Waking the Dead (part five): A Night at Mickey's
Posted By: Chuckles
Date: 15 August 2005, 8:23 am
Waking the Dead (part five): A Night at Mickey's
July 27, 2533. Sikyon, Captitol City of Epsilon Indi 2 (The Planet Pella).
"Ben, you need to listen to me." Lieutenant Vladimir Palatov placed a hand on his friend's shoulder as he spoke, but both his voice and caring touch went unnoticed. On the other side of a large window, four doctors attended to an unconscious woman with steadily increasing urgency. Three nurses suddenly rushed in, filling gaps between the doctors and making it almost impossible for Benjamin Cutlass to see his wife. One of the nurses, seeing the patient's immense abdomen for the first time, nearly fainted.
"How can this be, Pal?" Ben said, staring at the commotion on the other side of the glass, "Caroline is only five months along." Palatov tightened his grip on the big man's shoulder and gently turned him around.
"Look at me, Ben."
"MiNeS and Ian were large babies, but—"
"Ben, look at me!" Weary eyes finally obeyed, and Palatov immediately regretted his harsh tone. He pointed a finger towards the operating room. "They are taking care of Caroline. Everything that can be done will be done. You have to start thinking about your boys, and especially yourself." With no time to weigh his words, Palatov was blunt. "Benjamin, your entire family may be in danger." The worried eyes of a concerned husband changed instantly to those of a capable and concerned father.
How much can I tell him? "Some people have shown an interest in your wife's pregnancy." Ben grabbed Palatov's shoulders.
"Who has and why? You have to tell me, Pal."
"Why? You're a scientist, Ben—why do you think?" Benjamin's blood turned to ice in his veins.
"Oh my God. It's ONI, isn't it?" He did not wait for an answer. "Of course it is." Ben pulled his arms away and took a step backward. "So this isn't just a theory, is it?" Palatov, an ONI officer, dropped his gaze to the floor and shook his head.
"No, it isn't."
A sudden commotion filled the operating room as doctors barked orders and nurses scurried here and there in a barely controlled panic. Something had gone horribly wrong. Ben glanced through the window, and then at Palatov; nearly torn in two as each crisis screamed for his full attention. "But ONI can't just take people, can they?" As a nurse pushed a large machine past them and into the operating room, Palatov stared silently at his friend; and that was answer enough. Ben's face turned red with anger. "The boys—where are my boys?"
"Safe, for now. Tracy has them at our house. Frankly, I'm much more concerned about you. One of Ackerson's men believes that—" Palatov fell silent as a doctor emerged from the operating room, slowly pulling off his mask as he walked over to his friend. Looking into Benjamin's eyes with sincere compassion, the doctor spoke softly.
"Mr. Cutlass, we did all that we could. I'm very sorry."
The two strong men embraced and wept, momentarily setting aside all but the memory of a loving wife and dear friend. But not all ended in death that day. Some families are able to survive in harsh, cold places where most everything else would wither and die. Within three years Benjamin and his son MiNeS would disappear without a trace, leading most to write the Cutlasses off completely. But those who really knew Benjamin, Caroline and their remarkable sons thought something entirely different. Yes, someone may have dealt a staggering blow to the Cutlasses.
But that someone had messed with the wrong family.
Chuckles pressed the blade hard against John Burrow's throat, and as he stared at the crowd of rebels that filled Mickey's Tavern, thirty-four guns stared back at the Spartan with cold indifference. Still, nobody except Caleb noticed the blood-red tattoo on the rebel commander's upper arm. Long seconds passed; eyes darted, palms became slick and trigger fingers itchy. Tension filled the room like an explosive gas, and every man in the building knew: this explosion lacked only a spark.
"Lower your weapons!" Burrow's voice boomed, shattering the silence and causing more than one man to jump. With Chuckles' knife all but puncturing the thin skin of his neck, the rebel commander swept his gaze over the entire room, meeting each set of questioning eyes. "Lower them now!" Confused men glanced at their leader and then at each other before slowly obeying the order.
"Very touching," Chuckles whispered in Burrow's ear. "Nice to know you still have my back. So what happens now?" A twisted smile snaked across his sickly-white face. "I have an idea: how 'bout I show your little army our matching tat's and give them a short history lesson? I'm sure they've all heard of the Clowns. We'd be celebrities, sure, but do you think we'd make it out of here alive, Lexicus?"
