Praise was not something that came easily in the Shen household. Even at Caltech, while monitoring graduate students and their achievements, Dad would only pass a, “good work”, and “the procedures are sound. Continue,” to his best students. Even to Lily – his flesh and blood, and only living family – she rarely heard a single, “I’m proud of you.” Too late for that now: Dr. Shen - dad - sleeps under a coverlet of ferns and boulders, and Lily will never see him again. She will never have the opportunity to ask him questions about a city swathed in smog, or compare designs, or even share another bowl of chopped up ian-chhiâng in glutinous rice. All that died with the old world.
Lily wonders what made him change. The way he spoke of the Commander painted a god in mortal flesh, a sword made human, and first and foremost, a leader.
As she extricates the Commander from the prison of the red space suit, Lily doesn’t see any of her father’s praise in the frail woman before her. The Commander has curled into the fetal position, her breaths shallow, arms dangling lifelessly over the side of the gurney. It isn’t a wraith-like Zhuge Liang that Lily wheels up to the Commander’s Quarters. For all of Dad’s tales of strength and poise, the Commander more closely resembles one of those battered women Hollywood loves to rescue from triads on the silver screen.
Lily shakes her head. Dad never said anything unless he meant it.
“You knew what you were doing, dad,” she later mumbles in the privacy of Engineering. Her wrench creaks as she brings ROV-R’s battered shell back together. “I just wish I was half as confident as you. Okay… reworked your repulsors with some of the parts I salvaged from your old engine.”
She tightens a bolt, trying to banish her doubts from her mind. Today, through terrible tactical advice, she had killed Osei and Ramirez. Would the Commander really do better? Had all those deaths been in vain?
“Should fix that stabilization problem you had.” Lily grips her GREMLIN’s carapace, willing the machine to come to life. “Come on, ROV-R. It’ll work.”
Slowly, ROV-R’s engines hum. The GREMLIN takes off, buzzing right towards the Commander standing at the mouth of Engineering.
“Dr. Shen.” The Commander sidesteps the flying robot. “What do I need to know?”
Old wounds rip open as Lily explains that no, Doctor Shen is dead, and Lily’s doctoral title is honorific at best, and the Avenger is all that remains of Doctor Shen’s legacy. She tells the Commander that she will do her best in his place, and tries to quell the disappointment in her voice. With his sixty years worth of engineering experience, Dad would have known better. She can only follow in his steps.
The Commander looks down. “I’m sorry for your loss. From what Central has told me, your father would be proud of what you’ve accomplished.”
Lily bites her tongue – did this woman even watch the tapes of Operation Gatecrasher? But there’s no reason to complain now. She opens up her toolbox. “New orders, Commander?”
“Any concerns that you’d like addressed?” the Commander asks.
The Chief Engineer restrains a groan. The Commander is one of those women – a lady with a Messiah complex who thinks they can solve everybody’s problems. She had enough of those women, having met those overeager freshmen and grad students while visiting Dad's office at Caltech.
“Can we keep to engineering, sir?”
If I wanted a counselor, I’d do a Central and start drowning myself in alcohol. Then again, I inherited Dad’s alcohol tolerance… and I need to fix the ship if Central ends up crashing it.
XCOM’s newest superior smiles, barely perturbed by Lily’s abruptness. “Weapons, armor, medkits… I’ve been out of the loop since 2015. I’m afraid you’ll have to fill me in our capabilities.”
Thousands of projects dance before Lily’s eyes: appropriating ADVENT’s armor into their own, moving beyond ballistics, better plumbing systems so the soldiers’ locker room doesn’t perpetually smell of damp…
Lily thinks of Ramirez and Osei, bleeding out on foreign streets. ADVENT must be parading their corpses around the city centers by now. The aliens have no shame, seamlessly incorporating fallen rebels into their spiel of innocent civilians slaughtered by XCOM.
“A medkit would help us keep soldiers alive.” Lily motions to ROV-R. The implant in her hand generates signals that bring the GREMLIN over. A similar implant helps Central fly the ship. “We don’t have the resources to keep up. Armor’s best, but we can’t build any until we steal it off ADVENT.”
“If we could kill the enemy before they reach us,” the Commander says mildly, “that would further reduce casualties. Are we lacking for resources?”
Lily shifts from foot to foot, eager for the conversation to end. “If we can haul back some corpses, we’ll be good to go.” Lily explains the rest of the medkit’s benefits. The Commander orders a set of three, and then the AI summons her to the Bridge.
“I look forward to working with you, Chief Shen,” the Commander says.
Once the other woman’s footsteps have faded away, Lily slumps against her workbench. She fiddles with the touchscreen of her tablet.
ROV-R nudges her shoulder, and beeps sadly.
"I'm not running away," she tells her best friend. "I'm not going to think about Dad. I'm going to do the best job. I will be the Engineer XCOM needs."
Her voice bounces around the Engineering bay, as if her echo is trying to convince her.
The Avenger doesn’t feel like home, not when it is stained with Dad’s blood. The expeditionary team had colonized the ship’s upper levels, even bent most of the systems to their will. Lily had helped storm the alien ship’s lower levels, only to meet the skeleton crew who had been recently freed from cryostasis. The Sectoids began to merge minds with Dad – she shot them, but the breaking of the psionic link might had sealed Dad’s fate. She’s heard Central’s tales, of Sectoids who merged minds with a comrade, only to die once XCOM shot the initiator.
Dad died in sublevel 2, room B. The Commander has ordered sublevel 1, room B cleared, to make way for the Guerilla Training School. It is the last of rooms on that sublevel to be cleared.
Sooner or later, she must descend into the room where Dad died.
“Work is progressing well, sir,” she hears the recently acquired engineer, Howell, talk over the shriek of grinding metal. “We’ll be able to move to sublevel 2, room B and build the power relay there.”
“I look forward to it.” The Commander hesitates. “Central, why does everyone avoid that room?”
Central is slow to reply. “Dr. Shen was attacked there,” he says finally. “Sectoid got its psionic claws on him. He wasted away. Lily doesn't like to talk about it.”
“I’d imagine not. There’s no memorial for Shen up on the Wall.”
“No,” Central admits. “We always thought the Avenger was memorial enough. It was his life’s work.”
“I see. Well, please dedicate the supplies acquired from this room to the construction of the power relay,” the Commander says. “Howell, if I may speak to you in private?”
Lily finally enters room B, sublevel 2 when the Elerium generator is crafted. She does the final checks – chamber is sealed, heat vents safely into the insulated spaces, nothing looks ready to blow up… It looks nothing like the room which finally killed Dad.
ROV-R suddenly chirrups and directs her attention to the corner of the room.
The silhouette of the original Skyranger is stamped into the wall. 沈 is tooled into the wall below the memorial.
“…We didn’t forget him,” she tells ROV-R. “But I wish he was still here.”
"Hey, Chief Shen!" Howell shouts. The Engineer skids to a stop beside Lily's workbench. "You never eat dinner with us grunts. Why don't you join us?"
Lily spoons a bit of the watery gruel with stale oats from God-knows-where into her mouth, then sets the wrench onto her table. "I'm busy. You should be working on the Gauss rifle."
"Right, boss…" Howell looks at the table. "But maybe you shouldn't eat in Engineering."
Lily looks again at her bench. A grease-slicked wrench, oats sliding off its length, sits next to the barrel of the Gauss prototype.
The Chief Engineer groans. "How long have I been doing that?"
"Since I walked into the room." Howell takes out her handkerchief and begins to wipe the wrench. "I hope this stuff isn't toxic. There's a mess hall for a reason."
Lily pushes her bowl away. "I'll eat later," she says. "Thanks for telling me."
Howell frowns, but she takes up the bowl and leaves without another word.
About an hour later, Central intrudes on the safety of the Engineering Bay to demand updates on the rifle. At least, that's what she thought he would do.
"Eat," he says, throwing a ration bar at her. ROV-R flies forward to intercept the edible missile, then nimbly drops it in one of Shen's pockets. "Before you pass out."
Howell is a goddamn snitch, Lily thinks.
"Thanks, Dad," she scowls, and then freezes.
She's thirty-five, but age hasn't prepared her at all for the loss of her dad.
Central looks equally unsure. He runs a hand through his hair. "Look, Shen… we all miss your Dad. But you've got to take care of yourself. I… don't know what to say."
"I'll eat. Thanks." She looks at the Gauss Rifle in her hands, then at the ration bar. Her stomach is grumbling…
"The Mess Hall's clear," the Commander adds, appearing at Central's shoulder. XCOM's newest commanding officer looks Shen up and down. "There's still some food left," she adds, tone measured and careful. "I'd like to hear your opinion on our weaponry soon. Central thinks we should go for lasers right after Gauss. We'll see you soon."
"Our soldiers can hardly shoot straight," Central protests as the Commander drags him away. Is it just the light, or is he reddening? "You can't miss with a laser–"
Shen looks at the empty Engineering bay and the newly cleaned wrenches on her desk. She decides to eat before she does something dumb à la Central.
“Good shooting, Tex,” Central says as she lowers the newly crafted Gauss rifle. “You sure taught that cardboard a lesson.”
“It’s the edge we need,” the Commander says. “Even Doctor Shen and Vahlen couldn’t get us past ballistics. Are these ready to deploy, Chief Shen?”
“More than ready.” Lily flicks the safety on, and sets the rifle on the rack. She hands Central a fresh rifle. “You take a crack at it, Central. See how it compares to that bloated monstrosity you call a gun.”
“It’s the best gun XCOM has, Shen,” Central shoots back. There’s no venom in his voice, only the ease between two comrades. Lily has rarely seen him so calm; Bradford is a bitter drunk on the best of days. Dad told her about a time when Bradford would have been right at home in a Boy Scout troop. She can almost see the same man of Dad's stories before her, weighing the Gauss rifle in his hands. “Unless this knocks it out of the park.”
He lines up his sights with the cardboard Sectoid at the back of the room. Lily imagines the current running through the coils within the gun. She thinks of the diagrams Dad would draw as she complained about homework on Lenz’s law. Currents in coils generate magnetic fields. It seems so simple in theory. But to bring it to life, and put it in a soldier’s hands, is a different matter entirely.
For a brief second, she considers telling Central to drop the gun. Put it down, before it explodes and kills him. She has done thousands of tests to make the gun as stable as possible, but there is always human error, and Lily does not want to be the death of another man.
Central fires. The head, neck and torso of the Sectoid explode into fine black ash and charred paper.
“Knocks mine right out of the league,” the Central Officer says. “Good work.”
“This will save more lives than you think, Chief Shen.” The Commander nods in assent. “How are the Dragon Rounds progressing? Are they ballistic only?”
“Good work on the test,” she can almost hear Dad saying, “now, did you finish your homework?”
Lily hides a bitter smile. Even the apocalypse won't stop Asian parents.
“We’ve improved on the currently available tracer rounds; those can be deployed. But the Dragon Rounds still explode inside the chamber…”
Despite the massive change in leadership aboard the Avenger, Lily notices the smallest changes first. Sure, there’s a trend towards more survivors after missions, but the soldiers are happier. They really believe they’re going to win this war, even after Central has sent them to hunt down a traitor or a mole. They don’t seem to care that there are thousands of civilians, blissfully ignorant of Dad’s sacrifice to set them free. No, the civilians flock to ADVENT’s hands instead, even as the aliens melt them into green goo.
ROV-R chirps in the specific cadence dedicated to the Command team. Lily sighs. Why do they always bother her when she’s in the middle of something?
“Up late, Chief Shen,” the Commander says as she walks into Engineering, a thermos in hand. “Engineer Andrade is handling the night shift well. What’s keeping you up?”
Lily doesn’t bother pushing up her welder’s mask. “Got work to do.”
“So we all,” the Commander says. “You don’t need me to remind you that rest is important too.”
Lily huffs. “Is there something you need, Commander?”
“On the last mission, we encountered the turrets. You mentioned that they were fully automated.” Lily hears the Commander turn on a tablet. “I’d like to appropriate their systems to defend the Avenger.”
“Our current focus is on the plated armor,” Lily says as she seals the two metal slabs together. “All the engineers are occupied as well.”
“It won’t be long before ADVENT goes after the Avenger directly.” The Commander shifts her stance on the cold metal floors of Engineering. “We need to be prepared. Turrets could provide covering fire, either as the Avenger flies off or personnel escape.”
Lily shuts off the flame. ROV-R swoops down to set the MIG welding gun on its holder. “You think we’ll be shot down.”
“I tried to defend XCOM HQ to my last breath, Chief Shen. We should have evacuated far earlier,” the Commander says. “We were unprepared to deal with hordes of Mutons and Sectopods. This time will be different.”
Unbidden heat builds up in Lily’s ears. You could’ve gotten Dad killed, she thinks, and then I would be an orphan, and all alone in San Francisco. Where would I be then?
“You’ve lost your father,” the other woman continues. “I have no intention of costing you his legacy as well.”
“Why do you care?” Lily hisses.
“I care about my men’s health and safety. Speaking of which, is that gas still on?”
“It’s inert, it’s not the fuel,” Lily snaps, but she closes the valve regardless. “I don’t know what game you’re playing, Commander, but your focus should be on kicking the aliens off the planet, not micromanaging everyone’s feelings.”
“When it interferes with their performance, I need to have a talk.” The Commander taps her fingers against the wall. “We had that scare with your ingestion of god-knows-what sludge. We’ve recorded a second Gauss rifle exploding after overheating. Not up to your usual work. I know you’re working on the problem. I would, however, prefer if you didn’t explode as well.”
“I’m the Chief Engineer, Commander, I know what I’m doing. My team knows when to follow me, and when to work alone. This is just one of the times I want to work alone.”
“Working together is hard.” The Commander scowls. “Particularly when your partners are determined to die of alcohol poisoning.” The older woman’s face softens. Lily thinks she sees a hint of her long dead a boh, a jazz singer who swam from Shenzhen to Hong Kong to escape the communists. “But you may find they offer ideas or companionship far more valuable than their work.”
Is that why you keep Central around? Lily wants to say.
“I like to know my men,” the Commander says. “Understand their strengths, complement their weaknesses, provide camaraderie under fire. It’s what leaders do.” She tilts her head. “Who knows what you’ll learn? It could prove useful.”
"You know, sir, I thought pep talks died with high schools and all that jazz."
The Commander laughs, but there is steel in her voice and ice in her eyes. "I wouldn't patronize you. However, if your work suffers, I will re-evaluate your position on the Avenger."
Lily pauses. Where would she go, if she loses the Avenger? What place in the world would have use for a Taiwanese-American engineer who specializes in robotics? Most Resistance Havens have barely enough wood to get them through the winter, let alone steel and sulfuric acid for circuit boards.
"You know how to change that," the Commander says.
Shen takes a deep breath, trying to find her center. All the stress from twenty years of life on the run and three quarters of a year without her father comes boiling up. Dad said Dr. Vahlen would have some words about that, the biologist that she was. Dr. Vahlen would probably say something about adrenaline and cortisol and all the things Lily memorized once for tests and promptly forgot. Biology is too imprecise. It can only ever be quantified in ones and zeroes. Not like physics, where the significant digits trail off into the thousandths and hundred-thousandths. In physics, things happen at scales so tiny, the mere act of viewing could change their dynamics. Lily likes physics and calculus. They’re quantifiable at one end, and drift into philosophy at the other. Biology and the act of living are a mess all the way through.
Equations won’t help her now. The ground spins beneath her feet. She takes a deep breath. The integral of an exponential function is the exponential function we started with, Lily tells herself, trying to steady herself on firm facts. Newton’s third law of motion – Dad, what was the third law again?
Tears prick at her eyes. Of course Dad isn’t answering. He’s dead, and she watched him waste away.
Strong. Dignified. Unbreakable, even in the face of adversity, a dream her father had encoded in her Chinese name. There’s no use in crying, Lily, her father had told her after looking at the test with a big fat F in the top-right corner. Tears don’t help anything. Be strong. Let’s work on this together. What don’t you understand?
And now, like the girl she was twenty-six years ago, Lily wants to scream at the top of her lungs, “I don’t understand anything!” She presses the heel of her palms to her eyes. Tears are building up at the bridge of her nose. She breathes in. There’s fluid clogging her sinuses and pressure building in her chest. This equilibrium cannot hold.
“You know where to find me,” the Commander continues, turning to leave, “when you are ready.”
“I’m not ready!” Lily screams, and it all comes bursting out. “Dad is the only parent I’ve ever had, and he’s gone!"
The Commander leaves the room, and Lily collapses against the bench to sob her heart out.
Lily hardly notices the clink of a mug against the workbench. She can barely smell the musty odor of mushroom tea, XCOM’s sad substitute for actual tea. She does notice the handkerchief brushing against her fingers. She grabs the fabric and furiously wipes her eyes until she sees pink.
“I’m twenty years older than you. I still miss my mama he baba." The Mandarin words are soft and shushing, tinged with Southern Chinese tones. Dad would know where the Commander's accent came from. "It doesn’t go away. The pain just… dulls, until it’s manageable.”
“How’s that supposed to make me feel better?” Lily chokes out.
“It’s not. We persist,” the Commander says, “despite what life throws at us. And we make the ones we love proud.”
“I want Dad here,” Lily whispers, “I want him to see all that I’ve done.”
“So do I,” the Commander says, and gives Lily another dry handkerchief. “But until we see them again, we’ll have to make do. Why don’t you have a drink? That is fluid you’re losing, after all.”
"I really hate it when you do that," Lily says, but drinks regardless. "I'm not a project that needs to be fixed."
The Commander sighs, and looks around. The Engineering Bay is clear; Andrade must have gone to staff the Power Relay.
"Can you keep a secret?" she asks.
"ROV-R's not a chatty one."
"I have no idea what I'm doing," the Commander confesses. "I'm used to having hundreds of men and organizations at my disposal. But I recognize some things that I can do. And I try to make up for the things I can't by relying on those who can."
"So that's why you're going around, playing counselor?"
"That, and I also care about those under my command." She levels a meaningful glance at Lily. "Particularly when things start exploding without the men improvising."
Lily laughs a bit, and sips from the mug. "Got it, sir. I'll try to keep the explosions to a minimum."
"Glad to hear it. We'll talk soon." The Commander straightens. "Goodnight to you too, ROV-R."
The Chief Engineer starts to wonder if Dad was going soft in his old age.
She returns to work, the invisible burden on her shoulders imperceptibly lifted.
Title comes from 不了情 (Bu liao qing), as sung by Teresa Teng, a very famous Taiwanese singer.
Chapter 2: 眼泪最珍贵 (Most precious tears)
Some hide grief better than others.
Lily has never had cause to believe in ghosts, but she knows one named Vahlen haunts Central’s steps. While she was writing the Avenger’s archived history on how the world went to hell, Dad mentioned that the previous XCOM’s chief scientist was named Vahlen. Tygan wanted to know more about his predecessor. Upon hearing their conversation, Central smashed a bottle in a withdrawal-fueled rage and stormed out of the camp.
Needless to say, no one on board the Avenger dares to mention her name.
“Okay… if I do this, we should be a little less likely to get pancaked against a canyon again,” Lily mutters. She’s on the bridge, trying to fix the ship’s navigational computer (how did Dad wrangle this technology in the first place?), when Central speaks up.
“Commander, we’ve located the site where Big Sky took off from… no immediate signs of activity…” Central says, touching his headset. Lily instructs ROV-R to boost the Avenger’s receptive capabilities. “Hold on, might have something…” he motions for her to keep fiddling, “it’s a weak signal on an open channel…”
“…Throughout this area… are of particular concern to…” Heavy static interrupts the female voice, but Bradford’s face whitens as she continues, “all attempts should be made…”
“Is that… Vahlen? Haven’t had any signs of her since we lost HQ,” Central murmurs, eyes darting back and forth.
Lily is a terrible liar. When it comes to pieces of the past, Central is even worse.
The Chief Engineer has only seen Central this animated once: the night before the Commander’s rescue. She hasn’t seen the Central Officer touch even one beer in 24 hours, which has got to be a new record.
“Are you four?” she chides as she fits the Gauss modifications to his massive rifle. “Stop jittering and let me fix up your rifle.”
“Don’t like going unarmed,” Central shoots back, folding his arms over his chest. “Don’t you feel weird when ROV-R’s not hovering about?”
“I’ve got one ROV-R. You’ve got three pistols: one on your belt, one in your boot, and I can’t see the last but I’m gonna guess it’s up your ass.” Lily wrenches a nut, tightening a component to the bulk of the rifle. “Seriously, Central. If you don’t stop shaking the bench, I might accidentally shoot you.”
Central rolls his eyes. “With an empty magazine?” He suddenly scrabbles for the safety on his gun. “Shen, if my gun’s still armed–“
“I didn’t say what would come shooting off. But it won’t be a bullet,” Lily says, slapping his hand away. To her relief, Central stops bouncing on his heels and starts pacing instead.
“Tygan detected a recent battle,” the Commander says as she enters Engineering. Central stops pacing upon sighting his superior. “We’ll move to investigate.”
“Commander, you and I both know what Vahlen meant to our operation. With your permission–“
“She was one of our most valuable assets,” Central persists, maintaining his stock-still soldier’s bearing. “I was able to get you out of ADVENT’s clutches, maybe I can do the same for her.”
“Central,” the Commander says, “have you considered that you are too valuable to risk being captured?”
“We’ve got nobody above Sergeant rank available,” he says, “if I’m leading, I can bring two more with me. Without a seasoned veteran, sir, it could be a bloodbath.”
Lily coughs. Both turn towards her. She hands Central the finished rifle. “Speaking of which, don’t shoot your face off.”
“Modified to shoot magnetic rounds?” the Commander asks.
“I may be on the Bridge, but I can’t get soft,” Central says. “Commander. We don’t leave people behind. XCOM could use–“
“You seem prepared enough, Central. I hope you find her.”
The Central Officer’s face darkens, but he snaps off a salute. “Thanks, Shen.” He slots the multipurpose combat rifle to its place on his back.
The Commander steps aside. “The soldiers are already assembled outside.”
Central nods. Lily peeps around the corner – yes, Menace Team is looking in, with the Alien Hunter weapons cautiously secured in their arms. “Listen up people. We’re looking for someone, one of the finest minds to ever serve XCOM,” he declares, with a passion normally foreign to his entire being. “I don’t know what we’re going up against, but we know she’s out there, and we’re not gonna let anything stand in our way,” Central finishes, his voice fading as he ascends into the Armory. “Let’s gear up.”
Lily looks at the Commander. “What was that about?”
The Commander shakes her head. “Not my place to say.”
Central walks off the Skyranger shaking, and not from adrenaline and the two broken ribs gifted by the Viper King. With Central away, it was up to her to man the Avenger in case ADVENT found the ship. She didn’t like having Tygan up on the Bridge to advise the Commander, but there was no other choice. But Lily still heard bits of Operation Regal Beast down in Engineering.
“Don’t say a goddamn word,” he snarls at Lily, then recognition filters into the bloodshot eyes. “Sorry, Shen. Wasn’t meant for you.”
The Commander steps past him to help a gravely injured Sharpshooter onto a gurney. “Stay with me, Georg,” she says as she stabilizes the whimpering soldier’s neck. Frostbite has bitten into his exposed flesh, blackening tanned skin. “You’re back on the Avenger. We’ve got you, soldier.” She nods at Lily. “Triage the soldiers. We can discuss the mission later."
“I’m gonna kill her,” Central mutters into his orange juice. “Scratch that. I’m gonna strangle her, then kill her, see how she likes it.” He drinks deep. “Goddammit. I can’t wait for my ribs to heal up. Stupid drugs.”
The Commander nods and continues to sip at her mushroom tea. Lily shifts uncomfortably on her seat, waiting for a chance to speak. The bar is empty, at this hour, and particularly because of its occupants. Central has commandeered a seat right next to the cabinet with mementos from the old war. He stares at the picture of the senior staff as if he could kill Vahlen à la Dorian Gray.
“Never thought she’d turn out like this,” he curses. “I thought I knew her, Commander. She up and left in the middle of the night. Thought she was gonna chase ADVENT in her own way. But this?”
Lily considers informing him of XCOM’s latest progress. She decides that can happen when Central is less likely to burst a vein. “You sound disappointed in her.”
Central slams his glass onto the bar top. “Shen, turns out I was dating Viper Hitler,” he spits. “The world was falling apart, she made it seem a little less shitty and it turns out she’s a part of the whole shit sandwich.” He glares at the Commander, who has developed an intense interest in the beer taps. “Don’t gimme that look. You don’t know how it feels.”
“Of course, Central,” she says.
Central may be high off his ass on painkillers, but Lily can hear the ghosts and flames in the Commander’s voice.
Seemingly mollified, Central finishes his juice and turns to her. “Sorry, Shen. Got a little distracted. You, uh, wanted to say something?”
“We can begin building the Defense Matrix,” she says. “But we need to scavenge some turrets, because we’re all out of copper.”
“Work is never over,” Central says, as he pulls out his tablet. “One Viper King to kill…” he murmurs as he types out objectives for the week, “and one defense matrix for when I inevitably crash this thing.”
Lily and the Commander share a look. It’s not like Bradford to be this self-aware about his flying abilities.
“You should rest,” the Commander says, “we need every soldier to be ready in case the Alien Rulers attack.”
Contempt drips off Central's every word. “Gonna work your counseling magic on me, sir?”
“I wouldn’t dare presume how you feel,” she replies. Her tablet beeps. “If you'll excuse me, it's my shift. Goodnight, Shen. ROV-R. Central.”
A hollow silence hangs in her wake.
After a moment, Central slams his fist down on the bar. Lily jumps, ready to run for cover. But it is not a beast that confronts her. Central lays his head on the cold wood and lets out a frustrated sob. “I ruin everything, don’t I,” he murmurs into his freshly laundered uniform. “I fucked up XCOM’s first mission, I fucked up with Vahlen, I couldn’t save your dad–“ At this, Lily breathes in hard, but the air has vanished from her lungs and a vacuum collapses her heart. “–and now I’ve gone and pissed the Commander off.” Central stands, wobbling in place. His hands go to his mouth. “Oh, shit. Sorry, Shen, I wasn’t–“
“Go to bed, Central,” she snaps, but amongst the emptiness, she can’t find it within herself to blame the Central Officer for Dad’s death. “You’ve done enough for today.”
As she helps him through the corridors, Lily recalls a time when Central was shaking and seizing from withdrawal. Dad had somehow created a ventilator. Tygan had sedated the Central Officer, then left him intubated with antipsychotics flowing into his veins. It was Dad who sat by the Central Officer’s bedside, and reminded him of the man he was. Dad knew the dosages of the invalid man’s drugs and the right words to say. Lily has nothing but pats on the back and helping Central back up when the pain in his chest stops him short.
I’m nothing like Dad, Lily thinks as she gingerly lowers Central onto a cot in the AWC, but I swear, I will get better.
On her way to breakfast, Lily finds Tygan in the corridor. The doctor’s eyes are squeezed shut as he braces himself against the corridor and mutters breathlessly. Upon recognizing her, he rushes to excuse himself.
At breakfast, Lily raises her concerns with the Commander over a curdled fish soup. “It’s just so suspicious,” she concludes.
“Tygan likes to talk aloud when he’s solving a problem,” the Commander says. “He didn’t specialize in neuroscience, and yet I’m asking him to probe the brain for psionics.”
Lily spoons a bit of overcooked white flesh into her mouth. “How do you know that?”
“I do my best to get along with my coworkers,” the Commander says with a placid smile. “Perhaps if you talked to him, you’d learn more.”
“He was with ADVENT. He developed the chip that stuck you in the–“
“And he gave me my life back again,” the Commander says firmly. “People can and do change, Chief Shen. Though I appreciate your diligence, it is unnecessary. If he proves untrustworthy, he will be dealt with.”
“You’re far too trusting.” Lily cocks her head. “Central and I were at the surgery. Maybe he didn’t mess with you because we were hovering over you.”
“There is an appropriate amount of suspicion, but this is not the time or person for it.” The Commander bows her head. “Focus on your enemies, Lily. ADVENT has done much harm, but not everyone working for them is guilty.”
“Isn’t that what the Nazis said?” Lily scorns. “We still threw the Auschwitz guards into prison.” Though it has nothing more than a rudimentary AI, ROV-R picks up on her anger and chirrups in agreement.
“There is a difference,” the Commander says. “We don’t have the resources or the energy to pursue every last lead. Central almost damned the XCOM project, but he did his best to bring us back. Tygan has worked for forgiveness, Lily. The least you can do is offer a bit of trust.”
Central comes out of the kitchens, bearing a wicker basket that smells of freshly baked and buttered bread. He offers the Commander an apologetic smile. “I, uh, was a bit out of it last night. Said some things I shouldn’t’ve.” He holds out a roll. “Had to finagle margarine out of sunflower oil, since there’s no goddamn cows anymore. Uh, you still hungry, Commander?”
The Commander tips her head at Lily. “There had better be enough for everyone, Central.”
He rolls his eyes and places the roll on Lily’s plate, then reaches into the basket to give the Commander one. “What kind of Central Officer do you take me for?”
“Still don’t trust him,” Lily mutters. “Don’t worry, sir. I’ll still work with him. I’m a professional.”
The Commander dips her head in acknowledgement, and begins to review the night shift’s happenings with Central.
Some nights, Lily wakes up with electricity soaring through her veins that only the feel of a plasma welder in her hand can dispel. The urge to create, to cast dreams and theories in iron and silicon, dispels the fog that hangs over her like some morbid specter. She can almost hear her father’s voice as she draws out the lines of a new weapon and tinkers with the soldiers’ GREMLINs. The force that characterizes the Shen line – from a grandmother who swam to Hong Kong to escape the communists, to a father who trekked across America to return to his daughter, and now to a daughter who is heir to technology beyond anyone’s dreams – sings through her. Like a string plucked tight, she must dance to the song or risk being consumed in its beat.
Today is not one of those nights.
The Taiwanese love their wordplay. Lily doesn’t find it funny that her last name means, “to sink.”
She wakes up hollow in the darkness, painfully cognizant of the water-filled pump in her chest and the empty space in her lungs. A misplaced bullet could rupture it and dissipate the entirety of her being. The night her father wasted away, she fired six times: three found their targets, two hit the cold metal of the room, and one found its way into Dr. Shen’s flesh. She sits up on her cot, gasping for breath, and feels the back of her head until she’s assured that yes, it is human, and no, she is not the Sectoid that murdered her father. It was the Sectoid. Dad had survived gunshot wounds to the legs and arms before. He had never fought against a Sectoid. It was the Sectoid’s fault.
“I didn’t kill him!” she screams out to the darkened quarters.
Grief ebbs and flows in her, like the tides lapping at the pier. On her first day in America, Lily was an inconsolable mess who cried for her mother and a boh and a gung, but of course the dead man and women couldn’t listen. She has faint memories of a car trip, and then her father pulling over to answer a call. Dad closed the Japanese cell phone, tucked it away in his pocket, and never looked at it until she stood awestruck before massive golden fronds of kelp waving in cerulean water at the Monterey Bay aquarium. He took a picture of her, then told her in quiet Cantonese, “We have each other, Lily. Look at that. They come in and out with the tide. I promise you, I will always come back to you.”
A grainy copy of Lily on that day, silhouetted by crystalline water and golden kelp, once sat on dad’s desk at Caltech. She wonders what happened to the photo. Not that it matters. Time has made a liar out of her father. It made a murderer out of her.
ROV-R stirs from its rest cycle and chirps. She pats her GREMLIN on the head.
“I’m okay,” she lies, hugging herself. “I’m gonna be okay. I’m alive. I’m okay.”
Sleep eludes her on nights like these, tantalizingly washing in and out like the beat of the waves against the shore. Lily suits up, pulling her gloves up to her elbows and boots up to her knees. Unlike Central, Lily never goes around the Avenger armed. It’s as if a subconscious part of her anchors her in place to D-Day, death day, day of the murderer.
She wanders the ship, checking the panic rooms that Central meticulously keeps stocked. Each one has eight assault rifles, three pistols, medicine and dried victuals in case the Avenger is shot down mid-air and breaks apart. She remembers that there is no such panic room on the Bridge. A deflected shot would kill everyone inside. Maybe that’s why Central keeps everyone but the technicians out of the Bridge when he’s flying. Even the Commander has to stay within 10 meters of a panic room.
Tonight, the night shift doesn’t dare break the silence. Grief casts its heavy wings over the ship, and in the silence lies the lives lost today.
Lily enters the bar. Four new faces stare down at her from the Memorial wall: a boy of sixteen, with nothing left in him but revenge; a woman of forty, mother to two; a man of twenty-five, stolen from life in his prime; and a man of thirty, father to a daughter who will never know him. Central is there, his ribs mostly healed after a week of light duty and excellent drugs, staring back at their pictures.
He salutes her with his bottle. “Shen.” Central takes another sip.
“Grieving for the team?”
“What do you expect?” the man replies, bitterness congealing on his every word. “Had to write condolence letters to their families, figure out what to do with what’s left of the bodies… I was in military intelligence, Shen. I’m supposed to see patterns.” He nearly drains the bottle with his next draught. “It was an ambush. That much is clear now.”
“You think better when drunk? That’s news to me.”
Central eyes his bottle. “I feel better when drunk.” He sighs and lays his head on the table. “Not working like it used to. I don’t feel anything at all.”
“Uh.” Lily taps the five empty bottles sitting by the bar. “Have you considered it’s because you drink too much, Central?”
“Off my back, Shen,” Central grumbles. “This is beer, not vodka. If I wanted a lecture I’d go to Tygan. He’s not even a medical doctor. Why’s he ragging me about liver disease? He studies the goddamn brain. The brain’s not the liver.”
She draws upon half-remembered textbooks, from classrooms now covered in ash and dust. “Well, the liver does feed the brain. Indirectly, anyways.”
“Sure. All the educated types gang up on the Central Officer. I see how it is now.”
“Self-pity doesn’t look good on you, Central.”
“One more drink,” he mutters, laying his head on the bar. “One more, and I’ll be functional. Just give me that, Shen. I can’t work otherwise.”
She watches him destroy himself in the shadow of a dying man’s agonized cries for his daughter's forgiveness and the empty faces staring down from the Memorial Wall.
“Get up,” she tells him. “I need some help in Engineering.”
“Shen, it’s 3 AM.” He does a double take. “Why’re you awake, anyways?”
“Awake enough to drink, awake enough to work.” Lily hauls him off the stool with a grunt of effort, though it does worry her that Central weighs so little. Maybe it’s because he lives off beer, coffee, and the occasional bread roll.
“I’m super flammable right now,” he protests.
“That’s called you've had way too much to drink, Central,” she sighs. "C'mon. Sober up, and get to work."
“Didn’t answer my question,” he says as they pass the empty Hangar.
Lily stops, and looks away.
“It’s about your dad, isn’t it.”
“Yeah,” she says weakly, though everything screams at her to lie. “I killed him, didn’t I?”
Drunk as he is, Central shakes his head like he’s trying to cast off fleas. “No way in hell, Shen. Sectoids are nasty fuckers. Our soldiers were never right after tussling with mind control. It’s like getting smacked upside the head then stabbed through the heart. Old man like your dad, he never had a chance.”
“I shot him, Central.”
“It was dark. It wasn’t your fault. The mind control got him, Shen, it’s hell to fight off – I’m not surprised he did fight it off, when he had you to fight for–”
Lily grasps for formulas and facts, but it’s too late. She covers her face, and cries.
“Fuck.” Central grabs her by the shoulders and hugs her close. “Not your fault, Shen, listen to me.” He repeats it like a mantra, as if words could wipe away the blood that stains Lily’s hands. “Nothing you could do. It wasn’t your fault.”
He says it with such insistence, Lily can almost believe him.
The Commander takes one look at the sorry duo – one nursing a hangover, the other sleep-deprived – and shoos them out of the Mess Hall.
“You, sober up,” she says, packaging a salad of ambiguous freshness into a small plastic container. “And eat your damn vegetables when you wake up.”
“Yes, mom,” Central grumbles, but he takes the salad and tromps up the stairs to the Quarters regardless.
“And you, back to bed,” the Commander says, restraining a yawn as she stacks pancakes on a napkin for Lily. “If I go down to Engineering and you’re still tinkering away,” the other woman threatens, though she is substantially less threatening when she’s piling field berries into Tupperware, “I’ll put you in the AWC.”
“Commander, isn’t it the end of your shift?” Tygan asks as Lily stumbles back to her quarters.
“I’ll live,” she says. “Others need rest more than I.”
Lily looks around. The Engineering Team stands in the corridor, shifting from foot to foot.
“Look, we heard about last night,” Andrade says quickly, “and we just wanted to say–“
“-We really respect you,” Howell continues, “for all the work you do. So if you need a hand–“
“We’re here,” Tasev finishes. The team scatters without another word.
For a moment, Lily stares after the backs of her fellow engineers.
"Thanks," she manages to say.
“Ye shang hai, ye shang hai,” a soft voice sings, echoing around the empty corridor, “ni she ge bu ye cheng~”
Lily freezes. “Hua deng qi, che sheng xiang,” she mouths to the melody, half-recalling one of the songs a boh sung in her youth. But those are distant memories, and Lily cannot remember the words, only mimic them as they float out of the lower levels of the Avenger.
She peeps around the corner. Among the sparking remains of alien machinery and ghostly green light from emergency beacons, the Commander swings and dances in place with an absent partner. Instead of saxophones and drums, she is accompanied by the creaking of metal and sighs from the pipes.
“Ye sheng huo, dou wei liao…” The Commander twirls. “Yi shi zhu xing!”
Though Lily knows a boh is long dead, the illusion of home still evaporates. In its place lies bitter dregs of a language half-lost and memories gone out on the tide. A boh had to flee Shanghai because she was a jazz singer, and the government deemed such music Western propaganda.
“Cao ta ma le–” The Commander scrabbles in place. “No, no, I don’t mean that. Sorry, Shen, you surprised me.”
“How’s the dance party while everyone else is working, sir?” she asks.
“I’ll have you know that I’m supposed to be sleeping,” the Commander says with a sigh. “Just taking care of myself.”
“Mmhmm.” Lily points to a sparking pod. “They used to store aliens in that. Central has the bar, I’ve got Engineering, and you choose… the most depressing place on board the Avenger?” She ushers the Commander out. “You’ve got fancy quarters for a reason.”
“I know,” the Commander says, her shoulders drooping.
Sudden tears prick her eyes. Frustration wells up at a woman who spent the last twenty years sleeping while the world went to hell.
“People died down here, Commander!"
The other woman dips her head. “I’m sorry. I will refrain from doing so in the future.”
“You’d better,” Lily snaps as they walk to the elevator. “What were you doing down here, anyways?”
“Do you believe in an underworld, Shen?”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
As the lift doors slide closed, the Commander sends one last, longing look to the haunted light of the broken alien machinery. Lily suddenly remembers a far-away classroom rented for Chinese school, studying stories and characters under droning lights. She remembers a cartoon flickering on the ancient CRT TV, depicting a black realm with the green spirits of the dead floating from the stalagmite-tiled floors. Lily is almost tempted to cover her ears, but a month and a half with the Commander at XCOM's helm has strengthened her. So she listens, though the Commander does not have much to say.
“I needed to say good-bye.” The Commander smiles, as if by reflex. "But it's okay. I have XCOM now."
Things get better around the Avenger after everyone from Operation Regal Beast is released from the AWC. Once again, the bar is filled with laughter, and not stifled sobs and drunken praying.
The minute she starts interacting with her fellow soldiers and engineers is the minute Lily regrets taking the Commander’s advice.
Lily has faint memories of her Tumblr phase back in 2015. Or, rather, she has nightmares of someone digging up the archive of her virtual misdeeds. She’s fairly certain Dugatkin would have ferreted out all her weeaboo days. Oh god, if the younger engineer found all those Hetalia fanfics… If the apocalypse has taught Lily anything, it’s that dicks don’t work that way.
“I’m just saying, it was about ethics in ga–“
Howell throws her hands in the air. “This hardly counts as archaeology!”
“It marked a turning point in online interactions!” the budding sociologist/archaeologist/whatever he’s calling himself now says. “We have a modern example, not with the Internet gone, but it acted almost like a hivemind–”
“Who’s filling your head with this crap? You sound like my son,” Howell says flatly.
“Get back to work, Dugatkin,” Lily says, sliding a toolbox towards him. “Room 2C needs to be cleared.”
Dugatkin grumps away. “You lived during that age! You should know about 4chan!” the nineteen-year old man says as he picks up a plasma torch, and heads off to finally do something resembling work.
“Do you remember Gaia Online and Maplestory?” Howell asks once Dugatkin’s gone. “I can’t believe I spent all that money on pixels. Or how Zutara was a much better pair than Kataang.” The other woman cringes. “Why. Why do I remember this? It’s been twenty years.”
“Or video games.” Lily shakes her head. “My dad hated how much time I spent playing Final Fantasy.”
“Is it nostalgia if you don’t like remembering?” Howell sighs. “Could he tell the difference between a DS and a Playstation?”
“All just computer games to him.”
Howell shudders suddenly. "Hope ADVENT deleted the Internet.”
Lily shudders in sympathy. “There’s no proof now. He's got no way to figure it out.”
“We take this to our graves,” Howell agrees solemnly, and holds out her hand.
Lily shakes without a second thought.
It’s the weirdest start to a friendship she’s ever had.
Title comes from 情人的眼淚 (Qing ren de yan lei), as sung by Yao Surong.
The song the Commander sings is 夜上海 (Ye Shang Hai). Unfortunately, I can't find the exact copy that I used to hear, but it was very jazzy.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjXxbyzMJv4 has the exact cartoon Lily watched. This has much better production values than the other adaptations of the Journey to the West I've watched, highlights of which include Powerpoint-esque transitions between scenes. Ah, Chinese school.
Chapter 3: 夜未尽 (The night has not yet ended)
Life is a gift.
Lily remembers learning English, in a little room with all the other ESL students. The words were slimy on her tongue, like the trout shimmying in the current of the Chinese supermarket’s tanks. Russian is hardly easier on her thirty-five year old tongue. It’s hard to sound out the heavy shush of consonants whistling past her lips like Central and Volkov can.
“Say it in English,” Volkov says, switching languages, “how can we modify HQ?”
Lily nods, but the red still rises to her cheeks as she describes the scanners to flush out Faceless infiltrators.
“Shen’s gotten better,” Central says, raising his voice to be heard over the rain. “Give her credit, Volk.”
“Gold star, Shen. You sound a little less like a fish now!” Volkov laughs and claps. “We’ll scrounge up the supplies and flush those aliens away. Or fry them up.”
Central rolls his eyes. “I read Tygan’s autopsy. I’ll pass.”
Lily nods, still thinking. What would she know of fish and lakes, when she lived in Taipei, a city of smog and cigarette smoke? Dad used to say it was better in Taipei than Beijing or Hong Kong, but after days of the barest hint of sunlight peeping through the polluted clouds, Lily found that hard to believe.
Volkov pats Central on the back and disappears into the night, the reed-song tones of his native Russian disappearing into the stormy air with him. Lily understands some of the words, thanks to Central taking the time to teach her. Volkov too, mourns the death of two XCOM soldiers on a covert mission to Kiev.
The Shens left Taipei in 2005, back when Taipei’s population burgeoned at almost 2.5 million people. As an ADVENT city center, Taipei has grown to swallow the countryside, holding 20 million inhabitants in its mouth. Hong Kong was not so lucky. It is a territory ruled by the Lost: the millions who once called it home all transmuted by the capsules and turned into things less than human.
She thinks of the jiang shi, hopping corpses that fed off qi like a Chinese vampire. She wonders what the Lost eat, and what happened to Sgt. Nanda’s body now that it is lost in Kiev. Perhaps if the old world still stood, the myths and legends of her grandparents would be there to instruct her. But they, like the jiang shi and feng huang of old, are dust.
Lily breathes in deep. Was this what her ancestors once felt? Cool air, tinged with rain, the scent of wet wild wheat and squishy mud lifted into the air. Or maybe her ancestors were scholars and warriors, surrounded by the scents of old paper and oiled armor. How would Lily know? The anchors to her past crumbled with her father, and now she is set adrift to a sea she does not recognize.
Smoke suddenly clogs her lungs. She coughs – though age has lessened the constricting draw of her asthma, the lungful of ash remains unpleasant.
Central puts his cigarette down. After a moment’s consideration, he stubs it out beneath his heel.
“One addiction for another,” he says. “At least the whiskey doesn’t make me stink.”
“You don’t shower when you’re drunk, Central.” Lily points to the pouring rain outside the shelter provided by the Avenger’s hangar bay. “Look. There’s one right there. How convenient!”
“Very funny, Shen.”
Thunder booms in the distance. The wind whips rain against the Avenger’s massive metal frame. Taipei was once battered by typhoons and thunderstorms. She wonders if global warming has changed the pattern of weather. Surely, now that ADVENT has provided non-fossil fuel energy sources, one can breathe the summer air in Taipei. Some old anger still seethes within her. So it took aliens to save the world from itself.
“Is it like this in Kansas?” she asks, trying to quell the rage and loss, welling up like the puddles in the fields before her. “The quiet, the smell of rain?”
“Not like you to be curious.”
Lily shrugs. “I don’t remember my roots. I don’t even speak Taiwanese anymore. Dad did… but he’s gone.”
Central picks up the stub and rolls it between his fingers. “Depends,” he says, drawing out the plosive. “I grew up near K-State. Big university town. Was never sure why they built the old base there. Too close to a university, too close to an airport. Too much potential for civilian casualties.” His face darkens. “Always wondered if more of my family would’ve survived if the base was elsewhere.”
“You lived near a university?” She cocks her head. Dad told her stories about the boy scout who kept XCOM running – by all accounts, a good, strait-laced man who had never even imagined breaking a rule. “I thought you’d be an army kid.”
“Dad was an accountant at K-State. Mom was a receptionist.” Central tries to take a puff from the cigarette, then remembers he had just stubbed it out. “Never was good at anything in particular, so I joined the Marines like my granddad. Old man owned a farm out in the country. Don’t remember how it looked like, but there was corn for miles. Out there, you look up,” he motions to the skies, “and it’s all the heavens and stars that you just can’t see in the city. You see anything over in San Francisco?”
“It’s all glass and concrete and crowds there.” Lily shakes her head. “Dad used to take me hiking to watch the Perseids. Isn’t it odd? We watch the same stars, the same meteor showers… but everything down below has changed.”
“The loneliness out here ever get to you?” Central asks, unexpectedly soft.
“My dad’s gone, Central. He was the only family I had for twenty-nine years,” she says, swallowing tears. Lightning crackles over the sky, shattering the dark backdrop of clouds. Lily gestures to the Avenger. “He never got to see her fly.”
Central grunts. “You know, uh… I probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for your father. He was… uh, something of a miracle worker.”
Lily retorts that her father was a miracle worker, and that he gave everything for XCOM to fly once again. She tells him to make good use of his last gift: kick the aliens off the planet for good. Though she doubts he needs the reminder. Ever since the Commander returned, Central has managed to limit himself to two drinks a day unless someone dies.
“No argument here.” Central looks out to the rollicking storm. “I envy you, Shen. You had someone watching your back.”
Central rubs his scarred cheek. “I found you guys eventually.”
She nods, and lets the rain-sodden silence sit.
They’ve landed at Resistance HQ to scan for intel, but rumors has it that in three days, a convoy is due to travel through West Africa. XCOM must liaise with the Resistance to stop ADVENT’s supply train. And so, the XCOM families at HQ must break up, and wonder if they’ll ever see their loved ones again.
Lily’s almost jealous as she watches Howell kiss her husband good-bye. These families show love so freely, while in her own, love was expressed in swats and fond laap saap. She knows now that her maternal grandmother was calling her “garbage”, in the same tone Howell calls her children, “rabbit” and “firecracker.” “I’m doing this because I love you,” a gong would say, as he turned her over his knee and spanked her firmly. “You need discipline to be a good girl.”
Mom died too early for Lily to remember her. She looks at Howell’s son, not quite five years old, who howls as he beats his fists into the packed dirt, and how Howell only picks him up and wipes the tears from his grimy cheeks.
“It’s not in our culture to be affectionate,” the Commander says, as she comes to a halt beside Lily. “Not publicly, at least.”
“Was it the same with you?” Lily asks.
The other woman dips her head, face strangely restrained. “Never heard a single I love you. It’s too late now.”
Lily blows out a breath. “It still hurts.”
The Commander places a hand on her shoulder, and squeezes. That on its own is anathema to the world Lily remembers. How shameful it used to be, to dissolve in tears in front of another. Then during the twenty years on the run, there were no comforting words or sweet lies: either Lily got up in the morning, clothes stained with the blood of her fallen friends, or she could lay down and wait for ADVENT to kill her. Lily knows it’s a luxury to cry nowadays.
“I try to think of the good times,” the Commander says. “My mom used to hide a boiled egg between two rice bowls for my birthday. Dad read me stories, even when he didn’t speak French that well. It’s the small things that keep them alive.”
Lily nods. Though those memories are far older, their traces still flutter about her soul. She remembers Dad staying up late to help her code a program for her Raspberry Pi, even when he had a meeting the next day. There were days when the forests blanketed by winter were devoid of any food, and the Shens were curled up in a broken down truck. Dad taught her how to make traps, and when their hard work yielded nothing, made sure Lily ate even as he starved.
Small shows of affection. Little sacrifices here and there. Fierce love underlying it all.
It’s okay, she thinks her father would say, to miss people. And it’s okay to move on.
Though the ache in her chest remains, it does not threaten to drown her.
Tygan may act suspiciously in the corridors, and Lily often finds him coming out of private meetings with the Commander, but she keeps her mouth closed. Her fellow engineers are not so kind, calling the scientist reclusive at best. The soldiers are divided: on one hand, Tygan is responsible for sewing them up together and dosing them with painkillers. On the other, he’s not that kind of doctor. Tygan can calculate the correct dosage of morphine for a 100 kg, 1.70 m tall male, but sewing up wounds so that they do not scar and putting organs in their proper place is not his specialty.
They’re in the newly built Shadow Chamber, analyzing the Codex brain. The Codex screams and shrieks within its glass prison. Its translucent gold arms slap against the walls. Its metallic skull glows a red like a palm lit by a flashlight. To anyone else, it would be clear: the creature, though created by ADVENT, was in pain.
“Our soldiers completely disabled this unit in the field. What we’re hearing is merely a byproduct of electrical impulses,” Tygan says, looking up from his terminal. “I assure you, it is well past the point of feeling pain.”
