Waking the Dead—the conclusion—Permafrost Hell
Posted By: Chuckles
Date: 27 January 2006, 5:04 pm
Waking the Dead—the conclusion—Permafrost Hell
Sergeant Ryan Decker held Simjanes' ruined helmet between the two officers, and even in the room's low light they could see the Clown symbol painted in bold, blood red strokes above the shattered visor. Colonel James Ackerson shut his eyes and turned away from the offensive object, but the doomed feeling burning in his gut like a hot coal was not as easily set aside. This was how it always began; this was how the Clowns worked—sending fear ahead like artillery to soften the enemy before the attack. Ackerson knew it was a scare tactic, but knowing didn't help his stomach any. Their present setting only helped drive the enemy's message home. The bloody carnage surrounding them was not unlike the Clown's own handiwork during the Bishkek rebellion. Here he was, watching a dream that spanned more than two decades fall into ruin, and now even irony was against him. Fantastic.
"Sergeant," the Colonel said without turning around, "I want you to find Dr. Robert Conrad. Have him gather all the information he has on TREE STUMP and then escort him to my office immediately."
"Yes, sir." Decker turned to leave, but then paused. "Sir, what do you want done with this helmet?" The Colonel's eyes narrowed.
"Have the men use it as a latrine and then toss it back over the wall." The Sergeant wanted to laugh or at least smile, but Ackerson's tone told him this was no joke.
"Right away, sir."
Something about the Colonel had changed in the last minute or so, and that change made Sam's skin crawl. "You're meeting with scientists at a time like this?" Ackerson looked his old friend in the eye and nodded. There was a warning in the look, but the Major dared not stop before making his point. "For God's sake James, don't you know what that symbol means?"
"Better than you do!" he replied, face red with anger. "And I swear, if you call me 'James' one more time I'll have you guarding the outer wall wearing nothing but a helmet and boots! You may address me as 'sir' or 'Colonel'. Do I make myself clear, Major?"
Sam straightened his back. "Quite clear, sir."
"Good." After taking a deep breath, Ackerson spoke in a lower voice. "I need to find some answers, and since there's no telling how much of this facility will survive the next twenty-four hours, I need to find them fast."
They were ready to go, or at least, as ready as they'd ever be. Looking one final time at MiNeS' unshielded face and seeing the conflict that raged beneath the surface, Chuckles wished that there were some other way. But since they had to assume that MiNeS' father was still alive, their plan had to include a means of both finding and saving him. Unfortunately, they also had to assume that Ackerson would be smart enough to kill Ben a short time into the battle. Thus, the horrible but effective methods perfected by the Clowns during the Bishkek rebellion would work only to a certain point. At first the task had seemed impossible.
But they found a way. It was dangerous, unproven and riddled with enough uncertainty to make a tactician blanche; but it was all they had. Something other than danger, however, troubled the younger man. MiNeS had been through enough grief without adding more—but that was precisely what their plan would do, whether it succeeded or not. Chuckles wanted to reassure the young Spartan, or at least let him know that he understood, but he came up empty. After all, what could he say? Sorry MiNeS, life sucks?
The kid already knew that.
Chuckles pulled his MJOLNIR helmet down over his unsightly face and fastened it tight. As MiNeS did the same a moment later, the older Spartan looked on with a mixture of pride and sorrow. Although his partner wore the Clown symbol prominently above his visor, he was not Lexicus. Chuckles missed his old friend's presence worse than ever, and he knew that when the fighting started, he would miss his unbelievable skill even more. But he also knew that if anyone had the potential to match or surpass Lex, it was MiNeS. The kid already boasted the best aim in the UNSC, and no one could match his uncanny talent for disappearing in plain sight. And, as Chuckles had recently found out, this was Benjamin Cutlass' son: extreme intelligence ran in the family.
Grabbing his newly acquired six-gauge, Chuckles thumbed in a few shells and then slung it on his back. "Ready, kid?" MiNeS nodded.
"Do you think," he said in a low voice, "that he, that Caleb would, you know, understand?"
Hearing his name, Chuckles recalled Caleb's easy smile and quick humor—traits uncharacteristic for a Spartan—and the memory made him want to kill Simjanes all over again. "Understand?" The older Clown laughed. "I think he'd love it."
At least twice the normal number of troops rushed through the facility's narrow hallways, and most of them wore grim faces and additional weaponry. As he made his way through the odd crush of humanity, Dr. Robert Conrad tried in vain to keep his nerves in check. Not only was it highly unusual to be escorted to the Colonel's office by a soldier, it was unusual to go there at all. Even more disturbing was Ackerson's renewed interest in TREE STUMP; a subject so secret that the files were kept strictly in hardcopy and never reproduced. It had taken him more than half an hour to dig them out; and judging from the Colonel's expression as he entered the office, that was about twenty-nine minutes longer than expected. Conrad noted the presence of Major Samuel Cousins Jr.—and his nerves began to party even harder.
Ackerson glared at the soldier he'd sent to escort the scientist. "It's about time, Sergeant. Stand outside the door and make sure we're not disturbed for any reason."
"Take a seat, Dr. Conrad." Like a kid showing up late for class, the scientist shuffled forward and sat down in front of the desk. "Doctor, according to the file sitting in your lap, Caroline Cutlass was carrying twin giants, each possessing a normal bone structure. Correct?" Conrad nodded. "Since our giants have a dissimilar structure, is it possible that we needed Caroline's DNA instead of Ben's?"
