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 (12)

Chapter 12: Witches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You?”

“We had words.”

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

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

“She could have come to anybody else.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m fine.”

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

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

“Said I was sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah. It’s about her.”

“No it’s fuckin’ not!”

“Yeah it is.”

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

“Yeah. It is. Ems.

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

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

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

Emily nodded.

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

“I tried to hit you first.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re younger than me.”

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

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

“I’m not better.”

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

Michelle nodded, “Sorry about that.”

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

“That’s so fucking romantic.”

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

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

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

“What did she say?”

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

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

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

***

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

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

The Commander stood a little straighter as he watched them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you need to.”

“So people keep telling me.”

“They will be powerful additions to your ranks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As well as I can.”

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

“Was it necessary tonight?”

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

“An old friend?”

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

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

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

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

“Welcome to Menace One.”

And that was it for the night.

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (7)

Chapter 7: Scar Tissue

The girl from the other side of the pit was about twenty years younger than Eva Degroot. She was almost as tall and at least as broad across the shoulders as Cheng, and though she lacked the powerful Chinese woman’s almost cartoonishly lean, toned physique she did not lack for muscle. When they’d met before the fight she’d introduced herself as Trudy and spoken with an accent similar to Adams. Smiled a lot and flirted a little, but seemed to do that with everyone. The referee, a tall man with big eyebrows and small ears wearing a dusty red shirt, introduced her as “The Hammer” and Degroot at “Venom.” The name Cheng had given her.

They met in a brown dirt pit about ten metres across surrounded by a waist high wooden fence in the middle of what had once been the warehouse of a now abandoned shoe factory. Sixty or seventy people packed against the edges of the pit or sat on the piled crates that acted as makeshift bleachers, roaring for blood. Degroot stood there, barefoot wearing just a pair of cargo shorts and a tight sports bra, uncomfortable with the fact that so many of her scars were showing. On her calf, her stomach, her right arm. Everyone could see them, and it didn’t matter if they didn’t care. The referee scrambled to the edge of the pit and someone out of view rang a bell, and the two women began to fight.

It lasted for four rounds, all except the last one going for three minutes. The other woman was taller, stronger and younger, but Degroot was faster, smarter and tougher. She danced around the girl, blocking with her right arm and striking quickly with her left. Trudy would occasionally come in for a grapple in the hopes she’d then be able wrestle Degroot to the ground and pin her for long enough to get some serious hits in, but the Dutchwoman would come in beneath her guard and spin around her, jabbing with fists and elbows on her way through. Trudy managed to hit her, but they were never more than glancing blows that always somehow managed to leave her vulnerable to Degroot’s counterattacks. The crowd roared, bet, booed, hissed, bet and cheered. Cheng hung over the edge of the pit screaming curses in Mandarin Chinese between commands to “Rip her fucking head off!”

They were both bare knuckled so mainly limited themselves to aiming at the soft spots on the body, but even still by the time the fourth round began both were bleeding and exhausted. The right side of Trudy’s face was a swollen bruised mess and she was spitting blood through red teeth. Degroot had a cut above her left eyebrow that was bleeding more than she liked, forcing her to squint through the blood.

By the time the bell rang and the fourth round began everyone knew who was going to win and had begun betting on which round would be the last. Most thought it would last another two, a few thought it would be over in the next, fewer thought it would take another three. Even still no one seemed particularly surprised when Degroot drooped her in the fourth. They were about two minutes in and Trudy was getting frustrated. She roared and swung hard and high, overextending herself. Degroot stepped forward, spun and slammed her right fist, hard as a brick, into the side of Trudy’s head. The young American staggered, fell to her hands and knees, looked up in time to see Degroot’s bare foot speeding towards her face. She hit the ground, to quote Adams, “like a sack of hammers” and didn’t get back up again.

The crowd went crazy. Degroot allowed herself a small smile and trod over to the edge of the pit where Cheng wore her lazy grin even wider than normal. The referee was yelling something about the victory and a few of the unconscious girl’s friends had hopped the fence and were rolling her onto her side. Degroot briefly thought about offering assistance but a few members of the crowd who carried the kind of bags she usually saw on combat medics were already on their way over, so she decided to stay out of their way.

She reached the end of the pit and Cheng helped her climb over, then cleared a path through the crowd (she could have given a bulldozer lessons, Degroot thought idly) towards the fighter’s locker room (one of the old factory’s former washrooms). Once inside she sat Degroot down and grabbed a wet towel, concern in her eyes despite the smile on her face.

“That eyebrow is going to need stitches.”

Cheng had originally planned on being the one in the pit, but part of getting the Commander’s permission for the fight (it was a surprise to everyone who knew about it that he agreed, so they were happy to accept all his terms) had been medical clearance from Tygen, so they wouldn’t exacerbate old wounds. Cheng had been injured in the previous mission, and while it hadn’t been anything too serious Tygen had decided that it was too risky to let her get into a bare knuckle brawl so soon after. So Degroot had volunteered.

“It’s my own fault for letting her hit me.”

“Yes it is,” Cheng said but didn’t mean, “Do you want me to stitch it up now or wait until we get back to the Avenger.”

“With all respect due to your abilities as a surgeon, I think I’ll wait until I see Tygen.”

“It doesn’t sound like you respect my surgical abilities all that much if you want to fucking Tygen to do it.”

“It didn’t know it was possible to apply a bandage backwards until I met you.”

Cheng barked out a laugh and pulled out the first aid kit she’d brought along.

“How long did it take you to think of that?”

“I thought of it just now.”

“Ha, you’re really getting used to this whole ‘social interaction’ thing.”

“Maybe. I did, however, just beat the last person I met unconscious.”

Cheng laughed again, Degroot smirked proudly. The Chinese woman was about ten years younger but, unlike Adams or Krause or most of the Avenger’s crew, she didn’t feel old around Cheng. Probably because Cheng was always so relaxed. She didn’t respect anyone’s rank except the Commander’s and certainly didn’t treat Degroot any better just because she had been there with the original X-Com (something that even Banerjee and Leroy, who had been fighting since the first war, were prone to do).

It was nice having a friend again.

“I’ll get myself cleaned up. You go get our winnings.”

***

“What are we playing?”

“It’s called ‘Two-Up.'”

It was the early days of X-Com and Degroot was watching skeptically as Pharaoh instructed Aori and Hobbit on the art of stretching a blanket between them. Singh and Higgins watched curiously from their bunks and Naidu stubbornly buried herself further in her book.

“And why are we playing ‘Two-Up’?” Degroot asked, hands on hips and trying very hard to be taken seriously by the Australian sniper fussing over a blanket.

“Because we’re bored and someone,” he directed a mock glare in Hobbit’s direction, the New Zealander stuck her tongue out in response, “lost our deck of cards.”

“Uh-huh,” she tried to sound as unconvinced as possible, “and we play this game by throwing two coins onto a blanket?”

“And betting on whether they come up heads or tails.”

“That doesn’t sound nearly as interesting as you seem to think it does.”

“Bet enough money and it’ll make watching fucking paint dry exciting.”

“Does the Commander know about your gambling addiction?”

Pharaoh grinned at her, “How’s your arse feeling Starburns? Healing alright?”

Singh, Higgins and Aori all chuckled. Hobbit giggled. Even Nairu snorted behind her book. Degroot blushed furiously and unconsciously covered the star-shaped wounds on her posterior.

“Kut,” she spat at him and he laughed.

“I know what that means and it and it doesn’t bother me. You might hurt Hobbit’s sensitive ears though.”

“Fuck you Dave!” Hobbit sang and Pharaoh just laughed again.

He liked to laugh. He liked to make other people laugh.

Degroot backed away and sat carefully on her bunk, “This game. You played it often back home?”

“Nah, it’s only allowed once a year.”

“When?”

Pharaoh looked at his watch, “About a week ago.”

“What?”

“We were only allowed to play it one day a year.”

“Why?”

He grinned, “Tradition.”

Degroot thought that, and the game itself, sounded stupid and told him so.

“If you’re bored let’s go watch a movie.”

“Can’t mate,” he’d produced a coin and begun flipping and catching it, flipping and catching it, flipping and catching it, “Commander’s using the screening room for something important. Conference call or something. We’ll watch a movie later, anything you want.”

“Anything?”

Pharaoh sighed, but still smiled when he said, “Yeah mate, anything.”

***

The Black Market was located in one of those small Middle American towns that once littered family movies meant to call back to ‘simpler times.’ Like most of those towns it had been abandoned after the US Government had surrendered and ADVENT had been formed, its residents moving to the city centres, joining the mobile camps that fed the resistance or simply disappearing. Unlike the rest it had found new life as a hub for illegal and underground trade, with everybody from arms dealers to tobacco farmers to religious leaders selling their wares in the broken storefronts and old warehouses along the town’s main roads. Inns, bars, theatres and fighting pits had been set up to accommodate the flow of free people and keep them entertained, and it wasn’t hard to believe that the people who ran the Black Market spent a fortune in resources and plundered tech ensuring that their operation stayed off of ADVENT’s RADAR. As such it was the only place where a pair of fugitive rebels could still do a little shopping.

After cleaning herself up, tying her hair back in a bun and putting on some long sleeves and trousers to cover her scars Degroot had left the locker room and found Cheng being paid by the promoter, a lanky Brazilian with with scars running from his chin, down his neck past the collar of his shirt (red like the referee’s). Trudy was there as well, sitting on an old crate with an ice pack covering the right side of her head. She smiled genuinely at Degroot and congratulated her on her win. Degroot shook her hand, asked a few questions about the girl’s injuries and made a few vague but honestly meant compliments that she hoped sounded encouraging. The Brazilian finished paying Cheng and Degroot said goodbye to Trudy.

Outside the shoe factory the air was fresh and warm. There was a few dozen people on the cracked streets and broken pavements but most people tried to stay inside whenever they could. Paranoia was a hard thing to break and most of the traders and customers here had survived this long by assuming that no location was safe from ADVENT drones and satellites.

“What did you think of The Hammer?” Cheng asked as she led Degroot down the main street.

