Ghosts of Erebus (part nine): Tears of a Clown
Posted By: Chuckles
Date: 2 February 2005, 7:15 PM
Ghosts of Erebus (part nine): Tears of a Clown
Slow, mournful chords resonated through Colonel Ackerson's office in minor key—a seemingly misplaced dirge meant only for a funeral. But as Loxias plucked the strings on his non-existent harp, he knew that each sad note was appropriate. His face darkened and he stared forward with unhappy eyes, so that even his golden hair seemed trapped in a shadow. Sometimes knowledge can be painful—even for an AI. Of course, Loxias was more than just a smart AI; he was also an extremely advanced pattern recognition filter—that is, he was a prophet.
Since he was dealing with humans, Loxias knew that a measure of uncertainty was always present in his predictions. Sometimes, however, he knew. Sometimes humans were all too predictable and this was one of those times. Ackerson would die today, and even though the Colonel was there in the room, Loxias could not warn him. Assigned to the ONI spook six months previous, the AI's predictions had proven consistently accurate—so accurate in fact that the Colonel quickly began to miss the hope that springs from uncertainty. Unable to bear up under the constant foreboding, Ackerson forbid Loxias to share any more of his predictions. Thus reduced to heavy-handed hints and musical cues, Loxias still did his best to protect the Colonel. But today he knew he would fail.
Looking up from his desk, Ackerson addressed the AI with disdain. "Are you capable of playing anything other than funeral music?" Abruptly, the music stopped.
Loxias looked hurt. "Yes sir, I am."
"Good, play it then. I've worked with a lot of AI's, but never one so depressing." Thinking his statement humorous, Ackerson chuckled. Loxias smiled weakly and began playing a livelier tune. Although the AI thought it strange that humans found comfort in ignorance, he could almost understand. Maybe he knew too much. Maybe that was the reason he continually played dark, minor keys. Unable to shield himself from his own predictive powers, Loxias knew nothing of hope—only foreboding.
Obviously pleased with the new tune, Ackerson began tapping his foot. Nodding his approval, he spoke kindly to the AI. "That's more like it. There may be a use for you yet." Loxias nodded back, and played as merrily as he could. After all, the Colonel would be dead in a few hours—funeral music would come soon enough.
Darkness had already fallen on Parnassus when Helljumper emerged from the city, carrying the unconscious intelligence officer. When he arrived at the rendezvous, a small clearing twenty meters behind the tree line, he could not believe his eyes. Hundreds of slaughtered rebels surrounded the wrecked Pelican, and judging from the smell, they had been there since early in the day. Laying Sagus down by a tree, the ODST Captain began looking for Mike. It did not take long.
Behind the ship, arms spread wide, the huge Spartan lay dead upon a small hill—a hill of rebel corpses. Due to Mike's size, it took Helljumper's nearly half an hour to drag him into the woods. Finally finished, he stood over the body, panting from exhaustion. Remembering what he saw around the Pelican, the ODST was filled with unexpected emotion.
"Soldier . . . I've . . . I've never seen anything like it." Shaking his head in disgust, he spoke bitterly. "You just wait there by the river, son—we'll be sending the rest of them along soon enough." Looking through the trees toward the city walls, he wondered what had happened to the other team; but more than anything he agonized over the fate of Chuckles. Helljumper had never left a man behind before—living or dead. Although he knew he had made the right choice, being right did not make it any easier. But he was still an ODST Captain, and Spartans or not, he would not return to the Cerberus until every soldier was accounted for—including his dead team of ODST's. He would bring back every man he had brought and every man he had fought with, and God help anyone who tried to stop him.
Suddenly hearing movement, Helljumper turned to see Sagus thrashing wildly on the ground. Rushing over, he held him gently on the cool grass, even as David tried to fight him. "Easy son. It's okay." Sagus was shaking uncontrollably and his mouth opened as if to scream—but no sound came out. "You're safe now, Lieutenant. I'm not gonna let anybody else hurt you." Slowly the panic ebbed away, and the shaking stopped.
"Son, I know you've been through Hell, but I need information. Can you talk?" David did not answer. "Great." Without warning, Sagus grabbed Helljumper's head and pulled it down. With a voice thin as a shadow, he whispered into the ODST's ear.
"We have to move. It's coming."
"Coming? What's coming?" Helljumper pulled his head away and looked at Sagus' empty-eye sockets with confusion. "Son, I'd know if something was approaching. You need to rest for—"
Suddenly grabbing the ODST's head again, he yanked it down and whispered desperately. "IT is coming . . . the Devil! We move now!"
