Ghosts of Erebus (part eight): The Hallways of Hell
Posted By: Chuckles
Date: 17 January 2005, 8:59 PM
Ghosts of Erebus (part eight): The Hallways of Hell
Without the bulldozers the job would have taken much longer, and even with them it was no small task. But nobody said life was easy, and you do your best with what you are given. For weeks they worked tirelessly, toiling long hours on little or no sleep. Scattered as they were, finding them all was an historic test of leadership and ingenuity; but the biggest challenge lay between the bulldozing and the locating. The real challenge was in the killing.
How do you kill over three million people without wasting precious ammunition? It was a problem that Stephen Thanatos had not planned for when he arrived in 2533.
With the Covenant bearing down on the inner colonies, it had not been hard for Thanatos to make his case. He had worked for years as a top scientist in ONI's human augmentation program, all without the benefit of test subjects. But in the desperation that spread in the wake of the Covenant onslaught, ONI had handed Stephen a virtual gold mine—and its name was Orpheus.
In Early 2533 it was reported that Orpheus, the most populous of the three main prison planets, had been glassed by the Covenant. In reality, ONI had taken possession of the planet, renamed it Erebus and classified its location. A UNSC Admiral had once remarked angrily that you could sum ONI up in two words: fairytales and nightmares. The fairytale was the lie they told: the nightmare was the truth they hid. Orpheus' glassing had been the fairytale.
Erebus became the nightmare.
This time, however, ONI too had been played, for Thanatos had no interest in stronger and better soldiers. No, his passion was death and madness—and these he brought to Erebus with both hands. Using treatments lovingly developed over his years of study, he began his reign of death with enthusiasm. Soon, the cries of madmen filled the air day and night, and the great prison within the city of Parnassus became a stumbling, drooling, chaotic hell. As the terrified sane were forced to live among the mad, they fell victim to savage murder and rampant cannibalism—all while Thanatos watched with the glee of a child viewing fireworks.
When the Bishkek rebellion was finally defeated in 2545, ONI's thoughts returned to Erebus. A debacle, to be sure, but now it might finally prove useful. Turpolev had killed over a million soldiers in his surprise attack eight years earlier, and the UN was still stinging from the blow. While many called for the death of Turpolev and his rebels, ONI counseled something much, much worse: send them to Erebus—put them into the hands of Stephen Thanatos. Happily, the UN agreed. Had they taken just a few minutes to pull Thanatos' file and take a fresh look, they would have noticed something rather glaring and extremely important: he was Turpolev's cousin.
Transporting the remaining two hundred thousand rebels to Erebus took several months. Once they arrived, over half of them were put through the "treatment" program. This time, however, the treatment wasn't designed to cause madness, but to transform them into wild, aggressive, fearless soldiers. Although the men did turn out to be somewhat insane, Thanatos had not intended it. Two months after the treatments were complete the "wild soldiers" overwhelmed the prison force, and handed rule of Erebus over to Turpolev. In the process, however, the prison gates were knocked down and over three million prisoners escaped.
If the city of Parnassus were a donut, the center would be the prison, while the donut itself would be the main city. A massive circle, the prison was over eight miles in diameter while the main of the city was three times that size. Turpolev had several million prisoners to deal with in a city covering over four hundred-fifty square miles. What was more, two in three of them were completely insane. Flying over the city with his top aide, Krasky, Turpolev had considered his options.
"Kill them, kill them all," Krasky had spoken coldly, with all the will and self-animation of a marionette. Tugging madly at the strings, Thanatos had filled the counselor's mouth with vile, murderous advice—and Turpolev listened. As the city of Parnassus passed solemnly outside the Pelican's window, its buildings reflecting the pale red moon like tombstones dressed for Halloween, the rebel leader decided that slaughter was the only option, for sane and insane alike.
To save on their limited supply of ammunition, Thanatos proposed that the killing be done with knives, and Turpolev reluctantly agreed. What followed was twenty-seven days of brutal slaughter, followed by weeks of gathering and bulldozing. Twenty miles outside the city, two enormous mass graves loomed like eerie, dark lakes, so large that they could be viewed from space.
Life and freedom—the two things cherished by all evil men. Although murder comes as easily to them as spilling water, they feel that their own life is of great importance and should be sustained forever. By the same dark reasoning they cruelly trample the freedoms of others, never expecting to answer for their actions. In cherishing these, they embrace lies. All men die—rich or poor, strong or weak, good or evil; and all men face justice.