“Do you mean Trudy?”

Cheng nodded.

“A strong fighter with a lot of potential. Why?”

“Central wants us on the lookout for potential recruits.”

“Of course,” Degroot thought harder about the fight with Trudy, “she’s tough but she’s young.”

“So were you once upon a time.”

“Yes, I know,” Degroot unconsciously rubbed at the scars that covered her right arm, thought of Adams and Krause, then more pragmatically said, “she can definitely hold her own in a fistfight. That doesn’t speak much about her abilities in a firefight.”

“Maybe,” Cheng nodded agreement, “I might point Central in her direction anyway though.”

“Do what you think is best.”

They wandered until they reached what looked like it had once been a middle-end designer clothes shop which still had its windows. Most of the lettering was missing from the storefront, there were cobwebs in the doorway and the interior was dark and musky. Degroot decided to wait outside while Cheng went looking for the trader that she’d heard had made camp in the old shop, carrying their bag of winnings over her shoulder. They’d been paid in valuable scrap, mostly precious metals needed for more intricate electronics and batteries, mostly still in the form of circuit boards and batteries. Useful bits. The Unofficial currency for individuals in the Black Market. The higher-ups traded for and with the most valuable commodity of all: information.

A minute later Degroot heard a muted conversation fluctuated in volume as Cheng haggled with the trader inside. It took longer than expected for Cheng to haggle him down to a reasonable price, mostly because he didn’t sound intimidated at all by Cheng’s size or the pistol strapped to her thigh. Then again the man was probably better armed than Cheng even when she was fully equipped for a mission. Still, Degroot could still hear her being her infuriatingly calm self, could almost hear the lazy grin in her voice as she convinced the trader to lower his price to something more reasonable. After about ten minutes she rejoined Degroot, shoving a lacquered case the size of a shoebox into her satchel.

“Alright,” she smiled at Degroot and the two women began walking back in the general direction of the factory, “primary objective completed. Now we’ve got to find the alcohol for Louise and John. Anything else we should try and find while we’ve got the money to spend?”

“Tobacco for Gabriella and Vargas has been complaining about needing a new book, I think.”

“Let’s try and find him something good then.”

***

The klaxons bellowed and red lights flashed through the smoke that had suddenly filled every room and corridor. Fires burned and voices screamed, begging for help. Every breath tasted of ash and gunpowder and shit and oil and blood. There had been so much blood in the hangar and when Degroot, Hobbit and Nairu had escaped through one of the emergency corridors, away from the disastrous attempt to hold the main entrance, the flashing alarm and emergency lights had kept them washed in a bloody red.

They’d had so little warning of the attack, so little time to prepare a defensive line, so quickly overwhelmed. Singh was dead, his chest had been melted and splattered across the walls by a burst of plasma fire from the smoky darkness beyond the hangar doors. Higgins’ legs and right arm had been ripped off by a grenade, but he’d been crying for help right up until Degroot and the others had bolted. Vodka, a hard-drinking Russian stereotype of a sniper, had screamed and hurled herself from the catwalk for no obvious reason, landing on her head. Munóz had been hit just as he was throwing a grenade. It had rolled out of his dead hand and blown away the entire left side of the the base security trooper next to him. Another trooper, who Degroot had seen often enough to recognise but had never learnt her name, had her her head crushed by a muton using its plasma rifle like a club. Completely crushed. Like one moment she had a head, then she just had a neck and part of her jaw left.

Then the order had come, a desperate cry over the intercom in the Commander’s voice, “They’ve already infiltrated the Base! Code Orange! I repeat, Code Orange!”

Retreat. Escape. Regroup elsewhere. X-Com had fallen.

No one needed the encouragement. The handful of survivors had immediately run for the nearest exit. Nairu and Hobbit had converged on the same hatch as Degroot, all three of them firing blindly to their rear as they went. Nairu made it through, so did Degroot. But Hobbit, smaller than both the Dutch and South African women, had been hit. She went down feet from the door with a ragged leg wound, and it was all Degroot could do to reach down and drag her through before Nairu slammed the hatch shut.

There was a brief respite where the three of them could catch their breath, leaning against the rough stone walls while the flashing red lights danced across their faces, but it didn’t last long before they snapped back into action. Degroot began bandaging Hobbit’s leg while Nairu checked and reloaded their rifles, Degroot pulling a magazine from her and Hobbit’s webbing to do so.

“How much ammunition does everyone have left?”

“I’ve got five full magazines left after that,” replied Degroot.

“I’ve got four,” Hobbit said through clenched teeth.

“I have five also. Can you walk on that leg Katie?”

“I think I have to. A little help would be appreciated though.”

Degroot nodded and helped Hobbit stand and lean on her shoulder.

“Which way should we go?” the New Zealander hissed as she put weight on her bad leg.

“We should head towards the Command Centre,” Degroot suggested.

“The aliens have probably already taken it,” Nairu pointed out.

“I said towards it. We can see what exits are still open on the way. If all other possibilities are blocked than we won’t have much of a choice anyway.”

“Alright,” Nairu handed the others their rifles back, “I’ll lead the way.”

And so they’d fled down the corridor. The smoke grew thicker and the sound of gunfire more sporadic. They shut and locked hatches behind them whenever they could, trying to move generally upwards towards the exits to the surface, occasionally running into a hatch locked by someone in front. Twice they encountered the enemy, first running into an enemy floater and then running into a lonely sectoid. Nairu gunned them both down before they even had a chance to cry out. She was fast and alert, and had a reputation for close quarter combat for a reason. Eventually they came upon a large metal door that all three of them recognised. Degroot leaned Hobbit against a wall and flicked the safety off her rifle.

“Do you think they have made it through here already?” Nairu asked quietly, calmly.

Degroot looked over at the door in front of them, at Hobbit (who was looking paler and paler) and then back at Nairu. Beyond the door was the main warehousing and supply structure, a vast, cavernous space that linked to the hangar via an enormous blast door that had doubtless been one of the aliens’ first objectives. The door led to the catwalk that ran along the edges of the space, which meant they might not be spotted immediately if the aliens had the warehouse occupied, but opening the door and using the catwalks always made noise.

“I’d put money on it. Especially if they’ve already hit the Command Centre. We have to go through here though.”

Nairu nodded, waited for Degroot to get into position on the other side of the doorframe and Hobbit to indicate she had their backs then slowly swung the door open.

Pharaoh saw them and waved.

“Hey there girls, how’s it going?”

He was in the middle of the catwalk, propped against a metal crate with his rifle besides him, sitting in a pool of his own blood. Too much blood. He still managed a weak smile as he gestured them over. Nairu rushed over and Degroot grabbed Hobbit and followed. Inside the warehouse was a bloody, brutal mess. Alien corpses were piled amongst X-Com personnel, crates were burning, the walls and columns were scored with bullet holes and the burns of energy weapons. But whatever had happened, Pharaoh seemed to be the only survivor.

“You’ve been busy,” Degroot said, unable to keep the concern out of her voice.

“Yeah, y’know, I like to be useful mate,” his teeth were bloody but his voice was steady, “I, uh, I think I’m fucked Starburns.”

Degroot wanted to comfort him, wanted to say something hopeful, but she saw him putting pressure on a hole in his gut and just couldn’t bring herself to lie to him. Just nodded.

“That’s fine mate. Kind of expecting it,” he kept smiling, how the hell did he keep smiling, “We stopped them. Forced them back and Damien managed to close the blast doors before he bled out somewhere over there,” he thumbed generally over his shoulder, “But they’ll be back any second now. Either that or they’ll come from a different direction. It was just me and him left. Now it’s just me. You three, you three should run.”

“We can take you with us,” Degroot said, her eyes suddenly blurry, “We can get you out of here.”

“Nah. Already told you, I’m fucked mate. I’m- I’m fucked. I can’t feel my legs,” he let out a choking sob there, but he never stopped smiling, “I’m fucked. I can’t feel them. I can’t go. But you three need to run. You go through that door,” he pointed in the opposite direction to where they’d entered, “you head to Workshop 2. Central and a few others were heading that way. They said there was still a clear path out through the ventilation. You go there and you get out.”

Degroot realised she was nodding, but her legs refused to move.

“Go on,” Pharaoh said gently, “get Katie and the Gazelle out safe. We’ll see each other in whatever comes left.”

“How do you know?”

He laughed, “‘Cause I fucking do. Now, you protect them. You don’t stop trying to protect them.”

“I will.”

“Good,” that seemed to satisfy him, “Goodbye Eva. You look after yourself and everybody else.”

Degroot nodded, turned and left him behind. Hobbit limped along with her and Nairu followed. Neither of them had said anything that Degroot had heard and she was glad. They were all friends, but Pharaoh and her had been the closest. Her “best mate in all the world,” and she’d left him to bleed out on the catwalk.

Halfway to Workshop 2 they heard the sound of ripping metal, followed by the echoing crack of a sniper rifle. Then another. And another. A fourth. A fifth. Silence. They reached Workshop 2 and closed the door behind them. There was a fire burning in one corner of the room, pouring acrid smoke against the opening in the roof.

“There’s the vent,” Hobbit said and limped over, sadness on her features but hope in her eyes.

“No signs of violence,” Nairu said eyeing the fire.

“Machine probably wasn’t switched off properly and overloaded when the emergency evacuation started,” Degroot agreed.

“We should still be cautious, I’ll go first.”

Nairu used a workbench to climb up to the vent, then climb into it. They heard her shuffling around in the vent, than her muffled voice yell “It seems clear.”

And it was because Nairu was up in the vents that, when the fire ignited a barrel of hazardous chemicals, she was not caught in the explosion.

There was a crackling whoosh and Degroot was thrown across the room to slam bodily against the wall. There was a second of shock, the soreness of a what was probably fractured ribs, then the smell of cooking meat filled her nostrils and she felt a throbbing, excruciating pain all over her right arm. She screamed and looked at it, saw that it was wrapped in flames from her armour pauldron to sleeve cuff, screamed harder, shook her arm stupidly in an attempt to put out the fire, kept screaming until Nairu swaddled the demon limb in a fire blanket and wrestled Degroot still while whispering soothing words.