"Sir," the scientist replied in disbelief, "I've been telling you that from the beginning. Of course it's possible. At this point, in fact, I'd say it's probable."
Ackerson's face darkened. "If you suspected it from the beginning, why didn't we exhume her body?"
"Nobody knew where she was buried." Dr. Conrad replied with a shrug. "Ben Cutlass was questioned at length when he first arrived, but he was of no use."
"I find that hard to believe. Did they use Fitzjunk?" he asked, referring to ONI's favorite interrogation drug. The chemical had an official label but nobody used it; the inventor's name, Alexander Fitzjunk, was simply too good to pass up.
"They certainly did, and they came up empty."
The Colonel glanced at the clock on his desk and sighed. This was looking more and more like a dead end, and time was something he could not afford to waste. For some reason, however, his gut told him to keep digging. "Was he asked about the babies, Doctor?"
"Yes, sir." Conrad thumbed through the file and pulled out a yellow sheet of paper. "Cutlass said the same as everyone else: both dead infants were stolen from the hospital the night his wife died and never seen again."
Ackerson closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. Ben Cutlass, maybe the most intelligent man to ever work for the UNSC, allowed the bodies of his children to be snatched out from under his nose, and didn't even know where his wife was buried? None of it made any sense. But then again . . . Oh, God.
"Doctor, who conducted the Ben Cutlass interrogation?" The scientist looked through the file for a few seconds and then handed the Colonel several pages held together by a paperclip.
"It should be right there, sir." Ackerson looked at the signature on the bottom of the last page and then slammed his fist down so hard that the desk shook. It was just as he'd feared.
"Sergeant!" The soldier rushed into the door and snapped to attention.
"Bring TREE STUMP here now, and God help you if you're not back within five minutes."
Private Willy Jenkins sat on top of the north wall admiring his .50 caliber machine gun as his partner, Private Victor Bingum, scoured the arctic wasteland with a pair of binoculars.
"See anything, Vic?"
"Yeah," he replied with a tired chuckle, "A whole lot of snow."
Willy nodded and flashed a nervous smile. "You know what they're saying, don't ya?
"Well," Willy said with a snicker, "you sure seem pretty calm for knowin'. I mean, if it really is the Clowns, well, I don't even wanna contemplate it." He checked his weapon for about the hundredth time and then turned back to Vic. "Did you get a look at that helmet?"
"From a distance. It had something red on the top."
"That's the Clown symbol! You know, I heard that not a single rebel who saw that during the war lived to tell." He let out a sincere sigh of relief. "Sure glad I didn't see it."
Vic's face twisted in mirth. "How in the world could it matter?"
"Well, it's like I said, none of them rebels who saw it survived, so I figured—"
"Willy, you're idiot, did you know that? You're a complete moron. If it really is the Clowns like you think, then it's just two soldiers against the lot of us, with nothing but endless white as far as the eye can see. You'd have to be on a mountain to get a bigger kill zone."
"Yeah, maybe, but that don't matter none. I had a cousin on the rebel side, you know, an' he said that whenever they saw that symbol on a vehicle or carved in a tree, the men would go plumb insane."
Vic smiled. "Well, unless you heard that during a séance, I guess at least one soldier saw the symbol and lived, eh?"
"I suppose." Feeling stupid, Willy checked the fifty again, looked back—and Vic was gone.
"Holy—" He turned to grab his gun, and saw his terrified expression reflected in a MJOLNIR visor. Less than a second later, he joined Vic beneath the snow.
"I said move!" Sergeant Ryan Decker yelled, speeding up his pace even more. Panting from exhaustion and falling further behind with every step, two soldiers trudged down the hallway carrying a large man in between them. His short sleeve shirt and baggy pants were hospital blue, and except for the hood pulled over his face, he looked more like a surgeon than a prisoner.
"This guy ain't light, Sarge!" one of them yelled. "And since he's obviously got legs," he took a raspy breath, "I don't know why he's not allowed to use 'em."
"Good," Decker shouted back down the hall, "because knowing stuff about this guy isn't exactly healthy, boy. Now shut up and move!" Just when then felt they could go no further, they arrived at the Colonel's office and sat the man down in a chair. Ackerson glanced at his watch and then nodded in approval.
"Well done, Sergeant. You and your men can wait outside."
"Yes, sir." After the door shut, Major Cousins rose from his chair and pulled off the prisoner's hood, revealing a bald, white-bearded man in his early fifties.
"Hello, Ben," the Colonel said in a flat voice. Colonel Benjamin Michael Cutlass, former lead scientist in the UNSC's Department of Weapons Development, lifted his head and fixed two unfriendly eyes on Ackerson.
"I need some answers, Ben, and I need them quick." A smile spread across the prisoner's face as he chuckled softly.
"Yeah, I can see the fear in your eyes. Did the UNSC finally figure out that you kidnapped me?"
"No," Ackerson replied, shaking his head, "I didn't kidnap you. You were taken and murdered by the rebels on Pella over sixteen years ago. Nobody's looking for you. You're dead, Ben; dead, forgotten and useless." Cutlass let out another chuckle.
"And yet, here we are James." Ackerson nodded at Dr. Conrad who immediately placed an injection gun to the prisoner's arm and pulled the trigger; pumping Fitzjunk into his veins.