Erebus would not escape the rod of justice; in fact, judgement had already arrived.
Zeta2 Reticuli peeked over the western horizon, a burning half-opened eye. Shining behind them as the Pelican headed east, it spilled light over the countryside, carelessly turning shadows into soft, natural beauty. Looking out the window of the dropship, Chuckles shook his head, disgusted by the perverse contradiction. This was Erebus: beauty served only to mock.
Turning away from the cockpit, he went to the rear of the Pelican and sat next to Lexicus. Still without a helmet, Lex's sandy-blonde hair stood in stark contrast to his black MJOLNIR armor. Crouching down in front of them, Helljumper had spread the surface map out on the floor.
"You were a hundred miles west of Parnassus. Turpolev's madmen must have ran all night to get to your position." Looking up he smiled darkly. "It'll be a hundred degrees in the shade by noon. Augmented or not, we won't be seeing them again today. With any luck, that was most of them."
Kneeling next to the ODST, Chuckles looked at the map for a moment and then pointed to a massive, rectangular building. "Krasky said that Sagus and the container are in this installation. Let's hope they haven't been moved." All three warriors shook their heads in frustration. Incomplete or faulty intel was one of the most dangerous enemies a soldier faced—a fact all of them had learned the hard way. But, like before, they would have no other choice.
"Okay," Lexicus said, "we'll go in two teams. Once we're in, I want complete silence on the com. This used to be a UNSC installation, and they could be listening. Chuckles, you and the Captain will rescue Sagus. Me and Turp will retrieve the container." Sitting in the rear of the Pelican, Turpertrator nodded agreement. He had not moved or spoken since losing Xraf, who had been a good friend. While Helljumper wondered if the grieving soldier would be combat effective, the Spartans had no doubts.
Leaning in close and gesturing at Turper, Chuckles whispered into the Lex's ear. "Remember, when the fighting starts, get out of his way."
On the southern end of Parnassus the forest came within a hundred meters of the low surrounding wall, and thus had been chosen as their insertion point. Nearing the city, Mike slowed, lowered the Pelican nimbly between the trees and landed. Turning to look at his team, he nearly laughed at the absurdity of their mission. They were assaulting a huge military base armed only with knives, and the ODST Captain who had been sent to kill them was now part of their team. What's next? Flying monkeys?
"First sign of trouble," Lexicus told Mike with more than a little concern, "get out and get clear. Without this Pelican we're stuck in Hell for good."
Mike nodded. "Roger that. Good luck."
To their amazement, they found the walls unguarded, and once in the city they encountered no patrols. Almost beyond hope they made their way to the base, nearly a two-mile journey, without incident—only to find that it too was unguarded. Lexicus was starting to believe that he was going to complete this op and get his remaining team out of Erebus in one piece. For the first time since sitting across from Ackerson and Kraft back on Earth, he was beginning to have hope that this awful mission would end well.
Unfortunately Lexicus was wrong: it would not end well. Not for him, not anyone.
Listening to Lieutenant Sandie Gordon's cool, professional explanation over the com, Captain Addy was dumbstruck. Although he had tried to imagine his attractive five foot three-inch XO pumping two bullets into Justin Timmer's brain, it was an impossible image to conjure. Tougher than nails, sure, but she was also a sweetheart who looked more like a daycare worker than a Lieutenant in the UNSC. What's more, she had reportedly done it to save Scott Carion—to save a pig. Sitting alone in the wardroom, nursing an excellent cup of coffee, the Captain didn't think that it made a bit of sense. Never can tell about some people. Strange as it seemed, he had bigger things on his mind now than the death of his Weapons Officer, and he was grateful he had someone capable on the scene.
Suddenly the wardroom door opened, and Sandie, his lovely, angel-faced XO, walked in flanked by guards and holding a pistol—still warm from the shooting of Lieutenant Timmer. Three guns pointed directly at the Captain's head.
She spoke, using the same professional, cold voice she had on the com. "Captain Addy, due to your complicity in the murder of Lieutenant Scott Carion, I am relieving you of duty, and you are being placed under arrest."
"You are WHAT!?" His eyes burned and his fists clenched, but Addy has been in tight situations before and knew not to resist. Not yet anyway.
