Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (18)

Chapter 18: Nobody’s ever really ready.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right across the road.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll try to avoid it.”

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

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

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

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

Michelle laughed and began checking her grenade launcher.


“Do you two ever leave this fucking room?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d like to ask a favour.”

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

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

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

“I killed a lot of people.”

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

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

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

“I’d rather not tell you.”

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

“No you don’t.”

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

“Miss Annette?” Miss Tiff cocked an eyebrow.

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

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

“You want Miss Annette to find them?”

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” agreed Leroy, “you don’t.”


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

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

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

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

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

“Are you shutting your eyes when you shoot?”

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

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

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

“See what I mean?” Emily laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I would like that.”


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

Then the shooting had begun.

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

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

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

It began to rain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!” Michelle screamed, “NO! NO!”

There was another screech, close behind her.


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

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

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

Not that it mattered. Because Else found out anyway.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life in the Avenger’s barracks (15)

Chapter 15: … until someone gets hurt.

“Fuck! Fuck! It’s an Andy!”

Michelle King’s voice carried loudly enough that Leroy didn’t need his radio to hear her as he shimmied up a service ladder towards one stretch of one of the elevated highways that seemed to snake through every major city centre these days. The aliens seemed to have a serious aversion for tunnels and a preference for building up and on top of what humanity had already built. There was a metaphor there, if Leroy had the time and mind to think of it.

He reached the top and pulled himself over the concrete barrier on the edge of the highway, his Gremlin buzzing overhead and the hydraulics in his armour whirring, just as he heard King’s big cannon roar to life somewhere out of sight beneath him loud enough to drown out the racket of incredibly heavy footsteps and the garbled yells of surprised X-rays.

They were pushing their way through the outskirts of one of the larger cities in what was once Brazil (and was now rather uncreatively referred to as New Brazil). It was a working class neighbourhood, several steps above a slum but several below the shining worker’s paradises that ADVENT was constantly advertising across its networks. The streets were grimy, the pavement cracked and half the walls sported graffiti. The people living here were also aware enough to know that the Administration wasn’t always benign. When the peacekeepers and the aliens holding their leashes showed up in force the residents were smart enough to clear off the streets, unlike some of the nicer, more obedient neighbourhoods Menace One had raided.

Barriers had been erected along the highway and there were several ADVENT armoured ground cars idling unattended in either direction. Leroy felt the detonation of a plasma grenade rumble through the concrete beneath his feet as he threw himself against the corner of one of the dull-black vehicles. He heard the crack of Navarro’s long rifle go off and looked over in time to see O’Neill – who’d climbed onto the highway first – lean over the barrier and fire his shard gun at an unseen enemy.

The Irishman cursed in that soft voice of his (too quiet for Leroy to hear the exact words though he could guess what they were) and ducked back just as a burst of plasma fire blew chunks out of the concrete barrier and a burnt a hole into O’Neill’s armour, burning off his left pauldron.

“Shit! Shit!” King’s voice held a note of panic that Leroy wasn’t used to in the Australian woman’s voice when her brother wasn’t in immediate danger, “The pilot’s dead but the Andy’s still moving.”

Leroy heard a burst from Banerjee’s rifle and then heard the Pakistani specialist’s voice in his ear, “It’s on the move, heading in your direction on the overpass Gerry.”



The door to the infirmary slid open with a hiss that was as close to silent as it was likely to get, it being the most regularly and recently oiled door on the ship for the sake of its occupants sleep and sanity. Leroy gently helped Emily Adams through the hatch and towards an empty bed.

“I’m fine,” Adams tried to drag herself away from his grip and the bed, only to be pushed back down.

“No you are not. Not until I say otherwise.”

Over in one of the other beds James King looked up from the book he was reading, blonde mutton chops fuzzy and untrimmed after nearly two weeks in that bed. One pale eyebrow cocked upwards as he saw the scuff-mark like bruise on Adams’ forehead and a bloody scratch in the stubble of her undercut.

