Court of Darkness (chapter eight): Pray for Sunrise
Posted By: Chuckles
Date: 6 June 2008, 5:47 am
Court of Darkness (chapter eight): Pray for Sunrise
She hadn't wanted to fight. In fact, as she sat on one of the small wooden benches that lined the all-purpose recreational field, combat was the furthest thing from her mind. All she could think about were her clothes—or the lack thereof. Due to her fair complexion, Aimee hadn't owned a pair of shorts since she was a baby. It was her mother's way of protecting the gangly six year-old from ridicule. But now her mom was gone forever and none of the grown-ups at the SPARTAN training facility cared about Aimee's insecurities. Thus she sat alone, her long red hair hanging over her face and her eyes staring at the countless freckles dotting her ghostly white legs.
A smiling boy approached, and Aimee wished to God she could disappear.
"Take a look at that!" he said with a chuckle. "You're a freak! You look like you're dead!" He kicked Aimee's leg, and she pulled it back in pain as tears began filling her eyes. She looked around in desperation and was surprised to see several adult trainers watching them—and doing absolutely nothing.
The boy grabbed a handful of her hair and smiled mischievously. "This can't be real, 'cause nothin's this red! I bet you're a clown with a wig!" He yanked her head back and stared into her frightened eyes. "You a clown?" he asked with a toothy smile. "Want me to pull this dumb wig off?"
"Got a problem with red hair," a voice taunted from behind, "or just clowns?" The bully spun his head and saw what looked like the girl's twin brother, except this boy looked downright mean.
And little wonder.
Unlike the other kids recruited for the elite program, Michael "Chuckles" Gàirì hadn't grown up in a family but rather a rundown, understaffed orphanage. For him, fighting was a way of life—a way of life he'd learned to enjoy.
"Wow," the bully sneered, "you're ugly as her!"
Chuckles smiled, revealing two rows of jagged, neglected teeth. "I think she's pretty. Let go of her hair and say you're sorry."
"Aimee," the boy said, pulling her hair back even harder, "I'm not sorry at all."
Without warning, Chuckles exploded forward, crashing into the boy like a small freight train and carrying him to the ground with a jarring thud. The bully tried to get up, but a freckled fist smashed into his nose, knocking him back to the ground and blinding him with blood and pain. Planting a knee on the boy's chest, Chuckles pounded his face over and over, until finally he felt the hands of an adult trainer grab his shoulder and begin to pull him up.
"He's had enough, trainee!"
Fighting like an animal, Chuckles pulled free of the trainers, grabbed the bully by the hair and looked him straight in the eye. "Tell her you're sorry!"
"I said that's enough!" the trainer yelled, pulling the red headed orphan backward by his ankles. But Chuckles refused to let go.
After one last look at the freckled demon above him, the bully spit out a mouthful of blood and turned towards a now wide-eyed Aimee. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"
As two grown-ups began dragging Chuckles away, six year-old Aimee Peel brushed the hair out of her eyes and gazed at his smiling face with amazement. He had red hair and freckles just like her, but nobody mocked him; nobody called him a freak—and now she knew why. She saw it in the bully's eyes the moment Chuckles attacked.
Aimee's mother had taught her that changes in a person's actions always began with changes in their beliefs, but now she knew that fear could also be used to dictate behavior. Even with two adult trainers present, Chuckles had used it to make the bully say something that he didn't even believe. For all of her short life, fear of mockery had caused Aimee to hide her freckled white legs. But now, in a moment of perfect clarity, she realized that fear—horrible, paralyzing, mind-numbing fear—was a two way street.
As Chuckles and the trainers disappeared into a nearby building, the bully sat up in the grass and wiped blood from his mangled lips. "I'm gonna get you for this," he said with a hateful glare, "and there won't be any trainers around to stop me!"
Ever since she could remember, Aimee had endured mocking and ridicule without resistance or retaliation. Never again.
As she rose and walked around the back of the bench, anger exploded to the surface like an erupting volcano; contorting her freckled face with rage. She kicked the boy's chest with surprising force, knocking him backwards and expelling all the air from his lungs. An instant later she landed on his stomach and pinned his arms to the ground with her knees. Cradling the would-be-bully's head in her large hands, Aimee placed a thumb over each of his eyes and pushed down cruelly.
