Miklosfy Istvan - The Knife's Edge
Posted By: CaptainRaspberry<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 26 February 2010, 1:02 am
1. Miklosfy Istvan
Days after the end of the Human-Covenant War, a message was received from the colony Barthes. Insurrectionists of the Baszac faction, sensing the UNSC's weakness and thirsting for independence, had taken control of the capital city of Saricas. Unwilling to falter despite its severely reduced resources, the UNSC conducted a vicious ground war against the insurgents.
After two months of fighting, only a small pocket of resistance remains in the capital, isolated in the center of the city. They do not control the power nor the water, and have nothing but their resolve to keep them warm in the face of approaching winter.
9:14 [L;AM], 17 Október 2553 (Local Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes -- Baszac-controlled sector
The sun woke Istvan, as it normally did. His alarm clock no longer worked, nor did the automatic lights that had once kept time for him. But that was alright: he much preferred it this way. It felt right, almost natural. Like his classmates -- but what were they without a class to attend? Certainly not friends -- the only thing stopping it from feeling completely natural was that Barthes' sun was not Sol, this planet not Earth.
His father always said they didn't need Earth, but Istvan couldn't help wondering if maybe it wasn't completely true. What if the desire for that planet, that yellow star was encoded in every human's DNA?
He slipped his feet to the floor, and found it colder than the previous day. The seasons were changing, it was becoming difficult to ignore. Staying his teeth from chattering, he wrapped his thin, dirty blanket around himself and stood, yawning, to face the day.
The window looked onto the street. Children younger than he played absently in the morning light as it filtered down through the twisted wrecks of the upper floors, dappling against their pale skin and burnished metal toys. Here and there stood the resistance fighters, dressed in whatever they could find, marked by red strips of cloth round their arms and the weapons they carried. Few numbers here meant more numbers at the gates, watching, maintaining vigil.
Istvan's heart fluttered. Today, he would join them.
Feet slapped across the bare floor as he went to the bathroom. He was careful not to use too much water, just enough to scrub the cuts on his face, and always keep the dirty water away from the clean supply. The UNSC had cut off their water and power, and with the dry Barthian winter coming, rain was becoming scarcer. His father talked often about "ice farming," what it would be like to scrape the thick ice from the windows in the morning, gather it into cups, and warm it by a fire until it was precious water again.
Somewhere in this three-story ruin was Miklos Vadas, talking of ice farming and revolution, preparing for the day before his son.
Properly washed, Istvan descended to the first story, where more soldiers lingered. Most held bowls, either waiting their turn in line or sipping gingerly at the cold broth within. He envied their haggard faces, dirt smeared over wounds; certainly they complained of being miserable, but within a hot fire burned, one of internal dignity and righteousness.
It was a face he longed to possess.
The raspy paternal voice summoned him, and he turned eagerly. His father waved to him from near the wall. "Come, speak to the commander of the watch."
He approached the large, balding man slowly. Perhaps not a man; the commander of the watch was better known as The Fox, for his powerful stare and quick wits. He eyed the boy before him like a wary predator gazing upon new prey for the first time. "You are Istvan?"
"Istvan Miklosfy Vadas, sir!" The boy snapped a salute.
The Fox turned his eyes to the elder. "He is so scrawny, Miklos. How can I take him?"
"Men of brains eat for their brains," Istvan's father said. "Look at his head. Perhaps he has trouble with the rifle, but his eyes? Sharp. Sharper than yours, Eszes, I think."
Huffing, the large man turned back to Istvan. "So, you are to join us this afternoon? Are you ready for the watch?"
"The Yoonies' snipers are good. If you are not careful, not diligent in your watching, you will be gunned down. Or worse, you will let them see an opening, a place where they could get their soldiers in. Will you let them do this?"
"You must understand: we are the last of us. All other Baszacs have been driven away or killed or surrendered, like the once-great General Emericus. I must know, without doubt, that you can be counted upon, or it is straight to the pipes with you. Am I understood?"
His peace spoken, The Fox left. Istvan looked expectantly at Miklos, who chuckled lightly.
"My son, you are a man of brains and heart. Were it not for this war, I would see you at university. But this is much more important. Do you know?"
Istvan nodded. Miklos scratched at his son's hair affectionately. "We will see. By the end of today, we will see."
7:24 [L;PM], 17 Október 2553 (Local Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes -- Baszac-controlled sector
The sun was in decline, the warmest part of the day over. Istvan pulled his recycled jacket tighter, mindful of the cloth round its arm and the wide, stained hole in its chest. He had been cautioned as to the poor luck of the previous owner, a victim of a lucky sniper's shot. Istvan didn't believe in luck; just in war. Those who cowered behind walls and waited for it to be over weren't worthy of Baszac. They should have been pushed past the gates and into the UNSC's waiting claws long ago.
Shouting broke his reverie, and he realized that The Fox was calling for attention. The massive man didn't so much speak as project, which he was doing now to great effect. Behind him, Istvan could hear the shattered window rattling in its pane with every syllable:
"Tonight, we are joined by the latest rookies to take the watch. They are brave, but their skill has yet to be determined. Each járőr will be made up of four people, two rookies and two veterans. You will stick to your assigned routes, break when permitted, and you will stay alert! Watch for Yoonie movement! Stay sharp, for they are seeking you as heartily as you are seeking them! Remain true to Baszac, and you will be seen safely through. Believe!"
