Waking the Dead (part four): Two Monsters
Posted By: Chuckles
Date: 18 July 2005, 12:23 pm
Waking the Dead (part four): Two Monsters
Stooping down in sadness, the dreary sky covered the cemetery with a misty, gray shroud. Tombstones jutted out of the ground like endless rows of decaying teeth; angled this way and that over long forgotten plots. MiNeS walked slowly through the mist, bending over each grave to read the colorless, eroded words. As he fought shadow and darkness for yet another name in the rotting sea of markers, he suddenly froze in terror. In such an immense cemetery, he had expected to be surrounded by the dead, but he had not expected to hear them speak.
"Dig!" MiNeS turned to his left and found himself face-to-face with a nightmare—and it was offering him a shovel.
"Ian?" The decomposed figure nodded it's crushed head, and then gestured towards the grave at MiNeS' feet.
"Take this and dig!" the aberration yelled, "Before it is too late!" Looking away from the death he had caused, MiNeS studied the grave once again.
"But this stone has no name on it."
"You have not come here to wake the dead: it's owner is yet alive." Urgency burned like flame in the desperate, dead eyes. "Hurry, dig, before the others wake and a name is carved on this stone!"
"Others?" No sooner had he spoken the word than the earth buckled beneath the markers all around them, causing the stones to sway and topple. He turned again to his brother, but instead of a shovel, he now offered a hammer and chisel.
"Take this and write, for the time has come and passed. Write your father's name; write Benjamin Cutlass on the stone." Sadness filled the decomposed face. "And carve MiNeS Cutlass below it."
"Why, when I am still alive?"
"Because," Ian said, nodding towards the giant figures emerging from the ground all around them, "you will soon be ripped to pieces, and who will carve your name then?" Tears pooled in the dead man's eyes as he looked at the arm dangling uselessly at his side; connected by mere tendons. "I would, but my shoulder is gone."
Waking suddenly, MiNeS stared at the morning light filtering through the white curtains, and waited for the haunting images to melt away. He jumped out of bed and dressed quickly—careful to avoid his own reflection. A few minutes later MiNeS stood before the checkout desk of the Sikyon Valley Inn, with Ian's duffle bag slung over his shoulder.
"Everything okay, sir?" the young, female clerk said without lifting her eyes.
What a question. "Yes, fine."
"Good. If you will take a moment fill out this short questionnaire," she handed him a small data pad and finally looked up, "then you can—oh my God, what happened to your face?"
"What?" MiNeS unconsciously lifted a hand to check his head.
The clerk suddenly looked embarrassed. "Forgive me, sir, it's just that your face is white as a sheet."
MiNeS forced a weak smile. "Yeah, I don't tan all that well."
"Really?" The young lady said, chuckling. "Are you sure that you haven't seen a ghost?"
With an expression that wiped the smile from the clerk's face, MiNeS replied, "Only when I look in the mirror."
It was a little after ten in the morning when MiNeS began walking towards his old neighborhood. Bathed in the bright morning sun, the wooden city shone like gold all around him; awakening long forgotten memories. What struck him first was the enormity of the silence in Sikyon: a city of millions without a single motorized vehicle. As a boy, MiNeS now remembered, the quiet had seemed normal. Now it was strange, like flowers blooming in a scorched desert.
Buildings passed on both sides as he walked; each crafted entirely of wood, and each a unique work of art. Some walls bristled with illustrated stories and expressive figures; others had complex and exquisite designs worthy of framing and display in the great museums on Earth. He had lived here. He had been a part of something beautiful and timeless. But ONI had taken that away forever.
Hurried footsteps approached from behind, followed by a surprised voice.
"Ian, is that you?" MiNeS turned towards the stranger, his face as wooden and silent as the city around him. The large, muscular man stared wide-eyed for a moment and then a smile slowly crept across his stubble-covered face. Without warning he rushed forward and threw his arms around MiNeS. "It is you! I told'em you were alive! I told'em that no scum-sucking maggot from the UNSC could kill Ian Cutlass, didn't I?"
