Waking the Dead (part three): Everybody Screams
Posted By: Chuckles
Date: 27 June 2005, 7:17 am
Waking the Dead (part three): Everybody Screams
The human brain tends to forget pain almost completely, thus Simjanes could remember little of the fight and almost none of the end. Since he had not passed out, agony beyond what he thought possible for a living man had transported him to another place; where teeth clenched until they shattered and eyes rolled backward to flee reality. Upon removing Simjanes' MJOLNIR helmet even Lexicus had winced at his expression—an expression that no man expects to see this side of Hell. Whether Simjanes was left alive as an act of pity or cruelty no one can say—that is, no one except Lexicus.
Renowned for his work during the Bishkek Rebellion, Lexicus had made up one half of the most successful Special Forces team in the history of combat—the Clowns. He and Chuckles had almost single-handedly brought the rebel forces to their knees and staved off the possibility of global civil war—but nobody rushed to pat them on back afterwards. Although ONI had not only approved but also helped invent the Clown's methods during the conflict, they had no intention of being associated with their deeds. Killing strange aliens on distant planets, no matter how brutally, was not only accepted but applauded. Slaughtering the familiar—humans who looked like us, who spoke words we knew and whose blood ran red—could not be celebrated publicly without losing face, regardless of the cause.
In the end, they decided to remove the Clowns from the SPARTAN program permanently, which led to another problem: what would be done with the two rogue Spartans? To its relief, ONI quickly found a willing sponsor within their own agency—a sponsor known for keeping a tight lid on incendiary facts: Colonel James Ackerson.
For years the Colonel had been developing a program to rival and hopefully replace the Spartan II's. A great lover of irony, he thought it only fitting that some of Halsey's own freaks would help him achieve his goal. And although Ackerson hated to admit it, there was something about the Clowns that he liked—something that he could identify with. Whether it was their willingness to set aside the rules or their ruthless efficiency, they had proven to be an uneasy yet productive part of his program.
And then, twenty-six months before MiNeS' sudden departure, Lexicus vanished. When Chuckles refused to pursue his friend, ONI ordered Simjanes to find and kill the legendary Spartan. After hunting Lexicus for over three months he finally found him.
Carbide ceramic ossification is a procedure administered to all Spartans during augmentation that makes their bones nearly unbreakable—and for a very good reason. MJOLNIR armor exerts so much pressure on the body during movement that even a single fracture would result in gross disfigurement and unimaginable pain. According to official ONI records no living Spartan has ever suffered such an injury. But unlike most things made "official" by the clandestine agency, this was very nearly the truth.
You see, it had only happened once.
If Caleb had not known better he would have thought Chuckles was a mute. For the past four days he had tried to start a conversation with the older Spartan, only to be blocked with one-word answers and blank expressions. Surprisingly, Chuckles had not even gone over a mission plan with him. After being selected Caleb had hoped to hear stories about the Bishkek rebellion and training on Reach with Spartan 117. But now he would have settled for talking about anything.
Neither of them wore their MJOLNIR armor and Chuckles' appearance had taken some getting used to. A mop of bright red-orange hair sat above a badly scarred face, giving him an almost clownish look. Since they had been ordered to work without their armor in populated areas, Caleb had his worries. It took all of his courage to speak his mind.
Here goes. "So, where are we going to start?"
Chuckles looked over as if he'd been woken from a dream. "Epsilon Indi two, the planet Pella. MiNeS was born there."
Caleb nodded. "Are we headed for a city?"
"Yeah, Sikyon, the largest city on the planet."
"Okay, so . . . " How do I say it? "Are you, ummm, gonna wear a hat, or what?" To his relief Chuckles smiled.
"Yeah," he said laughing softly, "I'll wear a hat." Still smiling, Chuckles turned and looked the young Spartan straight in the eye. "It took you four days to work up the courage to say that?" He wagged his head back and forth. "We gotta toughen you up, kid. Anything else you were afraid to ask?"
"Yeah, a few things." Caleb said, relieved to have finally broken the ice.