Within seconds the powerful drug began to take effect, and Ben's mind became an open book. "Yes, Benjamin, here we are. I want to go back to 2533. After your wife died, where was she buried?" Even with his eyes glassed and distant, Cutlass answered through gritted teeth.
"I don't know."
"Does anybody know?"
"And who is that?" Ben's teeth ground together as he tried in vain to fight the drug, causing the answer came out so slowly that it sounded like three separate words.
"Pal . . . a . . . tov." Unaware that the Colonel had successfully assassinated Vladimir Palatov just weeks before, Dr. Conrad smiled and gave a sigh of relief. Ackerson got out of his chair and walked over to the prisoner.
"Who else knows?" Even in his drugged state, Benjamin could see that, for one reason or another, Palatov was out of Ackerson's reach. He looked up at the Colonel, smiling like a drunk.
"Who else knows? God, I suppose, but I'm guessing you and the Almighty aren't exactly on speaking terms, are you?" Ben began to shake with laughter
"Why you filthy—" Ackerson smacked the prisoner viciously across the face, splitting his upper lip wide open. "How do you feel now?" Ben didn't speak, but looked up, his face twisted in rage. The Colonel gave a humorless chuckle. "Well, I guess the Fitzjunk is working after all." He grabbed a page out of the file on his desk. "When you first got here you said that both of your deceased babies were stolen from the hospital. Is that true? Were they both stolen?" Benjamin's eyes squeezed shut, his face turned red—and Ackerson knew he'd hit pay dirt. He didn't even wait for an answer. "What happened to those babies?"
Ben's head shook as he answered, as if the gesture itself would negate his damning words. "One was cremated and the other was . . . alive." Ackerson was already standing, but the other two men jumped out of their chairs. Still shaking his head, the prisoner wept.
"Pella," he answered between sobs, "n-north of Canaan . . . in a forest." Ackerson was euphoric.
"How far north?" Ben shook his head sadly as the answers that would destroy his son poured from his mouth.
"I don't know, about fifteen kilometers."
"Does the giant have a name?" Cousins asked, speaking for the first time. Benjamin Cutlass turned to Sam, his suddenly lucid eyes pure poison.
"Of course he does. His name is Daniel."
"Well," the Colonel said as he sat down behind his desk again, "I guess you were some use after all, Ben. Thanks for all your help."
Looking up at his tormentor with the eyes of a dead man, the drugged prisoner began to beg. "Please, please tell me; did anyone survive? Is there a single member of my family still alive?"
The Colonel grunted. "God Ben, I hope not."
Up until the last couple minutes, it had been one of the worst days of his life. But now, not even the impending attack from the Clowns could keep Ackerson from smiling like an idiot. Somehow, mere hours before the probable destruction of the base and the resulting loss of ONI sanction, he had managed to not only save the entire program, but also to move it forward. With a living, breathing giant, he could skip the most time consuming part of the cloning process and have results in months instead of years. By the end of this day, ONI would hate him; but by the end of the month, they would be eating out of his hand.
He looked down at the miserable beaten man sitting before him, and his smile only got wider. This wretch had once been a Colonel, a genius and a monumental success. But neither his brains nor his power could have saved the human race from the Covenant. Ackerson had known this years before when Benjamin's exploits had obscured his own, and he knew it now, as he held the power of life and death over the pompous jackass like a man waiting to stomp a bug. And now, in a moment of surreal clarity, he beheld something more wonderful than he could have ever imagined: the truth. He—Colonel James Ackerson—had found a great hope for mankind, and he had not let anything stand in his way. In a broad academic sense he did feel a measure of sympathy for Ben and others who would not live to see their sacrifice culminate in his great triumph. But at least they could die knowing that it had been done to preserve humanity; to achieve a greater good.
Four feet to his left, however, the view had been quite different.
For reasons he could not explain, Major Cousins felt as if he had just witnessed something horrible. And then it occurred to him: they had forced a father to give up his son—another son—all in the name of saving humanity. But Sam didn't feel saved. No, as he sat in that room watching the interrogation, it seemed that every façade fell away, revealing something uglier and more foul than he could have ever imagined: the truth. He—Major Samuel Cousins Jr.—was willingly committing evil in the name of good. There was only one good man in that room, and he had been drugged, beaten and cuffed—but not before watching helplessly as ONI systematically destroyed his life and his family. And now, as they zeroed in on the one thing in Ben Cutlass' life that had been left unmarred, all they had to offer this grieving, broken man was laughter and ridicule: all in the name of humanity; all in the name of the greater good. Sam's hand slid slowly backward and rested on the pistol strapped to his side.
Still smiling, Ackerson tapped a button on his desk. "Captain Belnap, what's our status?"
"Quiet so far, sir."
"How often are your units checking in?"
"Every thirty minutes."
"Captain," the Colonel said as his smile disappeared, "make it every five minutes starting right now. When was the last one?"
"Twenty minutes ago, sir." Ackerson winced. "Sir, permission to speak freely?"
"Sir, we have one-hundred and thirty Marines and nearly two-dozen ODST's on this base—some of the UNSC's finest—and every one of them is holding our latest weaponry."
"Your point, Captain?"
"Sir," Belnap said, obviously frustrated that he had to spell it out, "I feel that we are overreacting. We've mobilized over one hundred and fifty men to repel a two-man attack. Even considering that they're Spartans, we have an effective kill-zone of nearly a mile in every direction. Nothing is getting near these walls alive, sir. Nothing."