“Shhh, shhhh, be still. Be still. The fire is out, we need to leave.”

Degroot was shaking uncontrollably, tears rolled down her face and her throat was scorched from all the smoke and screaming. When she spoke her voice cracked.

“Where’s Hobbit? Is Katie okay? Where’s Katie?”

Nairu shook her head, “Katie is already gone. We need to leave.”

That didn’t make sense.

“No, Katie wouldn’t have left without us. She couldn’t. She needs me to help her walk.”

“No, Katie is gone,” the smell of cooking meat still hung in the air over the smoke, despite the vent, “Katie is- Katie is dead.”

It was like being hit with a hammer. Degroot was shaking harder, realised she was sobbing. Nairu was inspecting her arm, wincing as she looked at the charred skin beneath the tattered bits of armour and clothing.

“No,” Degroot begged, “nononono not Hobbit. Not Katie,” she hiccoughed, “No, not Katie. I said I’d protect her,” her voice was getting louder, “I told him I’d look after her. He told me to look after her!” she thrashed about, looking for her friend, ignoring what was left.

“We have to leave. We have to get out of here.”

“No!” she was yelling now, “No! Katie!” screaming, “Katie! No Katie! Katie!”

“She is fucking dead! We are leaving now!”

Again Degroot screamed her friend’s name.

***

Cheng and Degroot sat in the bar of the Avenger with a beer each, watching Adams, Shen and Navarro drinking fresh apple juice that the fighter and her manager had spent the last of their winnings on. Navarro was demonstrating how to roll a cigarette to the other two using the tobacco that Cheng and Degroot had found for her, something that seemed to fascinate the sniper and chief engineer. Smokers had gone almost extinct in North America (where both women had spent the majority of their time since the invasion), Europe, most of Africa and northern Asia. There were a handful of diehards like Navarro who put a great deal of effort into maintaining the habit, but outside of South America and Southern Asia most people had been forced to give up. Listening to the Spanish woman, normally quiet and withdrawn, explain the art of rolling the perfect cigarette must have felt like watching a new play or film for the first time.

Cheng and Degroot had returned with the Commander and Central (who had been off bartering for weapons and supplies while Degroot had been fighting and the two women had been shopping) bearing the fruits of their labours. John Tipene and Louise Seo had been happy to receive the crate of decent alcohol with which to restock the bar. Gertrude Wilders, one of the other members of the Avenger’s technical crew, had been given a few vital ingredients and was at that very moment baking cupcakes in the mess kitchen. They’d bought a half dozen books, real books, for the barracks and Cesar Vargas in particular and Cheng had found and insisted on buying a whetstone for Gerry O’Neill, the Irish ranger who was constantly, unnervingly sharpening his blades (something that seemed to bother everyone except Cheng).

The real prize (aside from their first purchase) had been a checkers board, which the trader had practically given away. Everyone had been excited to see it and most of the crew (combat and noncombat alike) had already played a match or two and begun forming heated by friendly rivalries. It was being played on the bartop by Hiro and Nguyen, who worked the Avenger’s radar and comms respectively. The two men were, in Degroot’s opinion, taking the game far too seriously, staring at the board as if one wrong move would cause a muton to spontaneously appear out of thin air. She hadn’t even seen them take a sip of their now warm beers since the game started. It was just fucking checkers.

Navarro finished her demonstration and finished her apple juice so that she could go smoke the results. Both her and Emily were on standby, and neither were the types to knock back a quiet drink when the klaxon could sound at any moment. She said her goodbyes to Shen and Adams, sent a nod in Cheng and Degroot’s direction and walked through the hatch.

“Aren’t we too high up for her to go outside to smoke that?” Cheng asked, watching the Spaniard leave.

“We are but the Commander said she’s allowed to smoke in the Hangar occasionally,” Degroot unconsciously scratched at the new stitches beneath the bandage above her eyebrow, “since it has the best ventilation.”

They were small things but they’d done a wonder for morale. They’d finally raided the ADVENT blacksite a week before and what they’d seen there… hadn’t been pleasant, to say the least. Everyone had come back from the ‘processing plant’ with their confidence shaken. It reminded Degroot of her time in the first X-Com, during those first successful missions. Even back then, before the full horror of the alien invasion was revealed, those small victories often felt hollow. Small. They’d see stasis pods filled with kidnapped victims and battlefields littered by civilians torn to bloody, burnt pieces.

Back then it had been Pharaoh who had tried to keep spirits high. He was always trying to put together card games and competitions, races and wagers. Once he organised a ten-person Monopoly tournament, putting two boards side by side (an English and an American version to keep things from becoming too confusing) and hopping around the boards in a figure-eight. The best thing had been the movie nights though. The Commander, understanding the need for the odd bit of R&R had allowed film screenings in the main conference room or allowed projectors and screens to be set up in the barracks. The battle over what film would be watched had become a running joke amongst the X-Com staff, as Degroot and Pharaoh battled it out to get their favourite films played before each others. There was one film, however, that they both believed was a masterpiece and watched until they could recite the whole film by heart.

When Degroot realised that Cheng had started to fill the void, she’d been happy to help.

The door hissed open and Leroy stepped into the bar. He’d let his beard grow out again, leaving him looking particularly scruffy again. Cheng waved him over and he pulled up a stool at their little round table.

“Eva, Li,” he nodded to each woman in turn, quick eyes darting around the room. At first Degroot had thought them to be paranoid eyes, constantly looking for threats and danger, like a cornered animal. Eventually she’d realised they were just restless, drawn to colour and movement in the same way that Degroot constantly needed to keep her hands busy. Give her a sheet of paper and she’d tear it to confetti or fold it into a paper airplane or something. The checkers game caught Leroy’s eyes and he smiled, “Enjoying the match?”

“Enjoying how seriously Hiro and Nguyen are taking it,” Cheng grinned, “we might have to introduce a three drink minimum rule before letting someone play.” Leroy chuckled at that. Cheng pulled the lacquered box from somewhere underneath the table and slid it towards Leroy, “This is for you.”

The Frenchman’s eyes went wide as he pulled the case over, “For me?”

“From me and Degroot. Little something we’d spotted on the last trip to the market and thought you might like.”

Leroy opened the case and his eyes went wide. Three weeks before the three of them had gotten drunk and begun talking about their families, their loves, their friends before and after the first war. Degroot had finally opened up about her time in the first X-Com and Cheng had told them about her father (still alive and fighting) and missing mother. Leroy had told them about bonding over music lessons with his older sister, getting an ice cream on the steps of the Cathedral his father had loved so much in their home city of Lyon. How he’d kept playing after his father had died (heart attack due to complications caused by a stun lance while protesting against the demolition of that Cathedral). How he’d had to stop a few years ago when his instrument broke and finding replacement parts had been next to impossible.

Leroy smiled and began pulling pieces of the clarinet out of the case. Slowly, carefully, he began putting them together and by the time he was done Adams, Shen, Hiro and Nguyen had noticed what was happening and even the latter two had managed to pull their attention away from the match they cared about so much to watch Leroy.

Still smiling Leroy put the instrument to his lips and began to play.

***

The vent from Workshop 2 was intersected by a rough tunnel that neither Nairu or Degroot had any idea existed, but CO Bradford obviously did. Some sort of Plan B that he’d marked with a glow stick that was now dying in the darkness. After about half a kilometre the tunnel connected to a collection of old mine shafts (Pharaoh would have laughed at the cliche) which took some time to navigate, since Bradford hadn’t left any other markings to help them get out. So they followed rusty cart lines and tunnels that led ‘up’ until they saw light and emerged into the outside world what felt like miles from where they’d started.

If the other survivors had used that exit than they’d already left. Nairu used the moment to examine and dress Degroot’s wound, cutting away the remains of her burnt sleeves and armour and wincing at the raw, scorched flesh.

“It looks worse than it is,” she’d said but Degroot had known she was lying, was too numb to care, “The workshop had a full medkit, I will dress the wound but it is going to hurt.”

There were some painkillers in the medkit, which Degroot didn’t want to take but Nairu stabbed a syringe straight into her shoulder anyway. Nairu then applied some sort of gel to the afflicted area and wrapped the entire arm in bandages.

“I do not know much about burns, but it doesn’t look like anything important was damaged. We should find a proper doctor though. I expect at the very least it will leave a wicked scar.”

Degroot said nothing. She hadn’t said anything since they left the base.

The first rallying position was a town near the base. If the base was compromised and if it was possible, X-Com staff and operatives were supposed to fall back to the town and set up a new defensive or help evacuate the civilians. Nairu said it was a bit of foolish sentimentality to place the safety of the townsfolk higher than the continued survival of X-Com but Degroot thought that very sentimentality was X-Com’s entire raison d’etre. When the two of them reached it the next morning they found it empty. Signs of battle but, unsurprisingly, no bodies. They managed to put together some supplies, and find a working vehicle. As they drove out of town they noticed the normal welcoming sign had recently been graffitied on in big red letters.

“ASSUME ALL POSITIONS COMPROMISED”

They didn’t know when CO Bradford or any of the other survivors would have had time to paint the warning. Perhaps X-Com had left someone in the town (just in case) and that person had painted across the sign. Regardless, they took the warning as gospel and drove in the opposite direction from the second rallying point.

The next few weeks were a blur in Degroot’s memory. If the aliens were scouring the countryside for survivors then they would have found Degroot and Nairu easy prey. Perhaps they were just lucky and the aliens missed them in their sweeps. More than likely the aliens no longer cared. The only credible threat to their invasion had been thoroughly smashed, what did they care about a few stragglers? Either way, they found the next town populated and managed to get proper treatment for Degroot’s burns. The doctors said she was very lucky that Nairu had put the flames out so quickly, that there was some nerve and muscle damage but that she’d more or less have full use of her right arm. They spent two weeks there and at some point she began practicing shooting with her left hand while her right hand recovered.

