Short Tales of Terror (3): A Tale of Death
Posted By: Chuckles
Date: 18 May 2006, 3:35 pm
Short Tales of Terror (3): A Tale of Death
Men fear death, as children fear to go in the dark; and as that natural fear in children is increased with tales, so is the other.
- Francis Bacon
Death. At once mankind's greatest mystery and greatest fear, its gaunt form stalks the shadowy edges of our nightmares and bends our imaginations toward the dark and unseemly. Like a loathsome, unwelcome guest, it has cast its pall over man's art, literature and song for many thousands of years—and little wonder. From the moment we are born, it stands vigil; waiting patiently for the day we will die. Regardless of fame, title or wealth, no one escapes notice. There are no loopholes, bribes or favors. Everyone who is born will die. Everyone who has life will eventually meet Death.
It is only a matter of time.
"So then they threw the four of us into these rectangular holes they'd carved out of the ground. Them holes were about ten feet deep, with just enough back and forth room for some nervous pacing—and believe me, we needed it."
Jeremy Hutchins took a much-needed breath and swept his eyes across the small group of newcomers huddled at the table.
"Now, we'd been wondering why they'd taken us alive, and it wasn't long before we got our answer. You see, there's only one thing an Elite enjoys more than a kill, and that's a challenging kill. I guess four uninjured ODST's was too much to pass up. Still," he said, his face turning dark, "there ain't no unarmed man that can give one of them monsters a tussle. There was four of them Elites and four of us, so we divided up nice an' even. They moved slowly from hole to hole; one of them jumping in and the others watching and shouting like teenagers at a hockey game."
As if lost in the horrible memory, Jeremy lowered his head and stared wide-eyed at the middle of the table. "Startin' with poor old Sergeant Miller, they ripped those men to pieces. And I don't care what you say, you've never heard screaming like that; not in this world. Keep in mind that these were ODST's, an' I heard them cry out for their mommas like little kids. But that was only in the first moments. After that, it was nothing but high-pitched squeals as the wretches were dismembered alive and beaten with their own limbs." Jeremy looked at them again, fresh terror etched on his face. "I tell you, by the time they got to me, it seemed I'd spent days living in Hell, listening to the very cries of the damned. Finally, a Elite jumped into my pit and—"
"I'm afraid it's time for your medication, Jeremy," a beautiful, brown-haired nurse said as she grabbed the handles on his wheelchair. "You can talk to your new friends later."
"But Stel, I want to talk to them now." He said, his face twisting into a childish pout. "They're all listening to me and it's such a good story."
Suppressing the urge to straighten up his curly black hair, Stella Weiss wheeled Jeremy away from the table, leaving the newcomers in expectant silence. Fortunately, they had already been given their medication and it was several moments before they realized he was gone.
"You know," Stella said smiling, "that's as close as I've heard you come to finishing that story. Have you finally found an ending?"
Jeremy scowled and shook his head. "Maybe, but not a good one. I can't use the one I want."
"I'm still alive." Swiveling his head around, he looked up at her with sadness. "Who would believe it?" Smiling like a mother consoling a child, Stella set aside patient-nurse regulation and brushed Jeremy's hair out of his eyes.
With over five hundred patients, Falston Ridge was the second largest psychiatric hospital in the UNSC; and it was only getting bigger. Military personnel suffer from mental illness at more than twice the rate of civilians. Some people were never meant to endure the rigors of war. Unfortunately, the military has no reliable process for identifying such people and keeping them out of combat. This often led to panic and death on the battlefield. Those lucky enough to survive with their sanity intact were discharged or reassigned to the relative safety of a desk job. But for the small percentage who lost their minds, the only option was a facility like the Ridge. But as Stella looked at the patient she wheeled down the hall, she knew that he did not fit the usual profile. Former ODST Captain Jeremy Hutchins had not lost his sanity due to the pressures of war. No, war was the very place he thrived.
Before arriving six months earlier, Captain Hutchins had been one of the most decorated and experienced soldiers in the UNSC. But one night after a particularly brutal ground engagement, he wandered into camp alone; badly injured and babbling nonsense. Nobody except Jeremy and the members of his doomed squad knew the details of the failed mission, and since the distinguished ODST Captain could not produce a single intelligible sentence, the matter was never cleared up. But something happened to him in that dark, alien wilderness; something horrible enough to make a proven warrior cower in the back of his mind like a frightened child.
Stella pushed open a white door and wheeled Jeremy inside. The room was small with a white floor, white walls and a white ceiling. To the left of the bed was a small, all-white bathroom with a broken mirror.
"Climb into bed," she ordered, and then eyed the bathroom with concern. "I'll send Ed in to get that mirror replaced." Jeremy pulled the covers over his large frame and spoke with embarrassment.
"Sorry, Stel. It won't happen again."
"Jeremy, the next time you feel like hitting that mirror, push the 'Help' button beside the toilet instead. Then I can come and we can talk about whatever's bothering you."
