Waking the Dead (part six): Musings of a Child
Posted By: Chuckles
Date: 8 September 2005, 3:58 pm
Waking the Dead (part six): Musings of a Child
July 27, 2533. Sikyon, Captitol City of Epsilon Indi 2 (The Planet Pella).
As Dr. Sherwood Azrael wheeled the steel cart down the hallway, it was fitting that he took all the care of a mother steering a baby carriage, for a newborn lay in the cold metal basin on top; covered in uncomfortable plastic and unnatural silence. Finally arriving at his office, the doctor entered, pulling the cart in after him. A man sat waiting on the other side of his desk, his face frozen in an angry scowl.
"I was supposed to be in the operating room, doctor, not locked in this office for hours! I work for the Office of Naval Int—"
"I know who you work for, Mr. Saettia." Sherwood brought the cart to a stop beside the desk and then looked up at the ONI spook, somehow hiding his disgust underneath his fatigue. He saw Vincent Saettia as nothing more than a government-sanctioned bully; a man without rank or title, who wielded the public's fear of ONI like a child wields a gun. Azrael, however, was not an easy man to intimidate and Vincent had endured a decidedly uncooperative day.
"You know who I work for?" Saettia responded, doing his best Gestapo imitation. "Your men met me outside and led me in here at gunpoint! You will soon learn exactly who I work for, doctor!"
Azrael sat down in his chair. "My apologies, Mr. Saettia. Sometimes our security guards can be a bit overzealous." He rubbed his eyes and then shook his head as if trying to stay awake. "I've been on duty for almost two days, so I'd like to get this over with."
"Fine. Is the subject finally deceased?"
You worthless, pathetic little piece of trash! "Yes, Mrs. Caroline Cutlass is dead."
"Good, and what of her pregnancy?"
Sherwood pulled the plastic from the top of the cart, revealing the corpse of an extremely large male baby. "Only five months after gestation, this baby weighs nearly eight kilograms and is over seventy-six centimeters long." Even as he repeated the numbers, he had a hard time believing them. These were the measurements of a six month-old, not a baby a little over halfway to term.
Staring at the dead body as if it were nothing more than a hunk of meat, the ONI thug responded to the figures with nods. Finally lifting his gaze from the corpse, he looked at Dr. Azrael with suspicion. "She was pregnant with twins. Where is the other one?"
"It died as well."
"You knew that we needed one of them alive. For your own sake, I hope you didn't let those babies die in an attempt to save that woman." Leaning back in his chair, Vincent shook his head like a disappointed parent. "How would you like to wake up tomorrow in a filthy, rotting hole of a prison—and call that 'home' for the rest of your life? The inmates might get a kick out of having a doctor around." If the words had any effect on Azrael, his face did not show it.
"Both babies died before the operation began," he responded in a voice so relaxed that it was almost sleepy. "We have several hours of video and instrument readings that testify to that fact. I can get them copied for you if—"
Saettia shook his head. "Don't bother. We'll know everything after the autopsies." He smirked and then sat up. "Now bring me the other body. Dead or alive, I'm taking both babies with me."
Over two decades before, Sherwood had graduated with honors from the Cefalo Medical School at Boston College. Glancing at the diploma hanging on the wall to his right, he wondered what the Jesuits might think of this sordid conversation—but only momentarily. No matter how things turned out, that line of thought would bring no comfort. Suddenly aware of the corpse exposed next to him, he quickly pulled the plastic cover back over the basin. "Mr. Saettia, explaining the disappearance of one baby will be hard enough. If both come up missing, people may start to ask questions." The response turned his stomach.
"Don't worry," Vincent said, looking slightly amused, "we have ways of dealing with that."
Okay moron, let's try something you can actually understand—fear. "Do not underestimate this family. Benjamin Cutlass is one of the UNSC's top scientists, with connections throughout the entire military—and that includes ONI. These babies are identical twins, so anything that you could learn from one, you could learn from the other. Why risk being exposed if there is nothing to gain?" Sherwood leaned across the table and spoke as if counseling a friend. "Let this pass without unneeded controversy: give the family something to bury."
