Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (19)

Chapter 19: Journeys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No more ammunition. They had no more ammunition.

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

He spoke. Two words.

“Fix bayonets.”

Joseph Ballo woke up.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thankyou sir. I will, sir.”

Fuck, he was definitely slurring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“I should hope so.”

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

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

“You know I can’t eat anything.”

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

“You’re nothing if not polite.”

“I blame my parents.”

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

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

“Which way will you go?”

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

“That’ll take days.”

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

“You should eat the chicken.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (18)

Chapter 18: Nobody’s ever really ready.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right across the road.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll try to avoid it.”

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

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

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

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

Michelle laughed and began checking her grenade launcher.

***

“Do you two ever leave this fucking room?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’d like to ask a favour.”

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

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

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

“I killed a lot of people.”

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

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

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

“I’d rather not tell you.”

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

“No you don’t.”

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

“Miss Annette?” Miss Tiff cocked an eyebrow.

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

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

“You want Miss Annette to find them?”

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” agreed Leroy, “you don’t.”

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you shutting your eyes when you shoot?”

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

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

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

“See what I mean?” Emily laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I would like that.”

***

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

Then the shooting had begun.

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

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

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

It began to rain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!” Michelle screamed, “NO! NO!”

There was another screech, close behind her.

***

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

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

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

Not that it mattered. Because Else found out anyway.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life in the Avenger’s barracks (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 (14)

Chapter 14: It’s all fun and games…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michelle just grinned harder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly Commander.”

The Commander nodded, thoughtfully.

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

“Of course Commander.”

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

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

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

Unless he exploded, of course.

***

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

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

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

“You not gonna play Shen?”

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

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

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

“Are you a jealous Michelle?”

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

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

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

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

Shen suddenly became very interested in her shoes.

Dori wondered if she should join in.

***

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

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

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

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

“What words?”

“The name of the game.”

“Bull Rush?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that so?” Michelle laughed.

“Yeah, and you’re next.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good luck, yeah?” Dori added.

And then they charged.

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (13)

Chapter 13: Bonds, broken or otherwise

“Where’d the boy come from?”

“Same place as me.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Nicked a car?”

“And drove it into an ADVENT scanner.”

“And drove it into an ADVENT scanner?”

“The ones that look like street lights.”

“I know what they fucking look like.”

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

“Oh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He English?”

“Pardon son?”

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

“I am.” Carlyle said.

“He is.” O’Brien agreed.

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

Carlyle burst out laughing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

“Alessandra Mancini?”

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

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

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

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

“C-ci. Yes. I can walk.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Gerry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vicky would tell a story and shake his head.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Navneet might have loved her.

***

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

“Almost there dude. Almost clear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck. Inappropriate thoughts at inappropriate times.

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (3)

Chapter 3: He only wanted to help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Firing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

“Leave him to bleed out?” she asked.

Leroy scratched his beard. It had gotten long recently.

“Non, I like to help when I can.”

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

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (2)

Chapter 2: Cheeky talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Getting old ma’am?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Again.”

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

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

Krause waved vaguely, while Adams perked up visibly.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shit. Degroot’s face went bright red.

Shen looked confused (with good reason).

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course Commander,” entirely seriously this time.

“Good. Again, apologies lieutenant.”

“Thank you sir.”

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

Degroot smiled, “Likewise, sir.”

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“What?” yelled Louise over the music.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Else and Nav? What? Since when?”

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

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

“I had no idea!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where are we going?” she asked Eva.

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

“She does?”

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

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

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

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

“Oh. Okay. What were they saying?”

“What was who saying?”

“You said you heard German.”

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

“What does that mean?”

“Harder.”

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