Utterly unaffected by his former partner's mind-games, the rebel leader replied in a calm, reasonable voice. "You have no idea what you're into, Chuck. All I need is five minutes of your time. Five short minutes." Accepting the hard fact that he would have to hear Lexicus out, Chuckles shook his head in frustration and then slowly pulled the knife away from his neck. Several men raised their weapons, only to be angrily waved off by the man they called 'Burrows'. But it was not until the large redhead sheathed his massive blade that the rebels finally holstered their guns. Lexicus turned to face his old friend. "We need to talk alone."
Turning to Caleb, Chuckles' face was almost apologetic. "Stay up here and keep an eye out. This won't take long." The young Spartan nodded and then watched cautiously as the two older men walked through the soldiers and sat down at a table in the back of the room. Amazingly, the crowd of rebels poured drinks, resumed conversations and generally went back to whatever they had been doing as if nothing had happened. Just another night at Mickey's.
Chuckles glared coolly from across the table. "So what do you have to tell me, buddy."
"It really is good to see you," Lexicus said, answering sarcasm with sincerity. "You were the one thing that made me want to stay. How have you been?" Chuckles snorted with disgust.
"You are unbelievable. I find you here; a traitor commanding a small army of rebels, and you think we're going to sit around, chew the fat and catch up with each other's lives?" The words hit their mark, and Lexicus leaned back as if wounded.
"I guess I was wrong."
"You guess?" Chuckles stood to his feet in anger. "Well Lex, it's been fun, but I'd better get going. Not that I'm not used to spending time with rebels—I am. It's spending time with living rebels that feels strange." After one last look of disgust, he turned to walk away.
"You're nothing but Ackerson's lapdog, Chuck. You talk real tough, but when he gives an order you just wag your tail, lick his hand and obey." Bull's eye. Chuckles turned around and glared, but Lexicus waived dismissively. "Go on, get out of here. Run on home to daddy."
In a blur of motion, Chuckles palmed his knife and lunged—but his anger made him careless, and he remembered too late the skill of the one he fought. Throwing himself backwards in his chair, Lexicus slammed his back to the floor and shot his legs up where his head had just been. With a burst of speed and strength that surprised even Chuckles, he clamped his legs around the knife-wielding arm and twisted it with such force that the red-haired Spartan went flying into the wall and the weapon fell harmlessly to the floor. Lex was on his feet in an instant, leveling his pistol at Chuckles' forehead.
"What? Did you think I'd gone soft?" Lexicus gestured towards the chair with a slight dip of his gun. "Sit down. We're gonna talk whether you want to or not." As Chuckles grudgingly obeyed, Lex flipped his chair upright with his foot, holstered his weapon and sat down. "I'm not what you think I am, Chuck. I am not a traitor." The reply was predictably sarcastic.
"Well, I hope you'll forgive me for jumping to that conclusion, Commander. So I guess you just give orders to traitors then, right?" Chuckles' statement hit so close to the truth that Lexicus almost smiled.
"I am not against the UNSC. If the human race has any prayer of winning this war, I know that we need to stay united. If I am a rebel, I am only rebelling against Colonel Ackerson. Chuck, I'm as loyal to the UNSC as you are."
His face finally softening, Chuckles pointed a single finger at the room full of rebels. "Do they know that?"
Lexicus smiled. "I sure hope not."
In that moment the tension between them vanished, as did the two years of separation. The deep connection they had formed before had returned—and small wonder. No one can go from close companion to mortal enemy faster than a friend. Only they can truly betray, because betrayal is always personal; and only they can truly forgive, because forgiveness is never blind.
"You know Chuck," Lexicus said, relaxing for the first time, "I'm not the only rebel leader who feels this way. Ever heard of Vladimir Palatov?" Chuckles looked down at the table.
"Until ten years ago, he was an ONI officer working closely with Ackerson. But then, like me, he discovered something so horrible that he had to leave." Lexicus leaned forward and lowered his voice. "Palatov was not a trusting man. It took me over a year to convince him that I wasn't an ONI spy. A couple of months ago I told him what I saw at Ackerson's arctic base and it seemed to make sense to him. He told me that I had given him an important piece to a much larger puzzle. Unlike me, I think he knew what was going on. We were going to meet last week, but . . . " Lexicus looked down at the table, and then into the eyes of his oldest friend. "Did Ackerson send you to kill him?"
Suddenly ashamed, Chuckles found it hard to look Lexicus in the eye as he answered. "Yes."
"Well, you couldn't have known."
Barely able to stay in his seat, Chuckles shook his head in exasperation. "Couldn't have known what? I still have no idea why you deserted in the first place."