After thinking it over for several seconds, Saettia nodded. "Okay, I'll only take one."
"Good, so we'll get the body ready for—"
"But I still need to see the other corpse, doctor."
"The baby is dead, Mr. Saettia. You can ask me or any of the other ten people who were in that room."
"I am not asking anybody. I will not leave this hospital until I place my hand on that baby's neck and feel for myself that there is no pulse." Vincent jabbed his hand into his coat, pulled out a silenced pistol and held it on his lap. "Take me to it now."
Azrael sighed and stood wearily to his feet. "Follow me." Exiting his office, they walked through the hospital corridors for several minutes before entering the pink and baby blue walls of the pediatric wing. After passing through several more double doors, Sherwood finally stopped in front of a room. "We're here."
The doctor pulled down on the handle, the door opened—and Mr. Saettia's jaw dropped. Laying inside a clear incubator in the middle of the room was a large baby, and it was very much alive. The ONI agent spoke without turning his head.
"Enjoy prison, Dr. Azrael; you've certainly earned it." Now smiling, he walked towards the baby, but as he stepped through the door he saw movement to his left—meaningful movement. Alarms went off in his head and he whipped the gun around—too late. Before he could pull the trigger, a large hand caught his wrist in an iron grip and snapped it like a branch. An instant later, Saettia's legs were swept out from under him and he fell forward—only to be knocked upright again by a wicked blow to the Adams apple. Stunned and unable to breath, he could only watch in horror as three silenced shots slammed into his chest. The ONI thug tumbled backwards like a broken doll. Lying helplessly on his back, he saw the assailant's face for the first time—and his eyes wide with surprise. Lips moved soundlessly as he tried in vain to speak.
ONI Lieutenant Vladimir Palatov pushed the pistol back into the holster beneath his coat, knelt down and then spat on the man dying at his feet. "Enjoy the heck out of Hell, Vince—you've certainly earned it." It was the first time Palatov had fired his weapon for anything but practice since leaving the ODST's for officer training. As a Helljumper, he had seen his share of action, so this piece of filth had not been his first kill—not by a long shot. But as he silently thanked God that Saettia had not been wise enough to take the dead baby and leave, something occurred to him. Every other time he had ended a man's life he had felt a profound sense of regret. This time, however, although the feeling was just as profound it had nothing to do with regret. Yes, he had just killed a man. He had fired three bullets into the heart of a fellow human being—but those bullets had done something beautiful.
Nineteen Years Later . . .
Soldiers lined up outside Mickey's Tavern like mourners at a funeral parlor; but they were not waiting to pay their last respects. Even though every rebel in Sikyon had awoke to the news of John Burrows' death, they still found it hard to believe. Men died and the rebels accepted that, but Burrows was somehow different—as different from them as iron was from clay.
The first time they had seen John fight was the night he single-handedly defeated the former rebel leader—along with his entire security force—armed with nothing but a combat knife. The now legendary battle ended only a few seconds after it began, with fifteen dead or wounded men scattered on the ground at John's feet. No one who had been there would ever forget. No one who had been there would believe he had been killed—not until they saw it with their own eyes.
A large man approached the tavern and the crowd quickly parted to let him through. Just inside, a young rebel stiffened as the man entered and shut the door behind him. "Good morning, sir!" the soldier said, snapping off a crisp salute. Such gestures were rare in the rebel army, reserved for officers who commanded great fear or great respect. Ronald Brondyke commanded both. Since nobody knew for sure what rank he held, the men referred to him only as 'sir' and a select few called him 'Ron'.
"I want this door kept shut," Brondyke said, leveling a hard gaze at the young rebel. A disgusting odor suddenly assaulted him with all the violence of a left hook. Yanking out a handkerchief almost involuntarily, he held it to his nose in a vain attempt to stifle Death's stench. "Nobody enters for any reason, understood?" The nervous soldier snapped another salute so fast that he nearly struck himself in the forehead.