The Colonel grunted in disgust. "Son, I don't have time for this stupidity! My God, you were serving during the Bishkek rebellion; you remember what happened!"
"Yes, sir, but I always assumed that it was propaganda from—"
"During the seven years they fought in the war, the Clowns were personally responsible for over seven hundred-thousand rebel deaths! That comes out to more than two hundred-seventy kills a day, Captain! And we have how many men?"
"One hundred-fifty three, sir."
"I guess we're not even a full day's work then, are we?"
The voice was deflated. "Apparently not, sir."
"Check on your units, Captain, and then contact me immediately."
After letting out a loud curse, Ackerson closed the COM, turned to Major Cousins—and found himself staring down the muzzle of a pistol. Had it been almost anybody else, the Colonel would have immediately disarmed him, since most people—including soldiers—have to work up their nerve before firing a weapon into human flesh. But this was not most people, this was Sam; if he pulled his pistol, he was prepared to use it.
"Forgive me, Ben," the Major said to the prisoner in a calm, sad voice. "I am so very sorry." A stranger to drawn and pointed guns, Dr. Robert Conrad turned pale and suddenly had trouble breathing.
Cutlass looked up with a sorrowful face. "A little late for that, isn't it Sam?" The Major nodded.
"More than a little." Cousins' eyes changed from remorse to smoldering anger. "Colonel, call Sergeant Decker in from the hallway, now." Ackerson knew better than to argue.
"Sergeant!" The soldier rushed in the door.
"Yes, s—" Yanking out his sidearm in a single, fluid motion, he leveled it at the Major's head. "Lower the weapon, sir!" he ordered with surprising authority. "Drop it, or I'll drop you!"
Ignoring him, Sam spoke to the prisoner so quietly that the contrast was jarring. "Tell the Sergeant who you are, Ben."
"I said drop it, sir!" He began moving towards the Major, but stopped as a frightened voice crackled from the COM on the desk.
"Colonel?" Ackerson didn't dare move. "Sir, this is Captain Belnap! For God's sake, answer!" Sam gestured for him to answer.
"Sir, over half of my men failed to respond! My God, I don't know how they're doing it!" They heard labored breathing.
"Calm down, soldier."
"Yes, sir," He composed himself and then continued. "We no longer have sufficient personnel to watch the entire wall. I've ordered the men to fall back to the training center. Its walls may be thick enough to—" A wet smacking noise filled the COM, followed by silence.
Major Samuel Cousins Jr. got right back to business. "Tell the Sergeant who you are, Ben."
"Last chance, Major!" the Sergeant yelled. "Drop your weap—"
"I am Colonel Benjamin Michael Cutlass," the prisoner said, with a gravity to match his proclaimed rank. Sergeant Ryan Decker's mouth dropped open and his gun dipped slightly as he looked straight at the old man for the very first time.
Ackerson took a deep breath. "He's lying, Sergeant!" Decker looked at his commanding officer, confusion etched on his face.
"But sir, that is Colonel Cutlass." An explosion shook the building, and debris clanked against the bulletproof window like steel rain.
Seemingly oblivious to the growing tumult outside, Sam continued. "Tell him why he's here, James."
"Why don't you tell him, Major? Or did you forget that you're in this thing just as much as I am?" Decker's wide eyes went from the Colonel to the Major and then back again.
"In what thing?"
A second, more powerful blast knocked out the lights and caused the floor to jump beneath their feet; dropping all three soldiers to the ground. Two shots suddenly rang out in the relative darkness, illuminating the room in a deadly flash. A few seconds later, the lights came back on, and Dr. Conrad took one look at his formerly white lab coat before bending over and spitting up his lunch. Lying on the ground near his bowed head was something far worse. Half of Sergeant Decker's skull had been blown off; and the brains, blood and bone that were not decorating the scientist's coat had spilled on the floor.
His smoking pistol at the ready, Colonel James Ackerson stood to his feet and looked around the room. Major Cousins lay slumped against the wall beneath the window, his face bent into a horrible scowl as he tried to plug a hole in his gut with two fingers. Even so, blood flowed from the wound; soaking his clothes and starting a puddle on the floor. In the middle of it all, Ben Cutlass sat motionless in his chair, wearing the same sad expression as before.
"Go ahead, Ben," Ackerson teased cruelly, "Tell Decker why you're here. Take your time, he isn't going anywhere." Walking over to the Major, he knelt down and lifted his chin with the barrel of the gun. "Why, Sam? I'll only ask once." As Cousins began to reply, spasms jerked his body back and forth so hard that the Colonel had to back away to avoid getting smacked by Sam's head.
"W-we used to b-be g-good men," Blood began gurgling up his throat, "J-James, w-wha—" he coughed, spraying blood all over the Colonel's face, "w-what h-h-hap-pen-n-ned t-t-to us?" But Major Samuel Cousins Jr. did not wait around for the answer. Lurching forward one final time, he let out a long, wet, rattling sigh. The Colonel stood up and wiped his face with a sleeve. "We did what we had to, Sam. Nothing more."
"Colonel?" a voice yelled excitedly through the COM on his desk, "Are you there, sir?"
"Who is this?"
"Sergeant Bradley, ODST. We got'em, sir! We got'em both!" Ackerson could not believe his ears.