When they didn’t hear anything from anyone in the X-Com chain of command Nairu sent word to their respective militaries asking for orders. Not long afterwards both were ordered to return to their own countries to assist in the rapidly deteriorating resistance against the aliens. The local government wasn’t able to spare any help, so when Degroot was feeling well enough they travelled to the coast. Nairu had delicately hugged her before they parted and Degroot had muttered a “thank you.” Then they climbed on separate ships (the aliens controlled the skies but hadn’t got around to taking control of the seas just yet) and went their separate ways.

It took weeks to get back to the Netherlands, since the ship she’d chosen changed course three times to avoid port cities that had been attacked by the aliens. By the time she arrived the Dutch government was on the verge of surrender. She joined up with a mechanised infantry battalion that managed to fight a guerilla war across Europe for nearly two years before being whittled down to nothing.

It was while fighting with the battalion that she met her tattoo artist, a corporal named Johann. It took weeks for him to research what she wanted and months to etch the design onto her left arm. From shoulder to wrist, a swirling black Maori pattern that traced around her muscles and joints, surrounding an Egyptian Ankh on the inside of her forearm like a vine.

Pharaoh had worn a small silver version of the symbol around his neck on the same chain as his dogtags, a gift from his “loving, hippy mother” before he’d gone off to basic training. He’d loved that little piece of tarnished silver. It was the reason everyone had started calling him Pharaoh.

Nairu made it back to South Africa. They’d managed to keep in touch, barely. Every year or two they’d find a way to send a few letters back and forth before the lines of communication were cut again. When Degroot had finally rejoined CO Bradford and the new X-Com she’d sent a message to Nairu to convince her to come along as well. Nairu had politely refused.

“I’m old,” the letter had said, “I have been fighting for a very long time. So have you. But you still fight for the rest of the world. I only fight for home.”

Degroot didn’t blame her. It was still disappointing to not fight side by side with her friend again.

***

Leroy was out of practice, but no one cared. He started slow, then sped up as his confidence grew and the old muscle memory kicked in. Degroot leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, cutting out everything but the sound of the music. It was a fast, happy song, the kind you can dance to if so inclined. She remembered Leroy’s love of electro-swing from previous parties and chuckled inwardly at the imagined thought of Adams finally having the courage to dance about the room with Shen.

Something was placed on her lap and her eyes opened, thoughts interrupted. She looked down and saw a small brown paper parcel sitting across her legs.

“I found that while you were using the bathroom,” Cheng said, eyes still watching Leroy play, “I hope you like it.”

Degroot’s brow furrowed as she tore open the packaging and promptly unfurrowed as she saw what was inside. A scuffed blu-ray cover with a shiny disk inside, the words Die Hard: With a Vengeance within its blue border. A smile stretched across Degroot’s face as she stared down at what she and Pharaoh had both agreed was the greatest film ever made. Cheng seemed to notice and her own lazy grin stretched a little wider.

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (6)

Chapter 6: Torture doesn’t always work

It was early morning and the Avenger was flying low and slow enough for people to walk the flight deck unaided. The sky was clear and the sun was still close enough to the horizon to cast everything in a light orange. According to Bradford the Commander had been up there since dawn, watching the sunrise or something else that sounded vaguely poetic. According to Bradford he’d been up there for longer than normal, but no one would hold it against him. The Commander often spent days at a time in the situation room, napping between updates in his chair and leaving only to use the bathroom (rarely enough that his bladder had become legendary amongst anyone that worked on the bridge) and taking meals while still staring at the monitors. Everyone thought he deserved a little fresh air every now and again.

Cheng and O’Neill found him standing on the rear observation deck, leaning on the railing and watching the treetops disappear behind them. The twenty years since the aliens had invaded had seen a sharp reduction in the world’s agricultural output and logging operations, and an expansion by the forests across the many abandoned farms and fields. The Amazon was apparently doing very well if Cesar Vargas was to be believed. The Mexican commando had fought ADVENT across Central and South America, so he probably knew what he was talking about. Then again he also claimed to have spotted a cow in a clearing recently, and when was the last time anyone had seen a cow?

“If the maps are right,” he said hearing the hatch slide open and shut, and their footsteps stop a few metres away, “we’re above a lumber plantation right now. All of this should have been chopped down a decade ago, then replanted, then chopped down again. That’s why they’re planted in straight lines. See?” He pointed down towards the trees that did in fact look like they stood in roughly straight lines, “Instead it’s just grown and grown. It probably doesn’t matter, but it feels like it should.” He sighed then raised a hand in a half-bored come forward motion.

Cheng stepped aside and O’Neill pushed their prisoner forward.

***

Li Ming Cheng was fourteen when the aliens invaded. Her father was an upper-middle ranking member of the Communist Party, a popular and hard-working man who had spent time in China’s vast and sometimes over-complicated diplomatic corps. Her mother was also a member, less well-known but still highly respected. She managed a local branch of the party, coordinating with members from the business community and overseeing annual recruitment. By that age Li Ming was taller than both of them, to everyone’s great surprise.

No one knew quite why, but everyone found it endlessly amusing. Her father blamed the four years spent in the United States (where she’d learnt to speak English) and all the rich American diet. Li Ming’s mother pointed out that while her uncle wasn’t significantly taller, his son was. Perhaps the genes just skipped a generation. Li Ming was strong as well. Years playing soccer (as the goalkeeper of course) and rowing (doubles and quads) left her with broad shoulders and thick limbs on what would normally have been a lanky frame. She tried basketball, but to everyone’s surprise was awful at it.

Then the aliens invaded. No one knew at first. There was some sort of attack in Hamburg. An explosion some said. A chemical or biological attack someone said later. Likely culprits were suggested than dismissed. Others claimed responsibility. Terrorist groups and, both bizarrely and unsurprisingly, The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. They were all similarly dismissed. Then Edmonton in Canada was attacked. Mumbai. Adelaide. Johannesburg. Seoul. Rio. Singapore. People dying. People disappearing. Her father heard rumours about involvement by the People’s Liberation Army with some sort of joint special operations unit trying to stop those responsible. But no one seemed sure who was responsible, or at least the people who did know kept it to themselves. The Chinese propaganda and censorship machine went into overdrive and Li Ming’s father, forever the diplomat, complained constantly in private about the nation’s increasing isolation.

Eventually, as it always does, the truth became known. Li Ming would never be sure exactly when it happened, or why, but one day everyone seemed to know the culprits were not from earth. Perhaps not even from the same dimension that earth occupied. Fierce beasts, little grey creatures with psychic powers, incredibly powerful machines and weapons from another world or worlds. The air force was practically wiped out not long after everybody found out that humanity was at war. A force fifty thousand strong mobilised to help their neighbours, the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, was destroyed before it even crossed the border. Her father heard rumours that the international joint task force that was meant to stop the aliens had failed. Had been destroyed.

A little over nine months after the first attack in Hamburg the central government surrendered to the aliens and the rapidly forming ADVENT Administration. No one was quite sure how many had to die before the simple mathematics of attrition forced the PLA to admit defeat, but it was estimated to be in the millions. Not everyone surrendered, however. Before the war the Party stood as the single largest political organisation in the world, eighty-seven million strong. Those at the very top may have been forced to give in, but far too many had lost a son, a wife, a cousin, a mother, to simply stop fighting.

A month before Beijing surrendered Li Ming’s mother disappeared during an attack on a shopping district. There were a lot of bodies but none of them belonged to her mother, one of two hundred and ninety-three people who simply disappeared during the attack. Well, two hundred and ninety-four. Li Ming’s mother was pregnant. With the relaxing of the One Child Policy, her parents had applied successfully for permission to have a second child. Even with the attacks increasing, even when everyone realised that humanity was at war, they had kept trying for another child. Were overjoyed when the results were positive.

Her father cried all night when her mother disappeared. Then went back to work the next day.

When the leadership in Beijing surrendered Li Ming and her father went into exile.

***

Vargas leaned against the wall on one side of a metal sliding door that led to the security room of their target location, Krause the other, Cheng watched over her shoulder. Behind them the enormous, expansive lobby of the administration’s regional something-or-other headquarters was a mess of broken glass from shattered windows, splintered furniture and pillars pockmarked with bullet holes. The corpses of several black-armoured troopers were scattered about the lobby and just outside the building, a viper was bent backwards over a window frame with its jaw agape, a red-armoured officer lay face down at the bottom of the large fountain decorating the exterior of the entrance, a sectoid was still twitching behind the receptionist’s counter. Navarro and Banerjee were running across the roof. They’d provided fire support through the lobby’s skylight and were now moving towards the opposite side of the building to provide overwatch during exfiltration.

Two deep breaths then Cheng nodded at Vargas. He nodded back, made sure his shotgun was cocked and opened his hand over the door panel. Cheng raised her own hand so it was visible to Krause without the German taking her eyes off the door, used it to count up and gave the ‘go’ signal on five. Vargas mashed the keypad.

The door slip open with a whoosh and suddenly all three of them had charged into the darkened room beyond. One wall was just a mass of screens covered in camera feeds and scrolling information in the senseless alien language hanging above a mass of consoles, providing the only light in the room yet somehow filling every corner. The other wall was occupied by a large door that led to the opposite side of the building to where they entered, flanked by an empty gun rack on one side and another console on the other.

Gun up, sweeping the room, Cheng heard a scream and looked over to where Krause was standing over a woman with straight black hair, pale olive skin and a nice black pantsuit, who’d stumbled onto her ass backtracking away from the three heavily armed intruders. Krause let her gatling gun fall to her side, batted away a weak attempt by the woman to protect her face and hit her once, twice, watched her head fall against the floor, pulled it up by the hair and hit her a third time.

“Shit,” the Commander’s voice rang in their ears, “Menace One we just detected another alarm sound. She must have hit a panic button. They know you’re in there.”

It wasn’t much of a warning, but it was enough. The door to the outside slid open and a trooper and viper charged in. Vargas’ shotgun boomed, cutting off the commando’s curse and throwing the dead viper against the doorframe in a clatter of scales and armour. A burst from Cheng’s gatling gun cut the trooper nearly in two, carving it apart from right armpit to left hip.