Normally, Lily would be the one hacking. However, the Codex’s brain is more akin to a human’s than ROV-R’s, and so Tygan is better suited for the job. She briefly wonders if hacked ADVENT turrets scream, “I don’t understand, I did everything you askedddd”, when an XCOM soldier fires on them.
“I’ll take your word for it,” Lily replies. The uneasy feeling lingers as she catches glimpses of the Codex struggling within the containment field. She knows it is an alien, and the enemy. But the actions are so human…
The unease only intensifies as Tygan presses on, even as the Codex threatens to overwhelm the ship’s power core and blow them all to Hell.
“Tygan! Sever the connection!”
“There,” the doctor says.
The Codex arcs. Glass shatters, plate-sized pieces flying in every direction. Tygan barely flinches, but Lily throws up her arms and ducks to avoid the deadly shower.
Tygan is quietly triumphant: he has secured an enormous amount of data that XCOM will need to process. He looks undisturbed at the Codex’s last minutes. Lily doesn’t know why she’s feeling bad for an alien of all things. That is, until she remembers Dad struggling against the Sectoid’s psionic tendrils, and how he fought the powers that wanted him to draw his gun on her.
“Better get started.” Lily goes to get the vacuum before someone cuts themselves on the glass. “I don’t think we’ll be able to do that again.”
The doctor mentions something to the Commander, who has not said a word from her observations in the corner.
“That’s if I can reconstruct the data we lost in the transfer,” she adds on. It will not do to mislead the Commander. “I just hope it was worth it,” she murmurs.
Now that the Avenger is up and running, Lily has time to make the systems more human-friendly. That is to say, less likely to overtake Central’s brain and fry him alive. The Avenger has already claimed four lives in the process of trying to get her flying. Dad and Tygan ultimately found a work-around, and Central was the best candidate. Something in his brain just clicks with the alien systems. Although Central does occasionally complain of headaches and jittering limbs, he’s not dead like the others.
“Let’s see if you two can play nice,” she murmurs, tinkering with ROV-R’s receptive capabilities.
The screens around Engineering go red – initially, Shen believes it to be an ADVENT virus, but nothing’s exploding. ROV-R emits electricity, as if it’s fighting off an invisible force. The lights flicker, then go dark. In the distance, she can hear the other engineers running for battle stations. Central’s in her ear, warning her about the rest of the ship.
There’s only one person who knows these systems as well as she does.
One screen shows a location in north China, then a factory somewhere in the forest depths.
“Dad?” she breathes.
“Commander, I’m too old to start believing in ghosts, which means someone had to access ROV-R remotely.” Central points out the location on the Hologlobe. “This tower’s been rotting away for years. Still picking up power readings, but no signs of life. Still, we know that transmission came from this location. I’m betting somebody’s calling this place home.”
The Commander nods. “Round up the gunslingers from Echo team, Laghari, Beaulieu, Kokkonen, and get them in the Hangar. No Rangers this time.”
Lily walks up, as Central leaves to execute the Commander’s orders. “I’d like permission to go along… whoever sent that message, they know as much about my father’s systems as I do… and I want to find out why.”
“I know you’ve been practicing on the gun range,” the Commander says. “But you’ll need a better reason.”
Lily draws herself up to her full height. Over her head, ROV-R sparks with capacitors ready to discharge. “I’m the only one who knows what to look for.”
“I’m not the one you needed to convince.” The Commander rummages in the cupboards, then hands Lily a heavy pistol. “Take Bluescreen rounds.” She touches her headset. “Central, give Kokkonen the acid grenades.”
“Then who are you worried about?”
“Shen, I know this is personal for you. Our troops are more then capable of investigating,” Central says, and in his eyes are years of loss and fear. Not a person more, they seem to beg, don’t join your dad on the list of people I’ve lost. “You don’t have to do this–“
“I’m going, Central.” Lily slots eighteen clips into her ammo belt. “I know how to handle myself.”
He pulls gear off the armory racks. “Take a face mask – there could be anthrax spores, but it won't guard against gas – you, Lanz, grab some armor for your goddamn shoulders – you too, Lily, no bare arms – and what the hell have you done to your armor, Beaulieu, you’re a soldier, not a cowboy stripper–"
Lily rolls her eyes and pulls the proffered gauntlets over her arms. “Let’s not waste any more time.”
“You heard the lady,” Central says, turning to face the assembled Menace Team. “Lock and load!”
They advance through the tower, accompanied by Central’s snarking and constant warnings. The Commander directs the soldiers to cover Lily’s flank and keep her out of the derelict MEC’s rusted arms. Lily knows Central’s trying to help her stay calm, but the Commander is being substantially more useful.
“I swear, Shen,” Beaulieu grunts as he puts another three bullets into the MEC’s chest. “Do you wear some sort of perfume that pulls them in?”
“My engineer brings all the MECs to the yard,” Suleiman chants as he guns down another wave of robot soldiers. “And they’re like–“
Lily shakes her head. “Really, guys?”
“Damn right, it’s better than yours.” Laghari loads another grenade into her launcher. “She can teach you, but she’d have to– Shen! Help!”
Lily sends ROV-R over. The GREMLIN unloads its capacitors into the glowing wreck. Shrapnel showers the rest of the MEC’s metal compatriots, shredding wires and tearing chunks off of dilapidated armor
“Charge up, buddy,” she says as ROV-R returns. ROV-R chirrups. It’s at this point that she notices the grins on Suleiman and Laghari’s faces. “Okay, maybe it’s kinda funny.”
“Sorry, Commander, we’re bad influences,” Beaulieu stage-whispers.
Lily grins, and looks around at the rusted MECs hanging over the facility floor. The stuffing protrudes from their padded chassis. “This was pretty advanced stuff… about twenty years ago.”
The facility lights up. “And so the prodigal child finally returns… with an underwhelming fanfare. I see Father’s pride in your abilities was not entirely unfounded,” says a male voice over the intercom. “I’m so glad you could finally join me with your terrible taste in music.”
“Central? What the hell was that?” Lily asks, scanning the area.
“Working on it,” he replies. “Looks like you gotta head up. And wouldn’t you know it, the controls for the elevators are locked.”
“Beaulieu, lock down the turrets. Kokkonen, overwatch,” the Commander says, “Shen, run for it.”
“Glad I kept up the cardio,” Lily says she bolts across the floor to the controls.
The voice drones on, about how he was torn away while Lily was a child. He calls Dad Father. The name sounds wrong in the voice’s cadence: perhaps because of the formality, perhaps because it comes from a stranger.
“Pretty sure I would’ve remembered dad mentioning I had a psychotic brother.” Lily breaches the control’s security measures, but it's hard to concentrate when anger sits hard and sharp in the middle of her chest. Lily does not appreciate secrets in a world where ADVENT holds so many. “Give this up already.”
“Yeah, if it’s anyone with a bunch of kidlets,” Beaulieu says, “it’s Central.”
“Don’t start, soldier.” Central’s voice softens. “I knew your father for years, Lily. He would’ve said something. This guy’s just tryin’ to get in your head.”
Though her hands shake at the thought that Dad may have lied to her, Lily is first and foremost a professional. “I’m in, but this was meant to move MECs, not people.” She gestures at the lift. “We’re gonna have to do this one at a time.”
“Understood,” Central says, “be careful!”
“Laghari, you’re first. Beaulieu, you’re next,” the Commander says. “Suleiman and Kokkonen, watch Shen’s back. Lanz, you’re last. Overwatch at the door.”
The voice over the intercom sends in more MECs like he’s throwing robots out of the toy box. He reads out XCOM’s secrets as the Menace team guns down the advancing Terminator horde.
“He seems to know an awful lot about us… about me,” Lily murmurs as Laghari ascends to the next story. More turrets sprout from the factory floor. She shakes her head: what was so terrible that Dad would never tell her? “Could he have gotten into our files?”
She’s offended on her father’s behalf: his work is hers, and if the security is weak enough that this mysterious stranger can get in, the Shens must do better. But since this stranger is here, she knows it is not Dad’s ghost who haunts this facility. Lily is not sure whether she’s relieved. Some part of her still wants to see him walk out onto the floor and greet her with a hug.
The rational part of her brain knows that he lies rotting under a coverlet of ferns and boulders. This facility – this rotten hulk of a metal monstrosity, a style that is so common in the apocalypse – is in no better condition than her father’s remains.
“You were the flawed child. I was the ideal, the best of Father. Pure,” the voice purrs as the Menace Team arrives on the second floor. “Undiluted like you. I am Raymond Shen’s true legacy.”
“Commander, what’s that– are you growling?” Lily asks.
“If you don’t kill him, I will,” the Commander says.
“Typical savages,” says the voice. “Organics are always so predictable.”
“Scanners at maximum power, still unable to lock onto additional life signs in your area,” Central reports.
It clicks in Lily’s head. Organics? That’s robot speech straight out of Star Wars.
“You won’t. Not if I’m right about this thing.”
The voice declares himself to be the final legacy of Raymond Shen. Lily balks at his tone. Is the Avenger not her father’s greatest work, considering he died to make her fly?
“Considering he made things after you,” the Commander says, “I’d hardly say legacy or final.”
“I remember you… Dad was trying to upgrade the base AI to something more like us,” Lily says slowly. “To save soldiers from dying on the battlefield. But you were different back then. Simpler. He called you… Julian.”
What Lily doesn’t mention is that long ago, while her mother was still alive, Dad asked her what she would name a younger brother. Some Taiwanese families went through the Bible to look for names. Dad and mom made an algorithm based on the sounds they liked the most. Lily sounded out the names, and chose one that fit her tongue: Julian.
She never had a younger brother. Lung cancer took mom away soon after.
“I’m shocked that you remember,” Julian sighs. You were always too caught up in yourself to remember the minor details. Sadly, Father’s admiration for you left me with little choice. You are needed. Your compatriots are not.”
Lily opens her mouth to retort, but her comrades are faster. “We go with her,” Suleiman snaps, “or not at all.” He motions to the walled-off section in the center of the room. “We got your back, Chief.”
Julian sighs about his fate. Perhaps once upon a time, he was an innocent, merely following the rules that she knows Dad would have engraved into his very hardware. But the AI derides Dad’s ideals – his belief in goodness, and the strength of humanity, things so rare in the apocalypse – as foolish. “I began to see truth in my captor’s reasoning. I became something more,” Julian says proudly. “For a time, I eagerly accepted my new role. I aided ADVENT in the construction of this facility. In perfecting their designs. Father’s work proved invaluable in this work.”
Lily at first has no words. The words welling up in her tongue are Taiwanese, useless for an English speaking AI. Does he know how ADVENT murdered Dad?
She settles for, “You bastard.”
Though most of the Menace Team joined after her father's death, they are not so kind to Julian.
Julian blathers about ADVENT’s plans for world domination, how he grew proud and tired of them, blah blah blah, typical evil robot overlord. Dad often told Lily to keep quiet so that her words had more impact, why did he never write a script for a mute button–
“More shooting, less tooting his horn,” Central says.
Lily sends her GREMLIN over to shock a turret into submission.
“That works too. I’m not picky.”
“News at 11: Central, not a picky man, unless it’s Faceless burgers,” Lily says. Humor. She can be funny. Anything to stave off the angry tears threatening to well up.
“This isn’t an ADVENT burger factory,” Julian says. “We have standards here. But we are happy to serve you with one delicious serving of MEC. Contains all the iron you’ll need for the rest of your life!”
“Can we keep him?” Laghari asks. “He’s like the annoying little brother I never had.”
“No,” the Command team says simultaneously.
As Lily fights her way to the center of the room, Julian talks about a prototype, second best of Dad’s creations, and how it is meant for him. Apparently Dad’s creation is bio-locked to her. Lily quietly thanks her father’s foresight.
“Why the hell would we want to free you?” Central demands. “Shen, when you’ve got a minute, would you kindly blow this thing to hell?”
“Don’t let your allies dissuade you,” Julian purrs, as if there’s a snowball’s chance in hell that she will entertain the thought of working with him. Lily may feel betrayal at her father – for lying to her, for abandoning her, for dying and leaving her alone with a psychotic ‘brother’ – settling sick and heavy in her gut. But she would rather crash the Avenger than give in to a spoiled brat who spits on Dad’s ideals. “There’s no reason for your life to end here. Activate the device and you can still go home. I am not ADVENT. Save your world. It matters not to me.”
“Nope,” Lily says. “I watched Terminator. Not gonna happen.”
Lanz puts down a turret with a well-placed Bluescreen round. “Thank you, Chief, for not freeing Skynet.”
Lily nods, but she still wonders: did Dad know what his work would become? Was Dad really just another Vahlen all along? After all, he never did tell her of those three months deep below the Kansas earth. Why would Dad keep a secret from her?
Shen looks at the SPARK prototype, and wonders why she had ever doubted her father. Of course he would spend the last minutes in the civilized world trying to protect her.
There was no secret to be found, only her father’s deep shame that he could not do more. Lily can understand that. She has Osei’s blood, Ramirez’s blood, his blood on her hands.
She brushes a hand over SPARK-001’s carapace. The handprint – attuned to her thirty-five year old’s hand, not the smaller one of her fifteen year old self – glows a soft cerulean blue. For a moment, she stands before a vast glass wall, golden kelp waving gently in the current behind her, and Dad tells her, “We have each other, Lily. Look at that. They come in and out with the tide. I promise you, I will always come back to you.”
“Don’t worry, Dad. You kept your promise,” Lily murmurs.
“Sometimes I wonder what things would have been like, had XCOM not failed so miserably in defending against the aliens.” Lily opens her mouth to retort in the Command team’s defense, but Julian isn't listening. “Had I not been taken, who knows what I might have become.”
“A glorified Siri?” the Commander suggests. “Keep moving, Menace Team, and get to the roof.”
“That thing’s just gonna keep throwing units at you until you’re surrounded!” Static shoots through Central’s increasingly agitated voice. It sounds like Julian’s trying to mess with the transmission. “You gotta get outta there!”
“You continue to impress me, Bradford. No wonder it only took you two decades to find your precious Commander.”
The Menace team collectively cringes.
“I’m going to shove a Bluescreen round up his circuits,” Lily declares. “Who’s with me?”
“Uh, I’m running a bit low on grenades,” Kokkonen says, “but I can knock his knees in with my launcher. If he has knees.”
“Okay, who suggested giving the madman knees?” Beaulieu demands as he sprints behind a ventilation shaft. The supply crates which he previously used as cover are now riddled with more holes than a sieve. "He doesn't need them!"
“Mea culpa. I gotta shove my launcher up his robotic ass,” Kokkonen says as she lets a grenade loose. Acid spills from the weapon, eating away at Julian’s armor. The Grenadier turns to Lily for the Engineer’s approval, but her grin quickly fades. “Get down!”
The Sectopod’s legs extend. The floor below it creaks ominously, but holds fast as Julian opens fire on the Menace team.
Most of them are safely behind cover. The Grenadier is not.
“Kokkonen!” Lily cries. She sends ROV-R over and hopes Julian can feel it as 900 J shock. Blood races through the Engineer’s head, a siren call for bad memories – not again, not again, she thinks as she runs to Kokkonen’s shattered body.
The grenadier manages to grin at her. “Hell of a run, Shen…” She sighs and lays back. “Good fight…”
Lily unhooks the medkit from her belt, but it’s bad. There’s too much blood that should be circulating within veins and arteries that is now sprayed across the moss-slick floor. Bright red blood gushes from Kokkonen’s midsection – arterial spray, she remembers, from one of Dad’s first aid lessons.
It’s hard to breathe. The bullet caught him thigh, nicking the femoral artery. Devastating for any human being, considering the volume of blood traveling through that one vessel, but Dad was old and frail and it was her fault, her fault–
“Shen. Breathe.” The Commander’s voice is distant and blurred, as if an ocean flows between them. “Shen. Press down on the wound. You need to stop the bleeding. Get your hands on her midsection. Press down. Laghari, grenade the Sectopod! Beaulieu, get the two to the supply crates!”
She breathes in. Blood has a very distinctive coppery-salt scent, but the red blood cells contain ferrous ions, not cuprous. Lily grounds herself in facts: the body contains four to five liters of blood, and can lose about 30% before a transfusion is needed. She can stem the loss through closing off ruptured arteries and veins, either by pressure, or clot formation.
Lily sprays the medkit’s contents into Kokkonen’s wounds. Clots immediately begin to form. With Beaulieu’s help, she drags the gravely wounded Grenadier behind a stack of crates. She jerks a hand at the possessed Sectopod. ROV-R whirrs angrily, flies over, and does its best to introduce Julian to electrocution. It’s not enough to stop the perversion of her father’s work, but there is iron on her hands and in her soul.
“Let’s bring him down!” she shouts to the rest of the Menace team, and draws her pistol loaded with Bluescreen rounds.
The forest sings with the voices of cicadas and thousands of birds and frogs Lily could never name. Kokkonen’s armor took the brunt of the Sectopod’s mini-missile massacre, but her intestines are ruptured and infection threatens to sink its virulent claws into her guts. Still, Tygan has worked his scientific magic, and she’s stabilized in the AWC. The rest of the Menace Team lounges around the campfires scattered around the Avenger, roasting songbirds and vegetarian marshmallows with their less-wounded compatriots.
Laghari picks up a ball of plucked feathers and hurls them at Beaulieu. The other soldier shrieks and fumbles to get away, almost toppling into their fire. Some feathers drift into the flames, sending sparks up to the stars far above.
“Laghari, if Beaulieu hits you,” Central yells at them, “I’m not fixing you up!”
Tygan rolls his eyes. “How old are they?”
“Three,” Lily suggests. She’s acutely aware of the lack of ROV-R over her shoulder, but the GREMLIN needs to hold down Engineering while she tends to herself. And for now, that means surrounding herself with friends. “Isn’t your shift over, Commander?”
“Figuring out our next course of action,” the Commander says absently. “I’m wondering how the Templars will take the presence of SPARK. Geist seems to have Luddite tendencies… no, maybe I misread that…”
The Command team has gathered around a central fire. The Commander sits cross-legged with a tablet in her lap, Central’s greatcoat slung over her shoulders to ward off the chill. Central has finished gutting some fish hauled from a nearby stream, and is currently waiting for the tubers to finish roasting. Unusually, Tygan has ventured from the lab. The firelight glints off the scars on the back of his head as he rotates a stick laden with marshmallows just out of the hungry flames’ reach.
“I never thought I’d have sweet potato pie again,” Tygan comments as he slides marshmallows toasted to bright gold onto the cooked tubers. “ADVENT does not appreciate anything with cultural ties.”
“What do you eat in the cities?” Central asks.
“CORE protein, shaped into various foods.” Tygan cuts into the casserole, then offers Lily a generous slice. She takes it from him, though not before discretely checking it for suspicious liquids or solids. “We live in a future where everything is grown in a vat.”
“Or it could be Soylent Green,” Lily says.
Tygan sighs. “Yes. There is still a massive amount of protein left unaccounted for after those poor patients were processed at the Blacksite.”
“Leave your work behind tonight, Tygan,” the Commander says as she reads through Lily’s after-action report. “And don’t worry about Kokkonen. Agreste is caring for her. She’s strong. If her situation changes, he will inform us.”
The doctor relaxes, and sinks onto the log serving as his seat. “I suppose you’re right.”
“Suppose?” Lily asks, trying to suppress a flare of dislike. “Is someone losing faith in the Great–“ she stops as the Commander menaces her with the tablet. “Don’t break that, sir, it’s not an apple. Tablets don’t grow on trees.”
The Commander resumes reading. “Shen, I thought you were better than that. Will this madness never end? What will the men worship next?”
“Not Julian,” Lily says. “We’ve already got overlords without adding robots into the mix.”
“Going to practice what you preach?” Central asks, glaring at her superior over the Tupperware container of fish guts. Lily guesses those will be used to fish for more… well, fish, in a very Ouroboros fashion. Central is nothing if not practical.
“I hold myself to different standards,” the Commander replies, ticking something off. “Shen, did Julian manage to infiltrate the Avenger’s systems? We might need to update our software. ADVENT could salvage his program to use against us.”
Lily feels within her vest’s pocket, then holds out a chip. Though it weighs barely more than a pebble, it feels like a mountain in her hand.
“My asshole brother says hi, Commander.”
Central straightens. His hand goes to the pistol on his hip. “You isolated Julian onto a chip? Where was he hiding?”
“Found a copy of him on ROV-R’s servers.” Lily hesitates. “ROV-R’s scrubbed clean. But I lobotomized him. Julian can never hurt anyone again.”
“Get rid of him,” Central says immediately. “Not worth the risk.”
“It could be helpful having a pilot–“
“That has even less interest in our survival?” the Commander asks. “He went rogue once, and has no reason to help us. Throw it in the flames, Shen, and let’s call it done.”
Lily does a double take. She’s never seen the Commander so angry.
“If Julian were human, what would you do?”
The Commander looks up. Hellfire dances in her eyes. “Tie him to a pack of X4, with a fuse just long enough to let him think about his life.”
Tygan edges away. “I will refrain from getting on your bad side, Commander. And I really must apologize more for the twenty years you spent in the tank.”
“That seems like a war crime,” Central says, “but in this case, I’m all for team nuke.”
“You didn’t try to murder Shen and the Menace Team,” the Commander says with a smile to Tygan. “We’re good.”
“Did you forget how the thing was insulting me?” Central asks, putting a hand over his heart. “What am I, chopped liver?”
“I did not suggest far simpler methods of execution.”
Tygan shudders. Lily spares him a pat on the shoulder, then ponders on the dilemma before her.
Lily weighs the chip in her hands. It is one of dad’s last works, named after a brother she never had. Here lies an anchor to her past. Perhaps Julian would know the stories of a land she has long since left. Dad would have probably read stories about Zhuge Liang and her a boh who swam to Hong Kong to the AI, to instill a sense of humanity and history within the circuits.
But her blood brother would not be a murderer. Dr. Shen’s gift to the world would not be more death. Dad was not Vahlen: where the German doctor created life that would only spawn more death, Dad left all the blueprints to build another SPARK. She has already decided to send her personal bodyguard into the fray and save a XCOM soldier from harm. From the creation of a metallic semblance of life, in death, Dad will save those who still live.
In a world where she has healed less, perhaps she would stay her hand. But in this present, Lily brings her arm back, and sends the chip deep into the heart of the flames of a nearby campfire.
Blue smoke rises up like the specter of Julian.
Lily mourns him. Just a bit. He was still an asshole.
“Anyone want s’mores?” she asks. “That smoke probably isn’t too toxic.”
“I miss white chocolate,” Bradford muses, and takes a sip of whiskey from his flask. “Does anyone else miss cookies and cream chocolate?”
“I refuse to acknowledge that as actual chocolate,” Tygan says. “Cocoa butter, but no cocoa solids. Disgraceful.”
“Of course the biochemist is a chocolate snob,” the Commander says. “What, are white chocolate brownies not brownies to you?”
“They are called blondies for a reason,” Tygan says.
The conversation quickly turns into a discussion about the appropriate amount of chocolate for a brownie.
“Shen, as much as I respect you,” Tygan says, pushing the glasses up the bridge of his nose, “a brownie with only cocoa powder is a sad masquerade of a dessert.”
“I wish Juliette et Chocolat was still around,” the Commander sighs. “You could both fight it out there.”
“I will fight you right now, Doctor,” Central says with a grin. He flexes, almost knocking the foil-covered fish out of the fire. “I’ll take you all on!”
Tygan rolls his eyes. “Please. We both know how that would end. I am not a fighter by any stretch of the definition.”
The Commander glances at Central. “If you start a fight club, at least wait to take the fish out of the fire. Which is currently burning.”
“Oh, shit-“ Central fumbles for the tongs, but Lily is faster. She rescues dinner from the flames with two sticks and dumps it at the doctor’s feet.
“Always skirting disaster, aren’t we?” Tygan whispers as he plates the slightly-charred fish. “That’s XCOM, I suppose.”
Though she’s not his biggest fan, Lily agrees, and passes him a fork.
From 明月千里寄相思 (Ming yue qianli ji xiangsi), as sung by Teresa Teng.
Chapter 4: 你总不对我说 (You never said to me)
Cracks appear in her armor.
After the apocalypse destroyed western civilization, rarely does Lily meet a family that has managed to stay together. There’s a saying floating around the Havens: if you haven’t seen them in a week, pray they’re seeing God. Mothers are cut down by childbirth and disease; children waste away; fathers fall away and wither. The families that do exist are often amorphous, splitting and joining together like little amoebas ambling across the wastelands. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise Lily that XCOM’s engineers have wandering eyes.
“He’s cute,” Howell says, her gaze following a man passing by the makeshift bar. “Oh, what about him?” She gestures at one of the Haven’s guards, who’s busy chopping wood while shirtless. Lily gives him thirty seconds before he gets a splinter to the chest. “He’s not half-bad.”
Lily regrets this trip out to the Haven already. She swirls her tea – rooibos tea, from this haven in Kenya, not actual tea – and watches how the Christmas lights strung from the rafters dance in her cup. “Aren’t you married?”
Howell sits back on the crate. The wooden slats creak beneath her workpants, padded for long hours spent kneeling next to alien machinery. “It’s for you, Chief. Live a little. Find reasons to save this Earth.”
“Banging people is a reason to save the Earth?” Lily rolls her eyes. “I appreciate the thought, but I’m not Shepard, and I don’t need a wingman.”
Howell shrugs. “Welp. I’m out of ideas. What did people do before the apocalypse?”
“The Internet,” Lily says dryly. “Go to the mall with friends. Um, release the magic blue smoke from robots, but that might’ve just been me.”
Howell laughs. “I think I forgot how to make friends.” She sips from her beer. “Somewhere after the world collapsed and having a kid…” The engineer spreads her hands. “Just not that much of a priority, you know? Then I come aboard, and my son’s not tugging at my leg every few seconds, and I’ve got time to myself, and… it’s just so quiet. I’m not a parent aboard the Avenger. I’m an engineer. It’s an entirely different mindset. How do you make friends again?”
“Well, setting me up with someone probably isn’t the best start.” Lily grimaces as the guardsman chopping wood gets a massive splinter stuck in his arm. “Gotta say, Howell, the apocalypse doesn’t have the best dating pool.”
Howell salutes Lily with her beer. “All right then. What do you want to talk about?” The grin fades from her eyes, and in its place looms loneliness. “Not families. I don’t want to think about that.”
“How about robots?” Lily suggests. “I am so sick of putting away an hour each day just to clean up the shop. I’m thinking of sticking giant magnets to ROV-R’s feet to sweep up the filings.”
Howell perks up. “One for scrubbing the wrenches, yeah, sounds good to me.”
“One to clean the mold in the locker rooms. Has Andrade looked at the plumbing?”
As the Haven bustles around them, the two women chat about all ways robots could keep Central from breathing down their backs. Somehow, it descends into an argument about whether Julian would make a better GLaDOS or HAL 9000.
“You were married?” Central asks, and though he does his best to hide it, Lily can hear how badly it shakes his equilibrium.
“To my best friend.” The Commander stirs her wild rice risotto. With summer on the horizon, XCOM’s dinners have significantly improved, and so has morale. “So I could live out of the barracks,” she says in a guarded tone. Lily can almost hear the walls building up, brick by brick, in her head.
“I see.” Central dips his head. He looks around at the Mess Hall, deserted except for the Command team. “I looked for all of XCOM’s families. If you have records of his last whereabouts, we could try tracking–“
“How would you find a dead man in the apocalypse?” Her superior’s voice is wooden. “It’s kind of you, Central. But it’s unnecessary.”
Central puts a hand on the Commander’s shoulder.
“Sorry, Central,” the Commander says with an apologetic smile as she shrugs him off. “I don’t like being touched there.”
He nods and turns to Lily. “Shen, is there any way we can outfit the Havens with our mag guns?”
Lily pulls out her tablet. “Now that I’m not the third wheel–“
“It’s not like that!” Central says. “Uh, sorry. Go on, what were you saying?”
“Every time you interrupt, ROV-R gets a little more shockier.” She menaces Central with her spoon. Central rolls his eyes, and motions for her to continue. “Depends on how much you want to risk ADVENT reverse engineering our stuff. But since–”
“Chief Shen, I appreciate your opinion,” the Commander says, “but I don’t need daily reminders that the engineers could use more work.” She points at her shadow. “I have my alarm clock for that.”
“The nom de guerre is Central,” the aggrieved man says.
“Got it, Commander.” Lily twirls a wrench, itching to get her hands on a drawing board and start making something. “But we are getting bored… and you don’t want bored engineers with nothing to do.”
“Is that a threat, Chief?” the Commander asks with a grin. “Despite the Lost, I suppose we could always use more explosives. Let’s try for proximity mines.”
“Oh sure. Why don’t you summon Vahlen so she can nag you about ze bodies? Complain about my flying,” Central grumbles, “nobody bats an eye. Give drunk men explosives, that’s even better. Why am I the only adult in the room?”
“If you crash the Avenger,” Lily says, shaking her wrench at him, “I will hand you over to ADVENT myself.”
Central puts a hand over his chest. “You’re tearing me apart, Shen.”
She laughs and shoos him away from her bench, ideas swirling around her mind like the eddies around a pier post. “You’ll get your lasers soon enough, Central. But I’m with the Commander on the soldiers’ aim.”
“WE HEARD THAT!” Laghari bellows from outside Engineering.
Giggles fill the corridor outside the engineering bay. Wheels screech closer. Something heavy thuds against the wall. Lanz shrieks, pain and laughter all blending together in one horrendous noise with the laughter of his teammates and partner.
Central rolls his eyes. “Not helping your case!” he yells back.
The Commander sighs. “On second thought, please study the contents of the Blacksite Vial. I quite like having the Avenger in one piece.”
Though disappointed in the change of plan, Lily snaps off a salute. "We're on it, sir."
She scribbles down a few ideas in the margins of a blueprint before she forgets. While the Menace team gets a tongue-lashing from Central, Lily heads off to the Shadow Chamber.
“I believe we have found the missing civilians,” Tygan says in his detached way.
Central sputters as admission file after admission file scrolls past on screen. Hundreds of faces, all melted down into anonymous golden goo. “That’s… that’s impossible!”
“The gene therapy clinics,” she mutters to herself. Though it was twenty years ago, Lily still remembers the days when people died from measles and breast cancer. “Millions of people, all just looking for help.”
Betrayal wells up in her, even though she knows the aliens have always been liars. What cowards, to prey on the sickly and weak. The aliens couldn’t just pick off civilians going about their day with green goo-spewing abduction capsules or marching them off into transport vans. No. ADVENT is picking on those who have lost all other hope, and have turned to them for salvation. It’s worse than snake oil salesmen, because ADVENT offers cures for some and death to the rest – who would enter the clinics if no one came back out? And there is anger too, at those who believe ADVENT’s lies. The Administration has erased the three months of sheer terror led by the aliens. Lily would have thought that the ruins of Alexandra and Shanghai would have inscribed the lesson into civilians: the aliens are not to be trusted. But that is not the case.
Tygan runs through his thoughts: the clinics are screening zones for suitable candidates, for whatever the aliens are cooking up. Central shakes his head like he’s in physical pain.
“But why do this?” Central asks, as if there’s a merciful god who sets down rhyme and reason for all the world to follow. It’s a question worthy of someone who spent the last twenty years asleep.
“I cannot begin to guess at this point,” Tygan says. Lily’s blood boils in her ears. “There exists no research that would ever warrant this.”
“It’s genocide, Doctor,” she spits, whirling around to face him. “And these people are walking right into it!” Lily puts the data through algorithms to determine their destination, and informs the Command team of the location.
Central demands the Commander to immediately assault the Forge facility.
To her surprise, the Commander denies him, then says, “I know you’re angry. But we don’t have the manpower. We’ll check it out after dealing with this month’s Dark Event.”
“People are dying, and you do not wish to identify the reason?” Tygan asks.
Lily does a double take. Tygan, usually so solemn and unflappable, is pissed. Normally he acts like he has the emotional capacity of SPARK.
“Those people are dead. They can wait. The living,” the Commander says, gesturing to where the Hologlobe usually glows, “cannot. You’ve seen the Dark Events projected for this month. The Resistance Havens will be hit sooner, or ADVENT will crush us through sheer force of number, or ADVENT will load their weapons with Viper venom.” She looks at the mutinous faces on the Bridge: the techs, the engineers on deck, the Command staff, even a soldier who’s helping to staff the Comms while the Hologlobe is down. “We prioritize the living. XCOM can’t fight with the dead alone.”
Tasev stops monitoring for Resistance calls. The engineer turns from his console, and demands, “Whose side are you on?”
The air seems to drop a few degrees. Central opens his mouth to speak, eyes flint-like and ready to spark, but the Commander draws herself up to her full height. Lily is abruptly reminded that her superior is tall for an Asian woman, just half an inch shorter than Central, and two inches taller than Tasev.
“The aliens hit my hometown, Abuja and Moscow,” the Commander states. The blue light of the rotating facility hologram highlights the thin scars lacing her neck. “Russia was about to leave the XCOM Project. We needed their money to build weapons that stood a chance at killing a Sectopod.” She laughs, and in her voice is steel and flames. “Question my methods. I encourage you to do so. But don’t question my loyalty.”
Tasev balks. “Sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to–“
“If someone asks what happened to Montreal, tell them I killed them all. And if it gave XCOM one more month, I’d do it all over again.” The Commander uncrosses her arms, and moves to the Hologlobe. “Shen, Tygan,” she says, her voice back to its normal placid strength, “we should be prepared for ADVENT to launch a counter-attack. Let’s see if we can upgrade the GREMLINs.”
As she works, Lily tries to catch her superior’s eye. The Commander sets about ordering the other Resistance factions to sabotage ADVENT. Something doesn’t sit right in her gut. Right after Dad’s death, she would have submerged the feeling and done her best to forget it, but she has learned to care about others. The prospect terrifies her, but hope, pernicious hope, grows within Lily.
The Commander never looks up from her terminal.
“I’d like to test the targeting sensors,” Lily murmurs as she lays the innards of the ADVENT MEC on the table. “Add targeting sensors to a robot, and we’d have soldiers on the go. SPARK is great, but we’ve got only one of him. None of our men would have to get hurt. I can definitely upgrade the GREMLINs with this tech.”
Tygan shudders. “Yes, well, we have not tested how ADVENT distinguishes between friend and foe. Perhaps we should avoid tests of the sensors until we can be sure the machines won’t fire on us,” he says, sliding one of the MEC’s CPUs into his pocket.
Although it is an innocent gesture – there’s a plastic case suited for carrying sensitive material in his lab coat – all the hairs on the back of her neck stiffen. Lily bites down on the inside of her cheek to keep quiet.
“Why do you not trust me, Chief Shen?” Tygan asks quietly.
She looks at the doctor. “Well, let me think. You were an ADVENT scientist up until half a year ago. You created something that helped ADVENT oppress, I don’t know, all of the world. And if anybody on board’s bound to be a mole, you’re the most likely candidate.”
Tygan winces. “Yes. But I have changed.”
“How would I know?”
“Through my work, I’d hope. I respect you, Chief Shen,” Tygan says, “for the strength you always had. You saw through ADVENT’s lies.” The doctor spreads his hands and shrugs. “I did not. And I am responsible for much suffering – yours, the Commander’s, Central’s – as a result.”
Lily looks at him, trying to see past the architect of so much human suffering. Twenty years on the run has understandably blinded her. Four raised scars on the back of Tygan’s head indicate he too, has suffered under ADVENT’s rule. But there is twenty years of paranoia and impatience screaming in her head.
“Where were you when the world burnt down?” she asks. “The aliens attacked Houston. Then they burnt down Manhattan in Kansas. Then they struck San Francisco. Did you never look at the news?”
“Yes. It was different for civilians. All we knew was that everyone would be equal under ADVENT,” Tygan states. “Where did you live, Shen?”
“Taipei, then San Francisco. The aliens bastardized both into City Centers.” She feels the raised ink on her right arm: a fist punching down onto a bed of alien skulls. Dad didn’t like tattoos, but he acknowledged it was ultimately her choice. Dad made the tattooing gun himself, and hovered over the tattoo artist to make sure she thoroughly sterilized everything. “Hundreds of years of history, all gone.”
“I traded being accosted in the streets of New York by police officers, for presenting ID to a lamppost.” Tygan looks at the scalpel in his hands. “It did not matter how I dressed back then. It did not matter at ADVENT.”
“But you had to have known it was wrong,” Lily persists, though sympathy slowly sends its tendrils through her. Long ago, she had a phase in which she believed all humans – no matter their creed, origins or deeds – deserved equal rights. Lily’s faith has since been shaken, but it seems there is still a bit of the fifteen-year old in her. “Humans deserve to make their own choices, without some shadowy overlord monitoring their every move.”
“Until I was at Cornell University, I had never known anything different,” he says, and in his voice is a bone-deep fatigue. “Yes, in hindsight, it was wrong.”
“Well… at least you admit it.” Lily shifts from heel to heel. The words stick in her mouth, but Dad always emphasized the importance of honesty. “I’m sorry. I underestimated you.”
“I underestimated ADVENT,” he says, “I thought ADVENT could save my cousins in the projects. So many there are lost to gangs or drugs. Despair permeates the air there, Lily. Where can you go when the only thing to do is join a gang, the schools are more mold than brick, and the poverty cycles for generations all stuck between the same four walls? But ADVENT cut the cycle. The cities glowed, and not like New York, where the homeless occupy every corner. For a few shining years, I believed humanity was being uplifted. In the end, it was all lies.” He looks down. “And through my blindness, I helped enslave millions.”
Lily stays quiet. After a minute, she heads to the coffee machine in the nearby lounge and fills up a mug.
The problem with Tygan is that he seems so detached from the human element of science. But she has seen the guilt. And it is enough to make her start reconsidering her opinion on the solemn scientist.
“You should drink it out of Engineering,” she says, offering him the coffee. “Not a doctor, but metal shavings probably aren’t that great for you.”
Tygan accepts, and pulls up schematics of the Mk. II GREMLINs. “I’ll take that into consideration. Thank you, Shen.”
Lily has never met Vahlen, nor does Central speak of XCOM’s former Chief Scientist after the Nest mission, but what she has seen shakes her beliefs on the death penalty.
There are four soldiers in the AWC. There used to be five. Captain Suleiman passed away from extensive internal injuries after the Archon King slammed him into the broken rebar of an abandoned skyscraper’s backbone. Operation Winter Agony ended so badly, Firebrand had to ferry technicians to stabilize the soldiers in the ground. Tygan expects there will be three soldiers from Operation Winter Agony in the AWC come morning. There are just some injuries their technology still cannot fix.
There’s blood staining the hem of Lily’s shirt. She helped Central lift Suleiman’s body into the white shroud. Tygan didn’t mention how blood pools in dead bodies. When they lifted Suleiman, all the coagulated chunks of blood slid out of his open wounds – the rebar had gone right through his abdominal cavity – and Lily doesn’t want to remember anymore.
Central has drained half the Avenger’s vodka store in the time it took Lily to finish one beer. The men drank the rest of the vodka. Most are sleeping off the grief in the Living Quarters. Last Lily saw, the Commander was talking with the bereaved on the Bridge. But Central has isolated himself once again. He sits at the bar, head draped on his arms, staring blearily at the faces of those he believes he failed.
The Commander strides into the bar and stands across from Central.
“That is enough,” she says, placing two hands on the bar counter.
“What is?” XCOM’s second-in-command mumbles, lifting his head.
“The alcohol. You’ve had far too much.”
“Look, Commander,” Central says in a surprisingly clear voice. “You need me to maintain the Resistance. The only way I’m getting through the rest of the day is with a couple of drinks in me. I’m not an addict. I can still get work done.”
“You may not be an addict, but you are still very much dependent.” The Commander gestures to the empty bottles littering the bar top. “Two of those are vodka. In thirty minutes! What if you have to fly?”
“We take two hours just to secure all the cargo on board. I’ll be fine, Commander.”
“Nothing about this is fine, Central.” The Commander crosses her arms. “I can’t make you do anything. If you want help, I will draw up a goddamn 12-step program and help you through every step of the way. I can’t force you to change. But I can, if I see fit, remove you from your post.”
Central’s lips twist into a snarl. “Who makes sure our soldiers are fed? I do.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to be on the Avenger,” the Commander says. “If you prove a risk to XCOM, you’ll do your work at Resistance HQ.”
Central’s voice is flat. “You wouldn’t.”
“I can’t stand here and watch you drink, because I’ll just wonder if we need to measure you for a coffin next time we talk. What’s going to kill you first, John?” the Commander demands. “ADVENT, or the alcohol?”
Central gapes at her.
“Please,” the Commander says, unshed tears welling up in her voice, “please, John. Don’t make me bury you too.”
She leaves, and in her wake, flames and ghosts dance.
Central looks at his half-finished bottle of beer. He weighs it in one hand. For a second, Lily thinks he’ll throw it away.
Lily stares at him. Even when his blood is more alcohol than water, she knows he can feel her disappointment.
“Congrats, Central. If the bottles ever rise up, we’ll know who to turn to.”
Two days after Suleiman’s burial, Lily finds Central on the firing range, testing his aim with the newly created laser pulse rifle. He looses another shot. A red beam of light drills through the empty beer bottle. Light is naturally silent, but Lily has added the fwzoom sound to give soldiers some feedback. Glass shards scatter through the air as Central blows the neck of the bottle open.
“These past twenty years, Shen,” he says, taking out his earplugs. “You ever had a year out on your own?”
“No,” she replies immediately, “dad promised to never leave me again.”
“Try fifteen or so years of it. Winter was the worst. What am I going to do if I’m not aboard the Avenger, she says.” Central puts in his earplugs and summons a paper Muton to the back of the shooting range. He shoots. The beam of light buries into the backboard rather than the target. “The same thing I always did. Drink. Distill alcohol. Do someone else’s dirty business, if I can still shoot straight.” He laughs, just as hollow as the broken bottles littering the range. “Worst comes to worst, I know how much my ass is worth. I can survive out there again.”
“So… what are you going to do?” Lily asks. “I’m not Dad, Central. I don’t know how to be a crutch. I might remember the drug dosages, but I’m just not good at this comfort stuff.”
Central puts a few more rounds into the target, then his heat sink is spent. He ejects the heat sink and flicks the safety on his gun.
“Learn to do something other than drink.” Central pockets his earplugs. “How do you do it, Shen? How do you pick yourself up after you’ve buried the body of the soldier you failed?”
“Uh, Central, if you remember, I stay up until 3 AM and nearly set Engineering on fire.” Lily looks at the shattered glass bottles on the end of the range. She sends ROV-R over to start scooping them up. “Not the healthiest way to cope.”
He laughs, the sound low and broken. “So we just keep trucking on. What a surprise for the Commander. Twenty years sleeping, to wake up to a bunch of broken and beat-up–“
“Shuo Cao Cao, Cao Cao jiu dao,” the Commander says as she walks in, an outdated ballistics rifle slung over her shoulder.
Central scrunches up his face. “Say… something, something then comes? Sorry. My Mandarin’s shit.”
“Cao Cao is like the devil,” the Commander says, “he was a commander in the Romance of Three Kingdoms, famous for being a dick.”
Lily coughs. “That’s not what they taught us in Chinese school…”
“It’s been a while since I read the book.” The Commander looks at ROV-R gathering up the glass shards, then vaults over the barrier with a dustpan in hand. “Bridge is quiet. No activity on the local resistance coms.”
“Not going to turn in?” Central asks.
“I have an hour before then. I’m getting soft up on the bridge.” The Commander deposits the glass shards into the recycling bin, then heads back to the barricade. “Who would believe I was a major in the Canadian Army, if I can’t shoot straight?”
“Hey, it qualifies you to be an XCOM rookie,” Lily says.
Central makes a pained noise of assent. Rookie Wheeler ended Operation Dripping Moan, when her missed shot destroyed the transponder XCOM was attempting to protect. She fared better than Rookie So, who shot a gas station pump and killed three unwitting civilians in the crossfire.
The Commander lays out a cloth and disassembles her rifle. “They’ve never had formal training. I went to Kandahar. I have no such excuse.”
Lily notices the Commander’s cheeks are hollowed, and dark shadows underline her eyes. Shame wells up inside her: was the Commander too busy looking after the crew to take care of herself? The Chief Engineer gets a ration bar from her belt. She doesn’t remember stocking her belt with anything other than duct tape, caffeine pills, and an assortment of tools. Probably Central or the Commander’s doing.
“Practice what you preach,” she says, and tosses the bar. It goes wide and grazes the Commander’s neck.
“Get down!” The Commander lunges at Lily, flattening them both against the ground. The hard metal floor knocks the wind out of Lily’s lungs. She feels the Commander’s arms come down around her head, shielding Lily from a blast that never comes.
Lily groans and makes to rub her chest. Her head rings. Nothing seems to be broken, but the ache heralds lovely blue-green bruises sprouting up her ribs.
Oh shit. Her superior.
“Commander!” Central kneels next to the duo. “Hey! Can you hear me? You’re on board the Avenger. Commander! You’re crushing Shen. Hey!”
“Shit, sorry,” the Commander murmurs, scrambling away from Lily. Central keeps his hands in her field of vision as he helps her sit up. Her pupils are blown wide, and her shoulders shake with shallow breaths.
“Need some water, Commander?” Lily says, settling in front of her superior. She’s seen this all too many times: there’s a reason soldiers aren’t allowed to play with fireworks and flares near the Avenger. There are thin, straight scars lacing the Commander’s neck – mapping the trajectory of a projectile – and now they scream out at Lily. “I should’ve seen that coming.”
“Hardly. Thirty years later, and I still have reflexes from Bosnia,” the Commander says, keeping her tone light, “Thank you, Central, you don’t need to hover over me. You just surprised me, Shen. I’m all right.”
Lily nods, sensing a long story the Commander would rather leave unspoken. Instead, she offers Central a cleaning cloth and a bottle of gun polish. Central nods, puts on his earplugs, and takes the Commander’s rifle into his lap.
The Commander picks up his laser rifle. “Good work, Shen,” she says, feeling her way down the barrel. “Let’s see if it improves our soldiers’ aim.”
ROV-R buzzes in Central’s direction. Lily smirks, though worry taints her levity. “Just so you know, Central already missed.”
The Commander shakes her head. “Of course,” she says fondly. “Through no fault of your own.” She takes a position near the far side of the shooting range, puts in her earplugs, and summons a target. Lily’s superior waits for her to protect her ears before the first shot rings out.
The Avenger is staffed by a motley crew of broken and bent things. But Lily looks at the duo, quietly preparing for war, and thinks they’ll be okay.
Title comes from 蔷薇之戀 (Qiang wei zhi lian), as sung by Kang Qiao.
Next chapter: It's time to go home.
Chapter 5: 相逢犹如在梦中 (Meet as if in a dream)
Welcome home, Central.
Imahara and Beaulieu stand in the Hangar, both half-clothed and looking anywhere but each other. Beaulieu sports a brilliant blue hickey in the crook of his neck. Imahara attempts to melt into the floor, but her brilliant red bra destroys any attempt at concealment.
“I sleep in there,” Skye Kalani, A.K.A Firebrand, says as she stalks off, presumably to find an actual bed. “Next time you deploy, Beaulieu, I’m dropping you in the middle of a swamp.”
“’m really sorry,” the soldier mumbles.
“Seriously?” Central pinches the bridge of his nose. “Get some clothes on, then start cleaning up the Skyranger bay. Do you remember what we put in there? Do you want Faceless gonorrhea? Muton lice? Viper AIDS?”
“Yes sir,” they reply. “No sir.”
Lily slides over a bucket of water, gloves, an industrial sized jug of soap, respirators, goggles, and sponges large enough to be used as pillows. She considers Central’s spiel, then goes to get a container of bleach as well. There has definitely been some Viper brain on the Skyranger floor.
Central huffs as Imahara finally wrestles her jacket back on. “Why can’t kids these days just grab a closet like everyone else?”
“Uh, sir… that’s great, but we didn’t need to know that about you,” Imahara says, shifting from foot to foot.
Beaulieu muffles his laughs as he gets on the floor and pours out the bleach.
“What are you – no. I am a professional. Stop laughing.” Central sighs. “Shen, Imahara’s in your team. She’s yours to punish. Beaulieu, after you’re done scrubbing, see me in the Quarters.”
“Have mercy, Chief Shen,” Beaulieu intones through his respirator. “I’m just a young man, young, dumb, and full of c–“
“You’re cleaning up shop for the next two weeks,” she tells the chastened engineer. “That is way too much information.”
From the harsh winters weathered in a broken down pick-up truck, to long nights spent in the cramped cabins of a repurposed trawler, and then days spent hiking through the remains of Western Europe, Lily has finally come back to the US.
These days, XCOM has even fewer satellites than when they first launched in 2015. Dad couldn’t hook up the Avenger to a GPS unit when all the satellites it had once used were shot down, but he had put down the framework to make it doable. Central relies on data stolen from ADVENT satellites and stored on the Avenger’s computers to guide his flight paths. That XCOM can pinpoint a convoy in the middle of absolute nowhere within a 20 to 30 kilometer radius is a testament to Dad’s ingenuity. Today, they’re following a tip-off from the Skirmishers about an ADVENT supply convoy that entered the city and never made it out.
Central takes one look at the green-gold wheat surrounding the Avenger. Something sharpens in those steel-grey eyes dulled by whiskey. He looks to the horizon, where a broken city wreathed in greenery sprouts from the cornfields.
“I need a fucking drink,” he mutters, heading back up the ramp.
“Whoa there. It’s 2 PM,” Lily says, chasing after him. “Central! You promised me!”
He stops in the middle of the Armory, clenching and unclenching his fists.
“That’s Manhattan, Shen,” he says. “That’s what remains of the Alpha Base. That used to be my hometown.”
The Command team takes their dinner in the Quarters that night. Central pokes at his dandelion salad until the Commander spears a flower on her own fork and holds it to his mouth.
“I get the point.” Central bites the dandelion in two, and makes a face. “Bitter,” he says quickly, “not your cooking’s fault.”
“No cake for you until you finish your salad. Is it edible, Tygan?” the Commander asks, nodding to the scientist. “I’m sorry it’s half month late–“
“There’s no need to apologize, Commander,” Tygan says. “I am grateful for any cake at all. In the cities, they are 3D printed… the quality is a bit lacking there.”
“You’re okay with it just having cocoa powder?” Lily asks.
Tygan lets out a defeated sigh. “It’s not a brownie, and the Commander is a good baker.”