"I swear to God," she hissed with unfiltered hatred, "if you ever look at me again, I'll pop your eyes like grapes!" A trainer jumped to his feet and ran towards them as she pressed her thumbs down even harder. The bully's mouth to opened in a silent, breathless scream. "And then my white skin won't bother you, will it?"
As the boy whimpered his reply, a large man yanked Aimee to her feet and began to yell—but she barely noticed. Against all expectations, she'd found a friend and protector in the middle of this stern, joyless camp.
And even at her tender age, it was love at first sight.
Thirty-five years later ...
An angry red sun rose slowly behind Lifford's buildings, painting the light-armored military convoy in blinding streaks of blood. Robert Valting gripped his M41 LAAG and swept his gaze back and forth across the street; silently thanking God that the UNSC hadn't gone cheap on visors. Empty streets loomed before him, but Rob derived no comfort from the calm surroundings. Aimee Peel was active in this city and that was more than enough to make your hair stand on end—whether you were a seasoned ODST or fresh out of boot.
"Donny, everything clear in the back?" he asked through his COM, suddenly desperate to hear something besides his own heavy breathing.
"Nah," his buddy scoffed, "We're gettin' hammered, but we thought we'd keep it to ourselves. How 'bout you?"
For the first time since getting in the back of the Warthog, Rob smiled. "Same up here. Now it don't feel half as spec—" The driver's head disappeared with a sickening wet smack, and thick gore splashed into his visor. In that instant of calm before either panic or reason had time to seize the reins of his mind, Rob stood straight as a statue and simply lifted his right hand to wipe away the blood.
It found nothing but sizzling red air.
Something blurred into the street from the left, slamming into the second vehicle like a missile. Bulletproof glass exploded as the light armor buckled and the car flew fifteen meters and crashed into a gray, windowless apartment building. As the dark blur recovered its balance and turned to face the convoy, the M41 LAAG on the nearest Warthog thundered, belching bullets and flame into the cool morning air.
Several cars away, Sergeant Tim Van Heusen could hardly believe his eyes. "Senior Chief!" he yelled into his COM as a machine gun roared to life mere inches from his helmet.
"Go ahead, Sergeant."
An APC exploded near the front of the convoy and Van Heusen felt the ground tremble as chunks of burning metal clanked off his windshield. "We're under attack, sir!" he yelled.
"No kidding," Senior Chief Simjanes replied coolly. "Estimated strength?"
"Only one, sir, but it's a Spartan!"
"You sure about that, Sergeant?"
Tim watched the massive assailant grab the vehicle in front of him by the bumper and flip it end over end—straight towards him. Reflexively scooping up his battle rifle, he dove out of the Warthog and rolled clear as metal crunched and squealed behind him. He looked up in time to see the enemy somersault over the wreck and land on the roof of the next car—all but destroying it with his massive MJOLNIR boots. "Yeah!" Van Heusen screamed, "I'm sure! He looks just like you, except he's jet black!"
Nearly one hundred meters behind, Senior Chief Simjanes leaned forward and peered out the windshield with a new sense of urgency. Only four Spartan II's had been issued black armor, and three of them were dead. As the convoy stopped completely and soldiers poured into the street, ugly warnings sounded in Simjanes' mind. Vehicles halted; men scared and confused; soldiers and ammo stretched thin as wire. He'd seen these tactics before—and he knew what came next.
"Sergeant Finley!" he barked, shoving the driver's shoulder, "Get us out of here now!"
No less than four soldiers crouched between the personnel carrier and the next car, and the driver had no doubt that there were an equal number behind. "Sir, what about the m—"
To the surprise and horror of the two soldiers sitting next to him, Simjanes yanked out his M6D pistol and pressed it hard into Finley's temple. "Move!"
"Oh no." Wiley lowered his sniper rifle and lifted his binoculars. "I think the package is making a run for it."
Spinning away from a machine gun burst, Lexicus dropped a Warthog's gunner with an eight-gauge blast and dove behind a smoldering wreck. He shoved shells into his shotgun as bullets whistled past his helmet. "What and where?"
"APC, center of convoy. It's the only thing moving."