They stared at the door, waiting for a third enemy to appear, heard the sounds of another sectoid warbling nearby. It didn’t choose to peak its head around the corner just yet, however. Krause, not wasting time, pulled a photo from one of her many pockets and compared the face in the picture to the battered and bleeding face of the woman she’d just punched out. The German turned the woman’s head left and right, then turned to Cheng and nodded.

Avenger this is Menace One-One,” Cheng said into her throat mic, “target confirmed and in custody,” Krause had spun the unconscious woman over and was zip-tying her hands behind her back, “proceeding to extraction zone. Over.”

“Understood Menace One. Be aware, there’s still at least one more hostile in the area and we detect enemy reinforcements en route. This is capture or kill mission. If getting her out alive becomes to difficult put a bullet in her head and leave the body.”

“Roger that,” Cheng replied, and hoped it wouldn’t be necessary.

Krause picked up the woman and threw her over her shoulder.

***

In a fledgling resistance movement everyone must work. Li Ming, fifteen when she and her father joined the government in exile and stronger than most kids her age by a wide margin, was no different. She ran messages through towns, helped set up defences in mobile camps, tailed ADVENT officials, VIPs and patrols, collected salvage from junkyards, derelict buildings (sometimes hours before demolition) and battlefields, anything that could be useful.

Her father quickly became a powerful personality in what continued to call itself the People’s Liberation Army. He had many friends in the surviving bureaucracies and a talent for making new ones that had and continued to make him a good diplomat. He was good at putting information together and predicting the alien administration’s response to PLA strikes. He quickly endeared himself to the rest of the leadership, particularly General Xing, arguably the man in overall control of the resistance forces, a cunning fighter who understood better than anyone they couldn’t win the kind of wars they were used to fighting. Attrition had failed, especially with so much of the old PLA having surrendered to ADVENT on the orders of the (“traitorous sons of whores”) central government. He was also prone to quoting Mao at awkward moments in order to stop arguments.

When Li Ming turned 16 her father agreed to let her join the fighters. The training was not as thorough as it once would have been, and facilities were limited, but she showed a talent for killing aliens and the early breeds of ADVENT troops. One particularly messy mission saw General Xing himself call her an “artist with a rocket launcher.”

It’s odd to say it, given the desperate situation, but for two years she was content. Not happy, exactly, but content.

That changed six months after her eighteenth birthday when Li Ming was promoted. She was sent to Shanghai to the militant arm of the local resistance cell led by a woman who called herself Fox. Li Ming was young but had time and again shown great tactical aptitude and the ability to get more experienced soldiers to do what she wanted. The Shanghai cell had been gutted by recent raids and most of its fifty remaining fighters were raw and inexperienced. Fox needed skilled squad leaders to keep her fighters alive and Li Ming jumped at the chance to kill aliens in a different city, even if it meant leaving her father behind.

What she found in Shanghai was politics.

***

The woman’s name was Elena Volkova and she had information that the Spokesman needed. The names of several informants, what resistance locations and spies had already been compromised and the schedules of a number of supply shipments that travelled between New York and Boston. She had a mother and a dog. She worked within the ADVENT security apparatus managing the human faces they employed to betray their own. They didn’t know anything else about her and didn’t need to.

She was tied to a chair in one of the recently cleared holds of the Avenger, a stark, spartan room that the Commander had already slated be where a second power generator would be built. It was kept purposely cold and permanently lit. The Commander visited her at the beginning, sipping coffee and offering her a chance to tell them what they wanted to know before things got unpleasant. The woman refused, told him defiantly to go fuck himself, warned what would happen when her employers arrived to get her back, swore she wouldn’t talk. The Commander nodded and left without another word. An hour later Cheng and O’Neill, still wearing bandages on his shoulder and jaw from a stun lancers strike a few weeks back, entered and cut away her expensive pantsuit with their fighting knives.

Then Cheng began to hit her. Over and over again. Simple strikes around her kidneys, hard slaps across the face and breasts, slowly Volkova became bloody, black and blue. O’Neill had brought in a chair and would ask her questions between blows in his quiet, reasonable voice. Demand answers. Occasionally he’d reach forward and slap her, as if to remind her whose side he was on despite his tone, but it was Cheng who did most of the work. They kept it up for a few hours, then went for lunch.

When they came back a few hours later Cheng hit her again. And again. And again. Then she started breaking fingers.

***

What Li Ming discovered in Shanghai was politics. While the other cells she and her father had spent time in had always had a clear chain of command, usually beneath some pre-surrender PLA officer who’d survived the war, the Shanghai group was worryingly democratic. Fox was a good soldier, good at planning operations and better at executing them, but she shared control of the group with a man named Cho.

Cho had been a low ranking member of the Ministry of State, claimed to have been part of the counterintelligence arm of the Ministry in fact. Even though he never quite managed to convince Fox (or Li Ming for that matter) of his credentials he managed to run the group’s intelligence network relatively competently, and he managed to inspire a surprising amount of loyalty from his underlings.

Most of the fighters hated him. He constantly demanded that targets of his choice (often of no strategic or military value) be attacked, usually claiming that the death or destruction incurred would have some intrinsic propaganda value. A pop-music station that played too many ADVENT Burger commercials. A factory that made billboard screens. But because Fox needed his intelligence network in order to strike at real targets she would usually accede to his demands, coming up with some justification to blow up the office where ADVENT issued fishing licenses. Li Ming understood. She didn’t like it, but she understood. What she couldn’t abide by were Cho’s “penal expeditions.”

Every so often Cho would learn the location of a traitor. Someone who’d provided information to the administration, spied on a neighbour, maybe even just called the police when they saw someone skulking around behind their building in the middle of the night. Fox would need to provide an escort to a few of Cho’s cronies as they paid the “traitor” a visit and made an example of them. Li Ming led an escort team once. She saw the mess they made of the poor woman and her family (her fucking children) and refused to lead another. Or participate in any mission that Cho demanded. He was a paranoid, psychotic bastard and she would “not participate in his little revenge fantasies.” Doing his petty dirty work made her feel less like a resistance fighter against a dangerous, otherworldly oppressor and more like plain and simple terrorist. She didn’t like that.

Fox warned her that she was making an enemy of Cho. That she might not be around to protect Li Ming forever. Li Ming didn’t care, and for all that she went through later never regretted the decision.

***

It took a single night to break Volkova. Truthfully everyone involved was surprised she lasted that long. Cheng turned her once pretty face into a bloody, swollen mess, bruised her sides and broke six fingers. Meanwhile O’Neill kept asking her questions. As the night wore on he only became more reasonable, more sympathetic, asking the necessary questions in his quiet Irish brogue but also offering relief. Release. Return. An end to her current suffering. Safety for her mother. Someone to feed her dog. When Cheng broke her fifth finger she just began muttering “I cannot, I cannot,” over and over again. And O’Neill simply replied, “yes you can, of course you can,” as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

The end finally came when Cheng produced a pair of pliers from a pouch on her belt and clicked them menacingly in front of Volkova.

“We’ll start with teeth, then move on to fingernails.”

Volkova shuddered and began to cry, big body-racking sobs that lasted for what felt a long time. Then she told them everything they wanted to know.

It took half-hour to get all the information they were likely to get from Volkova and another half-hour for Central to compare the information against what little they already had and confirm it was good. Volkova was cut free, wrapped in a blanket and given a shot of painkillers and led out of the room, empty save for a chair and her blood. Central told them over their radios that the Commander was on the rear observation deck, do that was where they brought her. The Commander told them about the forest below.

“It probably doesn’t matter, but it feels like it should,” Cheng stepped aside and O’Neill pushed their prisoner forward, the Commander looked at the beaten woman seemed sorry about the whole thing.

“I want to go home please,” Elena said and it was the most pitiful sound Cheng had heard in a long time.

“Tygen and Shen are working on some drugs so if there’s a next time you two won’t have to get your hands so dirty,” he was talking to Cheng and O’Neill but staring at the woman, “Have we gotten everything we can from her?”

“Yessir,” Cheng said robotically.

“Alright. Are you sure you still wish to be the one to do it Mr O’Neill?”

“I am sir.”

“When you’re ready then.”

O’Neill nodded and pushed Elena against the railing in a quick but gentle motion. Her eyes went wild with surprise and fear, but Cheng doubted she had a chance to register O’Neill’s big revolver being pushed underneath her chin before he pulled the trigger. The top of her head blew off in a spray of blood that drifted away behind them. Elena’s body went limp and slumped backwards over the railing, O’Neill reached down and lifted her by the knees the rest of the way. All three of them watched her body cartwheel away into the forest canopy.

***

Li Ming awoke tied to a chair in the centre of a small dark cellar that smelled strongly of piss and mould.

“Good morning Miss Cheng,” Cho was leaning beside the door, a cruel glint in his eye and a calm smile on his face, “I trust you slept well?”

Her head felt like it had been split open and her left eye was swollen shut and why the fuck was she tied to a chair? Fuck, she was naked as well and that smell of piss was probably her as well. She looked groggily at Cho, then saw one of his henchman on the other side of the doorway, swore loudly, looked back at Cho.

“Why… What’s happening? Why am I here?”

“Because we need answers Miss Cheng. We need to know why you betrayed the group.”

“Wh-what?”

“Fox was killed last night, during the raid. Another failure.”

“What?”

“Another failure and now our leader is dead.”

Fox was dead. Fuck. Fuck. She’d warned her not to lead the mission last night. Less a raid and more a purposeless attack on a minor radio transmitter, it was nonetheless in one of the most heavily guarded parts of Shanghai. They’d been racking up losses lately, bleeding fighters at an unsustainable rate. Simple attacks on factories and warehouses had been costing more lives than they ever had before. Cho had grown more paranoid and more worried. He’d demanded that they make a statement. Something to show that they couldn’t be stopped, no matter what. He’d pointed out the radio transmitter near the centre of the city and, after threatening to disappear with his all his intelligence sources to find someone new to supply the information to, Fox had belatedly agreed. Morale was low, so she’d decided to lead the ten-member team herself. And now she was dead. Fuck.