Brondyke stood motionless for a moment, staring into the room, letting his eyes adjust to the low light. All too quickly it came into clear, bloody focus. Corpses lay twisted and broken all around, each face frozen in pain and terror. But as Ron began crossing the floor with careful steps, he knew that the body count was the least of his worries. He had received a disturbing call on his way over from Dr. Liton Nadu, and if the elderly physician was correct, they had made a horrible mistake. A man stood to his feet in the back of the room and waved his hand.
"Over here, Ron." The old man had been like a second father to the rebel leader since childhood and was one of the few people who had both his friendship and his trust. Brondyke stepped gingerly across the room and found the doctor kneeling over John Burrows' corpse.
"Oh my God."
Liton nodded. "Yeah, that's just what I said." He pointed a gloved finger at the head. "Near as I can tell, he was killed with a shot gun," he placed his hand four inches above what used to be a face, "fired from about here."
Brondyke stared at the denuded skull and shook his head. "No, that's not possible. His entire head would have been blown off."
The elderly doctor gave Ron a scolding look. "Young man, I've been treating battle wounds since before your father cut his teeth. I know what I'm looking at." He pointed at the head as if it were exhibit 'A'. "Nearly all of the soft tissue was blown from the front of the skull. If it wasn't a shotgun, what was it?" Brondyke stood silently, knowing that Nadu had to be right. "But do you see all of these little craters and pits caused by the blast?" The officer nodded. "Bone does not act like that—no bone I've ever seen, anyway. The teeth were obliterated, which is normal, but look right below the nose." Brondyke bent over and saw some sort of thin, white veneer fused to the facial bone.
"What is it?"
The doctor spoke with an ominous tone. "Armor." He pointed at several places where he had cut the flesh away on Burrows' arms and legs. "It is grafted onto his entire skeleton, and judging from the condition of the skull, it is nearly unbreakable." Ron's stomach twisted into a square knot as he finally accepted the obvious.
"Yeah, and it gets worse." Nadu pulled Burrows' right sleeve up, revealing a blood-red tattoo on his upper arm that looked vaguely like a clown. Tattooed above it in military block letters was the word 'LEXICUS'. Ron, a life-long Catholic, crossed himself and stared in disbelief. Could it be? Could John—a good friend and rebel leader—be one of the Clowns? He began to shake his head.
"No, no Liton, no. It's just a tattoo."
"Maybe. But three of my sons fought for Turpolev in the Bishkek rebellion. They were found dead in the Wilderness of Moshe along with two thousand other rebel soldiers." Nadu pointed at the tattoo. "That God-forsaken symbol was scratched on everything from trees and vehicles to my sons' bodies." The old man stood to his feet and kicked Burrows' lifeless head in anger. "He was one of them, Ron. I know it."
Brondyke closed his eyes and calmed himself with a deep breath. If Burrows had really been a Spartan then he was almost certainly working for ONI. News this bad could cause panic, and that could lead to mass desertion. "Does anyone else know about this, Doc?"
Liton shook his head. "No, not yet."
"Good. Bag the body immediately. As far as the men are concerned, John lived and died a rebel." Ron pointed towards the tattoo and armored skull. "This never happened."
"Never happened?" Nadu's face burned red with anger. "No, son, this did happen. We fed, housed, clothed and served this filthy murderer for almost two years. Two years!"
"Keep your voice down. I'm telling you, the men must not know." The doctor merely shook his head.
"No, Ron. Not this time. First we're going to tell those men the truth," a vengeful, toothy grin spread across his whiskered face as he pointed at the hulking corpse "and then we'll watch the buzzards pick this freak clean." With that, Dr. Liton Nadu began walking towards the door.
How could you do this to me, John? Ron pulled a pistol from his coat, grimaced and then aimed it reluctantly towards the old man's head.
"Liton, please stop."
"No," the doctor said as he neared the exit, "I can't let this killer become a martyred hero. I won't. I'm sorry, Ron." As Nadu placed his hand on the knob he saw a bright flash reflect on the polished wooden door. He tried to open it, but his hand would not respond. That's strange. Before he could try again, his legs gave out and he fell to the ground—dead. More flashes, more reflections and the body of the door guard dropped next to him.