With two corpses bleeding out at his feet and his best friend's blood splattered all over his face, Ackerson smiled like a lottery winner and spoke into the COM. "Well done, Sergeant! Where are you?"
"Inside the training center, sir. And you'd better hurry—one of them is alive!"
After waiting several minutes for a soldier—a living soldier—to take Benjamin Cutlass back to his cell, Ackerson finally made his way through the rubble-littered streets to the training facility. An ODST met him just inside the door.
"My God, sir," the soldier said, examining the Colonel's face with concern, "Are you okay?"
What? "Yes, I'm fine. Now tell me what happened, Sergeant."
"But sir, you have blood all over your face."
Blood? He suddenly remembered what he'd done to Sam, and regret seared his heart like a branding iron. "Relax son," he said, his guilty eyes averting the ODST's gaze, "it's not mine."
"Thank God, sir."
"Yeah." Ackerson could feel the knife twisting. "Now tell me what happened."
"Sir, Captain Belnap told us to fall back here. We'd already lost half of our men, and we lost even more as we ran for—"
"Sergeant," the Colonel said, cutting him off, "just tell me how you caught them."
"Yes, sir. Not even a minute after we holed up in the building, a Warthog came down the street towards us and," the ODST cracked a rare smile, "I nailed it with a rocket." Ackerson patted the man's shoulder.
"Very impressive, Sergeant. Now take me to the Spartans."
They walked down the hall to an unmarked entryway and punched in a code. The thick, vault-like door swung open, revealing the two Spartans. One lay dead on the cold floor, his MJOLNIR armor battered, twisted and scorched. By contrast, the other Spartan showed little damage. Thick one-piece cuffs resembling miniature stocks bound his hands behind his back. His feet were chained to the floor.
"Welcome back, Chuckles," Ackerson said with obvious amusement. "I guess the Clowns aren't what they used to be."
"You could say that about a lot of things," he replied in a low, sad voice. The Colonel kicked the dead Spartan sprawled on the floor at his feet.
"Fortunate for us, this wasn't Lexicus, eh? I don't suppose he would have gone down so easily. I have to admit, when I heard that a Clown had been taken alive, I hoped it was Lex. But you'll do. You'll do just fine." He clicked his COM. "Doctor Conrad? Send 005 to the training center, armed and armored."
"Sir, I hope you're aware that a third of my staff is now dead. Could I ask that we hold off any further tests until at least next week?"
The Colonel looked at Chuckles and smiled. "This isn't for testing, Robert. Just get it here immediately." Ackerson clicked off his COM and walked over to the chained Spartan, getting as close as safely possible to his helmeted face. "Chuck, you've been working at this facility for years now and it's time you got a closer look at what we've been doing." A smug, triumphant smile spread across his face. "I think you'll be impressed."
After the Colonel left, Chuckles sat staring at the body lying on the cold, steel floor. Failure was not something he was used to dealing with, especially when it came to his partners. And although he hated to admit it, he had once again allowed himself to get too attached. Sitting there in chains, looking at the lifeless, armored corpse at his feet, the big Spartan felt helpless. I failed you, kid. And although I'll probably be joining you before the day's out, I promise you this: I won't be coming alone.
The bonds holding his hands and feet suddenly opened and fell to the floor. Chuckles grabbed the pistol out of his fallen comrade's holster and then watched in amazement as a door began to open, revealing a circular arena surrounded by steel walls, topped with clear, thick glass. Something stood in the middle of the floor—something huge. Armored from head to toe, the thing stood over three and a half meters tall. Its large helmet was not unlike those worn by Spartans, but from the neck down it had a suit of gleaming titanium-A. An enormous weapon hung on the thing's back, and the cannon-sized barrel jutted up nearly a meter over its left shoulder. Taken all it once, it was enough to stop a normal man's heart—but Chuckles wasn't scared.
He was angry.
Letting out an inhuman roar, it began to charge; each footfall shaking the ground like a small earthquake. Unused to fighting an opponent significantly larger than himself, Chuckles flipped through memories of his training on Reach at lightning speed. Being smaller than your enemy had drawbacks, but it also had advantages—and he would exploit them to the fullest.
With huge, thunderous strides, the thing raced towards him; but Chuckles merely stepped into the arena and stood motionless. As it neared the seemingly tiny Spartan, the giant balled its fist and, by design, the gauntlet formed an almost seamless, three-inch thick plate; starting at the top of the knuckles and extending down past the curvature of the fingers. Like an angry god of ancient myth, it brought the massive fist down towards its foe—and missed, as Chuckles moved at the last possible instant. Before the thing even knew what had happened, the Spartan jumped on its back and, placing one foot on the gargantuan weapon slung between its shoulders, reached for the seam at the neck, pulled a small latch, and with one powerful push, the giant's helmet thumped to the ground. Chuckles grabbed for his knife—and realized too late that Ackerson's men had removed it.
An armored hand swept backwards, swatting at the Spartan with lethal force, and missing by mere millimeters. Chuckles leapt from the beast, the thing turned around—and the Colonel got his wish: he was impressed. Thick, dark hair flowed down from the top of a head that was the size of the Spartan's torso. Huge, three-inch teeth jutted out of its elongated jaw like ivory daggers, and a pair of black horns rose from the middle of the head, curling slightly at the top. Perched in the middle were two blood-red eyes—and those eyes were staring at Chuckles with demonic hatred.