Gently pushing the man an arm's length away, the scum-sucking UNSC maggot forced himself to smile. "They nearly made a liar out of you."
The stranger's face turned serious. "And Palatov?" MiNeS shook his head sadly, causing the man to utter an angry, heart-felt expletive. "I am sorry. I know what he meant to you, Sarah and the kids." Pulling the young Spartan a little closer, the stranger looked at him with fiery eyes. "Do you know who killed him, Ian?"
MiNeS nodded. "A Spartan. Blew his head clean off."
"A Spartan?" the stranger hissed, twisting his face in disgust. "Then you an' me are gonna find him and return the favor, eh?" He quickly looked around, as if being watched. "But this isn't talk for the street, is it? Follow me."
Turning in the opposite direction, the man walked quickly down the street for a couple hundred meters, turned into a narrow alley and walked fifty more before entering an unmarked doorway on his right. A dozen men were scattered across a dimly lit room that could have seated as many as fifty. The pleasant smell of food filled the air, telling MiNeS that he was in a restaurant of some sort. As if in confirmation, a round woman wearing an apron grinned at them from behind a waist-high counter.
"Kale Sangrefria and Ian Cutlass! My lands, you oughtta be dead by now. What'd you boys do, make a deal with the devil?" She leaned on the counter, wiping short, plump fingers on her dirty apron.
Kale smiled and gave an exaggerated shrug. "We eat here, don't we Mae?"
"That you do—and a little insurance never hurts. Well, if you boys want to find a seat, I'll see if I've got anything laying around that's worth eating."
MiNeS followed as Kale headed straight for a table in the rear, left corner, and took the seat facing the wall. His new friend had intentionally chosen the darkest place in the restaurant, and he was eager to find out why. He did not have to wait long.
"Much has changed in the last week or so, Ian." Kale looked down at the old wooden table and shook his head. "Once news came of Palatov's death, Burrows didn't waste any time claiming what was left of his command—and then some. Now he's abandoned recruiting altogether and just started grabbing men off the streets. Some stupid, funny stuff for a rebel leader, eh? You can't force men to fight or to believe in something. Palatov knew that—knew it well and good."
You'd be surprised what they can force a man to do. "Yes, he did."
"Thank God I ran into you before they did. I've barely slept since I heard about what happened at Pandora." Kale reached across the table and gripped MiNeS' shoulder with a strong hand. The touch felt electric to the young Spartan. "I'd never imagined fighting this battle without you, Ian. I wasn't . . ." the big, tough rebel paused rather than let his voice break with emotion. "I wasn't prepared to lose you."
MiNeS did not take a breath until Kale let go of his shoulder. What had he become? Ghost, memory, killer, fraud—they all applied, and they all fell short. Ian's friend stared at him from across the table, waiting for him to speak, to reply to his moving gesture. But MiNeS had no more power to speak now than his dead brother Ian. After nearly a minute, Kale broke the awful silence.
"You wouldn't have had to worry about Sarah and the kids—not while I was alive."
MiNeS nodded slowly. "I know, Kale."
"Oh man, that's right: Sarah thinks you were killed! After we're done eating, we'd better get you home." Kale smiled. "Imagine the look on her face when you walk through that door, as if you awoke from the dead. I can't wait to see it." Only the memory of his brother's last wish kept MiNeS from killing himself right where he sat.
"Yeah," the impostor replied, "neither can I Kale. Neither can I."
It was well past sunset when the two Spartans finally caught a break. Chuckles knew that two men had followed them the entire day—and it was a welcome surprise. After speaking to the paranoid woman from MiNeS' old house, he and Caleb had found nothing but a stone-cold trail. Any trace of the Cutlass family in the collective memory of Sikyon had been more than erased; it had been destroyed with contempt. He would have assumed that there was little left in the city to see, except that someone was tracking their every move; and nobody went to that much trouble for nothing. Now, with darkness filling the valley like black liquid, it was time to turn the tables.