"No, no, I don't want to talk about that. I need my medication now." As tears began to form his eyes, he rolled away from her and stared at the wall. She took the injection gun out of her pocket, placed it against his left arm and pulled the trigger. Looking at the broken mirror again, she felt her heart sink. This was the fifth time in less than a month, and that meant that Dr. Harris would recommend an increase in Jeremy's medication; pushing reality even further away. For most of her patients, that would have made little difference; but for Jeremy, whose sanity lurked just beneath the surface of his mind, it was like holding a drowning man underwater.
No, she would take care of the mirror herself, as she had the last two times. Any other course of action was bound to attract scrutiny, and if that happened, Dr. Harris might learn that Stella Marie Weiss, his most senior and trusted nurse, was not giving Jeremy Hutchins his prescribed increases in medication. As of today, in fact, she wasn't giving him any medication at all.
Strange, alien trees surrounded him; their bright red and green bark evident even at night. Foliage created a thick, black canopy above his head and a crunching black carpet beneath his boots. He was running, but not fast enough—but then, who can outpace a voice?
I've dug your grave too, Jeremy. Did you think I forgot?
Faster and faster he ran, dodging the trees and their black leaves, trying to leave the voice behind—the voice of Death.
There is no forgetting, Jeremy. There is no hiding.
This time the voice was closer and Jeremy could smell Death's rot and taste its decay on his tongue. A chill shot down his spine as Death's whisper hissed in his ear.
There is no rest!
Adrenaline poured into Jeremy's veins as panic took over; accelerating his heart rate and turning his mouth to cotton. The dull white sheets clung to his sweaty frame as he sat up and scanned every corner for an intruder; only to find that his eyes could not penetrate the darkness. A repulsive odor stung his nostrils and the disgusting savor of putrefaction lingered on his tongue. He lifted a trembling hand to his right ear. It felt like ice. The room, which was usually too warm, wasn't just cold; it was freezing. Suddenly, a familiar metallic click came out of the darkness; shattering the silence like a hammer, and causing the hair on Jeremy's neck to stand on end.
It was the sound of his door closing.
Why would anyone be in his room at this time of night? That question, however, was quickly pushed aside by a much more terrifying consideration: what if it hadn't been the sound of somebody leaving, but rather somebody entering?
"H-hello?" Jeremy said in a thin voice, dreading a reply. None came. Surprised that he had the courage to move, he swung his legs off the bed and stood to his feet. As his eyes finally acclimated to the darkness, he noticed that only a fraction of the usual light shone through the small, square window on his door. They must have turned off the hallway lights by accident. With that healthy, rational thought, the last remnants of the nightmare began drifting away like smoke in the wind. The former ODST walked over the door and peered out the small opening.
His scream woke every patient on the floor.
"Aren't you going to finish the story?"
As Jeremy emerged from his thoughts, he found himself at a table surrounded by the same curious newcomers he'd spoken to the day before.
"Story?" He remembered sitting at a table with this odd little group, but the rest was lost in a fog.
A small man with a crew cut and a black mustache flashed a playful smile. "Now, now, that was a very good story, and if it had been mine I would never, ever forget it; not in a billion years!"
Jeremy's mouth almost dropped open as he saw a man with tattoos and face full of black stubble gush like a six year-old. These people act like children. What am I doing here? Something deep inside warned him to play along; to pretend to be like those around him. To his surprise, acting came as naturally as breathing.
"Yeah, but I have lots of good stories and I sometimes forget which one I was telling."
"Oh," the man giggled, "then I'll help. You and your soldier friends were on this weird planet, with trees that had black bark and red leaves, and—"
"No," another man interrupted, his deep voice belying his childish manner. "The bark was red, the leaves were black and something was green." The mustached patient looked sullen, but the other four nodded in agreement. Deep voice smiled: the floor was now his. "And then they dug these holes shaped like rectangles and threw you guys in
As the patient began retelling the entire story, complete with his own distortions and embellishments, Jeremy felt a tap on his shoulder.
"Tommy heard you last night." The soft, reluctant voice came from the table behind him. Jeremy turned around to find a thin, clean-shaven man in his early thirties who had the nervous, shaky look of a person who would do almost anything for a cigarette.
"So what? I'm sure everybody heard me scream."
"Yeah," the stranger said with a frown, "but they don't know why you screamed." Pointing at his own chest several times with his right thumb, he whispered, "Tommy does, though. Tommy knows why."
Leaving the newcomers, Jeremy wheeled his chair closer to Tommy, causing the skittish little man to shrink backwards as if avoiding the plague. "So how do you know?" The patient leaned as close as he dared to Jeremy's ear and lowered his voice even further.
"Tommy sees a lot of things, but he isn't crazy like everyone else around here." A shudder reverberated through his body so forcefully that it reminded Jeremy of a dog shaking water off its body. After glancing fearfully around the room, he calmed enough to continue. "Usually Tommy isn't so scared, but right now he wishes that you would leave. Tommy thinks that if you leave, then it will leave with you."
