Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (19)

Chapter 19: Journeys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No more ammunition. They had no more ammunition.

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

He spoke. Two words.

“Fix bayonets.”

Joseph Ballo woke up.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thankyou sir. I will, sir.”

Fuck, he was definitely slurring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“I should hope so.”

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

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

“You know I can’t eat anything.”

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

“You’re nothing if not polite.”

“I blame my parents.”

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

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

“Which way will you go?”

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

“That’ll take days.”

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

“You should eat the chicken.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (18.5)

The rain was pouring down hard and fast, an uneven and constant beat filling her ears like radio static, streaming off the sharp lines of Li Ming Cheng’s armour like a dozen tiny waterfalls. Down her neck. Plastering her hair against the shaved sides of her scalp. Dripping from her nose, chin, ears, cheeks. A poor substitution for real tears, but Cheng couldn’t make herself cry.

She sat in the mud, legs sprawled straight in front of her and back against a fencepost that had managed to stay upright during the firefight, near where Michelle lay. The Australian woman was pale and unmoving, staring up into the clouds with glassy, unblinking eyes and a calm expression that was in complete odds with the brutality of her death, her stomach ripped open and her guts torn out to make room for a monster.

Just within sight, despite the thick curtains of rain, Dori was sprawled flat on her face. The back of her armour and the body beneath had been burned away, though thankfully the weather hid the far too familiar scent of overcooked pork. Her Gremlin – Titan or Titus or something similar – buzzed around her corpse in a lazy, worried figure eight, chirping and twitching and waiting for orders that were never going to come. Some small part of Cheng felt sorry for the little robot, and she had to remind herself that it was just a machine, a tool, a toy.

James lay just out of sight, but Cheng had already seen his body. Mangled and twisted, his stomach a ragged mess of holes and his limbs a broken, twisted mess of unnatural angles and joints. Half his face had been blackened by the plasma grenade that had ended him, one eye and one mutton chop gone, jaw partially unhinged but his nose completely intact. Maybe that would allow for an open casket when they returned him and his sister to their family.

Fuck, did Dori have a family? Would she want to be returned to that family? Did it fucking matter what the dead fucking wanted? Fuck, just leave them in the mud. Let the Earth fucking reclaim them that had died fighting in its name.

More friends dead in the fucking mud.

“Cheng?” a soft voice seemed to whisper from far away to her right, then louder and closer said, “Li? The skyranger will land soon and Vargas is helping the survivors pick through the wreckage for supplies. Let me take a look at your leg.”

Cheng looked up, away from Michelle’s slack face, to see Leroy standing over her with a concerned frown beneath his shaggy beard and eyes twitching between her face and her leg. Right, she’d taken a glancing plasma round to her right calf in the last seconds of the firefight. It had hurt when it happened, scorching a trail through grieve and flesh, but now it was just numb. Another scar on a body covered in them. She waved her consent and Leroy immediately bent over and began to carefully remove the armour around the wound.

“Are you alright?” he asked after a moment, eyes briefly flicking to her face again before focusing entirely on his work.

“This is nothing.”

“I know, I’ve seen you walk off wounds like this before. I am not asking about your leg.”

Cheng chewed on her bottom lip, an old habit from her childhood long since broken that only came back when she wanted to say something but was struggling to find the words. When she didn’t say anything Leroy just nodded.

“Have you ever asked Vargas why he fights?”

“What?” The question took Cheng by surprise.

“Have you ever asked Vargas why he fights?” Leroy asked again.

“I- No?”

“Perhaps you should. I find it helps create perspective when we struggle with the answer ourselves.”

“Have… Have you ever asked him?”

“Oui. It is revenge,” Leroy smiled softly as he said it, positioning his body so that her wound was protected from the rain, “if you want the details you should ask him yourself,” they’d tried to find somewhere with a roof to hole up in while waiting for the skyranger but the aliens hadn’t left much standing in the camp, “but let’s just say that he lost someone to the aliens once upon a time and now he wants to end them. The answer is usually revenge.”