Sergeant Dwayne Finley slammed into the vehicle behind him once again, trying in vain to ignore the screams as human bones crunched beneath his tires. He shifted into drive, spun the steering wheel left and the APC finally swung out of the convoy and sped down a side street. Fighting back nausea, Finley checked the rearview camera—and all but pushed the gas pedal through the floor.
"Holy Mother of G—"
"Weapons ready and brace for impact!" Simjanes yelled, silently cursing the driver's lack of nerve. As the black form grew larger on the screen, he took inventory. Four clips, three frags and a pistol.
It wouldn't be enough.
Something heavy landed on the roof and Finley grabbed the steering wheel like a dropped baby. Simjanes slid into the front, kicked the passenger door off its hinges with an armored boot and turned to Finley.
"Don't stop, don't slow down!" Leaning his MJOLNIR visor unnervingly close, he spoke in a voice that made hardened men tremble. "No matter what!"
Bound hand and foot, Sagus grimaced beneath his shroud as they dragged him up two flights of stairs, with his knees smacking each and every hardwood step. They passed through several doors—opened more with David's head than anything else—before their strong hands opened, dropping the weary prisoner to the floor.
"Who is it?" He recognized O'Carrol's voice.
"Says he's one of the UNSC men who tore up McLoughlin's the other night."
"Sagus?" She yanked the shroud from his head and looked down, her face burning with anger. "Where's Sean?"
David's voice was cold and flat. "Probably dead."
"You killed him?"
"Maybe. I left him unconscious and bleeding on the floor. More likely it was the explosion that did it." Sagus raised his head, meeting O'Carrol's gaze with calm, fearless eyes. "In that case, I guess you killed him."
Cairren's face turned to stone, even as the words painfully hit their mark. "Why are you here?"
"I need your help. ONI's back on Tethra, and they're going to try it again."
The towering redhead curled her lips into a snarl and her green eyes flashed at David with a rage that mirrored his own. "Try what again?"
Lifford's dreary buildings rushed by ever faster as Simjanes grabbed the inside lip of the accelerating APC's roof and swung out like a gymnast on the high bar. On his knees and caught off guard by the bold move, Lexicus snatched the shotgun from his back and jumped to his feet, just as Simjanes landed squarely on the roof a mere two meters away. He squeezed the trigger, but the APC squealed through a right turn, throwing him into the mounted fifty cal and making his shot go wide. Hunched against the large gun, Lexicus tried to swing the eight-gauge out, but Simjanes slammed into his chest like a missile. Since the city had no windows, only Wiley watched as the two armored giants flew off the vehicle's roof and landed on the cracked, filthy asphalt of downtown Lifford.
Simjanes bounced several times before rolling sideways and finally coming to a facedown halt. Footsteps approached, he reached for his pistol—and all but blacked out as a MJOLNIR boot crashed into his helmet. Immediacy melted away and the fading sound of the APC swirled together with the metallic clank of a shotgun chambering a round.
Lexicus jammed the barrel into the prone Spartan's neck and took a deep breath as the morning sun painted his profile on the warming pavement.
"Order that APC to stop."
Simjanes managed a weak chuckle. "From hero of Erebus to traitorous rebel in less than six months."
"Do it now," Lexicus ordered, applying pressure on the shotgun barrel for emphasis.
"And you were Ackerson's lackey before that," Simjanes replied, ignoring the command. His massive frame shook with laughter. "What are you gonna do next, join the Covenant?"
"Lexicus," Wiley's voice crackled in his helmet, "Whatever you're doing, you've got less than a minute to wrap it up. 'Bout a dozen vehicles from that convoy are headed your way."
"Roger that." With the virus gone and his time nearly up, he shook his head in frustration and began to squeeze the trigger. But even as the roar of engines grew steadily louder behind him, he relaxed his finger.
"They didn't tell you what you were bringing here, did they Sim? When ONI sent us to Erebus, they sent us to die. What'd they send you here for?" A shot whistled by his head, followed by another, and an instant later he disappeared into the labyrinth of dull gray buildings.
Taking in the scene through his high-powered scope, Wiley cursed in anger as Simjanes stood to his feet. "You didn't kill him," the assassin stated matter-of-factly.
"Killing him gets us nothing. The virus got away, so I had to take a chance. You'll have to trust me on this."