"The Dev—" Before he could finish, Sagus stood painfully and began pulling Helljumper into the woods. Sick with fear, David wished he could shut it out, wished he had eyes to shut. Helljumper followed a moment, and then picked Sagus up and carried him. Before a minute had passed, David tapped his arm. Lowering his head, the ODST listened to the small voice.
"Gone. It is moving away from the city." Helljumper slowed to a walk, and turned back for the rendezvous point.
"It? What are you talking about? What is it?" Helljumper was about to lower his ear again, when he smelled something—something awful. Finding Mike's body untouched, he put Sagus down and, quiet as a ghost, he moved through the woods, back to the Pelican. For the first time, he risked the use of his flashlight.
Oh my God.
The rebel corpses—every last one of them—had been gutted, causing a suffocating stench. Reflexively covering his nose, Helljumper stared with disbelief. It would have taken hours to accomplish—but it happened in the last few minutes. Suddenly he remembered the words of the soldier Chuckles questioned. "They brought him here, locked in a freezer. But he escaped! Walking invisible, killing, killing . . . He kills just like we did! Just like we did! My God! We gutted them like animals."
Walking back into the woods, he knelt down by Sagus. "I need to know everything about the contents of that container. Everything."
Chuckles flexed his arms and legs, carefully testing the strength of the restraints as he stared into the wrinkled, aged face of Stephen Thanatos. Lying face up on the cold metal table without his MJOLNIR armor, he felt surprisingly comfortable. Like the hallways, the entire room was bright white, causing the big Spartan to squint his eyes. What is it with this place and white? After the beating he had taken, Chuckles was thankful that his eyes would open at all.
"I must confess," Thanatos said, looking Chuckles straight in the face, "I have always wanted to meet you. When I saw the pictures of what you did in Afghanistan . . . wow. When it comes to cruelty, death and horror, I'm not an easy man to impress. But you painted quite a picture." The madman smiled with every tooth in his head. "I did some painting of my own earlier tonight with your dead friend Lexicus. Sort of a Clown homage." Chuckles tensed, hoping it was a lie, but something in Thanatos' tone told him different. "I'd have shown you a picture, but I'm afraid I overdid it. Probably not enough of him left."
Oh, you'll pay for that. Moving his fingers and toes, Chuckles noted that his motor reflexes were a little sluggish, the obvious effects of sedation. Suddenly realizing that his head was not strapped, he looked around. Numerous instruments of torture sat on shelves to his left and right; some were shiny new, others ghosts of another age. More importantly he saw four rebels armed with shotguns—one in each corner of the small room. Doable. Testing his fingers and toes once more, he was pleased: the sluggishness was already wearing off. Thanatos continued, smiling like a child at Christmas.
"You should know something before we start." Stephen began to circle the table. "I do not need any information from you. I do not care what you know or do not know. Over the next several hours I am going to take you apart like a biology student examining a frog, and I will do it for the sheer enjoyment." With that, the madman stopped at the foot of the table.
If he was waiting to see fear in the Spartan's eyes, he was disappointed. No, the look on Chuckles' face was not fear, but rage, and that rage would soon have an outlet. Knowing that too much sedation would have kept the Spartan from feeling the full force of the torture, Thanatos had accidentally used too little. He would soon become a victim of his own cruelty.
Suddenly an expression spread across the Clown's face that was so horrible that the two soldiers facing him averted their gaze. Cold, perilous and startlingly wicked, it was the look of a demon about to feed, or a Fury preparing to deal joyful, bloody justice. Thanatos' heart momentarily forgot to beat as a chill crawled slowly up his spine.
"How does it feel, Stephen? How does it feel?!" Thanatos stood like a statue, and the soldiers cringed. Something was very wrong. "You're so fond of fear, do you like it now?! ANSWER ME!" Chuckles waited a moment, but no answer came, and the would-be torturer turned his head. "Just like I thought, you can't take it." The Spartan began to speak slowly, enunciating like a kindergarten teacher. "Weak. Pitiful. Frail. Impotent . . . " Anger began to replace fear in Thanatos' eyes, but the Spartan only spoke louder. "Useless! Pathetic! Stupid! Senile! " All four guards stood uneasily as the confrontation continued; distracted, waiting for Thanatos' response.
Now or never.
With a loud crack! Chuckles ripped his legs free and flipped backwards, his feet sailing over his head. The backward momentum snapped the restraints holding his arms, and he landed on his feet behind the bed.
