Posted By: Jillybean<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 21 July 2004, 1:26 PM
I had my head resting against the sodden peat embankment, my helmet was lost a long time ago, and the wet was creeping through my bandana and into my skull. The water was icy, giving my bones an unholy ache while chilling the sweat that laid on my skin.
My fingers were cold, but they worked through the ritual of cleaning and loading my MA5B with ease. Nan, my mother's mother, used to knit. She would shake so much she couldn't hold a cup of tea, but her fingers would churn out endless long scarves. There was never a dropped stitch.
"Sir?" The Private to my left gave me a questioning look. "What are we gonna do, sir?"
That Private was a dead man. He shook too much, like Nan did, people shake before they die.
Chris Gilligan, my unofficial second, shot a smile over the riverbed. Our little sanctuary against . . . against those things. From here we could take out the popping spores with a spray of rifle fire, while watching the Covenant on the incline to our right. They were pinned down too, trying not to move in the heart of this bitter struggle. I didn't think the Elites had it in them to sit out a trench war.
The drizzle from the mist didn't let up and it was obscuring my vision. Occasionally I could catch a glimmer of the coloured armour through the trees on the rise. The Covenant had us pinned down, but we had the embankments. When they creep to their guns, we creep to our protection and once again a stalemate is induced. They can't hit us - our aim's too poor to hit them.
Gus is dead. He's lying, out of my reach in the middle of the trickle that is all that remains of a river. Blood has polluted that tiny rivulet of water and Gus' body is face down, his nose buried in the mud. Gus' sniper rifle lies within his bodies grasp, but it might as well be on the Pillar of Autumn for all the good it'll do us. If we reached for it the Covenant would take us out.
"James," Chris mouths from his position.
I raise my eyes from Gus and look at the corporal.
"It wasn't your fault," Chris murmurs. Damn him, the men don't need this right now. "Don't shake your head at me," Chris continues. "You did the best you could, we all know that."
"Corporal!" I'm surprised that I'm shouting. It's dangerous and stupid . . . but most of all it's not me. I don't shout. "Desist," I grate out, quiet again.
"Aye, Sir." Chris never calls me sir. I'm a Corporal, he's only a Lance Corporal and he knows I worked hard for the difference in our rank. It's part of who we are that he never, ever calls me 'sir'. The word jars in the air around us, making our men shift uncomfortably.
The ministrations over my gun are finished and I bring it up to my lap and listen for the soft clicking that heralds more spores. It's not forthcoming and we're left with only the steady drips of the rain off of large, alien leafs.
The Private to my left is still shaking, his name is Lindsey. It brings me a hollow sense of warmth to know that I remember his name. The warmth can't wake my insides or bring my paralysed skin feeling. If I could remember what it feels like to be comfortable once more I'd be a happy man.
"Kid," Chris murmurs. "You're all right."
Lindsey stares at this madman opposite him and he relaxes. He still shakes. "I'm cold, sir."
"Yeah." Chris throws a glance at the Covenant. "Think they know what cold is?"
"D-dunno, sir," Lindsey replies.
Fuck 'em, I want to say.
"Probably," Chris is speaking quietly, not giving away our position, but I want him to shut up. "I'd wager that they're cold too."
"You think so, sir?" asks Jack, a little away along. He seems more amused by our situation than anything and he's not above helping the Private out.
"Hell yeah, Private," Chris replies. He grins, pushing fatigue out of his face and reclaiming some of his character from this eternal mist. "I say that's why Hunter's are so grumpy all the time."
"Because they're . . . 'cold', sir?" Jack sits up, raising an eyebrow.
Without warning a plasma shot whizzes past Jack's ear, singing his helmet, and it burrows into the mud at our feet.
"Get down, soldier," I growl. We have our bellies to the peat now and we're scoping the area out. But it was the movement that gave the Covenant their incentive, nothing more.
"See," Chris pants. "They know I know their little secret."
"Doubt it, sir," Jack replied, but all in good humour.
"Shut up," I snarl.
Jack and the others are surprised, but Chris only looks pissed off as we return to our waiting.
And now we're all silent. I can hear in my head Chris saying 'great going, hotshot', even though he's resigned to silence. I wonder if the Covenant do get cold. It would be strange to think of an Elite shaking under his armour. I can't imagine them curled in their make-believe camp, holding on to their weapons in fear of our retaliation and blaming the shiver on the chill that's pressing through them.
Sarge is propped against the far edge of the river bank, his glassy eyes staring at the pistol in his hand. There's a trail of blood from his lips but it's dry and encrusted now. It must be the only dry thing in this river bed. He led us down here in a helter-skelter rush away from those spores. He was scared, okay we all were, but he made a bad call and because of it we're pinned down here. I hate him. He was picked off by the Covies and we learned through trial and error exactly where we were invisible to them.
I hate him. He's not wet and miserable anymore. He's just dead. And he left me this little puzzle and I can't sort it out.
Chris is watching me and reading my mind. I'm not sure how because I'm fairly certain he's only human, but he's watching and reading. If I was blaming myself, which is what Chris thinks, I wouldn't have this swell of hatred. I know whose fault this is but it looks like I'll never live long enough to pin the blame. Chris probably thinks I'm lost in self-hatred, but it's really only pity. Shows how well you think you know me, friend.