Cheng thought of her mother snatched away in the early days of the first war and said, “I guess that’s my answer as well.”

“Only because, like everyone else, you don’t understand the question. It is not a question of why you chose to fight in the first place, but why you continue to fight that you want to ask yourself right now.” He looked up from her wound for a second and stared straight into her eyes as he growled out, “I expect it stopped being revenge a long time ago.”

Cheng opened her mouth to say something, decided against it. She looked towards Michelle’s corpse and tried to find better words to describe what she was feeling. It was funny, English felt like her first language these days. It was what she spoke most often, being the most common language on the Avenger. But she still thought in Mandarin. Perhaps that was why she was having such a hard time articulating herself right now.

“I don’t know how many more friends I can lose.”

“It is hard to bear the weight of so many dead.” Leroy said sympathetically, winding a bandage around her calf.

“I don’t know how many more friends I can lose before I don’t feel a fucking thing!” Cheng snarled, “My fucking friend is dead over there! I should feel fucking sad or angry or something… but… I don’t know. I just… I just feel…” She was leaning forward on the heels of her hands, growling at the short black hair on top of Leroy’s lowered head. Fuck.

“Numb?” Leroy asked, still not looking at her.

“Maybe. No. I still feel, but not enough. Do you understand?”

“Oui, I do.” Leroy finished bandaging her leg and leaned back on his haunches, water dripping from his heavy brow, “You should give yourself some credit. You are most likely in shock.”

“Everytime, everytime I feel less and less. What happens if I do become completely numb?”

“Then we hope that there is someone left to help you through it.”

“Like you?”

“Oui. Like me. Someone has to be here to help.”

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 (17)

Chapter 17: For the Children

There was a knock on the hotel room door just as Tiffany Martz pushed her eldest daughter, Elle, into the wardrobe after her sister Lizzy. The two little girls hugged each other close and looked at their mum with big scared eyes, but didn’t make a sound. Tiffany whispered an “I love you,” just in case, then quietly slid the door shut.

They had been sleeping soundly until about two minutes before when some errant sound – an elevator perhaps or too many footsteps for this time of night – had set every well-honed instinct in Tiffany’s body screaming in alarm. The girls had woken up without fuss and staggered over to the wardrobe in the dark, rubbing sleep out of their eyes but not complaining. They knew it wasn’t a game, knew what to do when mummy woke them up in the middle of the night.

Hide, don’t make a sound, don’t come out till mummy said you could.

There was another knock on the door, louder and more aggressive this time.

“Coming!” she yelled, trying to make her voice sound as groggy as possible (not hard since she was actually tired as fuck).

She switched one of the bedside lamps on and looked around the room. Two queen beds (but her and the girls had only been using one), bags packed and ready to go at a moment’s notice, beige curtains drawn and the walls and bedsheets coloured an oddly ugly shade of eggshell white. Her pistol was hidden beneath the pillow of the unused bed, and for a moment Tiffany considered tucking it into the waistband of her trackies then decided against it. Talking her way past whoever was on the other side of the door was always the best option, but that wouldn’t be possible if they spotted her ceramic handgun hanging out of her trousers.

Two deep breaths to calm her nerves and she opened the door. Just a crack, just someone who’s been woken in the middle of the night and wasn’t sure who could possibly be on the other side. Two women – one blonde and one redhead – and two men – both brunettes but one was quite tall and the other a bit of a short-arse. Christ, sounded like the start of a mildly sexist joke.

The taller of the two men had his hand raised to knock for a third time but stopped when he saw her peeking at him the gap between door and frame. He smiled at her, as did the three others. The kind of fake-arse smiles you saw on dead-eyed salespeople just going through the motions.

“Miss Platt?” he said through his too-good-to-be-true grin.

It was always odd to hear other people say the lies she told, as if it made them true somehow through the stranger’s belief. She nodded anyhow, gave them a meek smile and said, “Can I help you?”

“We work for the government, Missing Persons,” the knocker kept smiling as he produced a badge, the ADVENT sigil besides a Southern Cross, the Coalition’s local lapdogs. “Would you mind letting us in? We have some questions for you.”