“ADVENT was ready for them,” Li Ming realised Cho had continued talking, “cut them off then cut them to pieces. It was almost as if someone had told them about the raid beforehand. And I began to ask myself, who could possibly have told ADVENT about the raid? Who would?” Fuck, “It must be someone who was never as committed to the cause as the rest of us,” fuck, “someone who has shown sympathy for traitors,” fuck, “someone who has not participated in the last few disastrous missions but was involved in their planning,” fuck, “someone like you Miss Cheng.”

Cho smiled even wider, and Li Ming was scared then. She felt small, sitting in that chair, a sensation she’d never felt before and it was not something she ever wanted to feel again. Yet she still managed to force a reply.

Just three words, but for the next two weeks they would become the only thing that kept her sane. A mantra she repeated over and over again.

“I am loyal.”

“No, you’re not,” the smile on Cho’s face slipped slightly, “and you know what I do to the disloyal. But first I want to know why you betrayed your comrades, and believe me I will find out. I’ve been planning this for some time. It may take a while, but you will tell me. They always do. Then we will make an example of you.”

Li Ming had forgotten about Cho’s henchman until he strode up and punched her in the face.

***

Sometime later Shen asked Cheng why they had bothered to shoot Elena Volkova at all. Why not just push her over the side? The fall would have killed her. Cheng told her it was a morbid question. Shen said she needed to know.

“Because we don’t know if the aliens are looking for her, or if they can find her somehow, and we don’t know what kind of information they can get out of a dead brain. We thought it was best not to leave it intact.”

Shen said she’d watched parts of the torture and the execution. Said she threw up when O’Neill pulled the trigger.

“Good, it shows you’re still a little normal.”

Elena Volkova was going to die no matter what. They had nowhere to imprison her once they had information they needed and the local resistance insisted she deserved it. The Commander had suggested drawing straws with Central, O’Neill and Cheng to see who would be the one to pull the trigger. O’Neill had volunteered instead. Insisted he do it, in fact.

***

For two weeks they hurt her. She was beaten first and most regularly. The soles of her feet were hit with bamboo poles and the palms of her hands were branded with firepokers. She spent the first three days tied to the chair, sitting in her own filth, until Cho decided the smell offended him. She was released from the chair and rinsed off with a high pressure hose that left her feeling like someone had taken a belt sander to wherever it touched raw skin. A few days later she was stripped naked and left there shivering in the dark. The next day they replaced the rooms single bulb with a more luminescent one and left it on, alongside a constant stream of death metal for three days. The high-pressure hose made a reappearance and this time it was all bare skin.

But every time they asked her a question she answered with the same three words.

“I am loyal.”

They were a lifeline and she clung to them, repeating them over and over in her head until there was nothing left but those words and what they represented. What she needed to do because of them.

They continued to feed her regularly and decently. Twice a day, bread and stew. Not much, but not starvation rations. They’d also didn’t leave her tied up again after releasing her from the chair. Meanwhile the guards outside her door never stopped chatting. For members of Cho’s intelligence team they certainly had trouble keeping their mouths shut. She learnt much about them, their families, their friends and the fate of the Shanghai group. Apparently most of the fighters had decided that Li Ming’s arrest after Fox’s death was the last straw and most of them had left. Some disappeared into the city, while others had gone to find other resistance cells and continue the fight under saner leadership. Cho, according to his people, didn’t seem to care. Good riddance. He would build a new force in his own image. His remaining people were worried though. What would happen when General Xing found out that the daughter of one of his most trusted advisors had been arrested on, at best, circumstantial evidence and tortured for days? Cho was sure she’d confess before Xing found out, but the guards were increasingly unsure. All Li Ming needed to do was last a little while longer.

“I am loyal.”

Li Ming was no expert in torture but it all felt very amateurish. Less like a professional interrogation and more like someone who’d seen it work in a film. By the tenth day she was positive that none of her captors, Cho included, knew what they were doing. All she needed to do was bide her time and wait for the right opportunity.

It came on the fifteenth day.

She was woken in the night by the telltale sound of an alien plasma grenade going off, less an explosion and more like an enormous match being lit. She heard the guards at her door swear and run off down the hall. She hadn’t thought of the aliens much since her imprisonment, but as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes she realised that if this was the same building they’d been in before her capture (she hadn’t explored the basement levels fully so couldn’t be sure) it meant they’d been in the same building for nearly a month. Far longer than anyone with half a brain knew to stay in the same location.

Everything hurt but Li Ming knew an opportunity when she heard one. She pushed herself gingerly to her bare feet and padded over to the door, leaning heavily against it and listening through the wood. She heard automatic weapons fire, magnetic rifles, alien plasma weapons. She heard footsteps coming back down the corridor outside, she heard keys clinking, she threw herself away from the door and flattened herself against the wall beside the doorframe.

The boy swore when the door swung open and Li Ming wasn’t huddled in view. He entered stupidly, not checking the corners when he entered. Li Ming didn’t recognise him as one of her torturers and she didn’t care. She grabbed the boy around the knees and lifted, he screamed and hit the ground hard flat on his chest. She didn’t give him any chances, put a knee on his back and slammed his face into the concrete floor twice. Content that he could no longer fight back she put a hand on his jaw and a hand on the back of his head and twisted. They really shouldn’t have fed her so well.

His clothes were too small but they’d do. The boots were too small so barefoot would have to do. He’d entered the room with an old AK-47 and a Makarov tucked into his belt. Both weapons felt small in her hands. But it was enough. The sound of the alien assault was louder now. They were being methodical, but Li Ming had been doing this for long enough that she wasn’t concerned about escaping, even as badly injured as she was.

As she set off down the corridor to her freedom she wondered if Cho was dead yet. Perhaps she’d get to meet him on her way out.

***

They left the Commander alone on the balcony and headed towards the barracks. O’Neill still carried the revolver by his side instead of holstering it. He looked edgier than normal, meaner, angrier. Yet when he spoke his voice was still calm and quiet.

“You’re like me aren’t you?”

The Commander had suggested drawing straws with Central, O’Neill and Cheng to see who would be the one to pull the trigger. O’Neill had volunteered instead. Insisted he do it, in fact. When they asked him why he’d replied that “It’s how I learnt to deal with traitors.”

Cheng had looked in his eyes when he’d said it and expected to see Cho. The cruelty and the pride. But instead she’d just seen sadness. It was the same now. His body language may have looked fearsome but his eyes were upset. He didn’t like it, but it was his self-imposed duty.

“I think I am. I think we’ve both been through what we’ve just done ourselves.”

He nodded, “Was it the aliens that did it to you?”

“No. You?”

“Yeah. You seem… better than me though. Not as… whatever I am.”

“Maybe I’m just better at hiding it.”

“No. No. You… you handle this shit better. Better than anyone.”

“We’ll just have to agree to disagree on that.”

They walked in silence for a few minutes longer, then O’Neill turned to her again, finally holstered his pistol.

“Did you get the guys who did… who did it to you?”

“Yes,” Cheng said, the lazy grin that characterised her face appearing for the first time since the morning before, “Yes I did.”

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (5)

Chapter 5: Calm moments

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe, if the Commander approves.”

“Will he?”

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

Cheng nodded, “If you’ll let me.”

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

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

Lily. Huh.

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

“You can count on it.”

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

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

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

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

“I’m not that tall.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I like the spray-job.”

The Dutchwoman didn’t say anything.

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

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

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

“Wasp? Because it buzzes around?”

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

Can’t let her do that.

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

Now Degroot looked up, “Pardon?”

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

“They are.”

“No, it doesn’t sound right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck you, fuck you both. Idiots.”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Navneet leant back and prayed for the moment to last.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Venom?”

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

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

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

“What kind?” Cheng had asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was also my fucking idea Sawbones.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Even I knew,” Adams piped up cautiously.

“I didn’t,” murmured O’Neill.

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

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

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

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

“You’re joking.”

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

Life in the Avenger’s Barracks (4)

Chapter 4: Broken Bones

The room was small and cold. It’s walls were made of thick glass, it’s floor and ceiling made of the same metal as the rest of the ship’s decks. Adams stepped through the sliding door with a small and up to the large metal table bolted to the deck. It was the only notable feature in the room aside from a pair of glossy black domes built into opposite corners of the ceiling. Obvious cameras being obvious.

She ran her left hand over the table. Its surface was polished smooth and cool, cooler than the deck beneath her slippered feet. Emily wished she was wearing her boots. She felt weird with just the flimsy cloth wrapped around her feet, taking smaller steps and fearing every bulkhead would end in a stubbed toe and every heavy object being carried around her would inevitably be dropped onto her delicate tootsies (shit, that’s what her mother used to call them wasn’t it?) while they weren’t protected by hard leather and steel. But she couldn’t bend over enough to pull her boots on without help just yet, or socks for that matter, and the embarrassment of asking for that help outweighed the fear of stubbed or crushed toes. So slippers would have to do.

There was a loud knock on the glass behind her and Emily spun around, coming out of one slipper, feeling the skin around her stitches pull and sending an ache through her ribs as she backed against the table like a cat hiding from water. She let out a breath when she saw Dr Colin Lynch smiling apologetically from the other side of the glass with a high stool in each hand and tablet computer in an X-Com standard rubber case tucked beneath one armpit.

Dr Lynch stood for a moment, just staring and smiling at Emily before she realised he wanted her help opening the door. She took a step forward and pressed the button that caused the door to hiss sideways then stepped aside to let him passed. He strode in hurriedly, setting down one stool on the side of the table nearest the door then striding to the other side.

“Hello, terribly sorry I’m late. Terribly sorry for startling you,” Dr Lynch dropped the stool down and on the deck and the tablet on the table in front of it, “I tapped the door with one of the stools and I expect it was louder than anticipated.”

He sat down and gestured for Emily to take the other stool. She sat down carefully, trying to avoid aggravating her wounds. Dr Lynch watched her sit then picked up the tablet and began punching at its screen, eyes half focused on whatever he was doing and half focused on her.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t get anything more comfortable, but nothing else was high enough that we’d be able to see over this thing,” he wrapped the table with his knuckles then went back to the screen.