"Believe!" The chorus sounded, a harmony of enthusiasm and dry humor. With a nod, The Fox sent the patrols out.
Istvan had been paired with Laszlo, a fellow rookie, and two veterans: Tamas and Marton. They saluted him with indifference, but Laszlo quickly took up conversing. They discussed their families, and what they could recall of their lives before the war. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
When they reached the buildings, Tamas hissed, "Shut up!"
"What," countered Laszlo, "can the Yoonies hear us now through the walls?"
"No," said Marton, "but talking will break our concentration." Istvan regarded the two veterans closely. Tamas was very edgy, with patchy stubble and slits for eyes. He hunched, even when walking through windowless hallways. On the other hand, Marton seemed very level, like a friendly bear. He had a full beard, and stood tall, even when passing the windows.
When Istvan asked him about it, Marton motioned to the setting sun. "So long as there is light, they cannot see through the windows. And they will not use their night vision until it is truly dark."
"I had heard stories," said Istvan, "that there were certain soldiers that had helmets which could see through walls."
For a moment, Marton was silent. At length, he said, "No. We will not see those soldiers."
In just a short time, however, the sun set, and now everybody was careful to hunch over. At each window, the járőr halted and scooted beneath the pane as the veterans taught the rookies how to use a mirror. The Baszacs of Saricas, boasted Tamas, had once possessed the equipment they needed to patrol without such primitive devices: armor and helmets, cameras, weapons with SmartLink software in their scopes.
"But when that cowardly bastard Emericus surrendered, he gave up our armories under torture. Now we have mirrors." And he demonstrated how to position the mirror to attract the least attention from snipers, and what the signs were to spot a Yoonie.
The next few windows were handled by the veterans, but they finally gave the rookies their chance to try. As Marton and Tamas stood off to the side and shared a cigarette, Istvan held the mirror awkwardly. He was paranoid about being seen, however, and made his sweep too quickly. Then it was Laszlo's turn.
As Laszlo held it up, he whispered excitedly, "I think I see one!"
"Perhaps... twenty meters away. I saw a long, straight shape, between gaps in a fence. I don't see it anymore, I think it's gone." He brought down the mirror and frowned. "I think I held my hand too high."
Istvan was about to ask how he knew when thunder shattered the wall, blowing a neat fist-sized chunk through the plaster and concrete and Tamas's ribs, followed by a distant crack. Three more roars followed in quick succession, two missing and one more striking the now-lifeless body of the veteran. It hit the ground with a sickening thump, cigarette dropping from between limp fingers.
Later, Istvan would wonder if he had screamed during the onslaught, but now everything was quiet. There was whimpering, perhaps from Laszlo, and a horrible smell.
"Stay down," Marton cautioned; it took Istvan a moment to realize that they had all dropped prone at the attack, but pride in remembering his brief training was quashed by the pool of red expanding in his direction. Bile rose in his throat, but out of sheer force of will he kept it down.
When it was clear that there was no more shooting, Marton got up into a crouch and started checking what was once Tamas. Laszlo was whispering prayers of forgiveness over and over, an unbroken chain of repentance.
"Oh God," he said, "oh God, oh God, I killed him. I killed him, I must have held the mirror too high, they saw, I killed him..."
"No." Marton withdrew some papers from the jacket of former Tamas, edges stained with blood. "Those shots were much too accurate. That Yoonie sniper knew what he was doing. Tamas must have blown smoke in the wrong direction."
It frightened Istvan that such a small error could be punished so fiercely.
The veteran seemed finished. "We shall return now," he said. "I think you have seen enough bloodshed."
"What about him?"
For a moment, Marton looked stricken with grief. "We leave him. Carrying his body would only be a liability. Some other time we will recover him."
11:49 [L;AM], 18 Október 2553 (Local Calendar)/
Saricas, Barthes -- Baszac-controlled sector
In the morning, Istvan barely noticed the cold floor. If there were children playing, he didn't see them. He didn't wash his face. Downstairs, he just felt drained as he took a bowl of soup. Since last night he hadn't eaten anything, only vomited out his window. Looking at even the watery broth, he doubted that he could keep it down. A table in the corner called to him.
Before he started to eat, his father sat down across from him. "I heard what happened last night."
Istvan said nothing.
"Watching a man die is a difficult thing, especially when it is done by another man. You are too young to remember, but before we knew of the Covenant, humans were killing humans every day. There was no outside force, just human greed. If the Yoonies were ever right about one thing, it's that we needed to come together as a species to survive."
He pulled something from his pocket. "Your grandfather wished you to have this." It slid across the rough artificial wood: a leather sheath with a red and black handle. "It is a Baszac combat knife," said Miklos. "My own father gave it to me, expecting me to use it during the revolution, but I was chosen for a role other than combat." He shrugged. "Yet I am alive, and he is not. Such is life. But if you are a soldier, I wish you to take it."
Istvan just stared at it for a moment, but eventually reached out a hand and picked it up. On the back was a loop, through which his belt fit snugly. His father nodded his approval, then leaned across the table and kissed him on the forehead. "Do great things," he said. "No matter what you do, so long as you do it for greater things, you may sleep easily at night."
With that, he left. Ten minutes later, Istvan had finished his soup and joined his fellow soldiers to recover the body of Tamas.