Wiley scoffed silently and closed the COM. Trust him? Had he gone mad? He didn't trust him or Sagus. That sort of idiocy could get a man killed. He made the mistake of letting his guard down once, and now he had a bomb on the lining of his stomach. And, for the first time since he'd become an assassin, there were two people walking around who knew him by sight.
What had he gotten himself into?
Not much shook him. Even having his arm blown off had done little more than force him to work a little slower. But this was different. This had rattled him to his core.
He'd assured himself that it was nothing more than the side effects of his pain medication. Didn't it say right on the box that it could cause both visual and auditory hallucinations? The deep bruise on his remaining arm was real enough, but surely there was a rational explanation for it.
That's what he kept telling himself, but it didn't to take the chill out of his bones.
Until the previous night, he had avoided venturing out after dark. Not because he believed the ridiculous stories spread by the locals, but because of how truly dark Tethra's nights were. With no moon, no streetlights and no windows to shine light from houses, the darkness hung like a great black blanket, and proved difficult to dispel. But a little after midnight the blue box holding his pain medication announced it was almost empty with an irritating beep—and the refills were in the back of his limousine.
Since he knew the concierge would sooner take his own life than open or even unlock the front door at night, he had no choice but do it himself. He turned the five deadbolts, twisted the knob and walked out. But just beyond the small patch of cement illuminated by the open door, someone—or something—had been waiting.
He'd never forget the touch: coarse, dry and powerful. He'd never forget the voices: thin, dark and inhuman. Most of all, he'd never forget the words.
Taaaaylorrrrrr Steeeeeeephennnnnn Blaaaaaack. Murrrrrderrrrrerrrr. Taaaaylorrrrrr Steeeeeeephennnnnn Blaaaaaack. Murrrrrderrrrrerrrr.
Somewhere in the inky blackness a hand closed around his arm and squeezed like a vice—even as the steady chant of his name and title continued. Yanking away with all his strength, he somehow tore loose and ran for the light. And then, stumbling backwards into the bright doorway, he saw it. No more than four and a half feet tall, long blond hair, light gray skin. A child. No expression, strange eyes, wearing a filthy and tattered burial gown. It darted into the light for only an instant, and then disappeared just as fast. But the chanting grew louder, as more and more thin, dead voices joined in. He heard it after closing the door. He heard it after returning to his room. He even heard it as he earnestly prayed for sunrise.
Of course, the unseen crowd's chant was more than just a name or title; it was a verdict. Taylor Stephen Black was a murderer, and his punishment had only just begun.
Moments after passing through the massive gates at the entrance of the Palisades, Simjanes' Warthog slowed to a stop before an ornate five-story building. He glanced at the three soldiers accompanying him and turned to the driver. "Wait out here. This shouldn't take long."
The Spartan climbed the polished marble steps decorating the front of the decidedly non-military facility, and entered through one of the fifty or so windowless silver doors. An attractive receptionist looked up from a solid walnut desk and managed a frightened smile.
"Can I help you?"
"I need to see Colonel T. Stephen Black."
The smile disappeared entirely. "And your name is?"
"Senior Chief Simjanes."
"Take the elevator all the way up, first office on the right. He's expecting you."
To his surprise, the top floor was an honest-to-goodness no frills office—albeit an empty one—and nothing like the marble and walnut laden foyer. A plain steel and plastic receptionists desk sat vacant in front of an open door. Inside, a large man talked on the phone and Simjanes was surprised to see that he was missing an arm. And if the bandages and intravenous tubes were any indication, he'd lost it recently.
"Don't do anything until I arrive. Shouldn't be long," he said, pausing to push a squeaky red button on the small blue 'painkiller' box the doctor had taped to his chest. "Make sure you're ready, 'cause I'm not waiting for anything." He looked up and waved Simjanes into the room. "No, keep the Governor away, or I might kill the imbecile myself."
He clicked the phone off and smiled wearily. "Please, take a seat."
"Colonel," the Spartan said, ignoring the invitation to destroy a cheap plastic chair, "I hope the package arrived intact."
"Yes, yes it did, thanks in no small part to you I understand." Mr. Black grimaced and then pushed the red button on his chest once again, sending more painkillers into his veins.
"What were we transporting, sir?"