Emily nodded then decided to say, “It’s fine.”

“I borrowed them from the bar.”

Dr Lynch had changed since they’d rescued him from ADVENT surveillance and eventual arrest about two weeks before. He’d been thin and hollow then, with messy hair, a big crooked nose and gaunt cheeks, terrified for most of their hike through the city towards the E.Z. He’d put on weight since then, his face had filled out making his nose look less oversized and his blonde hair had been trimmed and combed. He’d ditched the suit he’d worn during the escape and instead wore the grey coveralls and white coat that Tygen planned to make the uniform of his scientists as they arrived. Emily felt underdressed in front of him, wearing just a pair of sweatpants and sports bra beneath a jacket hung over her shoulders like a cape, as raising her arms high enough to put a t-shirt on was a challenge at the moment. It had been bad enough needing help pulling on the sweatpants. She’d kicked off the other slipper as she climbed onto the stool.

There was a good minute of silence between the two before Dr Lynch lowered the tablet and rested it at a forty-five degree angle against the edge of the table, so that Emily couldn’t see it, he could, but it was still out of the direct line of sight.

“Now, how would you like me to address you?” Dr Lynch began.

“What?”

“How would you like me to refer to you? Would you like me to call you Emily or Miss Adams or Corpor-”

“Emily’s fine.”

“Thankyou,” he seemed genuinely pleased by that, “and please call me Colin.”

“I’d rather keep calling you Dr Lynch,” that came out with less spite than Emily was trying for.

“Whatever you’re most comfortable with,” his smile didn’t even twitch, “Now, how are you feeling?”

“Sore.”

“I’m not surprised. Dr Tygen and his machines may speed up the healing process, but even rapid healing will be painful. What hurts you more, the broken ribs or the wound on your waist?”

“The ribs,” she said after a moment of hesitation.

“Really?”

“I guess.” Emily scratched absently at what would be a new scar hidden under a layer of bandages beneath her coat, a dent in her waist a little above the right hip bone.

“You’re not sure?”

“I am.”

“You sound a little unsure.”

“Fuck you. I’m sure,” then a moment later, “the collarbone’s worst of all.”

“Excuse me?”

“I fractured my collarbone as well,” she shifted slightly to show that one of her arms was sitting in a loose sling, “That hurts the most,” she pouted unconsciously “no one seems to care about my fucking collarbone.”

Dr Lynch chuckled, “Okay then. Do you know why you’re here Emily?”

“Yes. It’s not necessary though, I just need to get back into it. It’s just that I’ve got too much time to think right now.”

“The Commander’s worried about you,” Dr Lynch said, ignoring her, “so is Central Officer Bradford. The Commander agrees that you just need to be fielded as soon as possible,” or not, “‘Kill a few X-rays and she’ll be good as new’ I believe were his words. Bradford is a little more concerned.”

“Is he?”

“Indeed. Apparently a few other have expressed their own concerns to him. Miss Degroot, for example, is very observant. You’ve been sitting relatively still for a few minutes now. Tell me, has your leg started twitching?”

Emily looked down and realised her right leg was practically vibrating up and down against the stools foot-rest-bar. She pressed her hands down on her leg to stop it before looking up at Dr Lynch again. There was no point in lying so she didn’t say anything at all. He seemed to be expecting that.

“Other unusual behaviours have been noted. You seem to be hesitant to step into large open spaces, aren’t talking as much and appear to be having nightmares most nights.”

“Eva noticed all that?”

“Not just her. Others are worried about you as well.”

“Such as?”

Dr Lynch just smiled apologetically again.

Fine, “How do you know it’s unusual?”

“We have several veterans of the First War, yourself included, who watched literally thousands of their comrades die. Others escaped from prisons that they may have deserved to be in. We’re giving you all the best weapons we have and sending you to fight genetically altered monsters that we know are bent on the destruction of the human race in order to achieve their nefarious purposes. Monsters whose mind-control abilities, as I understand it, may have been responsible for the fall of the first X-Com. Believe me, mental health is of great concern to the Commander and Central. Unusual behaviour is always noted.”

“That’s a little creepy.”

“It is,” that sorry smile seemed to be a permanent feature of Dr Lynch’s face now, “if you think about. But a panicked shot coming from a freaked out squaddie might lead to the kind of casualties that Dr Tygen’s machines can’t fix.”

“And it’s your job to prevent that?”

“One of them. I did a few a psychology courses during college, which unfortunately makes me the closest thing The Avenger has to a counselor. We might be spending a fair bit of time together.”

“I hope not.

“So do I. Do you know why you’re here Emily?”

“I’ve already told you. Yes. I know why I’m here.”

“Tell me about the mission.”

“What about the mission?”

“What happened during the mission?”

“Eva did the debriefing. Look up what she said.”

“Yes, Miss Degroot apparently delivered her mission report while Mister Leroy stitched her leg up. Tough woman. I’ve read her report, I’d like to hear it from your perspective.”

“If you’ve read it, then you don’t need to hear about it from me.”

***

The air smelt of smoke and ash, grass, trees, engine exhaust, the lingering scent of a pair of septic tanks that had been blown open about fifty metres behind the squad. Eva Degroot advanced towards a two story brick building at the end of an until-recently unused gravel road, rifle up and tucked firmly against her shoulder smelling of gunpowder and oil, her Gremlin hovering a pace behind and above her head.

Around the squad caravans and mobile homes were scattered, broken and occasionally burning between intact or splintered trees and occasional worn out wooden fences. A few terrified looking faces peaked out from behind stumps and wreckage, watching them pass then ducking away again. The building in front of them (Eva suspected it was an old warehouse) was the last place they’d heard enemy gunfire, and a chilling, strangled-off scream.

Cesar Vargas was on point, shotgun swivelling between windows as he moved, and Emily Adams was in the rear, running between close cover with one hand on her big revolver. Degroot was a little behind Vargas on the left flank while Li Ming Cheng trudged up the right with her big rotary cannon. It may have been the ADVENT body-count they’d left behind them, it may have been Cheng’s usual relaxed optimism, it may simply have been that her face was permanently stuck with a lazy grin, but it looked like she was enjoying herself. It was far different to the professional indifference that had been fixed on Vargas’ face since they’d dropped from the Skyranger or the concern that had been growing on Adams’ since before they’d even reached this little patch of rusted, rural Americana, as Central had been constant providing updates on the deteriorating situation within the resistance camp all the way over.

Vargas raised a fist as he reached a pile of crates and everyone froze. Degroot counted to one hundred then began making hand signals. Cheng ducked behind a splintered tree trunk and Adams jogged to another pile of crates. Not fantastic cover. Barely protection at all against the kind of firepower ADVENT usually brought to bear, but better than nothing.

The squad in place, Vargas still swivelling his shotgun between windows, Degroot took a deep breath and advanced towards an upright maple barely thirty metres from the old warehouse. She strode halfway there and sprinted the rest, slamming bodily into the trunk of a gnarled maple to brake herself. Another deep breath and Degroot swung around the side to see what she could see.

The sectoid spotted her the same moment Degroot spotted it. It screamed in her direction and threw itself through the nearest window, skittering like a spider across the long grass outside the warehouse to yet another pile of crates (did the resistance just unload crates fucking everywhere? Why the hell did they have so many crates?) moving outside Vargas’ line of sight. The red armoured officer that followed the spindly alien through the window wasn’t nearly as quick. Vargas’ big shotgun boomed angrily, catching the officer in the hip. It made a gargled scream but managed to stay upright and stumble behind the same cover as the sectoid. A black armoured trooper wasn’t nearly so lucky. Cheng’s cannon tore through the brick wall it had chosen to hide behind and ripped through its armour, flinging it backwards into a smoking pile of meat.

The sectoid screeched in Degroot’s direction, then so did Adams.

***

“You were eight when the aliens first attacked?”

Emily knew she was being petulant, childish, and didn’t care. She felt like being a little petulant after being ordered to sit through this useless chat with Dr Lynch.

“That’s what your file says. Your father flew cargo planes for a shipping firm, he was killed early in the invasion when the Aliens began cutting off supply lines. Your mother was a US Marine. When the situation,” Dr Lynch hesitated for a moment, as if searching for the right word, “deteriorated, she brought you to Camp Shelby. Do you remember that?”

“Of course I do.”

“One of the really surprising things I learnt after joining the resistance, and now X-Com, was how long the first war actually went for. The aliens, and ADVENT, took control of the cities quickly enough. Most of us assumed that our militaries had simply surrendered. Given in to the greater good of the new regime. But many soldiers kept fighting. You kept fighting. It was six years before Camp Shelby was destroyed by the aliens. Do you ever wonder why?”

Emily looked at the table, at the tablet in Dr Lynch’s hands, at the darkened room beyond the glass walls. Anywhere but actually at him. She wasn’t sure why she didn’t want to look at him, but she didn’t.

“The theory I heard,” Emily said slowly, uncommitedly, as if discussing who she thought the murderer might be at the end of a crime novel, “was that the aliens let us be so we’d all gather in one place. Soldiers an’ possible resistance fighters an’ their families,” she nearly spat the last word, “anyone who’d fight back and keep fighting back. We heard of places like Camp Shelby an’ that’s where we went. And when the aliens thought they had enough eggs in one basket,” she swallowed, “they smashed it.”

“Do you remember when your basket was smashed?”

Emily swallowed again. Her mouth was watering and her stomach was roiling. Of course she remembered that day. The screech of approaching jet engines. The roar of machine guns being overwhelmed by the pulse of magnetic rifles. The garbled alien language being spoken by an earlier version of ADVENT’s new footsoldiers, sounding more human than they ever had since. The ground shaking as Sectopods slowly demolished their way through heavy weapons. The glowing purple eyes of the men and women who had shut down the Camp’s defences, forced to betray their friends and fellow soldiers by psionic enemies nowhere near the battle. Fire, so much fucking fire.