"All questions will be answered to your satisfaction at your hearing, back on Earth." Then slowly putting away her weapon, she turned and spoke to the guards in a low voice. "He is to have absolutely no contact with the crew, is that understood?"
Without taking their eyes off of Addy, they answered in unison, "Yes Ma'am."
"Take him away." Turning her back to the prisoner, she left the room and headed for the bridge—her bridge—to assume command. Though undetected in her voice or facial expression, what she had done to the Captain had saddened her. Joseph Addy was a fine man and an excellent officer who didn't deserve to be framed for murder. Fact was, however, she had no other choice.
Operation POTLUCK was a go. Without the cruiser's nuclear arsenal, the pot would be empty.
Something was happening. Chuckles knew that they had been spotted by more than a dozen security cameras as they entered the base in broad daylight, yet they found no soldiers waiting for them. A warrior since childhood, he knew that nobody's luck was that good. Besides, he had a bad feeling about this mission, and he didn't know why. Throughout his entire life Chuckles had never known fear—but he felt it now. Like cold, icy fingers massaging the warmth from his heart, it chilled his resolve and, if only for a moment, his courage wavered. Not this; not now. For crying out loud, get a grip, Chuck.
A giant rectangle, the building was a mile wide and two miles long; its length running north and south. Having entered from the south, they had to move through the maze of hallways to the center of the complex. Using the information he had received from Krasky, Chuckles had programmed a rough map into his HUD. Passing through what looked like a reception area, they were about to round the corner into the first long hallway. With both of them creeping slowly and holding nothing but combat knives, the big Spartan imagined that if the security cameras were manned, somebody was getting a good laugh.
"I know exactly where I'm going Captain," Chuckles whispered to the ODST, "so get on my tail and stay there because I'm not slowing down, or coming back for you." A consummate soldier, Helljumper understood, and agreed—the only thing that mattered was completing the mission.
Suddenly, and almost to their relief, they heard voices. Chuckles peeked around the corner and saw six soldiers standing in a circle a few meters away. Smiling wide beneath his helmet and readying his huge combat knife, he felt like himself again. He didn't even warn Helljumper before flying around the corner—he wanted them all for himself.
"What the—" was all the first soldier uttered before a giant blur slashed his throat so deep that he was nearly decapitated. Without hesitating, the blur spun, kicking soldier number two in the chest with such force that only a corpse hit the wall. Soldiers three and four grabbed for their pistols—but a single swing of the largest—and last—combat knife they would ever see sent them to the floor, hemorrhaging loudly from their throats. A lethal backhand snapped the neck of soldier number five with a loud "crack!" and, only three seconds after it had begun, soldier number six found himself against the wall, his feet dangling three feet above the ground. Panicked eyes looked down at his dead and dying friends, and then back up at what could only be . . .
Oh my GOD! "Cl-cl-cl-"
"Clown?" Chuckles said, slowly lowering his helmet so that the symbol painted above his visor—the symbol that had caused hearts to fail, the symbol of the Clowns—was in plain view. Turning deathly white, the rebel nearly fainted. The huge hand closed tighter around his throat and Death spoke again. "What is happening here?"
"D-d-d-devil. Th-th-the D-Devil . . . "
Chuckles was in a hurry. "The Devil what?"
Eyes opening even wider, the rebel suddenly remembered that, yes, there was something even scarier than the Clowns. Somehow calmed by that fact, he continued. "They brought him here, locked in a freezer. But he escaped! Walking invisible, killing, killing." Then, face twisted in horror, eyes darting, he spoke in a loud whisper. "He kills just like we did! Just like we did! My God! We gutted them like animals . . . "
Confused, the big Spartan shook his head in frustration. "You mean the container is open? What was in it?" Wide eyes blinked away tears, and lips moved noiselessly. Chuckles spoke again, his tone both threat and promise, "WHAT WAS IN IT?!"
"Death . . . fear." Then, looking up at his captor with the eyes of a frightened child, "The Devil."
Chuckles had heard enough. With a twist of his powerful hands, he snapped the soldier's neck as if it were no more than a twig and let the body fall to the floor. Turning around, he saw that Helljumper had already scavenged the bodies for weapons and ammunition.
"Hear that, Hell? The Devil's here. Ready to die?"