“Just so you know, sir, I want a fruit cake,” Lily jokes. “The Chinese bakery kind.”
“Those need eight eggs.” The Commander puts a hand over her heart. “You drive a hard bargain, Chief. Tygan’s lucky my husband had a vegan phase–” She stops, and gathers herself. “It’s difficult these days to get enough eggs to make a decent cake.”
“Let’s get back to work,” Central growls.
Central’s fork scrapes against his plate as he spears a red currant. The levity in the room quickly dies away as everyone remembers: they are less than 30 km away from the abandoned Alpha Site. Central almost died there. Dad almost died there. The Commander was captured there. XCOM fell there.
“Reports indicate there are high numbers of the Lost circulating in the area,” Tygan says, dipping his fork into his slice of chocolate cake. “I am not certain if it’s worth the risk of securing supplies.”
“We could use supplies,” the Commander says, “to upgrade the Comms Facility.”
“I’ll go,” Central says dully. “I know the place well.”
“Did you not hear the part about the Lost?” the Commander asks, handing him the plate of cake.
“We’ll get in and out quicker if I’m guiding the team.” Central sets his cutlery on the table. “We’re not having this argument, Commander. I will do anything for XCOM.”
Lily looks at him. “We never doubted your loyalty, Central.”
Beside her, Tygan flinches as if she had zapped him with ROV-R.
The Commander cuts a small slice of cake from his plate, and holds it out to him. He does not bite. “We’ll move at dawn.” She lowers her hand and sets the fork on the plate. “There’s no need to risk the Lost in the dark. Shen, I want you on the scanners the entire time. The minute a swarm descends, Firebrand will escort Central out.”
Communication with the recovery team is spotty, mainly to avoid drawing the Lost’s attention. Lily monitors the Menace team’s progress via Gonzalez’s GREMLIN.
“Aggieville.” Central looks down the dilapidated streets at their first stop. Punched out windows frame the fronts of eateries. The signs of bars have long since dimmed, and the awnings that once shaded their entrances have frayed and faded in the twenty years of silence. Lily squints: there must have been a stage in the center of the street, now a pale wooden skeleton that creaks under the weight of the Lost atop. The ash statues of civilians and soldiers, frozen in place by the aliens’ weapons, fill the streets: some on their backs, arms raised up to ward off an invisible enemy; some dragging themselves to the shelter of nearby cars; some holding rusted guns and killed with their fingers on the trigger; still others clutching their children and looking skywards for a savior that never came.
“The Chef’s gone,” Central murmurs as he passes by the brick façade reduced to rubble. Lily can faintly see the bodies of the restaurant’s patrons, frozen mid-meal by the aliens’ abduction equipment. “Mom and Dad used to come here for a cup when I got back home.”
The rising sun casts its blood-red rays over the dead city. Manhattan is odd, in that nature has not overtaken its downtown. Instead, the life is confined to the outskirts, where the aliens’ reach is limited to massive craters from plasma bombardments.
In this city, XCOM fell. Lily sees the price paid in the civilians and soldiers who died together because XCOM failed their duty.
Gonzalez sights the first crate. “Ready to extract,” the Specialist says, sticking a XCOM transponder to its side. Her footsteps in the shattered glass wake a pod of shambling Lost.
Lily does not ask if Central’s family was in the city that day. Neither of them want to consider the possibility that his family may be worse than dead now.
“Sunset Zoo,” Central says, looking at the shattered glass and burnt fences of the exhibit. “They had cheetahs here. Wonder if the Lost ate them.”
“Life finds a way?” Lily offers.
“What would the cats eat?” Central shakes his head. “Dogs? Aliens? Humans?”
On their way out of the zoo, the Menace team finds a fresh Sectoid corpse that has been severely chewed up.
“Could be a dog,” Lanz says, studying the prints in the dry dirt. “One of these is definitely a coyote.”
“ADVENT just had to kill all the pets too,” Kelly mourns. “I miss my dog.”
“Let’s get moving,” Central says, reloading his rifle. “I don’t wanna meet whoever did this.”
For a brief minute, Lily thinks she sees a streak of yellow and black among the grasses. Then Gonzalez stands, and her GREMLIN bobs with the motion, and the visage disappears.
At Kansas State University, the Menace team falls into a hushed silence. Central takes one look at the nearest skeletons – hand in hand, lying in the dirt as if they had tripped and fallen, iPhone falling out of rotted pockets, ring box lying near the tattered remains of a skirt, dented gold ring gleaming on the girl’s hand, bones with the marks of young adults – and does not speak unless it’s to order the soldiers into position.
There are far too many Lost pouring out of the dorms and stadium. But in this case, one would be too many.
It does not get easier at Fort Riley, though the victims here were mainly soldiers that had chosen to spend their lives defending their country. A massive battle took place here, evidenced by the depressions now teeming with wildflowers that hide the scores of skeletons below. Twenty years ago, the aliens rained plasma from the heavens and burnt the soldiers alive like some futuristic dragon. The Menace Team carves up the fallen aliens’ weaponry to add to the Avenger’s stores.
“We should bury them,” Lily finds herself saying.
“There’s too many of them.” Central lets out a pained noise as he steps over the bones of a young man. He looks at the dog tags, too rusted to give this dead man a name, and then at the yellow and red starburst-like flowers sprouting in his ribcage. “It’s a good place to rest. Leave them be.”
“What are these flowers called?” Beaulieu spots a skeleton that lies on its side in the sandy ground, bereft of the flora around her. Lily knows it’s a her – the hips are flared, and that’s the only clue to this body’s identity. Beaulieu picks a few of the blooms and lays them in her hand. The yellow fringes of the flowers pop against the white of her bones.
“Indian blankets,” Central says. “The Kiowa said they bring good luck.”
At the Alpha site, there are far fewer bodies. But these ones are less recognizable: melted from the heat of plasma guns, or shattered by Sectopod fire, or scattered in every direction from a Chryssalid’s eruption into the world. No Lost prowl the fields of wheat and corn that have blown over from the lands of former farmers.
It’s far too dangerous to descend into the Alpha site. Twenty years of erosion have worn away at the metal struts and rock, something that Lily has to engrave into Central’s brain every time he tries to go in to recover those who died within the depths of the base.
Central orders a grave dug for these men and women, the ones they could find. There’s no time to dig up individual ones, and alcohol has burned away their names from Central’s brain.
The Commander, on the other hand, still remembers the names of those who served under her. It has been twenty years for Central, but only three months for her.
“Sergeant Silva Finley,” her voice booms from the GREMLIN’s speakers, made tinny by the audio feed Lily’s receiving. The Menace team throws shovelfuls of dirt into the mass grave. “Technician Shan Yun Zhao. Dr. Leo Vasiliev. Base Security Officer Rukh Khan. Chef Irakli Takala. Captain William Keller. Private Jo Beth Hameldon. Dr. Elpis Anagos.”
She continues to read out the names, as the sun sets on the freshly dug mass grave. In Engineering, Lily bows her head, and murmurs words of thanks to those who worked alongside her father. When the Commander has finished, twilight casts its dusky arms around the fields of whispering wheat, and the cicadas serenade the grieving. Night thickens as the Menace Team treks back. Fireflies dance through the air, little balls of pale yellow light, to the chirp and screech of cricket song.
Lily wonders if there’s a world after this one. But she likes to think that somewhere, the souls of the lost Manhattan have found a way to guide Central back to the Avenger.
Central sits in the situation room, looking blankly at reports from the Resistance and the various Factions. A bottle of whiskey sits at his side, the wax around the lip still unbroken. The glass of beer, foam still clinging to its sides, is half-filled with burnt-yellow liquid that looks faintly toxic. A cigar lies on the table, stubbed out but still smoking faintly.
Lily scrapes her booted feet against the floor to warn him of her presence.
He stirs from his chair.
“Wonder why they built the base near a university,” Central says, pulling a folder across the screen. “Maybe they tried to hide all the shipments with the ones for Fort Riley. Hide the Skyranger among the jets.” He slams a fist against the table. The bottle of whiskey jumps. “Fuck all of the bureaucrats who thought they were so clever. Those were kids! They had no business in war. I fought for those kids’ right to be dumb and live free.”
Lily stays quiet.
“I took the XCOM job because I thought I could do some good in the world. After all the crap I saw in Fallujah and Baghdad. It seemed so simple,” Central continues. “None of this shades of grey. Back in Afghanistan, the Marines turned a blind eye to old men diddling little boys. We were supposed to be allies with those… those things.” Central drinks his beer. “We were there to kick out the Taliban, and we ended up propping up pedophiles. Wasn’t like that with the aliens. We were the good guys protecting our people. They were the assholes trying to crush us under their boot.”
“They still are,” Lily says, searching for comforting words. “And you made the Resistance into something that could fight back.”
Central shakes his head. “Ain’t got a mind for strategy. Tactics, I can do. Logistics, even better. I’m a cog in a machine. The Commander handles the bigger picture.”
“You manage the guerilla tactics.”
“So I’m a glorified secretary.” Central rests his head on his elbows. “And someone gave me too much power, and they put their faith in the wrong man, and I failed them.”
Lily cautiously puts a hand on his back. “Central?”
“I failed them,” he says hollowly. “My incompetence killed them. I killed my family, I killed my brothers in arms, and I ended up killing your dad. All of these deaths. Everything in vain. They died for nothing!”
He collapses into aching sobs, ones that shake his broad shoulders and rattle around his gut. Lily tries – she wraps her arms around him when she is sure that he will not toss her off, mutters encouragements that clunk off her tongue – but she doesn’t know what to do or say. Here is a grief that is half her age, an insidious poison that refuses to leave Central. Here is a man who has spent too many years alone, in the ashes of everything he cared for, and is suspended in the terrible question of whether his family – blood, brother and XCOM – survived or died. There is no closure in the apocalypse, only a terrible silence that all of Lily’s words and hugs cannot fill.
The Commander comes running in. She takes one look at Lily, then at Central. Lily inches away and motions at the sobbing man.
“Has he eaten?” the Commander asks, looking around the situation room.
She points to the foul glass of beer, glad for something concrete and practical to do. “He’ll probably throw it back up.”
“Cao ta ma le,” her superior murmurs, rinsing out a tumbler at the sink. “Can you go to the Mess, and get a thermos of soup? Tygan made some squab and noodle. Some juice too, if there’s any. We need clonidine and zolipidem, in case the withdrawal comes back.”
Bitterness wells up in Lily as she remembers how Dad memorized Central’s drug dosages and their schedule. She hates this helplessness, suspended within her like a worm kinked onto a hook then tossed into a seething lake of hungry trout. How does the Commander just know?
The Commander approaches Central. “I’m here. Do you want to talk?”
He slumps forward, and if the Commander’s arms weren’t ready to catch him, he would go tumbling to the floor. “They’re gone!” he nearly screams into her ear. “They’re gone, and I did nothing to – they died, when I should’ve been there, I should’ve been mind-controlled, I should’ve taken the bullet, and–“
“Central.” The Commander levers him up and presses her forehead to his. “Central. John. I’m here. They didn’t die in vain.”
“Why didn’t I die?” he says in between shuddering breaths. “Old Shen didn’t deserve it. My parents didn’t. I fucked up, and everything’s gone to hell–“
“Lily. Can you get the soup, juice, clonidine and zolipidem?” the Commander repeats, never moving from her place supporting Central. She raises a hand to cup his chin. “I can’t bring them back, John. But I can fight for them. We can fight for them. We’ll make sure they’re remembered…”
“I don’t want to remember them! They should be here! I shouldn’t be the one left behind!”
Lily quietly leaves the Resistance Ring.
When she returns, she finds the Command duo have regrouped on the floor next to the war table. Central sits, partly in the Commander’s lap, leaning into her like she grounds him to the Earth.
“I won’t leave you behind,” the Commander says in a voice that has leveled mountains and brought men to their knees. “I won’t leave you to weather that long dark alone.”
Central lets out a weak moan. He grabs at her shoulders, digging his nails into the dark grey fabric. The green of his sleeves melds into the sky blue swath of fabric going down her sides.
“I can’t… I can’t do it again,” he mumbles. “I can’t make it another 20 years like this.”
“I’m here,” she repeats like a mantra, “I’m not leaving you behind again. I promise you, John. I won’t leave you behind again.”
Slowly, Central’s sobs quiet. He rests his head in the crook of her shoulders, where thin white lines meet the crescent scar of her recent surgery. His left hand has disappeared into her long hair, pale skin disappearing into the color of the sea under a midnight sky. The Commander’s arms are looped around the barrel of his torso.
Lily leaves the thermos of soup, the bottle of juice, and the meds on the table.
As she heads to Engineering, she logs onto XCOM’s schedule planner via ROV-R. She modifies Central’s so that his shift starts an hour later.
Central drops by Engineering the next afternoon. His eyes are still puffy and red, but he bears a tray with a squab salad sandwich and wild yam fries to her bench.
“If you don’t show up again,” he says, setting her lunch down on the worktable, “I won’t save you anything. I worked hard on this, you know. You try to shoot pigeons when the Lost are breathing down your neck.”
“’M busy,” she mutters, glaring at the blueprints of the mag Dragon Rounds. “Just need… a little spark…”
He sighs. “Shen. Take a breath.”
Loneliness suddenly fills her, as she remembers how Dad used to bring her cookies and warm milk when she was struggling with an essay at 3 AM. Take a break, and go to bed, he used to say, who knows what you’ll come up with when you have a pair of fresh eyes?
“Imahara,” she calls, “mind taking a look at this? I’m stuck on the trigger mechanism.”
“On it, boss,” the engineer chirps, pulling up the blueprints on her own tablet. “Jesus… I’m heading to the Proving Grounds. I’m sick of setting Engineering on fire.”
Central immediately points to the door. “When you test it out, do it outside. We’re running low on fire suppressant.”
“Tygan’s not gonna like that,” Andrade says. His fellow engineers laugh. “For a chemist, he’s got a real big grudge against synthesis.”
“Cut the doctor some slack,” Howell says, “I did it in grade 12 and it was a pain in the ass.” She nods at the duo. “Any chance there’s some left for me, Central?”
Central rolls his eyes. “Does assigned lunch break mean anything to you, Howell? Ain't a lunch lady, not bringing a goddamn food cart down here. And yes, in the kitchen, so grab something before the men eat it all.”
“We’re XCOM. What’s a schedule again?” Tasev asks, dragging a load of alien alloys behind him. “And has anyone seen my propane torch? I borrowed yours, Andrade, so you’ll just have to make without in the Resistance Coms.”
“I told you to clean up after yourself,” Lily says. “Far shelf, third rack, and it’s been refueled.”
“Touch my shit again without asking,” Andrade holds up his radio transmitter, the antenna wobbling as he speaks, “and I will stab you with the pointy end.”
“All right, all right, jeez! Violence isn’t always the answer.” Tasev drags the sled past Lily. “Special delivery, Chief! It’s going into the depot in the west wing. And I’ll clean up after myself.”
“Looks like you’re doing pretty well, Shen,” Central says, and though there is old loss smoldering in his eyes, there is unmistakable pride.
Lily wipes her hands with an alcohol pad and reaches for the fries. “I hope Dad would be proud.”
Central’s answer won’t satisfy her for long, but for now, it banishes the ache.
“One.” A pained grunt echoes through the empty GTS. “Two.” The Commander gasps for breath. “Three. I lived. Four. Fuck.”
Her superior hangs from the pull-up bar, taut lines of muscle shaking from the exertion. The Commander has foregone her dark-grey uniform shirt, opting instead for a white tank top. Made translucent by sweat, the tank top reveals every white sunken scar lacing the Commander’s neck and upper back.
“Five. Twenty more to go. Six. Fuck!”
“Commander,” Lily says as she walks in, “if you die doing pull ups, Central’s gonna go bonkers.”
“I have to get stronger.” The Commander strains with the effort of trying to pull herself up. “I passed the men’s physical standards. I can do it again. Seven.” She grunts out a curse. “Eight. I can do this. Nine.” Her arms tremble, and her fingers begin to slip on the chalk-dusted bar. “Fuck, fuck – sorry,” she pants as she scrabbles for grip on the bar. “Shouldn’t swear in front of my men.”
“I’m thirty-five, not five,” Lily snaps. ROV-R buzzes towards her superior, hovers over the shaking and sweating woman, then flies back to Lily. Her robot chirps out data and warnings. “Seriously, Commander, stop before you rip something. Even ROV-R’s telling you.”
“If I stop now,” the Commander says, pulling herself up for the tenth time, “I’ll fall.”
“Why don’t you let yourself fall?” Lily asks. “We’d catch you.”
“I can’t.” The Commander tightens her grip in one hand so she can rub her eyes. “I support a house of cards on my shoulders, Shen. If I fall, so does everything around me.
“We stand stronger now.” Lily crosses her arms and plops onto one of the mats lining the floor of the Guerrilla Tactics School. “Come on. You nag me about this. Why don’t you trust me?”
“It’s not what I want to do.” The Commander laughs, though the sound is high and strained and posed to shatter into a thousand pieces. “I want to go to bed and never wake up, because there is hell outside my door. But I have thousands of miles to walk and thousands of hours before I may sleep.” She clenches the bar, though her arms quiver like twigs in a gale. “I do this for XCOM. I need to be better. Better to scream than cry. I can’t show weakness.”
Lily, to some point, understands. The apocalypse will tear any unsuspecting man or woman apart, but it is particularly unforgiving to women. Gangs of slavers still roam the lands, and brothels are about the only business doing a roaring trade these days. The Factions are pretty good about having a woman at their head, but old prejudices still lurk in the underbelly of the free humanity. There are many eyes on the Commander. Central does his best to fend off those who would assassinate the Commander, but he can do nothing about those who would seed discord and spread lies about her. If she appears weak, so does XCOM. She wonders if it was the same when the Commander served in the Canadian army.
The other part of her resents that after all they’ve seen, her superior is still pushing her away. Lily despises hypocrisy.
“Pride?” she asks.
“Twelve. Crisse de câlice de tabarnak d'osti de sacrament!” Tears leak from her superior’s eyes. “Twenty years and three months of murdering civilians. I will not fail XCOM again.”
Lily nods, and goes to refill the Commander’s water bottle. She decides to run on the treadmill; gotta keep up the cardio, as the Lost Towers mission proved. The Commander manages a tight smile. Something warm swells through Lily: on this, the two women have an understanding.
“Uh, is someone really angry at the Catholic church in here?” Central asks, poking his head into the room. “Oh… Commander. Thought you’d be chatting with the men. Anyway, the aliens continue to make progress on the Avatar project. If we want to stop them, we’ll have to move fast.”
“Gotcha. Shen’s a good sport,” she pants as she goes for the thirteenth pull-up. “We’ll hit… mmf, hit a facility once Beaulieu’s healed up.”
“Do you have a spotter?” Central asks, setting down his towel. His eyes travel over the scars, but he does not comment. “If you’ve been lifting weights–“
“I wouldn’t worry you that way.” With a grunt, the Commander lets go of the bar. She falls on her feet, and begins to rub her shoulders. “I’ll start on cardio. My arms are killing me. Don’t worry, Central. I’m strong.”
Central opens his mouth to say something as the Commander joins Lily on the other treadmill. He closes his mouth, and just watches his superior pound away at her workout.
XCOM’s Central Officer seems unusually perturbed when he wanders into Engineering with a message from Tygan. Something about being a chemist, and not an engineer, and thus needing Lily to take over the Sectopod breakdown.
“I’m a bit busy with the psi implant,” Lily says. “Can you tell the Commander it’ll be a few days late? ETA 7 days.”
“Hang on, you said it would be done in three.”
“That’s what I thought.” Lily beckons ROV-R over, who projects ghostly blue schemata over her workbench. “Tygan’s a biochemist, not an engineer. If I followed these plans exactly, it would probably overheat and explode.” She looks up and scrutinizes Central. “Are you even listening to me?”
“What? Of course.” Central shifts from foot to foot. He looks utterly lost. “New plan?”
“Time to start something new,” Lily says, brushing scraps of metal off her desk. “Fresh eyes, fresh mind. All right. The alien implant has to tap into the nervous system. That’s more Tygan’s thing. It needs to conduct psionic energy. It’s a conductor with an amplifier attached. That I can do.”
Central nods slowly. “Time to start something new,” he repeats. “I’ll check back in a few days, Chief. Keep up the good work.”
Lily blinks. Central isn’t micromanaging her work? What madness is this?
In a few days, Lily has her answer. Either the alcohol has finally melted his brain, or the Commander has an admirer and won’t take the hint.
Who couldn’t notice? Central says Commander more like a lover’s name than a rank and title. He looks at her like she’s the sun in his sky and he’s caught in a ceaseless dance around her. Lily’s not quite sure how the Commander doesn’t notice Central mooning over her. It’s almost pathetic. Lily has considered whacking the Commander with a wrench so the woman notices, and then whacking Central so the man snaps out of it and says something.
In fact, if Central doesn’t stop saying Commander in that tone, she’s going to send ROV-R over to dump a glass of water on his thirsty ass.
“–Commander, I’ve arranged for Ronaldo to make contact with the cell. Operative Jadeite will send the Suez group’s credentials once she has infiltrated, ETA three days. Finally, I have the coordinates to the supply drop, and am ready to fly on your orders, Commander.”
“Notice me, senpai,” Tasev mutters. His fellow engineers stifle their giggles into their gruel. Lily hides behind a napkin. Imahara is less successful, and her shriek of laughter draws the Command team’s attention.
“Much obliged, Central.” The Commander pours him another coffee. “I’d also appreciate you getting some sleep.”
“Don’t say it,” Howell chides her fellow engineers. “It’s rude to ship people in real life.”
“She’s so blind,” Tasev groans, “it hurts. Back me up on this, Chief. If you don’t taze her, I will.”
“It’s so obvious!” Andrade mutters into his coffee. “I watched soap operas with less cock-blocking than this."
Though she agrees with the general sentiment, Lily shakes her head. “Let those two figure out… whatever they have going, on their own time.”
“Yeah, but we have to listen to it!” Imahara hisses. “Why can’t we just– argh!”
“There a snake over there?” Central asks, raising his voice. “I hear a lotta hissing from the Engineering table.”
“Blame the nerd table, sir,” Tasev says immediately. “Maybe they brought a Viper on board.”
Dr. McCoy, from the scientist table, chucks a wadded up napkin at Tasev’s head. He misses and beans Imahara instead. “I’m not the weird one, Tasev.”
Dr. Pham also tosses a wet napkin at Tasev. Her aim is much better. “Learn to encrypt your files, Tasev, jeez.”
Tygan rolls his eyes, and shakes his head. Lily mirrors him.
Title from 人生何处不相逢 (Rénshēng hé chù bù xiāngféng), also known as 重逢 (Chongfeng), sung by Fei Yu-Ching. It was surprisingly difficult to find this song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8KvYtfW-fag and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cK3iZcxiOO0 are both good examples of the song’s mood.
Holy slow burn, Batman.
Chapter 6: 谁知她内心苦闷 (Who knows her inner anguish?)
Something light and fluffy, before the storm. The best way to make friends is to eat with them.
“Commander! We’re losing civilians left and right!” Central says.
Out of the corner of her eye, Lily can see him overload: there’s guts and blood sprayed across the shipping container, the remains of a twenty-three year old woman; Gonzalez is knocked out after taking a hit from a Berserker; an ADVENT dropship looms overhead, with one of those goddamn Stun Lancers waiting aboard; a small camera attached to a Resistance man has gone dark, as he has strangled his son to keep the baby from revealing the rest of the children’s position; a foot patrol will converge on Palayoor’s position; and all XCOM soldiers need to evacuate, the grid has lit up with dropships, and the heat signatures indicate turrets.
“Bradford.” The Commander switches off her headset and catches him by the elbows. “Do me a favor. Shut up about the civilians. I know. I need to concentrate.”
“They’re dying!” he protests, and in his eyes Lily can see the countless lost to ADVENT’s bullets and monsters. There is guilt, as dark and deep as the sea, screaming for those he watched drown in their own blood and break apart like the waves against the rocky shore.
“Your screaming will not save them.” She cups his face. “Breathe. I’m here.”
Central nods, and leans into her hands. His shoulders rise and fall. He raises a hand to turn on his mike. “Menace 1-5, we’re getting hostile signatures all over the board. Move the civilians to the EVAC point.”
“We’ll send in three more soldiers,” the Commander says, “to bolster the Resistance fighters.”
An explosion rocks the soldiers, dissolving many of the body cams in static. The Commander’s eyes go wide as she looks at the carnage: a bus sheltering two Resistance fighters and three unarmed civilians – including a young boy – is now nothing more than flaming wreckage. The ADVENT Stun Lancers that would have executed the fighters now lie scattered across the plains, but so are the people XCOM swore to protect.
“It was one of yours!” Dragunova accuses her squadmate Sharpshooter. “You missed the shot!”
“Me? You put that Claymore down there! It was meant to be used!” Tanzer shouts back.
The Commander sighs. The black of pupils still swallows her irises. “I’m going to have a talk about explosives with the men. Shen, supervise the evacuees and scan for Faceless.” She touches her mike. “Stop arguing. Dragunova, move to secure the civilian on the second floor. Tanzer, have her back if it’s a Faceless.”
Dragunova runs up the flight of stairs. The civilian creaks with sounds human mouths should not make, as the man stretches in odd angles.
“Got your back,” Tanzer says, and head-shots the forming Faceless.
Lily calls up Firebrand from her tablet. “Do we need to care for any civilians?” she asks as she orders Andrade and Dugatkin to set up an infirmary.
“I’ve got one bleeding out,” the pilot says tersely, “and there’s two dropships on my tail.”
“Fly by point Zeta,” Lily says, “we’ve got a turret installed that can shoot down your pursuers.”
“Five by five,” Firebrand says, and signs off.
Central flips through his notes of this Haven’s personnel. He bows his head as he surveys the wreckage of the former apartment complex. “Commander… this cell will have to disband. They don’t have enough manpower to keep–“
“Central, I’ve got survivors!” Beaulieu cries. His bodycam reveals a group of thirteen: five adults, one teenager whose arms shake as she holds her pistol aloft, and eight children. A dead baby and the corpse of a man are huddled in the corner. “Hang on, kid, I’m friendly! Don’t shoot!”
The Commander nods and orders the rest of the Menace team into evacuation.
Fires beat back the cover of darkness. The smell of roasting Viper – which is uncannily like chicken – fills the air. XCOM mingles with the survivors of the Haven and a small encampment of Skirmishers. After all the civilians were ushered onto the Avenger, the Commander negotiated with the Skirmishers to give them a new home. Once the Skirmishers finished burning their fallen brethren, they began building makeshift shelters for the displaced civilians. The freed ADVENT soldiers walk among the Resistance civilians, offering weapons training and skewers of wild peppers and Viper meat to those who once scorned them.
Well, Lily thinks as she hears the solid thrum of a magnetic gun firing, and then wild sobs, we can’t all have the Commander’s counseling powers.
Lily takes off her welding mask and turns off the tap on the gas tank. She nods to one of the Skirmishers working nearby – Nar Galak, she remembers, recognizing the necklace of Chryssalid spikes hanging from his fur collar. Each former ADVENT trooper has taken care to distinguish themselves, whether it be by wrapping leather around their gauntlets, or painting their faces with soot, or carving patterns into their armor. Lily thinks she sees the same in the Resistance civilians – in a world where ADVENT has done their best to grind every spark of creativity out, people try to take their identities back.
“I’m heading out to grab a bite,” she says, “you want anything?”
“I am already sated,” the Skirmisher replies, pouring more oil into a lantern. “Your offer is not needed.”
Lily shrugs. “Suit yourself. I’ll be back in the morning.”
The Skirmisher nods and returns to weaving a length of dead vine into a net. His unfriendliness jolts her. It takes her a moment to realize that no offense is meant. Lily has become accustomed to the general sense of family that unites XCOM’s soldiers, scientists, and engineers. XCOM’s Reaper and Skirmisher have flown on board the Avenger for only a month, but already they have begun to fall into the controlled chaos that is Lily’s life.
She finds Tygan in the medical tent, sweating profusely as he sews together the shredded remains of a young girl’s right arm. The child whimpers as his needle dips in and out of her skin.
“It’s gonna scar,” she says in a trembling voice.
“You can tell people where you got these scars,” Tygan says quickly, “and they will think you have been very brave.”
“It’s gonna look so ugly,” the young girl’s voice cracks, “nobody will want me, mommy isn’t here anymore, she can’t tell them–“
“Those damn ADVENT troopers,” a woman close by says. She gathers the girl into her arms. “Fuck ADVENT, for training those murderers–”
Tygan bows his head, no trace of guilt in his composure. “Please, ma’am, I need you to keep her calm.”
By the sounds of it, her aunt takes over in soothing the child as Tygan continues his work. Lily leaves him to it: the doctor is a not a medical one, and she wouldn’t dare disrupt his concentration in such a delicate task.
Lily thinks of the long days spent holed up in Adjunct Professor Brodie’s home, wondering if her father would return home while the world burnt. She thinks of how the man, old enough to be her father, fumbled to comfort her. Nothing but Dad coming back to San Francisco filled that ache.
She isn’t hungry anymore.
Lily wanders through the encampment, looking for other XCOM soldiers. She finds Dragunova and Tanzer trading war stories as Mox demonstrates how to best kill a Viper. Central is busy teaching Lanz how to start a campfire without setting himself on fire. Beaulieu sings some sort of French lullaby, the words too soft on the night breeze for her to catch, to the newly-made orphans of that day’s attack.
The Commander stands by the edge of the meadow, far away from anyone, where young boles of the forest beckon to the woody wildflowers that sprout between long blades of grass. An assault rifle hangs from a leather strap encircling her shoulders.
“T’es là, Jesus?” the Commander asks, head tilted to the star-studded skies above. “Chuis ici astheure, comme toujours. Ils se font passer un sapin encore. Moi, je les entend. Ils sont si bavards.”
Lily coughs. The Commander turns.
“Chief Shen,” the elder woman says. “How is the Haven faring?”
“Everyone will have a shelter for the night,” Lily says. “You should get back, before Central has a heart attack and sends out a search party.”
“Of course. Will you walk with me?”
“I had a choice?” Lily falls into step beside her. “Didn’t think you were an introvert.”
“I’m not.” The Commander breathes in the smoke and the sweetness that heralds summer. “After my capture… I occasionally have trouble telling the two realities apart. I was in those simulations for twenty years. I needed some time apart.”
“You hear voices?” Lily asks, her voice rising.
The Commander hesitates. “No. Not when I sleep better,” she amends. “I find pistols scattered all over my quarters. Central’s doing, no doubt.”
“Under your pillow too?”
Her superior nods in the affirmative.
“Yeah, that’s him. He doesn’t like the thought of being caught off guard.”
The Commander laughs, but the sound is strained like a branch ready to snap. “If it were any other person, I would consider it a death threat. As it’s Central, it’s more akin to a cat bringing you its kills.”
Lily laughs. “If you hear the men meowing at him, just know that you’re responsible.” She sobers. “The voices, are they new?”
The elder woman sighs. “Tygan did his best. He couldn’t have anticipated the side-effects of loss of connection to the psionic network.”
“Tygan’s responsible for this?”
“The Doctor did his best,” her superior says firmly. “I understand it was best for him to extract the chip the way it went in. He would have cut through scar tissue, not useful brain tissue.”
“I’m hearing something went wrong,” Lily says. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?
“Did I have to be awake throughout the process?” the Commander asks, bitterness rising through her voice. She smooths the front of her plated armor. “No matter. I cope well enough. Had I told you earlier, you would have killed Tygan. XCOM needed its Chief Scientist.”
“Oh…” Lily shuffles behind her superior, sobered by the thought of all that has changed. “I guess it’s hard waking up and realizing twenty years have gone by.”
“You could say that,” the Commander says, as they approach the campfire that Lanz successfully created. The soldier is now celebrating at another fire with a bottle of beer. “Good evening, Central.”
“Commander!” Bradford gets up and lays out a blanket in front of the fire. “Here, sit.”
“What am I, chopped liver?” Lily asks, accepting a plate from a passing Resistance civilian. Hunger sparks through her belly, and her stomach audibly growls.
Central rolls his eyes as he plops onto the ground. “I always mean you too, Shen. You want some jerky, sir? Or sausage?”
Lily coughs, to stop herself from pointing out the obvious joke.
“That would be nice.” The Commander takes the roasting fork from Central and nibbles on the sausage speared on the tines. “How are you feeling now?”
“Well,” Central sits back with a groan, “I ain’t drinking, or drunk, so just thoughtful now.”
“That’s new,” Lily says, and ducks as he makes to swat her.
“No more comments from the peanut gallery.” Central slides a few more sausages onto her plate. The clear, spiced juices pool around his toasting fork. “Hmm. Not crispy enough. Could use some more fuel.” He gets a stack of sticks from a net beside him and starts feeding the flames.
“I hope today’s experience won’t happen again,” the Commander says. “If you need someone to talk to, I’m always here.”
“You say that. Don’t make me promise things I can’t keep. I’ve seen so many die to the aliens,” Bradford says, gesturing about the meadows. Fireflies soar into the velveteen sky, little stars friendlier and smaller than the ones high above. “I put down the people I called friends the day before. I’ve broken bones and kept running, because if I sat down, a Sectoid would’ve puppeteered me into shooting my soldiers. Twenty years of that, Commander. It breaks a man.”
Her superior nods, and blows on the fire. Sparks fill the air. In the distance, Lily can faintly hear the relieved sobs and the mourning of those who survived the Retaliation.
Central prods the fire with a stick. “I’ve fucked up everything I’ve set my hands on, Commander. I don’t want to fuck this up too.” He looks at his superior. “Give me something to believe in, Commander. Call me a zealot, call me a fanatic, but set me on a path and I will burn down everything that stands in your way.” The flames dance in Central’s eyes, forging the grey of his eyes into steel. “Give me something that won’t haunt me, Commander.”
The Commander sighs and runs her hands through her hair. “This is not the healthiest way to cope, Bradford.”
“It’s all that I have.”
“You hardly give yourself enough credit.” The Commander holds out her hand, letting a powder-white moth settle on her palm. “You make sure that our ammo is always stocked, that our spies are spirited to safety, and that we never go hungry.” She gestures to the Christmas lights strung about the makeshift camp, scavenged from the Haven. It gives this desolate piece of wasteland a sense of home, something even the Avenger lacks today. “Many lack someone like you.”
“It’s not good enough.” He looks at her, and Lily can’t believe that the elder woman is blind to the love that builds up until it’s ready to burst from his eyes. “I can be better. I will do better. I promise you, Commander.”
“It’s all that I ask,” her superior replies. “That, and if you need me, come talk to me. Both of you.”
“You got it, Commander,” they reply.
“Is it possible to upgrade the Templar gauntlet?” the Commander asks as XCOM’s resident Templar submits his gear for repairs.
“Well… we have the alloys and supplies. Give me a week and we’re good to go,” Lily says, mentally calculating how long she’ll have to wait until the forge is hot enough to melt the alien alloys.
“Excellent. You’ll have new equipment soon, Corporal van Damme.” She turns to the Templar. “You are dismissed. Have a good end of shift.”
“Thank you, Commander.” The Templar marches out of Engineering, head held high, psionic power swishing about his dark hands.
“No one ever calls you by your name,” Lily notes as she opens her toolbox.
“In the Forces, you are known by your last name. It’s not all that strange to me to become my title. After all, when’s the last time you called your Chinese teacher by her first name?”
Lily shudders. “I think Chen lao shi would have bitchslapped me from San Francisco to Taiwan. She never liked my accent. Too southern for her.”
“Beijing ren?” the Commander asks, meaning Northerners.
The Commander scoffs. “Accent purists.”
“You still haven’t told me. What’s your name?” Lily asks. The Commander opens her mouth, but Lily butts in. “Your Chinese name, if you don’t wanna say your English one.”
“French, actually.” The corners of the Commander’s eyes crinkle up, like the orange peel Dad used to dry on the windowsill. “You’d make fun of me, Shen.”
“You’re still afraid of some words after living with Asian parents?”
The Commander laughs. “I’ll share if you do.”
The strokes are foreign to Lily’s hand, but she still manages to trace them out. Her grandmother’s lessons, a mere whisper against the back of her hand, guide her through the movements. Dian, pie, héng gou. That makes the mían bù shou, the part of the character meaning “roof.” It covers the nü radical, the one that means “woman.” Shu, pie, shu, na, héng. Or is it the other way around? Lily can only give the strokes the Mandarin names that the Commander knows, not the Taiwanese names for the old words. This new world, one born of plasma and ash, has no need for the distinction between Taiwanese and mainland Mandarin names. The two languages produce the same result: a word that contains a woman under a roof, and means “peace.” Yi is harder to write, having thrice the number of strokes found in an, but she manages to scribble it out in the air. More impressively, the Commander follows.
“Resolute peace?” The Commander nods. “I like it. Sounds like something out of a Li Bai poem.”
“You promised.” Lily puts on her serious face, which consists of glaring at the mess of components on her bench. Judging by the Commander’s fond smile, her father used to do the same thing. “Try me.”
“Ai Wen.” The Commander draws out the characters, and Lily can’t contain the burst of giggles that escape her. “Well, I’m off to tell Tygan I’m psi-sensitive. Should help the scientists researching psionics.”
“Loves writing?” Lily chokes out. “How did you survive Chinese school?”
“A peasant name,” the Commander says with a shrug, “for men and women who dreamed of never toiling fields again. My father was named Wei Hong–”
“-chose a new name during the Great Leap Forward and Six More Backward,” the Commander says. “If he had another name, I never knew. My mother was named Xin Yu. A new universe. Our names show the hopes of our parents.”
“We are the sum of our father’s sins, and the virtues of our generation,” Lily muses. She laughs. “You’re a bad influence, Commander. I used to be practical, not poetic.”
“You younglings will learn some culture– okay! Okay! ROV-R, you can stop! Shen! I’ll let you work now!”
“Well, Commander. Keep this up and we might make you a honorary Reaper,” Volkov says, stretching against the Avenger’s strut. The Reaper’s leader has come to greet them personally, after the latest Covert Action discovered the location of another Hunter hideout.
“Hey, get off that,” Lily says, beckoning ROV-R to scan the strut. “It’s been making funny noises.”
“My men deserve the credit,” Lily’s superior says. “They were the ones in the field.”
“Ah, yes. But a good worksman needs good tools, eh?” Volkov thumps his chest. “One must know how to work them well, meld them to their hands…”
Beside Lily, Central slowly metamorphoses into a tomato. Judging by Volkov’s shit-eating grin, this is entirely intentional.
“Are you calling me a wizard, Volkov?” the Commander replies.
“Less avada kedavra, more avtomat Kalashnikov.” Volkov laughs. “Come now. We know each other well enough. You can use John’s name for me. I don’t bite.”
“Volk, wolf, it pumps his ego up too much,” Central grumbles.
“I don’t mind,” she says, a glint of humor sparking in her eyes. “I wouldn’t mind having another Reaper on board, either.”
“My people are a tenuous bunch. It’s hard enough to get them on special missions. Might be easier for us to hook up and wait twenty years,” Volk suggests.
Central splutters. “Excuse me?”
“I doubt that’s going to work if I’d like another Skirmisher on my team, Volk.” The Commander laughs. “I’d also like to finish the war before I’m eighty.”
“Every time my men miss a shot, I steal a minute from their lifespan,” the Commander says with a shrug.
“Someone won a roll of the genetic dice,” Volk says with a whistle. “All natural?”
“You know it,” the Commander says coyly.
“Get your grubby paws off, Volk,” Central snaps.
“Volk, do you have need of a Central Officer?” the Commander asks. Lily turns from her work and opens her mouth – how dare she turn away Central from XCOM – but finds the duo looking at Central with sly smiles. “I wouldn’t mind sharing my pack.”
“You don’t know what you’re asking for,” Volkov says, patting Central on the back. “He kicks around in bed.”
“You crammed us in like sardines!” Central says.
“Oh? Seeing as you named one of your Reapers Outrider,” the Commander continues, “I’d have thought you have experience with rodeos.”
“I can vouch for John: he knows his way around a good ride.”
“Mmm. I’ve seen the way Central handles his gun.”
Lily hides a laugh as the two turn the full brunt of their attentions to Central. The poor man looks like he’s a few seconds away from either spontaneously combusting or fainting.
“Ah, Commander?” Central asks after Lily’s done giving him her damage report. “Can you stay back a minute?”
“Of course,” her superior says, leaving the terminal. “I’ve sent out two soldiers to collect supplies with the Templars. What do you need?”
He shakes his head. “Don’t do that again. You make me worry that you’ll get sick of XCOM and run off to make your own faction.”
“Only if you nag me about the Chosen and the Avatar project,” the Commander says lightly. She sobers at the look on his face. “The only place for me is at XCOM, beside you. That will never change.”
Central smiles. It adds soft curves to a face carved by years on the run. “Thank you, Commander.”
“Hey, Chief Shen!”
Lily looks up from the SPARK chassis with no small sense of apprehension. Beaulieu and Barros are bouncing up and down on the heels of the feet; Barros clutches a tatty songbook to her chest. She guesses it’s from scavenging. XCOM has done their best to preserve all of Earth’s cultures, and that includes scanning books.
“Do you have a tuner?” Barros asks.
“Is this a good use of resources?” Lily replies.
“Well…” Beaulieu coughs. “Uh, do you remember when Dr. Tygan was singing in the shower? We’re trying to avoid that in–”
“There’s a tuning fork on the rack and a sound program in the Propaganda Center,” Lily says, turning her attention to her father’s work once again. “Just remember what Central says.”
“Don’t add or subtract from the population unless necessary?” Beaulieu asks.
Barros blinks, then lights up. “Commander, the aliens continue–“
Lily huffs, eager to get back to her work. “What does he say at the end of every safety briefing?”
“You fuck up and I fuck you,” Barros recites. “Well, I doubt that, when he’s chasing–“
Beaulieu claps a hand over her mouth. “Thanks Chief! All right, squirt, let’s get out of Shen’s hair. To the Hangar!”
Lily touches her communicator. “Hey, Central, you drunk or up?”
“I’ll have you know I’ve got more than two states of consciousness,” the man grumbles, fatigue dripping from his voice. “What’s on fire now?”
“Nothing yet, but I’d be careful around the Hangar. The men are planning something.”
“Goddamn it.” She hears Central scrambling, and the ruffle of sheets being thrown aside. “They better not be skinning Vipers again! I told them no cloaks!”
“You smelled the coolant here?” Lily asks Andrade as they enter the Living Quarter. It’s oddly full of soldiers, considering it’s lunch break.
“Yeah, I think a pipe might have burst behind the walls,” Andrade says, tapping a section with strange dark stains near the floor. “If it gets into circulation, that’s a problem, the coolant’s quite toxic–“
“Shhh, shh, here they come,” Imahara giggles as she dashes into the room. “Barros, get ready!”
“I need a note!” the Ranger protests. “Andrade, help a girl out.”
Andrade stops his lecture and hums deep in his throat. Beaulieu joins in with his air-shaking bass. In a few seconds, the air vibrates with beat boxing from hidden XCOM soldiers.
“Who d'you think you're kidding, he's the earth and heaven to you,” the quartet chant as the Commander and Central round the corner. Central stops short; the Commander raises a hand to her mouth, but the corners of her eyes crinkle. “Try to keep it hidden, honey we can see right through you!”
“No chance, no way!” Kokkonen sings, sliding in on her knees. “I won't say it, no, no!”
“You swoon, you sigh, why deny it, oh oh,” the quartet replies with the thematically appropriate gestures.
“I didn’t realize I’ve been upgraded to God-Emperor,” the Commander laughs, as her neat professional façade shatters. “I have a personal Greek choir now?”
“You're way off base, I won't say it,” Howell continues. Central storms off in the opposite direction. “Get off my case… oh jeez.” The beat boxing slowly dies away, as if someone had sat on the band. “Is XCOM: the Musical really that bad?"
“There better not be a stage in the Hangar!” Central shouts in the distance. “What the– who mounted all these heads? What the shit is this? What did you do to the Hangar? Why is it called the Hunter’s Lodge? What the hell is going on?”
The Commander draws the curtains away, and peers at the gaggle of XCOM soldiers hastily stuffed into the bunks. “The beat boxing could use some work. There were many muffled giggles in there.”
“Central’s just jealous that he ruined his throat with all those smokes,” Laghari grumbles as she squirms inside the Lanz and Kokkonen sandwich. “Ow! Lanz! Getchur elbow outta my gut!”
XCOM’s Skirmisher just sits on the floor and laughs until the sound comes out as hoarse croaks.
“This is what humanity fights for,” their resident Reaper says solemnly. “Sick tunes and awesome beats.”
Reaper HQ celebrates the improving of their relationship with XCOM by holding a feast. Someone has brought out a guitar; someone has an accordion, of all things; one of the Reapers has improvised a drum set from scavenged materials; one Reaper draws out a tune through their violin, and the Commander, sitting on the sidelines, taps her foot to the beat.
Lily rolls her eyes. “We could all be doing something productive right now. Like Tygan. He’s finishing the Berserker autopsy.”
“True,” the Commander murmurs, keeping the beat with her index on her thigh, “but we also need to relax. Clear our minds, so that we have a fresh look on things.”
A few Reapers leave their picnic blankets and move to the dance floor. It’s nothing much, just the basketball court of an abandoned high school, but the Haven XCOM rescued has lent fairy lights that bring an air of festivity to the apocalypse.
“May I have this dance?” Beaulieu asks Imahara, holding out a hand.
“I thought you’d never ask,” the engineer replies.
One by one, XCOM’s men gain courage and join the dancers. Few are as talented as the Reapers – apparently, their live fire training includes dancing – but most of them can follow the beat, and move in ways that don’t resemble seizures. Lily, the owner of two left feet, counts that as a success.
She nudges Central when he returns to the Command team’s picnic blanket, a tray of water glasses in hand. “Psst. Ask her to dance.”
“Are you kidding me?” he whispers back, watching the Commander bob her head to the tune. He looks over at the Christmas lights-encircled basketball court, where Dragunova leads Mox in a hellish pace that carves up the dance floor. “I don’t even know what dance this is!”
“You should understand our culture, Skirmisher!” Volkov cries as he sends Howell into Mox’s arms and receives Dragunova in his own.
Mox catches Lily’s eye. Written in his overlarge eyes, she can read, help me. I was not made for this.
“It’s a tango.” The Commander stands, and offers Central her hand. “Come on! I can teach you!”
Central does his best to follow, but his legs shake and he keeps bumping into the Commander. She does her best to redirect him – slides her leg over his, angling him properly, and now that Lily thinks about it, that probably doesn’t help Central’s concentration – she slows their dance to half the pace and shows him how to twirl her – but the strain shows on Central’s face. He grits his teeth and steps in and out of time; he has the Commander lean into him, in an imitation of Volkov’s precise moves, but nearly drops her when she arcs back in his arms. Lily has seen prettier train wrecks.
“What on Earth is Central doing?” Tygan asks, sitting on the blanket. He smells faintly of antiseptic and soap. Lily’s glad that the stench of the Berserker does not follow him here, though it would probably spare Central the embarrassment if he called a search for a biological hazard.
“His best?” Lily offers in Bradford’s defense.
Tygan winces. “It’s a side effect of alcohol abuse,” he murmurs. “Loss of fine motor control. Tremors. I will tell him later.”
The song ends, to the applause of those on the sidelines and to Central’s great relief.
“I’m so sorry,” he pants in between breaths.
“Not at all, I enjoyed it! Shen, do you want a go?” the Commander asks. Lily shakes her head like a wet dog. “Tygan? Please do not leave me hanging.”
“Why not,” the doctor says, as the band starts up with a quicker tango.
Lily can immediately see the difference: where Central bumped into her or clipped her hip, the quick, precise step of the Commander’s feet effortlessly weave in and out between Tygan’s. Though Tygan has clearly not danced in years, he adapts in time, and sends her spinning around the dance floor until her breathless laugh fills the air. It is still the most dispassionate but technically correct tango she has ever watched. The Commander and the Doctor have a familiarity, but Central has chemistry.
Central reaches for his hip flask. Lily shakes her head, and he refrains. She didn’t mean that kind of chemistry, even if alcohol is a solution.
“You never cease to surprise me, doctor,” the Commander says, as Tygan turns them around.
“My PI told me to either start playing basketball, or learn to dance,” Tygan whisks the Commander into a tight spin, “and my glasses were not insured. So I went to ballroom lessons with her cousin.”
“How did she ask?” the Commander asks, as he lifts her with a grunt of effort.
“As I recall, she called me a giant fucking nerd who lived in the lab.” Tygan laughs, and sets her back down. “She also made a comment that I was gaining weight from all the ramen and McDonalds,” he joins hands with the Commander, “and that I should know better from my Master’s in biochemistry.”
“How rude.” Lily’s superior twists and turns away. “You have a dedication that many lack.”
Tygan shrugs and brings her back to him. “She offered me free dinner. As a starving student, I could not pass that up.”
“Ah, the American school system. Should we thank ADVENT for destroying student debt?”
“I lived in an era where university was remotely affordable,” Tygan says with a hint of dark humor. “New York, however, remains a money pit.”
The two fall into a comfortable silence as the song speeds up. Lily watches as the Commander’s eyes close, and she seems to navigate around her partner purely based on memory. Tygan, if he notices, does not comment.
The violin and accordion players finish with a flourish. The guitar still strums, but its chords wind down.
“Merci, G.S – Tygan,” the Commander says quickly. She bows to her partner. “For humoring me.”
“Let’s not make this a habit,” Tygan says, rubbing his back. “I never imagined age would hit me this hard.”
The night after, Lily hears weird sounds coming from the nearby War Room. She peeps in.
“Shut up,” Central grumbles, as he dusts his pants off and rights himself, “and help me learn how to dance.”
Volk smacks him. “Hand here,” he says, placing Central’s hand firmly over his waist, “none of this hover-handing bullshit.”
“So, how did your dance lessons go?” Lily asks as he sits down for dinner with a groan.
“Apparently I dance like a spastic chicken.” Central rubs his face. “He hits like one too.”
“Wait, when did a chicken hit you?”
“-and the Skeleton suit constructed by then. We’ll touch base at 17 hour,” the Commander says.
“Consider it done, Commander.”
Central keeps staring after his superior as she leaves.
Lily coughs. He starts and looks at the Chief Engineer.
“Uh, not sure why you’re offering me water,” Central says, looking at the water bottle, “generally, when I need a drink, I don’t mean this kind.”
