Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (16)

Chapter 16: Life after death

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Navarro finished her cigarette and lit another one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I sense a ‘but’ coming.”

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

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

“What do you think?”

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

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

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

Bradford took a step forward.

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

***

“They wanna get you recruiting?”

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

“A little, yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is then?”

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

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

“Neither did you once upon a time.”

She shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You ‘know people’?”

“I know people.”

“Fair enough. Who d’you know?”

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

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

“I promise nothing.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gabby is already dead.

“Oh fuck.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gabby died Li.”

“Yes,” Cheng said, “she did.”

What the fuck else was there to say?

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (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 (5)

Chapter 5: Calm moments

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe, if the Commander approves.”

“Will he?”

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

Cheng nodded, “If you’ll let me.”

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

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

Lily. Huh.

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

“You can count on it.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m not that tall.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I like the spray-job.”

The Dutchwoman didn’t say anything.

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

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

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

“Wasp? Because it buzzes around?”

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

Can’t let her do that.

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

Now Degroot looked up, “Pardon?”

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

“They are.”

“No, it doesn’t sound right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck you, fuck you both. Idiots.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Navneet leant back and prayed for the moment to last.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Venom?”

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

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

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

“What kind?” Cheng had asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was also my fucking idea Sawbones.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Even I knew,” Adams piped up cautiously.

“I didn’t,” murmured O’Neill.

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

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

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

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

“You’re joking.”

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

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.”