“I would mind actually, it’s very late and-”

“We know what time it is, and we’re going to have to insist Miss Platt,” he was still smiling but there was an edge to his voice now.

Not much choice then. Tiffany nodded and opened the door wide, stepping out of the way as the knocker and redhead walked past.

“Thankyou,” knocker’s voice was all sweetness and love again, “Y’see we’re looking for some missing-”

Tiffany swung the door as hard as she could into the short-arse’s face as he tried to follow his friends in. It bounced off the bastard and back into her hand. He staggered back into the blonde and Tiffany hurled the door back into its frame, slammed, shut, locked.

The knocker stared at her, open-mouthed and wide-eyed as her open palm crunched against his nose. Redhead was faster, pulling a mean-looking pistol from a holster that had been well-hidden within the lines of her suit. There was an even meaner looking suppressor fitted over its barrel, probably so they wouldn’t bother the other hotel guests. Tiffany grabbed the redhead’s hand before she could draw a bead, twisting it to the side while grabbing her hair and pulling her head back, making her screech.

You don’t hesitate when you’re fighting for your life. Doesn’t matter how unpleasant a thing you have to do is, you fucking well do it without blinking. You hesitate and you die.

Tiffany came in close and bit down on redhead’s bare neck. Redhead’s screech became a choked gurgle. Hot blood filled Tiffany’s mouth, poured down her chin, her chest. She ground them in deeper, deeper, pulled, tore, ripped back with skin and whatever else clamped between her teeth. Redhead clutched her neck, shock written across her face, blood spurting between her fingers. Then she fell backwards onto the bed.

The knocker was only just getting up. Tiffany spat the blood and whatever else onto the carpet (beige, like the curtains) and charged at him, using the second bed as a platform, leaping and bringing her knees together against his chest. She felt his ribs crunch as they came down together. He gasped, gasped again, and it sounded dangerously wet. Tiffany rolled off him and realised that short-arse and blonde were slamming their shoulders into the door, trying to break it down. She wondered why they didn’t have a key, decided that knocker or redhead must have had it.

The door began to splinter as Tiffany stomped on the knocker’s face, neck, neck again, felt the bone crack against her bare foot, keeping in time with the thumping against the door. The knocker finally stopped trying to breath though his feet were still twitching. Satisfied she looked around for redhead’s gun, couldn’t see it, realised that the knocker was probably armed as well, then remembered her own gun was two steps away beneath her pillow.

Too late. The door finally gave way with an angry creak and short-arse and blonde charged in behind it, an ugly bruise on short-arse’s furious face, guns out but down, not having had time to process their dead mates.

You don’t hesitate in a fight.

Tiffany charged, crossing the tiny distance before her two new dance partners had time to react. She went low, hooking an arm between short-arse’s legs and lifting up so that his own momentum helped carry him over her shoulder and onto the floor. Then she was slamming into blonde, shoving her hard against the doorframe and driving the wind out of her. Cracked blonde’s head against the painted wood once, twice, threw her aside and turned back on short-arse.

He was on his hands and knees, pistol up. Fired a shot, the suppressor reducing the sound to a still-loud hissing pop instead of its normal roar.

Tiffany was already charging forward, the bullet missing her by a wide mark as she kicked him in the head with a snarl. Short-arse rolled backwards, gun still in hand. She jumped on top of him, grabbed at the pistol. He punched her, she punched back, writhing on the floor, growling, swinging, trying to get leverage on the pistol. They rolled and short-arse was on top, using his weight to twist the barrel of the gun slowly towards Tiffany’s face. She snarled again, kicked him between the legs, then again, then a third time, snarled once more.

You don’t hesitate in a fight.

Tiffany threw her head up and bit into his cheek, felt new, fresh blood stream into her mouth and nearly gagged this time. The gun went off beside her head, grazing and deafening her left ear. Short-arse screamed and pulled back, a ragged chunk of skin hanging off his face. Tiffany twisted the gun up, her finger finding his over the trigger. Pop, pop, pop, pop. Short-arse shuddered, then collapsed limply on top of her.