Brondyke looked at the smoking pistol with disgust and then hurled it across the room. I'm sorry too, old man. I'm sorry too.
The COM on his lapel beeped. This had better be important. "Yes?"
"Sir, this is Private Mercy Plotternick. Those two big men that Burrows had us watching just returned to their Prowler."
What did it matter anymore? "Roger that, Private. I want you to return immed—"
"Forgive me sir, but there's more. You're not going to believe this, but I think that those two guys are Spartans! One of them came out of the ship a moment ago and it was like nothing I've ever seen. Sir, I know this must sound crazy. Wait . . . they just started the engines. Sir, are you there?"
"Yes. Did you attach a transponder to the ship?"
"Sir, those Prowlers are like nothing you've ever seen! The surface is covered with some weird material. It's metal all right, but it's not magnetic. Nothing seems to stick to it either. I bet you couldn't even get chewing gum to—"
"Dang it, soldier! Did you put a transponder on it or not?"
The voice beamed with pride. "Sir, you bet I did! Are we gonna follow it?"
Ron ignored the question and tapped his COM. "Hank? This is Brondyke. Get Wiley's squad in a Pelican immediately and have them meet me behind Mickey's."
"Yes sir. Is there any information I can give him? I'm gonna have to wake him up, and he might go easier on me if I have something to tell him."
"Tell him he's going on a hunting trip."
"Hunting, sir? Hunting what?"
"Superman, Hank. Tell him he's going after Superman."
Ninety-five kilometers north of Sikyon, a man and woman sat on a park bench watching two kids play. Like the entire city of Seleucia, this park had seen better days. Weeds had long since conquered the grass in the small play area, and the equipment looked as if it had been through a war—and lost. The bench the man and woman sat on had not seen a new coat of paint in more than a decade. But the two five year olds did not seem to care and the large man was lost in thought. The woman, however, was a different story. She did not like this run-down park, or the filthy run-down city that surrounded it.
Sarah Cutlass looked over at MiNeS and decided to make another attempt at conversation. "Why are we here? We have bigger, better parks near the house in Canaan." She looked around and then scrunched up her nose as if catching a bad odor. "I hate this city. I don't feel safe bringing Nicholas and Ellen here."
MiNeS, who had been staring at the ground, looked up at the kids. Nick had just reached the top of a rusted metal slide that looked as if it would not hold even his meager weight. On the other side of the small park, Ellen went back and forth on a swing. Looking at his brother's fraternal twins brought both joy and grief. From the moment they had met, MiNeS had fallen in love with the two kids. But even as they played in the park, he could see sadness darken their faces. They had just lost their father—and it was all MiNeS' fault. He turned to look at his brother's widow and saw the same sadness.
"It's not safe for me to be near your house. It puts you and the kids in danger."
Sarah could hardly believe her ears. "Oh, and we're safe here, in the middle of the most dangerous city in the system?" The mere thought of what he would do to anyone who tried to hurt this family caused a smile to appear on MiNeS' face.
"Trust me, Sarah. I won't let anyone hurt you or the kids." He looked away. "You've been hurt enough." She reached out with her small hands and turned his face towards hers. Sarah's wise, beautiful eyes looked into his for several moments, until MiNeS felt as if she could read his thoughts.
"MiNeS, your silence is hurting me. Your coming home is the only joyful thing that has happened in this family since Ian—" she fought to keep control of her emotions. Sarah Cutlass did not cry in public. "Since Ian left. But you don't talk to me or Nick or Ellen; and God knows we need someone to talk to." She smiled and touched his face. "Ian has been telling us about you for years, and now you're here. It's like a miracle." He gently pulled her hand away.
A miracle? If she only knew. "I've done things, Sarah, things for ONI that I'm ashamed of." Again, he stared at the ground. "Things so bad that all I can feel is hate. I hate ONI for making me do them, and I hate myself because I obeyed their orders." He turned to look at her and the pain in his eyes nearly made her back away. "Being here, seeing what a wonderful wife my brother had, and seeing the kids, it just reminds me of what I can't go back to; it is the part of me that ONI killed." Tears began to form in his eyes, reminding Sarah again of her husband. Unlike her, Ian had never been ashamed to cry. "I can never go back. I have the memory of love, but my reality is hate."