Tommy nodded his head slowly. "What you saw outside your door last night," his tear-filled eyes grew large as saucers, "Tommy saw it too."
Sure you did, you little freak. "Describe it for me then."
Lifting his eyes, Tommy stared intently over Jeremy's left shoulder and nearly stopped breathing. The former ODST followed the patient's frightened gaze, but found only white walls and more crazy people. Nevertheless, as Tommy began to speak in a thin, reverent voice, his haunting stare did not waver.
"Tommy saw something wearing a black robe with a hood. Its face is h-hard to see. It's always in the sh-shadow of the h-hood, but Tommy thinks it's white like a s-skeleton or an old corpse." Blood drained from Jeremy's face. He had spoken to no one about the incident, not even Stella, and yet this weird little man somehow knew. "Tommy sees a lot of things—things that would make most men faint, but this thing is much worse. It has a big curved knife that is always dripping blood." If possible, the man's eyes got even wider. "Tommy hates looking at blood."
"This thing we've seen," Jeremy asked, looking at the cowering wretch with new sincerity, "does Tommy know what it is?" The patient rubbed a small cross tattooed on his forearm and nodded. But instead of answering, he mouthed a silent prayer. "Tommy, what is it? Is it Death?"
"Yes, but Tommy has seen Death many times. It always looks different, but it never looks like that. It is happy, or sad, or rushed, but never angry; never evil." A horrible expression suddenly twisted across Tommy's face. Covering his eyes, he shrank back from Jeremy in terror. "Tommy doesn't want to talk anymore. Tommy wants you to leave."
Jeremy grabbed him by the arm. "Hey, I'm not finished y—"
"Get away from me!" Tommy screamed, yanking his arm away as if his life depended on it. As two male staffers converged on the frightened man, Jeremy wheeled himself back to his table.
"What did Jeremy do to you?" one of them asked as the other injected something into the patient's arm. Tommy, who now had both arms protecting his head as if the sky was about to fall, began to sob.
"N-nothing-ing. H-he d-did n-nothing."
"Tommy," one of them asked in a soothing voice, "if he didn't do anything to you, then why did you scream at him?"
Parting his arms just enough to reveal two horrified, bloodshot eyes, Tommy replied, "I wasn't screaming at him."
Pushing Jeremy towards his room, Stella could not help but smile. One day without medication had brought about a change in her favorite patient that bordered on the miraculous. Even though her actions could have meant the loss of her job and possibly even permanent damage to Jeremy's mind, it had been a risk well worth taking.
"How did you feel today, Jeremy?" He looked up at Stella and smiled politely.
"I'm feeling okay. Stel, I see a lot of patients walking around under their own power. Why do I have to use this wheelchair?"
It's about time you started wondering about stuff like that. "Patients on certain medications are only allowed to walk around inside their rooms and during supervised exercise periods. Be thankful: some patients aren't even allowed to do that. They're either in a wheelchair or in bed."
In response to some internal warning, Jeremy had spent the entire day acting as if he were a bona fide wacko. For some reason, however, he did not feel the need to pretend with Stella. Something told him that she was safe, and he had a lot of questions that needed answers.
"How'd I end up here, Stel?" he said, with all the earnest and expectation of a child asking about the existence of God. Arriving at his room, Stella pushed the door open and wheeled Jeremy inside.
"How much do you remember?"
"Names and vague, general stuff. When I look at you," he said, gesturing towards her with his right hand, "I get an impression of what you're like and who you are to me. It's that way with everyone." His face darkened. "Everything I remember about my life before living here comes from nightmares."
"Well," she replied as he climbed into bed, "for one, you were a highly decorated Captain in the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers. And from what I gather, you were one of the best." She pulled up his right sleeve, revealing an elaborate tattoo. "That gold comet is the ODST symbol, and they won't slap that on just anybody. Getting into that unit is like trying to qualify for the Olympics. Every now and again someone will buy their way in or be admitted because of who they know but," Stella said as she flashed a rare sarcastic grin, "none of them last long. One trip planet-side in one of those capsule shaped human entry vehicles is usually enough to weed them out. Some even end up here."
Jeremy grunted in amusement. "You certainly know a lot about them."
"I have a lot of admiration for them. Nobody fights the Covenant harder." Her face changed slightly as she tried to mask her emotions. "ODST's give more to the UNSC than any two regular soldiers combined. Did you know that they aren't even allowed to get married?" Jeremy smiled.
"That does sound familiar. So," he asked, immediately guessing what she'd left unsaid, "what's his name?" Stella tried her best to look shocked, but the former ODST wasn't fooled. "It's not like I'm in a position to get him in any trouble. Talking to a confirmed nutcase is safer than confessing to a priest." She gave him a polite, humorless smile and dropped her gaze to the floor.
"I called him Boony. It was a nickname he got from his brother as a kid. Illegal relationships can get an ODST up to five years in prison, so I didn't dare call him by his real name." She paused for a moment. "But none of that matters anymore. A mutual friend called me five months ago to tell me Boony was dead, and just like that," she said, her face remarkably stoic, "after more than ten years of marriage, I'm left with nothing. No body, no grave, and no goodbye."