Something like a smile flashed across the giant's face as it grabbed the enormous weapon from its back and leveled it at the Spartan—and for the second and final time in the battle, Chuckles was impressed. With its unbelievably wide barrel and gargantuan length, the gun looked like a large artillery piece that had been fitted with a stock and trigger.
Suddenly, the weapon boomed, and Chuckles leapt out of the way. Striking the ground where the Spartan had just been standing, the shell exploded; creating a warthog-sized crater and filling the air with dirt. Looking around slowly, the giant pointed the weapon this way and that, waiting for the dust to clear and another chance to use the weapon. After a few moments, the cloud began to fade, and the monster finally something coming towards it. For the split second that it was able to observe the approaching projectile, curiosity overrode caution, and the beast's brain struggled to figure out what it was. Oh, it was its own helm—
Watching through the veil of dust, Chuckles saw the oversized helmet crash into the monster's face, hitting it so hard that the giant flew backwards, dropped its weapon and crashed to the ground like a toppled tower. Without caution or hesitation the Spartan attacked, somersaulting through the air and smashing a MJOLNIR boot into his opponent's lion-like snout; breaking off several teeth. In a sudden blur of angry motion, Chuckles delivered one punishing blow after another; breaking bone and splattering blood with every hit. But the giant didn't move or even flinch.
As the Colonel watched 005 take its beating, he began to wonder if Chuckles could actually die. Along with Lex, he had taken on the entire rebel army and lived. Simjanes had been sent to kill him, only to be killed himself. And now he was about to defeat a creature that had effortlessly killed four Spartans in the last two weeks. Ackerson's thoughts were interrupted as Chuckles suddenly halted his attack, turned around and pointed a gauntleted finger straight at the Colonel. The message came through loud and clear:
You're next, old man.
Turning back to his foe, Chuckles put both hands together in a massive fist, lifted it above the monster's head—and felt a giant hand yank him off the ground. Skull cracked, skin broken and half of its teeth littering the arena floor, the wounded giant nevertheless leapt to its feet and shook the building with a mighty roar. Two red eyes focused on the troublesome little Spartan trapped in its armored fist—and it began to squeeze.
Chuckles tore at the closing fingers in desperation; but strong as he was, he could not even dent the titanium-A that encased the hand. Popping and cracking noises filled his ears as the armor slowly gave way, pressing harder and harder against his body. For the first time in his life, panic began to seize his brain, filling him with strange fear and destroying his ability to reason. His armor closed in further, met his ribcage and kept pushing; crushing soft tissue as his ribs bent further and further in. And right there, on the edge of a horrible death, a voice crackled in his helmet.
"I found him, Chuckles."
Finally. "Good," he gasped, nearly unable to breath, "Blow it now!"
On the other side of the compound, MiNeS palmed a small, black detonator. Forgive me, Caleb. Closing tear-filled eyes, he pushed the button, sending a signal that flashed across the base at three hundred thousand kilometers per second, entered the anteroom at the edge of the arena and communicated with a receiver inside Caleb's MJOLNIR armor. A fraction of a second later, three Lotus anti-tank mines stuffed inside the young Spartan's hollowed body exploded; blasting off nearly a quarter of the arena's steel wall.
The shrapnel-laden shockwave slammed into the giant like a freight train, carrying it nearly ten meters before dropping it to the ground with an earth-shaking belly flop. Though spared the brunt of the explosion by the giant's girth, Chuckles flew through the air as well; his injured body landing with a painful jolt and coming to a rest near the beast's head. Lifting his gaze with great effort, the Spartan located his opponent and, to his horror, saw that it had somehow survived. Chuckles looked at the demonic beast—it's horrible eyes, its curved ebony horns, its massive jaws—and somehow knew that if there was a Devil, he was surely staring at his spawn. Crimson eyes stared at the Spartan, and they must have liked what they saw, because as the head lifted a couple of centimeters off of the ground, a broken smile spread across the hideous face, revealing what was left of the giant's smashed teeth.
But Chuckles was no longer looking at his opponent's grin; he was looking at something laying on the ground next to his right arm—his opponent's weapon. Placing two hands on the massive stock, he slid it across the dirt and pointed it directly at the giant's head. A gauntleted hand grabbed the lever-sized trigger and began to pull.
"Go back to H—"
Belching death and flame, the weapon exploded backwards; ramming into the Spartan's chest and launching him towards the opposite wall like a missile. Chuckles hit just below the observation glass and fell to the ground like a dropped toy; lifeless and still.
Ackerson looked down at the remains of giant 005, and then at the motionless Spartan across the arena. "Sergeant Bradley," he said to the soldier seated next to him, "Take some men down there and make sure Chuckles is dead. I want him in pieces."
Four elite soldiers stood in front of the thick, steel doors of his father's prison; each of them wearing advanced body armor and holding a powerful shotgun. MiNeS knew what he was up against; he knew the deck was stacked. But then, life isn't always fair, and besides; it wasn't his fault they only had four men.
The hall dead-ended into Benjamin Cutlass' cell about fourteen meters from the nearest corner. MiNeS lifted his sniper rifle to firing position and eased around the corner so slowly that not one of the soldiers discerned the movement. He took aim, squeezed the trigger and took out the first target with a perfect shot to the head—and killed two more before the body hit the ground. Dropping the rifle, he sprinted up the hallway in a blur of inhuman speed. The remaining soldier began lifting his gun, but compared to the blur, he was trapped in slow motion, and the Spartan was on him before he fired a shot. MiNeS ripped the gun from his hands, lifted the soldier by his scrawny neck and slammed him into the wall.