No time to stop. There was one still breathing. Tiffany rolled the corpse off of her and stood up on shaky but still strong legs just in time to see the blonde crawling out the door. Couldn’t have that now. She walked up behind the fleeing woman, grabbed her by the hair (bloody from where Tiffany had smashed her head against the doorframe) and dragged her back inside the bloody hotel room.

“No! No, no. Please! Please no!” The blonde was whimpering, crying, begging.

Tiffany kicked her in the head, laying her flat. She rolled blonde onto her stomach and straddled her back.

“N-No! P-p-please! I have children too!”

One hand on the blonde’s jaw, the other on her crown.

“Please I have children t-too!”

“Then you shouldn’t have come after mine.”

Jaw and crown, twist and lift. Tiffany felt the crunch of vertebrae, the body shudder, the legs continuing to kick for what felt like a long time before finally going completely still.

Two deep breaths to calm herself.

Tiffany grabbed one of the lapdogs’ pistols and tucked it into the waistband of her trackies, fished out two spare magazines from within the blonde’s suit. Then her wallet, then the others. She grabbed her own pistol and dropped it into the backpack sitting with the other already packed bags and zipped it up tight.

Only then did she step over to the wardrobe and slide the door open.

The girls looked up into her face and rushed forward, wrapping their arms around her and sobbing quietly as she clutched them back, clutched them like a drowning woman grabbing onto a piece of driftwood in a storm. They didn’t care that their was blood on her face, her chest, up her arms, splattered across her legs, in her hair, in her teeth, surrounded by the corpses she had just made. She was alive, she had won, and they loved her.

That was the only thing in this whole fucked up world that could make Tiffany Martz cry.

***

Michelle King tilted her head against the cold metal of the skyranger’s hull and shut her eyes, just for the moment. Shit, she was tired. Her armour felt like it weighed a tonne (almost as much as her eyelids) and every movement tiny movement made her muscles ache.

There was a clank and clunk of armour being readjusted and Michelle felt a head lay itself on her shoulder, hair tickling her cheek.

“Are you alright Bull Rush?” she heard Li Ming Cheng ask softly over the hum of the engines through the hull.

The big Chinese woman couldn’t see her smile, but smile she did. Michelle liked the nickname. The others had started using it after she’d organised a game, right before Gerry O’Neill had been smashed into bloody pulp by a half-dead andy.

“Yeah, I’m alright,” Michelle’s voice sounded unconvincing in her own ears, “just feeling a little burnt at the moment.”

She felt Li nod at that, “Perhaps it’s time for a holiday?”

Michelle snorted back a laugh at that, “Go kick up our heels on a beach somewhere?”

“Swim in the ocean. I haven’t swum in a long time.” There was something in Li’s voice as she said it, something beneath the casual, offhand tone she usually used, that made Michelle wonder if Li Ming was actually being serious.

“Beaches in West Australia are the best in the world.”

“Are they?”

“I only went to the west coast once, on a job before I got locked up, but shit, I fucking loved it. Met this guy. We went to this beach a few hours out of Perth. Purest, whitest sand I’ve ever seen. Clearest water.”

“That sounds nice,” Li sighed, “do you think the aliens would let us lay on a pure white beach for a week?”

“You can ask them.”

Li laughed at that, “You’re the one who’s good at talking.”

That earned a gentle punch to the arm, which Li responded to with an elbow beneath the ribs.

There was an adorable squeak that was probably Emily being tended to by James. She’d been grazed by a muton’s plasma rifle. Unfortunately, when it came to energy weapons, “grazed” usually at the very least meant “severe burns.” Still, she was breathing and upright, as was Gerard Dekker whose leg had been sliced open pretty bad. The Dutchman had endured James’ patch-job in stoic silence, face barely betraying any of the pain that he was no doubt in. Only ’cause there were ladies present, mind you. He didn’t want them to think less of him by admitting that getting your leg cut up and then bandaged back together hurt. James had told Michelle that when there was nobody else within earshot he moaned and groaned like the best of them. Fucking idiot.