Tossing Chuckles one of the pistols, the ODST Captain slapped a clip into another and chambered a round. "No, but if the Devil really is bent on wasting these guys," he stuffed the weapon in his belt, and slapped a full clip into a second one, "he'd better find them before we do. Let's move!"
Entering the base from the north, Lexicus and Turpertrator were only a few hundred meters from their objective. At first glance it seemed deserted. Looking down a long hallway, they saw nothing, but advanced cautiously. With white walls, white ceilings and white, windowless doors the place looked like some filmmaker's depiction of Heaven—yet another irony on this God-forsaken planet.
Walking in the lead, Turper suddenly raised his hand to signal a stop. He tapped his ear, and then pointed to a hallway that dead-ended into theirs a few meters ahead on the right. Lexicus heard it too—panicked screams and a growing thunder of footfalls. Too many footfalls. With no other option, they waited, combat knives at the ready. Louder and nearer, the footsteps became thunder, the screams like cries of the damned. Fourteen soldiers rounded the corner, and in the moment of shock that followed, twenty-eight horrified eyes were staring at one thing—the Clown symbol painted over Lexicus' visor.
They should have been looking at the other Spartan.
Stealth no longer an issue, Turpertrator crashed into the group like a reaper harvesting souls. Slashing his massive knife with inhuman power and skill, he penetrated body armor as if it were no more than leather. Several bolted away from the slaughter, only to find Lexicus blocking the path with his massive frame—his knife just as willing to kill. In moments, the frenzy was over and the dead lay on the ground, their wounds adding to the thick, red puddle. Clean and bright white a few moments before, the hallway was now stained with blood, and littered with the slain. Alas, it no longer looked like Heaven.
They had destroyed an irony, but they did not celebrate. Pity. It would prove to be their only triumph this day and life is too short to ignore little victories—far too short.
Sitting in a secure room deep within the base, Stephen Thanatos watched through security cameras as the Spartans annihilated his soldiers. Both teams were advancing virtually unhindered, and in moments they would reach their goals, although one team would find little more than an empty room. Ah, but it is the little things that make life worth living, and the "little more" that they would find would make all the difference.
Krasky, you old fool! You were never much use. I knew you would tell them everything—I knew you were a coward. I counted on it! But that was to be expected—he worked for Turpolev. And where was Thanatos' cowardly cousin now? Hiding in his home, surrounded by thick walls and crack troops.
His com beeped and blinked. "Yes?"
"We located their Pelican. We believe another Spartan is inside."
Thanatos smiled, making the wound on the right side of his head ache. "Good. Destroy it. Send whatever augmented troops we have left."
"And soldier," Thanatos added, reminding himself not to smile, "Make it messy. Very messy."
Even though half a soldier's life is spent waiting, Mike had never gotten used to it. Guarding the ship for hours was extremely boring, and in his opinion boredom was scarier than an armed enemy. Didn't even bring a book to—
Mike suddenly pitched forward in his seat as a rocket slammed into the rear of the Pelican. Immediately grabbing the controls, he tried to take off, but the engine was unresponsive. Crap! Another rocket smashed through the windshield, barely missing the huge Spartan; detonating in the rear and showering him with thick chunks of glass. Laying on the floor as innumerable bullets hit the ship, creating a metallic symphony inside, Mike palmed his oversized, eighteen-inch combat knife. Chuckles had given it to him a few years before for his birthday—the only gift he had ever seen the Clown give to anyone.
Outside, the woods came alive with wild, screaming soldiers. Staring a the blade, filled with the peace of certain doom, Mike smiled. So much for boredom. Jumping out of the broken window he landed in the frenzied crush of men, unafraid. Eight-feet tall, Mike towered over the men, a terrible, angry giant. More mythic hero than Spartan; his weapon more sword than knife, men of sane mind would have fled, looking upon him again only in evil dreams and nightmares.
Yes, but these men knew nothing of sanity. Mouths screaming, eyes burning, they surged into him like a rabid pack of wolves.
Of all the battles of Erebus, good and evil, fair and fixed, it was the most glorious and the most secret, since none that fought lived to tell. But in this, if only this, was Thanatos defied that day: for though he had ordered the desecration of Mike's body, the towering Spartan killed all that came, leaving none to fulfil the order. When he finally died, as much from exertion as from his wounds, over two hundred dead soldiers surrounded him, like trees blown down in a forest. Nobody heard them fall, nobody saw them fight.