"Okay," Chuckles whispered to the young Spartan walking next to him, "We'll use the alley up there on the right. Don't make a move until they both enter. We only need one of them alive: and that will be whoever is furthest into the alley."
"What?" Caleb said with surprise. "We're going to kill before we even know who they are?"
"Absolutely. Now shut up and follow me." Chuckles continued at an even pace until they reached the alley, then turned and disappeared into the darkness.
Sergeant Ricky Tasker had a feeling that something was wrong. "Tom, I've lost visual contact. They turned into a narrow alley."
"Roger that," fellow Sergeant Tom Harris replied. "I don't think we have a choice except to follow them in."
Tasker shook his head. "Negative. This might sound strange to you, but I was warned against following that redhead into the dark."
"So what's the alternative: waiting for them to come out?" Tom waited for an answer but his COM remained silent. "I'll meet you by the alley and we'll go in together. Listen Ricky: we're equipped to see in the dark, and they're not. We have the advantage."
Then why did my mouth go dry, Tom? "Roger that. Let's head in." Less than a minute later the two rebels stood with their backs pressed against the wall next to the alley. Knowing Ricky was spooked, Tom signaled that he would go in first. Quick and smooth, he turned his body around the corner, pistol drawn. The alley stretched before him for nearly two hundred meters—completely empty. For the eleven hours that they had followed the men, they never saw them even walk at a brisk pace, let alone run. To have already covered the length of the alley, however, they would have had to be moving quite fast. Tom began to advance slowly. Several meters behind him, Ricky entered the alley and began to move forward at the same pace.
Suddenly a blur dropped from the sky and ripped the gun from Tom's hands. Powerful arms wrapped around his body like constricting steel cords, pulling him down until he lay on his back in the alley. What he saw behind him made him curse his ability to see in the dark. The huge redhead yanked Ricky off of the ground as if he were no more than a child, and held him tight against his barrel chest. Placing a hand on each side of the rebel's head, he twisted it cruelly, until bones cracked and Ricky's chin dropped limply between his own shoulder blades. Lying terrified on the ground, Tom remembered his dead friend's words. I was warned against following that redhead into the dark.
Death let Ricky's lifeless body fall to the ground with a dull thud and walked slowly over to Tom. There was something different about the way that redhead walked now—something that he had not seen earlier. His motions were too quick, too precise—too powerful. Death's arms pulled Tom off of the ground and grabbing his neck with a single hand, pinned him against the wooden wall. The redhead brought his face so close that the rebel could see only his assailant's eyes. For the second time in less than a minute, Tom cursed his night-vision goggles.
"Your friend died quickly." Death spoke with cold reason. "No screaming, no yelling, no begging me to end his life. Is that how you want to die?"
Under any other circumstances, Tom would have been defiant. But staring at those eyes—eye filled with cold, bottomless, cruel resolve—the rebel could not be brave. And so, like a scolded child, he nodded.
"Good. I have some questions . . . what is your name?"
"I have some questions for you Tom. Each time I get an answer I don't like I'm going to hurt you bad. Do you understand?" Tom nodded. "Okay, question number one: who do you work for?"
A weak voice replied. "Commander John Burrows." Without warning an iron hand closed around Tom's left forearm and snapped the bone in two with grim effortlessness. The rebel screamed in agony, but the sound died as Death's other hand squeezed his throat.
"Oh, you're funny!" Chuckles laughed. "Care to try again?" The grip on his throat loosened enough for him to breath.
"I swear!" he yelled, tears of pain streaming down his face, "His name is John Burrows! Ask anyone!"
Death paused for a moment, and then nodded. "Okay, Tom—we'll get back to that one. Question number two: why are you following us?"