Not knowing what to say, Jeremy did what seemed most natural: he dug for information.
"What did Boony look like?"
She smiled. "A lot like you. He was big, with curly black hair. Well, it was curly when he was allowed to let it grow." She looked down at him with genuine affection. "I guess that's why you're my favorite patient. I know what you ODST's are put through and what you are deprived of, and I respect you for going through it. And it certainly doesn't hurt that you look so much like my man."
"For what it's worth," Jeremy said, noticing for the first time how beautiful his nurse was, "there probably isn't an ODST alive that wouldn't risk prison to marry you."
"That wouldn't surprise me," she said as she headed for the door, "because most Helljumpers are barking mad."
Blood spurted out in streams; the pressure alternating with every beat of the doomed heart. Bones cracked loudly before jutting out of the flesh like ivory dipped in gore. An arm was yanked out at the shoulder joint with a loud pop and then completely dismembered from the body. Over the sickening sound of tearing flesh and the hellish screams of slaughter, Jeremy heard something far more horrible: the torturer's joyous laughter. Watching from behind, he saw a hooded, black-robed figure begin to work furiously on a helpless wretch tied to a stake in front of him. In between screams the prisoner begged for his life, but this only made the huge, hooded ghoul laugh harder. As the torture progressed, the cruelty progressed as well, and soon the man begged for death rather than life. But for now, even this was denied him, and the morbid spectacle continued with the patience of pure malice. Before long, begging was replaced by an unending cycle of screaming and then fighting for the breath to scream again. Jeremy had never felt such pity or sensed greater evil. The more the man suffered, the more his demonic torturer enjoyed it; until breathing, screaming and laughter stopped.
The large hooded figure moved, and as it did, Jeremy got his first look at the victim's face—and it took his breath away. Looming there before him dead, dismembered and tied to a stake at the bottom of a freshly dug grave was himself; and the dead returned the wide-eyed stare of the living. As Jeremy continued to gawk, the torturer turned around and laughed.
"Did you think I forgot?" Jeremy froze in fear. It was the voice from his nightmare. It was the face he's seen at his doorway after he woke. It was Death. In its right hand it held a long shaft with a curved, steel blade at the end. Blood glistened on blade and robe as Death smiled wide and white under the shadow of its hood. "I am coming for you. If you run, you will find yourself running to me. If you hide, you will find me in your hiding place." Death's awful stench began to fill his nostrils and Jeremy moved backward, hitting the grave's wall after a single step. Again, he looked at the bloodied, limbless piece of meat tied to the stake; again, it took his breath away. "Did you think I forgot, Jeremy? There is no forgetting. There is no rest."
Waking in the dark, Jeremy sat up and wiped sweat out of his eyes. Dread flooded his tortured mind, and like the rumble of an approaching train, it became steadily stronger.
Something was coming.
Jeremy threw off his sheets, walked over to his door and peered out the little window at the top. The lights in the hallway were off, but illumination from intersecting halls spilled in just enough to give it an eerie glow. A terrifying shadow grew larger as someone came down the hallway to his right. A foul, rotten stench began to permeate his room, and he tasted decaying flesh with every breath. As the shadow grew larger the temperature in his room plunged and Jeremy began to shiver. Icy fingers played symphonies of terror on his nerves, until the frigid fear seemed to chill even his heart. Finally, the thing came into view; tall, black and evil. Slowly, it raised its weapon and turned—towards the room across the hall.
Towards Tommy's room.
Opening the locked door effortlessly, it walked in
and Tommy's screams echoed through the hall like the cries of the damned. On and on it went, but nobody came to help; nobody answered his cries; until at last, all was silent—and the silence was far more terrible than the screaming. Finally, the demon emerged, knife dripping and it's feet slick with blood. It spoke, and even though it was outside a thick, metal door, Jeremy heard the eerie rasp of the words as if they were whispered in his ear.
"Tomorrow. I'll be waiting for you, Stella's man."
Stumbling backwards in fright, Jeremy tangled his feet together and fell; smacking his head on the floor and returning to his dark and terrible dreams.
"Good morning, Jeremy," Dr. Stephen Harris said with a warm smile. His head still throbbing from a large bloody lump, the patient closed his eyes. Looking at the light hurt almost as much as trying to talk.
"Mornin' Doctor." Apparently, he'd hit his head pretty hard when he fainted the night before. Whatever they had given him for the pain was somewhat less than adequate. "Is Tommy okay?"
"Tommy?" Harris' eyes narrowed. "How did you know about him?"
"His room is across from mine and I heard him screaming last night. Is he okay?"
"Well," the doctor searched for the right words, "Tommy somehow got a hold of a knife and cut himself up pretty bad."
How bad? How could he answer? If a security camera hadn't shown that nobody entered the room, they'd be treating it as a homicide: a homicide that hearkened back to Jack the Ripper.