"Do you remember those large trucks that used to come and go each week at the base?" Chuckles nodded. "I saw one of them leaving one night while I was on patrol. About seven klicks out from the base, the truck flipped over and spewed its contents all over the snow. When I arrived at the crash, blood was everywhere." Lexicus looked down, his eyes distant and sad. "At first I thought the blood was the driver's, but then I saw the bodies. Must have been over a hundred mangled, bloody corpses lying there in the snow."
Chuckles leaned forward, careful to keep his voice low. "Were they wearing uniforms?"
"No, but get this: I stopped the next truck a week later and found the same thing. Think about it; two weeks, and over two hundred bodies." He could see that his friend was indeed thinking about it. "Those trucks came every week for how many years?" The realization hit Chuckles like a blow to the stomach.
"My God. Why? What was Ackerson doing?"
Lexicus shook his head gravely. "You mean what is Ackerson doing. Whatever it is, Chuck, you're helping him do it—just like I was. When I told this story to Palatov he became upset and started talking really fast and heated; but not to me. It was as if he were continuing an argument with Ackerson from long ago. He was yelling, 'I told you! I told you! I knew that it would lead to this! To death, to pain, to cruelty! I said that you were playing with fire!'" Lexicus stopped for a moment, clearly shaken by the memory. "He went on like that for several minutes. When I couldn't take anymore, I grabbed him and asked what Ackerson was trying to do that was so dangerous. Palatov calmed down and then spoke to me as a father speaks to a child who is too young and naïve to understand his words. 'Waking the dead, Lexicus; he is waking the dead.'"
Outside Mickey's Tavern, beyond the glow of any light, something waited in the soft summer rain: something with a heart darker than the unlit streets of Sikyon. A total of eight men had left the tavern and headed for home this night. One dangled three feet from the ground, his neck in the iron grip of an armored giant: the rest lay broken and dead in the alley behind him.
"Where do the Cutasses live?" Death spoke in a cold, reasoning manner. It took all of the poor man's strength to gather breath for an answer—but he could not keep his voice from quaking.
"C-cutlass? I-Ian Cutlass?" Panic began to seize the wretch's mind as the massive hand closed tighter around his throat.
"I did not ask for the name." Cruel and unstoppable, the gauntleted fist squeezed steadily harder, crushing soft tissue. "I already know the name. Where do they live?" Finally, Death's grip loosened. After several failed attempts the man responded; each word like a knife to his damaged throat.
"C-Canaan. It's a t-town fifty or sixty k-kilometers north." Instantly the hand opened, dumping him to the ground, coughing painfully. The sickening taste of warm blood filled his mouth as he lay on the stone floor of the alley waiting to die. But to his amazement, Death merely helped him to his feet and asked a question.
"Are you still able to talk?"
"Good. I have a message for you to deliver."
Chuckles and Lexicus looked up from their table as Mickey's suddenly fell silent, and saw a man stumbling towards them in a daze. A purplish read bruise ringed his neck like a collar, and blood trickled steadily from each corner of his mouth—but neither the bruise nor the blood had caused Mickey's patrons to stare in silence. An expression haunted his face, its exaggerated proportions like the images found in a child's nightmare. Closer and closer the wretch came, until he stood in front of a seated Lexicus. Opening his mouth, he spoke to the rebel leader in a voice as pained and tortured as his face.
"He says—" the man grabbed his throat and doubled over, splattering blood on the floor with a thick, wet cough that made even Chuckles wince. After a moment, the man stood straight again. "H-he says g-goodbye."
Lexicus looked cautiously around the room. "Who says 'goodbye'?" The question fell on deaf ears.
"He s-says that you were a fool—" The lights suddenly went out, plunging Mickey's Tavern into darkness, "—to let him live."
Chilling screams—first one, then many—cut through the blackness from the direction of the door. Chuckles threw the table out of his way and snatched his knife from the ground. As he turned towards the sounds of slaughter he heard a dull, wet thump followed by a painful gasp.
"Chuckles, get out of here now!" The urgent, agony-laced voice belonged to Lexicus. "He's wearing his armor! Go!" And then, as the cries of death drew nearer, Chuckles finally understood.
Simjanes. "No, I can't abandon you—not to him." Lexicus dropped to the floor like a sack of grain, and his breathing became uneven. It seemed that Hell itself marched through Mickey's Tavern that night, but Chuckles knelt down slowly, as if they were the only two men in the room.