"How do I address you? Do I call you sir?"
"No, Chuck or Chuckles is fine. I don't want you accidentally calling me sir in public. What else?"
"Is that why they called you the Clowns?" Caleb said, gesturing politely towards Chuckles' hair and face."
The big Spartan shook his head. "No, it was the rebels who first called us Clowns and even if we hadn't been wearing armor nobody who laid eyes on us was left alive." Chuckles looked up as if staring at something in the past and then smiled. "What happened was that Lex and I decided to leave a symbol at the scene of our ambushes so that the rebels would know the attacks were related. Sort of a calling card that we could carve into trees and scratch on their wrecked vehicles. We decided on the Grim Reaper," he said chuckling, "but we were such lousy artists that the rebels didn't know what our symbol meant. Eventually some moron convinced them that it was a drawing of a clown and they called us that until the end of the war." Chuckles pulled up his sleeve, leaned towards Caleb and pointed at a blood-red tattoo just below his shoulder. "It looked like this, except not quite as neat. Look like a clown to you?"
"No," Caleb said shaking his head and grinning, "but it doesn't look like the Grim Reaper either. Looks like a guy with three legs hailing a cab or something."
"Three legs?" Chuckles twisted his head for a better look at his tattoo. "No, that's not a leg, it's a scythe."
"Why would a clown have a scythe?"
"A clown wouldn't have a scythe, but the Grim Reaper would." Chuckles yanked his sleeve back down and glared. "Next question."
Caleb suddenly turned serious. "What are we going to do when we find MiNeS?"
"We'll worry about that when we find him," Chuckles said, trying to shrug it off. But Caleb had not been picked for the SPARTAN program because he was a fool.
"We're being sent to kill him, right?"
Chuckles knew that lying would be useless. "Yeah kid, we are."
"And you picked me to help you?" Caleb shook his head in disbelief. "Tell me, why would I kill my best friend?"
"Because," Chuckles stated flatly, "you are a soldier and you follow orders."
"Like you did when you were ordered to go after Lexicus?"
Before Caleb could react a huge hand clamped around his neck, yanked him from his chair and slammed him painfully to the ground. Chuckles brought his face so close to Caleb's that their noses almost touched and spoke with contempt. "You have no idea what you are talking about kid, so keep your ignorant mouth shut! Do you think that not calling me sir makes you my equal? Do you?" Caleb shook his head. "You know," Chuckles said as he let go of the young man's neck and stood to his feet, "I can tell that you two were close: MiNeS didn't know how to follow orders either."
To Caleb's surprise, Chuckles leaned over and helped him to his feet. "Go get your gear ready," he said in a much softer voice. "We'll be there soon." The older Spartan watched in sadness as Caleb left the bridge. He did not enjoy being so hard on the kid, but Chuckles knew that he had to establish his authority early—something he had failed to do with MiNeS. Although he couldn't show it, he understood the young man's pain all too well. Like Caleb, Chuckles had gotten too close to someone, and in the SPARTAN program that can lead only to loss. Better to keep your distance and maintain your sanity, because friendships were just one more thing for ONI to take away—and God knows they had already taken enough.
A day after leaving Chuckles in Pandora City, MiNeS had returned to scavenge clothing and money. To his shame, he discovered that only his brother's pants and shirts were big enough to fit him. As he stripped off Ian's boots to go along with the civilian clothes he had found in his gear, MiNeS wondered if he could possibly sink any lower. The answer came a few minutes later when he found a framed picture in a pocket inside Ian's duffle bag. It was a photo of his brother sitting with his arm around a beautiful young lady. A little girl sat in Ian's lap, and a little boy in the woman's and they were all smiling. Oh my God. In his tortured mind MiNeS thought he could see the young woman's face change from joy to grief—from hopeful youth to bereaved widow; sad and wise beyond her years. You are his wife. The sad face in the picture lifted suddenly and looked straight at MiNeS, eyes wide with hate.
"You mean his widow!"