"It was very bad. I'm afraid he passed away early this morning. But we aren't here to talk about Tommy. I want you to tell me what happened to you last night."
Jeremy couldn't help but notice that even after recounting Tommy's horrible death, Dr. Harris still smiled from ear to ear. A couple of days before, this would have been a comfort, but now it seemed fake and deceptive. The way the doctor continuously shuffled his feet bugged him too. He'd never noticed it before, but now it set off alarms in his head. Harris' every action seemed to mean something, and some distant, recently awakened part of his brain began to decipher it like a code.
His smiles last too long, and they never involve his eyes: he's either being insincere or smiles out of habit. Nervous movement of lower extremities: good chance he's hiding something or planning to lie.
"Jeremy? Are you okay?"
"Yeah," he said, trying to quiet his mind. But he knew that something was wrong. All of a sudden he understood simple mannerisms the way most people understood words. It was as if he went to sleep for months and hadn't woken up until the last two days. He looked at the doctor and shook his head. "I just feel a little funny."
Dr. Harris smiled even wider and spoke as a father would to a young child. "Well, your head took quite a hit. Do you remember anything about last night?"
"I uh, had a nightmare. I thought I heard something by my door, went to check on it and
I saw something."
"What did you see?"
Since he was already a mental patient, Jeremy decided he had nothing to lose in telling the truth. "I think I saw Death."
"Death?" Dr. Harris gave him a quizzical look.
"Yes," Jeremy said nodding, "and I saw it enter Tommy's room."
"Well, help me out here," Harris said, trying to sound sincere, "what does Death look like?"
"A rotting corpse, or maybe a skeleton. It wore a black robe with a large hood, and—"
"And," the doctor interrupted, "a long stick with a curved blade at the end?" Jeremy nodded.
"Yes. Have you seen it too?"
"No," Dr. Harris said, chuckling softly, "I haven't. Don't you see, Jeremy; you've described the Grim Reaper. Human culture has personified Death as a scythe-wielding harvester of souls since the fourteenth century at the very latest. It's nothing more than a psychological expression of ingrained cultural imagery." Harris suddenly realized that he was talking way over his patient's head. "I'm sorry. Did you understand any of that?"
To his surprise, Jeremy nodded. "Yeah," he replied, visibly embarrassed, "and you're right; it was probably just an extension of my dream."
Dr. Harris could hardly believe his ears. During a meeting just six days previous, this patient spoke like a seven year-old and spent the entire session gushing about the story he was going to tell his friends during free time. How could that same man grasp the cultural anthropomorphization of Death, or for that matter, a dream's continuing power over the waking mind? For a normal patient this rapid progress toward lucidity would be good—but former ODST Captain Jeremy Hutchins was not a normal patient. For him, insanity guaranteed a place of comfort and safety. Sanity, on the other hand, would guarantee only a slow, painful death. In a sincere effort to maintain the former and prevent latter, Dr. Harris had deliberately kept the patient under a fog of mind numbing medications; and up until now it had worked. But for reasons that he did not have time to discover, the drugs were losing their affect. And since there were undoubtedly government spies throughout the Falston Ridge facility, he would be putting his own life in danger if he failed to report the radical change in Captain Hutchins' condition.
He tapped a button on his desk. "Cathy? Could you wheel Jeremy out and let Stella know we are through?"
"I'll be right in."
As Jeremy left, his newly awakened mind read the doctor's numerous yet subtle "tells"—and silent warning bells began to sound. Nervousness. Fear. Rationalization. Shame. Although he was not sure what it all meant, his brain made one thing perfectly clear: his life was in danger, just as it had been in his nightmare the night before.
A moment after the door shut, Doctor Harris grabbed his phone and stared at the keypad as if it were a loaded gun. As a physician dedicated to the well-being of his patients, he knew that this went against everything he believed. As a husband and father of three, however, he also knew that he had little choice. After tapping out a series of numbers, he spoke in a voice as low as Death.
"I need to speak with Mr. Gray."
"One moment," a synthetic female voice replied with a coolness befitting an ONI AI. He waited less than a minute.
"Good morning, Dr. Harris. How is our patient?"
"Doing better, I'm afraid."
"Oh? And what does that mean?"
Harris closed his eyes and stroked his temples. "He is evidencing a much higher level of lucidity than he has in the past."
"High enough to answer questions?"
The reply was almost inaudible. "Yes, although it is unlikely that his memory has ret—"
"Thank you, Doctor. We'll take it from here."
As the phone clicked off, Dr. Stephen Harris slumped back in his chair and tried in vain to silence his conscience. A phrase written on one of his diplomas caught his eye, filling him with shame: Do No Harm.
"Yeah," he replied to the damning words, "tell that to ONI."
Lying in his bed, Jeremy stared at the white ceiling and tried to calm his nerves. But his body, which had been in a state of alert ever since his meeting with Dr. Harris, continued pumping adrenaline into his veins as if making up for lost time. It was apparent that some part of his mind recognized an imminent threat, but like a baby that wakes screaming in the dark, he was ignorant of all but fear. His memory, however, was slowly returning, albeit in bits and pieces. Stella assured him that physical objects from his past, such as clothing or surroundings, would help speed the recovery process—but this hospital held nothing for him, save mocking relics of insanity.