"Shoot him!" Thanatos yelled, forgetting he was still in the middle of the room. Eight-gauge blasts filled the air but the Spartan was too fast. Ducking the shot from the soldier to his left, Chuckles spun and in a single motion yanked the gun from his hand and backhanded him into the wall. Dropping to a crouch, he made the other three miss, and fired two quick shots, dropping the soldiers in the upper left and lower right corners. Now the gleaming metal bed lay between him and the last soldier on the other side of the room. Still crouched, he placed his right hand on the end of the bed, his left hand on the side and threw it forward—crushing the rebel against the wall and killing him instantly.
The fight took all of four seconds, and Thanatos had forgotten to run.
Leaping to his feet, Chuckles smashed his fist into Stephen's face, dropping the madman to the floor like a sack of wheat. Flipping him over, he jabbed the shotgun viciously into Thatatos' mouth, shattering his teeth. "You should know something before I pull this trigger," the Spartan said as a wicked smile spread across his face. "I don't need information from you. I don't care what you know or don't know. Over the next second or two I am going to take your filthy head apart with an eight-gauge slug, and I will do it for the sheer enjoyment." Remembering what had been done to David Sagus, Chuckles stopped. "On second thought, why hurry?"
Dropping the shotgun, the Spartan yanked Stephen off of the floor and threw him onto the table. "How many men did you have in the room when you tortured Sagus? Huh? Two, three? Well, I'm all by myself and," Chuckles grabbed a large surgical knife off of a shelf, "I'll even let you have a weapon. We'll take turns. You try to hurt me, and then I try to hurt you. You have the knife, I'll just use my bare hands." Thanatos spit broken teeth into Chuckles' face, and then swallowed a mouth full of blood before he could take a breath. He liked the taste.
Lashing out with the knife, he tried to cut the Clown's neck, but Chuckles grabbed his wrist instantly and held it like a vise.
"My turn." With precise cruelty, the Spartan plunged a finger into the side of Stephen's right eye, plucking it out whole, and tossing it on the floor.
"I bet that hurt," Chuckles laughed as Thanatos danced on the edge of hysterics. "How does it feel, Stephen? How do you like being tortured?" Out of his mind with pain, he was unable to answer. "Okay, your turn again."
Chuckles released his arm, and Stephen stabbed forward desperately, striking only air. The Clown laughed. "Oooh, I think he's angry! Use that anger Stephen—God knows I am!" Striking out a second time, Chuckles smashed his huge fist into the old man's side, breaking ribs and puncturing a lung.
Thanatos tried to scream, but the air had been knocked out of him. Laying there, looking up at his enemy and momentarily unable to take a breath, he lost hope. All he could wish for was a quick death, but the Clown's eyes left no doubt—he would die slowly.
"Your turn again." Thanatos didn't move. "Gonna pass? Fine, let's see if I can even out that eye situation for you."
Without warning a shotgun stock slammed into the side of Chuckles' head, dropping him to the floor. He tried to get up, but a second blown landed in the middle of his already mangled face, knocking the Spartan out. Consumed with dealing out punishment, he had not heard the rebel soldier enter the room.
"Donth shoot him, tholdier!" Thanatos yelled, lisping due to his missing teeth. Standing painfully, he drew a wet, ragged breath and looked down at the fallen Clown. He smiled a toothless, almost comical grin. "No, I have thomething worth for him than death." Despite his pain, he laughed. "Yeth, much worth."
Finally waking far beneath the wreckage, Lexicus saw only darkness. I've got to contact my team. "Turper, can you hear me? Turper, you there?" The memory of what happened hit him suddenly, and he knew that Turpertrator would not answer—not now, not ever. He had lost another soldier; another Spartan, and the thought made him ill.
The pale, red moon was full when he finally emerged from the wreckage. Although his MJOLNIR armor was ripped open in half a dozen places, Lexicus had suffered only a few lacerations. But that didn't matter to him one way or the other. For the first time in his extensive career as a Spartan, he had failed. He was sick of losing, sick of being outguessed and sick of counting bodies. Most of all, he was sick of this God-forsaken planet. Whatever was in the container, it was not worth the price they were paying—especially considering that his team had been betrayed from the start. No, Lexicus was done here. He would meet up with Chuckles and anyone else who was still alive, and he would leave Erebus.
Making his way out of Parnassus in the middle of the night, Lexicus found the streets deserted. As he neared the rendezvous, Helljumper's voice crackled in his helmet. "Rendezvous has moved, watch for my signal." A light blinked in the trees about one hundred meters west of the old location. The ODST was waiting for him.
"How'd it go, soldier?"
Lexicus grimaced. "Turpertrator is dead, and the location of the container is still unknown. The room was booby-trapped."