"B-because you came on a ship . . . a Prowler. We assumed you were from ONI." The irony amused Chuckles. A Prowler was used for stealth, and yet it had turned into an ONI calling card.
"Very good, Tom. Question number three: where can I find Commander Burrows?"
Tom saw his chance and took it. "I can lead you to him." Shaking his head like a disappointed father, Chuckles pulled out his eighteen-inch combat knife.
"And you were doing so good . . ." The blade plunged into Tom's side, just below his rib cage. Caleb nearly vomited before turning his head away. When he the young Spartan looked again, Chuckles was waving something in front of the rebel's wide, terror-filled eyes. "Tom, you do know what this is, don't you?" The wretch nodded. "The human body has twenty-four ribs, Tom—which means that you could go through that twenty-three more times." The rebel's eyes opened even wider and his head shook back and forth in panic. "Then I suggest that you don't answer any questions that I don't ask. Let's try that one once more. Where can I find Commander Burrows?"
Tom's voice was barely audible. "Mickey's . . . Mickey's Tavern."
"Excellent. Now, back to the first question: who do you work for?"
"J-John Burrows." Chuckles stared into the rebel's pitiful, agony filled eyes as he answered. He was telling the truth. Without hesitation he snapped wretch's neck, putting him out of his misery. When he turned to Caleb, he saw fear in the young man's eyes.
"How could you do that to him?" He shook his head slowly, staring at Chuckles as if he were a demon. "You're a monster. My God, you were laughing! You actually enjoyed it!"
"Keep your voice down. I did not enjoy it, but I had to make him think that I did—that I lived for it." Chuckles looked down. "That way he'd break quicker and suffer less."
"But what you did—"
"What I did was get him to tell me what he knew in less than four minutes. Yeah, I could have been nicer. I could have broken fingers, or smacked him around. What would that do? Huh? Make the torture last for ten times as long? Is that what you would have done?" Caleb stared silently. "There is no humane way to beat information out of somebody, kid. But you can make it end as quickly as possible." Standing in that dark alley, Caleb had to admit that the older Spartan was making sense—and the realization sent a chill down his spine.
"Why did you think he lied about the Commander's name?"
"Ever hear of Elvis Presley?" Caleb nodded. "Well, 'John Burrows' was the alias he used when he traveled. Maybe it is a real name, maybe it isn't." Chuckles wiped his knife on his black pants and carefully slid it into its sheath. "Only one way to find out. Thirsty?"
"Yeah, but I don't know if I'll ever be hungry again." The older Spartan pulled green knit cap out of his back pocket and pulled it down over his mass of red hair; somehow stuffing it all inside. Despite the horror that Caleb had just witnessed, he could not help but smile. "I always thought redheads looked good in green."
As they left the alley to look for Mickey's Tavern, Chuckles tried in vain to forget what he had done. Although he had apparently satisfied his young partner with his little speech, he had failed to convince himself. Chuckles had danced on that side of Hell before—he knew the ordeal was far from over; at least for him. The rebel's tortured face would appear every time he closed his eyes, and play in his dreams as stylized horror for months. Was he a monster, or did the bad dreams and guilt prove that he possessed a measure of decency? Either way, the answer would have to wait. In a few short minutes he'd be dropping in on a rebel leader—decency would be taking the rest of the night off.
It was already dark when MiNeS and Kale approached Ian's home. The small town of Canaan sat on beautiful rolling hills, nearly sixty kilometers northeast of Sikyon. As he looked at the modest home of his dead brother, MiNeS tried desperately to mask his fear. But it was guilt that caused him the most pain. Fake. Impostor. Murderer.
"Kale, this is something I want to do alone. I'm not sure how she'll react."
"I understand. Make sure that we see each other tomorrow, Ian. We have a lot more to talk about."