“What happened.”

“Doreen, she kicked Emily.”

“Dori did what?”

“Kicked me in the head,” Adams said matter of factly, not hiding her drawl like she usually did, “it was an accident, but I hit a rock when I went down,” she brushed her fingertips along the new wound on her scalp and winced.

King snorted out a laugh, “How’d that happen?”

Leroy opened a draw and began pulling out bandages, antiseptic, whatever else he needed, and placed them on a tray beside Adams’ bed.

“Your sister organised a game-”

“Bull Rush!” Adams grinned.

“Oui, Bull Rush. We had reached the end of the game, Doreen was the last one. We lifted her up, she continued to struggle-”

“And she kicked me in the head.”

King chuckled as Leroy began to clean the wound, gently dabbing at it with a damp cloth. Adams flinched away but he held her head firmly in place, squinting at the scratch as he decided whether or not it would need stitches.

“I’m more surprised that Shell organised a game and only one of you got your head kicked in. Not surprised that it was you though Em.”

“What, why?”

“Because it is always you.” Leroy said with a small laugh that shook his dark beard.

“Oh fuck off! It is not always me.” Adams pouted.

“Yeah,” King feigned disinterest by looking back at his book, “it is.”

“It is,” Leroy agreed.

“Fuck you both,” she said to them, “What are you reading?” She said to King.

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha,” King said, not looking up, “a book Cesar lent to me.”

“Kee-hout-ee,” Leroy corrected carefully, “not quix-oat. An English translation?”

“Well, I obviously can’t read Spanish. I like it, I can relate to this guy.”

“Tilting at windmills?” Leroy asked.

“You’ve read it mate?”

“Non, I saw the opera.”

“You saw the opera?” Adams asked, a little surprise and more than a little curiosity in her voice.

“It was an opera?” King looked up, a little curiosity and more than a little surprise in his eyes.

Leroy pulled out a local anesthetic and his suture kit and began to disinfect it. It was a nasty scratch, Adams would need stitches. She was probably also concussed, though he’d confirm that after her head was whole again.

“It was an opera. And a film, and a ballet I believe. It was a very well known book. I only ever saw the opera though.”

He used a cotton bud to numb a spot just above Adams’ cut, then stuck a needle into her scalp. She let out a small squawk, just an octave lower than a squeak, but managed to keep from flinching away.

“You’re so cultured Leroy,” she said with mock grin.

“I am French,” he grinned back, “of course I am. Especially compared to you barbaric Americans. And Australians.” King raised an obscene middle finger, Leroy chuckled, then grew thoughtful, “I did not care much, I was more interested in football. But my father, now my father, he believed in making sure we were cultured. He would take us to plays, operas, museums. I hated so much of it. If I regret nothing else from my childhood, it is hating those outings so much.”

Leroy smiled, memories of a father forcing his eleven year old son into a borrowed suit and his fifteen year old daughter, tall for her age, into one of her mother’s best dresses (an awkward fit at that awkward age). Lining up, tickets, plush red seats near the aisle. People singing in a language that Leroy couldn’t understand while his father leaned across the armrest and whispered what was happening in his grounded, workmanlike way – the same way the experienced electrician might have explained where to lay down wires to a new apprentice. Stuffy, uncomfortable boredom at the time, but understanding would come later. Leroy’s sister loving every moment, the dressing up, the pageantry, the art, the sets, the music, the story. Their mother smiling indulgently at their father’s excitement.

Both King and Adams had the good grace to remain silent while Leroy drifted into the past. The intercom on the wall did not.

Sorry boys and girls,” CO Bradford’s voice crackled through the speaker, “looks like the fun and games are over. All hands report to your posts, lift off in ten minutes. Leroy, Banerjee, Miss King, Krause, Adams and O’Neill, mission briefing in the armoury in twenty. Back to work everyone.”

“Fun’s over than,” King growled, and placed his book down tray-table beside his bed, “were the others still playing?”