"Yeah," the ODST said, nodding his head, "we felt the building shake." Suddenly Lexicus knew that something was wrong. Grabbing Helljumper's arm, he spoke with urgency.
The ODST Captain looked straight at him as he answered. "He didn't make it out."
"No, at least he wasn't when I last saw him."
Enraged, Lexicus grabbed Helljumper and lifted him off of the ground. "You filthy . . . YOU LEFT HIM BEHIND?!" After all he had been through that day, the ODST was not about to be called a coward by anyone—Spartan or otherwise.
"Get your hands off me now!" Lexicus had never been angrier, but he put Helljumper down immediately: such was the power of the command. "Maybe you've forgotten, soldier, but we have a mission to accomplish down here—and that supersedes you, me, and your Spartan buddies!" Standing to his full height, and putting his face right up to Lex's visor he spoke in an icy voice. "That was the second time you grabbed me, Lexicus—there won't be a third. I don't know if you've noticed, but there aren't too many of us left. If we don't work together, none of us are gonna make it off this rock."
Ever since he was old enough to shave, Helljumper had been leading men. He knew to keep quiet for a few minutes and let Lexicus calm down. The veteran ODST had experienced the guilt and pain of losing men under his command. Cruel fact was, the better leader, the worse the pain. After a couple of minutes, Helljumper continued.
"We retrieved Sagus." His face twisted in disgust. "Those animals sliced him up like a lab rat. I've seen more mercy from the Covenant. You know, Chuckles probably gave his life to save him."
Lexicus shook his head. "No, I wouldn't bet on it, that Clown won't kill easy. He'll show up. We'll wait here for a while before we leave."
"Lex, I'm afraid we're not going anywhere. Our Pelican was destroyed and . . . Mike was killed." Giving that a moment to sink in, the ODST continued. "Must have been over two hundred rebels lying dead around his body. Never seen anything like it."
Mike? Too numb to form words, Lexicus merely dropped his chin to his chest. In his many years as a soldier, the Spartan had never felt more hopeless. Closing his eyes and trying to find the will to continue, he did not think he could sink any lower.
Unfortunately, he was wrong. Dead wrong.
The assassin was thorough by nature, which was fortunate: in his line of work the careless ended up dead. Although he had been killing people professionally for years, he had never taken a job like this. But he was not a picky person and even by his standards, this was quite a payday. Oh, his client was getting his money's worth, make no mistake about that. This job had a lot of little bells and whistles that added to his risk, and thus added to the price.
The risks were real, and not easily overcome. This client wanted him to deliver a message to the target, which meant that he had to do his killing face to face. He much preferred to be hundreds of meters away, looking through the scope of his custom sniper rifle. Much less risk that way. What was even harder to deal with was the fact that the target practically lived on a military base. Getting in and out would be tricky, although it helped that nobody knew what he looked like. Just one more soldier walking around the base. Just a young man, waiting to talk to an officer about this or that. He carried a gun, but hey, they all carried guns. They were soldiers, after all.
When will he get here? After waiting for over an hour in the dark, he finally heard the doorknob turn. Walking in, the officer flipped on the light and sat at his desk. Stepping from behind the door, the killer already had his gun out.
"Good evening. Working late tonight, sir?" Barely flinching at the sound of the voice behind him, the man turned around, his expression more of anger than fear. This guy doesn't startle easy.
"What the—who are you." His question asked, he calmly sat down in his chair.
"We'll get to that. First I have a message for you." The killer smiled, since he had agreed to smile at this point, in fact, he was able to charge a bit extra for it. He sat down on the chair in front of the desk and said, "You stepped on the wrong toes, Colonel Ackerson and—" Upon hearing his name, Ackerson suddenly thought he knew who this was.
The assassin only smiled wider.
Ackerson bought some time. "But I hired you."
"Yeah, but Kraft called first, practically shoving money through the phone. Said to only do the job if you called in a hit on him. Turns out, you ordered your own death."
"But," Ackerson said, genuinely confused, "How did he know I would call?"
The assassin shrugged. "I don't know, maybe he has crystal ball. Doesn't matter to me."
Smiling like he had just heard a good joke, the Colonel slapped the desk, almost causing the killer to fire. "I have to hand it to you, Wiley, you fooled me. I always thought that you were more than a hired thug."
"Well thank y—"
"Turns out, I was wrong." Ackerson leaned forward, placing his hands on his desk. "You are just a dumb punk who gets his kicks killing for money. I've seen dozens of losers like you who—" The Colonel had been nudging a picture frame towards edge of the desk as he talked. Finally it fell, and the glass shattered. Surprised, the killer glanced at the floor.