"How do you open this door?" The Spartan's voice chilled the air.
"Well, soldier," MiNeS said, pulling out his combat knife and holding it to the man's throat, "for your sake, I hope your voice does the trick." Eyes wide with fear, the soldier recited a ten-character alphanumeric code. The large door swung open—and MiNeS could hardly believe his eyes.
His father's "cell" looked like a city apartment, and from where he stood he could see a refrigerator. An older man with a bald head and white beard walked to the entrance and stared with subdued curiosity. Tears began to form in the Spartan's eyes as he stared back; looking upon his father for the first time since early childhood. Opening his hands, he dropped the soldier and the man sprinted away without looking back. MiNeS spoke in a nervous, almost childlike voice.
"Dad." Ben's face lit up.
"No, it can't be. MiNeS?" The Spartan nodded, suddenly remembering his brother's dying request. I did it, Ian. I found him.
Benjamin approached, wishing to God that he could see through his son's armor. "Take off your helmet; let me get a good look at you."
"No," MiNeS said, returning his focus to the mission, "Not until all three of us are out of danger."
"Three of us? Who else is here?"
Blurry eyes strained to focus as pain attacked his body like a thousand burning, biting insects. However long he'd been out, it hadn't been long enough. Chuckles tried to breath, but his armor had been crushed in so far that taking in more than a mouthful of air was impossible.
Thankful that his right arm still worked, he yanked out his pistol and slapped in a fresh clip. Lying on his stomach, Chuckles could see the large section of wall that had been blasted away; Caleb's final, brutal contribution. If they were coming, that's where they'd enter. Lifting the gun towards the charred entrance, he managed to crack a smile. I promised I wouldn't be coming alone, kid. About thirty meters away, an ill-fated soldier emerged from the ruined wall and the Spartan drilled a bullet into his neck. Two more ran in only to have their heads cracked open like melons by Chuckles' large caliber pistol.
"He's alive!" a voice yelled from the other side of the wrecked wall. Chuckles kept his gun trained on the entrance, and almost two minutes passed without any sign of movement. An arm suddenly emerged and hurled a small, round object that bounced twice before coming to rest just a few meters away.
Chuckles tried jumping to his feet, but his legs refused to move. Suddenly time seemingly came to a halt as a childhood memory flooded his brain, transporting him back to the planet Reach as a ten-year old boy . . .
He was lying on the floor guarding an entrance when a grenade bounced into the room and came to a stop a few meters away. With no time to run, he just covered his head as smoke began to spew from the sphere, indicating a virtual detonation. CPO Mendez ran into the room, face red with anger.
"You're dead, trainee—dead and useless!" Mendez snatched the training gun out of his hands. "Is this weapon loaded, trainee?"
"Is it jammed?"
"Do you know how to use this weapon?"
The CPO bent over so that he could scream directly into Chuckles' face. "Wrong answer, trainee! Any soldier who accepts defeat and probable death while holding a fully loaded and operational firearm hasn't got an idea in Hell how to use it!" Mendez aimed the gun at the training grenade, pulled the trigger and splattered it with red paint. "Now that might save your life, and it might not, but it's doing something—and doing nothing is unacceptable! You can think about that while you skip the next two meals!
Time began moving again and Chuckles leveled his pistol at the grenade, pulled the trigger—and the gun jammed. Mendez, you useless little— The grenade detonated, blasting the Spartan halfway across the arena, and ultimately reuniting him with the only two partners he ever had. And good to his word, he did not come alone.
Benjamin Cutlass had been one of the most celebrated officers in the history of the UNSC, and although it had been sixteen years since anyone had seen him, there was no mistaking who he was. And so, as he and MiNeS left the building where Ben had been imprisoned, they were met with dumbfounded stares rather than bullets. A few minutes later, the young Spartan stood over Chuckles' mangled body, balling his fists in a volatile mix of grief and fury. He pointed a gauntleted finger at Sergeant Bradley and spoke through clenched teeth.
"You! Where's Ackerson?"
The soldier shook his head. "I don't know, he just disappeared."
You don't know? We'll see about that. As MiNeS started towards the soldier, his father grabbed his arm.
"Calm down, son." He looked up at the young man, eyes burning with resolve. "I know where he's going."
The Planet Pella, three weeks later . . .
It was nearly an hour after dark, and on this particular dirt road just north of Canaan, dark took on a life all its own. Nobody knows for certain why Curly saw fit to build a tavern on what was little more than a trail through the heavily wooded hills, but he did, and one way or another, he made a go of it. Not that it was much of an investment to begin with: a few chairs, a few stools a few crates of liquor. On any given night, there wasn't a living soul within miles of Curly's Tavern, but it seemed that there was always a customer or two inside. This night was no exception.
The man had become a regular in the last couple weeks; always ordering a whisky, only to brood over it for hours without taking so much as a sip. He looked up at Curly, his face covered in sadness and several days worth of unshaved whiskers.
"Don't you have any music in this place?"
The short, portly man looked up from the book he was reading and grinned. "I don't sing, if that's what you mean. But if you want to belt out a tune, knock yourself out." Turning back to his untouched drink, the brooding man shook his head with frustration. Curly chuckled and went back to his book.