“It’s like a vegan’s idea of a date.” Dugatkin scrunches his face up. “Can vegans drink beer? I mean, it’s got yeast in it.”
“I try not to eat things that think,” Palayoor replies, and affectionately ruffles Dugatkin’s hair, “so I guess you’re be free game.”
Dugatkin squirms away. “You said we’d never speak of it again!”
“I lied!” Palayoor gets in another rub of Dugatkin’s hair. “The Commander asked me to–“
Central clears his throat. “Is that a hint for me to go check the armory, Sergeant? I seem to remember you were in charge of polishing the guns.”
Palayoor goes white. “I’m done most of it, still have the mag cannons to clean out–“
Central points at the Engineering door. Palayoor speeds away. “Why can’t everyone have your work ethic, Shen? At least I never have to nag you to clean up Engineering,” he grumbles.
“No, you just mother hen me about everything else.”
"Right. Speaking of which, get to the Mess Hall in about two hours. There was a spill. We're not serving anything until 7 PM."
Lily yawns as she pushes past the doors to the Mess Hall. It’s been a long day of tinkering with rifles, trying to add more mods on – she’s not quite sure how Central stuck all those things onto his gun without pieces falling off–
“Happy birthday!” the Avenger’s crew shout, and everyone who is not on a Covert Action is crammed in there – Volk, skulking near the back of the room; the Commander and Central clap from somewhere in their men’s midst; Howell and Tasev, cheering loudly as they part to reveal the cake –
It’s about 12 inches by 12-inches, all covered in snowy cream with the texture of freshly fallen flakes. Cut starfruit and melon balls decorate the sides. Sliced mangos, arranged into a lattice, separate the top of the cake into neat squares. Strawberries and grapes are heaped onto every square, and there’s chocolate on the only inch of empty space, bearing her Chinese name and her English one.
Irrational fear swarms through her. She forces herself to take a deep breath. How many eggs did the Commander say a Chinese fruitcake needs? Eight? Nine? That would have fed her for two days in the winter time, when ice covered the world and she looked longingly at berries that would have killed her had she eaten even one.
Lily looks at the assembled men. The cake is large enough to feed the crew of fifty and still have left overs. That must have at least eighteen eggs, enough for the nightshift’s breakfast. She’s being selfish. What if the Avenger is shot down and they lose most of their food crates? Someone will have to go hungry.
“Shen?” Central asks, concern brimming over on his face.
Lily turns and runs to the kitchen’s storage room. She looks at the neatly stacked crates, all signed off in Central’s messy scrawl. 100 kilos of preserved food alone – even ADVENT rations, because for all of Central’s prejudices, his men’s health comes first. She opens the first fridge she sees. There’s three quarts of strawberries sitting pretty in the back, and an entire box of mangos and honeydews stuffed under a mountain of starfruit and grapes.
Central puts an arm around her shoulders. She jumps at the sudden contact.
“Remembering the winter?”
A human can go three minutes without air, three days without water, and three weeks without food, she recalls, trying to ground herself. The body reaches light fasting state about 12 hours after last ingestion of food, because glycogen stores are down. The body must start breaking down fat and muscle in order to survive. Camels store fat in their humps, because the breakdown of fat also makes water.
But all those facts didn’t help while she starved.
Lily bursts into tears.
Central holds her, rocking them back and forth, muttering platitudes into her ear. At some point, he brings her back to the Mess Hall. Lily wipes her eyes furiously, trying to hide her tears, but there’s no pity to be found in the faces of those who fight and build alongside her. Everyone except the Commander and Tygan remember going hungry during the winter.
“I mean, I cry whenever I see Central’s cooking,” Lanz jokes weakly, “those damn juicy ADVENT burgers knock his stuff out of the park.”
“Excuse me, what am I and my Viper burgers?” Volk asks with mock insult.
“We cry every time,” Andrade says solemnly. “For joy, in fear, that depends on how cooked the Viper is.”
“Real men eat Viper rare.”
“I’m going to assume the innuendo has been acknowledged,” Central says, raising his voice over the sniggers, “gonna suggest you cut that cake soon, Lily, I think the whipped cream’s melting.”
Behind Tasev’s broad shoulders, Commander discretely slips a fork into one of the berries and takes a bite.
Lily breathes in, out. The Commander knows many traditional Chinese precepts. Elders should eat first. But that is the one rule the Commander does not and will not follow. Neither Central nor the Commander would eat if there were a risk that the men would go hungry.
It is going to be okay. She is on board the Avenger. The Command duo would never let their men starve while they ate. Yes, that is a fact that she can hold onto.
Tygan passes her a knife and a sympathetic smile. She stands before the cake – it’s so much food, and it’s all for her team, and the thought of all the food is overwhelming –
Someone – she’s not quite sure whom, but it’s not the Commander and the voice is deep like the caverns hidden under Manhattan – starts singing in broken Chinese, “zhu ni sheng ri kuai le!”
Lily cracks up. It’s just too cheesy, but she welcomes the effort to break the ice.
“It’s fine, it’s fine!” she says, waving her hands as the voice falters.
Somewhere in the crowd, Beaulieu joins in. “Bonne fête à toi!”
More voices join in, all singing happy birthday in different languages, until a monster with a thousand bloated voices echoes around the Mess Hall. Lily can’t laugh – her ribs hurt as she wheezes for breath – but everywhere she looks, there are XCOM soldiers singing, perhaps a bit off tune but it’s for her, she’s a part of this team, and it screams out at her when they end their stanzas in, “chief Shen” and “Lily” and someone who sneaks in a rapid-fire, “she who makes cool things.”
“Happy birthday to you!” XCOM choruses, finally deciding on English.
“Surprised you didn’t join in with me or Beaulieu,” Central says as Lily cuts through the dense sponge cake.
“Oh, we don’t sing happy birthday in Québec,” the Commander says. “It’s too Anglophone.”
“You can’t say that and not tell us what you sing!” Lily says as she offers Tygan the first slice.
“I don’t remember the very beginning of the song,” her superior protests. “You can’t start a birthday song in the middle.”
“I’d like to hear you sing,” Central says suddenly. “We don’t hear it often enough.”
Behind him, Howell mimes making a heart with her hands, and shakes her head. Lily stifles her giggle.
“Chacun les récolte en soi-même, aux beaux jardins du temps qui court,” the Commander warbles. Lily can immediately hear the south Chinese in her French, in the shushing caress in her trilled Rs and the inflections rising on the ends of syllables. “Ma chère amie, c’est à ton tour; de te laisser parler d’amour."
Title comes from 夜上海 (Ye shang hai) as sung by Zhou Xuan, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JbTv4IjIYcQ. This phrase is actually taken out of context: Ye shang hai is not this depressing.
Also, what the actual hell is going on with the Hunter's Lodge. I've been to museums that have mounted animal heads, but the ADVENT helmets are a bit skeevy considering they are probably people.
Next chapter: all aboard, to the trauma bay.
Chapter 7: 你在另个梦中把我忘记 (You forgot me in another dream)
XCOM lasted three months, and saw seventeen terror attacks. They couldn't respond to them all.
There are wounds waiting to be torn open in the middle of the Hologlobe, and Lily will bear the knife. XCOM needs to look for another Cell in Northeastern America. Nar Galak confirmed the painful truth two hours ago: even with the Skirmishers' aid, the former Haven simply doesn't have the manpower to look after their orphans and conduct raids at the same time. It is a bitter pill, something that sticks to Lily’s throat like traditional Chinese medicine. XCOM has failed once again. People died because of the Commander’s tactical mistakes.
Lily wonders if there is some cruel god who brings XCOM back to their failures. The Chief Engineer walks up to the Command duo, ROV-R beeping over her shoulder.
“We’ve detected a potential group hiding in Montreal,” Lily says carefully.
The Commander’s face contorts in pain, before she smooths it down to a calm smile. Central reaches for her hand, thinks better of it, and shoves his thumbs into the loops of his belt.
“Let’s talk in the Quarters,” Central says, gesturing for them to ascend the stairs.
Lily waits until the Commander and Central have seated themselves on the sofas before she continues. She asks ROV-R to project the scans sent over from Resistance scouts onto the table: red and yellow heat signatures pop along the barren greys of the ruined city. The signatures burn hot enough to be human, or the remnants from a passing Reaper camp.
“We’re having trouble detecting their exact whereabouts,” Lily says, pointing out the brightest lines that crisscross the map. “Probably not Reapers, because they’re not picking up our calls on the coms. It’s almost like they’re underground.”
“I believe they are,” the Commander says. “You’ll need me on the ground. With most of the buildings destroyed, many of the Metro entrances will be hidden.”
Central stands. “Absolutely not.”
“We’ve had this fight three times before." The Commander pinches the bridge of her nose. "Just this once, Central, can we skip it?”
“We lost Montreal to a terror attack.” Central brings out his tablet and summons grainy satellite images of the broken city. “Department stores. Apartment blocks. All teeming with civilians. They could be hiding literal hordes of Chryssalids.”
Lily shakes her head. “There’s not enough food for a hive to last twenty years. The heat signatures don’t match dad’s records of Newfoundland either,” she says. “There is the potential for ADVENT outposts–“
“We’ve got three Chosen hounding our ass day and night,” Central tells the Commander. “I’m not serving you up on a fucking silver platter.”
“We need a cell operating in the East,” the Commander states. “My mistakes–“
“This isn’t about your guilt, past or present!”
“And it is equally not about yours!” The Commander stands and points at her terminal. “If you haven’t noticed, Central, that Avatar project countdown is ticking down, and all facilities are in regions we have yet to contact. We need a foothold and radio tower here–“ she presses down on the satellite images with a finger “-to contact the western USA.”
Central slams a fist into the coffee table. “I don’t want to lose you again!”
“I know what is at stake, Central,” she says, her voice softer. “I know you are concerned. We will send out scouting parties throughout the city to make sure ADVENT’s hold is loose. Only then will I venture out.”
Central’s mouth twists. “Can’t you do it by cam?”
“I know my city by heart, Central. It’s easier if I walk through it.”
“We could just scan for tunnels,” he argues, crossing his arms.
“Shen,” the Commander says, turning to face her, “can the GREMLINs or the Avenger scan for heat signatures 25 meters below the surface?”
“The GREMLINs, if they’re on site, but not the Avenger. At least, not if we want to avoid ADVENT’s notice.” Lily gestures to the shattered steel skeletons in ROV-R’s satellite imagery. “There’s not a lot of place for us to set the Avenger down.”
“There’s some room on la Place des Arts,” the Commander circles a location on the map, “but it’s too deep in hostile territory. There’s flat terrain near le lac aux castors – Castor Lake, I think? – but that’s on Mont Royal, and could be overgrown. We’d be better off landing near Vieux-Montréal.” She looks at Central. “I’m the only one who speaks Québécois French, Central. Beaulieu speaks Algerian and International French. The linguistic differences may trip him up. We cannot risk losing this cell because something was lost in translation.”
Central leans back in his seat. “First off, we’re sending out six teams of three to scout the heat signatures. Shen, do we have enough GREMLINs for them all?”
Lily looks at the roster. “If you send all five Specialists out. Going, Central?”
“Absolutely,” he says.
“Tas de marde, qu’on finisse déjà…” the Commander mutters. “Central, if I am captured–“
“Then I should be right by your side to kick that sorry Chosen back to hell.” He looks at her with eyes of steel. “This is not negotiable, Commander.”
They hold a staring contest. Lily closes her eyes and waits. After they show no sign of stopping, she coughs.
“Guess I should lend you guys ROV-R,” she says as they turn to face her. “It’s the most modified GREMLIN. Julian learned that the hard way.” ROV-R chirrups proudly and butts Lily’s shoulder. “He’ll give any Chosen a dose of AC and DC.”
“Shen, I know how much the little guy means to you,” Central says. “There’s a chance we’ll kick open a Chryssalid nest and get throat-fucked.”
“Are you sure?” the Commander asks. “I will most likely have a Specialist escort.”
“If you both die, Dad’s gonna kick both your asses.” Lily pats ROV-R on the carapace. “And ROV-R will shock you back to life. I trained him in basic first aid!”
ROV-R whirrs and bounces up and down. Its beeps speed up to 120 beats a minute, then stop. A bandage roll drops out from a hidden compartment. Lily frowns and quickly stuffs it back in. “That being said, the Commander gets ROV-R, because she used to be a combat engineer. And you break things, Central.”
“Fair enough,” the elder man sighs. “On your orders, Commander, we fly to Montreal.”
The wind whips up dust and ash as the Menace Team and the Command duo advance through the tight streets. Previous XCOM forays have confirmed no alien presence on the ground. On the Hologlobe screen, Lily sees the Commander cover her nose, even though the mask covering her face should filter all the particles before they reach her lungs. Lily thinks of all the other cities XCOM failed to help in time, and wonders if they were consumed in flame as well. The elements have worn away at the bodies, but everywhere ROV-R flies, Lily can see the last moments of Montreal’s hapless civilians.
Unlike Manhattan, Montreal blooms. Dandelions gleam in gold among the scattered bullet casings and crumbling bones bleached white. Tiger lilies flare out in sprays of bright orange, hiding the twisted and rusted wrecks of Seekers. Trellises of vines with teardrop-shaped leaves climb up the storefront façades, their white starburst blooms welcoming bumblebees to rest on their petals. The wind carries no howls or moans, signaling the absence of Lost. Then again, it wasn't the Fog Pods that Montreal faced. The two-story buildings that stand over the Menace Team are open to the air, letting in the bright sunlight and ashy breeze. The cars that jam up the roads imprison those who burnt alive, but are overgrown with the slim boles of young trees.
“Where are we?” the Commander murmurs, going to a lump of rock. She swipes a gloved hand over the white-dusted stone, revealing the crushed face of a guardian lion. “Oh, le quartier chinois au René-Lévesque et St-Laurent. The paifang is gone. No wonder I didn’t recognize it.”
Central places a hand on her shoulder. She starts and violently shrugs him off.
“Gentlemen, ladies,” the Commander says, turning to face them with a sweep of her arm, “welcome to Chinatown. This was my childhood home.”
The Commander guides them through Chinatown, pointing out the brick apartments where she grew up and the restaurants she frequented as a teenager. She quickly discards them as possible homes for the Haven. They pass by a dim sum restaurant; its bright yellow sign has fallen and crushed the patio below. On they go, past tiny bakeries tucked into corners and souvenir shops crammed together like night markets back in Taiwan. Lily has ROV-R buzz in closer: she sees a plastic Pikachu keyring, melted into a screaming face, and zooms back out.
“There was a shop here, that sold CDs from Taiwan.” The Commander lets out a small chuckle. “Can you believe people used to pay twenty dollars for CDs?”
“I wouldn’t,” Lily says, “I was a pirate.”
“And now you fly the Avenger,” Barros says. “Yaargh, matey.”
“Just because we steal everything doesn’t make us pirates,” Central snaps. His fingers twitch near the trigger guard of his gun. “Shen, any life signs?”
“Nothing but plants and bugs,” she says. “Looks like this place was pretty hard hit by the firebombs.”
“What’s this?” Gonzalez asks, pointing at a stretch of empty land and a temple-esque building sitting before it.
The Commander sucks in a breath. “…A calligraphy and art store. They also sold kites.” She traces out a paving stone with a booted foot. “I used to dance here.”
“Tangos?” Lily asks.
“Line dancing.” The Commander winces as she steps over the arm of a man, only to hear the brittle crunch of bones under her boots. “The snow and ice must have worn down their bodies. Come. There is nothing for a Haven here.”
“Everything is so grubby here,” Lanz says, looking around. Gone are the brick façades and quaint wooden fronts; sharp steel and glass reign supreme, but they are mashed together in a fight between modern and traditional architecture. Lily thinks it looks like some giant threw grey Lego all over the city.
“That was the red-light district, but it became an entertainment complex.” The Commander points to the broken buildings ahead. “Faubourg St-Laurent. Not too far from station Place des Armes. They fixed it up and turned it into something more respectable. The bakeries below had the best macarons in the city.”
Lily pauses in her ceaseless dance between body cams. “The red light district was right next to Chinatown?!”
“Used to be,” the Commander says absent-mindedly as she strides over the broken flagstones. “If I remember my history, the government closed it down in 1944. Something about the local Army barracks getting so many STDs, people weren’t showing up to work.”
Bradford makes a choking noise. He seems more at ease, now that the streets are wider, the buildings taller, and no bones peep out from under the thick mat of grass. “Sounds about right. USA should’ve taken a page out of their book.”
“Oh? Is there a salacious story from you of all people, Central?” Lily asks.
“I was a good boy scout, and you know it – why are you giggling?” Central asks, looking at the Commander. “My unit, on the other hand…”
“Story time!” Barros cheers.
“Well, I was married to my high school sweetheart. Don’t do that, by the way.”
“Seeing as I’m thirty-five and never graduated because of the aliens, you don’t have to worry,” Lily says dryly. She looks at the body cams of the other Menace teams circulating around Montreal: they’re clear, if spooked by the ghost town. If they’re panicked, they won’t pick up an encroaching attack. She speaks to calm them down. “Life lesson anyway?”
“Uh, she screwed all my high school buddies while I was in Iraq.” Bradford shakes his head. “Gunny had the biggest I told you so when I got back. Made me sit in the trashcan after I finally divorced her.”
“Lesson of the day: nice guys finish last?” Lily quips at him.
“Was gonna go with, you’re young and not ready to settle down yet, but sure.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure about that,” the Commander says with a sly smile, “there are some benefits to having a nice guy who finishes last.”
“Commander!” Barros gasps.
Central turns a shade of red that would make Chinese lanterns envious.
Gonzalez mimes putting her hands over ROV-R’s sensors. “Language!”
“I’m sorry,” the Commander says, with a grin that says otherwise, “that wasn’t very professional of me.”
She shields her eyes from the sun and dust. There are no street signs, not when flames burned hot enough to bend the streetlights and scorch the paint off cars.
“We’re at station Champs-de-Mars. This was the Palais de justice, the courthouse.” The Commander squints at the twisted concrete and shattered glass. Back on the Avenger, Lily annotates the map of Montreal. “Tabarnak. That is not survivable.”
“Commander?” Central asks softly.
She stares for a few more seconds at the wreck.
“I’d like to make it to Atwater by evening,” she says. “I suspect we’ll find someone away from the epicenter.”
“Station Berri-UQAM. The busiest of the stations. We’re following the Green Line now, heading west to Charlevoix,” the Commander says as the Menace Team walks past a battered stone church. “The heat signatures look to concentrate around Charlevoix. Aerial scans suggest the devastation also tapers off around Station Lionel-Groulx. I believe it’s closer to the river. It could support a small agricultural community. We’ll leave some supplies, and let them come to us.”
“Hey, Commander.” Barros points at the stone columns gracing the fronts of restaurants, then at the little apartments stacked on top. “Did people used to live there? It must’ve smelt really good…”
“That’s a Thai Express,” the Commander says, squinting at the sign. “I don’t recall, I’m afraid. Where are we… that’s a Couche-Tard, it’s a convenience store. They call them Mac’s out west. That’s UQÀM, a university…” Her voice dies. “That would be the rue Saint-Denis entrance to the Metro.”
Lily looks at all the skeletons piled up outside the entrance. They’re hard to see, when blackberry vines twirl around collarbones and break through spines, but once she sees them, she can't look away. Underneath a faintly blue square sign, a human crush of countless bodies lies scattered on the street, hand bones discarded in ribcages and broken skulls squashed beneath feet. Unlike in the cities ruled by the Lost, there are no nanomachines to freeze humans in their last minutes. But looking at the bodies, Lily imagines the screaming, and the planes soaring overhead, and the desperation that soaked through the air. This close to a university – the bodies must be of students, young adults like herself, so close to safety and yet burnt alive like matchsticks by their own kind… It wasn’t the aliens who called down Armageddon. Humans gave the order to burn Montreal to the ground, with all those who failed to escape condemned to the flames.
Though Lily is safely aboard the Avenger, she wants to throw up.
“Berri-UQAM is the second deepest station.” The Commander makes a pained noise. “I think they tried to escape there. It would withstand the plasma bombardment.”
“Could they have made it?” Central asks.
Lily can’t see the Commander’s face, but she guesses from the sigh that the Commander bears no good news. “If the aliens got into the metro… I doubt it.”
“Well, that’s Juliette et Chocolat,” the Commander says as they walk past a little terrace framed by metal staircases and high French windows. “I would’ve liked to bring you and Tygan here, Shen. See you two fight it out over brownies.”
“Are we getting the scenic tour?” Central asks, though not unkindly. He reaches for the Commander’s hand, stops himself, and wraps his fingers around his gun. “I see a couple of good spots to set up a Radio Relay.”
“Well, I’m not taking you through the Gay Village, where they had great bars and clubs,” the Commander says lightly, “so no. Shen, are you marking down the Metro stops on your map?”
ROV-R cheeps in offense.
“Of course, Commander,” Lily translates for her GREMLIN.
“-it snows a lot in Montreal, doesn’t it?” Central asks, looking at the gaping hole in the middle of the street. Metal barricades are thrown up against the west side, blocking anyone’s entrance into the tunnel. “Is that why it collapsed?”
“That doesn’t look natural…” The Commander looks around. Montreal is filled with bodies, some in better conditions than others. Some still have scraps of purses hanging off their shoulders; others have melted nail guns and hammers dangling in their pelvic cavities; others lie inches away from discarded guns… Lily’s superior kneels next to one body, and touches a warped badge. “5 Combat Engineer Regiment. This was my… Câlice, why were you wearing this? Did they pull you out of a ceremony? Who were you?”
Central kneels beside her. He rifles through the weeds, and picks up two thin sheets of metal dangling from a broken ball-chain. “I think these belong to her.”
She takes up the dogtags. “Amano.” The Commander runs a thumb along the barely legible letters. “What am I supposed to tell your husband? Did he die too?” She scans the other bodies. “That could be Provençal, the rosary seems familiar. Bray, perhaps? Lefebvre. Renaud. Are you all here?”
“Commander?” Lily ventures. “Where are we?”
“Pardon me. That should be station Place-des-Arts.” The Commander stares at the bodies of her unit. “They would have had to fly in from Valcartier. The Skyranger was halfway to Moscow, a six-hour flight thanks to Dr. Shen’s advances.” She paces back and forth, careful to avoid treading on any bones. “The ligne verte to Honoré-Beaugrand is open on that side. I see a Chryssalid exoskeleton down there. That’s worrying, it hasn’t rotted or burned away.” Lily’s superior walks down the street. “Those holes, they bear plasma burns. The bombardment must have opened the metro to the aliens. I suspect my regiment built up barricades, to stop the Chryssalids from spreading underground…” The Commander waves a hand at the towering glass buildings surrounding the street. “My regiment or the police could set up a defensive perimeter at the distant stations. Yes, it’s a good possibility. We may have five camps of civilians working in Montreal.”
“How do you know all this?” Gonzalez asks.
The Commander’s smile is worn. “XCOM hired me because I was good at putting puzzles together. They did not hire me to fix problems.”
“Station McGill. And Burnside Hall is still standing. Of course.” She points, past the stone gates on the right side of the road, to an ugly concrete monstrosity. Twelve stories of intact but cracked windows glare down at the Menace Team. “It was built during the Cold War.”
“Shen, you picking up any readings?” Central asks.
“No heat signatures… is there any reason to avoid setting up a coms station inside?” Lily asks.
“It gets cold during the winter,” the Commander says. “That, and you have to climb many stairs if the elevators don’t work.”
She doesn’t say it, but Lily hears the unsaid fear: there are probably the bodies of those who choked on smoke within Burnside Hall.
“Oh no,” Gonzalez says, “cardio. My worst enemy.”
“You need a break?” Central asks the Grenadier.
“I could use some food,” Barros chimes in.
“We’ll take thirty for a breather.” The Commander looks around the devastated city for a place to sit. “We could walk over to the university… no, too high a chance we’ll have nightmares.” She points to a gap in the stalled cars, where an intersection used to be. The pavement is pulverized into fine gravel. “There’s relatively few bodies there. I suspect the bombardment started here.”
“Just how many people died here?!” Lanz asks.
“My city was home to a million and half people,” the Commander says. “I don’t know how many managed to evacuate.”
The Menace team sits on their rucksacks filled with supplies and picks at their food. Central leans on his rifle and keeps a watchful eye on the Commander, who walks between the stalled cars and looks at the rusted license plates.
“Je me souviens,” she mutters, as ROV-R beeps over her shoulder. “Finally, we have a reason to remember.”
The Commander suddenly kneels by a rusted out car. She runs shaking fingers over the embossed numbers, half-rusted away on the license plate.
“You should’ve stayed home,” she whispers, and looks at the hulking wreck of Centre Eaton and McGill university. “You should’ve called in sick.”
Central runs over to her. “You found someone you know?”
“There’s three in there,” the Commander says, as she peers into the cabin. The largest body sits in the driver’s seat, clutching the wheel; a smaller adult’s head is tilted back as it clasps the bones of a child to its chest. The child’s collarbone is cracked, a hole shot clean through. “Central, do you see a cross on the woman in the back?”
“I… it’s hard to tell. It melted. But there’s definitely something metal there.”
“Thank you. Give me a moment. This shouldn’t trigger any alarms.”
The Commander jimmies the passenger side door open, averting her eyes from the bones in the driver’s seat. She gets the knife from her belt and breaks into the glove box, cracking the fragile plastic to reveal a fireproof lockbox. She thumbs the scroll wheels until the box clicks open, and withdraws a faded photograph protected in resin. The resin must have melted, then rehardened, because the faces are twisted, but Lily can still see a large family preserved within, all gathered in the red garments of the Chinese New Year. The Commander, in a red dress that pools around her feet, stands arm in arm with a handsome man in a suit. An old woman with peonies in her greyed hair and a man wearing glasses sit together on a low bench. A young man has one arm about a young woman’s waist, while his other hoists up a young girl with pom-pom scrunchies in her hair. There are others in the photograph, but they are too distorted to see clearly.
Lily's superior looks around. The Chief Engineer can almost hear the clicking noise as pieces fall into place.
“My niece was shot.” Lily can hear the tears forming in the Commander’s voice as the other woman looks at the tiny skeleton. “They must have been driving to the children’s hospital. Sophie…”
Central moves to put an arm around her shoulders. He settles for helping her put the lockbox back into the glove compartment. The Commander hesitates, and puts the photo back as well. Her hands linger over the compartment as she shuts it, and little pieces of plastic drift onto her hands.
“Commander?” Barros wanders over. “Um… do you want to…?”
“You never had the luxury of photographs,” Lily’s superior tells the younger woman. “No mementos of your families… I was lucky to find something. But I will not take it, when my men have nothing.”
“I don’t mind, sir,” Lanz says, gathering his pack, “you’re lucky, and we weren’t.”
“It isn’t right. If we win the war… it will help me recognize the car.” The Commander begins walking. “Perhaps then, I can bury my brother and his family.”
The sun is low in the sky when they make it to Station Atwater. The previous stations were lifeless, but Central takes one look at the disturbed weeds around the Metro entrance and nods. “Someone’s definitely been scavenging around. Human feet. Let’s set up the drop point here.”
The Commander scribbles something onto a pad of paper. “Gens du pays,” she murmurs, “c’est à ton tour. La Résistance. Should convince them we’re not ADVENT. There’s five guns and a radio in here?”
“Yup,” Lanz says, setting down his pack none too gently. “Oof, this is heavy.”
Central lights the flares. They shine blue in the encroaching pink of sunset.
“All right. We’re heading back,” Central says. “We’ll send out the Skyranger to this station in the morning.” He touches his com-link. "Firebrand? This is Central. Come by and pick us up."
To Lily’s surprise, the Commander does show up for dinner. The men’s chatter immediately quiets upon her arrival. She sits at Central’s side, listening to his report on the Resistance’s status, and stirs her corn chowder.
“Any chatter on the coms?” she asks.
“Andrade and Beaulieu have it under control,” Lily says. “So far, it’s been quiet.”
The Commander nods. She sets her spoon down, and stands. “I think I’ll turn in.”
Central dunks his bread roll in the Commander’s soup, and holds it out to her. “Eat something, at least.”
“Thank you for your concern, Central.” The Commander begins to undo her bun. Her hair fans over her grey uniform, charcoal locks falling over fabric the color of ashy logs. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to be alone tonight.”
He nods. “Yes, Commander. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Lily yawns and rests her head on the newly cleaned workbench. ROV-R buzzes at her, urging her to get up and go to an actual bed.
“Not now, dad,” she says, “I’m too comfortable here…”
The radio on her workbench buzzes.
“On a reçu votre message,” the female voice declares. “Chuis Alouette. On suggère une réunion à station Charlevoix…”
Lily watches the Skyranger land with increasing trepidation. She can clearly see the square blue Metro sign, with a white arrow pointing down. Central has forgone his assault rifle for a pair of mag pistols tucked into his jacket, and the three-soldier Bastion team all have weapons hidden in their armor. A small crowd filters out of the squat cement building, some bearing XCOM-issue weapons.
The first to approach is a wizened Chinese man, whose age is carved into his face. He limps forward, his weight supported by a carved wooden cane.
“Vous êtes Alouette?” the Commander asks, but already the man shakes his head.
“Bu hui shuo fa yu, qing shuo ying wen ba,” he replies in muted Mandarin. Lily thinks he says, “I don’t know French, please speak English”, but his voice is too soft and he speaks too quickly.
The woman with coiled braided hair at his side lowers her XCOM-issue gun. “On m’appelle Marie-Claire. Alouette, aux étrangers. T’es Montréalaise?”
“Chuis née ici. You live in the deepest station,” the Commander murmurs. At her voice, the group tenses. “Deep enough to escape ADVENT detection?”
“I remember you,” the wizened old man says in a heavy French-Chinese accent. The French lends airy tones to his English, but the Chinese weighs it down. At this, the little group visibly eases. “Yes. You are Wei Hong and Xinyu de nu er. You at dim sum, Sunday with… what his name, ta jiao shen me…” The old man hums. “Ruo Wang. Jean-Simon Zheng. He always buy yu tou gao for… wo wang le, how you say zao can?”
“Breakfast, yes, that sounds like him,” the Commander supplies with a sigh. “I told him to stick to the diet. Do you know what happened to him?”
The old man nods. Marie-Claire and his bodyguards take this as a cue to retreat to a respectful difference. “He buy yu tou gao. I tell him, very bad feeling today. He laugh, tell me no worry, and go to work. Michelle, you remember wo de nu er? She call me baba, Jason gan mao le, qing bang wo ba, so I close and go to Honoré-Beaugrand.” He shook his head. “They tell us get off train. Many, many screaming. Then silence.”
“He went,” the Commander whispers, “of course he did.”
He bows his head. “Du bui qi.”
“Mei guan xi, mei guan xi,” the Commander replies. “Thank you for telling me, shu shu. Michelle mei mei, ta–”
“At Angrignon. She helps farm.” He motions to the rest of the group. “Marie-Claire, qing he ta men shuo ne.”
Marie-Claire lays down her gun. “We are ready to fight,” she says in flawless English. “Canada gave up on us,” Marie-Claire spits on the ground, “but we have not given up. If I find the one who called down the flames, I’ll strangle him myself. Those things ADVENT calls Chryssalids, they burrow. The fire did not kill them all.”
The Commander nods. “We can give you a few turrets to help defend yourselves underground, but we’ll need to place them tactically. Is there a metro map?”
“Come with me,” Marie-Claire says. “There’s one past the barricades.”
“Lanz, go down with him and scan the map,” Central says. “Bastion team, start setting up the coms. I’m heading back to get the turrets.” He turns to his superior. “I think our work here is done. Let’s get you back before ADVENT gets any ideas.”
She looks at the wreckage of brick apartments, and the cobbled-together shacks that grow in their place. From the Metro station's entrance, Lily can faintly hear the laughter of children.
“Commander?” Central raps the side of his thigh. His knuckles impact against his pistol.
She musters a smile and walks up the Skyranger ramp. “Sorry for the delay.”
“Are you feeling all right?” Lily asks as Firebrand fires the engines. “Or is time for kumbaya, make sure there’s no hard feeling with talk?”
“Why not both? It was the most likely possibility.” The Commander fastens the harness around her chest. “Still. There’s a part torn out of me.”
“How far to the palace de justice?” Central asks. The Skyranger shudders as it lifts off. “If it would help you, we could swing by–“
“And what? Look for even more bones?” the Commander snaps. “It’s been twenty years, Central, I’d be lucky to find anything among the literal thousands of others incinerated in Old Montreal. How could I tell my husband’s skeleton apart from my mother-in-law’s, or my father’s, or at this point, my entire regiment? Maybe they’re all jumbled together in a big pile of ash and bones. Maybe they all became Chryssalid chow and I wouldn’t find anything because Chryssalids don’t leave anything behind. They’re gone, Central. Denial won’t help me.”
ROV-R beeps. Lily’s GREMLIN butts against the Commander’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry.” The Commander slumps in her seat, then straightens. She pats ROV-R on the carapace. “It’s not you I’m angry with, Central, and I should not take it out on you. I’m good. Let’s make this cell a threat to ADVENT.”
The Skyranger lands with two Commanding officers still intact. Central heads off to give out the day’s orders. Lily is halfway out of the Hangar when the air ripples with an animal scream. She whips around, ready to draw her wrench. But there’s nothing but the Commander, screaming hoarse and ragged as if she were being ripped in two, collapsing onto the ash-laden ground in front of the Avenger’s ramp.
Lily stands in place, as the Commander covers her face and bites her sleeve. The Commander must be aware that Lily is there. Though the threat of tears wet the edges of her keening, the elder woman refuses to cry.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” Central barrels his way into the Hangar. “What the fuck is that noi–” He catches sight of their superior, kneeling in the ashes of her hometown. “Oh. Uh. Guess she was lying about being good.”
The Chief Engineer gives him a look that she hopes conveys, ya think? She wonders if she’d get the point across quicker with a smack of her wrench.
Central’s face softens. He starts towards his superior.
Lily grabs him by the elbow. “Hang on, Central. I’m pretty sure we’d just remind her of who she killed to give the Earth another month of freedom.”
“Then we owe it to her to do something!” Central tries to shrug Lily off.
“The Commander waited for you to leave before she started screaming,” Lily says. “If she starts crying, and we try to comfort her, I don't think she’ll forgive herself for appearing weak.”
“That… complicates things.” Central shifts from foot to foot. “Coffee,” he decides. “Or soup, for a sore throat. And a blanket, just in case she’s in shock.”
Lily refrains from pointing out the obvious – people don’t scream like that unless they’ve had the ground torn out beneath them. “I’ll grab some tissues.”
Tygan walks into the Hangar. “Shen. Central. The Commander isn’t responding to my calls. She requested a– that explains it.” Tygan immediately heads down the ramp and sits by his superior’s side. The doctor keeps his hands in her sightline. “Commander. Can you hear me?”
“Maybe we should let the doctor take over,” Lily says.
Central grimaces, though she knows it’s not directed towards Tygan. He looks at the Commander like he wants nothing more than to scoop her up, roll her up in a blanket, and carry her to the Quarters. “We’re not the best at this, yeah.”
Lily points at the broken skyline, where the Palais de justice slumps over like a concrete giant’s half-eaten corpse.
“That, and they both think they’re murderers.”
By nightfall, Central moves the Avenger over to Mont Royal. The fields the Commander mentioned were overgrown with brush, but it’s nothing that will hurt Lily’s ship. The Commander orders the construction of the Radio Relay near the Mont Royal lookout. It’s a good central staging point for all five arms of the Montreal resistance, and the slowly regrowing forest easily hides supply crates.
Lily walks into the night. She finds the Commander looking over her city, leaning on the stone banister of the lookout, like a queen regarding her fallen kingdom. Central’s greatcoat covers her shoulders. A mug of clam chowder sits by her arm, steam swirling lazily into the night air. Trapped underneath is a bulky red envelope.
"Incense," the Commander says, her voice cracked and an octave deeper. "Central tells me he got it from the cell. It was kind of him, considering how much I risked yesterday. I didn't expect any Chryssalids would survive the firebombing."
"I thought you said people mainly speak French here."
Her superior sighs. "Language has… very complicated politics in Québec. I didn't want to risk losing this cell because of a linguistic prejudice."
"You found out about your family. I guess it all works out in the end."
"Yes. Some closure, at last." The Commander sighs. "You should sleep soon.”
Lily rests her weight against the banister. “Look who’s talking.”
“I couldn’t sleep. It’s my fault,” the Commander says hollowly, her gaze cast to the river far away. ROV-R beeps and nudges her shoulder. “I chose to send XCOM to Russia. I chose the world over my family. And yet, I still lost the invasion. I murdered them.”
The Chief Engineer shifts her weight from foot to foot as she searches for something to say. She blurts out, “Well, if Central’s stories are true… um, they might have been in just as much danger from XCOM… you know, if you did send a team to Montreal.”
Lily worries that she might have crossed a line, but the Commander lets out a pained laugh.
“That’s true. We were the epitome of destructive saviors. At least the Council never sent me a repair bill.”
Her superior does not stir from her place atop the mountain. What would have once glittered like a field of fireflies is now dead and dull, and the only lights come from ROV-R and the dim stars above.
“Don’t be. I made this choice of my own free will.” The Commander breathes in the floral night air. “Humanity is worth more than my family.” She laughs suddenly. “It never used to be this quiet here. There was always some teenagers trying to sneak a quickie in the woods. Or stargazers, or homeless, or… I’ve never been the only one here.” Her voice softens as she gestures to the scarred city before. “Even at 1 AM, the city never slept. It’s too empty. This… this isn’t my home. Not as I remember it.”
An intense homesickness wells up in Lily. She thinks of the days a gong and a yeh – her dad’s parents – would bring the family to the night market. It had a name, a name that sounded more Mandarin than the popping sounds of her maternal grandmother’s tongue, shilin, she thinks. Lily remembers the streets packed with stalls, neon lights blasting in her face, all the sellers hawking their wares at the top of their lungs. There was a bubble tea seller she really liked – she could have one taro-flavored, red tea with pearls if she did the day’s lessons on time. Dad used to check out the cheap electronic toys, and bring one home for her to disassemble. A yeh would bring back stinky tofu that dad loved, and a gung would buy tempura shrimp speared on thin bamboo sticks for Lily. If she asked any of XCOM’s men what they knew of Taipei, they would only tell her it is a city center ruled by aliens. She longs for a home, which is a place and a people, but ADVENT has taken her homes and built steel monsters on their corpses.
“Will you listen to me?” the Commander asks, her voice hoarse. “I can’t bear the thought of XCOM looking at Montreal, and seeing only the bodies. I want someone to remember my home as I do.”
“Of course, Commander.”
Here under the coverlet of stars, Lily can almost see the city of the Commander’s childhood. The Commander talks her through, a ghostly tour accompanied by the chirping of cicadas and the rustle of wind against the scrub. She imagines laughter and the sweet crooning melodies of a violin floating down the streets of Vieux-Montréal, and the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages temporarily parting the drone of fast feet and cars stalled in cobblestone streets. She thinks of the spice and burnt fat smell of siu yuk hanging in the windows of Chinatown, and the heat of bodies all crammed together around the dim sum table. Over to Place des Arts, where saxophones belt out their songs over the cheers of crowds and the chatter from restaurants surrounding the square. Down through the malls, past blue-lit fountains and mosaics tumbling from the walls onto the floor, and into the metro, where hot air buffets her face and the trains come rumbling onto the platform. She imagines the shaking of the train carriage and the flashes of light and dark as the train picks up speed, then into the light she goes as she arrives at the next station, somewhere in the heart of Montreal.
In California, there was the press of a crowd on Hollywood Boulevard or among the exhibits at the Academy of Sciences, but nothing like Taiwan’s night markets. How could a city with less than half the population of Taipei replicate the human crush? In San Francisco, there was space to breathe. Lily looks at the broken city below her, and for once, there are too many hollows that should have been filled with people.
She focuses on the present. The Avenger’s engines require calibration now that it’s weighed down by another six personnel and one Resistance facility.
Lily doesn’t look back. She doesn’t want to lose herself in the past.
Her superior falls silent.
“We should get going,” she says, offering a hand to the Commander. “Central's gonna send a search party if we stay out here.”
The Commander takes it and straightens. “Of course. Thank you, Lily. For being here with me.”
Title from 人生何处不相逢 (Rénshēng hé chù bù xiāngféng), also known as 重逢 (Chongfeng), sung by Fei Yu-Ching.
It doesn't take that much time in real life to walk between stations, but it takes a lot longer if you're scanning each building for life signs.
“On a reçu votre message. Chuis Alouette. On suggère une réunion à station Charlevoix…”: We got your message. I'm Alouette. We suggest a meeting at station Charlevoix…
“Je m’appelle Marie-Claire. Alouette, aux étrangers. T’es Montréalaise?”: My name is Marie-Claire. Alouette, to strangers. You're a Montrealer?
"Jason gan mao le, qing bang wo ba": Jason got sick, please help me.
Chapter 8: 別離又在明天 (Don’t leave again tomorrow)
If wishes were fishes, the Resistance would never go hungry again.
“Do you think the Commander’s okay?” Kokkonen whispers to Gonzalez as she cleans out her grenade launcher. The Grenadier leans against the barricade of the firing range. “I mean, she won’t… like, not like Central when he snaps.”
“Nobody’s okay after finding that,” the Specialist whispers back. “We should be ready.”
“Not planning a revolution, are you?” Lily asks.
The two soldiers jump. “Chief Shen!” Gonzalez fires off a salute. “Sorry, sir!”
Lily crosses her arms. “Have it out, Kokkonen. You too, Gonzalez.”
“Well… our lives are kinda are in her hands,” Gonzalez says, “and I really do understand, it’s gotta hurt to find everyone you loved dead, but I don’t wanna die because she got distracted.”
The Commander’s voice filters over the intercom. “Sgt. Gonzalez, please report to the Hangar in armor.”
“I – yes, sir.” Gonzalez picks up her tablet and summons her GREMLIN to her side. “Uh, Kokkonen? If I die, will you plant flowers on my grave? I’d like it to be pretty. I don’t want to be a pile of bones sitting in a car.”
“Yo, don’t jinx yourself.” Kokkonen softens. “Roses are okay?”
Gonzalez smiles at Kokkonen. “More than okay. Thanks, partner.”
Everyone walks off the Skyranger. Well, technically, Gonzalez fist pumps and slides into the Hangar on her knees, but everyone except the Specialist’s pants make it home in one piece.
“One Hunter down,” she says, “and one promotion for me!”
“Let’s hold a funeral for your pants,” Kokkonen suggests, looking at the Specialist’s shredded knees. “Cut them up, turn them into booty shorts.”
“Stop that.” Central massages his forehead. “Despite the propaganda you men make, this is not SEXCOM. Shen makes actual armor for a reason.”
“That’s not the only thing putting out,” Laghari chirps, to the laughter of the Menace Team.
“What do you mean, my abs aren’t armor? Rock hard, baby!” Gonzalez raps her knuckles against her belly. Her GREMLIN sinks low in the air, oil leaking from its carapace, though it tries its best to follow her. Gonzalez’s grin immediately vanishes. “Oh, BUB0. Shen, can you do anything for my GREMLIN? She took some shrapnel during the fight.”
Lily catches Gonzalez’s GREMLIN and pets its carapace. Oil smears over her orange T-shirt. “It’s okay, little guy.” She nods at the Specialist. “You’ll have her back in a week.”
Central points in the direction of the debriefing room. “Get started on your AARs.”
“The debriefing room?” Linscott asks. “Jeez, Central, at least buy us dinner first.”
“Now!” the Central Officer snaps. The Menace Team giggle as they run for cover.
Once Bradford is alone with Lily and the Commander, he turns to them. “I swear, the X in XCOM stands for Bradford’s ex-Dignity.”
“No wonder we weren’t getting any funding during the Invasion,” the Commander says with a strained smile. In the two weeks since XCOM set up in Montreal, an aura of worn insincerity floats around XCOM’s commanding officer. “Bradford’s ex-Dignity Combat Unit. I thought it was my leadership, but it turns out our name was sabotaging us all along.”
“I never had any doubts about your capabilities,” Central tells the Commander as he motions the team forward. “Excellent work as always.”
The strain leaves the Commander’s shoulders. “I hope that your faith will never be misplaced, Central.” She turns to Shen. “The Hunter’s grappling is getting annoying. I hear we have some plans from the old base lying around…”
“You called for a meeting, Central?”
Lily mentally groans. She longs for a set of earplugs, but the prototypes of the Wraith Suit call her name. She’s not sure why the Command Duo always choose the War Room next to Engineering to have conversations. The Chief Engineer lugged all those sofas up to the Commander’s Quarters, and yet it seems they’re never used unless Volk or Betos comes onboard. Why can’t they choose a nice, private place to have their conversations and let Lily focus on her work?
“Shen and Tygan aren’t coming,” Central says. His voices passes through the thin metal walls separating Engineering from the War Room. “I, uh, wanted it between us.” A chair squeaks across the floor. “You… I had something on my mind. Please. Sit down.”
“Always the gentleman. I’m listening, Central.”
“I… this is a mess. I don’t know how I feel. How did everything get so screwed up?” Central makes a low, pained sound. “But when I look at you, Commander, I believe we’re worth saving.”
Lily looks up from her workstation in a panic. She wonders if Central will forgive her for interrupting this meeting. Bad, bad plan. She looks around for something to burn. The fire alarms should keep Central from leaving with a broken heart. Damn it, Tasev finally picked up after himself. Now, of all times?
“I’m not a miracle worker, Central,” the Commander says. “Don’t put me on a pedestal, lest I disappoint you.”
“I don’t need miracles. As long as you’re leading us, we’ve got a fighting chance.”
Lily rifles through thin sheets of metal. There’s got to be a piece of wood somewhere in Engineering…
“Your confidence is heartening… but why the sudden change of tone?” The Commander hums. “If it’s sex you’re after, then I have no objections to a friends with benefits arrangement. I’m well acquainted with those.”
Maybe Lily can burn the sawdust near the bandsaw. The fumes would also make her forget that she ever heard that.
“I don’t want just sex, Commander.” His tone beseeches her to believe. “I want you.”
Silence hangs between the two.
Lily hangs her head in silent resignation for Central’s feelings.
“I can’t bake cakes, and I’m a terrible dancer. God knows, I can’t even walk straight half the time.” She hears Central run a hand through his hair. “I know I’m rundown and battered. I won’t hold it against you if you just walk out.”
The Commander sits back in her chair. “How long, Central?”
“A month? A month and a half?” He shakes his head. “Nothing that distracted me from my duties as XCOM’s Central Officer.”
A heavy silence falls.
“Please don’t take my silence for offense,” the Commander says, “I never noticed.”
Lily rolls her eyes. Apparently, the Commander – like the machines down on the floor of Engineering – is in need of some percussive maintenance.
“I… what? So in the Quarters…”
“It was similar to an arrangement I had in the past,” the Commander says. “I swear, I was not trying to lead you on. I thought it was a coping method to survive the apocalypse.”
“No, this… this means too much to me. I wouldn’t do that to you. You mean more to me than a hook up.” Central swallows. “Say the word, Commander, and I’ll never speak of this again. I promise. I respect you far too much to let this interfere with my duty.”
The Commander’s voice comes soft, hesitant. “But?”
“But if you let me in… I don’t know what I can promise you, Commander, that would change. I’m your second-in-command. I’ll always stand by your side. I… I don’t know what to say, Commander, but I think I’m in love–”
The chair screeches back. “Zou kai!”
Lily winces. Though Central may not know it means, “go away”, the tone is unmistakable.
“Dui bu qi, wo– I’m sorry, poor choice of words,” the Commander gasps. “It’s too much, it’s too early. I’m sorry, Central, in a better time I might, but not right now. It hurts too much to… just, to think of another long term commitment.”
“…I understand.” Central laughs, though heartbreak leaks through the levity. “We’re all professionals here. I’ll get back to duty, sir.”
The voice of Lily’s superior crumbles. “It’s not your fault. I… have some issues I need to work through.”
“Could never blame you, sir. Have a good night.”
Lily lays her head on the desk, and bangs it once. ROV-R chirrups in concern.
“Why is he so insistent on hurting himself?” she mutters. She looks at the clock. 7:30 PM. She’ll grab some dinner, give him some time to think, and then Lily will attempt to pick up the pieces. Right now, BUB0 needs repairs. She can fix machines. She can’t fix people.
Lily rearranges the satchel on her waist. “Thought you’d be drinking.”
“Tempting.” Central dips the rag into the bottle of polish, then rubs it into his assault rifle. “Ain’t the right thing to do now. Getting some work in.”
Lily coughs. “I’ll keep the men off your back.”
He winces, a deep flinch that sends his shoulders shooting towards his ears. “You heard?”
“Wasn’t hard. Did you eat yet?”
“Kinda lost my appetite, Shen.”
Lily reaches into her tool belt, and rummages in a back pocket. Nuts… bolts… a bit of yellow felt… She pulls out a slightly squashed ration bar and throws it at Central. 50 grams of assorted protein slaps him in the face.
He sighs as he peels off the wrapper. “Thanks anyways, Shen.”
“That’s my last one, so you’ll have to brave the Mess if you want more.” She coughs. “Uh, maybe it was too early to ask.”
“Hmm?” Central asks, the protein bar already gone.
“She did find out she killed her husband like… two weeks ago. And um, usually there’s like a mourning period where Chinese people don’t go out or celebrate for… three months or so?”
“Let it never be said,” Central sighs, “that I’m a master of subtlety.” He looks at the protein bar. “Shen, next time I’m about to do something dumb, I want you to wind up and slap me like I’m a reset button.”
“Why on Earth did you think that was a good idea?”
Central’s head droops. “I… wanted to see her smile. I thought I could make her happy.” He shakes his head. “Idiot. I offered myself as a replacement shoulder to cry on. Argh, I was sober when I thought of it, why did I think it was a good idea? Nobody wants a replacement when they’re grieving!”
“Wow,” Lily offers. “Usually you have to be blackout drunk to think of something that… special.”
“Thanks, Shen. Good to know I’m improving.”
“I can think of worse,” she says. “You could’ve tried proposing right off the bat.”
Central cringes. “I would’ve swallowed a bullet before doing that.”
“Why did you think offering yourself would help?”