Jeremy swung his legs off the bed and walked into his tiny bathroom. Gazing into the mirror, he carefully studied his appearance. Stern dark eyes; short, wavy black hair; handsome but slightly crooked nose that had been broken at least once. It was a face that could disappear easily in a crowd and fade quickly from a person's memory. His neck, however, was a much different story.
Starting just below his right ear and extending past his Adams Apple was a long, jagged scar that looked like something you'd find on a Halloween costume. He probed it with his fingertips—and images began crashing into his brain like rounds from a machine gun. In a single, ghastly torrent, Jeremy's memory returned; pushing his fragile mind to the breaking point and testing the strength of his newfound sanity. Backing out of the bathroom, Jeremy fell on his bed and waited for his head to stop buzzing. Mere moments before, he had been certain that his greatest need was the return of his memory.
He could not have been more wrong.
Forgetting had assured life and safety: remembering assured only Death—and that didn't mean a tunnel leading to warm light and the dearly departed. Not for Jeremy; not after what he had done. Lying on his bed, he stared at the white ceiling and tried his best to put it all out of his mind and rest. But deep down inside he already knew: there is no forgetting.
There is no rest.
The entire mission had been born out of desperation for the simple fact that nobody—least of all ONI—had foreseen the threat. With their increasingly sparse supply of up-to-date military hardware, rebel groups that had once posed a serious threat to UNSC power were now little more than an occasional nuisance. Mission accomplished.
Or so they thought.
In their willingness to declare victory, the UNSC had failed to discern the truth. The rebel's dwindling military presence was not a systematic weakening, but rather, a systematic shift in strategy. Instead of opposing the UNSC with military might, the rebels had shifted their emphasis to something with more promise: infiltration. Slowly but relentlessly, they began moving their own people up through the UNSC ranks. By the time ONI finally learned what had happened, the rebels were already imbedded in every branch of the military—including ONI itself.
Even as heads began to roll throughout the intelligence community, the groundwork for an effective response was being laid. Not surprisingly, ONI's opening move was to fight fire with fire. To find out which officers were actually traitors, they needed to get some of their own people into leadership among the rebels. Six top ODST's were recruited, trained in the art of counterintelligence and then sent into the rebel community.
For nearly three years, everything went well. But when three of the six ODST's were killed while making routine information drops, ONI smelled a rat. That the rebels would have identified one of them as a spy was not just possible, but a very real danger in the mission. But identifying three of them at the same time meant that, in all probability, one of the ODST's had been turned. This left them with only one option: abort the mission and recall the three surviving operatives.
Convinced that at least one of the elite soldiers was now a rebel sympathizer, ONI needed to find out who it was and then squeeze them for information. Even though this sort of interrogation was usually conducted by injecting the subject with one of several effective 'truth serums', that would not be the case with these three. In order to safeguard information held in the minds of undercover agents, a small device is implanted into the brain of every UNSC operative that constantly monitors their blood. If even trace amounts of a known interrogation chemical are detected, it releases poison into the agent's bloodstream; killing them instantly and thus protecting the information they carried.
Without the option of using drugs, ONI had to turn to a much older form of interrogation: torture. The questioning had to be kept secret if the UNSC was to have any chance of acting on the information they acquired, so they decided to conduct the grim proceedings during a ground engagement on an alien planet; far away from the actual fighting. Since they were ODST's, ONI knew that they would not break easily and thus, gave the interrogator a single governing rule: anything goes. One by one, the soldiers were subjected to unspeakable acts of cruelty, only to have the ODST who was identified as a rebel spy escape; first into the alien wilderness, and then into the recesses of his own mind.
So ONI waited for a day that it knew might never come: the day that ODST Captain Jeremy Hutchins was able to reveal what he knew. And once he had screamed and begged and suffered enough, they would do the honors of ushering him into the Hell he had worked so hard to earn. They were prepared to wait a lifetime.
As it turned out, it took a little more than six months.
Troy took a bite out of his over-stuffed sandwich, leaned back in his comfortable chair and gave an obligatory glance towards the wall of security monitors in front of him. Snatching his bag of barbecue chips off the ground next to his chair, he crammed a handful into his mouth and then washed it down with a diet cola. It was 10:56 pm, and that meant that in less than five minutes Troy would actually pay some serious attention to one of the room's sixty-five screens: the one tuned to his favorite television show. Be that as it may, the portly young man felt no guilt for his lack of work. Every monitor in the room operated on the principle of motion. If, for instance, a patient managed to get out of his room at night, the monitor would not only click on, but also beep loudly and flash an irritating red light. Troy took a deep breath and smiled with satisfaction. Only twenty-three years of age and he had already found his dream job: Night Security Coordinator at Falston Ridge. No guns, no aliens, no superior officers and most importantly, no work. And to think; he owed it all to a bunch of nut jobs.