The young Spartan jumped back in terror and the framed picture crashed to the floor by his feet. Bending over and lifting it gingerly, as if the photo itself were alive, he looked at it again. To his relief, it was once more a young, smiling family. But the smiles seemed now to be a cruel mockery, as they served only to show him how much he had ruined. He was still trying to shake the image from his mind two hours later as he loaded the Pelican and left Epsilon Indi Four, never to return.
MiNeS knew that he was now a fugitive from the UNSC, but that did not worry him. Colonel Ackerson, on the other hand, gave him great concern. MiNeS had heard stories—awful, nightmarish stories—about others who had fled the arctic base, and even though the tales had come to him as little more than rumors, he believed them. Equal parts ONI spook and Spec Ops soldiers, Ackerson was too paranoid to leave any loose ends untied and skilled enough to tie them. Sooner or later he would send someone, and if MiNeS knew Ackerson, it would be sooner. If he was going to locate his father without a soldier dogging his every move —most likely a Spartan soldier—he would have to act fast.
But after a week and a half of searching, MiNeS had found nothing but dead-ends.
Although his brother's identification card had PELLA written on it in large gold letters, it failed to list a city or town. And, as MiNeS soon found out, the Hall of Records on the Earth-sized world was useless. If anybody named Cutlass had been born in the Epsilon Indi System since it's colonization sixty years previous, they escaped all official notice. When MiNeS finally discovered the city's name he nearly swore. As it turned out, five minutes of historical research would have saved him ten days of searching. Frustrated and desperate for information, the young Spartan had decided to start asking complete strangers if they had ever heard of his family. He could still see the comical look on the old man's face, the first person he stopped in the street.
"Shoot son," the stranger said chuckling, "it don't matter what your name was! Up until fifteen years ago Sikyon was the only city on this whole planet. If you were born here, it figures you were born there." The old man's laughter bothered MiNeS even more than his own costly mistake. To the young Spartan, laughing belonged on audio recordings in a museum—a forgotten custom of a buried past.
Feeling comfortable was hard—almost as hard as looking comfortable. For Caleb, whose civilian life had ended at the tender age of six, walking around in public without a uniform was a brand-new experience. Strangest of all, he wasn't even carrying a gun. As they headed south on the crowded road into the city, however, they were still attracting unwanted attention.
Chuckles shot an exasperated look at the young Spartan. "For crying out loud," he whispered tersely, "will you please stop marching and just walk?"
A moment later the road dropped away and began its long, winding descent into the valley-city of Sikyon. It was unlike any other place they had ever seen. Spread out over the valley floor, the city had a population of over one million people—and yet, not one of its thousands of buildings stood taller than three stories. A second look revealed something even stranger: an almost total lack of metal or concrete. The entire city was seemingly constructed of wood, with only its paved streets reminding visitors that they were still in civilization.
"Wow," Caleb said, without pulling his gaze from the valley, "that's incredible. I don't even see any vehicles."
Chuckles nodded. "Me neither. Reminds me of the villages in Afghanistan."
"Really," the young Spartan said, eager to hear more about the Clowns. "They must have been easy to attack. Heck, a single grenade could—" The words died in Caleb's throat as Chuckles turned to him, his face a strange mix of disappointment and anger.
"We were there to fight against an armed rebellion kid, not helpless villagers." Turning his gaze once more to the wooden city, the older Spartan spoke with sadness. "I'd hoped you people had figured that out by now."
From a hill on the other side of the valley a soldier steadied his binoculars with a single hand as he spoke into his COM. "Sir, they have just entered the city."
"Very good, Sergeant. You are not to let them out of your sight, is that understood?"
The soldier chuckled. "That won't be a problem, sir. The bigger one has a head of hair that you could follow in the dark."
"Hair? Red hair?"
"Yes sir, sort of reddish orange. How did you know?" On the other side of the COM, rebel Commander Jon Burrows stared silently at the floor. "Sir?"
"Never mind that, just keep an eye on them Sergeant. And one more thing: I'd be extremely careful about following that redhead anywhere—especially the dark."