Dekker was actually a good guy. Dependable too. But he cared a little too much about what the opposite sex thought of him, and he had some pretty backwards ideas when it came to the subject. Macho shit. A bit stupid when the biggest, hardest bastard in the room was the person right now laying her head on Michelle’s shoulder and talking about going to the beach.

“Are you alright Artillery?”

“I’m a bit burned out as well,” she said and then added offhandedly, “I’d stopped making friends before I joined X-Com.”

“Hmm?”

“I had… I had trouble trusting new people, and so many old friends were killed or left the movement,” there was regret in the quaver of her voice as she said, “I can’t think of a single friend I had left before Central recruited me.”

Well, shit, what do you say to that?

“Wanna watch ‘Die Hard’ when we get back to the Avenger?”

Probably not that.

“No, not tonight.” Li Ming chuckled gently and didn’t remove her head, so it actually might have been.

Emily squeaked again, even more fucking adorably, and Michelle heard James call her a big baby. Li and Michelle both began to shake with laughter. It might have been the mental exhaustion, but right then and there everything seemed fucking hilarious.

***

The day after Gabriella Navarro died a handful of the Avenger’s crew gathered on the rear observation deck, which was outside but protected from the wind and gave them a clear view of the sun sinking over the treetops to the west. Cesar Vargas brought a bottle of Mezcal that he’d been saving for the right occasion. Li Ming Cheng brought the dead woman’s tobacco pouch. Emily Adams, Lily Shen, Thierry Leroy and Gerty Wilders brought themselves and a few stories worth sharing.

They each rolled a cigarette – exactly how Gabby had taught them – and leaned against the railing, passing the bottle around and coughing up smoke, telling the stories about the Spanish woman that they felt were worth sharing. If they were being honest (and they were being honest), the only person who actually knew her well had been Gerry O’Neill, and they’d buried him a week before. But she had always been there taking another drag on her cigarette, a private individual who tried to keep herself surrounded by people.

They finished the bottle and tossed it and their cigarette butts into the trees trying to hide within the dark of the approaching night. They cheered at the sound of glass shattering somewhere out of sight.

***

The door to the Psionics Lab was going to need oiling soon. There was a slight squeak as it hissed open that’d only get worse if nothing was done. Neil Perry wondered if he should tell someone or even just do it himself when they next let him out of the chamber. Dr Tygen and his scientists weren’t the sorts who’d notice a squeaky door, and none of the engineering staff had been needed to maintain the machinery lately so they hadn’t been around to notice. It was probably part of the scheduled maintenance but maybe it needed moving up.

“This ain’t the armoury, is it.”

Neil looked up from his voice at the unfamiliar voice coming from the doorway, where an unfamiliar woman was smiling at him and Galina, who was in the other Psionic chamber.

“Hello.” Galina said cautiously,

“How’s it going?” The woman asked back, casual and relaxed, maybe even a little amused.

“Good, thankyou. How are you?” Neil could see that Galina’s reply was automatic, would’ve done the same if she hadn’t beaten him to it.

“I’m alright, thanks for asking.”

“You’re welcome.”

“And how are you darl?”

Neil realised she was looking at him and squawked out, “I’m good man, how about you?”

“I’m alright,” the woman was definitely enjoying herself.

She seemed to take their greetings as permission to enter and stepped through the door, staring about the place with sharp eyes. She looked like she was in her mid-thirties, on the taller side, with a wiry build, black hair tied back in a messy ponytail. A lot of laugh lines around her eyes, or maybe they were worry lines. Neil wasn’t sure why he thought that, but he did. There was something in her eyes, maybe, that made her look like she’d seen and done more than a lot. Something that made Neil feel like a little kid in comparison.

Galina turned to Neil and gave him a look that seemed to say, “should we be letting her in here?” Neil shrugged back a, “not sure.” He didn’t see how they could stop her from inside the psionic chambers. It weren’t like they were locked in, but there was a procedure for leaving outside of an emergency (like the ship being about to explode), ’cause of the unknown dangers of unshielded psionic energy to the rest of the crew (Neil’s and Galina’s heads hadn’t exploded yet, but that didn’t discount anybody else’s). If the stranger meant harm, there wasn’t much they could do to stop her in time.