“Oui,” Leroy nodded and stepped over to the tablet computer bolted to the wall next to the infirmary entrance, “your sister was organising another round, with Doreen as the first Bull.”

“Reward and punishment,” Emily smiled sympathetically, “better skip the stitches and just bandage me up Sawbones.”

Leroy shook his head, “You’re no good to us concussed.”

“I might not be concussed.”

Leroy played with the screen and sent a call to the bridge, “I think you are. It is not worth the risk.”

The tablet beeped and Martin Singh’s voice drifted tinnily from its tiny speakers, “Bridge here.”

“It is Leroy, in the infirmary,” an unnecessary bit of information since they could easily see where Leroy was calling from, “Adams had a small fall during the game. She needs stitches and it is possible she is concussed. I must recommend she is excused from this mission.”

Acknowledged, I’ll inform the Commander,” there was a thirty second silence while Singh relayed the information, the three in the infirmary staring at the tablet in silence.

“Anyone else injured Mister Leroy?” the Commander’s voice, full of a surprising good humour.

“No sir, just Adams.”

“Very good. I’ll have Miss Navarro fill her spot on the squad. Will you be able to make the briefing or do you need to patch her up?”

Leroy brushed his fingers through his beard and looked towards King, who gave a small nod.

“Non, I will be at the briefing. Monsieur King will look after Adams.”

“Very good. See you at the briefing Mister Leroy.”

King was already climbing out of his bed, Adams gave Leroy a lazy wave.

“Have fun Sawbones.”


The kitchen was small but clean. It had a large oven, which Monique had always been very happy with, and small cupboards, which she complained about at every given opportunity. Thierry sat at the small breakfast table opposite his sister clutching a warm mug of tea between his bloody knuckles.

“I don’t know if I should thank you.” Monique said, thoughtful frown not quite reaching her eyes.

“I would prefer it if you didn’t.”


“I didn’t mean for it to go that far,” Thierry’s eyes tracked across his sister’s black eye to the bruises running down her neck and beneath her t-shirt, “I just wanted to make him stop.”

“I know.”

“It’s been hard. Since I came back. Since dad died.”

“I know.”

“I just… I see them everywhere. See the peacekeepers and their propaganda. I see people listening to it. Everyone’s forgotten what we’ve lost so quickly.”

“Not everyone has lost what we have. Not everyone has been through what you have.”

“I’m angry. I’m always so angry, and I try to hide it but… but when it comes out, when I let it out, I can’t stop.”

Monique reached out and covered his hands with hers. They were warm and calloused and gentle. Like their mother’s had been.

“I know.” She looked him straight in the eye, “What will you do?”

“The Administration keeps telling us about all these dissidents that keep trying to separate humanity from the Elders. I think I’ll try and find them, offer my services.”

“Dad didn’t want you to keep fighting,” there were tears in his sister’s eyes now, “Mum didn’t want you to fight at all. Neither did you. You joined the army to learn how to best help people.”

“What I have learnt is that right now fighting is the only way I can help people.”

Monique began to sob, head bowed, shoulders shuddering, her hands still covering his own, but quietly enough that the children wouldn’t be woken. They stayed that way for a long time, Thierry staring at his tea, unsure what to do so he did nothing. Only when she finally ran out of tears did he speak again.

“Don’t lie to the children about me, please. Tell them why they don’t have a father anymore. Tell them why I left. They deserve to know.”

She nodded, eyes red. Thierry smiled sadly at her. He’d be gone long before a knock on the door alerted her that her husband’s body had been found.

“I love you.”

“I love you too. And I love them.”

“I know.”



The andromedon must have weighed the same as a small truck but you wouldn’t have known that from the speed with which it was able to hurl itself over the elevated highway’s concrete barrier, landing heavily on its metal feet and leaving cracked dents in the road. The glass-like canopy had been shattered and the dead pilot spilt out of the cockpit like the tongue of some monstrous undead dog, spitting and hissing acidic chemicals and gases from its gaping maw.