“Parts of it,” Emily still wasn’t looking at Dr Lynch but she could feel him twitch at that, “I fought.”

“You were fourteen.”

“I was a soldier. Didn’t matter how young, you pulled your weight in Camp Shelby. But they needed bodies to hold the line when the aliens decided to come. When you turned thirteen, you were drafted.”

“How did your mother react to that?”

“She didn’t like it, but it was either I picked up a rifle or we had to leave. She didn’t think we’d last long on the outside.”

“But you did. You lasted fourteen years after the base was destroyed.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t want to.”

“Do you remember what happened the day Camp Shelby was destroyed?”

So much fire. Emily’s mother dead amongst a half dozen others. A man with purple eyes had gunned them down, shot her mother in the back of the head. She didn’t have a face anymore. Just a bloody mess of shattered bone and brain. But Emily recognised her, recognised the tattoo on her arm, E.T in someone’s crosshairs. The man who shot her, eyes still glowing purple, flat on his back choking on his own blood. A burning building nearby casting everything red and orange and yellow.

“Yes.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Honestly? Yes.

“Fuck no.”

“Okay. What happened during your last mission.”

“You’ve read the report.”

***

“Eva!” it was a panicked sound, broken and high-pitched in Degroot’s ear.

The Dutchwoman twisted in place, making sure she remained in cover, looking in Adams’ direction as the American drew her pistol and fired. Degroot followed the line of the barrel towards a capsized caravan and the abomination in front of it.

One of the civilians, a woman with short bleached blonde hair, was changing. Mouth wide in an expression of agony, her left arm had suddenly blown up into a grotesque pink tree-trunk of a limb ending in three sharp talons as long as Degroot’s shoulders were wide. The woman… The creature roared a primitive bellow that rolled over the scorched remains of the camp and the rest of its body shifted. Legs, torso and head, then its remaining arm, until it was just a dripping, oozing, neckless pink blob sitting on long footless legs with longer clawed arms. For a second Degroot was reminded of an old McDonalds mascot, the goofy purple monster thing. Maybe this was a distant cousin that had been tied to one of those medieval torture racks. And melted. Cheng was swearing rapidly in Mandarin and Vargas mattered a long, appreciative “puté madré.”

The creature roared again and lumbered forward, faster than Degroot would have thought possible. Adams fired her big revolver again, hitting the thing square in the chest. It didn’t stop, slow down, didn’t flinch, didn’t seem to notice at all. It just seemed to absorb the bullet, the big hole filling in the blink of an eye.

“Fuck!” Adams yelled, loud enough for Degroot to hear without her com-link, “Fucking shitty fuck!”

She fired again, trying to back up, but the creature was fast, its long legs eating up the distance. Adams barely squawked when its arm, as thick as her torso, hit her in the chest. It lifted her off her feet and sent her twisting into the stack of crates she’d been ducking behind a moment ago. They buckled with a violent crack when her back struck them, enough to make Degroot wince as she watched Adams drop onto the ground in front of them. The creature bellowed yet again and advanced on Adams.

It all seemed to happen in the space of a few terrifying heartbeats. Degroot released the breath she’d been holding since Adams yelled her name and raised her rifle.

She hadn’t forgotten about the ADVENT officer and sectoid, nor did she expose herself, but the maple tree she was hiding behind had not evolved with magnetic rifles in mind. Most of the officer’s burst went well wide of the tree, but one round ripped through the edge of the trunk and into Degroot’s left calf. The leg gave like someone had kicked it out from under her and she went down, jarring her elbows and teeth when she hit the ground hard.

Cheng was already reacting. There was the hollow metallic thunk of a launcher and a split second later one of her grenades exploded amongst the pile of crates the officer and the alien had been hiding behind, turning their cover to splinters and tearing through the officer’s breastplate. The sectoid was knocked backwards, but not killed outright. It was screeching stupidly as it tried to stand back up, but Vargas was already running forward, pulling his machete out as he ran, putting the momentum of his sprint into the swing as he dropped it down on the sectoids neck. Its head bounced once, twice, stopped. The body went limp.

Degroot looked back towards Adams, who was pushing herself back onto her feet. She’d lost her pistol but still had managed to keep her long rifle as she was spun into the crates. Her left eye was swollen shut, and Degroot didn’t doubt that she didn’t have at least a few broken ribs, but she didn’t let it stop her. As the creature began stomping towards her again she raised her rifle and fired.

It was a messy shot hitting around the creature’s waist. To everyone’s surprise, however, the creature was staggered, even taking a step backwards. Degroot didn’t let herself miss the chance. Still on the ground she took quick aim and fired. The shots slammed into the creature’s head. It swayed on the spot for a second that felt like an eternity, then fell backwards in a messy, slimy heap. Like someone had emptied a massive pile of lard onto the grass.

“Hold your position Menace One,” the Commander’s voice filled their ears, “we’re scanning for signs of other hostiles in the A.O.”

Degroot released another breath that she’d been holding and looked at her leg. The bullet gone through the back of her grieve, leaving a bloody black hole, but had been stopped by the front. She pulled a bandage from her field kit and began winding it as tightly as possible around the wound. Cheng and Vargas were watching everything, including the other civilians, for any further surprises.

Looks like that’s a wrap Menace One,” Central Officer Bradford now, “Looks like you got them all. Firestarter’s on the way, let’s get these civilians out of-“

Fuck,” the Commander again, still his usual calm self but concern clear in his voice, “Fuck. Menace One-Four’s vitals are dropping. Degroot, Adams is hurt worse than we thought. Get to her NOW.”

Degroot looked up just in time to see Adams sink to her knees, trying to use her rifle to keep herself upright.

“Kut!” Degroot swore as she pushed herself up onto her wounded leg, “Kut!” as she began painfully limping towards Adams, “Kut!” again as Adams collapsed forwards onto her face.

Vargas was already running towards the prone woman and after a few limping steps Cheng arrived by Degroot’s side, letting Degroot drape an arm over her shoulders and acting as a crutch. It still took an age to get to Adams, though it was really only long enough for Vargas to reach her first and roll her over after quickly checking her back for wounds. Degroot through herself besides the young American woman, whose eyes were open and breaths shallow. There was a lot of blood leaking onto the grass, too much blood. She found a gash, not too deep but two fingers wide on Adams waist just above the hip, more worrisome was that the edges of the wound had the look of recent chemical burns. Vargas had backed away to start herding the civilians towards the E.Z but Cheng seemed to recognise the oddity as well. Both women looked towards the dead creature, which seemed to be melting away already.

“Shit,” Cheng swore again, this time in English.

Degroot nodded agreement as she pulled out her combat knife and began cutting away Adams’ clothes and armour. Above them Firestarter’s engines whined, signalling its approach.

***

“Do you know why you’re here Emily?”

“I’ve already told you, yes! Why do you keep asking me that?”

“Your accent’s slipping.”

“What?”

“You have a bit of a southern drawl most of the time, but you hide it most of the time. I’ve been told it becomes more noticeable when you’re tired or drunk. I see it also happens when you’re irritated. It’s quite charming.”

Emily looked at Dr Lynch for the first time in what felt like ages but could only have been a few minutes, unable to think of a comeback either clever or vulgar. Dr Lynch’s eyes twinkled (honest to God, twinkled).

“Before the war,” he said, “I was a forensic scientist. Every so often I’d have to testify in court and there was one prosecutor I became quite good friends with. He had this habit of asking suspects and witnesses the same question, over and over, but always between other questions. One day I asked him why he did this, and he said that if they didn’t understand the question he’d keep asking until they did. So, Emily, do you know why you’re here?”

Emily squirmed a little, her ribs throbbed, “Because the Commander an’ Central want to know if I’ve gone round the bend. They’re worried I might freak out next mission and get the whole squad killed.”

“That might be what I’m asking. Maybe I’m asking why it is you think they’re worried about that? After all, they’ve not yet asked me to speak to Miss Navarro yet. In fact she’ll be going back onto active duty very soon.”

She thought for a moment, “All that unusual behaviour bullshit you dragged up a minute ago.”

“Maybe. Your friends are concerned about you. Mister Leroy has noted your difficulty sleeping. Miss Cheng says she hasn’t heard you laugh in the days since the mission. Mister Vargas says you were worryingly insistent about acquiring a bottle of Miss Seo’s ship-made rotgut. Miss Shen said you were rather bitchy when she came to visit you.”

Adam’s heart skipped a beat, “Sh-Shen said that?”

Dr Lynch’s eyebrows rose the barest noticeable fraction, “In the nicest way possible. She’s worried about you. We all are. Believe me, the Commander doesn’t think so little of his soldiers that one bad day could break them. But he is concerned that a small traumatic incident may trigger memories from a greater trauma. Memories of being betrayed by friends you were supposed to protect, as an example, may be reawakened by being wounded when someone you were supposed to save turned into a literal monster.”

They were both silent for a moment. Emily back to staring at the table, Dr Lynch watching her.

“Of course maybe I’m asking if you know why we chose the autopsy room for our little tête-à-tête.”

“Our what?”

“Chat.”

“Oh. No, I don’t.”

Dr Lynch looked around them at the glass walls and the room beyond, the smile slipping for the first time since he arrived if only for a moment.

“Truthfully neither do I. Maybe because it’s the only private space on the whole damn ship save for the Commander’s quarters.”

Emily chuckled, “Honestly, that’d have been even weirder than doing this here.”

“Yes, I agree. It might have also been so I could show you the place where Tygen and I are going to cut that creature into tiny little bits,” again his smile slipped, again only for a moment, “We’re going to keep having these meetings while your healing. Perhaps afterwards as well. We want to make sure you can take whatever is coming.”

“We’ Dr Lynch?”

“I was recently rescued by a charming young lady with a southern drawl, a young lady who never let me out of her sight and kept me moving no matter how terrified I was. I’d like to try and return the favour.”

“Oh. Thankyou.”

“The pleasure’s mine, my dear. Now tell me truthfully, do you want to find somewhere else to do this or should I bring a space heater next time?”

Emily laughed.