Sarah shook her head. "MiNeS, do not blame ONI if you choose to hate. My husband lost everything—you, his mother and his father, but he never used it as an excuse to give up. He smiled, MiNeS, and he—" she could no longer hold back the tears, "and he laughed. He played with his kids, he helped his friends, he worshipped his God. He went on with his life because that is all you can do. If Ian could still live and love, why can't you?"
MiNeS turned his back to her and sat sideways on the bench. "You have no idea what I've done."
"I would if you told me."
He shook his head. "I can't tell you."
"Yes, you can." She put a hand on his shoulder, but he pulled away.
"No, I can't! And you have to stop asking me." Grabbing both of his massive shoulders, she tried in vain to turn him around. When he would not move, she spoke to him bitterly.
"Me and the kids loved Ian more than you could imagine and now," she took a deep breath, "now we've lost him forever. You returned at the time we needed you most, but you're too selfish to care about anything except your own problems! Nothing that you've done could be worse than—"
Suddenly MiNeS turned around, interrupting her with a voice as low and dead as his eyes. "I killed him, Sarah. I killed Ian. That's how I knew that he was dead." He made two fists and then looked at them as if they were poisonous snakes. "I killed my own brother with my bare hands." Horrified, Sarah backed away from him, not wanting to believe his words—but knowing that he spoke the truth. Conflicting feelings intersected on her face, twisting it into different expressions as one confused thought after another crashed through her mind.
"You killed Ian? You knew it was him and you still killed him?"
MiNeS shook his head. "No, not on purpose. I didn't know, oh God, I didn't know. Not until he was already dying." He reached into his pocket and pulled out several pictures. "He smiled at me, like he was glad to see me. Then he gave me these."
She took the photos from his hand and flipped through them. They were pictures of Ian, MiNeS and their parents, years ago when the boys were young. They were images of happier times. Sarah covered her mouth as she began to cry harder. "He took these with him everywhere." She looked up at MiNeS and managed a smile. "They were for you, in case he found you. Ian must have been so happy when he finally did."
MiNeS remembered back to that day, to the look on his brother's face and suddenly realized that Sarah was right; Ian was happy. His dying face was one of joy and peace, not anger or hatred—and that realization changed everything. That memory, which up until now had condemned MiNeS to a life of guilt; that same memory now set him free. Sarah wrapped her small arms around his neck and pulled him close.
"I don't blame you for what happened. You didn't know it was Ian. And think about it—if you had not been there he still would have been killed, but he would have died without ever seeing you again. Thank God you were there."
MiNeS thought about it for a moment, and it seemed that darkness and depression fled from his mind. A gentle, genuine smile spread over his face as he spoke words that five minutes before would have been unthinkable.
"Yeah, thank God I was there." He looked at Sarah's loving, forgiving face. "And thank God I am here."
Eight hours later they all sat in a restaurant, laughing and eating pizza. Normally it would not have been safe for a woman of Sarah's beauty to spend a day in Seleucia; but any would-be troublemakers took one look at her muscled escort and decided to leave her alone. For the first time since he was six, MiNeS laughed and played and talked with those he loved, free of guilt, and especially free of ONI. Just before sunset, Sarah, Ellen and Nicholas headed home. MiNeS, however, decided it would be safest for the family if he stayed in Seleucia.
It was almost ten at night when Sarah finally returned home, bringing her husband's Warthog to a stop in her gravel driveway. As usual, the kids jumped out and raced for the house; and as usual, Ellen won.
"So Nick," she said smiling ear-to-ear, "do you think you will ever beat me?" His only reply was an annoyed glare. Now laughing, Ellen turned the doorknob and began to walk in. "Maybe if you ate pizza that actually had vegetables on it you would—mommeeeeee! Mommeeeeee!"