A man entered the bar wearing a long black coat. His aged, rugged face was clean-shaven and his head was completely bald. After nodding a hello at Curly, he walked straight over to the brooding man's table and sat down.
"Hello, James." Ackerson looked up at the bald man, and his heart sank.
"Benjamin." The Colonel started to reach for his pistol, but decided against it when the door swung open again, and a huge man entered. Stopping just in front of the entrance and crossing his arms, he stared at Ackerson with open hostility.
"You remember MiNeS, don't you James?" For the first time in his two weeks at the tavern, Ackerson took a sip of his whiskey.
"What is this?" the Colonel said with a sneer. "You want to have a conversation before killing me?" Ben shook his head.
"I'm not here to kill you."
"Oh," Ackerson chuckled, "then maybe you want an apology?" He took another sip of his whiskey. "Go to Hell, Ben."
"I know all about Hell, James. I've been living there ever since you took an interest in my family." Ackerson went to say something, but the look on Benjamin's face closed his mouth. "The night Caroline died, I didn't even have time to grieve her loss, or comfort my boys. No, I was too busy hiding my son Danny from your men. And less than a year later, MiNeS was kidnapped."
"You can thank Catherine Halsey for that, Ben."
"Oh, then why didn't they leave a clone?" Ackerson's face turned white. "I knew all about the SPARTAN program, James, and while my twins were genetically exceptional, Halsey wasn't about to take one of my boys." Ben pursed his lips in rage. "You thought you could use his DNA. I'm curious: when you realized he was useless, why did you make him a SPARTAN instead of killing him?"
The Colonel would have denied it again, but there was no longer any use. "He was six years old, Ben. I'm not a monster."
"You aren't?" Ben leaned forward. "Then what about my son Ian? What about Palatov? What about stealing sixteen years of my life? What about depriving my children of a father and," Ben took a breath as his voice began to break, "and what about keeping me from seeing my own children grow up?"
No longer able to look Ben Cutlass in the eye, Ackerson stared down at the table as he spoke. "If you're not here to kill me Ben, why did you come?"
"I'm here to give you a choice. You're a wanted man now, James. The UNSC knows that you kidnapped me, and they are in the process of turning ONI inside out to see who else was involved. So, I'll give you a choice."
"If you turn left when you walk out of the tavern door tonight, MiNeS and I will deliver you to the authorities alive and unharmed." Ackerson raised an eyebrow.
"And if I turn right?"
"Then you might just find what you came here looking for. Either way—"Benjamin lunged forward and smashed his fist into Ackerson's chin; knocking him clear out of his chair, "—you're gonna realize that you screwed with the wrong family."
By the time the Colonel's head cleared enough for him to stand, Ben and MiNeS were gone. Pulling out his pistol, he walked cautiously towards the door.
"Hey, wait a minute," Curly said, setting his book on the counter, "Ain't you gonna pay?"
"One way or another," Ackerson said, continuing towards the exit, "I'm sure I will." Opening the door slowly, he looked to the left and saw nothing. He clicked on his flashlight, shining into the thick trees lining the thin, dirt road. Aside from a squirrel or two, he came up empty. "You trying to scare me, Ben?" he shouted into the darkness.
There was no reply.
Turning to the right, he began walking up the tree-lined road. With no city lights nearby, the stars shined like jewels against the blackness of space. Ackerson gazed at the night sky and it was so beautiful that he almost forgot about his awful evening. He even turned off his flashlight to get their full effect. Wind rustled gently through the treetops, and it sounded like a thousand birds softly beating their wings. This has to be the most beautiful pl—"
A chill shot up his spine as he suddenly felt the ground tremble beneath his feet. Clicking on his light, he turned in a slow circle, but found only the dirt road and the thick forest, which now seemed more menacing than beautiful. For a moment he thought about Ben's offer, but for only a moment. If he turned himself in now, he would spend the rest of his life in a military prison—and that was unthinkable. No, he would eventually return to the UNSC, but not before he had some leverage; not before he proved the existence of a giant named Daniel Cutlass.
Again, the ground stirred, this time followed by the sound of crunching leaves somewhere out in the woods. He swept his flashlight beam through the forest, but the trees were so large and dense that it was impossible to see more than a few meters in. His mouth suddenly went dry as the snapping, cracking sound of breaking branches echoed through the trees; coming nearer and nearer.
Quickening his pace, Ackerson continued up the road, shining his light quickly here and there like a child lost in the woods. Panic began to take hold of his mind as the ground trembled again, and again. Something huge was coming, but in this godforsaken forest, it was impossible to know from where. Boom. Boom. Boom. Steadily, invisibly, something came nearer and nearer. Boom! Boom! Boom!
And then it all stopped. The forest became silent, calm. But for some reason, the quiet was much worse than the noise.
Ackerson suddenly felt as if someone—or something—was standing behind him. Steeling his nerves, he fought panic, spun around, and again saw nothing but dirt and trees. It's all in your head. Just get back to the ship, and forget about Ben and the whole Cutlass family. With his flashlight pointed down at the path, he started walking again, but stopped when he noticed something strange.
The stars were gone.
He lifted his flashlight towards the anomaly—and screamed in terror as, at long last, he finally laid eyes on Daniel Cutlass.
Less than a second later, his scream fell silent and his wide eyes saw nothing at all.