“Shen, I’m a Marine. I’ve been walking into Hell for a while,” Central says softly, “but when I look at her, I know I’ll follow her into the flames and we’ll come straight back out. I see her smile and it quiets the demons in my head. I hear her laugh and it makes this fucked up world a bit brighter. I fight beside her, and I feel like I deserve to wake up and…” He shakes his head, smiling to himself. “If I could help her feel, even half the way she makes me–“
“Uh, Central? That’s starting to sound a bit obsessive?”
“What? No! I meant, I wanted to see her smile again.” He looks down at his gun. “The Quarters are too quiet now. She used to sing in the morning. It’s not right… that’s a look that tells me I’m in trouble, Shen. Do I need a slap?”
Lily takes a gun off the rack. She turns it over in her hands. The superior autoloader attached to the stock is cracked. She’ll have to bring it to Engineering for some maintenance.
“No… just, uncomfortable memories,” she says. “I’m not sure if the same thing applies here.”
Central places his rifle on the floor before him, and nods.
“There was this kid back in junior high. I don’t think the guy ever saw past my eyes and skin,” she says. “I barely knew his name. He had this China girl fetish, never mind that I’m Taiwanese, and it landed squarely on me. By the time I finally had Home Ec with him, he had named three of our future kids and decided which university we’d send them to.”
“That’s a stalker.” Central recoils. “Got a restraining order on him?”
“Nope. Who would’ve taken me seriously? Dad was terrified when the Spring Dance came around,” she says, forcing the words out of her throat. “Dad read all these articles about guys shooting girls who turned them down. Dad knew I was never one to lie to make others happy. Made me take self-defense for a few weeks. Nothing came of it, except this really cringey dance proposal that I turned down. But…” Lily shrugs uncomfortably. “Whenever I logged onto Facebook after that, that guy spammed me with messages like you’re the only Eastern goddess for me, let me worship at your feet and nobody can make me as happy as your almond eyes do… it’s so weird to be held up as some goddess. Especially when he put in all those stereotypical Asian girl things. Because I could see my faults, but he couldn’t, and he was just so insistent on making me into this girl he saw. So… if you do like the Commander, make sure it’s because you like her, and not just an image you have of her.” Lily swallows past the resentment in her throat. “It sucks when it’s the other way around.”
Central nods slowly. “I’ll keep that in mind, Shen. Thanks for telling me this.” He stops. “That boy, do we need to keep an eye out for him?”
“Pretty sure he’s dead by now,” Lily says. “The aliens did bomb San Francisco.”
“The XCOM way of solving problems.” Central stands. “Have you eaten, Shen? I’ll knock something up in the kitchens. Hope you like soup.”
She holds out the satchel. “Brought enough for two. And look, there’s even vegetables, so Tygan and the Commander can’t yell at us about healthy eating.”
“My hero,” Central says fondly, helping her set out the plates.
“Heroine.” Lily offers him a fork. “What? Look, I had to learn grammar to get those Bs in English!”
They eat in comfortable silence.
Though she remembers their promise of professionalism, Lily still tenses when she finds the Commander tinkering with a Claymore in engineering.
“Detonator’s out,” her superior says, holding up a piece of metal. “And there’s no explosive component in. The steel balls aren’t as well packed as they could be. I’ve survived IEDs better built than this.”
“Yes, because that’s an excellent way of judging explosives. Has it killed me? Yes/no.” Lily peers at the notes scrawled onto the blueprint under the Commander’s arms. “Those changes might make the Claymores more costly to produce.”
“That’s true,” the Commander says. “I’ve also suggested ways to better pack the ball bearings in around the X4. I can’t believe the Reapers are still using C4. Thought it would have all expired by now.”
Central walks down the steps to Engineering. He clears his throat. “Commander, the aliens continue to make progress on the Avatar project. If we want to stop them, we’ll have to move fast.”
“Of course.” The Commander puts the mess of wires and explosives back into the bin. “We’ll move to assault the Egyptian facility. In two days, we rescue the imprisoned Skirmisher. Are we ready to fly, Central?”
He nods. “On your orders, Commander.”
Lily lifts up her welding mask, satisfied that BUB0 will fly without leaking oil again. She goes back to her table and squints at the Wraith Suit blueprints. She’s pretty sure that it violates some law of physics, and that if it does manage to turn a soldier invisible and intangible, the said soldier will not be able to see. The Templars suggest using a work-around with the psionic network, but she’s not sure if their suggestion takes into account the Earth’s rotation and velocity through space. Lily has no intention of spacing the poor XCOM soldier who puts on the Wraith Suit.
“Hey, Dad,” she calls over her shoulder, “can you take a look at this for–“
Nobody answers. Of course.
She brings up the date on her tablet. July 11, 2035.
XCOM’s Chief Engineer has passed her first birthday without her father. She has spent an entire year without her father.
Lily grips the table. The welding mask drops off her head. The years seem to stretch out before her. No more nights, huddled over a Raspberry Pi, trying to program her mirror to display the day’s forecast. No more dumplings bobbing in the rollicking waters of a small stainless steel pot, burnt on one side and dented near the lid. No more listening to the rolling tide of her father’s Taiwanese tongue, bringing her back to a time when a boh was alive and kneaded dough for wontons while Lily stirred chopped shitake mushrooms and scallions into ground pork.
She tries to draw breath, but the air presses in on her chest like black dirt burying a corpse far below the sky. The Avenger and its militaristic lifestyle was only home when Dad was alive. Now that he is gone, the silence roars. Dad will never see his life’s work realized in all its glory; every room claimed by humans, every inch dedicated to kicking aliens off the planet. He’ll never get to watch her walk across the stage and accept her diploma, the tassel of her cap swinging in the air-conditioned auditorium. Dad will never get the chance to walk her down the aisle in a ceremony that blends the East and West just like she is a child of America and Taiwan. Most of all, Lily mourns the silence. If she chooses to have children, Dad will never tell them the stories of a woman who brought fire over Montreal to give the world one more month of freedom, and a man who never gave up even as the world ground him into dust; of a woman who was too clever for her own good and a man who saw his hands were drenched in blood and so dragged himself to redemption.
For once in her life, Lily wants to talk. The ghosts of the present and past are too loud in her head; one screams at her in a language she no longer speaks, and the other whispers of could-have-beens and should-have-beens in a voice too easily lost in her whirlwind thoughts.
She casts her mind about. Howell? No, Howell is a good friend, but she would not know the reed-like flowing tones of Lily’s a mah and a boh. Central? He braved her father’s death alongside her, he never left her side unless he was blackout drunk, he speaks a little bit of Cantonese and Mandarin; but no, he does not remember the rituals and rotes of her childhood. Tygan? Tygan would understand the feeling of loss and being set adrift, but it is not his experience she remembers. She wants someone who would understand what it meant to be an Asian American child, living on foreign shores, lacking an anchor to both the motherland and their homeland, but somehow finding their way to friendly seas regardless.
The Commander, she thinks, she would understand.
It’s unusual for Lily to leave Engineering during her shift, unless the rest of the Avenger needs maintenance. Her appearance in the corridors draws whispers from the men, concerned glances from the scientists, and alarm from the engineers. She pays them no heed – her goal lies past the bridge, up a flight of stairs, into a corridor where few are permitted to enter.
You know where to find me, she remembers as if from a dream, when you are ready.
Lily asks ROV-R the time. The GREMLIN chirps out 10 AM. The Commander must be waking up – last night, she ran a midnight op to retrieve a captured Skirmisher. Lily’s stomach churns at the thought of being turned away. She needs someone to fill the silence and banish the ghosts. She wants someone who remembers the songs that filled home.
If she walks a minute longer, with the grief surging inside her, she wonders if the ghosts will keep her for their own.
“Night, Shen,” Central yawns as he exits the Guerilla Tactics School. “Where’s th–?”
Lily doesn’t know how she keeps from running up the last flight of stairs, but she passes by the calm blue glow of the Hologlobe and the technicians who greet her with cheerful, “Hey! Chief Shen! The Hunter doesn’t stand a chance. The Spider Suit prototype looks great!” as if hell rages behind her.
You never got to see me ignore the laws of physics, dad, she thinks, tears beginning to trail down her cheeks. What would you say? Would you laugh and tell me to continue my work? Would you tell me, in your restrained way, that the procedures were sound? Would you praise me and tell me that you were proud of me?
At the back of her head, she knows the answers, but grief screams and screams and drowns them out.
Lily finally reaches the Commander’s Quarters. She hears the hum of a hair dryer and sighs with relief. The Commander is awake.
She bangs on the door. It slides open without requesting a passcode.
The Commander sits on her bed, running a comb through her mid-shoulder length black hair. She sings to herself, soft shushing Mandarin that makes Lily think of golden kelp waving in a hidden current. The Commander trills, “suan suan yi san nian,” and begins to separate her hair into thick locks.
Lily stands, and listens. She breathes deep. A boh used to sit her in front of the mirror, and though her maternal grandmother was never so gentle with the comb, a boh would weave Lily’s hair into tiny pompom buns held in place by sparkly scrunchies. A boh sang, back then when her mind was clear and her heart did not yet mourn for a daughter that lung cancer would steal. She thinks mom used to sing too, but back then, it was mama and that is too long ago for her to clearly remember. Lily has afterimages of a woman with her smile and capable hands that held her pudgy fists as she drew out the characters of Shen An Yi, but that is all she can recall. A boh is far easier to bring to mind, with the Commander coaxing out the wistful song from Lily’s memories as she draws her hair into a tight bun.
The Commander’s voice grows rougher, and the waves in her voice grow stronger, as she starts some Cantonese song. Lily doesn’t recognize the beat – far happier, a melody meant for dance and club lights – but she does recognize the words. Dad used to buy CDs with Taiwanese hiphop songs, though he always disdained Taiwanese rap as silly. He danced with her too, the first days after they arrived in America – he bought her a green dress with embroidered sunflowers, and twirled her around the empty halls of their new apartment. Lily’s superior wraps the hairband snug around her bun as the melody draws to a close. She picks up a few thin black hairpins, and pins the last few locks into place.
“It wouldn’t have been rude to interrupt,” the Commander says in English, startling Lily out of her reverie. “For a moment, I thought you were Central. He’s generally the one who listens to me warble.”
“What gave it away?” Lily asks, tucking that piece of information into her mind: Central has unlimited code-less access to the Commander’s Quarters. Better make sure no one else can sneak in.
“No stench of alcohol and smoke.” The Commander stands and beckons Lily in. “Is there something on your mind, Lily?”
Lily opens her mouth. To her horror, tears fall freely down her cheeks.
“My dad,” she manages to say, “it’s been a year. And I… I miss home.”
“I see,” the Commander says, ushering her to a sofa. Lily lowers herself onto the cushion. “Come in. Would you like anything?” her superior asks, switching to Cantonese. “I can warm up some chamomile tea.”
That reminds Lily of home. When she moved to San Francisco, and took on the clipped sounds of the West Coast accented English, she began to forget how to speak Taiwanese. When dad asked her to fetch him things in Cantonese, she would reply in English. She held two-way conversations, one speaking in Asian tongues, and the other preferring an American one.
Lily remembers to answer in the affirmative, as she takes in the changes in the Quarters. One of the shelves has been cleared of Central’s military books. An icon of a woman holding chains and a tower sits on the shelf. A few hardcover tattered textbooks take up the space next to the picture. Their spines talk of projectiles, material strength and minesweeping.
“Saint Barbara,” the Commander says, switching back to English as she heats up water in the microwave. “Patroness of military engineers. My family left the Church, but that part stayed with me. One of the Montreal Resistance members gave it to me.”
“I’ve never been to church, except for piano recitals,” Lily admits as she sits on the sofa. “We weren’t religious.”
Her Commander laughs and takes the cups out of the microwave. “Then you did not miss much. My dad used to time the priests’ homilies – those are speeches – take an average, and went to the ones who didn’t go over thirty minutes. Chinese homilies were usually faster. That’s the blessing of a tonal language.”
“If it’s not rude, why did you leave?” Lily asks.
The Commander’s smile drops. “Let’s just say that my parents had their flaws, like virulent racism,” she says, switching back into Cantonese, “but they held one belief true and dear: never hurt a child that isn’t yours.”
“Oh…” Lily kicks out her feet. The Commander sprinkles a few chamomile buds into the cups, and brings them to the table. Burnt-gold flowers unfold in the water. “How… how do you reconcile that? I mean my dad… I don’t think he had a single flaw,” she says, choking back the tears burning away at her eyes. “Look at everything he built. I look up to him. He had a plan, he knew what he was doing… but he’s dead now.” She sniffles. “Meanwhile, I’m still here… and I don’t know what I’m going to do without him. Jesus, Commander. I’m thirty-five. I’ve got maybe half a century in front of me. What am I going to do without my dad?”
“Do you need a hug?” the Commander asks.
Lily runs forward and cries into the Commander’s arms. For her part, the Commander is not embarrassed by the display of emotion.
“Easy, easy,” the Commander says as she lowers them both onto the floor. “ROV-R, could you get me the comb and a pack of tissues from the bed?”
ROV-R chirrups an affirmative. Lily hears her GREMLIN swoop away to retrieve the requested items. She feels two separate plops onto her back, and then a nudge in her side. ROV-R beeps unhappily.
“Thanks, little guy,” she manages to say.
“Thank you, ROV-R.” The Commander pats him. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of Lily.”
“Don’t – don’t need to– taken care of –“
“Of course you don’t,” the Commander says, beginning to straighten Lily’s hair that is still mussed up from the welding mask. “I misspoke. I’m here to lend a shoulder.”
Although she is thirty-five, no longer a gangly teenager of fifteen and no excuse for collapsing in tears like this, Lily enjoys the feeling. There is safety in the older woman’s arms. The Commander knows what to do, and right now, it is hugging the younger woman and righting her hair.
“A li shan de gu niang,” the Commander begins to sing, as she works out a knot, “mei ru shui ya…”
Lily recognizes the song as a Taiwanese one, though it is sung in Mandarin. Warmth swells up in her chest, a gratefulness that cannot be spoken. The Commander is not Taiwanese herself, but she reaches across the strait to bring memories from a land that gave rise to Lily’s ancestors.
“Gu niang he na shao niang yong bu fen ya,” the Commander smooths Lily’s hair down, “jian shui chang wei zhe qing shan zhuan!”
Slowly, Lily draws breath again. The homesickness rolls over her in waves. The Commander is not her a boh, but she is the only link to a land and a history Lily faintly remembers. Yet again, Lily wishes she could turn back time and relearn Taiwanese and Mandarin. There is a saying that foreign-born Taiwanese are jook-sing, hollow bamboo – yellow on the outside, with barriers on the inside, so that water poured in one end does not flow out the other. Lily was born in Taiwan, but she longs to know more of the culture she lost. She is not fully American, not when her lunchboxes were packed with fried rice and steamed fish and her home was filled with the strains of Taiwanese pop, but she is not fully Taiwanese either.
“What day is it?” the Commander asks, after a while.
The Commander squirms out from beneath Lily’s weight, and goes to the cabinet. She withdraws a red paper packet. “Come with me. I have an idea.”
ROV-R sits on the patch of cleared dirt, projecting a picture of Dad into the air. Lily asked if the Commander wanted her family’s picture from ROV-R’s video banks, but her superior had refused the offer.
The Chief Engineer places three joss sticks into the dry sand. The smoke is heady, almost cloying, as the scent of dried flowers drifts up into the sky. The Commander lays down a few crab apples and bows her head.
On the Ghost Festival, Hell and Heaven are open and the dead walk amongst the living. The Shens, though not traditional by any means, had some customs from Taiwan: ancestor veneration, Chinese New Year, red for luck, four for death… Lily cannot go to her father’s grave to tend to his resting place, but she can burn offerings and hope that somewhere, he is watching.
“Don’t worry,” the Commander says, repositioning herself on her knees, “we’re not wasting food. Only horses can eat these. Well, you could try. But you’d spend the rest of the day in the washroom.”
“Shei zhi pan zhong sun, li li jie xin ku,” Lily quotes from a half-remembered poem. Did dad used to recite it? Or was it from Chinese school? She’s not quite sure why she remembers a poem from the Tang dynasty of all things. “Who knows, for every food on a tray; hard work gathered for that day?”
No, now she remembers. A boh loved poetry. Lily’s grandmother loved how the words flowed, like in the jazz she once sung. A boh is dust too, like Lily’s mother and father.
“You sound like my mom,” the Commander grumbles. She creates another pile of food before the incense: this time, boysenberries too ripe for XCOM to risk eating. “Then again, after eating MREs for a year, her food was heavenly.”
The silence sits between the two women, broken only by the smoldering hiss of burning incense.
“We place down three, for tian di ren. Two for the heavens and the earth, and one for the deceased,” the Commander recites, pointing at group of incense in turn. “Five, for tian di jun qin shi. Two for the heavens and the earth, one for the leaders, one for kin, and one for the teachers.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Lily shakes her head. “I’m not that traditional.”
“I don’t either,” the Commander says. “I didn’t practice the old ways. My parents would’ve thought it silly, the Catholics that they were.” The Commander takes a deep breath. “My husband would be ashamed. He tried to explain it many times.”
Lily looks up. “How did you guys get along, if you didn’t practice the same religion?”
“He was my best friend,” the Commander says simply. “We said if we didn’t find somebody by the time we were twenty-seven, we’d just sign the papers.”
“That is the most Chinese thing I’ve ever heard. Puts German efficiency to shame.”
“It’s an army thing!” the Commander says, and sobers. “I don’t remember if there are any rituals for a lost husband.”
Lily rearranges the apples. “I’m sorry… I really don’t know any traditional Chinese things. Beyond burning hell money. Fire crackers, fire in wu xing… What is it with fire and Chinese people?”
“It’s not a bad idea. Fire was the best way to get rid of the Chryssalids, but it ignited Québec’s desire to secede. And so Canada left the Council.” A wry smile works its way up the Commander’s lips. “Don't worry. I didn’t lose the invasion because I was too busy mourning.” The Commander thumbs a stalk of dry grass between his fingers. “I… don’t believe in ancestor veneration. But he did, and… well, it’s all I have left of him now.”
The Chief Engineer sits and thinks.
“Mom died when I was little. I think I remember sitting at her hospital bed, seeing her so small and… and weak, hooked up to all these machines. But it’s not clear. Maybe it was all just a dream,” Lily says. “God, it feels like death has always been chasing me. The aliens hit San Francisco right at the start of the new school year. I was in one of dad’s friend’s offices.” She looks down. “Brodie, I think. He had so many rings in his ears. The most liberal guy ever, but he had enough guns for a Tarantino movie. He took me in when Dad was on the other side of the country. I owe him my life.”
“I don’t know why Mutons were there,” Lily says. “They broke down the door of his home. I helped shoot, but…” She waves her hands, wafting the smoke to the sky. She wonders if her mother knows that there are offerings waiting for her on the Earth. “I’m not a miracle worker. I can’t fix plasma burns.”
Silence falls. Lily doesn’t feel the urge to fill it anymore.
“But you’re here now,” the Commander says softly, “working miracles with the Avenger and our weapons. You’ve done things Dr. Shen could only dream of. I don’t know how you do it, Shen. I’d have shot myself three months into the apocalypse.”
“Do you still feel guilt for the First Contact?”
The Commander bows her head. “I haven’t slept well in years, Shen. I see the farmers blown up by mines, in fields that I hadn’t yet cleared. I see the men I sent to their deaths, and the ones I killed while in the aliens’ hands. I have a healthy helping of survivor’s guilt.”
“Dad used to cry at night,” Lily offers. “Wondering where you, Central and Dr. Vahlen had gone. It got better when Central came back… but I don’t think it ever went away.”
“I’m not sure if it does,” the Commander says. She stirs a finger in the sand. “My ghosts are louder than the living who walk the ship. It’s not fair to anyone.”
Lily paints her name into the sand. “When Dad left for XCOM, I lived in our apartment alone. He had Dr. Brodie, and a couple of others, they came and checked on me. Even when Dad wasn’t there, the apartment still felt like home to me. It’s the little things, like a pen left uncapped or the godawful stinky tofu he liked that was still in the fridge. I used to want more freedom. I hated it when dad told me to get off the computer and go to bed. But when he was gone, I’d wake up in the morning, and when I didn’t hear the rice cooker singing, I’d remember he wasn’t there. The Avenger… the Avenger isn’t the same.” She swallows. “There isn’t enough of Dad left on the Avenger to make it feel like home.”
The Commander nods. “My husband lived in Montreal so he could transit to work. I spent most of my time near Ville de Québec at my base. I’d come home after deployments and on weekends,” she says bitterly, “and find strange men and women in my bed. It stopped after I was promoted to Lieutenant. We fought. I couldn’t have him risking my career, and the wrong person could ruin his as a lawyer. I suppose there is some truth to Army relationships being dysfunctional.”
“Is that why you suggested the Gay Village to Central?”
“That too.” The Commander sighs. “After every deployment, I would be swarmed by well-meaning visitors and dinner party invitations. There was always someone who wanted to know if I had killed anyone.” She laughs. “So I told them, about the time a medic had to pick pieces of a dead man’s jaw out of my back because I had yet to clear mines from his fields. I told them about the time the Taliban strapped explosives to a little boy and sent him to beg for candy from my unit. Then I would be scolded for ruining dinner.”
“Christ, the nerve of some people!” Lily says.
“I’d be exhausted from retelling my worst memories.” The Commander's smile grows distant. “JS used to show up at my apartment with chocolates and wine, and tell me, get your dress on. Let’s go dance. I learned ballroom dancing at the Royal Military College. I’m not sure where he learned, but he made me forget the screams and the explosions. God, I hate mines. I’m with Dr. Vahlen on that one.” The Commander bows her head. “And in turn, he could take other lovers. Never mine for long. We were preparing for date night when Council Officials broke down my door and told me XCOM was activating. JS didn’t understand why I had to leave. I never got a chance to explain.”
Lily pets ROV-R. The breeze changes, wafting heady smoke into her face. “That’s what I like about machines,” she says, repositioning. “They don’t require explanations, or reasons. You give them an order, and they will do their best to carry it out.”
“There is something comforting about objects. They remain intact. Not like humans, the bloody bags of meat that we are. I loved him very much.” The Commander lets out a sob. “And it hurts to know that I will never see him again.”
The two women mourn in silence.
“I thought, after a year,” Lily says, “it would hurt less.”
“It dulls,” the Commander says, her voice strengthening like the beat of storm waves against the shore, “and we heal. But we’re never quite the same again.” She gathers the unused incense. “I’ve had three months to come to terms with something that happened twenty years ago. Montreal ripped open an old wound. The scar will close. And it will remain.”
Lily looks at the portrait of her father. It was taken while he was wrangling the ship’s systems under human control. His brow is furrowed, and worn with age, but the old spark still lights his eyes. Dad was never happier than when he was working on an engineering problem with her.
“I’m not sure if I’d want to be the same,” Lily says. “But at the same time, I wish that I could stay the same person I was when Dad lived. I wish he had left something more. Something that could guide me, one more time.”
“He left you, as his legacy,” the Commander says. She stands and brushes off her knees. “And he gave you XCOM, and this ship. Where you go from here is your choice. I think that’s a good place to start.”
Lily nods, and keeps that to ponder later, in addition to revising the code to the Commander’s Quarters. “Are you going back to the ship?”
“I have a duty as XCOM’s commanding officer, after all.” The Commander sighs. “Make sure you douse the incense. I don’t want to start a forest fire.”
“I think I’ll stay out for a few more minutes.” Lily salutes her superior. “Thanks, Commander."
“Any time, Shen.”
Once the Commander has left, and the incense extinguished, Lily touches the hull of the Avenger.
“Can you hear me, dad?” she asks, in a clear violation of tradition. The rituals are to deter spirits from crossing into homes, not bring them out. “Are you proud of what I’ve done?”
Left unsaid, “what more could I have done?” rests on her tongue.
She takes a deep breath. Incense lingers in the hot summer air. She thinks Dad would say, “whatever you have left to give.”
Life, after all, was Dad's last gift.
Title from 三年 (san nian), as sung by Deng Li Jun. Title terribly translated from Chinese by me.
A very long chapter this time, hopefully not too preachy. Next time: people come to new understandings.
Chapter 9: 忘不了离别的滋味 (Forget the taste of parting)
The past twenty years were difficult, but XCOM has each other now.
(Warnings for mentions of sexual assault.)
As the daily Command team meeting draws to a close, Central reaches beneath the table. He holds up a dark green sweater. Pinned to the V-neck is a yellow star with ‘YOU TRIED’ scribbled on top in Sharpie. That is, if you could call it a star. Lily’s an engineer, not an artist.
“I recognize a lot’s been going on, and people have feelings about that. But this is legitimately insulting.” Central points to the felt add-on. “A star has five points, people, not three and a half. This is a triangle with a tumor.”
“It’s not a toomah,” Lily quips.
Central shakes a finger at her. “I deserve better than this. A five-point star, at least. Do we need Sesame Street in the apocalypse?” He stabs his finger down on each point. “One point, two point, three point–“
“And three shall be the number,” Dr. Tygan intones over his cup of chicory coffee, rubbing his glasses to clear them of steam, “five is right out.”
The Commander sighs and massages her forehead. “That would explain why so many of our soldiers run through fire. Common sense isn’t.”
“They just place a lot of faith in you, Commander,” Central says.
“That’s even worse,” Lily snarks. “Blind faith? Why not look where you’re going?"
Behind her, ROV-R smacks into the wall.
Once again, there are weird noises coming from the War Room next to Engineering. One of these days, Lily is going to tape a “Keep your drama to the Lounge” sign to the door. It’s rather distracting when she has to create a program to calculate theoretical physics problems that could potentially land a soldier in another dimension if anything goes wrong.
Lily looks out into the hallway. Two soldiers limp past Engineering, accompanied by the Commander. They carry an injured Reaper between the three of them.
“Chryssalid,” the Commander says grimly, keeping the Reaper’s head steady against the board, “do you mind informing Central and Volk?”
“He’s here? Of course he is,” Lily says. She checks her schedule: Central should be readying for sleep. Knowing him, he’s the source of trouble in the War Room.
Lily bangs on the door. It slides open, revealing a groaning pile of men – in particular, one faction leader Volk sprawled over a certain Central Officer Bradford.
“Huh.” Lily blinks. “Am I interrupting something?”
“I swear to God, John,” Volk mutters into the floor, “an octopus would be a better partner. Left foot, not right, forward.”
“You said right!”
“This is why you fly like a headless chicken, John.” Volk groans. “Mystery solved, Shen. You’re welcome.”
“If you break something, I’m telling Tygan what you did.” Lily heads to the corner of the room to get the first aid kit. “Seriously, are you guys hurt?”
“Only my pride and my back.” Central pushes Volk off him. “Damn it, Volk, you gotta give me a warning before trying that shit.” He pulls the other man up. “It’s hard enough for me to dance without you flinging shit about.”
“Uh… Not going to ask.” Lily shakes her head. “Actually, quick question. Why do all the Reapers know how to dance?”
“The Internet’s gone.” Volk rolls his shoulders. “Had to pass the winter somehow. Either you fucked, drank or danced, and John was usually only up for one of them.”
“I was busy running the Resistance,” Central snipes back, “not my personal harem. And making sure you didn’t become a fucking plague maiden!”
“Maiden? I don’t think so. I have charisma, John,” Volk says, slapping his chest, “because I know my left foot from my right.”
“Toasted piece of white bread.”
Lily coughs. The two men look at her. “Your Reaper’s back. He got hit by a Chryssalid, so we’re fixing him up in the AWC.”
Volk’s demeanor quickly changes. “I’ll go check on Okafor, but if you're looking after him, I know he’ll recover. Keep at your lessons, John. Maybe one day, you’ll impress your Commander with your sweet moves. Just not tomorrow.”
“You are such an ass,” Central grumbles. “See what I have to deal with, Shen?”
“Just as long as you’re not doing this to… um, you know, mourning and all that,” Lily says, her face heating up as she recalls the other conversation that happened in this room.
Central’s face softens. He unclips the flask from his belt. “Took your words to heart, Shen. You don’t have to worry about the Commander.”
“I’m not, Central,” Lily says as he takes a swig, “I’m more worried about you.”
Central isn’t at the bar, which is encouraging. She doesn’t blame him: August in the Mojave Desert is blazing hot, and its nights are uncomfortably warm. However, it makes it far more difficult for Lily to find the man when she needs to request materials and new recruits to her staff. She has sent him a message, but Central gets enough of those from the Resistance. XCOM is slowly uniting the fragments of the Resistance, as distasteful as they may be. They’ve stopped by the ruins of Las Vegas, which has turned into a den of iniquity, if Lily is kind, and a hellhole promoting violations against human dignity if she is not.
Lily has never liked the larger settlements that have sprung up since the world fell. Dad was equally wary, and while they traveled together, they kept clear of the havens that promised safety. Las Vegas has neon lights, flushing toilets and something resembling a school system for the eight hundred families who call it home. It survives because the underground flood tunnels and former nuclear bunkers allow occupants to flee ADVENT raids. Las Vegas is also home to back alley deals, if you know where to look: a kilo of ADVENT rations for an ounce of tobacco, three lives for an AK-47 still in working condition, an indentured slave in exchange for a deal reneged. Las Vegas will tear any unsuspecting soul apart and sell their component parts to the vultures that lurk among the cobbled-together storefronts. It is a Fallout dream without the radioactive nuclear waste.
If Lily had her way, XCOM would never even fly over the damned city. Boulder City, 8 hours by foot away, is infested with Lost, and an even better reason to stay far away. Unfortunately, Central is of the mind that Las Vegas is an important trading post for the Western USA, and has forged an uneasy alliance with the scum who take human form to peddle their wares of flesh and steel.
“I can never let you out of my sight again,” Central grumbles.
Lily follows the sound to the open door of the Armory’s first aid room. Central is sewing up a deep laceration on the Commander’s arm. The Commander’s uniform is tattered, and her jaw is purpling with a growing bruise. Shallow cuts encrusted with orange earth litter her torso, revealing older scars that gleam against the Commander’s pale skin.
“For future reference, protocol for a soldier being drugged is not to confront the guilty party alone, confiscate their drugs alone, and get into a bar fight alone,” Central says, punctuating each alone by tugging the thread through the Commander’s arm.
Lily does a double take as she notices the river of blood leading into the first aid room. She sighs, and goes to fetch the biohazard kit. What comes from Las Vegas will probably end up infecting the entire Avenger if left unchecked.
“I had Kelly, Laghari, Linscott, Siegel, and Beaulieu with me. And in my defense, I only found the drugs after rescuing Lanz.” Lily can hear the Commander’s grimace, even as her respirator makes her breaths echo around her ears. “Ciboire. I think there’s still glass stuck in the cut.”
“Yes, and they were keeping Lanz alive!” Central picks up a pair of tweezers. “Lanz will be off the combat roster for at least a week, but he should live. Therapy, on the other hand, will be a continuous process. Once I’m done sewing you up, I’ll put out a call for therapists. If we can’t find one, I’ll be available.”
“His assailant will never do it again. I’ve also found the scientist responsible for synthesizing the ketamine.”
Central stops. The needle digs into the Commander’s arm. “Where is she? He?”
“The brig.” Scarlet droplets have begun to bead up around the needle. “Tygan is removing the ADVENT tracking chip. The man specializes in chemical synthesis. I’ve given him the choice of joining us or leaving via his preferred method."
Though every nerve in her body screams for her to run – Central will no doubt inform the Command team of the events – Lily remembers the Fog Pods mutate life. She takes out the sampling kit from the biohazard gear. Tygan might want to check if the winds have carried over anything from Boulder City.
“There was a… one thing at a time.” Central sighs. “When were you going to tell me there was a mole in the Haven? There’s eight hundred families at risk!”
“Right about the time I came to you, but you insisted on sewing me up first.” The Commander’s voice is drier than the Mojave Desert. “Priorities.”
Lily dips the gel-infused swab into the blood smeared onto the floor. She slides it into a test tube, careful not to streak the gel against the sides.
“Jesus fucking Christ.”
“I rather have the devil in front of me than behind me.”
“Jesus fucking sand shitting mother of hell cu–“
“Commander, I don’t often question your decisions.” Ice hangs off Central’s every word as he finishes the row of stitches. “This was a shitshow of bad ideas. Where was Lanz’s battle buddy? You pissed off Las Vegas’s underworld. We have ADVENT on an entire community’s tail – he was a mole? You got into a bar fight! You could have been killed! And for what? For something I could have done, with an adequate force, without risking your life–“
“Lanz could have died, he stopped breathing!”
“This is why we have the chain of command! Some lives are worth more than others! You should have sent me in!” Central shouts. “I don’t understand why for all of your tactical prowess, you can’t see this! Commander, you asked me what would kill me first. You asked if I valued my life.” Tears wet his dry and scratchy voice. “Why don’t you value your own? Is it guilt? Is that the reason why you treat every scrap of affection like it’s radioactive? If it’s because you want to join your husband, then just tell me! Because I don’t understand!”
Central’s breaths slowly quiet. Lily gets out the mop and scrubs away at the blood encrusted on the floor, trying to fill the silence with the vigorous squeak and slosh of bleach.
“I’m sorry, Commander,” Central murmurs. “Shouldn’t have said that.”
“I’m not offended.” She takes a deep breath. “I did leave you in the dark.”
Lily risks a glance upwards. The Commander is taking off her ruined shirt, leaving her only in a Nanoscale Vest that clings to her torso. Once she has deposited the bloodied fabric in the biohazard bin, she reaches out to touch Central’s hand.
“Since I joined the Forces, I have fought tooth and nail for every scrap of respect.” The Commander’s smile is wan and faded out, as she says, “I try to be the person I wanted to defend me back in the 90s.”
Central’s contrition crumbles into concern. He wets a wash towel and clears away the black blood and orange sand from the Commander’s other wounds.
“I was… lucky. It left no evidence that could smear my career,” she says, and winces as a smear of red appears across the wash towel. Central sits down on the chair next to the cot, and wraps his hands around her left wrist. The Commander nods, and he lays her left arm across his lap. He gently dabs at the scabs. “It would be his word against mine. A second lieutenant, against a corporal.” The Commander’s face could be carved out of wood. “You’re one of the boys. We can keep it between friends. Of course. All friendships involve– excuse me. It's nothing compared to what happened to you.”
Central stops cleaning her sleeve. He rests a hand against her cheek. For a few seconds, the Commander leans into his touch.
“We're not playing the misery Olympics, Commander. I’m here,” Central says quietly.
“Women had just been allowed to serve in combat posts. I was a trailblazer. People were looking at me to determine the future of women in the Forces.” The Commander lets out a tired laugh. “The brass would decide I had it coming. They had done it to women in other MOs. They had done it to men I called my brothers. I would be lucky to leave the Forces with just a dishonorable discharge.”
“You didn’t speak up?” Central is quiet. “Not like you, Commander, to stay quiet.”
As she scrubs at the sand clotted into the textured metal floor, Lily resolves to smack Central for the tactless comment.
“And then what?” the Commander asks. “I am Chinese, female and Francophone, Central: that would brand me as a troublemaker. There is no opportunity for advancement with that stain. I told a few friends outside the Forces. They asked how a good, Catholic,” she spits out the word, “girl could have gotten herself into that position. JS believed me. He begged me to escalate.” The Commander looks down. “But I loved my career. I didn’t want to throw it away. So I held my tongue. I worked my way up the ladder. I fought for the men and women under my command, the way I would have wanted someone to fight for me.”
Central brushes the corner of her eye with the pad of his thumb. “Say the word, Commander, and you will never have to fight alone. You’ve got me.”
“I don’t deserve it.” Her shoulders slump. “I worked so hard to earn my place, Central. Yet every single promotion, I was accused of fucking a superior. I couldn’t appear weak, couldn’t demonstrate affection, because it would seep into rumors and undermine my authority.” Tears threaten to leak into her voice. “I slaved away to clear the path for those who would follow me. But it was for nothing. None of my work made any of our soldiers’ lives easier.” The Commander looks down. “I failed to protect Lanz. I failed to defend the Earth. If I hadn’t failed the base defense, you wouldn’t have sold yourself for– I failed you, John, and nothing will ever make up for that, but I’m so sorry–”
Central sighs. He crosses his arms, though they shake as he represses the urge to embrace his superior. “Commander, promise me this. Next time, throw down a tracker, wait for me to show up, and then you can start apprehending them.”
“That, I will do.” The Commander sighs. “Sometimes, I think the detractors on the Council were right. I wasn’t the right woman to lead XCOM.”
Lily finally finishes cleaning up the blood trail.
“Commander,” Central says intensely, “listen to me. I hit rock bottom and decided it wasn’t deep enough, so I dug towards Hell. You aren’t responsible for my decisions.”
“Had we won the invasion, it would never have happened.”
“It’s rich from me,” Central says, “since I’m always going on about what could have been. We can’t change the past, Commander. But we can do better now. We’ll look after our men. We’ll make sure XCOM isn’t like the army. XCOM is my home,” Central says, spraying the contents of a medikit into the Commander’s cleaned wounds. He pinches the skin together to help it heal. “And as long as we’re standing, we’ll work to keep our men safe. What happened to Lanz’s assailant, anyways?”
“She committed suicide rather than be taken into custody.”
Central raises an eyebrow. “Is that ‘suicide’, or–“
“Tabarnak, Central, I’m a mess, not a murderer. The fight only happened after we discovered the drugs.” The Commander sighs. “Morphine, hydrocodone… Some of them still had ADVENT labels. I wonder if that’s ADVENT’s plan. Wear down our Havens by flooding them with addiction. I can’t blame people for trying to get away from this living hell by running into the arms of crack, booze and sex.”
“I say we can blame people for trying to abduct our soldiers. We were lucky to avoid slavers targeting our people for so long.” Central sighs. “There’s hell outside our door, Commander. I’ll start mobilizing the Haven evacuation.”
“What would I do without you, Central?” Lily hears the unsaid words in the Commander’s sigh. I wish I was a better woman for you.
“Less baby sitting, I’d imagine.” Central hesitates. “The door was open. Are you okay knowing that someone could have heard?” The faucet sings as Central scrubs his hands clean. “I can wipe the tapes if you’d like.”
“I don’t mind. It will be easier on me, if I am called upon to justify my decisions.”
Samples in hand, Lily tiptoes away. She can ask Central tomorrow.
As Lily passes by the labs, Tygan calls her over to the transmission electron microscope, frowning all the while. “Thank you for taking the samples. Have you ever known bacteria to look like this?"
Lily scrolls around on the screen, magnifying the membrane of the bacterium until she can see the two layers. “What am I looking at?”
Tygan mouses over to a small triangle-shaped thing with a circle in its center, inserted in the bacterium’s coiled DNA. It’s black against the white of cytoplasm, which means it’s very dense. Lily screws up her eyes. She doesn’t recall anything like this from her biology lessons, and tells the doctor as much.
Lily pauses, and rushes to recall her father’s notes from her tablet.
The invasion era XCOM found this substance. They called it Meld.
“I fear the infection in Boulder City has far greater effects than we ever imagined,” Tygan says, typing away on his tablet.
Usually, when a XCOM soldier requires punishment, Central handles the entire affair. The most common misdemeanors are public drunkenness, public indecency, and being a public nuisance. Lily knows there are more severe punishments, for more severe crimes, and she prays she will never have to see them carried out.
Today is not her day. She knew Las Vegas was trouble. Central storms up the Avenger’s ramp, dragging a handcuffed Tanzer behind him.
“Shen, need you in the Briefing Room,” he says. “This concerns you too.”
Once in the soundproofed room, Central launches into a detailed account of Tanzer’s crime: the sharpshooter is the reason why supplies are disappearing.
“You gambled away an Elerium core?” Lily gapes. “We needed that! I was going to make ammo with that!”
“This is your first warning,” Central says. “You’ll have regularly scheduled therapy sessions every week, and you must check in every hour while in a Haven. On your second offense, you’ll get 50 lashes and mandatory therapy. If it happens a third time, we’ll execute you. Am I understood?”
The sharpshooter bows her head. “Yes, sir.”
“Now, go explain to Dragunova why you won’t be attending rifle practice with her,” Central says. He stares after the retreating Sharpshooter’s back, ghosts rising from the grave in the grey of his eyes.
“Got your message, Shen,” Central says as she enters the bar later that night. He has already accumulated a small pile of glasses, though not all of them reek of moonshine. “Sent the word out to the Resistance. You’ll get your stuff at the end of the month. The Las Vegas cell’s going into hiding, maybe they’ll find something nice for you. Well, if it’s not poisoned with the aliens’ fucking bioweapons.”
“I wish Dad was here,” Lily says as she hops on the stool next to him. She takes a mandarin from the bowl of fruit and peels it, releasing fragrant oil into the air. “He would know what Dr. Vahlen had planned. We don’t have the resources to make a MEC trooper, and I’m not in the mood to chop off limbs.”
“She wanted to splice bits of them into us.” Central swirls his amber lager. “Maybe Vahlen had a point. We couldn’t hack it alone with ballistics.”
Lily does a double take. “That’s probably the nicest thing I’ve heard about her.”
Central drinks. “You heard what happened to Lanz. Wouldn’t’ve happened if we won.” The words spill out of him, as the alcohol loosens his tongue: the desperation of the last years, the failures compounding upon failures, the safe havens he helped found all dissolving into chaos or scattered after ADVENT raids. After fifteen years of despair, Central finally gave in.
“Sold off every moral I had, just for another drop. Was going on a week without the bottle. Made a deal in Dresden. Bring this woman in, and you’ll get vodka.” Central swallows. “So I did. I needed the drink like a man in the dark needs a fire. Woke up next to her body three days later. She was rotting in a ditch. Swore I’d never take out a contract like that again. I’d kill them myself if I had to.”
Lily doesn’t mention his conversation with the Commander, but Central nods.
“Still a junkie. Still needed my fix.” He twists his hands, until the dry skin between his fingers cracks and bleeds. Lily swipes a tube of lotion from the bar counter’s drawers and hands it to him. “It’s always about power, isn’t it. Lotsa angry people back then, wondering why soldiers couldn’t keep’em safe. As long as I had a drink, I didn’t care what they did to me. Was worth more when I looked more like a boy scout. Then the alcohol took over.” He pops the cap on the lotion and applies it to his hands. “I’m glad you didn’t know me back then, Lily. I wasn’t myself. The junkie ate me up. People ran from me when they didn’t want something outta me. Wonder if Tanzer will go down that road. I pray I can keep her off, but if she goes…”
The Chief Engineer closes her eyes and nods. Dad had always stayed clear of strangers who acted oddly; for some, the apocalypse was a soft route to self-destruction, and drugs were just one avenue. He became even more cautious while they were digging out the Avenger. They had sought out a haven to get badly needed personnel. One band of strangers managed to take him captive. Lily still remembers Dad screaming for her to run in Cantonese. She rescued him, with the aid of newly built ROV-R, but the memories of strangers’ twitching hands and almost toothless mouths still send shivers down her spine.
“I hope the Commander never sees me like that,” Central mutters. “I’d run too.”
“But we aren’t,” Lily says, finding her tongue. “Because you changed.” She hesitates. “I don’t know if you noticed, Central, but if you weren’t there when dad died… I don’t know if I could’ve made it until today. He was all I had. But then you were there. And you were my friend.”
“How much of me is still the junkie?” Central swirls his beer. “And how much is still me?”
“I guess it depends,” Lily says, “on how much you want that beer.”
Without another word, Central pours the remaining third down the sink.
“Sunflowers?” Central asks with a yawn.
“You can eat the seeds if you get hungry,” the Commander says, pressing the bouquet into his hands. The blue ribbon wrapped around the thick green stems flutters in the slight breeze permeating the Mess Hall. The Commander reaches into her satchel, and hands Lily a tub of seeds. “These have been baked and salted. I expect you to wash your hands before eating this time, Shen.”
“You eat gruel with a wrench one time,” Lily sighs.
“Sure, give me the IKEA version,” Central says, but Lily catches his smile. "At least you didn't make me grow these from seed."
“Stand up and face the sun, Central.” The Commander adjusts a sunflower so that the golden bloom rests in his cupped hands. “You deserve it.”
It’s hard to repair the leaks in the plumbing while most of XCOM’s soldiers are gathered around her. Still, Lily manages. She is a professional after all, and Central is teaching hand-to-hand combat today.
The Command duo fights in the center of the GTS floor, ringed by their men. The Commander repositions herself so that Central straddles her legs. She punches up. Central pushes down on her shoulders, trying to keep her pinned to the floor.
Central grunts. “Right, stop!” The duo freezes in place. Central's hand slides from her shoulder to her breastbone. “Now, to get out of the closed guard position–“
“Keep it PG, Central!” Gonzalez hoots.
Linscott puts two fingers in his mouth and whistles. “Red card!”
Central huffs as he releases the Commander from the closed guard position. “Stop fucking around! This could save your life!”
The Commander gets her knee up, and jabs him in the crotch. “And you, pay attention!”
“Motherfucker! Don’t try this on ADVENT,” Central grunts, jamming his elbow into the Commander’s gut, “they wear guards.”
The Commander flips them over. “It’s best to be on top,” she fights to pin Central’s arms to the floor, “to control the direction of the fight.”
“Fight dirty, or you’ll die.” Central grabs hold of her bun and yanks her head down. The Commander yells out a garbled French curse. “Jesus – sorry, sir–“
The Commander digs her elbow into his solar plexus. “T’es foutu!”
Lily rolls her eyes. She briefly wonders if the men have absorbed any of this information, or if they’re too caught up laughing at the catfight on the GTS floor.
If a soldier survives to their birthday on board the Avenger, they get their choice of meal served to everyone at dinner. Some soldiers opt for the more esoteric: Kokoren, for example, wanted sashimi, and Central had the Skyranger fly by the ocean to pick up some tuna because he was sick of catfish and trout. Tygan wanted nothing except an absence of Faceless paste on his plate, and Lily got her Chinese bakery fruitcake. It is August 10th, and Beaulieu will turn 26 at 10 PM (or so he says, most watches ran out of battery years ago.) Imahara requested a slightly longer lunch break, in which Lily can only assume she gave Beaulieu a vigorous birthday present because Central stomped out of the bowels of the ship muttering something about kids these days and where’s the bleach.
Lily takes her long-belated lunch in the kitchen – well, it was only belated because she covered Imahara’s longer lunch break. She munches on a slice of cattail bread dipped in huckleberry jam as the Commander whips up Beaulieu’s requested Black Forest cake. XCOM’s expanding grasp on the world means better food for all, and the soldiers have made a point of raiding convenience stores after missions in the city centers. Well, if Lily asked one of them, they would say that they were offered food by grateful civilians who weren’t shot by their local ADVENT peacekeepers, and for the most part, that is true.
“I’m surprised you know how to bake,” Central says, as he watches the Commander mix the xanthan gum into the cocoa powder. “Not that I’m complaining, mind you.”
“Public defenders are often alcoholics,” the Commander says quietly. “I begged my husband to stop drinking before it killed him. One weekend, I came home, and his friends told me J.S. was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning.”
Lily can see the strain on Central’s face as he does his best not to touch the Commander. He settles for whipping the fake cream into a frothy white mass.
“One near death experience took him from alcohol to sweets. His office had Twinkie wrappers, chocolatine crumbs and Laura Secord boxes everywhere. Then we had to worry about diabetes and fatty liver disease.” The Commander stirs in the canola oil. “So I worked on a diet with him. I learned how to make vegan baked goods, and froze them for him while I was at base in Valcartier.”
The Commander pours the batter into the cake tin, shaking her head as she scrapes the batter into the pan. “It didn’t quite work. He used to finish the muffins off the day I left, and stress-eat Chinese pastries for the rest of the week until I came home. But he did try, and he kept defending the hopeless and the downtrodden… and he wasn’t drinking as much. That was all I could ask.”
“Well, I’m glad you learned,” Lily chips in to break the silence, “I haven’t had a Chinese fruitcake in years.”
“It was my pleasure. Turns out, being a vegan baker is quite useful for the apocalypse. Having eggs makes it easier.” The Commander grimaces at the oven. “I miss milk. Xanthan gum doesn’t provide as much structure.”
“Sorry, Commander, there’s not that many cows around,” Lily says. “When’s the last time you saw a cow, Bradford?”
“Hmm… Commander,” Central spoons the cream into a tub, “when’s the last time you yelled at me for hiding guns under your pillow? Or does having a cow not count?”
“We’re getting a divorce,” the Commander says, offering Lily a preserved cherry. Lily bites down, and immediately thanks the apocalypse for the lack of maraschino cherries in the world as the sickly sweetness washes over her tongue.
“We’d have to be married first,” Central laughs. “Are we pre-emptively divorcing?”
“For efficiency’s sake. We are trying to be the antithesis of the army here.”
“I can run the numbers, but I doubt it’s that big an improvement, Commander.”
Lily rolls her eyes, and reconsiders her stance on whacking the duo with a wrench before they give her diabetes.
Title from 不了情 (Bu liao qing, also known as "Love Without End"), as sung by Teresa Teng.
In 2016 alone, 960 in the Canadian Forces reported being sexually assaulted. "Operation Honour" was launched to investigate and fight sexual misconduct.
Chapter 10: 重寻梦境何处求 (Heavily searching for dreamland)
Sometimes, you need to hit rock bottom. Other times, you need a wake-up call that sounds a little like, "The aliens continue to make progress on the Avatar Project."
“How dare you stand there!” The Calgary Haven leader stands from his seat at the table. The cigar in his hand – a goodwill gift so rare in the apocalypse – glows red. “You Chinese bought out Vancouver, you bought out the Earth, and then you sold Earth to the aliens! And you expect me to work with you?”
“I am Canadian,” the Commander says, lacing her hands together. Central remains impassive, though Lily sees he is seconds away from going for his gun, “and fought for my home and native land during the invasion. If you join XCOM–”
“Native land. Sure. You people bought up Vancouver and Toronto and let the rest of us native citizens starve on the streets.” A steady stream of smoke rolls out from Woolley. “And what about you?” He points at Lily. “Did your Chinese–“
“I’m Taiwanese,” Lily says.
“Did you sell out Earth too? For what? Rhino horns for your small di–“
“No, but I built the mag guns you’re using.” Lily shrugs. “Make all the sweatshop jokes you want. I’m the only one who knows how to repair them.”
Central stands. “There’s no point in continuing this. Get off my ship.”
“Get the fuck out of my home.” Woolley spits at the Commander. “Already got the aliens around. I don’t need fucking Chinese trying to take over my home.”
The Commander touches her headset. “Dragunova, Tanzer. Escort Woolley out.”
The Reaper and her partner appear at the door of the conference room. Woolley stalks out, puffing smoke like an old locomotive as he goes.