The instant the assassin's eyes moved, Ackerson sprung forward, throwing the desk into him and knocking the killer to the floor. Quickly stepping around the desk, he snatched the gun out of the assassin's hand. I can't believe it was that easy. Making sure a round was chambered, he looked down into terrified eyes, and spoke as if he was talking to his secretary.
"You said you had a message for me. Let's have it."
"I'll tell you, but please don't kill me!" His voice was so desperate that the Colonel almost felt pity for him. "I'll kill Kraft for you . . . I'll do it for free!"
"Okay," Ackerson said, nodding, "that's a deal. Now what was the message?"
"He just wanted you to know that he outsmarted you. That's it."
"Yes, sir." The killer started to get up. "On your job, I'll—" Ackerson suddenly kicked him back to the floor, and drilled two shots into his chest. Ejecting the clip and tossing the gun back to its owner, he spoke softly.
"On second thought Wiley, you're fired."
With only seconds left to live, the killer looked up and smiled. "I never said—" he choked as blood began to flow out of his mouth, "that I . . . was Wiley."
Two hundred meters outside of the office window, on top of a building, Wiley watched through the powerful scope of his rifle as the skirmish came to an end, doubtless with the death of the man he had hired. Beautiful. Although Wiley had planned on killing the idiot anyway, this was much less hassle. Not to mention the elegance of have his target do some of the dirty work. Time to finish the job. Taking careful aim, he slowly squeezed the trigger, felt the weapon kick . . .
Another perfect kill.
"Lexicus? Do you read? Lexicus?"
"Rhinox, this is Lexicus. Good to hear your voice!" For the first time in almost twenty-four hours, he smiled.
"Roger that! Good to hear you too!" Suddenly Lex heard the sound of an approaching Pelican. "Don't shoot, Lex—that's me coming." Finally some hope! As the ship began to land, Lexicus saw someone approaching from the wall.
It was Chuckles.
"Chuck!" Lexicus called through his com, "Welcome back." No answer. "Chuck?" As Chuckles came closer, Lexicus saw that something was wrong. The usually graceful Spartan was stumbling towards them, sliding one foot on the ground continually. Rushing forward, Lex steadied him and pulled off his helmet.
What did they do to you, buddy? Puffed, swollen, and covered with bleeding cuts, Chuckles' face was all but destroyed. "Hey, you okay? Speak to me." Lex was starting to have a very bad feeling. "C'mon Chuck. Talk to me!"
"Peees . . . willmeeee . . ."
"What?" Chuckles was trying to speak, but his words made no sense, and his eyes showed little or no understanding—as if he had gone mad. Oh my God. As Lexicus suddenly understood what had happened, the shock nearly killed him. For the first time since childhood, tears filled his eyes. Reaching up, he removed his helmet so the Clown could see his face.
Chuckles drifted further and further away, as chemicals flowed through his brain like an invading army, marring and destroying. In moments, he would be completely gone. Clumsy hands grabbed for Lexicus, pulling his head near him. "Pwaaa . . . pwees . . . " Finally, through sheer force of will, Chuckles formed his last sane thought. Looking straight into Lex's face, eyes burning with desperation, he said, "Kill me Lex . . . please . . . k-kill me . . . pweese . . . pwaaa . . . " and again his eyes lost focus as madness took control permanently.
Pulling him close, tears streaming down his face, Lexicus spoke to his oldest, closest friend for the last time. "Goodbye Chuck. Goodbye." Slowly he took out his pistol, pointed it at Chuckles' head, closed his eyes and pulled the trigger. The big Spartan dropped to the ground with a thud.
Walking over to Rhinox, Helljumper spoke quietly. "Were they close?" The Spartan could barely speak.
"You have no idea."
Lexicus turned around, and the ODST nearly took a step backward. His eyes were dead . . . and dangerous.
"Lexicus," Helljumper said, "We need to leave, and I mean now."
Gesturing towards Chuckles, Lexicus said, "Make sure he gets on the ship." Turning his head, he looked the ODST straight in the eye. "Don't leave him behind again."
"Lexicus!" the ODST plead, "What are you doing? There is nothing left here. No container to retrieve, no more soldiers, nothing." Ignoring him, Lexicus began scavenging ammunition and weapons. Then putting on his helmet, he ran toward the wall, and with one great leap, he was on the other side.
Turning to Rhinox, Helljumper said, "What is he doing?"
Before he could reply, a voice cut through the air like the crack of thunder, and it was coming from the city.
"TURPOLEV! TURPOLEV!" It was Lexicus. He was going after Turpolev alone—and daring the entire city to stop him.