It swivelled in O’Neill’s direction, the ranger backtracked away from it, tripped over his own feet and landed on his ass. There was no fear on his face when it happened. Just a bare hint of concern as he kept going, sliding himself backwards so that his eyes didn’t leave the zombie machine watching him retreat. Gears ground together, clicked, spun, screeched, its wounded internal workings like a desperate roar, and it charged.

Charged faster than Leroy would have thought possible in its crippled state. He snapped up his rifle and fired a long burst at the creature, hoping to catch its attention or at least slow it down before it reached O’Neill. It was faster than he expected it to be.

He missed.

“Oh fuck!” O’Neill yelled, louder than Leroy had ever heard him before, raised his shard gun and fired straight into the robot’s ruined face.

The Andromedon may have flinched at that, or it might have been Leroy’s imagination. Then it raised both fists up above O’Neill, dripping acid and hissing poisonous gas, and swung them down on his head.

Leroy heard the sound of bones crunch and metal grind and screech.

Perhaps three or four seconds had passed.



There was more noise in the armoury than you would expect six people to make. The squad members chosen for the mission were in good spirits, laughing about the game and embellishing their own parts as they peeled off their ‘civvies’ and pulled on their fatigues and armour.

Michelle King giggled about John Tipene – the enormous Maori mechanic – going bright red when he “accidentally copped a feel” while lifting her up above his head, only to have Louise Seo slap him over the back of the head. Navarro, brighter and standing straighter than she usually did, tucked one of her hand-rolled cigarettes behind her ear while showing of the scrapes earned clutching onto Tipene’s right leg. The enormous fucker had dragged her through the dirt several metres, but she’d slowed him down long enough for everyone else to dogpile on top of him.

“That man is a monster,” Banerjee remarked while he inspected Navarro’s skinned knees and elbows, “I suspect that if one day the skyranger’s engines failed beyond repair he’d simply pick the damn thing up and throw it in the direction we needed it to go.”

“Landings would be difficult.” O’Neill joked, taking everyone by surprise. The Irishman didn’t lack a sense of humour, but it was always a little startling when he exercised it.

“Let’s hope the engines don’t stop working than,” King grinned and pulled her cannon from its locker.

“I’ll add it to my prayers,” Leroy muttered as he sat down next to Krause, clipping on his armoured grieves while the German re-braided her long black hair. Her round glasses were hanging precariously from the tip of her nose, but it didn’t seem to bother her.

“And I’ll rest easier knowing your praying mate,” King grinned and punched him playfully on the shoulder.


If there was one building that Thierry’s father loved more than any other it was the Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, the grand old church less than a stone’s throw from the River Saone running through the heart of Lyon.

While he’d be the first to admit he wasn’t a religious man (it was Thierry’s mother who instilled a deep Catholicism in her children) or an educated man, Thierry’s father was most definitely an idealistic man. A practical idealist, but an idealist nonetheless. For him the Cathedral was an example of what could be built by humanity when they came together for the common goal of serving something higher than themselves. An enormous piece of art and architectural beauty that, in celebrating God’s glory, stood as a monument for the power of humanity’s desire to create and overcome. It was his favourite place in the city he loved most.

Thierry would always remember being taken to eat ice cream in its shadow on the hottest summer days, and drink cocoa and coffee across the square on the coldest winter evenings. Charging through flocks of seagulls and pigeons in the park beside while his parents yelled encouragement and chasing his sister around the ornate columns in front of the entrance. Listening to the bells chime and his mother singing hymns during morning mass.

He returned home a year after the war was officially lost, having spent months bouncing from unit to unit watching friends slaughtered until he none left and no desire to make any more. The surviving French forces that continued to refuse to surrender had gone underground, thumbing their noses at the ‘Vichy’ government and preparing for a long and bloody resistance.