“That sucked.” Lily breathes in the clean filtered air of the Avenger. “Kinda regret giving them mag guns now. How long until those guns are pointed at us?”
“It was a good faith gesture. Go Team Diversity,” the Commander sighs, dabbing the dark spit off her shirt. “Should’ve presented Bradford as the Commander.”
Central opens a drawer in the War Room and offers the Commander a new shirt. Lily gets the impression that this isn’t an isolated incident. “We’ll find people like us,” he says. “Look at Volk’s and Geist’s groups. They’re doing well.”
“Geist doesn’t count,” Lily says, “I think he brainwashed most of them. Volk’s an asshole, but at least he isn’t racist.” She sighs. “I kinda see where Woolley’s coming from. The apocalypse only worsened anger that was always there.”
The Commander gives up on removing the tobacco-laden stain, and trades her shirt for the fresh one. “I know, Shen. Excuse me. Va te faire foutre. He can go fuck himself.” She smiles brightly, barely masking the simmering frustration in her dark brown eyes. “And I’m sorry for the language. There, I’ve completed my Canadian citizenship requirements for the day.”
Central looks between the two women. “You two, take an early break.” He gathers the Commander’s discarded shirt. “I’ll start locating another Haven from the satellite data, sir. We’ll find a foothold in western North America.”
Lily leaves the War Room near the Armory, a hard pit of discomfort digging into her belly. The apocalypse brought out the worst in humanity. She knows this. It’s human nature to blame others for calamities, so the mind can make sense of the tragedies. It’s not her fault, and it’s not Woolley’s fault.
So why is she still upset?
Dad bleeds out on the cold metal floor. “Zau!” he gasps, the sound leaking from him like the life from his body. “Naam naam, zau!”
The grief is easier to manage now when Lily surfaces from her nightmares. Quiet tears roll off her face and soak into the pillow. Run, her father had told her, my darling girl, run! But Lily isn’t running anymore. The Chief Engineer has come to accept the fact that Dad just won’t be there anymore.
Lily rises from her bed, and pulls on a thin jacket. She heads out of her quarters – small and cramped compared to the Commander’s, but Lily has never wanted anything bigger – and goes for the Engineering Lounge. The former War Room has been modified into a place for the Engineers to wait out their more cantankerous builds. Of particular interest to her is the electric kettle, and a tin of chamomile flowers waiting by the microwave. How Dad would scorn the electric kettle and its heating element. The only kind found in their San Francisco home was a stout stainless steel kettle that sang atop the stove.
“Hey, Chief.” Imahara plops onto the couch that dominates most of the room. “Rough night?”
“Yeah.” Lily drops chamomile buds into the mug. “How’s your shift going?”
“Quiet. I don’t like those Chosen, sneaking around.” Imahara heaves a sigh. “We know they’re coming. It’s just a matter of when. I want it over with. My girlfriend’s out in the Havens… I wanted a future with her, but with the Chosen….”
The kettle sings, as Lily asks, “Have you asked Central if XCOM can fortify that Haven?”
“There’s nothing more we can do,” Imahara says. “They’ve got guns, medicine, ammo, and us on call… Nothing left to do but wait.”
Howell comes into the room, rubbing her eyes furiously. “It’s nothing, just concentrate,” she murmurs as she reaches for the chamomile. Lily pours out enough hot water for three mugs. “Thanks, Chief – should you be awake?”
“Just trying to deal with some thoughts,” Lily says, handing a mug to Imahara and Howell. “Engineering trouble, or family trouble?”
“My eldest son – Jake – he’s fighting with his stepfather again, and Carlos is crying for me.” Howell plops onto the sofa next to Imahara, sloshing hot tea over her shirt. She curses. “The typical stepchild woes. You’re not my real dad!”
“But they act so similar,” Imahara sips from her mug, “like two peas to a pod.”
“I just don’t understand. Santiago’s the only father Jake’s ever known. I had him when I was eighteen. The world was going to hell, and… my boyfriend Washington wanted to join the Resistance. One day, he never came back.”
“I’m so sorry.” Lily offers condolences to fill the void, but they clunk off her lips.
“ADVENT took care of me… they helped me raise my son, until I met Santiago in Barcelona City Center.” Howell breathes in. “It’s okay. Santiago is a good father to them both. I can go home one day… it’s going to be okay.”
“You want to talk?” Imahara asks.
Howell cuddles her mug. “I just don’t want to be alone with my thoughts.”
“That, we can arrange." Lily sits on the counter and begins sipping her own tea.
They sit in silence, dealing with their respective ghosts.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Central mutters, leaning heavily against the Commander as he limps into the Armory. “Slow – ow, little slower–“
“Old age catching you, Central?” Lily drags a crate of ice towards the Armory to refill the storage, ready for the next time a soldier is rushed out of the Skyranger on a gurney. She dips a scoop into the crate and fills a bag. “Here you go, geezer.”
“Fucking cramps!” Central collapses onto a crate of ammo. “Just you wait til you're my age, Shen. This bum leg–“
The Commander sets his calf on her knees and begins to knead her knuckles into the tense muscles. “Tell me where it hurts most.”
“Get my boot off– fuck! Argh, it’s never been the same after that sniper in Kabul.” Central groans as Lily sets the bag of ice on his leg. “Thanks, Shen. And then I broke it on the run. Guess it finally decided to revolt–”
The Commander finally manages to get Central’s muddy boot off. She rolls up his pants leg. Lily gapes. The skin is white with scar tissue, and there’s a noticeable crookedness to the bone. The muscles of his calf are taut, visibly contracting on their own, even as the Commander rubs circles into them.
Central notices Lily’s shock. “You don’t need your fibula, thank God, because most of mine’s gone,” he says, almost apologetically. He winces as the Commander hits a sore spot. “Sorry, it’s bad. Uh, sir, you don’t need to–“
“I’d like to,” she says, “but if ice would help more–“
“No, no, you can keep going,” Central says hastily. “Before my leg decided to interrupt, you were saying about–?”
“I don’t like grey.” The Commander begins to rub his foot. “It’s for dead things.”
“What, are we all dead?” Laghari asks, pulling at her light-grey uniform as she troops in. “Don’t jinx me please, Commander.”
“Sure, dead inside,” Tasev replies as he organizes bullets to fill clips.
“Me IRL,” Dr. McCoy chimes, following Laghari in.
The Commander and Central look at each other. The Commander shrugs.
“So this is how I know I’m getting old,” Central says ruefully. "Not the aches and the creaks that tipped me off. No, it's the kids."
"Sir, I'll have you know I'm twenty-four going on twenty-five," McCoy says.
"Let's stop before I have a mid-life crisis," the Commander says, still massaging Central's leg.
“Planning on going back to the old days?” Lily asks as she wades through the rice fields to get to Central. Long ago, this patch of Thailand was a battlefield between the human armies and the alien invaders. The hulks of crashed airplanes rise out of the verdant terraces, shading the XCOM soldiers who are harvesting the rice for contamination testing, and possibly dinner. The Central Officer is hunched over in the muddy water, like a crane ready to strike. Lily does not dare look at the water. The bones of the lost stare out at the living from their liquid blanket.
“Shhh! Don’t move,” Central says, standing frozen over a clump of duckweed. “Can you– perfect. The fish will see the shade, and swim there.”
Lily peers at the flashes of green and gold below the water’s surface. “Are those goldfish? Those aren’t the cracker goldfish. They’d hardly be a snack.”
“I’m going to ignore that pun.” Central’s hands suddenly dart into the water, coming up in a spray of tan droplets. In his cupped hands, a metallic green fish swims around, its dark blue fins tipped with red billowing about its body.
“Betta,” Central says proudly. “They’re native here. Didn’t expect to see such colorful ones, could be escaped pets – ah! Hey, Commander! Over here!”
The Commander wades towards them, careful to keep her mag gun out of the water. “Did you catch dinner? That seems quite small.”
Central holds out the fish in his cupped hands, and excitedly tells the Commander about the history of bettas. The fish lazily fans its fins and swims in languid circles. The Command duo crouches together, as Central talks about his aunt studied swordtail fish evolution at Kansas State University.
“–she worked with some guys who studied, oh, I can’t remember, cichlids? Some sort of African fish,” Central says, dipping his hands below the water. “Don’t really need to do that; bettas can breathe air. So she was telling me, there’s two kinds of fish. One’s red, and one’s blue, and these bright red fish live down where it’s murky. So red light penetrates deep into the water, and blue light stays near the top. The blue fish live near the surface.” Lily risks a glance towards the Commander: the green flecks in her irises originate from the betta’s scales and Central’s shirt, but the love that shines out of her eyes belongs to Central alone. “So the two don’t mate. They’re completely different species. Wonder if that’s what’s happening to this little guy here.”
“That’s amazing! J.S.!” the Commander cries, turning towards the Avenger. “Aweille, tu dois l’entend–“
She stops. The damage is done. Central’s hand drops, letting the betta leap back into the water. Central shoves his dripping wet hand back into his pocket.
“I’m sorry,” the Commander whispers. “My friend loved fish. He kept six tanks.”
“You mean, your husband?” Central asks.
The Commander flinches, as the gleaming metallic green of the betta disappears into the murky rice waters. “He was my friend, first and foremost.”
“For what?” The walls build up in Central’s eyes. “It doesn’t matter.”
The next few days on the Avenger are fraught with a cold professionalism. Usually, Central says Commander like a lover’s name. Now he says it like any other military title.
“Geist has stopped antagonizing our numbers,” Betos says over the Resistance Coms screen, “but we do not like his use of psionics. We get on better with the Reapers. They are helping us set up camp in the Warlock’s territory.”
“I believe that’s the best you’ll get out of him,” the Commander says with a sigh. Lily peeps into the Resistance Coms facility, and motions Andrade over. “The Skirmishers are settling in well at your European base?”
“Yes. Thank you for transporting them.” The camera flickers as Betos turns it around to capture every inch of the Skirmishers’ new base in Eastern Canada. “We have set up our newest base in a… a paper store, I believe you call it. We intend to clear out the rest of Gatineau when possible.”
“Can you instruct Tasev on how to man the coms?” Lily asks. “I need you in the AWC. Plumbing’s acting up, and it’s right next to Lanz’s bed. He’s still out thanks to an infection. Don’t want him getting a second one.”
“Can do,” Andrade says, taking off his headset and hanging it at the door. “Can you make sure he doesn’t touch my shit, Chief?"
“I can lend you a GREMLIN to zap him if he gets too close.”
“Sounds good to me, Chief. I just need the notes and I’ll be on my way.”
The Commander nods. “We can send you some bleach. Be careful, paper is prone to growing mold.” She pauses. “Betos, would you mind doing me a favor?”
“For a friend?” Betos smiles. “Speak. I am listening.”
“Hey, the Skirmishers left a package for you in the supply drop,” Lily says as she hauls a length of steel off to the Skyranger. The ship’s a bit dinged up from the latest op in the Toronto City Center. “It’s that obvious present on my bench.”
“See? Someone around here appreciates me,” Central says. “Well, as long as the Skirmishers haven’t jumped on the ship Central and Commander together ship.”
Lily sets the metal down on the floor. “I kinda liked the Greek chorus.”
“Hush, you. Fountain pen… Huh. And Clairefontaine paper… Haven’t seen this in years,” Central enthuses as he slides his hands over the thick white sheets of paper. “You can’t skimp on paper with fountain pens. The ink soaks everywhere, and your good ink’s wasted. Guess the Skirmishers are pretty happy with their latest set-up.” He flips through more of the reams of paper. “Fuck.”
Lily peeps over his shoulder. On a scrap of paper, not the thick matte of Clairefontaine notebooks but the rough beige of draft paper, there is a note written in a sharp, chicken-scratch hand.
Heard this was good for fountain pens. We need to fly to Reaper HQ and collect some intel. – CMDR A. Liu
Central sets the papers down on the table, and runs his hands through his hair.
At the end of her shift, Lily instinctively knows that she will find Central at the Bar.
“Seriously, Central?” Lily sits next to him. A bowl of oranges has taken its place on the bar counter: fruits that shouldn’t be in season in the Okanogan Valley, from where they were harvested, but the aliens’ influence has changed the world in ways Lily has yet to discover. “There’s self-destructive, and then there’s self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“How can I live up to a dead man?” Central swirls his whiskey. “Time’s got a funny way of blurring out the bad. One day, she’s gonna see all this–” he gestures to himself, “-and why the hell would she stay with a drunken mess?”
“Well, stop drinking, and you’ve fixed the drunken part. Maybe you need a hobby to kill the time you spend drinking.” Lily tilts her head. "Learn to draw, sew, maybe not brew alcohol–"
“Alcoholism’s my hobby,” Central says with black humor, and salutes her.
“If you end up in the AWC with alcohol poisoning, I’m gonna smack you with the butt of your gun.” Lily scrunches up her nose. “What did you do, Central, before the aliens attacked?”
Central drinks. “Worked.”
“You never went out to party or play videogames or something?” Lily shrugs at the bemused glance he sends over to her. “Hey! I was a stereotypical Asian-American kid. I stayed at home and built robots, thank you very much.”
“Got over that in my twenties,” Central says. “Never stayed in a relationship for long. Couldn’t, after Ruby screwed half of my high school friends while I was overseas. That sort of violation of trust… takes a while to heal.”
“I… wouldn’t know, Central,” Lily says with a sigh. “Not a lot of time for romance when you’re running for your life. I feel like I grew up too fast. You can’t be a teen when you’re starving to death. It’s only now that I have time to… you know, actually be a human being. Have friends – I didn’t have anyone except dad, before I met you. Meeting other people in the apocalypse just…” Lily mimes stabbing someone in the back. “Opens you up.”
“Ain’t worth it,” Central immediately says. “All the heartbreak, and betrayal, and putting yourself back together… love’s got a bad name, and it’s well-earned.” He considers the glass of whiskey. “Well, maybe it is. When you find the right person. And then they’ll probably end up leaving you, because god, you’re a trash fire.”
“Full disclosure, I never had a boyfriend or a girlfriend.” Lily takes an orange and cuts into the peel. “So I’m not too well versed on the whole right person thing.”
Central chuckles. “You know, Dr. Yung’s got a thing for you.”
Lily does a double-take. “Who?”
“Dr. Yung. One of Tygan’s, specializes in chemical synthesis? The former mole?”
“What.” Lily stares down at the orange. “There’s not a hallucinogen in here, right?”
He sips from his glass. “You didn’t notice?”
“Central, how many times have you seen me in the labs?”
“Married to the job, Shen.” Central nods. “Not a bad place to be.”
The bitterness wells up in her, as pungent as the citrus peel in her hands. It comes from a hidden spring, uncovered by Woolley’s harsh comments. “Until it forces you to choose between the world and your family.”
“When you go to war, you accept the possibility that you will die,” Central says softly. “To see the ones you love, live free and happy in a world of their making. It’s a sacrifice I’d gladly make, time and time again, to see her–” He grimaces. “Ah. Meant Montreal and Kansas, didn’t you?”
“I was thinking more Dad leaving me in San Francisco.” Lily pops a segment of orange into her mouth. “You know. Abandoning his only family while the world burnt down. Leaving me to deal with racist asshats alone. But I guess in the end, it’s the same. I’m a stranger in a land I gladly called my own.” She eats another segment. “I don’t belong to the West, according to Woolley. I have no home in the East, because a boh and a gung are dead, and hell if I know if my cousins survived. Either way, I have no family to anchor me.” She considers the orange slices in her hands. “Hey, don’t oranges originate from China? Guess these are just as alien as me.”
“I’m gonna fly back to Alberta, and I’m gonna punch Woolley’s lights out.” Central stares at the bottle of whiskey. He reaches out to refill his glass, then stops. Instead, he lays a hand on Lily’s own. “You have a family in XCOM, don’t you?” He finishes his drink. “Not one by blood, but one of choice.”
Lily considers his comment. In San Francisco, her Asian friends’ families were limited to the nuclear unit and grandparents. The only way a friend could enter into a family would be through marriage. It’s foreign to her, to consider friends family without the social contract. It’s not that she doesn’t care about her friends, but they exist in a separate, cherished category right next to family. Like an infinity symbol, with friends on one side and family on the other: conjoined, but separate. She thinks about a drop hitting a flat plane of water, and the concentric circles expanding out from the impact. Friends who have become family, and family who are friends…
Central’s tablet beeps. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.” He presses a finger to his headset. “Volk, what are you yelling about now?” Central pauses. “No. Sit tight, and I’m – sit tight, and don’t you dare! I am going over there right now!” Central mimes eating a gun. “Give me five minutes, and you can yell all you want.”
“Is Volk being an asshole again?” Lily asks.
“He wants to yell at the Commander about our psionics program. I gotta head him off, the Commander gets yelled at enough without– why do I put up with him?” Central gets up. “Talk to you later, Shen. I gotta deal with the friend that nobody likes.”
Though his words are jagged with frustration, Lily can still hear the fondness.
48 hours after touching down at Reaper HQ, XCOM has finally accumulated enough info that they can acquire an Engineer from the Black Market. The Psi Lab is almost complete, and Lily is putting the finishing touches on the Psi Amp. Volk has been surprisingly quiet after holding a yelling match that Lily could hear from the Hangar. Lily thinks the Faction Leader may have lost his voice.
Her headset buzzes with the cadence from Central’s channel.
“Shen. My room. Need you,” Central gasps in between breaths.
Lily races up the stairs to the Command staff’s wing. She skids over to Central’s room: ever since the Commander returned, he no longer sleeps in the Quarters. The door slides open before she can tap in the passcode; later, she will worry about the possibility of a security intrusion, but now only Central is on her mind.
Central lies sprawled on the floor by his cot, legs and arms shaking until they almost vibrate, so quickly are the muscles contracting and relaxing. A trail of bloody spit curves up the floor, merges into a spray of half-digested bread and salad, all heading towards his mouth. His bedroom stinks of piss, vomit, and faintly of alcohol. A dark bruise forms along his forehead, perfectly shaped like the corner of the crate that serves as his dresser. His light grey shirt is almost black with sweat, where it’s not covered in vomit. Central gargles for breath, the sound choked off–
Lily grabs his shoulders and rolls him into the recovery position. Central’s jaw moves, teeth grinding together, reminiscent of a cow chewing its cud, but he manages to spit out some of the vomit blocking his lungs. She holds him there, keeping her fingers clear of his head. Disgust wells up in her – biology is so messy, and it’s even worse when it’s fucked up in someone she loves – but if Lily lets go, Central could die, so she holds onto the thrashing man. She wonders if she should clear out his mouth. But Dad warned her she could lose some fingers if Central bit down. He’s still coughing, so she doesn’t thump his back. It would only stop him from coughing up the blockage.
“Tygan!” she says, pressing her com-link. “Tygan, wake up!”
The doctor comes online after three torturous minutes of watching Central struggle to breathe. The convulsions slow, but his eyes are still rolled back so far into his head that Lily can only see the whites.
“What is the emergency?” Tygan asks.
“Central’s seizing! You need to bring the cart to his room!”
“I will be there in twenty minutes,” Tygan says. Lily can hear covers being thrown off. “Is he still breathing?”
“Yes, it’s calming down,” Lily says, patting Central’s back as his breaths become snuffly. “He’s snoring now. He was choking on vomit earlier, and hit his head.”
Lily moves Central’s head so that he can’t bang it against the dresser. She sighs again, and brings out her tablet to check her dad’s instructions. She loosens the collar of Central’s shirt, tilts his head back, and dabs away the saliva trickling down his chin. Without monitoring equipment, there’s little she can do but stay at his side until he recovers consciousness. Lily makes a few notes on her tablet –at least three minutes of convulsions, head injury, stinks of alcohol–
Lily starts after the fifteen minutes of silence. She looks to the groggy man on the floor, who’s attempting to right himself on the vomit-slicked floor.
“You had a seizure,” Lily tells him.
He groans. For a few minutes, the Quarters are silent, as Central attempts to collect his memories from their seizure-induced scatter.
“Had a… just a drink, Iswear… can’yu keep tha… feel like hell…”
“Oh, Central.” Lily takes a look at the clock on the bedside crate. “The Commander’s switching with you in two hours. I’ll have to tell her–“
“No,” he gasps, “don’t let her–“ Central’s eyes squeeze shut and he curls up to dry-heave. The stench of urine grows only stronger. “Not like this. Don’t let her see me like this.”
“I can’t, Central,” Lily says, the desperation rising in her voice, “she’s gonna know when you don’t show up–“
“Please.” Tears leak down his cheeks. “Don’t wanna lose her.”
Lily has to admit: as she looks down on the man lying in a swamp of his own fluids, she has difficulty believing why somebody would stay. But the Chief Engineer stays, and she takes care of him until the doctor arrives on scene.
Tygan winces as he looks at the bruises and cuts littering Central’s arms and legs, from where they hit his dresser. Central has passed out, but they need to get him out of the dirty clothes and into a hospital bed. “I should have anticipated this. I had read the treatment for methanol poisoning is ethanol infusion.”
Lily almost drops the instruments she’s cleaning with 95% ethanol and a small flame. “You didn’t expect giving him alcohol would set off withdrawal?!”
“I am not that sort of doctor,” Tygan says helplessly. “Did I expect possible side effects? Yes. But I did not consider it could set off withdrawal. I thought he had recovered sufficiently.”
“We need an actual doctor,” Lily mutters. She looks up. “No offense, I meant someone with a medical degree.”
“That, I agree.” Tygan sighs and looks at the lists of medications flowing down his tablet screen. “I know their mechanisms. I know how they interact. I know their dosages. But I, for the life of me, do not know when to give them. This ventricular fibrillation and asystole is foreign to my body of knowledge.”
“There’s gotta be someone out there,” Lily says. “On the Black Market. Maybe there’s a Haven who’d be willing to give up their doctor.”
“Why would a doctor abandon their patients?” Tygan asks, “Particularly when doctors are so few in the apocalypse?”
ADVENT has medicines that can make the symptoms of delirium tremens go away over the course of a few days. Lily has never been more thankful for the light fingers of XCOM’s soldiers. They probably stole those, knowing Central would relapse. She helps set up the equipment while Tygan calculates the dosages.
“Do you remember what happened?” Lily asks.
Central groans. “Little bit.”
"Then I don't need to give you the Cliff Notes version," Lily says, glad that Central can retain this bit of dignity.
“I am administering sedation,” Tygan says, prepping a syringe. “Central will hardly enjoy the intubation.”
Central is too out of it for snarky comments.
“Open wide,” Lily says, holding the breathing tube to his lips.
Central grimaces. “D’we hafta?” he murmurs, as the ketamine paralyzes him and the propofol brings him under.
“You’re not dying of pneumonia on me.”
Once the ketamine has relaxed his chest muscles, Lily can guide the tube down Central’s throat. The machine will breathe for him, while the aspirator does its work. She’s not sure how, but she does know it will get the last of the vomit out of his lungs without bursting his alveoli like tiny pink balloons in a vacuum.
Lily’s tablet chimes, signaling two hours has passed. She washes her hands at the sink, then touches her com-link, dreading the conversation that must happen. “Commander? I’ve got some bad news. You need to pull a 24-hour shift.”
The com-link hisses with static. “What happened to Central?”
Lily swallows, remembering the elder man’s pleas.
“Medical emergency,” she says finally. “It’s under control, but he needs rest.”
For a moment, she wonders if her superior will demand to see him.
“Understood. I’ll touch base with you when my scheduled shift is over.”
Lily finally goes to sleep after pulling a 28-hour shift. After her scheduled sleep shift, she heads out of Engineering so Tygan can get some sleep as well. Central is still out on day two. XCOM is called out on a mission, one for which Tygan must serve as the Commander’s ears. When Lily wakes up, it’s to a bustling Hangar, as technicians and scientists flow in and out of the Skyranger. The air faintly reeks of exhaust. Blood streaks the Skyranger’s floor, and Firebrand has fallen asleep at the controls. Beaulieu and Pham gently pick up the pilot, and move her towards the cot in the Armory.
The GTS buzzes with activity: primarily, one XCOM Commander sleeping on the weight-lifting bench, her tablet buzzing beside her. Her soldiers surround her, murmuring uneasily as they discuss whether to wake her.
“It’s the Commander, not a sleeping bear,” Lily sighs, and prods her superior awake. “Commander? Wake up. Your alarm’s been ringing for the past five min.”
“Wuzzappen?” the Commander groans, and rolls off the bench.
“I don’t know, sir, but I haven’t seen Central all day,” Linscott says, his face drawn with worry. “We’re scouting the woods–“
Lily waves her hands. Damn it, Linscott, she didn’t want the Commander learning this way. “Commander, if you come with me, I can explain.”
The Commander stands at the mouth of the room, careful not to look inside to respect Central’s wishes. “The bed’s more comfortable in my side of the quarters,” she says. “Is it possible to move Central?”
“We’d have more room to set up his equipment,” Lily admits, looking at the jumble of machines crammed into the small room.
Lily’s superior motions at the dried vomit and blood on the floor, trekked out by Tygan’s shoes. “There’s also a biohazard to clean up.”
“True. I… can’t do it alone,” Lily admits. “And Tygan’s asleep. Can I bring in an engineer to help me out?”
“Of course.” The Commander looks blearily around. “I’m sorry, I’ve been awake for almost two days… I thought I heard something.”
“You should sleep as well.” Lily checks her watch. “How are you awake?”
“Coffee. Adrenaline. Yelling at Volk for getting methanol poisoning,” the Commander says dryly. “Central can have my bed. I’ll sleep… somewhere. Once Kokoren is awake and can cover my shift.”
Lily nods. XCOM’s first colonel is a good choice to man the helm while the rest of the Command team is otherwise incapacitated or busy.
Dugatkin has the best bedside manner, as well as consideration for others’ privacy, so she selects him to help move Central into the Quarters. The Central Officer is off the anti-seizure medication drip, and doesn’t need intubation.
Central looks like hell. He hasn’t been able to sleep either, and his skin is as pale as a corpse. He does his best to lie still, but he’s hooked up to seven different machines monitoring his vitals and providing other medications. It took a lot of maneuvering to get the man onto the Quarters bed: his weight was not an issue, which worries Lily still, the IV lines were the problem. Central is not happy about his current state of incapacitation.
Dugatkin salutes his superior, then heads off to the AWC to grab a bag of ice for his brand new black eye.
Just as quickly as it had come, Central’s anger melts away. In its place lies shame, as bright and bold as the lights glaring down from the Quarters’ ceiling.
“Once you’re out of it,” Lily says as she packs dry towels around his sweat-slicked palms, “you are apologizing to him, and you better send me the recording.”
“I know,” Central murmurs. “I owe him a good meal at the next Haven.”
“It better not be the Reaper HQ,” Lily says. “What were you thinking?”
“Wasn’t.” Central shakes his head. “Had two glasses of vodka with Volk. Tapering off. Just as Tygan said. Terrible headache. Went to Tygan just in case.” He coughs, and clotted blood sprays over his sheets. “Wasn’t bad yesterday. Woke up today. Felt it coming on. Couldn’t really see. Called you.”
Lily nods, and makes a note on her tablet. His memory is getting better. He used to black out after a seizure and forget his name when he woke up three mornings after.
The door slides open, admitting the Commander who stumbles towards the washroom. Minutes later, Lily hears the shower sing.
Central looks around the room. “So she knows?”
“You went missing for a day. People started to talk,” Lily says guiltily.
“Ain’t your fault.” Central takes a deep breath. “Well, fuck.”
Lily works in near silence, broken only by the Commander’s singing in the shower. Central turns and twists on the bed, trying to get comfortable. She goes around the room, maneuvering the machines into position so that if the Avenger is attacked, Central can at least try to defend his ship. She looks at the screens monitoring Central’s biometrics, and shakes her head. Lily can’t stay awake any longer. She can’t look after Central all night, when there is a Psi Amp waiting for her in Engineering. She can program the machines to monitor his biometrics, and alert a scientist or engineer if they begin to go in worrying directions.
The hairdryer stops whirring. A few minutes later, the Commander leaves the washroom, looking little better than Central, but not smelling as strongly of stale sweat and unwashed human.
“I can sleep in the Living Quarters,” the Commander says, her voice husky and deep as she walks towards Lily. She doesn’t look at the man restrained to her bed. “Ihram is paralyzed and will need a back brace. Volk asked us to rescue some Reapers. The Assassin attacked. Please remind me to rectify the roster.”
“Will do, sir,” Lily says. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some programming to do.”
“Of course.” The Commander begins to walk to the door. Central shudders, letting out an involuntary whimper. She hesitates, and walks back to her bed.
“My place is at XCOM, and by your side,” the Commander says.
“I’m so sorry,” Central whispers, misery clinging to his form like an old friend. “I thought two drinks would be all right. Volk’s brew was worse than usual. I spent the entire night arguing with his Reapers. I’m so sorry.”
The Commander sits on the bed and rests her hand over his own. “You’re cold.”
He turns his head away. “Feels like I’m burning up. 'ts usually like this.”
“Do you mind if I touch you?”
“…No.” Out of the corner of Lily’s eye, she watches him work his fingers to clasp the Commander’s. “Never wanted you to see me like this.”
The Commander wrings out the towel laid over Central’s forehead, and lays down a fresh one. “I have no room to speak. I never wanted you to see me weak.” She brushes the wet strands of hair away from his face. “Damnable pride. I didn’t want you to think lesser of me, when you have suffered so much and I so little in comparison.”
“Never… never could think less of you. No more lies.” Central shudders, and the bed shakes with him. “Nothing hidden, between us two.”
Lily hears the Commander’s sharp intake of breath.
“Do you trust me, Commander?”
“Be honest with me,” she says quietly. “Volk’s vodka, stronger than usual. That was one glass more than you usually have. And most people drink shots, not glasses. Was that really a mistake, Central?”
“Yes,” he says immediately. “I swear to you, Commander. I will never betray your trust. I was shouting at Volk. I did not notice how much I was drinking.”
For a moment, quiet rests over the Quarters.
“I don’t enjoy being drunk anymore.” Central settles back on the pillows with a groan. “It let me get away, back in the old days. I like the taste. I don’t like what it does to me. There are still things that make me wanna run and hide. But I’ve got Shen, and Tygan. I’ve got the men to look after. And I’ve got you. I got people worth waking up for every day.”
“I won’t settle for guilt-tripping,” she warns.
“We’re professionals. I respect you,” he says simply. “I want you to know the truth.”
“Will you continue to drink with Volk, then?” the Commander asks.
“I’m not asking you to give up friends,” she continues, “but if it endangers your health, perhaps find other things to do.”
“Could always take up dancing,” he says weakly.
“Please don’t lie to me, John. I’ve had too many lies to deal with these past forty years. Will you, or will you not, keep drinking with Volk?”
“Responsibly,” Central says after a long silence. “I can’t risk another seizure. The next one could kill me. No more than one shot of vodka, two beers, or a tumbler of whiskey.”
“Can you stick to this?”
“Yes.” Lily watches him grip the Commander’s hand. “Promises don’t mean a lot from me. But you know I’d never risk the men’s lives.”
“Ihram may never walk again, Central. I have been awake for the past two days, and it has compromised my ability to lead.” Icicles hang off the Commander’s words. “You will need to do better for me to trust your word once again.”
“Absolutely. I will give my life to protect anyone of our men’s.”
“That was not exactly the response I was hoping for. I do not want you to die to atone for others’ sins, John. Does your own mean nothing to you?” The Commander sighs. “It means the world to me.”
“A long time ago, it didn’t. It does now.” He tries to raise a hand, but the fatigue holds him fast. “Can you do me a favor, and ring up Volk to ask him what the hell was he thinking when he pulled that out of the distiller? More methanol than ethanol. I don’t think he did it on purpose. Our chat got a little heated… I may have said his father smelt of elderberries–”
“And that his mother was a whore? I’m surrounded by alcoholics,” she says dejectedly. “I’ll ask Tygan to make the appropriate meds available to prevent this from happening again.”
“Never as bad as me. Think it’s because that sonuvabitch is Russian.” Central coughs. “I… didn’t mean to. But I broke a promise. Are you… no. If you leave, I understand. Accidental or not–”
She kisses him.
Central makes a surprised noise. Lily wishes for earplugs.
“In hindsight, that was a bad idea,” the Commander says, barely retraining a gag. “Salad and bread vomit. I thought I had seen the last of that in my clubbing days.”
“Uh, no offense, but don’t do that,” Central says weakly. “It does things to me. That’s uncomfortable right now… please don’t stare.”
Central groans. Lily shares his wish to be struck by lightning and instantly killed, but she bites her lip and continues to set up the monitoring equipment. “I… look. Everything is burning right now. I’m hungry, I’m itchy, I’m kinda thirsty–“
“Shen,” the Commander asks, “can he have water?”
“As long as he spits it out first,” Lily replies.
The Commander leaves his bedside for the Quarters’ washroom. She returns with a small plastic cup of water sitting in a bowl. She holds out the bowl. “Rinse your mouth.”
Central grimaces as he swishes the water about his mouth. He spits it out quickly. “No more dandelion salad. Please. It’s just as bad coming up as it is going in.”
“I’ll have some potato soup made.” The Commander sets the bowl down and sits on the bed. She strokes his forehead as he drinks. “After I take a nap. I am angry at you for making me wrangle the men for 48 hours straight.”
Central laughs weakly. “Anything blow up?”
“So far, nothing that superglue and medicine can’t fix, though Shen will hardly enjoy the addition to her workload.” She prods his chest. “Hint, hint. Don’t be the exception.”
A solid quiet falls over the Commander’s Quarters. Lily finishes adjusting the scans to Central’s biometrics. She hears the soft rasp of Central’s hair under the Commander’s hand. Central’s bare skin shudders against the linen as he tosses and turns. The Commander’s breaths even out, and her hand slows in its patterns. Central’s pillow stops scrunching under his head and shoulders. Lily gathers her toolkit and begins tiptoeing out: the duo is clearly falling asleep.
“Can’t believe a woman like you would stay for a mess like me,” Central whispers.
“My place is at XCOM,” the Commander reiterates, “and by your side.”
“Been a while since we talked,” Lily tells Volk. “You got the meds?”
He groans and cradles his head. “Bad batch of vodka. Yeah, they helped, but I still can’t see outta my right eye. Dragunova is going to hang my sorry hide from your ship.”
“What do you know?” Lily says, “I’m on team Dragunova.”
“After this,” Volk moans, “I’m with her.” He slumps over his desk. “Is this punishment for trying to reason with your Commander?”
“Doing a great job of rewriting history there,” Lily says.
“So cold,” Volk mutters, and falls asleep.
Lily shrugs. She does feel sorry for the man, but the anger for the Central Officer who could have died overpowers the pity.
Title from明月千里寄相思, as sung by Tai Chin
Chapter 11: 日子怎么过 (How would I spend my days?)
Nothing is black and white.
Central finally leaves his seizure-induced memory fog on day three, or as Lily remembers it, D3 from Almost-Death-Day. The hallucinations slowly stop as well, but not before Central wakes her up with early morning calls, screaming about shadows and the Chosen stalking the Avenger.
He spends most of the day in the Commander’s bed, slowly gaining his former strength. He is slower to recover: never was quick to bounce back from the withdrawal-induced seizures, but Central is rapidly approaching fifty-six. He relearns how to walk, leaning on a cane as he pulls himself along the bannisters that line the Avenger’s Command wing. He would be more mobile if the Avenger had a wheelchair, but they don’t – resources are too scarce, and what they do have is going into supports for Ihram.
It’s not looking good for Ihram. While the Berserker Queen was busy harrying the Reapers, the Hunter arrived in the AO. Perhaps the modified alien had already encountered the Chosen: the Berserker Queen smacked Ihram in her haste to evacuate, sending the soldier flying into the crumbled ruins of an apartment block. Ihram was lucky not to die just as Suleiman had, impaled on the rebar of a broken building. Her spine had broken in three places, including her 3rd cervical vertebrae. Only Dr. McCoy’s preliminary X-Ray caught the cervical break. The soldier was eight degrees away from completely snapping her neck.
There are not many things a paraplegic can do on board the Avenger, besides manning the coms. Lily’s not even sure that Ihram will be able to breathe on her own or control her bowels. The Ranger only breathes right now because of a ventilator. Then Andrade had to machine a bedpan, and get it on Ihram without jostling her neck. If someone broke their neck in the past twenty years of the apocalypse, the merciful thing to do was put a bullet in their head…
Lily’s in the AWC today, looking over Ihram’s X-rays. The current neck support is digging into Ihram’s skin, opening up weeping sores because Ihram’s own weight compresses her skin. Lily wants to retool the brace to make Ihram more comfortable, but she wonders if she is merely prolonging the Ranger’s suffering.
Lanz groans as he awakes yet once more from his infection-induced unconsciousness. But unlike the previous times, Lanz manages to speak.
“Kari…ma?” He looks around the room with sleep blurred eyes.
Lily puts down Ihram’s X-rays, gloves up, and gets a sterile cotton pad. She wets it, and wipes the caked mucus from his eyes. “How’s the pain?” Lily asks, tossing the cotton pad into the trash. She’s no doctor, but most of the doctors-without-any-medical-degrees on board are occupied with the other wounded.
Laghari has hovered around the AWC ever since Los Angeles. She slowly walks towards her partner. “Eiger. You’re awake…” she says, and bursts into tears.
“Get out of my sight,” are the first words Lanz says upon seeing his partner.
“I’m so sorry,” Laghari says, barely audible through her tears. “I’m so–“
“I don’t want to hear it. You were my partner.” Lanz furiously tries to wipe his own tears away, but he can barely lift his arms. “You left me. I could’ve died!”
“Please, I just went to–“
“Go!” Lanz nearly yells, drawing the attention of everyone else in the AWC. His heart rate spikes to dangerous levels.
Lily looks at the soldier, and shakes her head. Laghari slowly retreats.
“Chief?” Lanz asks. “Can I borrow your headset to call Central?”
Lily wordlessly hands him her tablet, Central already on the line.
“Sir? I don’t want to be bondmates with Laghari anymore.” Lanz breaks down into sobs, loud and heartbroken like the wailing sea. “I can’t. I can’t, not with-”
“Easy, soldier,” Central says, his voice equally fatigued. “It’ll be done.”
Lily doesn’t know what to do. She changes his IV, and lets him cry on her shoulder. She thinks about the Psi Amp ready for the first psi op down in Engineering. The Templars know how to mend flesh with their lightning-like bolts of psionic energy. But they can’t fix minds, and they certainly can’t mend hearts.
“Give me some good news please, Doctor.” Lily tromps into the Support team meeting. “I have been through so much shit.” ROV-R beeps and bops her over the head. “Got it, little guy. I’ll stop using coffee as a substitute for sleep.”
“It’s about Ihram,” Tygan says. “I had begun culturing the bacteria from Las Vegas in order to create transmission electron micrographs.”
Lily crosses her arms. “I’m not sure why you needed to culture a bioweapon. Weren't the samples enough?”
“To use an electron microscope, you need to make very thin slices in order for the electrons to pass through,” Tygan says. “There’s no guarantee you will get the sample you need, in the orientation you need to make conclusions.” He shrugs helplessly. “I was lucky enough that I had the perfect slide to reveal the presence of Meld. Whether I was lucky to culture the bacteria… it is in a clean room on its own air filtration cycle, do not worry. The bacteria is some sort of Streptococcus. You have done wonderful work with the Internet Archive.”
“I still don’t understand why you’re bringing this up,” Lily says, quietly accepting the compliment. There’s a terminal on the Avenger that’s solely dedicated to Wikipedia, and in the apocalypse, that’s what passes for a medical journal. “If it’s about MECs, forget about it. I’m not lopping off her arms and legs.”
Tygan takes a deep breath. “I want to use the Meld to treat Ihram.”
It’s a testament to how much Lily has changed that she does not immediately run for the emergency alarms.
“Okay. How do you think that would work?”
“Dr. Vahlen’s notes.” Tygan brings up the relevant sections on his tablet. “She proposed using Meld to fix alien flesh into human systems. She laid down these suggestions for manipulating the nanoparticles. I believe that with some modification, I can induce the neurons to repair themselves.”
Lily scans through the doctor’s annotations. “I don’t know if I can write a program to make the nanoparticles do just that. There are some similarities to the gene therapy delivery nanobots… but how similar? We’d be starting from complete scratch. Worst case scenario, we turn Ihram into a Lost.”
“I’m aware. I… can’t treat Ihram otherwise,” Tygan admits, shame spilling over from charcoal-brown eyes. “I am not a medical doctor. I don’t know enough to physically fix broken neurons. But I know the proteins that trigger cell repair. I know how to induce the formation of such proteins. If we can engineer the machines to heal instead of harm…”
“Ihram would be able to walk again,” Lily finishes the thought. “You really think there’s no other way.”
“The alternative is a quick, but painless death,” Tygan says soberly. He brings up a camera-feed of the AWC. Ihram’s chest rises and falls. “She breathes only because of that ventilator. After all she has done, Ihram deserves life.”
Lily sighs. Life, but at what cost? “I’ll put a motion to the Commander. She’ll make the ultimate decision.”
While Central is grounded, so is XCOM. Their cooperation with the Reapers is still ongoing, despite Lily’s contempt for their leader. Lily is surprised to find the Commander and Volk talking together, as they clean Vipers for lunch. The Commander has made her position on Volk’s involvement clear.
Quiet, you, Lily scolds herself. We all have to make sacrifices for the greater good.
“Why is he here?” Lily points at the Reaper roasting a Viper over an open flame, barely 200 meters from the Avenger’s mouth. Well, at least she’s within easy range of a fire extinguisher. “I thought we took the trash out.”
“Hear something?” Cranking the spit’s handle, Volk turns his head so that he can look at her with his uncovered eye. “Thought I heard a little pipsqueak.”
“The Commander’s a giant,” Lily retorts. “I’m in the normal distribution.”
Volk snorts. “Sure. Keep telling yourself that.”
“You’re avoiding the question.” The Commander slides her knife under the skin of the Viper’s thorax. “There are few other–“
“No. The buck stops here,” Volk says. “I don’t know what you’re playing at, Commander, but you’re being irresponsible–“
“I want to give my soldier her mobility back.” The Commander repositions herself, and Viper bones splinter under her knife. “She is my friend. She deserves to–“
“What kind of friend are you? Have you learned nothing? The aliens always lie!” Volk bangs his fist against his thigh. “To poison your friend–“
“Ni zhen me si bu yao lian– You should talk, Konstantin Volikov,” the Commander says, and fire swirls on her tongue as she drives the knife deep into the Viper’s tail, “after what you’ve done. Qu si! If Shen hadn’t found Bradford in time, we would be holding a funeral for my partner!”
“Gonna punch me?” Volk shrugs. “Can’t say I don’t deserve it. But you’re making a terrible decision, Commander. Hope you’ll be alive to regret it.”
“I am not punching you because you’re blind in one eye,” the Commander says, “and I consider it foul play to punch down. But when you recover, I will jam my foot so far up your ass, I’ll move that mouth of yours like a puppet.”
Volk stares at her. “Central’s really rubbed off on you.”
“Have you forgotten that I have fought the Taliban and Al-Qaeda?” Fire rolls off the Commander’s voice as she says, “Do not mistake my mercy for softness. I am not treating this like an assassination attempt. Next time, I will.”
Volk holds up his hands, his head tilting back to reveal the column of his throat. “I spoke like an idiot. Sorry, Commander. I take back what I said about you. Just not about the Meld.”
“Busy undoing our hard earned negotiations, Volk?” Dragunova asks as she descends the Avenger ramp.
“I am clarifying some things,” the Commander says, “after Volk almost died.”
Dragunova’s eyes narrow. “He did what?”
“Poisoned himself with methanol,” Lily says, gleefully throwing Volk under the bus, “because he was too busy arguing with Central to check the distiller.”
Volk goes pale. “Shen, how could you?”
“Would you mind holding this for me, Chief?” Dragunova gently places her Temnotic rifle into Lily’s hands. Volk sprints off, with Dragunova in hot pursuit.
“Should we intercede?” the Commander asks, taking his place at the fire.
“Nah. He had it coming.” Lily pauses as angry Russian filters through the Reaper’s HQ. “Want me to translate? Central gave me lessons.”
“I think I get the gist,” the Commander says, raising her voice over a particularly loud cyka blyat. Her smile fades. “I shouldn’t have asked Volk if his Reapers could infiltrate the clinics… Would it be possible to wake Ihram and ask her?”
Lily mulls the thought. She rolls it over her teeth like a particularly bitter knot of spruce gum, meant to stave away hunger during the sparseness of winter. “Dad did have the MEC stuff… but I worry that’s too much for her,” Lily says. “We know she’s at least conscious. I’ll modify one of our holo-targeter visors. We could do blink once for yes, twice for no. That shouldn’t be too invasive.”
“But we would still have to wake her,” the Commander confirms. She looks at the Viper, charring over the fire. “I don’t want to do this without her permission.”
“There’s no way around it,” Lily says glumly. “Why did you tell Volk at all? You know that he’s a Luddite when it comes to this stuff.”
“We’re on Volk’s territory,” the Commander says. “When our work has the potential to affect his community, he deserves to know.” She stares deep into the fire, at the hungry flames lashing black into the white of the Viper’s muscle. “I will not repeat the mistakes of the past. I cannot, if we are to survive.”
“Did you get him?” Lily asks as she hands the Temnotic Rifle back. Weapons maintenance is a never-ending job on board the Avenger: micro-fractures growing along barrels, flaking along the joining between mods and the gun’s structure, frayed wires leading to the coils that generate magnetic fields… She has fixed up Dragunova’s rifle the best that she could, but she respects the Reaper’s right to maintain her own weapon.
“I gave the súkin syn a good scare,” Dragunova growls as she wipes the mud off her boots. “I am far too angry right now to use the English words. How dare he endanger the Reapers!”
Lily pauses. “What happens if Volikov isn’t fit to lead?”
The other woman shrugs. “I return to my people and I will lead in his stead.”
“He doesn’t have a second-in-command?”
“Jorjadze,” Dragunova says, “but he is more like Central. His skills lie in distribution and resource management.” She looks troubled. “I hope it will not come to pass. After all, Volk is still my friend.”
Lily nods. Though she has no love lost for the Reapers’ leader, she understands that everyone has people who care for them. Volk is no exception.
Somehow, Central has managed to drag himself to the firing range, where he sits on the floor with a whetstone for his machete. Volk sits next to him, tapping points on Central’s tablet with a pen as he talks about ambush locations and ADVENT train schedules. Central nods along, and offers suggestions. Lily tries to put away the refurbished rifles quietly, but the click of a Shard gun slotting in place alerts the duo.
Central looks up. “Are you here to smack me with the butt of my gun?”
Lily unclips his rifle from the wall and hands it to him. “Do it yourself,” she says, pointedly looking at the cane, “but don’t break it, I just finished repairs.”
“Traitor,” Volk grumbles.
“Play nice, you two,” Central says good-naturedly as he disassembles his rifle. “We’re all on the same boat. Let’s try not to sink it; my flying’s bad enough.”
“What the hell. I don’t understand how you two are best buds again.” Lily shakes her head. “I’d hold a grudge over being almost poisoned.”
“Good friends are hard to come by. It was an accident. That being said,” Central says, turning to Volk, “I could do with a little less mockery during dance lessons.”
“Well, I could’ve paralyzed you, so it’s the least I can do.” Volk shrugs. “That, and your Commander has promised to kick my ass. I have some measure of self-preservation, John.”
Lily bites back an acerbic remark. She reminds herself of Dragunova. There are still people who care for Volk, despite what he has done. She holds back a bitter laugh. Lily thinks of the taijitu, the symbol of Daoism, something a boh followed deeply, even as the Communists tore down symbols of the old China to raise the red flags of the revolution. There was a little bit of black in the white yang, and a little bit of white in the black yin, all held together in a circle. But in the apocalypse, she has found a thousand shades of grey, a gradient of the heroic and the horrific, all painted in suffering across the ravaged Earth.
It seemed so simple back then. But Lily has grown, and she knows better now.
A week and half after D-Day, XCOM flies back to Los Angeles. Ostensibly, it’s to collect their reward for protecting the Haven, but there’s a secondary mission for the most careful and nimble-fingered of XCOM soldiers: gather samples of bacteria to be cultured in the labs.
Imahara has spent the entire day with a mask plastered over her face. Dugatkin is making patient zero jokes. Tasev is building a flamethrower for the WAR suits on the way, but Andrade has dibs to use it if the situation goes full Resident Evil. Andrade has not stepped out of the biohazard suit since entering the newly built clean room to weld its circulation system together. Howell has done her best zombie moans, claiming, “since childbirth kinda fucked up my hips, I’m gonna try to blend in.” For her part, Lily has checked the panic rooms and made sure the guns are ready.
“Shen!” Central waves at her as he ambles up the corridor, cane clacking against the floor all the way. “Got you a new playmate! Took a bit to wrangle her away, after Tanzer’s gambled away that core, but she’s on your team now!”
The chubby Asian girl trails after him apprehensively, taking in the alien metal walls and human-made modifications.
“One of us, one of us!” Tasev chants. His fellow engineers take up the cry.
“Part of the crew, part of the ship!” Howell intones. The Engineering Bay echoes with the discordant chants.
“Guys, you’re scaring her,” Lily says. “Quit it. What’s your name?”
Lily can barely hear the faint, “Moon Yeoh Sim. Oh. My last name is Moon.”
Lily frowns. “Weren’t we supposed to get Victoria Moon?”
“My mom didn’t… Central chose me instead,” Moon says, barely audible.
“How old are you?” Central prompts.
“Seventeen,” she whispers, hiding behind him.
“I’m not the youngest anymore!” Dugatkin cheers. He hoists Moon onto his shoulders and begins to run around. “Imahara! I’m not the youngest anymore!”
“Put her down!” Lily snaps. That’s strange. You have to be 18 to join XCOM. Why did Central make an exception? “Unless you want to get carried around, Moon?”
“Um… can you stop touching me?” Moon asks.
“Oh, right, sorry!” Dugatkin sets her down near the bandsaws.
“For– Dugatkin! Come here, Moon, before one of these idiots gets you hurt.” Lily gets out her safety binder. “All right. Ground rules first. Let’s get you settled in.”