Secret? Yes. But a glorious secret.
Lexicus was still stripping weapons from the corpses when Turper advanced towards the door. It was unguarded. Approaching and turning the doorknob, the Spartan was surprised to find it unlocked. Turpertrator pulled the door open, and his remarkable life came to a sudden end.
Almost twenty meters behind, Lexicus saw a bright flash, and then nothing as the explosion hurled him violently through the air—slamming debris into his body at incredible speed and puncturing his armor. Landing headfirst, he crashed into the concrete with a thud, and then lay motionless as parts of the building rained down all around, burying him deep beneath the rubble.
Chuckles and Helljumper were within sight of Sagus' cell when they felt the building shake. Judging from the direction of the blast they both knew that something bad had happened to the other team. Be that as it may, it would at least serve as a distraction for their mission. Located in the middle of a very long hallway, the room was impossible to approach with any stealth. The cell door was nearly one hundred meters from the corner where they stood.
"Okay, soldier," Helljumper said as they stood just around the corner of the hallway, "I'll wait here. If there's any trouble, I'll go ahead and use the com." The ODST smiled. "If it comes to that, it won't matter who's listening to us. Now GO!"
Sprinting like only a Spartan can, Chuckles covered the hundred meters almost instantly. Crashing into the steel door with the force of ten men, he tore it from its hinges and sent it flying against the far wall. Quickly spotting Sagus to his left, he momentarily froze.
Hanging from his wrists, emaciated and eyeless, the intelligence officer looked like an encyclopedia of torture. Wounds covered his body, and he had been recently stitched up in half a dozen places. Chuckles was repulsed.
Helljumper's voice crackled loudly in his helmet. "We have company!"
Chuckles rushed to the wall, tore the shackles free and grabbed the prisoner. Running out the door he saw rebels filling the hallway to the left and the sudden flash of gunfire. Time to run! Using his huge frame he shielded Sagus like a mother holding a baby in a storm as bullets poured down the hallway like horizontal rain, smashing into the Spartan's thick armor.
Up ahead, Helljumper was emptying a clip into the advancing crowd, when to his horror, he saw multiple rocket-launchers being lifted. "RUN!" The ODST screamed. As Chuckles approached the corner, a rocket slammed into the floor behind him, knocking him off of his feet. Flying from his arms, Sagus hit the ground near Helljumper. Rushing forward, the ODST grabbed the wretch, pulling him towards the corner as lead smacked into the walls around them. Once Sagus was secure, Helljumper glanced back down the hallway.
Oh no! "Chuckles! MOVE!"
As the Spartan attempted to stand, a rocket sizzled through the air, detonating on the wall to his right. Thrown like a rag-doll by the explosion, he crashed into the opposite wall so hard that he nearly went through it. Slowly falling out of the Spartan-shaped hole, he lay motionless. Soldiers raced down the hallway towards him, eager to confirm the kill. Suddenly stirring, Chuckles looked up and saw Helljumper waiting stubbornly for him by the corner. For an ODST, it just went against the grain to leave a man behind.
Fool! "Run!" the Spartan yelled, "Get him out of here! GO!"
Using all of his strength, he forced himself up, each limb screaming in pain. Turning towards the rebels and lowering his helmet, he made sure that they all got a good looked at the Clown symbol above his visor. Then, screaming with a voice so poisonous and deadly that the soldiers almost stopped moving, he said, "Cowards! You want to kill a Clown?! Do you?!" Pulling out both pistols, his voice a bone-chilling mix of laughing and screaming, he yelled, "COME AND GET IT!"
Both guns firing, he charged into the mass of soldiers, laughing, yelling, taunting and killing. Scores fell, but their number was too great and he was eventually overwhelmed. With no less than a dozen rebels holding the wounded Spartan down, they ripped off his helmet and began smashing their weapons into his huge head, continuing long after the Clown, their mortal enemy, fell limp.
Later, how much later he didn't know, Chuckles woke up. His armor was gone, powerful restraints held his arms and legs down and the effects of some sort of sedative made his head impossibly heavy. A face appeared above him, one that he had never seen before. He did not like the face—he didn't like it at all.
"Hello, Chuckles. My name is Stephen Thanatos. Welcome to Hell."