From a distance Sikyon seemed backward and primitive—but that was only an illusion. Although made almost entirely of wood, each building bore the marks of skilled craftsmanship. Descending into the city towards MiNeS' old home, the two Spartans were so taken in by Sikyon's strange beauty that they barely spoke. Finally locating the house, they walked up and knocked.
Caleb glanced over at Chuckles. "I thought you were going to wear a hat."
"Oh yeah," the big Spartan said smiling, "I must've forgot."
An elderly lady with badly dyed brown hair answered the door, stared at Chuckles for a moment and then began to laugh. "Nice wig, son. You two with the circus?"
"No ma'am," Chuckles said as serious as a police officer, "we're just trying locate a missing person, someone named Cutlass."
The blood drained from the woman's terrified face and she nearly fainted. She spoke as if bargaining for her life. "Please believe me, I don't know anything, honest." Eyes wide, she shook her head back and forth in panic. "I haven't said or seen anything, and anyone who says I have is lying, honest. Please, oh please—"
Chuckles raised his hand for silence. "What is your name, ma'am?"
"Okay, Nora, I need you to calm down. We are not trying to get you into any trouble." Burying her head in her wrinkled hands, Nora began to cry.
In the most gentle voice he could muster, Caleb said, "Is your husband home? Maybe we could talk to him." The crying stopped immediately—replaced with a look of abject horror.
"Please, please! I've been good, I swear!"
Chuckles tried to hide his confusion. "Nora, where is your husband?"
"Why are you doing this again? I'll do anything, oh God knows, I already have!"
"Where is he, Nora?"
Face blank and terrified, she finally answered in a thin, beaten voice. "You never told me where you buried him." The two Spartans stood on her porch, silent and rigid as statues. Although the conversation had been strange from the beginning, it was now nothing short of spooky. Before either of them could think of something to say, the door shut in their faces.
Caleb shook his head slowly as they walked away. "Do you have any idea—"
"No, I don't."
"Did you notice her fingers?"
Chuckles nodded. "Yeah, they've each been broken in several places." He took a deep breath. "That old woman has been tortured."
Sleep did not come easy to Nora that night and when she finally managed to doze off, the bad dreams began. Screams echoed off of the walls as torture was relived again and again. Bones cracked loudly like sticks and pain became a living, breathing monster—she could almost see its face. On and on, the dreams broke on her fragile mind like acid waves, causing her to scream as she had back then, when she lived in hell. But nobody came to her house to see what was wrong. No, on this street everyone had nightmares; everyone fought the monster; everybody screamed.
Nora's eyes darted this way and that under her eyelids as yet another horrible dream began to unfold. In it someone or something was trying to get into her house to kill her. Laying in her bed, she could hear it breaking through the door, but when she tried to escape she realized that her arms and legs were tied to the bedposts. To her horror, Nora heard front door being ripped from its hinges, and then a moment later heavy footsteps echoing off of the floor downstairs. Slowly, cruelly, the thing climbed the steps toward her room; closer, closer.
Fueled by adrenaline, Nora pulled furiously at her bonds as the steps drew nearer. When she heard it slowly crossing the hallway towards her room, panic seized her traumatized brain. The knob gave a metallic click as it turned and the door opened. A towering figure stood in her doorway like a malevolent shadow, backlit by the hallway light. Then it spoke in a voice as cold as space.
"Nora, I've come for those fingers again."
Waking with a jolt, Nora's eyes darted around the room. Light from the hallway passed through the open door and illuminated the wall above her head. What a horrible dream. Closing her eyes she went to roll over—and only then realized that her arms and legs were tied tightly to the bedposts. A massive shadow stepped into her doorway.
"You had some visitors today, Nora. What did you tell them?"
Nora tried to speak, but her lips refused to move.
"Come now, Nora, nobody talks that long and says nothing. Did you tell them about the Cutlass family?"
Again, the old woman was unable to speak.
"Nothing to say? Guess I'd better have a look at those fingers."
Nora's screams echoed through the small neighborhood, but nobody came to her house to see what was wrong. No, on this street everyone had nightmares; everyone fought the monster.