The Colonel smiled politely. "I'm afraid that's classified."
"Sir, I have reason to believe that it may pose a threat to me and my men."
"You do? And why's that?"
Simjanes stood silent. What could he say? That a Spartan-turned-rebel suggested the possibility while kicking his butt in the street?
"I have my reasons."
"If that's all," Mr. Black said derisively, "I'll let you return to your duties." The big Spartan stood motionless.
"You have any men up here, Colonel? Any bodyguards? Marines? Anyone?" Even by Mr. Black's standards, the voice was cold. "No, you're here all alone: one arm, a pain button and a rank." The big Spartan chuckled humorlessly. "Vulnerable as you are, that sort of surprises me. If you were in danger, or passed out from all those drugs, how long would take for anyone to respond? Would they even know, or would they just find your body a day or so later?" Simjanes let the question hang in the air. As the seconds ticked slowly by, the pain button squeaked like a tortured rat.
"What were we transporting, sir?"
An amused smile crept across the Colonel's face. "One question at a time, Senior Chief." The faint sound of heavy boots on stair steps grew in their ears until it became like thunder. A door burst open a few meters past the elevator and well armed Marines clamored through it and made a beeline for Mr. Black's office.
"You wanted to know how long it would take for someone to respond if I were in danger?" the ONI officer asked as no fewer than fifty soldiers took up positions in and around the small room and leveled their weapons at the white armored giant. "Less than a minute."
"Sir," a soldier asked, peering over the scope of his assault rifle, "is everything okay?"
Mr. Black looked up at Simjanes with contempt. "Any more questions, Senior Chief?"
"Barry!" O'Carrol yelled, as she rushed through her new facilities with David Sagus in tow. The techie tried to walk, type and listen all at once. "Raise north and south Lifford, and tell Johnny to give the recruiters guns!"
"Can they mention the—"
"They can say anything that'll get us more men! Failing that, make sure they're willing to collect'em at gunpoint!" Stopping in front of a large door, she grabbed Barry's shoulder and raised two long fingers into a "V" in front of his eyes. "They've got two hours, no more, and then we meet at city hall. We'll arm'em when they arrive."
"But there could be thousands of people," Sagus said, speaking for the first time. "That's a lot of guns."
O'Carrol opened a large door, switched on the light—and Sagus nearly repeated himself. The expansive room was filled from floor to ceiling with UNSC weapon crates.
"Barry, tell Mike to get everyone he can spare down here on weapons detail. She turned to David. "When will Lexicus arrive?"
"Maybe half an hour. He's meeting Wiley back at the apartment and then heading over."
O'Carrol shook her head in disbelief. "You and Lexicus were fools to let that man live."
"He'll do as he's told," Sagus said, knowing that either he or Lexicus could detonate the bomb in Wiley's stomach from anywhere on the planet.
Cairren chuckled humorlessly. "Unless he slips your leash."
He'd planned on breaking into the pharmacy, but was pleasantly surprised to find it already open. A few minutes later, he sat in the stall of a filthy public bathroom, trying to build up his nerve. This little stunt could kill him, but not doing it was nothing short of suicide. After one final deep breath, Wiley dumped all thirty naproxen tablets into his mouth and washed them down with spring water. Kneeling next to the toilet, he broke the safety seal on the powerful emetic he had just purchased and twisted off the cap. All he could do now was wait.
After about three minutes he felt a small ache in the pit of his stomach; a burning that grew in size and intensity with every passing moment. He doubled over onto the dirty floor, crying out in pain as his stomach convulsed and burned as if he'd swallowed molten lava. Summoning all of his resolve, he counted to ten slowly and, when he could bear the pain no more, dumped the flavorless emetic down his throat.
This time he didn't have to wait.
Blood and bile erupted from his mouth as he vomited over and over, until he wondered whether he'd ever take another breath. And finally, when he felt that he'd happily die hugging the toilet, he heard something beautiful: the sound of metal striking porcelain. Wiping tears from his eyes, he fished the tiny bomb out of the bowl and quickly stuffed it into his pocket. The vomiting continued for nearly ten minutes, but he didn't care. The bomb was gone and he was free. Free to help the people of Tethra. Free to go his way afterwards. Free to kill Lexicus. Free to kill Sagus.
Once again, life was good.