“Call me Tiff,” the woman said, a bit absentmindedly with her attention focused on the machinery now.

“Tiff?” Sounded wrong for this lady. Too childish for this person with her old eyes.

“It’s short for Tiffany.”

“Oh,” Neil tried to think of something clever to say back, but thinking of clever things to say had never been a talent of his so he simply said, “you’re looking for the armoury?”

“Yeah. Just got here and a guy named Leroy was showing me the way, but he got called away to prep the infirmary or something. Pair of injured coming back from a mission or something. He gave me directions, but…” She shrugged and gestured around the room.

“Well you are on the wrong floor to start with,” Galina said, a little more relaxed after hearing Mr Leroy’s name but still suspicious since the Psionics Lab was pretty clearly marked. ‘Cause of the dangerous psionic energy that might make you bleed out of your eyes and ears. She also seemed far more interested in the machines than Neil had seen anyone else, most people keeping their distance from the strange blend of alien and human technology. ‘Cause of the dangerous energy that might make your head explode.

“The Armory’s up one level,” Neil continued when Miss Tiff didn’t reply to Galina, “on the far end of the ship.”

“Yeah, alright. Up and across. What’s your name darl?”

“Neil. Neil Perry.”

Miss Tiff nodded, “And you?”

“Galina.”

“You two are the ones who can float stuff around with your minds, right?”

“Yeah,” there was something off about the question, but no point in lying that Neil could see. Didn’t stop Galina from shooting him a look. He shrugged.

“Could you float stuff around before you came here, got put in those glass rooms?”

“No.” Neil said, still not seeing a point to lying.

“How’d they know you’d be able to afterward then?”

“I don’t know. Miss Annette just did.”

Miss Tiff’s smile wavered slightly at that, quick as a blink but Neil still spotted it.

“Miss Annette,” smile back and perfectly friendly, “I’ve heard of her. The Night Witch. Yeah. Well, upstairs and far end of the ship. It was nice meeting you both.”

“Nice meeting you too.” Neil said, as automatically as Galina had earlier.

And then she was gone, waving as she walked through the door.

“That was fucking weird, yes?” Galina said in her hodgepodge accent.

“Yes,” Neil agreed, “that was damn weird.”

Damn, damn weird.

***

Michelle didn’t fall asleep on the skyranger, but she came fucking close to it. If it wasn’t for the fact that the technical crew had to unload all the supplies they’d nicked from the aliens’ train she might have stripped off her armour and left in a pile on top of her plasma cannon for someone else to carry back to the armoury. But they did, so she slung her big gatling gun over her shoulder and headed towards the hatch.

Managed to make it five steps before Li pointed out that someone should grab Emily’s gear, her long rifle and webbing, left behind in the skyranger. Michelle groaned and looked towards Dori and her brother James, both standing by the hatch waiting for them and pretending to have not heard Li, then at her Chinese friend who already had Dekker’s storm gun and blade hung over her shoulder by their straps.

“Guess it’s going to be me then.”

“Thank you Michelle.”

“Fuck you Li.”

Tired as she was, tired as they all were, everyone was in a good mood as they tromped down to the armoury. After two missions in a row that had ended with someone being buried or burned, it felt good to get through with only a couple of burns and bloody leg. They were chatting and joking and generally feeling pretty positive.

So none of them noticed the noise coming from the armoury until they were right outside the closed hatch and James asked, “Is that singing?”

They all paused then, listening. Someone was indeed singing inside, sweetly and a little off-key (just enough to notice). Not a voice from the Avenger’s crew, but Michelle knew it like a muggy Sydney morning. Judging by the look on his face, so did James.

Michelle shouldered past Dori and James as the Scotswoman opened the door and found a familiar face inside sitting on a bench, singing to herself as she fiddled with a familiar looking plasma lance. When the door opened she looked up and said, casual as if she was sitting in a cafe nursing a flat white, “Hey Michelle, how’s it going?”