As she introduces Moon to the Avenger, Lily is happy to see that the teenager is fast to pick things up, and seems to have a good understanding of the tools needed. Still, Moon will need a place to intern while adjusting. She’s shy, so the exuberant and extroverted Tasev and Imahara aren’t good choices of mentors. Dugatkin works mainly in the AWC, which requires some specialization. Maybe Andrade, or Howell… Howell does a lot of work with electronics, but Moon seems to understand communications best, so Andrade wouldn’t be a bad choice…
“And don’t mind the zombie paint,” Lily says, glaring at Howell, “we’re just… ah, working on Lost decoy– who am I kidding. Clean up, Howell, we can celebrate Halloween later.”
Howell grabs a clean towel. “I should voice the sonic lures for the Lost.”
If Lily looked behind her, she would see Central’s proud smile.
The Engineering team finishes building another clean room in the Science Labs before the soldiers return. It’s probably the fastest that they have ever worked.
Pham tacks on a sign on the door of the clean room that reads: Days since last zombie apocalypse: 0. Some enterprising soldier dragging in corpses from a hit-and-run mission paints the sign with a bloodied handprint.
Central doesn’t find it quite as funny as the soldiers do.
Ihram’s eyes struggle to open, but the sleep caking her eyelids hold them shut. Tygan swabs her eyes with a wet Q-tip, until Ihram’s clear latte-brown eyes blink at the bright headset hanging above her head. Tygan explains her medical issues; Lily explains the response set-up. After ensuring Ihram is not in pain with a good dose of morphine, Tygan explains the potential for therapy in Meld. Ihram blinks slowly every time Lily asks if she understands. The doctor emphasizes the risks of using unknown technology, but also stresses the benefits.
“Would you like us to use the Meld to treat you?” Tygan finally asks.
Ihram blinks rapidly.
“…I’m not sure if that’s a yes or a no,” Lily admits, as the eye tracker jumps with every blink of Ihram’s eyes. “Okay. Uhh… what about many blinks for not sure?”
Ihram’s eyes flutter.
Tygan nods. “I can give you time to think about it.”
The Ranger makes a gurgling noise. Her eyes dart from side to side, as her body holds her prisoner. She grunts something out, and her heartbeat skyrockets.
“Diu,” Lily curses as she scrambles for the medicine cabinet. “Doctor, that’s getting dangerously high!”
“Ihram, I understand you might be scared,” Tygan says, trying to keep his voice calm as he reaches for the IV, “and we are doing our best to help you. Your blood pressure is getting high. We’ll try to bring it down–“
“Wait!” Dugatkin shouts, dashing in with a data-stick in hand. “Chief Shen! I’ve done some tinkering with the eye-tracker program. She should be able to write things out this way!”
Ihram’s heart rate steadily decreases as Dugatkin loads in the modification. Tygan shakes his head. “Anymore discussion might be detrimental to Ihram’s health,” he says. “Ihram, when you feel ready, call us with that.”
Ihram’s eyes dart from side to side. Lily’s screen spells out: OK
Then, wnt 2 talk
Lily sits at Ihram’s bedside. “Sorry about the neck brace,” she says, as Dugatkin cleans up the medical waste around the cot. “If you want, Dugatkin could draw on it. Make it fashionable, like a… really heavy choker or something."
Ihram’s lips curve up in a ghost of a smile. Her eyes move over the eye tracker again.
Lily has the feeling that if the nerves going to Ihram’s vocal cords weren’t paralyzed, the Ranger would be screaming her heart out.
There are rumors of alien convoys being devastated in the ruins of Vancouver, as well as radio transmissions from the area. XCOM is paying this city a visit to remind the local resistance to keep their voices down, before ADVENT decides to shut them up for good.
The problem is finding the resistance in the first place.
All the jokes about Raincouver and the Wet Coast aside, it’s quite a nice place for a city voluntarily abandoned by its inhabitants. Well, the voluntary part was forced by three days of plasma bombardment, but greenery overgrows Vancouver, and there are no Lost in sight. The city is so safe that even the Commander can venture out of the Avenger to explore.
“Huh.” Central spins the sunflower-coated dome, a spoil from a shop in North Vancouver. “An umbrella.”
“I came here for a conference,” the Commander says, “and remembered there was an umbrella shop.” She looks out at the mountain ranges. “I love hiking. I wish I could’ve spent more time out there.”
Central rolls his eyes. “An… umbrella shop. That’s the only thing they sold?”
“Not everyone lives in the land of ice and snow.” The Commander presses a hand to her chest. “Stereotypes. How could you?” She picks up another umbrella, and hands it to Lily. “In case things go south with our little research project.”
Lily opens the umbrella, and rolls her eyes. “Seriously, Commander?”
“It’s appropriate, is it not?”
Lily twirls the tidepool emblazoned umbrella, and watches the Golden Gate bridge transform into a little red leaf on the wind. She thinks of golden kelp, cerulean blue water, and the click of a camera behind her.
“Does everyone else get an umbrella?” she asks.
“Not personalized ones to their history, but yes.” The Commander looks up at the dark grey clouds rolling in. “PT is still on,” she says into her headset. “We move in thirty!”
Lily can almost hear the groans of despair emanating from the Avenger.
“I’m gonna get back to preventing the zombie apocalypse,” Lily says. “Oh, Central? I could use more nitrile. We need more hazmat suits.”
Central jots it down, as the Commander begins to set up an obstacle course.
"Isn't that a little excessive?" Central asks, as the Commander bolts together PVC piping into what looks like a jungle gym.
"Want to keep their minds off Ihram and the Meld," the Commander says.
Two hours later, the sky has cracked wide open, and thick sheets of rain thunder down on the Avenger. Lily heads out of Engineering, unhooking the hood of her hazmat suit as she goes. She breathes in deep. The petrichor is different here, where the sea meets the sky and the land is verdant with pine trees. Here, it is untamed. Here, neither man nor ADVENT can lay their claim.
She sheds her suit, putting it carefully into the biohazard sterilizing bin near the mouth of the Avenger. The fumes wafting off the barrel make her head spin. Lily stumbles out, to where the soldiers are training.
Lily muffles a laugh as she looks at Central, standing with an ever-present frown, holding the sunflower-decorated umbrella above his head in one hand, a bag overflowing with thick fluffy towels looped around his arm, and leaning on his cane with his other. Her laughs quickly die in her chest as she notices how his cane is sinking into the soft earth.
Central tugs on his cane. It leaves the mud with a loud pop.
He looks up at her. “Goes the weasel,” he says.
Lily laughs and stays in the dry safety of the Avenger. “Aren’t you cold?”
“Gotta make sure the old woman doesn’t beat them up too badly,” Central says, as Linscott finally lands a hit on the Commander. The other soldiers – all bruised and muddied – cheer for their comrade.
“Bien! Think fast!” the Commander shouts, and kicks mud up into Linscott’s face.
“Fucking hell, why?!” the soldier whines, stopping his assault to frantically rub at his eyes.
The Commander grapples him to the ground. They go down in a splash of mud. Central shields himself with the umbrella; the Avenger’s overhang shelters Lily, but the rest of the soldiers assembled protest as wet earth splatters over them.
“Et reste-là!” With a final twist, the Commander pulls Linscott’s arm behind his shoulders and straddles his back. Linscott groans and flails. “Better, Linscott, but I expect you to take advantage of the environment.”
“Can I take advantage of Dr. Davies’s past as a physiotherapist?” Linscott mutters into the mud. “I can’t feel my arm. I think something’s broken.”
“Wash up and go see him, I don’t want mud in the X-Ray room,” Central cuts in. “All right. Let’s call it off.” He starts throwing out the towels. “Pack it up people!”
“Thank you, Central,” the Commander says she wraps a towel around her shoulders. “You spoil me.”
"Completely unnecessarily as well." Central pats her face dry. “We have a GTS. You can always fight there.”
“I decided they could stand to suffer a bit,” the Commander says. “The zombie makeup was a little egregious, even for me.”
“Look who’s talking. Look at this mess,” Central jokes, pointing at the churned mud outside. “I should put you in time out.”
The Commander roars with laughter. “Are you trying to discipline me, Central?”
He raises his cane. “Armed and ready.”
The war drags on, and the unsteady equilibrium that is XCOM’s life sends Lily racing back and forth to put out fires as they pop up. The Chosen attempt multiple ambushes, but XCOM manages to save their men from ADVENT’s puppets. Still, the wear and tear shows on everyone: Tygan’s normally proud shoulders are bent and bowed, a scratchiness has infiltrated Beaulieu’s normally boisterous voice, the cigarettes that stink up the bar that have multiplied overnight, and the literal rust that is eating at the Avenger’s armor.
Lily runs her scanner over the walls in the Command wing, looking for weak points in the shielding. There are rumors that ADVENT has lost patience with XCOM, and is readying guns better suited to shooting down asteroids than errant alien ships. Lily has cannibalized parts of the Stunlancer’s shield technology to protect her father’s greatest work, but she doubts it will be enough. ADVENT wants XCOM dead and the Commander back. XCOM’s best bet for survival is to avoid detection for as long as possible.
She passes by the Commander’s Quarters. This time, the lock stays red and the doors remain shut. Lily smiles, satisfied. That’s one worry off the Engineer’s chest: the Chosen can’t just sneak through the Avenger into the Commander’s room and steal her away. The Chosen will have to get through all of XCOM first.
“You look tired, Commander,” she overhears Central say, in a tone clearly meant to stay unheard. Lily hears hands settling against fabric, boots scraping against the floor. “What can I do for you?”
The Commander laughs, though the sound is husky with sleep deprivation. “Coffee. I’d trade a kiss for actual tea. None of this rooibos nonsense.”
“Not a miracle worker,” Central snarks. “I’ll see what I can do. But I hear the exchange rate for kisses is shaky. Might have to offer up a little more, sir.”
“Oh? I thought kicking ADVENT’s ass counted for something.”
“By that logic, Tygan and Shen are billionaires. Come on, Commander. I heard you were a great negotiator. What do you have to offer?”
“We could arrange for something,” she says coyly.
“Like not making you wear a vest of the Great Commandy One’s will.”
“That a sweater vest, or something more explosive?” Central laughs. Lily hears a whap of a hand against a shoulder. “All right, that was in bad taste. I’ll get you a drink. No promise it’s going to be green tea, though.”
“I was thinking something that would make you blush, Central.” The Commander chuckles. “You may want to learn how to break through knots.”
“I was a boy scout. Of course I know how to–“
“Not those kinds of knots, Central,” the Commander says, in a tone that has shot past flirty and right into fraternization territory.
Lily hurries away down the corridor, the tips of her ears flaming. It seems that the Commander and Central, at least, have reached a steady state.
Title comes from “如果沒有你” (If I didn’t have you), as sung by Bai Guang. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8WmrI1NWG4
"Ni zhen me si bu yao lian": You shameless–
"Qu si": Go die. (fig: go to hell)
"súkin syn": son of a bitch
Thank god, the virus is finally gone from my computer.
Chapter 12: 誰在輕輕呼喚我 (Who gently calls to me?)
Even in the apocalypse, there are still voices shouting hope. All Lily needs to do is listen.
When Lily wakes up, sirens are blaring. Fully armored soldiers run for their stations. Technicians manage the cacophony dancing on their screens.
“Shen, in position,” Lily says into her mike as she dashes to the engine room, still in her pajamas. She tugs her fingerless gloves on as she runs – ROV-R flies behind her, a pair of boots dangling from its feet. “We are ready to fly.”
“We’re on yellow,” the Commander says. Lily’s headset clicks, as the Commander switches her to a new channel. “The local resistance group found us.”
“Do I need to get the turrets?” Lily asks. “Or are they friendly?”
“We fly an alien ship. They’re understandably worried,” the Commander says. “One second.” Her voice crackles over the loudspeaker, audibly even in the depths of the ship. “I stand upon the unceded territory of the Musqueam nation. Your people have been here since time immemorial. XCOM asks your permission to talk to your leaders.”
Andrade rushes into the engine room, Moon hot on his heels. “My post is here,” he explains as he whips out his tablet, “we have to make sure that transmissions and the engine aren’t affected by EMPs. Since the engines run on alien tech, there’s also the risk that someone could hack it and ground us.”
“Got it.” Moon scans the readouts before her. “This screen is for the shields?”
“Yes. They’re holding so far. We’re probably not under fire,” Lily says. She listens over the Commander’s channel. “No gunfire yet.”
“Engineering, on alert for takeoff,” Central suddenly chimes in.
Five minutes of radio silence pass.
“I hate it when this happens,” Andrade says.
“It happens a lot?” Moon asked, more confident than when Lily last saw her.
“We fly into disaster when most people run away,” Lily says, ready to divert power to the Avenger’s thrusters.
“We’re clear,” the Commander says, ten minutes after Central last spoke (a record for that man.) “The leaders are coming into view. Guards, stand down.”
Andrade lets out a sigh. “Thank God for anti-climaxes.”
Five minutes later, Central sprints by, his cane clacking against the floor.
“Sitting down for coffee in the middle of the forest?! Fuck the alcohol, she’s gonna give me a heart attack–“ his voice trails off into the distance.
“You’re not the only one who hates when this happens,” Lily says with a smile. “Commander Shepard just activated.”
It takes three days of constant flutter around the armory, and Central looks like he’s on the verge of having a heart attack every time he sits down for dinner. Whatever the Commander says does the trick. It turns out Vancouver is home to over two thousand, scattered over the city in little pockets that frequently communicate with each other to take down ADVENT. The Havens agree to let Lily into their homes, to set up coms relays that won’t produce, as she quips, “enough noise that we could hear you from China.”
“No weapons?” Lily shrugs on a lighter version of her plated armor.
“No metal weapons,” Beaulieu quips back, and flexes his arms as they step into the Skyranger.
Lily rolls her eyes. Kokkonen groans. She’s pretty sure that in the back of the Skyranger, Iravani is also rolling her eyes, but it’s hard to tell when the fold of her hijab shields the soldier’s face at this angle.
“That’s a new one,” Kokkonen says, pointing at the dark blue headscarf that fades to a muted turquoise around Iravani’s shoulders. “I like it!”
“The Commander got it for me,” Iravani chirps, “this Haven was so kind to help me out. I was worried I’d have to tear up more bedsheets! It’s really soft as well.”
The Vancouver representative on board, a man named Lam, born in Singapore, just smiles. “She’s one of us, you know? Looks after her own.”
Lily nods and checks ROV-R’s power banks. Iravani had earned her stripes as a gunslinger in a mission to retrieve supplies from an abandoned city. Unfortunately, she had gotten caught in the backwash from a Purifier’s attack. Her headscarf now on fire, the rookie had charged straight towards a pack of Lost, brandishing her scarf like a whip. The pack scattered, giving a downed Barros enough time to get back on her feet. For her quick thinking and reflexes, Central had proposed gunslinger training for Iravani.
“Need something, Chief?” Georg asks.
“Looking for heat signatures,” Lily says, as she sets ROV-R to scan. “Maybe we can add insulation, make it harder for ADVENT to find the university haven.”
“Can you also take a look at the houses?” Lam asks. “Was a kid here in the 90s. We’re still waiting for a big one. Our engineers say we’re safe from a tsunami, but I just won’t feel right if my son’s sleeping in a dangerous place…”
Lily looks at the topographical data from ROV-R’s scanners. The ruins of the University of British Columbia are primarily situated on a hill, but less than two kilometers away lies a low, shallow inlet. “No promises, but I’ll see what I can do.”
The Skyranger’s passenger bay opens up, revealing the ruins. Squat log cabins dot the landscape, hidden between the shattered walls of buildings. Small vegetable patches surround each cabin. There’s a rushing and a gurgling, the sound of running water. This Haven has plumbing.
Lily breathes in deep. Someone had brewed ginseng tea. Someone else was drying and salting fish. A waft of steam escapes from a crumbled building, and it brings the scent of jok, a rice-based porridge. Tears prick her eyes.
Lam looks at her, a shared remembrance in his eyes. Lily thinks of the world that was: a rice cooker, singing in the morning; tea, a pale gold flowing into the cup; steam billowing out of the steamer, revealing fluffy char siu bao; bitter herbal medicines with bright red goji berries blooming in rock-sugar sweetened concoctions; all things quintessential to growing up in her Asian-American house.
“Smells just like home, doesn’t it? Hey, I’m back!” Lam yells into Haven. It instantly springs back to life, heralded by a young boy who darts out of a ring of trees and throws his arms around Lam’s legs.
“Hey, Justin!” Lam lifts his son into the air. “Look who I found! Say hi!”
The boy waves to them. “Hi!” He turns to his dad. “Did you see anything cool?"
The Chief Engineer wonders what Lam meant by the Commander being one of them. Half those who come into view are Asian; pale, dark, tanned, it doesn’t matter, it reminds her of Caltech’s campus. She didn’t meet the Haven’s reps, but she wonders if someone saw a bit of themselves in the Commander.
Though, I don’t know if he’ll see anything in us, she thinks, as the university haven rep approaches.
He has high cheekbones that belong in a Sherlock Holmes movie. His dark wavy hair is pulled back into a loose ponytail that sat at the nape of his neck, fluttering over the collar of a black shirt emblazoned with dinosaurs labeled “carnivore, herbivore, omnivore, om-nom-nomivore.” He’s toned, in the swimmer sleek way. In short, he is peak college student, despite being somewhere in his thirties. The man doesn’t appear to be wearing a weapon, but if he’s a traitor, Lily’s armor should save her long enough for XCOM to come to her aid.
“Grant Sparrow,” the man says, holding out his hand. “I’m the UBC campus rep.”
“Lily Shen, Chief Engineer.” She shakes his hand. “Lam briefed you on the way over. Where do I start?”
The theme of the Vancouver Haven is time. Everything is scattered, so that if ADVENT knocks out one branch of the Haven, the others may yet survive. It takes two days to get through half the university and instruct their engineers on how to build the towers for short-range communication. A series of utility tunnels leading out to the conifer-shadowed Pacific Spirit Park help this particular branch of the Haven escape ADVENT’s notice. However, they’re also ridiculously difficult to traverse. Grant’s friendly, easily starting up conversations as they climb up the ruins. Slowly, the tension leaks from Lily’s shoulders. This Haven has done well. Their homes are steady and should withstand an earthquake. Their community is self-sufficient. And with XCOM’s help, it’ll be able to repel an ADVENT assault.
“Hey, Shen, we gotta eat dinner now,” Kokkonen says, as her comlink stops beeping. “Central’s got a lock in your position. Are you coming back to the ship?”
Lily looks around. They’re near the center of the Haven, next to the blown out windows of the campus’s museum. Some whalebones still hang from the ceiling, a memento of a world long gone. Dugatkin is sitting by a fire sheltered by the old biodiversity research center, sharing coffee with a group of History majors. Mox is off by a cluster of cattails, tentatively letting a young girl touch the scars that curl around his face. Dragunova is talking with two adults who must be the girl’s parents: the apprehension on their faces slowly fades as their daughter tugs on Mox’s fur collar, getting a laugh out of the Skirmisher. Something pings, metal hitting metal. Tanzer is somewhere in the distance, loudly protesting, “I didn’t miss! I hit exactly what I wanted to!”
XCOM is settling in just fine.
Lily holds up her tablet. “Still have havens to survey. Call me if you need me.”
Her bodyguards nod, and head towards the cookfires in the distance. Lily is left with Grant. “It’s about a day’s hike to the other Havens unless we go by boat,” he says. “It’ll take more time for them to come around. We’re pretty accepting here.”
“I’ve noticed.” Lily smiles. “It’s a nice change from… well, the shit I’ve seen.”
“Tuum est. That was the motto of the university that once stood here,” Grant says, motioning them forwards. “It is yours. I’d like to think that even in the apocalypse, we made something good. Did you go to university?”
“Didn’t graduate before the world fell apart.” Lily longingly looks at the dilapidated buildings. “My dad was a professor. That’s as close as I’ll ever get.”
“They had a museum on campus, housing many Musqueam artifacts that we permitted to display.” Grant’s eyes light up, with the passion of someone who has clearly wanted to talk for ages. “My grandfather carved a cedar mask, that was put on display here, so the people of my band could teach others about our history. It rightfully belonged to us, and we chose to share its knowledge. Not all such artifacts were available to public eye: some, we chose to keep private, because it was our history. But the aliens did not care.”
They walk down the main road. Towering oaks filter the late summer air through their crowns. In the center lies a plaza, with a pool holding glimmering fish in its shallow bowl – once a fountain, now a source of water and food.
“As the bombs fell, the curators called us in from all over BC. Take these back, they are rightfully yours. The aliens will destroy them if you stay.” Grant bows his head. “I hope the museums in Britain fared as well… can you imagine? The Elgin marbles destroyed. The sarcophagus of mummies reduced to molten metal. Vases stolen from China shattered.”
Lily’s heart breaks at the thought. Though it has been decades since she last set foot in Taiwan, she imagines her family’s history swept away in plasma fire.
“Wouldn’t be surprised if they banned people from speaking Taiwanese,” she mutters. “They’re all speaking ADVENT’s language now. I wonder if they’ll forget how to speak our language entirely.”
“It’s a damn crime to make people lose their language. Not many of us remember how to speak Halkomelem fluently. Few remember the Upriver dialect, and the differences between the Downriver dialect and the Island group.” Grant stares at the cookfires, where Dr. Tygan shares a cup of coffee with Lam. “But we are still here. The residential schools tried to erase us. Alcohol and disease felled us. But we are here, and we will raise our voices until the stars rain down. The white man could not eradicate us. The aliens certainly will not.”
Lily nods. She has heard the same refrain, repeated in a thousand languages. They will not erase us. They will not forget us. It never fails to invigorate her: she, who is the child of a fading east and a crumbling west.
“The Haven chose a good rep,” she says. “You’ve got a way with words.”
Grant flashes her a smile. “Well, the others got tired of my speeches. But I find it important, while ADVENT tries to wipe us out, to scream out that we will survive.” He shrugs and scratches his unruly locks of hair. “And uh, I really liked doing le Concours d’Art Oratoire back in high school.”
“You’re gonna have to translate,” Lily says, “because my Spanish says something like contest of art oratory.”
“It’s a French speech-writing contest,” Grant says, “I went to French Immersion in Kerrisdale. Never lived on the rez.” He motions to the community that sprouted among the ruins. “I… uh, I have some free time. I’d love to show you around. I swear, there’s more here than service tunnels.”
Lily breathes in the fresh sea air. It smells piney, but it smells like home.
“I’d love to look around.” Behind her, ROV-R cheeps in approval.
Lily sets her personal tracker to signal to the Avenger, but she does not feel worried as she walks among those who greet her like one of their own. Grant reminds her of a jay, as he darts between families and squat log houses, a story never far from his tongue. She loses herself in the simple pleasure of listening to others, and the stories they have to tell. Grant’s Resistance group is a hodgepodge of people who lived in Vancouver before the world fell: Musqueam who called Vancouver home since the glaciers receded, Indian immigrants from Surrey to the south, Canadian-born Hong Kongers who went to UBC, visiting scholars from South Africa trapped at Simon Fraser University when the world fell, Caucasians who worked among the Japanese back when Steveston was a small fishing village, members of the Tsawwassen nation who joined forces with the Haven, people descended from those who fought in World War I… She listens to him tell the stories of hundreds of people, all collected into a bustling community centralized on the remains of a university.
“Richmond flooded a while ago,” Grant continues as they walk towards the rubble of a Japanese-esque gate, “the dykes broke, and we just couldn’t fix it. It’s below sea level as well. A lot of the people here are from Richmond. They got flooded out of their homes. We couldn’t harvest shellfish there anyway; the water’s massively polluted. But in… oh, May or so, it’s not like we have calendars anymore, we head out to Garry Point to fish for salmon. The river just runs red.”
“There’s still salmon?!” Lily asks. She spots Central smoking with a group of the Resistance nearby, and waves to him. Central gives her the thumbs up, then continues his chat with one of the young men.
Grant fishes around in his satchel, and hands her a small paper bag. “Try it.”
She bites down on a cube of dark red meat, tinged with smoke, shining with honey. It melts on her tongue. “Oh, that's good. I wish I hadn’t taken supermarkets for granted.”
“I missed coffee the most,” Grant admits. They loop back around, on paths paved with broken flagstones and weeds. “It’s shallow, isn’t it? The world was falling apart, I was sixteen, and all I could think was, I don’t have enough coffee for this.” He shrugs, as the weight of the world falls on his shoulders. “Every time someone else finds an end to all this hell… well, I don’t know what you know, but it’s… it’s the small things that build up. And one day, you’re just not strong enough to keep up…” His brow furrows. “You want to talk, but nobody wants to listen. Everyone’s dealing with their own special hell.” Grant exhales, the sound blowing across the air like a seal’s breath. “I’m sorry, is this too much? I should have asked…”
Lily is quiet for a while as they walk towards the fountain once more. She doesn’t know what to say. Platitudes would be insincere, but she wants to assure him that she has seen the blood and the burden.
“When I started junior high, my year had a class of 200.” Lily pulls her fingers tight, watching the skin stretch and flex under the stress. “We’d lose one or two every year. They would never tell us how, during assemblies, but we knew.” She looks out to the vast blue vista that sprawls out to the west. She was lucky. Dad listened. But she saw how her friends’ parents said they would listen, and when their child spoke up, they were rewarded with accusations of cowardice. She hears a slap, echoing across time and a hallway leading to Tiffany’s apartment, and a sharp shrill shriek of, “Ungrateful brat!” in Mandarin. “We sacrificed all this for you to want to die? Then go die!”
Lily faintly remembers Tiffany’s mother, sobbing over the coffin. She wore white that day, because white was the color of death and mourning. I didn’t mean it, the mother cried in Mandarin, but what did that matter to Tiffany?
“They didn’t want copycats,” she says finally. “But when there’s so much pressure to be the best, and suddenly you can’t compete with others… why continue to live? You gave it your best, and you still weren’t enough. Maybe you weren’t meant to live after all.”
Grant nods. “It seems we both know death far too well.”
Lily sighs. “It’s a specter we just can’t escape. I wish it didn’t define me.”
She casts her mind about. There was a person in Lily Shen who was not always marked by death. So she tells Grant about living in Taiwan, then moving to San Francisco as a young girl. Lily quiets as she talks about the South African Haven, where XCOM arrived too late to find survivors of an ADVENT raid. She talks about hunger, and disease, and the work XCOM has done to reverse those in the people who have rejected ADVENT’s lies. Lily ends her story with the Avenger. She talks about their dead. She talks about their deeds. She talks about the men and women who still fight, because they believe humanity deserves to reach its fate by its own means.
“And why do you fight?” Grant asks. It does not sound like an attack. It is weary and wind-bowed, the sound of a man who has been disappointed so many times before.
Lily considers it.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Lily says. “If we have only one life, then we deserve better than the one ADVENT offers.
“There are a thousand shades of grey, if you really want to get into it,” Lily says. “But I think we’re worth saving.”
Grant looks at her, a new respect in his eyes.
Lily ducks her head, but is spared from breaking the silence by the chiming of her headset. “Sorry, need to get back to work. I really enjoyed our talk.”
“Anytime. If you’re around, maybe we can chat a little more,” he says. Lily makes to give him the bag, but he pushes it back. “Go ahead, keep it.”
“Are you sure, Grant?”
“I’m pretty sure the world could use more kindness.” He smiles. “Talk to you later, Lily.”
“He’s cute!” Pham says, setting down her box of broken glass by Lily’s workstation. “Here you go. We’d like some more Erlenmeyer flasks up in the labs.”
“You should be glad that I’m a hell of a glass blower.” Imahara lifts up her wielding mask. “He’s not as cute as Beaulieu. But still pretty cute.”
“Thought you had a girlfriend,” Tasev says, popping a piece of the candied salmon into his mouth.
“It’s complicated.” Imahara turns off the MIG wielder. “I like her, and she likes Beaulieu, but Beaulieu likes both of us… It’s stupid. Emotions are stupid. Don’t wanna talk about it.”
“But you’ve solved the love triangle. Congratulations,” Dugatkin says seriously. He gives Lily two thumbs up. “And you, Chief, have a love interest!”
“Really guys? I talk to one person outside XCOM, and suddenly I’m in a relationship?” Lily turns on the furnace. “Don’t ruin this for me, guys, I’m actually behaving like a well-rounded person for once.”
“Stepping off!” Howell salutes, and brings over the box of glass.
“To be fair,” Pham says with a smile, “if we really thought that, we’d be shipping you with Volk.”
Lily shudders. “What is wrong with you people?! This is not an anime!”
“It’s all from when we huffed fumes in the clean room, to make sure nothing was getting out,” Tasev says solemnly. “Moon, your turn next. This is how you become a real engineer.”
“No, no, don’t you listen to him!” Lily says over her team’s laughter. “God damn it, guys, why am I the responsible one? You were supposed to wear masks!”
“By the way, Chief, there was a leak in the soldiers’ quarters,” Andrade says. “Pipe cracked, maybe when Central landed too hard. Didn’t see any other stress fractures. It’s fixed now.”
“And you didn’t call me over?!” Lily asks, dismayed.
“You’re the one who designed the coms relays.” Howell shrugs as she takes over the glass melting. “And then you were having fun. We could handle the mess.”
Lily blows out a breath. She trusts her Engineering team, but she still likes to have her finger on the pulse of XCOM.
“Do you have the repair logs?”
Andrade hands his tablet over, and Lily gets to work, but not before Tasev makes an exasperated sound and places a bowl of jok and baked salmon beside her.
Central heads into Engineering around the end of Lily’s shift, moving slower than normal. “New recruit, Kerry Morvin,” he says, plopping a paper on her desk. “His measurements. We’ll start him off with the plated armor.”
“It’ll be ready tomorrow when I wake up.” Lily inches away as she notices the smell. He’s not moving slowly because of an injury. “Central, you stink.”
Central crosses his arms. A wave of smoke washes over her. “I get it, I get it. You hate it when I smoke.”
A band tightens more insistently around Lily’s chest. Her breath comes out in sharp wheezes. Lily scrabbles at her belt and brings up the inhaler she always keeps just in case. She takes two puffs, and closes her eyes to wait out her body’s overreaction. When she opens them, Central looks sufficiently guilty.
“Weed? Central, are you a college student?” Lily shakes her head. “No, don’t answer that, I don’t want more smoke around here. Do I need guards over at the kitchens? Do you have the munchies or something?”
“I want to cuddle,” he grumbles, heading towards the decontamination chamber, his cane clacking all the while, “but the Commander won’t like it if I do stink.”
Too much information, Lily thinks, tossing that tidbit into her mental trashcan. “Wait, why the decon chamber?”
“Don’t want to worsen your asthma,” he says, as the door shuts behind him.
Central exits, looking very much like a sodden dog, but smoke and stench-free. Lily tosses him a fluffy white towel. He nods his thanks, and stumbles off, presumably to find the Commander.
“Hey, Commander?” Lily says into her com-link. “You’ve got a big shaggy dog heading your way, and he’s probably high.”
There’s a deep, resigned sigh on the other side. “Acknowledged. Shen, I’d appreciate it if you could build ten mag guns for the Haven. Central secured the alien alloys from them earlier. They have some engineers who can make their own ammo. I think we can invest more guns in them.”
“Consider it done.” Lily brings up her tablet, with its schedule of things XCOM needs to build for the next three weeks. She wonders if 2015 could have gone differently, had people pushed away their fears and listened to each other. Maybe there wouldn’t be nationalistic bandits stalking the Congo River Basin or slavers running lines that cut through Eastern Europe. Maybe they were always there.
But Lily is here, and she will lose herself in the simple pleasure of listening, and having someone who will listen to her.
Madaki is a trusted soldier. The Templars, on the other hand, make the XCOM leadership wary.
The Commander hides it well, but Lily can see the strain in the corners of her eyes. She thinks Geist is a Jim Jones who brainwashes his followers with the promise of more power. Geist does speak like he's drunk on the Dark Side. The Commander does not like associating with such a man, and only does it for the sake of XCOM.
In the Commander's distaste, Lily can also see guilt. Geist claims that he is a former XCOM soldier, who was undergoing psionic testing when the base fell. Yet the Commander cannot recall his name, because he was a rookie, and rookies died as quickly as they came. The technicians, the base staff, the scientists – at least those humans lasted two weeks. The Commander feels responsible for the man who rose out of the ashes. Central too does not remember the man, and his guilt arises from his forgetting of the soldiers who served under him.
“But Central would hardly care,” Geist says, as Central sets down his flask (which contains orange juice, albeit spiked with vodka). The firelight turns the purple of psionics coursing in Geist’s veins into a nasty shade of clotted brown. “Are you drunk again, when there’s a fight to be had?"
Central reaches for the Commander’s hand. Unusually, instead of shrugging him off, the Commander places his hand firmly over her thigh.
“He is ready for any battle, at any time. I trust Central.”
Central squeezes gently. The Commander nods at him.
Every Thursday evening, Lily can find the Commander bringing back her laundry to her quarters. The Command staff prefers to fold their own clothes. It’s something personal, on a ship where literally everything else is shared.
“Shui de jiang shan, ma ti sheng guang luan,” the Commander sings, the rich vibrato of her voice filling the hallways. “Wo yi shen de rong zhuang, hu xiao cang sang.”
“Hey, Taiwanese pop for once!” Lily says, “Instead of shidaiqu! Where’s your Canto pride, Commander?” She catches up to the elder woman precariously balancing two loads of laundry in her arms. “I thought you would know some jyut jyu si do kuk,” Lily continues, meaning the Chinese jazz songs sung in Cantonese. She takes one basket from the Commander’s arms.
“Thank you. Had this song stuck in my head,” the Commander says. “Now it’s your turn to get this ear worm.”
Mox goes sprinting past. When he returns, it’s with a Bullpup in hand.
“Whoa, Mox! I didn’t believe my singing was that bad!” The Commander sets the laundry basket down, and keeps her hands in the air. Mox’s large eyes are even wider, the pupils dilated in the light attached to his Bullpup, as he sweeps the corridor. “Mox, stand down. There is no threat here.”
“Look, I can scan the Avenger,” Lily says with calm that she does not feel. “Hey, ROV-R. Scan the Avenger. Is there anyone on board who shouldn’t be?”
ROV-R beeps a negative.
Mox’s arms still shake, though he has removed his finger from the trigger guard.
“Everyone on board is accounted for,” the Commander says. “Please, Mox. Stand down.”
Lily holds her breath.
At long last, Mox’s arms drop. He kneads his forehead.
“Whenever one of my brothers or sisters fell, there would be singing.” Mox takes a deep breath. “There is no threat. I apologize, sir.”
He walks off before the Commander can dismiss him. It's very uncharacteristic of the Skirmisher.
Lily follows the Commander to the Quarters in silence. The older woman takes out her uniform from the pile, and sighs.
“I’m sorry you had to see that, Shen,” the Commander says, laying out her clothes on the bed. “I should have anticipated that. Would you mind making some ju hua cha?”
Chrysanthemum tea. When Lily was younger, Dad used to buy little golden sachets, like her white friends’ Nestle ice tea. In the heat of the summer, there was always a pitcher of ju hua cha in the fridge, as sugary as it was.
Lily heats up the water in the microwave. The Commander does not speak.
“Central isn’t going to be happy about this,” Lily muses. “I don’t know how he’ll treat Mox drawing his weapon on us.”
“Disciplinary actions,” she says. “I wondered if I should declassify what happened to me.”
“It would make sense. The Skirmishers are born without knowing who they are,” Lily says. “I think they’d all like some answers.”
“Who would trust a collaborator?” the Commander asks.
The Chief Engineer reels back. How dare you!, is her first thought.
She takes a deep breath, and sends the thought away. The Commander never does things without a reason. Lily has seen how the aliens have lied even to their most faithful believers.
She remembers Grant, and she remembers listening.
“Commander… I think he’s still wondering. What happened when you were in the suit?” Lily finally asks. “Did they… did ADVENT torture you?”
“I wish they had.” Lily’s superior straightens up. “Would you please call Mox here? You are right. He needs to hear this as well.”
This is starting to sound like a bad idea, Lily thinks, but does as she’s told.
Mox shuffles in, sans armor and Bullpup. He sits awkwardly on one of the sofas, nursing a cup of chrysanthemum tea, as the Commander folds her clothes. The Commander gets straight to the point.
“The movies lie. Torture is an astoundingly bad way to force compliance,” the Commander says, stacking her folded shirts on top of each other. “The victim will do anything to make torture stop, yes, but the quality of their work suffers.”
Mox stiffens. He has not touched his drink. Lily looks down at her cup of tea, and regrets saying anything.
“The simulation the aliens crafted was very complete. Every alien had a XCOM counterpart. I believed that Dr. Shen and Dr. Vahlen had overcome the problems that plagued their research. For the first time, it seemed that XCOM had a chance. But the cost came in my soldiers. And yes, they were my soldiers. They were under my command. And so they, and their lives, were my responsibility.”
“Could you hear our thoughts?” Mox asks.
“Not well. I felt emotions more. It was the aliens’ most effective way of controlling me,” the Commander admits. “Sometimes it was pain, if an ADVENT garrison was being slaughtered.” Her hands still. “I felt the brief flashes of joy as some left the network. But most of all, I remember the dead.”
“We were numbers back then,” Mox says. “My name is a codename that became my own. Do you remember any of them?”
“I do not. I remember only that there were at least a million dead,” the Commander says, as she dumps Bradford’s clothes out onto her bed. “All I could see was that they wore XCOM’s insignia. I felt their terror as they faded away. I sent medics to save them, ships to evac them out… but I could not save everyone.” Her hands tremble as she smooths out the front of a perfectly creased shirt. “I did not want them to die alone. So I sang. It is why I remember the shidaiqu songs so well. They were my lullabies, my mother’s gift to me. They became elegies for those I could not save… in the hell I have created.”
Mox looks into his cup. “Why did you care?”
“You were my men. And thus, your health and safety were my responsibility. My apologies, Mox,” the Commander says softly, looking him in the eye. “I will refrain from singing. I do not wish to harm you anymore.”
The Quarters are silent, broken only by the steady of rhythm of fabric being folded.
“…I am not that grunt anymore. If you are no longer that ADVENT commander, I see no reason for you to change.” The Skirmisher stands straight. “It is strange, the silence in my head,” he says. “Did they not allow you to sleep, sir? You never stopped talking.”
The Commander shrugs. “The war was endless. I suppose I did at times, but I did not notice. Sleep was a small sacrifice to pay, if it meant others could live.”
Mox laughs. The tension in his back dissipates. “And now it is Central and you who never stop talking.”
“I heard that!” Central calls down the hall. “I know someone’s shit talking me!”
The small group laughs.
“That’s fair,” the Commander says. “If it ever falls silent around here, Mox, you know something has gone terribly wrong.” The lines carved into her cheeks soften. “Do we have an understanding, soldier?”
Mox salutes. “Yes, sir. I think we do.”
“Drink your tea before it gets cold,” the Commander says. “That applies to you too, Shen.”
When Mox is not looking, Lily looks to the Commander. The elder woman mouths, “doh jie.”
Title comes from心聲淚痕 (Xinsheng leihen), as sung by Fei-Yu Ching. The Commander is singing "Ju hua tai", by Jay Chou, which might be the first instance of modern music in this fanfic.
I promise that the Sum of Our Sin(x) will not turn into solely romance.
I've sat on this chapter for quite a while, as it never felt quite right. I wanted to mete out some form of care that my peers never received in life: a feeling that yes, someone does care about you beyond what you can achieve! It's odd, being at the cusp of adulthood, and yet knowing that people who grew up with you will never see that adulthood. The same story repeats over and over again: desperation and depression masked by popularity or good grades, visits to the counseling office, a circle of friends that drifts apart, silence, a GoFundMe for a funeral, a Facebook page turned memorial. The faces disappear in the sum of the numbers. The cultural tendency to hide things and deem mental illness as a weakness certainly does not help. I sing and I write, because there are voices that I knew that can never do so again. I wonder what it will take to break the cycle. But until then, the graves grow and the counter ticks on.
Chapter 13: 爱是永恒的星辰 (Love is the eternal star)
These hands will heal.
Lily gives the augmented Psi Amp one last look. It’s a conduit for the natural energy running through everyone’s veins, or so the Templars say. Every human has the potential to wield psionic energy, but some can tap more easily into the upwelling of power from deep within the Earth. Had you told Lily twenty years ago that magic ran through her veins, she would have laughed at you. Then the aliens attacked and turned the world upside down.
Recruit Kerry Morvin is the next XCOM soldier to become a psi operative. It feels strange to say that the upgraded Psi amp is ready for service. The alien alloys are cool against her skin as she walks through Templar HQ. She is far more confident than those months back when Central was testing the mag rifle, but Lily appreciates an expert opinion.
Lily’s pretty sure Geist chose the mountain base of the Templars for its gigantic waterfalls cascading into the cauldrons below and its proximity to the sea. The Templar has dire warnings of that which waits below. And as XCOM’s relationship with the Reapers is waning, the Commander has decided to foster a better one with the Templars. Who better to ask for help with psionic powers, particularly when they have healing powers and Ihram is paralyzed from the neck down?
ROV-R’s scanners tell her the Commander is in the largest of the canvas tents. Lily walks carefully, to not disturb the Templars meditating at the base of tall pines. The air thrums with power synchronizing with the beat of Lily’s heart, but there’s a note of discord, as the two leaders’ voices cut through the still night.
“Would you kneel, then?” Geist’s voice is hard-edged as he asks, “I’ve seen the Elders try to use humanity for their own purposes. How are your demands for the Templars any different?”
“I do not, and will not kneel. You may know something from my culture, the kowtow. You prostrate yourself, and knock your head against the ground,” the Commander says, “as if you are a cow.”
Lily knocks on the tent pole.
“There are cows no more. Will you drive us to the same fate, Commander?”
“Humanity may kowtow to the Elders, but I do not, and will not. I will fight until they kill me. XCOM will fight on, with or without me. Are your Templars with us?”
Geist stands. “Be careful, Commander, I don't appreciate the implication.”
“In a moment, Shen,” the Commander says, looking out of the tent. “Can XCOM depend on you?”
Geist pushes the flap of canvas aside. His shoulders relax as he sees the psi amp in Lily’s arms. “Of course. Shen, let us begin something more productive.”
Lily catches a brief glimpse of the Commander’s face, silhouetted by the salt lamp glowing orange in the center of the tent. Guilt looms large on lips pressed thin and furrowed eyes. Then the tent flap drops, and the Commander adopts a serene mask once more.
The next day, Morvin trains to shoot psionic energy at organic enemies. Geist had said the Null Lance training was well suited to the soldier’s personality. Morvin has apparently taken this as an invitation to shout, “I’m a biotic!” non-stop.
Staffed in the Psi Lab to oversee Morvin’s health is Dugatkin, who looks at Lily from his console and mouths, ‘help.’
Lily sets a mug of mushroom tea and a scone on his desk, and pats him on the shoulder. “You need ROV-R to keep you company?”
“Nine more days…” Dugatkin takes a mournful bite out of the scone. “I can live until then…”
Morvin bounces around his cell, giggling as purple energy wafts off his hands.
The Chief Engineer recalls the psionic power boiling around the Sectoid's hands in the last seconds that Dad would spend whole and alive. For some reason, whether it be time or the people she has known and changed her, fear no longer sinks its claws into her flesh.
She stands tall, and casts the past away to greet the future.
The tragedy of the apocalypse is two-fold: there are no antibiotics available over the counters of now-rotting pharmacies. Humans have over-used antibiotics, so disease stalks humanity’s shadow as if they have returned to the Victorian age. Disease reaps its share of the dead, and although herbal remedies may stave off the scythe for scarce moments, Lily has seen far too many succumb.
XCOM has Dr. Tygan and Dr. Yung. Combined, their knowledge is enough to synthesize penicillin and several classes of antibiotics. The sheer firepower of XCOM allows Lily’s comrades to steal drugs right off ADVENT trains. Times are changing, Lily thinks as she looks at the insensate woman on the Avenger’s ramp, we might be able to save her.
“You found her in the woods while scouting?” the Commander asks Tanzer.
“And signs of a fight around her, sir,” the Sharpshooter replies. “I think they left her for dead.”
Central pushes the bloodied hood away from the woman’s neck, exposing a white scar. He shoots a dark look at the Commander at his side.
She raises an eyebrow, then nods at the Avenger.
“Get her inside.” The tension in Central’s shoulders does not ease. “We’ll discuss the ramifications later.”
“Why didn’t the Vancouver Haven offer us a doctor?” Lily asks, as she preps the medical tray. “I thought we were on good terms with them.”
Tygan sighs. “They all have families,” he says, and in his voice is a deep-seated fatigue as well as a sense of… loss? It’s unusual coming from the sober scientist. “There is a good chance that all of XCOM will be shot down and killed, without the families of our soldiers ever knowing of their fates.”
Lily briefly thinks to Imahara, and of the girlfriend waiting in the Haven for both Imahara and Beaulieu. She thinks of the soldiers during the Invasion, and the families who were forever separated by plasma and the sea. Chinese, Russian, Peruvian, Israeli, Norwegian, Indonesian: did any of them ever make it home? Central is the last of the old guard in the new XCOM. The only familiar face here for him is that of the Commander.
She too, came to XCOM a stranger but for one person. Now Dad is gone, but in that void has grown new life.
“We have you, myself, Dugatkin and Dr. Yung. Dr. Yung can synthesize the medications we need.” Tygan twists his hands. “Are you comfortable with performing surgery, Shen?”
“You’ve got more experience, Doctor,” Lily replies. She takes a deep breath. Flesh is fragile, and so easily broken compared to metal and wires. But she has a duty, and in this, she cannot fail. “I’m ready to help wherever you need it.”
Tygan attempts to enter the makeshift trauma bay, then stops short. “This is worse than the Faceless!”
The sickly-sweet smell of rot hits Lily like a muggy summer shower.
“Well, after me,” she mutters, immediately regretting her choice to speak as she swallows down the rotted smell. Lily goes to sit on the crate by the patient’s bed. The worst of the damage is contained on the woman’s right leg, under a morass of tarry black bandages.
She takes a deep breath. When she was a teenager, still roaming around Tumblr, she wanted nothing more than to help others. Lily is older now, and her role has changed. She is no doctor, but she can still draw on her knowledge of offering a hand to those in need.
“Hey, I’m Lily. What’s your name?”
Even delirious with pain, the woman manages to mumble, “Vigsai.”
“Your leg looks like it hurts,” Lily continues in the same measured voice. Out of the corner of her watering eye, she spots Dr. Tygan wheeling in the IV. “Dr. Tygan and Dr. Yung can help you. We’re going to give you some drugs to make you feel less pain. Is that okay?”
“After that, we’re going to wash your leg, and try to get all the bad stuff out.” Lily smiles, tamping down the panic inside. She thinks of Dad lifeless on the floor of the Avenger, and blood turned black pooling on the aliens floors. This is not quite like the psionics, not when psionics can be used to heal, and rot can only lead to a grave shadowed by ferns.
She takes a measured breath, and pushes the panic away.
“Let’s get started.”
Tygan unwraps the many cloths, clotted black and yellow. Vigsai is unconscious, and Lily is grateful for that, because when maggots appear, Lily gags. The processing room is suddenly too crowded. Her nostrils are clouded with the sickly sweetness.
Lily runs out into the corridor and vomits into a nearby bucket filled with discarded cloths.
She leans back against the wall, forcing her breaths to calm. That was unprofessional. I’m not a doctor, but what if Vigsai was awake? She would’ve been terrified, she chides herself.
Footsteps approach. Lily looks up. Dr. Yung walks toward her, still looking green as he smears some oil over a disposable facemask. The scent of mint washes over her. It’s almost enough to banish the putrid stench, but combined together, they make for a nauseating candy-like combination.
“You might need this.” Yung holds out the mask. “I learned this in undergrad. Just so you know, you might never want to eat another mint again after this.”
“I’ll take the risk.” She covers up her face. “Do you have one for Tygan?”
“Everyone’s getting one.” Yung blows out a breath. “I hope I don’t knock his glasses off. I don’t think he wants to touch his face after handling those bandages.”
They simultaneously groan at the thought. Mint washes over her in a reassuring cloud.
As she aids Tygan in dosing Vigsai with a constant mix of drugs, sending samples off to the AWC to be treated with various antibiotics, and debriding the wound, Lily reflects on her life. She was never one to be a doctor. In her middle school years she campaigned for change, cheering from the background as she was too shy to march on the frontlines. She is not a soldier in this era either, not one to charge into the battlefield unless her expertise is absolutely necessary. Lily has always been part of the structure that keeps others going.
But as she unclips the vial of ketamine and switches it out for a new one, Lily has no regrets. She is content in her role.
The meeting over dinner that day is solemn.
“Commander, as your CO, it’s my responsibility to let you know about repercussions.” Central takes a deep breath. “The woman’s branded with a skull. Killed someone important in the Reapers.”
“How did she get all the way here?” The Commander takes the bread roll Tygan offers her.
“The scars on her head suggests she was once in ADVENT.” Tygan passes Lily a second roll. “Willingly, or not, I do not know.”
“Your call if we continue treatment, Commander,” Central says. “Those are resources that could go to our soldiers. Ihram, for example, still needs a constant drip of antibiotics. But a life’s a life, and she may prove a valuable ally to our cause, just as she could be a danger to us all.”
“I don’t recall you taking a life, Tygan, unless you had a career as a back-alley doctor,” the Commander says lightly. Tygan visibly eases.
Central looks her in the eyes. “Be aware that you may make enemies out of allies. I am not discouraging you, Commander, but you know our soldiers, not you, will be the ones who pay the price.”
“I acknowledge the risks. We continue treatment.”
He nods. “I’ve drawn up a plan for mass casualty treatment,” Central says, returning to his tablet. “We’ve kicked the hornets nest. Best be prepared.”
The War Room settles into a sober silence as fingers slide across screens and pens scratch out notes.
“I see two bottlenecks.” The Commander taps the Hangar on the map of the Avenger. “First one is right after casualties go through initial processing. Where do the yellows go, after the reds have been whisked off to surgery?”
“We need two engineers or soldiers trained in trauma care stationed with the yellows,” Central says. “Dugatkin would be a good choice. Calm under fire, steady hands. Suggestions for the other?”
“Imahara,” Lily volunteers. “Same reasons.”
Central shakes his head. “She’s involved with Beaulieu. Will she be able to stay calm if he’s in the trauma bay?”
Lily hesitates. “Imahara is a professional, but I can see what you mean.” She runs through the list of her staff. “Howell, then. What about your scientists?”
“I can vouch for McCoy’s bedside manner,” Tygan says. “The rest of my staff would be better suited to performing tests.”
“This is the worst case scenario, mass casualty situation.” Central bows his head. “God help us. I pray we never see the day.”