The Night Security Coordinator was so startled that he nearly dropped his sandwich. Twirling around in his comfortable chair, he regarded the visitor with disdain.
"You ever heard of knocking, mister?"
"Are you Troy Johnson?" the man persisted, with a flat expression that set off a warning buzzer in Troy's head. Brushing chips off of his shirt, he sat up straight.
"I work for Mr. Gray at the Office of Naval Intelligence." Troy nearly fell out of his chair.
"Oh, umm, sorry. What can I do for you?"
The man working for Mr. Gray smiled. "I'm here to do a routine security check. Falston Ridge has several patients who possess extremely sensitive information. Mr. Gray wants to be sure that your surveillance system is capable of keeping them both safe and contained. I'll need you to leave me alone for about half an hour."
"Yeah," Troy said, grabbing what remained of his food and heading for the door. "It's all yours."
After closing the door behind the worthless security guard, the visitor sat down in front of the control panel and began moving through the system with speed and precision. Within two minutes, every security camera in the building was off, save for the one outside room 362—and that solitary feed appeared on the screen in front of him. Tapping a COM on his lapel, the visitor spoke in a low voice.
"Alarms and recording have been disabled. Remember; Mr. Gray wants Captain Hutchins alive and mostly unharmed. Good luck." A man dressed as a nurse approached the door cautiously, nodded at the camera and then disappeared into the room. Less than a minute later, the man who worked for Mr. Gray watched in horror as ODST Captain Jeremy Hutchins emerged from room 362 alone and immediately left the viewing area of the only working camera in the building.
The ONI agent tapped his COM. "Be advised," he said, pounding furiously the computer keyboard to reactivate the cameras, "the subject has evaded agent Lucas and escaped into the hallway. Abandon the rendezvous and get inside the building immediately. I'm sealing off all exits in thirty-seconds."
"Where is he, sir?" one of the agents asked.
"When I know, you'll know."
The man working for Mr. Gray was under no illusions: if Captain Hutchins escaped, his own life was as good as over. ONI was not a forgiving organization, and his boss was not a forgiving man. No, Mr. Gray's specialty was eliminating problems, and if this operation failed
To his relief, every screen in the room suddenly sprang to life. Like a man looking for his lost child, the ONI agent scanned each one—and came up empty.
Stella rushed into her living room so fast that she nearly tripped on her white, floor-length nightgown. Having woken moments before to the sound of her door being kicked open, she was relieved to find Jeremy rather than one of the building's many dangerous mental patients sitting on her couch. Her relief disappeared, however, when she saw his terrified expression.
"What happened?" she asked, walking into her small kitchen to turn up the thermostat. For some reason her apartment was freezing.
"I'm sorry, Stel, but I didn't have anywhere else to go." Jeremy shot a panicked glance at the door. "My God, it's broken! They'll see it!" He lowered his head and forced himself to take a deep breath.
Stella sat down next to him on the couch, and spoke calmly. "Who will see it, Jeremy?"
Her mouth dropped open. "ONI? Why would they—"
"Because they think I'm a traitor! My memory came back today—all of it." Jeremy placed his large right hand over his face. "And I wish to God that it hadn't."
Stella shook her head in confusion. "Why would they think you're a traitor?" Jeremy gave the door another nervous glance and then fixed weary eyes on the only person in the world he felt he could trust.
"Listen carefully, because I'm going to have to talk really fast."
The man who worked for Mr. Gray stared at the wall of empty monitors as if it were a firing squad. He keyed his COM and tried to speak to his men with assurance. "The subject is not on any of the cameras, so he must be hiding in one of the rooms. This place has five floors. I want Mick and Donaldson to start on the top level, and Smith and Bradley to start on the ground floor. I'll stay here and keep an eye on the cameras." For the first time, his voice betrayed his desperation. "Search every room, closet and dark corner until he's found. I cannot convey to you how important this man is to Mr. Gray." He took a deep breath. "Remember who you work for."
But something far more sinister than ONI lurked within the sterile white confines of Falston Ridge. It too had a pressing appointment with Captain Hutchins, but unlike the agents, it did not search; it waited. This was Death's time. Everything had led to this, just as surely as day leads to night. Jeremy would soon feel the cold, merciless horror of Death's embrace, and his screams would fail long before his heart did.
Jeremy shook his head sadly and, as he had throughout his story, continued to stare at the floor. "ONI was all but certain that one of the surviving ODST's had turned rebel and betrayed the others. They decided to take them planet-side during a ground engagement." For the first time, he lifted his head and looked Stella in the eye. "That way they could torture them for information as long as they needed, and tell anyone who asked that they died in the fight." Jeremy returned his gaze to the floor. "There are no words to describe what happened to those poor men. Their screams sounded inhuman; like the squealing of pigs during slaughter." He covered his face with his hands, as if the gesture alone would ward off the awful memory. "Everything went as expected, until they got to the last ODST."
