled, “Likewise, sir.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“What?” yelled Louise over the music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Else and Nav? What? Since when?”

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

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

“I had no idea!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are we going?” she asked Eva.

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

“She does?”

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

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

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

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

“Oh. Okay. What were they saying?”

“What was who saying?”

“You said you heard German.”

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

“What does that mean?”

“Harder.”

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

The Stories We give Them: Life in the Avenger’s Barracks

There was a dull clang that reverberated through the hull of The Avenger as the Skyranger touched down, an ugly bird with surprising grace and a full belly swinging back onto its nest. There was a long moment as a half dozen of the big ship’s technical crew (mechanics some of the time, analysts the rest) and three of the five soldiers who’d remained behind for this mission simply stood in the long shadows hiding them from the very early morning sun, watching as the Skyranger’s powerful jet engines began to cycle down. Then the ramp fell, quick yet controlled, and they rushed forward.

The four troopers who’d made up Menace One were already on their way down the ramp. Gerry O’Neill looked grimly at the crew jogging towards him and grunted something lost over the whine that still came from the slowly stilling turbines and high winds that whipped across The Avenger‘s landing deck. Gabriela Navarro was strung between Li Ming Cheng and Thierry Leroy. There was blood leaking from a gash where her arm connected to her shoulder and a hole in her guts just above her left hip. She was barely walking, her head bowed lower than normal, a grimace on her face, inaudibly mouthing what were probably curses with every step. Given warning of the wounded before hand two of the techs had brought a stretcher to the deck and with a grunt Leroy and Cheng heaved the injured woman onto it as gently as they could.

“CHINGA TU MADRE!” She cried far more audibly, so it obviously wasn’t gently enough. Cheng laughed and Leroy squeezed her uninjured arm in apology.

“I’ll take her to Tygen,” Leroy said, eyes darting between her wounds and the lift down to the bowels of the ship, “I may be of some use.”

Cheng shrugged. O’Neill nodded. The techs were already starting to push her towards the lift.

“Make sure you report to the Commander when you know her condition. He’ll want to be updated on how long she’ll be out of the field for.” O’Neill spoke with a quiet, low brogue. He could be loud when he wanted to, and often had to, but when given the choice spoke like he was singing a lullaby.

Leroy dipped his head and chased after the techs and the stretcher. O’Neill smoothed back his blonde hair (unnecessarily since not a strand had come loose from his tightly bound ponytail) and stared at the activity around the deck. The techs were busy securing the Skyranger with magnetic locks, checking the hydraulics in the struts, examining the still powering down engines and a lot of other things that he wouldn’t have a clue about. The three troopers – Emily Adams, Eva Degroot and Cesar Vargas – were unrolling body bags on the deck in front of the ramp. To hold the loot from the mission. He gave Cheng a look somewhere halfway between a glance and a death-stare.

“We should report to Central and the Commander. They’ll want to debrief us properly.”

Cheng smiled back and sat down on the Skyranger’s ramp, one leg stretched out along its length and the other over its edge and resting on The Avenger‘s deck, her rifle propped beside her.

“You can. I’m going to stay here and supervise the unloading. If the Commander wants to debrief me I’m sure he’ll call.”

O’Neill gave her a look somewhere halfway between acceptance and resentment, grunted a whispered “Okay,” then turned on his heel toward the lift where Leroy, Navarro and the two techs had disappeared two minutes before. Cheng watched him disappear then stretched out and laid back, cradling her head in her hands.

“That, my friends, is a man who probably sleeps with a shotgun under his pillow because a knife didn’t make him feel safe enough.”

That got a laugh out of everyone, even Degroot who did her best to exorcise her sense of humour while on duty. Gertrude Wilders, one of the techs securing the Skyranger to The Avenger nodded as she pulled out a spanner and began making adjustments to the magnetic locks.

“Did you see how tight he held onto his rifle? His knuckles were so white I thought they were going to burst!”

“Too true!” shouted John Tipene, another tech and a big man with a bigger voice, “Anyway, thought you guys would be celebrating more! First successful mission and all that.”

That was true, and barely two days since the Commander had been recovered from the alien facility. He’d been awake just over three hours when he’d gathered the nine frontline combat personnel in the armoury to introduce himself and discuss the direction he planned to lead X-Com and the fledgling resistance towards. Throughout it all he’d been brimming with natural authority and confidence, but polite, courteous, formal and very careful about speaking in clear, plain language (most likely in acknowledgement of those in the group who didn’t speak English as a first language) right until he got to the end and the planned first step.

“Our immediate concern is to make a statement of intent, so that other resistance cells know we exist and the aliens know we are a threat. Thankfully Central was able to point us towards a big fucking statue in what was New York. Now, I don’t know about you but I reckon the best way to make a big statement is blow the shit out of one of theirs. So that’s what we’re gonna do.”

Fours hours later they were gunning down ADVENT Troopers and planting X4 charges on the base of a statue taller than the buildings surrounding it. The mood in the Skyranger had been good…

“Oh, they were celebrating dude,” Louise Seo, Firestarter, pilot of the Skyranger at the centre of everybody’s attention and proud Canuck, had finished her post flight checks and was striding around the aircraft with her helmet under one arm, “even Gerry was laughing at Li here’s jokes. Right up until Gabbie fell onto her face and was forced to admit that the blood loss was worse than she’d told us.”

Cheng nodded and looked at her gloved hands, covered in semi-dry blood til halfway up her forearms. There’d a been a few desperate minutes as Leroy had gone through the Skyranger’s first aid kit and Cheng had been putting pressure on Navarro’s wounds to staunch the bleeding while O’Neill kept her conscious. The desperation had passed when Leroy found what he was looking for, two red injectors that he’d stabbed into the unprotected side of her abdomen and a blue injector stabbed into her neck. She’d stabilised and the bleeding had stopped. The miracles of modern medicine. Cheng had grinned and leant back on her haunches. O’Neill said something nobody could hear but looked relieved nonetheless. Leroy continued to look after Navarro, putting to work the combat medicine he’d been learning around the time the aliens had first started landing and stealing people from Earth.

“Da bien,” Cheng said in Mandarin, “Shit,” she repeated in English.

“What?” Seo gave her a curious look.

“Nothing.”

A second ago she’d been resting her head in her hands. Her blood soaked hands. Dried blood, sure, but it was still in her hair now and the close-shaved sides of her head. She needed a shower anyway, but it probably still didn’t look great. That was fucking annoying.

“It’s fine,” she continued, looking at all the concerned faces.

“Will… will Gabriela be okay?” Degroot asked, cautiously. She had a high voice with an almost English accent when she spoke the language, and a habit of using people’s full names. She was probably the only person who called Cheng “Li Ming” instead of just “Li.”

“She’ll be fine. Leroy says it missed the kidneys and anything else important. She’ll probably still be out of it for a while though. Besides,” Cheng grinned and looked back into the Skyranger’s hold where six relatively fresh corpses bled onto the metallic deck, “she got the bastard who shot her.”