She is tired and bent in places that she will never let the others see. Lily carries her grief deep within her, even now that it is a year since her father has passed. But Lily is water and steel, flexible and tempered, and she may be broken but she can still be Atlas for another and hold the world on her shoulders.
Not everyone can bear the burden of being the one left behind.
Lanz has re-entered the combat roster, partner-less by his choice. He sits in the corridor leading up to the armory, running his hands through his hair. Tear tracks encrust his cheeks. The armor that would have covered his left pectoral is a muted grey now, when it was once decorated in Laghari’s engravings. The air stinks of enamel fumes.
She sits down next to the soldier.
“Hey. Talk to me?” Lily asks.
Lanz begins to cry, and his sobs only crescendo with every passing moment. It’s like a raindrop in an ocean, with the little that Lily knows of treating wounds no scalpel can reach. She feels the deep pull of despair, tugging at her soul and beckoning her to the abyssal waters where there is no light and thus, no way to see the failures laced over her skin.
But she can do this much. She can listen, in a world that has been deafened by lies and the hail of gunfire.
“Hey, soldier. Talk to me. I’m here. I’m listening.”
Slowly, just as a bud unfurls to greet the sun, Lanz opens up.
He speaks of lost friends and broken trust, and all Lily can do is listen. But she hopes that every drop drains the hurt, and that one day, Lanz will stand strong.
Lily rolls her shoulders. The towel draped around her neck sways with the motion. It’s late in the night, and the GTS should be clear of most soldiers except the Commander. It’s their ritual on these days where they work the same shift. Her superior has a keen sense of purpose, and the energy seeps through the GTS.
“Evening, Shen,” the Commander grunts. She hangs from the pull-up bar, a thin sheen of sweat decorating her skin. “Got started early.”
The Chief Engineer deposits her towel, tablet and belt next to the treadmill. She stretches her arms. “How many have you done?”
“Twenty–“ The Commander groans, a sound dredged up from the pit of her chest as she pulls herself up. “Twenty-one – osti de tabarnak de câlice!”
Lily starts her run. But before she can build up a good rhythm, the Commander swears and drops to the ground.
The Commander is in so much pain that she can’t even scream. Her leg is unnaturally pinned below her body, as the elder woman curls up and locks her arms around her midsection. The calf muscles of the Commander’s other leg have seized up, in an odd pulsating rhythm playing underneath skin. Lily grabs her tablet from her belt to scan for broken bones, but nothing is visibly broken. The Chief Engineer moves to call Tygan, but the Commander gasps out, “Wait!”
These two were made for each other, Lily thinks, as she recalls Central’s seizure.
Slowly, the elder woman uncurls. “I hate this,” she mutters, reaching for her water bottle. Her arm thwacks against the ground. “Ever since I was rescued…”
“Does Tygan know?” Lily asks, pushing the water bottle closer. She fishes in her pockets for a granola bar.
The Commander opens a pouch on her belt, and withdraws an opaque bottle. She shakes it. It rattles faintly: it seems the bottle is full.
“He does. Torture doesn’t work,” the Commander says, “not if you want to make someone join you. It can only be used to devastate morale. So the aliens set me in a simulation, a never-ending war. I lived for twenty years in a loop.” She looks down. “And I woke up, to a body that was mine, but time had made it so it was no longer mine.” The Commander’s fists clench as she puts the bottle away. “It was not Tygan’s fault that I can’t run a mile in seven minutes anymore. I can’t lift a hundred pounds anymore. I can grapple for a few minutes, but it tires me like never before. This is not the body I remember. That one ADVENT stole.”
Lily considers her words carefully.
“Are you in pain?” She winces. That’s a dangerous question, when it can be used to harm the Commander.
“Sometimes. Je la déteste,” the Commander mutters. Tears wet the edge of her voice. “Je préférais la mort à la ruine.”
Lily quietly hands her the granola bar. The Commander breaks it into half, and offers part back. Lily’s superior crams her piece into her mouth, drags herself up and glares at the pull-up bar.
“I’ll get this done,” she says, dusting her hands with chalk, “or I’ll die trying.”
“On three?” Lily asks. “You know, you should get someone to spot you.”
“You’re here, aren’t you?” the Commander asks. “Sorry, Shen, it looks like you’re the head of the seniors’ home now.”
She smiles to herself. “Ready when you are, sir.”
“I want a drink,” Central says plaintively, “but I know I shouldn’t.”
“Central, it’s seven in the morning.” Lily notes the grudging pile of salad sitting next to the pancakes on Central’s plate. “Good morning to you too.”
If looks could kill, Central’s mug of coffee would have spontaneously combusted under his glare. “I’m on the night shift, Shen. This is dinner for me.”
“Okay, how about this?” Lily asks as she plops a stack of French toast onto his plate. “You’ll die early, and you’ll make me and the Commander really sad, because we’ll have to find you a grave where the aliens won’t dig you up.” She pouts for emphasis. “And also, we’ll starve because I can’t budget to save my life.”
Central is quiet for a moment.
“Good thing you don’t mince words,” Central says, as he takes out his flask.
Lily flails. “What did I just say?!”
“Ease off, Shen, it’s my medicinal dose. Well, the dose so I don’t seize and die,” he amends, then sips from his flask. “Ah, that’s bad. Vodka ain’t meant to be drunk this way.” Central stares down at his pancakes. “I… wanted more. It’s killing me to drink this little. But I know I have to. I don’t want to die that way.”
Lily cuts an orange in half and holds it out to him. Central considers it, then squeezes it over his coffee.
“Does this make it healthy?” he asks.
“Sure, in the same way these pancakes are healthy,” Lily says, finally having a bite, “because I’m getting all my fiber.”
“Morning, Central,” the Commander says, as she joins the crew. Dark shadows still linger under her eyes from last night. “Are you ready to take over?”
Central opens his mouth. His eyes travel over the bruises on the Commander’s wrists, before he presses his lips tight together.
“Talk to me, soldier,” the Commander says.
“I’m getting an explanation for those later, I hope,” he says sternly.
“You first. I’ll cover it in my briefing.”
Central exhales, like a seal coming up for breath after a long dive. “They never say ex-addict,” he murmurs, “because there’s no such thing. You can only be a recovering addict. Once that siren song’s in your ear, you’ll just have to battle the current that’s pulling you to the rocks for the rest of your life.”
“What else is on your mind, Central?” The Commander begins cutting up his pancakes.
“Won’t be long before you’ll need to bury me,” Central says with a choked laugh.
The Commander looks at him. She stabs his fork into a slice of pancake, and holds it out to him.
Central bursts into horrified laughter. Lily gapes. The Commander smiles, though it is tired and fraught with pain.
“Still got it, Shen,” she says. “Just watch me.”
“You can’t say that,” Central says between gasps.
“I’m pulling rank,” the Commander says. “I can indeed make poor taste jokes.”
“You know, sir, sometimes I forget you were a soldier.” Lily closes her mouth. “Am I the only one with a normal sense of humor here?”
Central pats her on the shoulder. “Only sane man ‘round here. Good luck, chief.”
The Commander begins her briefing, giving a cursory explanation for her bruises before proceeding to her plan to court the Templars’ allegiance. Lily chimes in with the Engineering Team’s progress. As the briefing draws to a close, Lily notices the Central Officer still looks down.
“I’m still here,” the Commander says gently, “and you still have my attention.”
“Why would you stay with someone who will fight for the rest of his life?” Central mutters into his flask. “Always a third in bed, always a chain to the grave. Why won’t you leave?”
The Commander dips her finger into his coffee, and draws on his napkin.
“This character, mao,” she says, finger sweeping in long strokes, “was used in oracle bones. It depicted a sacrifice, cut in half. But in modern Chinese, it means early morning.” The Commander draws a box underneath the character, and marks a cross within. “This is tian, a field. The early morning over a field. The sun rises every morning, no matter what has happened during the night. My name is Commander Liu of XCOM. My name means to stay. And that is what I intend to do, until death takes me or you tell me to leave.”
She passes the napkin back to Central.
“Something to think about, when you doubt yourself. If you need me, I will be in the Quarters.” She stands, mug in hand, though it is clear that there are thoughts pressing down on her brow. “My god, what is this sludge? When will the gods have mercy on XCOM and give us some tea?”
Central smiles, then shakes himself as he turns to face Lily. “Any words of wisdom from your last name, Shen?”
“Uh, my name means to sink.”
“I’ve got a bad feeling about that,” he says.
“To stay and to sink.” Lily pats his arm. “Sorry, Central, you’re on board the Titanic now.”
“It’s true. I’ve made a terrible decision to stay onboard this sinking ship.” Central salutes her with a forkful of salad. “All your fault, of course.”
“Don’t you dare crash the Avenger, Central, or I might just hand you over to ADVENT myself,” Lily says, but there’s no bite in her words.
Central rolls his eyes and starts on his French toast.
“I don’t understand why the scanning relays broke down,” Lily tells ROV-R, “even with the Chosen skulking around. It’s not like they could’ve broken them. Our perimeter alerts should’ve picked them up long before they even got on board.”
"No, I don't think we're going after them any time soon. We've been trying to stabilize the Havens," she tells her GREMLIN sternly, though she doubts the message will go across. "That's why I leave you to work in Engineering when I'm on my sleep shift."
ROV-R lets out a string of rapid-fire bloops.
"No, I know you don't have hands. But you at least have algorithms to sort messages based on priority." She sighs and raps on the door of the War Room, where the Commander’s locator glows a solid orange on Lily’s tablet. “Sir? It’s going to take us longer to scan for weapons depot,” she calls. “I’ll get Tasev on the case, and see if he can figure out why they’re acting up."
The Commander makes a sound of assent. Lily turns to leave.
“I, being of sound mind, though I could use some help to sort through the legal language,” the Commander says dryly, “not that I should write that down… What am I supposed to write? I had lawyers back in the old world to do this when I deployed.”
Lily hears her superior heave a sigh.
“This is the last will and testament of Ai Wen Liu, née Arianne, XCOM Commander in the year of 2035. To carry out the terms of my will, I give my executor the following duties and powers with respect to XCOM. In the event of my death, in the line of duty or by old age, I leave leadership of XCOM to my Central Officer, John Bradford. Chief Engineer Lily Shen will ascend to–”
The pen stops scratching.
“I should record this as well. I wish I could remember J.S.’s voice…”
Lily doesn’t stick around to hear the rest. She flees into her work like death is on her own heels, and it is, for this is one fate that all the technology in the world cannot stave off forever.
She weaves life for Ihram, in a cybernetic suit that can support the soldier’s neck. She banishes pain for Vigsai, in an automatic painkiller drip. She builds a future for soldiers in the armor she patches up and polishes until it looks brand new.
But she can’t give the Commander and Central more time.
“Hey, Chief.” Andrade perches next to her bench. “Not looking so good.”
She tinkers with an old GREMLIN: gutted, half its carapace lying on the desk, exposed wires caked in dark purple coolant. ROV-R was once a mess like this too. Lily could upgrade it, but she’d lose another reminder of the past that way.
“Pass me the number six hex key.”
Andrade grabs the requested wrench off the rack. He snags a bottle of organic solvent on his way back.
“My mom wanted me to be a doctor.” Andrade laughs to himself as he sprays solvent into the gunk. Solids liquefy into a light purple mess, the color reminiscent of psionic energy. “You ever asked your parents to stop being such stereotypes?”
“Not out loud,” Lily says with a fond smile. It quickly drops from her lips. “And now I wish I had said other things, in the time that I had.”
Andrade wipes a wad of wires clean. “I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to my mom. She… never bought into the ADVENT thing. We lived in the slums for a bit. I guess it was safety she’d never felt before. That’s why my grandparents, the ones who escaped anyways, moved to Brazil.”
“Where is she now?” Lily tapes back some wires to reveal the corroded actuators. Those can be easily replaced, unlike joints and minds.
“Mom’s… well, she’s still alive, she’s in a Haven.” He stills. Lily can faintly hear the whistling of heavy ammunition and the cries of orphans in the ghost of a explosion tearing through their parents’ shelter. “I hope we never have to…”
Lily grips his wrist. He nods, and she lets go.
“My dad died during the Invasion,” Andrade says. “Cancer. I don’t remember his voice anymore, but sometimes I think, if he just could’ve held on a little longer…”
“Everyone leaves,” Lily whispers. She digs her hands into the guts of the GREMLIN laid out before her. “I don’t know if I can do this, Andrade. I can’t watch another person leave.”
Andrade puts a hand on her shoulders.
Lily nods, and he hugs her.
“Do you remember much of the old world?” he asks, words muffled by her vest. “I can’t believe that I used to wake up in Cambé, at the crack of dawn, just to walk my dog.” His hands tighten into fists. “She was this brown-yellow mutt who stopped on our doorstep and never left. She wasn’t anything special, but she was my dog, and it hurts that I can’t even remember her name.”
Lily rests her head against his shoulder. “I miss waking up and never fearing that the people I loved would die.” She runs the word across her teeth. It feels odd to admit that she loves her engineers, and her command team, and the vast majority of people who call the Avenger home. “It’s not the same, not as easy to fix flesh as it is to fix gears and circuits.”
“What are we even doing?” The other engineer lets out a choked laugh. “How is it that we’re the best options for a doctor right now?”
Her lips quirk up, and black comedy rolls across her tongue. “Someone died and made us doctor.”
“Shit, I’m gonna have words for the big guy in charge.”
They withdraw, not quite looking at the other, giving space for the other engineer to wipe tears away and mourn the ridiculous situation they have inherited.
“New people come into our lives,” Andrade says. He thumbs a small pendant attached to his belt: the silver is wrought into a hand, and the bright blue enameled eye stares out at the hostile world. “They never replace who left. I wish… I wish they left more than bittersweet memories.”
“No,” she murmurs, taking up the tools of her trade once more, “they don’t. But we’re still here. We could use some more good times with the people we still have…”
And through them, Lily thinks as she heats up the soldering iron, in a motion Dad practiced so many times before, maybe they still live.
Andrade nods, in a silent understanding, and passes her a spool of thin copper wire.
Tasev beckons to her, muffling his giggles in the sleeve of his uniform shirt. “Come on, Chief, you have to see this!”
Lily yawns, heavy eyes threatening to close as she plods back to the Engineering barracks. “Did Moon burn something again?”
“What? No, no, you’ve got to see this,” he says, hustling her into the War Room.
Central lets out a long sigh as he looks up from a mass of tablets and maps. A flower falls from the crown of tiny sunflowers and dandelions perched on his head. “What is it, son?”
“…Why are there flowers on your head?” Lily asks.
“The Commander gave them to me,” Central says, returning to his paperwork.
Lily raises an eyebrow. “And you couldn’t set them down anywhere?”
“My hands were full.”
“So you decided to put them on your head?” Tasev asks.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice hat,” Tasev continues. “But I hope it’s not your MO when your hands are full.”
“Remind me to never hand you a tray of alien stuff, Central,” Lily says.
“Don’t you kids have something better to do?”
“Than to make fun of you? Never,” Lily quips.
Central grumbles something like, “no one appreciates me around here.”
“I bet the Commander does!” Tasev says, then grabs her wrist. Central slowly rises from his seat. “Come on, Chief, let’s split!”
They run off, giggling like children, to the safety of Engineering.
Andrade shuts off the bandsaw and raises his facemask. “You know, Chief,” he drawls, “it’s a sad day when I’m the most responsible one here…”
Imahara slides the blade guard of the saw down, then punches his shoulder. “The closest you’ve ever been to responsible is a dictionary.”
“My feelings,” Andrade grumbles. “Watch them.”
“You want me to back off?” Imahara asks.
Andrade punches her back. “Nah, we’re even now.”
“Guys, not next to the bandsaw,” Lily sighs. Tasev gives her a thumbs up as he slips away to cause trouble elsewhere. “Wouldn’t want to be a bad role model for Moon.”
Moon jumps at the mention of her name, but eases into the cadre of engineers around her.
It’s not much, but XCOM has built a family out of the ruins of the old world.
Her arms are sore and heavy from lifting sheet metal and rebar in the third-last room to be cleared, but Lily still heads to the GTS for her daily work-out. There’s something comforting about routine, even when the faces in the GTS change, sometimes for good.
Lily still finds it hard to interact with the soldiers, knowing that each day could be the last day they ever meet. But just as the river wends its way to the sea, the men grow on her. She looks forward to chatting with them during her workout, even if they’re suggesting gun designs that will never work.
“Twenty-two,” Central counts off. He stands behind the Commander, who hangs from the pull-up bar. The Commander grunts out a curse and pulls herself up. “Twenty-three.”
Sweat rolls down the Commander’s shoulders. “How do you make it look so easy?”
“We should stop,” Central says, hands smoothing up and down her sides. “Try not to overextend yourself.”
“I can make it,” she gasps.
“All right,” he says after a while, “but I’m cutting you off at thirty. That’s a hard no after, Commander.”
Lily hangs back as the Commander swears and curses her way through the remainder of her set.
“Thirty,” Central says, pressing a kiss to the flat planes of the Commander’s belly.
Dismounting,” the Commander warns, then lands on the ground. Loose locks of hair stick to her face. “Thank you, Central… you had a point.”
Central curls her fingers into a loose fist, and kisses the back of her hand. He presses her fist to her heart, and kisses her cheek.
“Still the same Commander I remember,” he says, “still burning like we walked right out of Hell together.”
The Commander raises her right hand, and traces the scar trailing down Central’s face.
“I won’t lead you astray,” she promises.
Title from 昨夜星辰 (Zhuo ye xing chen), as sung by Fei-Yu Ching and Shurong Lin.
“Je préférais la mort à la ruine.”: "I would prefer death to ruin."
The Commander's last name is 留 (Liu.) I think Lily's last name would be 沈.
Chapter 14: 咱们俩是一条心 (Your heart is my heart)
And if you die, so do I.
(She has healed; will it stand the storm?)
“Look who’s off the cane!” Dugatkin whispers from his perch next to the GTS door.
“Awww, he’s improving!” Howell says quietly.
Lily peers in. Central holds his left arm out, around the waist of an invisible partner. He walks four steps forward, then snaps to turn in the other direction.
“It actually looks like a tango,” Lily says. “Hats off to you, old man.”
He steps into a spin, sticks the toe of his boot into the floor, curses, loses his balance, and then falls flat on his back.
The trio winces in sympathy.
“Nobody saw that!” Central pants as he scrambles to his feet.
“Joining us for PT?” the Commander asks as she walks towards the engineers, carefully holding a platter in front of her.
“No sir,” Dugatkin and Howell reply in unison.
Lily’s superior gestures for them to move. “Quite the workout,” the Commander says, setting the tray down next to the Sectoid busts. “I heard the weights dropping from downstairs.”
“Terrible gym manners,” Central says, taking a bun with a nod of thanks, “going to PT me for those?”
“I’d prefer if you weren’t on the cane.” The Commander wipes her hands clean, then dips them in chalk dust. “Vigsai has recovered enough to leave for a Haven. They will be aware of her history.”
“We’re still going to tell Volk about her?” Central frowns and swallows down his bun. “Not in a position to shake our alliances, sir.”
“I believe it’s the best course. Hiding things will not earn us allies, and it may cost us resources in times of need.” The Commander looks away. “Still, I hope that we will not have to rely on our allies to save us.”
“You and me both, sir.” Central picks up a resistance band, and tosses it to her. “Now get to work.”
“First it’s human bodies, now it’s ADVENT,” Central says. “Something tells me they’re not abducting these ones.”
There are no green coffins on display, this time, as Lily keeps vigil over the Avenger’s scanning screens and the soldiers’ body cams. Now that the scanning relays are down, XCOM has to take extra precautions
“How can that be?” Central murmurs, “it’s just like the one–“
“Carefully!” Tygan says, “preserve the specimen at all costs!”
Kokkonen lets the white-suited figure fall into her arms. She lays it gently on the floor. No humanoid face lies underneath the opaque facemask.
“We’re moving out.” Kokkonen adjusts the gun strapped to her back, then hoists the body over her shoulders. “Weird… I can’t feel it breathing…”
“Move to EVAC,” the Commander says, “Mox, provide covering fire. Madaki, reap those Lost! Tanzer and Dragunova, sync up and draw the Sectopod away!”
The team moves fluidly, a single purpose melded together through combat. They hammer away at the best ADVENT can throw at them, and all ADVENT can do is wilt beneath the force of will and fire.
Lily notices a sudden jump in energy readings on Tanzer’s vitals. Tanzer rushes up to a Purifier, puts two bullets into her helmet, and races away.
“That was far too risky!” Dragunova scolds as she finishes off the Purifier with a bullet into the tank.
Tanzer lets out an exhilarated laugh. “Worth the gamble!”
Mox stills, his Ripjack held aloft. “I sense something,” he says, minutes before the air splits open to reveal the Chosen Assassin.
“Another one of those things,” Central scoffs, but beneath his bluster is rotten fear. The Chosen have started hounding XCOM much more closely. XCOM has done its best to destroy caches of weaponry and free prisoners of the Chosen, but they have not come close to finding their hunters’ seat of power. “You know what to do, people! Take her out!”
“Need a hand here,” Kokkonen grunts. She lugs herself to the chest-height protection of a boulder. “Sir, I’m pinned down! I’ve got Troopers on my tail!”
“Dragunova, Mox, I want you heading to the EVAC!” the Commander says. “Madaki, I need a ghost heading towards the Assassin! SPARK, fire on the troopers!”
The SPARK charges towards the cluster of ADVENT Troopers. “Providing covering fire!” says the last gift Lily’s dad ever gave her, a promise of life and protection for the future.
“How crude,” the Assassin says, as she vanishes from view, “does XCOM now need mechanics to do their dirty work?”
Lily can hear Central’s teeth grinding. “Don’t let her get to you, men. It’s more of ADVENT’s lies.”
Mox stands still and scans the area. “I can hear her.”
“You heard me, Mox!” the Commander barks. “Keep moving!”
“I must stay,” Mox says, “none of the team are safe with the Vox Prima–“
“You are not expendable. Now move to EVAC!”
The team slowly works their way to the blue flares dropped at the EVAC point. Lily makes a mental note to ask the Commander to reconsider the markers: the Assassin is most likely camping EVAC. XCOM can not afford to lose their precious cargo today.
“She’s coming up!” Madaki yells, before a blast of psionic energy knocks him to the ground.
The SPARK runs forward and drops into a kneeling position.
The Assassin’s katana spears it through the back, stopping centimeters above Madaki’s chest.
I didn’t know Dad programmed the SPARK to do that, Lily thinks. But in hindsight, it makes sense that Dad would instill sacrifice into her protector, something that Julian never had the chance to learn.
“I told you so,” Mox growls, along with some choice words in the ADVENT language, as he unloads his Bullpup on the Assassin.
Menace Team slaughters the reinforcements around the EVAC point. It’s Dragunova’s turn to let out a wild laugh, as her claymore sends aliens skyward. Though the Assassin does her best to take XCOM captives, Dragunova and Tanzer kill her with one last synchronized shot.
“Home we go!” Kokkonen chirps, as she ascends into the Skyranger.
Lily checks her tablet. No signs of energy around the Avenger, and no perimeter alerts. It’s time to go consult with Tygan for proper storage of the newest specimen.
Still, she can’t shake the lingering feeling of dread that someone is watching her.
One meeting, as well as prototype plans to reprogram the Meld nanomachines later, Lily’s back in Engineering to fix up her SPARK. She pats the robot on its armored flank, as if to reassure the now de-activated mech.
“Thanks, Dad,” she whispers, “you’re still looking out for us.”
First order of business is to replace the damaged actuators. This, Lily knows: it is the joy of creating and mending that only comes to her when she wields the power saw or lines of code. The way metal bends, wires connect, and electricity flows is integrated into the calluses of her hands. This is simple, governed by immutable laws. Lily may not understand how electrons spin and flip, but she knows how to manipulate the macroscopic world.
She takes off the front plate first, to inspect the damaged components. Nothing too badly damaged; the Assassin’s katana missed all the computing parts.
“Something on your mind, Mox?” Lily asks, as she pries off the back plate of the SPARK’s chassis.
“I do not remember much of the Forge, as the soldiers call it.” Mox takes the stance of so many ADVENT captains before him: his back is ramrod straight, his arms stiff at his sides, and his head is bowed. “But I know that I was made. I was not born like you. My origins are like the mech that saved us today.”
The Chief Engineer nods. “Going to give me a hand?”
“Well, it’s easier to talk when your hands are full,” Lily wrenches a nut free from twisted metal, “leaves your brain free. Pass me the number seven wrench. It’s the one with the 7 on the side."
Mox rummages through the toolbox, and holds up a pair of locking pliers. “Is this a wrench?”
“Should have specified,” Lily grunts as she brings out the sledgehammer and crowbar. “The one with the solid hammer.”
The Skirmisher jumps as Lily drops the sledgehammer onto the workbench. “What is that for?”
“If the Avenger has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes machines need kind words,” Lily says, affectionately patting the SPARK. “And sometimes you’ve got to bang around until things start working again.”
Lily immediately notices the differences as she works with her newest recruit. The silence as Mox methodically extracts tangles of circuitry is nothing like the banter and jokes that her fellow engineers throw around. The Skirmisher blinks as she requests certain tools, mutters in ADVENT tongue as he roots through the toolbox, then summons the correct tool most of the time. She learns his words for a handsaw and screwdriver fairly quickly. Yet Mox refrains from speaking, even as Lily instructs him to clean out the SPARK’s interior.
Mox reaches into the morass of crushed metal, feeding the cloth inside. A crag of metal catches on his glove. Mox jerks back, and blood drips along the metal.
“Let me bandage that,” Lily says, unlocking the drawer underneath the table, “my first aid kit is right here.”
“It is nothing,” the Skirmisher claims.
Lily gives him a look. “Let me help.” Reluctantly, Mox holds out his hand. Lily peels back the glove. “Well, at least you won’t need stitches,” the Chief Engineer says, as she fetches the first aid kit. “Some alcohol to clean, a dose of medkit, some bandages to keep it clean,”” Mox hisses as Lily wraps up his hand, “sorry, too tight. And done. Now onto the report…”
Mox cringes away. “I do not mean to be a bother.”
Lily thinks over her words carefully. “Well, we gotta keep track of our supplies. That way, we know when we need to get more. You probably did something similar in the Skirmishers.”
The Skirmisher sits down.
“A robot can gather supplies. A robot can learn sacrifice. How am I different?” Mox asks, “I breathe, but robots can be taught to do that for others. How do I deal with this knowledge that I am utterly replaceable?”
“That’s not true,” Lily says. She raps a fist against Dragunova’s armor, waiting to be repaired. “Why do you think I spend entire nights making and fixing things to keep you guys alive?”
“There are thousands of Troopers who could become Skirmishers, in the event of my death,” Mox counters.
Lily tilts her head as she thinks it through. “I’ve built thousands of bots. My dad built even more.” She pats the SPARK on the workbench. “But this one’s special. It’s the one I have now. You’re the Skirmisher XCOM has, Mox. Even if you left, we’d still have the memories of you. Doesn’t that make you irreplaceable?”
Mox chews his lip. She notices it’s a tic unique to the skirmisher that signals he has words to say, but no knowledge how. The other skirmishers, like Nar Galak, would stay quiet and emotionless even in the face of abuse. Lily doubts it is what they want to do.
“It is hard to describe the loss of the network,” Mox says. “There is silence in my head. Silence should not feel this… empty.” He puts his glove back on and delves back into the SPARK’s interior. “I was not meant to be a Skirmisher. It does not feel right, after all that I have done, to have a chance of redemption. There is no one to guide me now. My actions are my own. So why must I feel so lost?”
Lily closes her eyes.
“I don't know, Mox. I'm not the best person to ask. One day I woke up, and I wasn’t just engineer Shen. I was Chief Engineer Lily Shen. The man who held it before me was my father, and he was in the morgue.” She opens her eyes and picks up an actuator. “Suddenly, people were looking to me to guide them. It used to be Dad they looked towards. Hell, I kept looking over my shoulder to ask his opinion. But he was gone. And the silence was deafening.”
They work in silence: Mox slowly clears out a hollow in the SPARK, and Lily fills it in with replaced parts.
“How did you come to be here?” Mox asks.
“I don’t know,” Lily admits. “I just figured I’d do the best I can, with what I have, and if I don’t know something, I’ll ask others. They’ve got thoughts. So do I. Maybe together, we’ll make something worth fighting for.”
“Welder,” Mox requests.
Lily hands him a face shield, then the MIG welder. “Hang on, have you seen this before?”
“Yes. It was one of the first tools I learned to use as a free Skirmisher.”
Mox seals the actuator into the SPARK.
“I am a living being,” he asserts, lifting the visor of the face shield. “I have thoughts of my own. That much has changed.”
“Hey, Ihram,” Lily says. “Two blinks for pain, one for no?”
Ihram blinks once. The eye tracker program activated with a quiet buzz.
“Good news is that I think I can modify the prototype powered armor. If everything goes well, you can get an exoskeleton. Maybe we can get you up and running again.”
Ihram considers this. She closes her eyes.
“Breathe? I’m not sure about that part yet,” Lily admits.
h8 dis. h8 fja
“I don’t understand the last,” Lily says, but notices the tears welling up in Ihram’s eyes. “Oh, they’re interfering with the tracking - let me get you a tissue–“
She dabs the tears away. Ihram’s eyes dart back and forth between two symbols: h8 h8 h8 h8
“I don’t understand,” Lily says, “are you in pain?” Ihram makes a gurgling noise. “Do I need to get Dr. Tygan?” The noise grows higher in pitch. “I’m trying to figure it out, Ihram, it may take me some time-“
“It’s the only way you can scream, isn’t it?”
Ihram closes her eyes. She looks towards the h, and closes her eyes again. She opens them and looks at the eight.
Lily sits down on the side of the bed. “I don’t know what to say, Ihram. You’ve probably heard it all.”
Ihram rolls her eyes, as if to say, tell me something I don’t know.
“We’re starting to build powered armor in engineering. It’s the next step for missions.” Lily winces as Ihram looks to the side, then closes her eyes. “You probably don’t want to hear about missions, huh?”
Y, the eye tracker reads.
“Yeah, that was a bad way to start. I’m sorry, I should’ve thought about that.” Lily blows out a breath. “The armor can support the wearer’s weight. What I’m trying to say is that you might be able to move again.” Ihram’s eyes shoot open in surprise. “I know, it’s not quite the same because you’ll still be on a ventilator. You’ll need assistance taking it on and off, but I’m pretty sure I can design a suit for you to wear full time.”
Ihram considers it.
Dun belve u
“I’ll do my best,” Lily says, steadfast as the sea. “I promise you, I’ll figure something out. You’re part of my team. I won’t leave you behind.”
Ihram closes her eyes, signaling the end of the conversation.
“-AND ONE LAST THING,” Central shouts over the din on the Bridge, “-IF I FIND ONE MORE GODDAMN WRAPPER–“
“The burgers?” Andrade asks, “or the condoms?”
“Don’t look at me,” Tasev says, “I wasn’t on bridge resupply duty!”
“The burgers, for fuck’s sake.” Central bangs his fist on the Hologlobe railing. “I swear to God, if I find whoever’s responsible, there will be hell to pay.”
Lily steps around the chaos as technicians do their best to look busy. “Need anything, Central?”
“Pass me the bleach,” Central says grimly, “there’s grease stains and mold underneath my console.”
Lily grimaces and retrieves the cleaning bucket from the hallway. “I still think that’s a bit of an overreaction.”
“What if they put tracking bugs in the wrappers?! You don’t know ADVENT!” Central scrubs vigorously away. “Do you want to call a UFO down on us?!”
“Tygan, you weren’t responsible, were you?”
The doctor looks affronted. “If I am to be shot and tried as a traitor, I’d hope it would be ADVENT lining me up against the wall,” Tygan says stiffly, “and not over a cursed burger.”
“Been a full-blown war since March,” Central muses as he hands over the order for plasma weaponry. “Tygan needs your help on this, Shen.”
There are hints of dad, in the calendars carefully annotated in his writing. Taiwanese holidays are marked in neat characters, closely followed by their English translation. Lily flips through a few days to mark the projected completion date.
“Pham,” she calls to the scientist hanging around Engineering, “when are you planning to give the exoskeleton for Ihram? I can get you a frame, but everything else… I don’t know how she’ll move it. Not without some sort of brain connection.”
“Sooner would be better,” Pham replies, fiddling with a greased cloth around the ground glass joint of an Erlenmeyer flask. “Central, could you mark it down for the sixteenth of September?”
“Sixteenth of September? That’s the lunar festival in two weeks,” Lily says after a moment. “Huh. Didn’t know Dad used the lunar calendar as well.”
Central shrugs as he makes note. “First time I’ve heard of it. What’s the lunar festival about?”
“You… uh… stare at the moon, and you’re thankful it’s autumn.” Lily scrunches her face. “And there’s a rabbit making medicine of immortality on the moon. And in Taiwan, we have barbecues, and everyone’s off work–”
“I’m afraid we won’t be having a day off for celebration,” the Commander says as she takes her place by Central’s side. “Good try, Shen.”
Lily rolls her eyes. “When there’s work to be done? Why, are you going to try and make mooncakes?”
“I wish. I’m a classics fan,” the Commander says with a laugh. “I like the wu ren style, the kind with five nuts… walnuts, almonds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds and Chinese olive nuts… all wrapped in glutinous flour and sugar crust. That’s far too much work for me.”
Central looks to her and raises an eyebrow. “I know you well enough. There’s a second meaning.”
“Catching on, are you? It’s a homophone. Ren means nut and benevolence, so the wu ren represents the five traditional values.” The Commander smiles to herself. “J.S. hated the wu ren mooncakes. It is rather hard to chew.”
“I like the lotus paste kind with the two salty egg yolks,” Lily offers.
“Aren’t those 900 calories each?” The Commander laughs. “So you like the traditional Cantonese-style one.”
“But they’re so good! And you only eat them once a year!” Lily shakes her head. “The Chinese stores in the West just don’t sell the good dau saa mooncakes – they don’t even have mochi in the middle!”
“Bean… sand?” Central asks, scrunching up his nose.
“It’s a sweet red bean paste,” Lily says dreamily.
“Why is there mochi?” Central asks. “Isn’t that a Japanese thing?”
“Because the Japanese occupied Taiwan,” the Commander says. “It left many cultural influences.”
“Are you talking about mooncakes?” Imahara asks, poking into Engineering’s main room. “I guess it is almost that time of the year again. I like the cold ones.”
“Oh, the bing pei!” Lily says. “The sort of chewy skin one, with ice cream in the middle? Pham, do you know what I’m talking about?”
“Gotta disagree with you, sir… I don’t like the cold ones.” Pham pauses. “Well, in Vietnam, we had the Bánh dẻo. It’s… hmm, how do you say it in English… sticky rice with mung bean paste.”
“Is it sweet?” Lily asks.
“Like red bean paste,” Pham says.
The two women hi-five each other.
“Urgh, sweet things.” Dugatkin rolls his eyes. “My parents lived in the Suzhou city center for a few years, while they worked for ADVENT. It’s a sort of hot pastry, with a flaky crust and minced meat filling. ADVENT cracked down on it after a while… I think it’s because it had too many cultural ties.” He shakes his head. “Wouldn’t mind having one again.”
“Oh, no, they don’t make ones with egg yolks where I come from,” Imahara says, looking horrified. “Why would you put something savory in?”
“Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it,” Lily protests.
“I don’t think we’ll have an opportunity,” the Commander says quietly. “It’s an old art that has most likely gone extinct.”
Silence falls as they realize they are the remnants of an old world.
“One day, I had my last mooncake,” Dugatkin says. “I wish I had savored it more.”
“Well, now I’m depressed,” Pham says. “I’m going to go mourn over a bowl of cháo hoa.”
“That’s just juk,” Lily says.
“Fine. With some pickles and fish, it won’t be your bastardized Cantonese concoction,” Pham says with a teasing grin. “Hey, Central, can I make some vinegar sauce?”
“Make a trial run for yourself, and report back with a sample. Try not to waste ingredients.”
Pham salutes Central. It’s a bit wonky, nothing that a soldier would give. “On my way, sir!”
There’s the odd feeling of waiting for an execution as the day shift sit down for dinner. The kitchen, for one, smells exclusively like vinegar. Andrade and Iravani, two of the more adventurous eaters, don’t look as enthused as usual at the prospect of trying something new.
“What the hell is this?” Lily asks, after one mouthful of the rice gruel at dinner.
The Commander gingerly sets her spoon down and takes a bite out of her steamed bun. “Perhaps too much vinegar?”
Andrade dips his bun into the rice gruel, tries it, and valiantly chokes it down. “I… I don’t think my dog would like this very much…”
Pham sighs and sinks into her seat. “My dad made it better.”
McCoy pats her shoulder. “We can’t all be good cooks. At least we can add more rice?”
“It does not appear to be rocket science,” Tygan says encouragingly, though Lily has noticed that one spoonful of the chao hoa was too much for him. “We have the supplies to spare to fix this.”
“You think Berserker serum would improve this?” Beaulieu asks, as he slides into the seat beside Imahara.
“No,” the Command team says simultaneously.
“If you land yourself in the AWC because you tried,” the Commander warns, “you’ll be on clean up duty there.”
“Party in the AWC, who’s with me?” Beaulieu asks, looking around.
Imahara shoves him. “Not me, you big lug.”
Barros plants her hands on the long Mess Hall table. “Bring it!”
No one gets sent to the AWC.
Lily approaches the bar, expecting to find Central now that he’s off duty. Instead of the stench of cigarettes, that has replaced the stench of alcohol, there’s a faint odor of something sweet and floral wafting out of the door.
“C’est à ton tour, de nous parler à propos de l’amour,” the Commander sings so softly, her voice might as well be the whisper of ash falling from the stick of incense. “Mon cher ami, c’est à ton tour, de te laisser parler de l’amour.”
Lily looks at the small shrine, tucked beside the memorial wall. Not everyone they have lost was a soldier. Howell’s first partner is up on the wall, as is the name of Barros’s extended family. Central has engraved the names of his parents onto a slip of sheet metal, barely a millimeter thick. The list grows and grows, as war swallows the innocent and chokes down the guilty.
She notices a piece of cherry bark, its soft underside facing the bar, has Chinese characters engraved on it.
“Commander? We’re almost done the repairs for the SPARK,” Lily says. “Tygan’s crew was inspired. They want to armor up the Spider Suit. We’ve also started work on plasma weaponry. What’s our next course of action?”
“Zhu ni shang ri kuai le,” the Commander murmurs. She dips her fingers into the glass of water, and pinches the smoldering flame. The incense extinguished, XCOM’s leader turns to face Lily. “I’d like to see the plans. You have quite the queue."
“I noticed the order for soft restraints this morning, sir,” Lily says as they head towards the elevator.
“Yes. I have never liked this part of my job.” The lift doors slide open. "But when a soldier is a danger to themselves…”
“Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing the right thing,” Lily admits. The elevator descends, letting blue light from the shaft leak onto their faces. “I don't know about the soldier in the observation ward, but Ihram’s just so stressed out. I wonder if I’m making things worse by making her live.”
“She alone can make that choice.” The elevator slides seamlessly to a stop. Dad had spent the better part of two weeks on the lifts alone, arguing that if casualties had to be transferred between the Avenger’s floors, it made no sense to risk their lives because of one jolt. “It’s not for us to decide while she has the capacity to decide.”
They discuss plans to delegate work among Lily’s engineers: Dugatkin and Andrade are now both staffing the AWC, to deal with the wounded from the last encounter with the Assassin. Tasev will take over supervising Morvin in the Psi Lab. Howell will work on the plasma weaponry, aided by Moon and Lily herself. Moon will also be tasked with sewing the soft restraints. Imahara's on maintenance duty in Engineering. Lily herself will manufacture the upgrades to the Spider Suit: all in all, it looks to be a busy week.
Through it all, Lily notices how the Commander looks increasingly tired.
After a break in the conversation, Lily grabs some mushroom tea from the break room and heads to the Commander’s workbench. The components of Dragunova’s mines, once scattered over the benchtop, are now being reassembled into weaponry.
“Something wrong, sir?” Lily sets the mug down.
“Fatigue.” The Commander sighs. “Mourning as well. It comes and it goes.”
“You’d think that after a while,” Lily says softly, “the dead would find peace.”
“But the living do not. I am a graveyard,” The Commander says, the wilted leaves scattering to the floor as she sweeps off her workbench. “If you cracked open my ribs, you would see the flowers growing over their graves. I carry within me the memories of those I love deeply, but whom I have lost through no fault of my own.” She checks the safety is capping the trigger, then sets her hands on her gun. “We are made of ghosts, Lily, you and I.”
Lily blinks at the use of her first name, but warmth spreads through her. The Commander adheres too closely to formalities for that to have been a slip of the tongue.
“I know intrinsically that grief never goes away. The wounds heal, and the grass grows over the graves.” The Commander feels the scar below the joint of her chin and neck, from the emergency tracheotomy. “The difference between theory and practice, I suppose.”
She looks up.
“Did you hear that?”
Lily shakes her head. “Chosen?”
“Sometimes I hear them cackling over the radios during missions, but I didn’t hear anything right now. The Elders’ favorite megaphones have anything to say?”
“The typical I’m coming for you,” the Commander says. Her frown deepens. “We’ve destroyed two of the Assassin’s facilities, and three of the Warlock’s in the past two months. We have not done covert actions with the Hunter for a while. If anything, we are overdue for a retaliation.”
“We aren’t prepared for that,” Lily says, “not with the scanning relays on the fritz for at least another week.”
The Commander sighs.
“Don’t tell me that was a Chosen…”
“And so I won’t,” the Commander says. “Instead I’ll say that the Assassin claimed responsibility for that one. How, I do not know. Perhaps she vigorously fanned in our direction with her katana.”
Lily immediately thinks to the upgraded security in the Quarters, and prays that it will never come to an assault on the Avenger.
“I’ll consider giving Volk some supplies to track down the Hunter’s facilities. Perhaps we’ll rescue some Reapers that way. We’ll be seeing more of them soon, though not the one I’d like.”
Lily eyes her superior. “You’re not… planning something, Commander?” she asks, trying to keep her voice light. “I don’t need to make a second set of soft restraints, right?”
“No. But I still think I should have died in Afghanistan.” The Commander draws a finger along her shoulders. “I have no scars from that time, but I became the Commander while recuperating. The Council selected me. I was selected to live. All but one of men died. Why did I not join them? I am the last of the Liu who practiced Christianity and escaped to Hong Kong. Why did I not die with them?”
Lily opens her mouth, but finds she has no words. She briefly thinks about saying, “everything has a purpose”, but those are empty words with blades poised to hurt.
“Le faucheur m’attend,” the Commander says, trailing a finger down the side of the Claymore. “I have kept him waiting for too long.”
The Chief Engineer swallows, and makes note to warn Central. “What do you plan to do, Commander? Do you need to talk?”
“The Reaper will have to wait a while longer,” the Commander says grimly. “My job is not yet done.”
“Go go go!” Andrade shouts as he grabs the stretcher’s handle. He levers his momentum into dragging the the stretcher forward. Barros gasps for breath, her eyes wide and unseeing. “Next one in!”
Lily stops configuring the life signs monitor just long enough to grab her tablet and send off a message to the Commander. She lets the tablet fall to her side as she snaps on a fresh pair of gloves. ADVENT raided a Haven, and the Warlock decided it was time to start culling those who did not believe in the Elders’ power. Lily has learned to fear the psionic zombies: though they do little more than swipe, a zombie primed to explode that prowled into the midst of civilians and trigger-happy Resistance fighters… well, it was the reason why the Avenger’s passenger bay was packed end-to-end with casualties.
“Moon! I’m running low on gloves!” she calls into the fray.
Moon edges around the groaning wounded and the quiet dying, but the minute she passes by Georg leveraging his entire weight onto the gushing thigh wound of a boy no older than fifteen, she picks up the pace. She snags the box of gloves and tears it open as she runs back to Lily.
“You know where to go next?” Lily asks as she snaps the top off an ampoule of morphine. She maneuvers her syrinette into the space and sucks up precious painkiller. Moon holds up the glass waste bin. “I’ve got this, now go!”
Lily loads the saline bag with morphine. She looks for Tygan, but the doctor is nowhere to be seen.
Her headset crackles with Tygan’s voice. “I am moving to surgery. You must start the IV.”
Lily pushes back the panic boiling in her throat. “Which arm?”
“Left brachial vein, where her arm bends. I’ve uploaded instructions to your tablet.”
Lily steels herself. She has practiced this many times before. Lily uses the program to guide her, but no matter how many times she tries, she can’t get the IV closer than an inch to the civilian’s skin.
The Chief Engineer bites her lip hard. Time is wasting. Lives are swirling away.
“Dugatkin! Take over,” she says, “I’m switching to maintaining life support!”
Dugatkin hurries over, and sticks the needle on the first try.
Lily pushes away the shame to the back of her mind. She has a duty now.
“Shen, status update. We’re almost out of O neg,” Central says, once the Avenger has relocated to the safety of a canyon somewhere in France. He wipes his forehead with the back of his hand, then gets back to scrubbing the blood out of the Hangar floor. “Saving the last two liters for Madaki. You’ll need to set up a blood drive once we’ve got the materials.”
Lily zips the top of another biohazard bin shut. “Who’s still able to give blood?”
“We’ll need to raid an ADVENT depot to get the horseshoe crab blood first,” Central says. “It’s just not safe to transfuse the blood otherwise.”
Lily grimaces. “We’re running dangerously low on medical supplies… here’s hoping we don’t have another–“
Central shushes her. “Don’t do that! You say that, and we’ll end up meeting the Elders themselves!” He pats the floor. “No, not you. You’re doing fine.” He looks up at Lily’s flat stare. “I’m wondering if sweet-talking the ship will get her to fly better.”
“Central, I’m pretty sure the problem’s PEBCAK.”
“Problem exists between chair and keyboard.”
The floor creaks.
Central inhales. “First, Chief Engineer Shen, I stand to fly this damn ship–“
“Shoot it!” Zeya screams as the boar charges towards him.
The XCOM soldiers let off a volley of shots, most which miss and end up shredding the farmer’s neatly hewn fence. Even the Grenadier armed with a laser cannon ends up shattering a massive boulder. Those that actually hit the 2-meter long target only end up enraging Porkenstein’s Monster.
“My cabbages!” the farmer screams as he vaults over a fallen log.
Central racks his rifle, and fires a burst. The boar grunts and goes sliding across the carefully maintained field. Central slides in a fresh clip, aims for the head, and empties his rifle. The poor pig’s squeals die down as it finally shuffles off to the great pigpen in the sky.
“So, Shen,” the Central Officer says, patting his massive rifle, “still overcompensating?”
“You sure taught that pig a lesson,” Lily says. “I played A Machine for Pigs. When the pigs rise up, we’ll look to you to save us.”
“Just for that, you’re not getting any for dinner tonight.”
“You wouldn’t.” Lily grins at him. “I mean, I’m the only one whose dad bothered to write down recipes. Which are stored on ROV-R. You don’t want sweet and sour spare ribs?”
Central sighs. “Fine, I guess you can work your magic.”
“Urgh, I hate chitterlings,” Howell groans over lunch. “How can you eat–?”
“Fei chang?” the Commander asks, picking a slice from the serving tureen. “It’s traditional. And delicious.”
Andrade makes a face. “But pigs have worms!”
“Hog maw is good when you prepare it right,” Kokkonen says dreamily. “I remember going to dim sum…”
“It’s more of a dinner thing,” Lily says, “but I loved the way my a yeh made it. Hey, Andrade and Dugatkin, can you guys eat pork?”
“I’ll pass,” Andrade says, taking the apple Howell passes him, “but thanks for the offer.”
“Hell yeah, I lived in China!” Dugatkin looks way too excited at the prospect of having meat. “It’s like a temple to pork!”
Lily catches Bradford raising an eyebrow at the Commander with a far too mischievous smile. Lily’s superior rolls her eyes and makes a shooing motion.
The Chief Engineer rolls her eyes in turn, and mouths, get a room you two in the Command Duo's general direction.
Lily pushes up her mask and sets the welding gun aside. The upgraded Spider Suit needs one more stress test and it’s ready to deploy.
“Awesome!” Gonzalez says upon hearing the cheers in Engineering. “Hey, Chief Shen, can I give it a go? Please?”
“If you’re willing to sign a waiver,” Lily replies, but gives Gonzalez the thumbs up. “Why’re you down here?”
“We got some interference up on the Bridge,” Gonzalez says, “couldn’t contact you guys in Engineering either. The scanners are on the fritz. Seems like it's the PA system's turn.”
“I’ll take a look,” Moon volunteers, “since Mr. Andrade isn’t here! He’s in the AWC working on Ihram, I think."
Lily flashes Moon a grateful smile. “Take your tablet and record everything.”
“Yes, Chief,” Moon replies with a salute.
“Call me, beep me, if you wanna reach me,” Gonzalez sings as she swings up to the rafters of Engineering.
“Really?” Howell asks.
“That sounds familiar…” Lily muses.
“You’ve never heard of Kim Possible?” Gonzalez strikes from Lily can only call some sort of mock Kung Fu pose. “In danger, or trouble, I’m there on the double–”
“You know you can always depend! Kim Possible!” Howell chimes in with Gonzalez.
“It feels good, Chief!” Gonzalez rubs her left shoulder, then rolls it. “But it would be nice to have an option to have the launcher on my good arm. It yanks on the joint.”
Lily notes that down. “All right, everyone, day shift’s almost done! Make sure your stuff’s packed away and the machines are clean!”
“What are you, our mom?” Imahara grumps. “Isn’t that Central’s job?”
“Central’s sleeping, so it’s my job now.” Lily pauses. “No, I am not your mom. I did not just say that! Stop laughing!”
While her engineers have a laugh at her expense, Lily’s earpiece suddenly beeps with the Commander-specific cadence. Static fills the air.
“Commander?” Lily cups her hand over her ear. “Can’t read you, sir.”
Dread boiling in her stomach, Lily heads to her terminal and connects the Commander to the intercom.
“Chief? Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Imahara asks, the smile quickly fading from her lips.
“–attack–“ Something whooshes past on the Commander’s side, “–Hunter, AWC cor–“
Lily kicks open a drawer and grabs the first thing she sees: a foot-long wrench. “Central!” she shouts into her com-link, praying he’s not in a drunken stupor. “Central! Wake up! The Hunter’s onboard! There is a Chosen onboard!”
Title from 天涯歌女 (Tian ya ge nu).