And it was very, very bloody. Thierry would find himself on the frontlines in the morning making wounds and in whatever clean space acted as field hospital that afternoon tending to them, since he was usually the closest thing they had to a doctor wherever he was. One summer evening he had to remove the leg of a girl not even seventeen years old, who had lost half her foot to a plasma carbine. The wound had become infected and he’d needed to saw off foot and calf to just below the knee. She died later that night anyway. Thierry was three years older than her. He left for home the next day, his commanding officer just nodding and wishing him luck.

When he reached that familiar flat, and knocked on that familiar door, his father had been the one to open it.

“Killed enough of the fuckers, have you?”

“There’s too many for me to ever kill enough. That’s why I had to stop.”

His father hugged him then, tears in his eyes.

“I’m so happy to have you back.”

“I’m happy to be back,” Thierry had said, and wondered if it was a lie. Wondered if he had killed enough of the fuckers.

It was a small thought that haunted his dreams even as he reconnected with his family. His sister was expecting her second child, the first having been born while he was fighting aliens a year before. His mother was working at a maternity clinic, something that she was enjoying far more than her old job at the ER. She still felt like she was achieving something, but it was nice to be helping balance the other side of the scales. His father was still an electrician, and he still loved that old Cathedral.

When ADVENT took over it began dismantling and outright demolishing the old institutions that had been intrinsic to human existence for so long. Religion was effectively outlawed, churches, mosques and temples of all sorts were torn down and replaced with shiny new Administration offices and Gene Therapy Clinics. It was a slow process, because too much change too quickly might make people realise what they are losing. At least that’s what Thierry’s father said.

“It’s not about competition, it’s about reliance,” the old man had said while painting a placard, “They want us to rely on them for everything, to forget what we can achieve when we put our minds to it. The fuckers want humanity to forget that we never needed the Elders to uplift us, we would have done it ourselves eventually.”

It was year after Thierry had returned home and the Administration had announced that the Cathédrale Saint-Jean-Baptiste would be demolished, to be replaced by an enormous statue, a monument to humanity’s relationship with the aliens. Perhaps if it had been a gene clinic fewer people would have minded, but hundreds of people turned out to protest the destruction of such an important piece of the city’s history. Thierry’s father was one of them.

“Do you want me to be there?”

His father had shaken his head, “You’re an unregistered resident and there will be many peacekeepers there. It’s far too dangerous.”

“But this is important to you.”

“So are you.”

The protest was on the news, a sea of people with placards chanting against the destruction while an anchorwoman spouted one-sided drivel about reactionaries impeding the march of progress. Thierry watched from the small flat beside his mother as ADVENT peacekeepers hemmed the protest in, stun lances flaring amongst the cordon visible even from the aerial cameras. Tighter and tighter, boxing the angry and ungrateful humans into the square outside the Cathedral, the anchorwoman droning on and on…

No one knew who threw the petrol bomb. It could have been an Administration plant, or it could have been a frustrated protester with more militant tastes than their fellows. But there was a streak of yellow from the edge of the mass of protestors and a sudden fireball amongst the peacekeepers. The anchorwoman suddenly became extremely animated, excited, frenzied. Thierry and his mother watched in horror as stun lances came to life in a circle surrounding the protest, a noose made out of light that immediately tightened around the people who simply didn’t want to see a piece of their home destroyed.

The camera feeds cut out, the anchorwoman promised to keep people updated. Thierry felt like there was a frozen fist wrapped around his heart. His mother wept.

Dozens were arrested, dozens more were injured. Thierry’s father was one of the dead. His body was found on one of the steps of the old Cathedral, the official cause of death being a heart attack likely caused by the liberal use of a stun lance while the protest was pacified.

If Thierry had been there he might have been able to save his father. Perhaps. Perhaps not. But watching his father’s protest destroyed on television? He’d never felt that powerless before, not while watching his friends die on the battlefield or the operating table. He hated it, and hated himself.

But he loved his father, and was glad that he’d died before having to watch his beloved Cathedral ripped down.



The andromedon raised its fists triumphantly, dripping O’Neills blood and bone and brains onto the ground, hissing and squealing with glee, shattered glass canopy like a toothy predator’s smile as it pivoted towards Leroy.