"There's no time, Chuck! My God, if we all die, Ackerson wins! Please, go!" Heavy footsteps drew closer, as did the horrible screams, but Chuckles, who had only had one friend his entire life, could not move. Lex began to shake as the quick and shallow breathes of impending death convulsed through him. Kneeling next to him, the redheaded Spartan gripped his friend's shoulder with his left hand, and his eighteen-inch combat knife with his right. He was not going anywhere. He'd fought next to Lexicus for most of his adult life: he could die next to him as well.
Without warning Caleb's huge fist slammed into the back of Chuckles' head, dropping his unconscious bulk on top of Lexicus.
"Get him out of here!" Lex yelled with more breath than he could actually spare. He felt the weight lift off of him, followed by heavy, hurried footsteps. All over the room, screams became moans, and moans became silence as the voices died with the men.
"Hello Commander Burrows." Although Lex had not heard anyone approach, the cold words were spoken from directly above him.
Looking up into the darkness, Lexicus smiled. "Hello, Sim. How's the leg?"
"Better, but I'll always limp without my armor." Simjanes placed his massive boot on the gaping wound in Lexicus' gut and pressed down cruelly. "How's the stomach, Lex?" The only reply was desperate, shallow breathing. "Well, enough catching up. I'm here to ask a question. It was almost two years ago that I was the one on the ground, flailing like a fish as the MJOLNIR armor played my broken leg like a violin. I was completely helpless, and yet you left me alive. I've always wondered: was it an act of mercy or cruelty?" The boot lifted, allowing the dying man to breathe.
Lexicus laughed and then spoke in an amused, raspy voice. "Ask me again in a few days . . . after Chuckles finds you." In the darkness above him a shotgun chambered an eight-gauge slug with metallic staccato. A second later, Lexicus could feel a warm barrel pressing hard into the skin on his forehead.
"Yeah," Simjanes squeezed the trigger and the weapon thundered in his gauntleted hands. "I'll do that, Lex."
Waking with a jump, his eyes shot open—but then shut just as quickly. Light only made his head throb worse. Shading his face with his hand, he slowly opened his eyes again. Leaves? Chuckles stood shakily to his feet and looked around. Trees surrounded him on all sides. Hadn't he been at Mickeys with Lexicus? Shouldn't he be dead? Caleb lay shivering on the ground a few meters away. It had apparently rained most of the night, and both of them were soaked to the bone.
"Hey kid," Chuckles said, waking the young Spartan with a gentle kick. "Where are we?" Caleb stood up, a look of caution instantly on his face.
"We're on the ridge just north of Sikyon."
"Yeah, and why don't I remember how we got here?"
The young Spartan was visibly nervous. "You were knocked out." Chuckles probed the back of his head and found a painful lump.
"If Simjanes knocked me out, then why didn't he . . . " Eyes suddenly burning with angry realization, he leveled a lethal gaze at Caleb. Without warning, Chuckles smashed his fist into the young man's face, knocking him violently to the ground. "You pathetic little—"
"I had no choice! You weren't going to leave!"
"I didn't want to leave! I was staying to defend Lexicus! Did you consider that?"
Caleb stood to his feet and got right in Chuckles' face: it was his turn to be angry. "Yeah, I considered it. I considered that you were going to fight a Spartan in MJOLNIR armor wearing nothing but civvies! Your shirt, shoes and knife against his boots, armor and shotgun!" He waited a moment for the words to sink in and then continued, his rage unabated. "You obviously weren't thinking clearly, Sir, so I had to take control of the situation." The kid was right, and the older man knew it. Embarrassed and deflated, Chuckles again felt the back of his head.
"That was quite a hit. You carried me all the way up here?"
Finally awake and in his right mind, Chuckles walked through the trees toward the valley, followed closely by Caleb. After about one hundred meters, the ground dropped away and the city of Sikyon sprawled out before them. A soft rain had fallen the entire night, and as the sun began to peak past the receding clouds, a rainbow appeared like a brilliant painting over the valley; dwarfing it in both size and beauty. Without taking his eyes from nature's spectacle, Chuckles spoke to Caleb.
"Men may do evil, may do it forever, but some things remain; things they don't have the power to corrupt or destroy. Goodness and beauty will still be here when worthless men are nothing more than dust; because for all of their cruel deeds, it is the one thing that they will never be able to touch." Barely able to believe his ears, Caleb looked at Chuckles as if for the first time. Without another word, the older Spartan started walking down into the valley.
"Where are we going?" Caleb asked, still amazed at what he had just heard. Chuckles turned to the young man, his face full of resolve.
"Back to the ship to get our armor—and I don't care who sees us wearing it. I think we've been pushed around long enough. It's time we pushed back."