The impostor nodded, and then turned towards the house—towards his judgment. Strong, unbreakable legs felt weak as he headed up the narrow brick walk and on to the porch—and just stood there. Did Sarah know that a murderer waited so close? Could her children feel the approach of the genetically altered freak who crushed their father's skull? Knock, knock! I'm home! Please open the door. Open the door . . .
To a monster.
The knob turned easily in his sweaty hands and the door swung open with a slight squeal of wood rubbing on wood. Directly across the small room, a beautiful young woman sat on a sofa.
The monster stood motionless. She looked up at him, brought two hands to her mouth and then ran one through her long, blonde hair. Thoughts, feelings and emotions flashed on her face, clearer than any spoken words. With the first glance she regained her husband, only to lose him again with the second. Tears welled in her large eyes, overflowed and finally streamed down her cheeks. A gentle smile appeared on her face—a smile like MiNeS had seen on Ian's dying face at the moment of recognition.
"MiNeS." She walked forward and with all of the strength in her small arms she hugged the monster—and he finally broke. Bending over and crying softly, he wrapped his arms around Sarah's neck and held her so close that her hair clung to his moistened face. "Ian always knew you would return." She took a deep breath. "He's dead, isn't he MiNeS."
Sarah squeezed the monster even tighter as deep, choking sobs caused her body to shake. A door creaked open to their right, and two small children—a boy and a girl—stepped into the living room. MiNeS lifted his face, and their little eyes brightened.
"Daddy!" They ran forward and clung to their father's killer with joyful desperation. MiNeS—the impostor, the killer, the fake—once again went rigid as his thoughts searched desperately for an off-switch; and found none. Will I always be a monster? As the children's joy turned to shock and then to grief and finally to something worse, MiNeS felt that he knew the answer.
Mickey's Tavern, like most establishments possessing a dubious past, was not hard to find. Everyone knew where it was, but few of them had ever darkened the door. From the outside it looked like a church, with its beautiful, vaulted architecture and fine woodwork—but that impression disappeared the moment you stepped through the thick, walnut doors.
Chuckles and Caleb walked in quietly and sat in stools at the bar. The bartender, a huge, bearded man with tattoos running up both arms, gave them an unfriendly look.
"We don't serve women or strangers here, ladies. Get out of my bar."
"Our apologies," Chuckles replied sarcastically, "But we couldn't resist. We heard that Elvis was here tonight. Is that true, or has he left the building already?"
"I told you to get out of my—"
"Well then," Chuckles said, cutting him off, "is John Burrows here?"
"That's it," the bartender hissed, and then reached his ham-sized fist across the bar to grab the Spartan's neck. Stepping quickly to his left, Chuckles gripped the huge arm with both hands and yanked the man over the bar, sending him crashing to the floor.
"I have an idea," the Spartan bent over the man as patrons looked on in disbelief. "Why don't you go tell Burrows that I want to see him."
"No need for all that," a voice boomed from across the bar, "I'm John Burrows." Chuckles stood to his feet as the crowd parted to let a large man pass. "I swear, you seem to think violence is the answer to everything." Stopping in front of the two Spartans, the man smiled—and Chuckles nearly fell over. Reaching out with sincerity, Burrows clamped a hand on the Spartan's shoulder. "It is good to see you, old friend."
Good to see me? You pathetic little— Moving with blurring speed, Chuckles pulled his combat knife from its sheath and pressed the blade to Burrows' neck. All over the room, weapons were pulled and rounds chambered in a metallic symphony.
"Yeah," Chuckles said, turning to place Burrows between him and the pointed guns, "Good to see you again too." Fresh anger filled his eyes as he ripped off the Commander's right sleeve and looked at Caleb. The young Spartan's mouth fell open as he stared at the blood-red tattoo just below Burrows' shoulder. To Caleb it looked like a three-legged guy hailing a cab. To Chuckles it looked like the Grim Reaper. But to most people it looked like something much more ordinary. To most people, it looked like a clown.