Stella took one look at the jagged scar on Jeremy's neck and decided that she'd heard enough. Walking quickly to the closet by the entrance, she grabbed a shoebox off the top shelf and threw it on his lap. He pulled off the lid, and for the first time in hours he almost smiled. The box held an M6C Magnum pistol, complete with two fully loaded clips. It was beautiful.
"That was my wedding gift from Boony. Make sure that it's in working order while I get some clothes on. I'll only be a minute."
Five minutes later, Jeremy had already taken the weapon apart and reassembled it half a dozen times. He slapped a clip into the pistol, and stared at Stella's bedroom door impatiently. Why was it that women always took longer than they said they would?
At long last, Stella emerged from her room wearing jeans and a white blouse. She sat down on the couch and began putting her long brown hair up in a ponytail.
"Stel," Jeremy said in a shaky voice, "you need to hear the rest of the story."
Stella put her hand gently on his shoulder. "I think I already figured it out. You were last ODST and when you somehow managed to escape, they assumed that you were the traitor."
Eyes squeezed shut and both hands balled into white-knuckled fists, Jeremy dropped his head towards the floor and shook it slowly.
"No, Stella. I was the butcher who tortured them." After a moment of suspended belief, Stella yanked her hand away and placed it over her suddenly gaping mouth. "I was one of the top counterintelligence officers in the ODST program. I was trained to tell if a person was lying by reading their body language, and that made me perfect for the assignment. After my first meeting with the three of them, I told ONI that they all had something to hide—something important. So we took them to that planet and I
I did what I had to."
Emotions collided within Stella, nearly tearing her in two. "My God, Jeremy. How could you?"
"They were all hiding something, but it wasn't what ONI thought." He looked into Stella's horrified face; his voice and body trembling with regret. "They all had wives. That's what they were hiding. Just wives. It was forbidden by the ODST's, so they all acted guilty." He turned his stare back to the floor and pounded a huge fist into his thigh with each syllable. "It was just wives!"
As Stella again shook her head in disbelief, freezing air blew against her neck from the shadows in the back of the room—and with the chill came a question.
"But why does ONI think you're a traitor?" As Stella spoke, her breath blew cold and foul on Jeremy's face: equal parts ice and rotting flesh. The former ODST's eyes darted fearfully around the room as terror all but paralyzed his mind.
He knew that chill. He knew that stench.
"Because of ODST Sergeant Daniel Meecham; the last man I tortured." Amidst the unnatural darkness in the back of the apartment, a black, sinister shadow began to move.
"Just before he died, he confessed to being a rebel and said that I was the rebel contact within the ODST's. Even though it was obvious to me that he was lying about being a rebel, the three men with me from ONI believed him." He ran a finger along his scar. "Only their leader had any combat training, and I killed the other two before realized what was happening."
Jeremy was so caught up in the story that he didn't notice that the lights had dimmed and Stella's pistol was no longer in his lap.
"He gave me this scar, but I broke his neck. I got away, but the guilt for what I had done to those men was too much for my mind to handle. That's how I ended up—"
The thunder of a pistol interrupted his whispered confession, and Jeremy's right knee exploded; spraying blood and bone all over the room. An instant later the pistol barked again, this time destroying the other knee. With his legs no longer able to support his weight, Jeremy pitched forward, hit his head on the coffee table and finally collapsed onto his back. Wiping the blood from his eyes, he looked up—and nearly died from shock.
Standing over Jeremy like an angel of Death was Stella—his lovely, doting nurse. The smoking gun in her dainty, feminine hands was steady as a rock—and aimed straight at his head.
The air was cold; the stench was strong.
Nearly out of his mind with pain and lying in a pool of his own blood, Jeremy suddenly remembered something. It was a little detail that had meant nothing at the time, but now—now it meant everything.
WALLETS. Sergeant Daniel Meecham had that word tattooed across his chest in two-inch black letters. Jeremy looked up into the hate-filled eyes of his favorite nurse—the beautiful STELLA Weiss—and knew that he would receive no mercy. Not now. Not ever. Teeth clenched in agony, he spoke one final word to Stella; to Death.
The career nurse bent over and smashed the M6C Magnum pistol into the side of his head; knocking him unconscious and shattering his jaw. She stood upright and spat in his face.
Jeremy awoke to chilly, outdoor air. His entire body was tied to some sort of post, with his arms above his head and his feet suspended above the ground. Focus came slowly, but soon his eyes could see the earthen, dirt walls of a freshly dug pit and four men: three standing and one in a wheelchair. The man in the chair rolled up to him and flashed a cruel, cold smile. It was the man whose neck Jeremy had broken six months ago. It was Mr. Gray.
Looking up from his wheelchair, the ONI spook nodded towards one of the large men standing behind him. As that man took a moment to choose from the many shiny, sharp instruments of torture hanging from his tool belt, Mr. Gray looked into Jeremy's eyes and whispered as one would an inside joke to a friend in a crowded room. "Did you think I forgot, Jeremy? There is no forgetting. There is no hiding. There is no rest."