Sarah heard Ellen scream, ran into the house—and froze. Standing no more than six feet inside the door was a hulking figure in white armor; and it held Ellen as if she were a tiny doll. Nick who had stopped just inside the entrance, stared at his sister with wide, frightened eyes.
The monster spoke in a cold voice. "Mrs. Cutlass?"
"Have you been contacted by somebody named 'MiNeS'?"
The white monster wrapped a huge, gauntleted hand around Ellen's tiny arm and began to squeeze. The little girl screamed in pain.
"No!" Sarah ran at him desperately, but a powerful arm swept out and sent her flying into the wall. Ellen screamed louder.
"Do you want watch as both of your children are tortured? Do you want to see their faces twisted in unimaginable pain as they beg you to save them, to make it stop—only to endure more pain? And finally, just before the life is snuffed out of their small bodies, I will make them watch as I tear you apart piece by piece. I will do it, Mrs. Cutlass." Even as he said it, she knew that it was no bluff. "Where is MiNeS?"
"He's not here, I swear!" Again, the white monster squeezed Ellen's little arm, and again she screamed in pain.
Sarah became hysterical. "Stop! Stop! Please! She's only five! Stop!"
But he didn't stop. He continued to squeeze, slowly increasing pressure on the thin bone. Ellen shrieked and kicked and begged as tears flowed down her small, terrified face. Then suddenly, even above the screams, Sarah heard her daughter's arm snap.
"I'll get him! Oh God, I'll get him!"
"That's better, Mrs. Cutlass. Send MiNeS to the barn at the back of your property by three in the morning. If he does not show up by that time you will get this child back in pieces. Do not disappoint me, Mrs. Cutlass."
Sobbing and unable to speak, Sarah nodded. A moment later, the monster was gone—and so was her frightened, injured little girl.
Ellen Cutlass was usually sleeping at two fifty-eight in the morning, but not this night. No, this night she sat on a bale of hay, staring at a huge, white monster. The pain in her broken arm had finally calmed down to the point that she could relax if she did not move it. Fixing a poisonous gaze at her massive captor, Ellen spoke with the maturity of a much older child.
"What is your name?"
The armored demon turned, surprised not only by the question, but by the strong, fearless voice that posed it. "My name is Simjanes."
"Well, Simjanes, you should know that there is no way that my mom is going to send you my uncle MiNeS."
The Spartan almost chuckled. "No?"
"No. We are Cutlasses, Mr. Simjanes, and we don't take to having others tell us what to do. It's just not our way." Sim walked over to the girl and lowered his head until Ellen could see her reflection in his visor.
"If your mommy does not bring your uncle here in the next minute, I will kill you and do this all over again using your brother."
The little girl laughed. "I don't think so. I think that the you'll be the one who dies."
Oh yeah? I'm going to enjoy this more than I thought. Out of the armor came a cold, merciless voice—a voice of cruelty; the promise of certain Death. "You were right about your mother: she did not send me MiNeS. And it is now one minute after three." He pulled out a large, gleaming knife and held it to the little girl's throat. "Time for you to die. Any last words?"
Ellen nodded and then, leaning forward until her lips almost touched the monster's helmet, she spoke in a clear voice. "You're. Gonna. Die."
Even though he knew that these were just the ramblings of a tired little girl, something about the way she spoke unnerved him. Despite himself, Simjanes could not shake the feeling that somehow his life was now in danger.
"Who is going to kill me?"
"My uncle. He likes me a lot, and it makes him really mad when people bother me."
"I thought you said that your mommy wouldn't send MiNeS here." Suddenly the ground beneath them began to shake, but rather than frightening the little girl, it made her smile even wider.
"Not uncle MiNeS. I'm talking about my other uncle." She giggled as the ground quaked even more, causing the walls of the barn to sway and showering them with dust from the rafters above.
Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!
An icy chill shot up the Spartan's spine as he came to a sudden, horrible realization: the shaking was not being caused by an earthquake, but by footsteps. Ellen was now beaming. "Heeere heee comes! You're gonna die, Mr. Simjanes!"
For the second time that night he heard the musings of a traumatized little girl—and believed every single word.