Decipio Umbra Chapter Three: Mortuus Vir
Posted By: Archangel 7<email@example.com>
Date: 10 August 2007, 5:58 am
It shouldn't have happened this way, however substantial the risks involved in the project had been. Twenty-seven urns lay dormant in a storage room, hidden below the surface in their unceremonial resting place between the incinerator and the families waiting for the news on their beloved. Letters had been sent to them, cold and formal in their language, disclosing the false 'truths' about the men's deaths. To everyone else in the universe, the men had died in fiery combat on the world of Somnis, and their bodies had been respectfully cremated to spare their relative's eyes the brutality the Covenant were capable of. The few who knew the true extent of their heroism resided now in a secret bunker, one aptly labeled "The Pit."
Johnson bowed his head solemnly. The morose ceremony was finished, and at the moment there was no business to concern him. Above him the stadium roof seemed to stretch for an eternity in darkness. Only the radiant lights shining upon the floor betrayed the true size of the room, standing no more than twenty feet overhead.
A door opened above the rows of seats. Johnson gazed up in time to see a silhouette emerging before the door slammed shut, hiding it in shadow. From above the clicks of feet rambling across the concrete floor reverberated through the hall. The clicks descended, stopping as they became level with the ground.
"How are you taking it, Major?"
Johnson shrugged. "The after-effects are still getting to me, and I'm still trying to walk without feeling as though I'm going to trip over my own feet-"
"That's not quite what I was asking," said Jason.
"Oh," he said, "That." He sighed heavily. "I'm not sure what to think. Some part of me sees this as a twisted form of organized treachery, but another wants to see what good can come of this, how it's necessary."
"It's not easy giving them up, is it?"
"That's what happens in a war," Johnson replied. "Shit happens, people die, right? They were willing, and they payed the full price for the chance to save humanity."
"You sound like a recruiting poster."
Johnson scowled. "Maybe I just believe in the abilities of the normal man." He walked away, heading toward the wall. He struggled to keep his gait even, although every step he took seemed to arrive too quickly or with an unsettling force. "It's not as though I haven't lost men before. My company was stationed on Moebious for six months before the Covenant decided they wanted to glass the place. We managed to hold them off for three weeks until the locals could evacuate, digging our heels into every little position we could find. We damn near lost the entire company; only seven of us were alive when we finally jetted off." He scoffed. "And to think, they had the gall to call us seven lonely Archangels the 'heroes.'"
"Well, the 177th did manage to save millions of lives. You can't be disappointed about that, can you?"
"I suppose not. But to me, they were just statistics. I can't say I wasn't glad that so many survived, but it cost me a over a hundred men. These were guys I knew since I enlisted in the Airborne, guys I had seen through basic. It doesn't matter which way you look at it, there's no real replacement for them."
Johnson stopped, his head suddenly reeling in disorientation. Jason stepped beside him, looking into Arnold's eyes as he spoke. "There's one question I have to ask you."
"What would you give to keep millions of men like the ones you knew from sharing their fate?"
Johnson shrugged. "I suppose just about anything."
"Then you can see the worth of this program. It's not just about classified experiments and top-secret labs. It's about giving men a better chance of making it home. It's about giving us time."
"And you say I sound like a propaganda poster." Jason cracked a smile, but the expression soon faded.
"I have another question to ask you." Johnson cocked his eyebrow and nodded. "Why do you value your men so much?"
"It's. . . it's complicated," Johnson answered. His gaze dropped to the floor. "This morning I went to see Private Morrison, one of the recruits who was subject to your 'side effects.' The kid was diagnosed with a fatal cardiac enlargement, and there was nothing the doctors could do but keep him comfortable. So I decided to check on him, comfort him as much as a cynical bastard like myself could.
"The head nurse escorted me through the ward. On both sides I could see the bodies, lined up in their little cubbyholes, each of them covered head to toe in white sheets, waiting for their rides to the morgue. I had trouble telling if some of them were even human. They had limbs twisting around in these sickening, god-awful ways. And the smell. . . oh God, it smelled like caking blood, vomit, and. . . ugh, I don't want to think about it. I've been through three campaigns and never smelled something like this. It was like the atmosphere was trying to clog my lungs in decay. I just couldn't believe what I was seeing. This kid had only held out this long because he hadn't been through the worst.
"Morrison was always the kind of guy who you think would've played starting linebacker in high school. You know the kind: tan, buff, thought he was on top of the world because he could get a few sluts to sleep with him. Here I wouldn't have seen him if the nurse didn't point him out to me. His skin was pale, almost chalky. It was like all the blood had been drained out of him. Not only that, but he was skinny. Not starved skinny, but anyone could see the bones jutting out behind his skin.
"'How's it going,' I said. He turned over and groaned, then looked up at me. Well, he would have been, if he had the strength to open his eyes.
"'Not bad, Major,' he said. It was then I knew he hadn't been told the big news. Like hell I was going to tell him. So instead I told him that he would be would probably be on leave soon, and he could go back to see his family and get out of this hell-hole.'My family hates me,' he says, 'but I wouldn't mind going back and seeing Altiar again. I want to see the open fields again, and I wouldn't mind seeing the block again.' He goes on about how the 'wheat blows around in the wind like a sheet of gold,' and how he wanted to really get serious with a girl for once. All of a sudden he just breaks out in tears, and he turns away form me like he's ashamed of what he's doing. He just keeps sobbing, and sobbing. I wanted to say something, but I knew it wouldn't help. This kid knew he was going to die anyway. He was alone, even with me standing two feet away from him. He was alone with the eighteen years he had to live. Eighteen years isn't a life; it's hardly the beginning of one. But somehow it was slipping away from him, second by second. Finally he stopped crying, and his body went limp. I called out for a doctor, but it was too late. I didn't know what to do; I couldn't stand there with my legs shaking in rage, I couldn't just revile fate for killing off another innocent. But all I did was stand there and look at his face, cold and still wet with his tears.
"I don't know what it was about that kid. Maybe the way he described his home reminded me what it was like on Darmus before. . . before it was glassed. Maybe it was the fact that he was a cocky son-of-a-bitch. Maybe it's just me. But somehow, I knew down inside that the kid didn't just remind me of me, he was me, in a way. That's why I couldn't stand losing him."
They stood silent for a moment, staring blankly at the polished floor behind them. "You know," said Jason, "When they first sent you to me, I didn't think you were cut out for the job. Frankly, I thought the last thing on your mind would be your men. I assumed you were like all the others, obsessed with your own glory, making a hero of yourself while everyone else dies. Now, I think, they might have found someone right for the job."
"Well, I'm glad to be of service," Johnson replied, with a hint of cynicism returning to his voice.