“TIFF!” Michelle yelled and made a sound that she didn’t quite recognise as she rushed forward and scooped up Tiffany in a bear hug, her cannon and Emily’s lance falling to the deck behind her.

“Easy darl, you’re a bit jagged at the moment.” Tiff grinned, probably talking about Michelle’s armour. Michelle didn’t care.

“When did you get here?”

“‘Bout an hour ago. Sent a letter saying I was coming.”

“I didn’t get it.”

“Probably arrive in a week then. You gonna let go sometime soon?”

“Nope.”

“Seems like you haven’t changed much then,” Tiff waved over Michelle’s shoulder, “Hey Jimmy. Your parents send their love.”

“Hey Tiff, I’ll give you a hug when Shelly’s done.”

“You done yet Michelle?”

“No. Yes.” Michelle finally let go, “Did the girls get my last presents? How are they?”

“The necklaces made out of snake teeth?” Tiff rubbed her shoulders and neck but stayed within arms reach, “yeah, they got those. They’re doing good. Lizzy’s still reading everything she can get her greedy mitts on. Elle’s been moping around the camp like a proper teenager. Tash,” her voice became just a bit less casual for a moment, “is Tash. Misses you more and more every fucking day.”

“I miss her as well.” James would’ve definitely noticed the strain in Michelle’s voice, Li might have, “So much. She’s the reason I’m here. They’re all safe?”

“Yeah, nowhere safer than with your parents I reckon.”

“I reckon you’re right. It’s good to see you,” she wrapped her arm across Tiff’s shoulders, “C’mon let me introduce you to the others. Then we can talk about Tash and the girls.”

“Alright. I’ve already met a few people.”

“Yeah? Who?”

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 (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.”

“Okay.”

“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…

“Gabby.”

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.

“I WANT TO SEE GERRY!”

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

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (14)

Chapter 14: It’s all fun and games…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle just grinned harder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly Commander.”

The Commander nodded, thoughtfully.

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

“Of course Commander.”

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

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

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

Unless he exploded, of course.

***

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

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

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

“You not gonna play Shen?”

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

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

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

“Are you a jealous Michelle?”

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

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

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

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

Shen suddenly became very interested in her shoes.

Dori wondered if she should join in.

***

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

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

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

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

“What words?”

“The name of the game.”

“Bull Rush?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that so?” Michelle laughed.

“Yeah, and you’re next.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good luck, yeah?” Dori added.

And then they charged.

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (12)

Chapter 12: Witches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You?”

“We had words.”

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

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

“She could have come to anybody else.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine.”

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

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

“Said I was sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah. It’s about her.”

“No it’s fuckin’ not!”

“Yeah it is.”

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

“Yeah. It is. Ems.

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

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

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

Emily nodded.

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

“I tried to hit you first.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re younger than me.”

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

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

“I’m not better.”

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

Michelle nodded, “Sorry about that.”

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

“That’s so fucking romantic.”

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

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

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

“What did she say?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

The Commander stood a little straighter as he watched them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you need to.”

“So people keep telling me.”

“They will be powerful additions to your ranks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As well as I can.”

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

“Was it necessary tonight?”

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

“An old friend?”

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

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

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

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

“Welcome to Menace One.”

And that was it for the night.

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (11)

Chapter 11: What do they deserve?

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

“You alright there Jimmy?”

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

“You alright bro?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a fucking mess.

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

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

“To your health,” she smiled back.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Not bloody likely.

The war was over but the fight went on.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I like your hair.”

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

“Thank you sir.”

“Very rock’n’roll.”

“Yessir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, he was. A long time ago.”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gotta get back in the fight, he said.

James left a few days later.

***

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

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

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

“‘Fanging it’?” Li asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“Fourteen.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey Shelly, how you doin’?”

“I’m alright. How’re you?”

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

“Do we have time to talk?”

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

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

“So am I. Love you.”

“Love you too.”

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

But it was enough.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (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.”