And he froze. Not in fear, but in anger. Burning, boiling rage as much at himself for missing as with the robot for killing O’Neill. And shock. He’d never even considered that the soft-spoken Irishman could be killed. He’d always seemed so permanent, with his knives and his tendency to sneak up on people (accidently or otherwise).

The damaged machinery seemed to growl as the Andromedon advanced on him, and Leroy just stood there, staring at the machine in impotent rage and surprise. Its heavy footsteps cracked the road as it marched forward, the slow beat of a metal drum promising doom. Clang bam! Clang bam! Clang bam!

“Over here dickhead!”

The thing twisted towards Michelle as she spun the barrels of her cannon before pulling the trigger in a blaze of armour-shredding rounds. The andromedon jerked and spasmed beneath the barrage, sparks and bits of metal ground away and the tongue like corpse of the pilot falling off like it was cut from the roots. She released the trigger and it fell backwards with a clatter, and didn’t get back up again. Then she was running towards the barrier next to O’Neill’s body and yelling in Leroy’s direction.

“Wake the fuck up Sawbones! There’s more of the cunts coming!”

Leroy didn’t so much wake up as realised that he was running towards the barrier. The next few minutes were a blur. Banerjee yelling that they were being overwhelmed, as an archon flew beneath the highway towards him. King bellowing about another ‘Andy’ appearing on the left. Krause roaring as she fired her cannon in a wide arc in front of her. Taking aim at an archon, pulling the trigger, watching it spin in circles spraying orange blood before crashing into the side of a parked car, never to move again. Blood. Troopers in black armour coming towards them. The Commander calling in the skyranger to get them out of there. King screaming that they could hold. Navarro asking about O’Neill over the radio. Her rifle booming. Asking about O’Neill again. The thump of a grenade. More heavy footsteps. Firing his rifle at the black shapes running in front of him, again and again. A grenade destroying the corner of a building they had been heading towards. Louise on the radio telling them she was there and ready for pickup. Navarro asking about O’Neill. What happened to Gerry? Why wasn’t anyone telling her what happened to Gerry? Her rifle booming. Something that weighed the same as a small truck hiting the ground. Not getting back up again.

It must of been minutes but it felt like seconds.

Then suddenly there were no enemies left to kill. Banerjee was advancing towards the target building, trailing blood and clutching his side. Even from a distance he looked pale and drawn. Krause was backing him up, limping after him on an injured right leg.

“Jesus fucking fuck me dead.” Michelle said, finally getting a chance to look at O’Neill’s body.

What was left of his body. The thing had crushed him, smashed his head into nothing, leaving just a ragged mess of blood in armour that closely resembled a can of tomato soup that had been bashed in with a brick.

“Fucking fuck.”

Leroy didn’t have anything to add to that. He just stared between the metal bag of broken bones that once been his comrade and his very alive comrade, probably trying to work out how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

“Fucking shit shit fuck shitty FUCK!”

King turned and puked over the barrier, Leroy suddenly realised his own gorge was rising and threw his last meal up against the tail light of an ADVENT ground car. He’d seen bad before, but this… this…


Leroy looked towards King, saw a new horror in her expression, turned in the direction she was looking. There was Navarro, stumbling towards them, a blank look on her face.

“Merde,” Leroy muttered, but didn’t move.

“I want to see Gerry.”

King ran forwards and grabbed Navarro by the shoulders, spinning her away and towards the ladder back down.

“I want to see Gerry!”

“No Gabby, you don’t. You don’t want to see him.”

“I want to see Gerry! I WANT TO SEE GERRY!” Navarro’s voice was hysterical, but her face was still blank.

“No you don’t mate. Please Gabby, you don’t want to see him like this!”

Leroy leaned against the ADVENT vehicle, heedless of the vomit, and slid to the ground. Exhausted and angry, watching one woman struggle with the other.


He just watched, and hated himself for just watching. But he didn’t know how to help.