Some thing pops over the lip of the earth and into our haven. It's slug-like form hesitates before leaping for Jack. None of us have a clear shot as it attaches itself to Jack's chest.
Pinned by the non-existent hand that keeps me from the Covenant and struck by the realisation that one of my men is dying in front of me, I am helpless as Jack lurches forward, fighting to remove the bastard.
A plasma shot, thin and accurate, hits the spore and destroys it. Jack lies on his back, his chest bleeding, his eyes wide and frightened as he waits for the next plasma shots to finish him off.
They do not come.
Protocol dictates that we wait. We watch him die. We do not put ourselves in the direct line of fire.
Chris and I move, pulling him into our small circle of safety. Chris pulls out his pistol and fires a shot in the air, why, I don't know. I think it was acknowledgement. Wilson is already cleaning Jack's wound and plastering it, while Jack moans and froths at the mouth.
"He's been injected with some sort of toxin," Wilson hisses at me.
"Can you save him?" It's a simple question and for once I need the medic to give me a simple answer.
"Oh fuck . . ." Lindsey is whimpering.
"Maybe," Wilson admits. He rolls Jack on his side and feels along his spine.
"What are you doing?"
"He's in immense pain," Wilson replies. He injects something into the spinal column and Jack's body relaxed. "Better?" Wilson leans over to ask.
"Fuck," is all Jack manages.
"You'll be alright," I give his shoulder a friendly squeeze.
"Sir?" Chris asks me from the embankment.
I belly crawl towards him and sees what he sees. At the bottom of the Covenant's hill the spores are amassing. They are beginning to climb.
"Sir, we have to warn them," Chris hisses.
"They saved Jack."
"James!" Chris turns to me, blue eyes wide and angry.
"How? Run up and shout olly olly oxinfree?"
"Is that permission, James?"
". . . yeah," I'm tired. I want to sleep somewhere warm.
Chris fires in the air rapidly. There is a tone of warning to the shots, but maybe my imagination is as weary as I am. Either way, the Covenant begin defending themselves.
"Happy? We just saved our enemy," I growl.
Chris is silent again, but he is happy. He gives up on me and makes his way to Jack. "How are ya, kid?"
My hands are shaking and my skin is numb. The hairs are standing on end and my eyes blur. The damp rises through my clothes and into my muscles, giving me no respite. I am cold. People shake before they die.
When given a rock and a hard place, I am renowned for pulling through. If I leap into the fire from the frying pan, you can trust me that I will find a way to put the coals out. There has to be a way out of my river bed and . . . damn . . . there it is.
"Move," I growl. My MA5B is in my steady hands and it waves my men along.
"Sir . . ." Lindsey begins.
"The Covenant are a bit busy right now. Move!" I grate.
And we're moving. Past dead bodies, taking their ammo and guns, we follow the stream over the marsh grounds. It's slow and the bog eats at our boots as we move. Chris is bringing up the rear and every so often he glances back to check the Covenant are still busy.
And we move up over the edge to race the Covenant plasma fire to the treeline. We make it, safe. All of us.
"Maybe you'll get to blame Sarge after all," Chris grunts beside me, catching his breath. Our brief cease-fire with the Covenant is gone because their fire is breaking the treeline. Maybe they're able to move now.
"Go! Go! Go!" This is a tactical retreat and I have never been so glad to implement one.
There's clicking to our right and plasma burns behind us. We keep running.
"This is Echo-419, is there anyone out there?"
"Echo-419 this is Corporal Silvers, we have injured and men down. We are under heavy fire, repeat, heavy fire. Please advise."
"Hold present course. Will pick you up."
The Covenant plasma fire lets up and I realise that the spores have reached them. Jack moans in pain as Wilson and Lindsey literally drag him along as they run. The Covenant are going to be consumed by those spores as Jack was nearly consumed. And they helped them.
Well we paid back, we helped them. We owe nothing.
The Pelican lands in the clearing ahead, it's thrusters push stagnant water away and give us a chance to load our men.
I smell sizzled flesh and hear my uniform burning as a single plasma shot glances off my arm. I don't feel the pain, I'm too cold. Chris and I turn, seeing the broken Elite aim his plasma rifle again. He is angry that he missed, but it's no wonder he did. His neck is being forced back at a strange angle and the spore in his chestal cavity is visibly working to eat him away. Only I realise the spore isn't eating - it's trying to control him.
The Elite tries again and I feel warm blood soak me. Chris is hurt, it's his blood that's spurting on to me, but he'll survive. I'm escaping with minimal casualties. In the back of my mind I realise I've done it again - suceeded somehow, where there looked like there were no options.
I can't shoot him.
He's going to become something else, something so much worse, and that's why he's firing on us. He wants to die but I can't do it.
"For Gods sakes, James, show him mercy!" Chris is half in the Pelican, holding a hand to his bleeding arm.
"Would he have done the same for us?"
The Elite is on its knees, unable to control its motor functions any longer. The water around it's being stained by its blood.
"James!" Chris barks out his order and I turn away, stepping into the Pelican and sitting in the side seat. My marines watch me. Chris swears and juggles for his gun but he's too badly injured.
"He shot you," I say.
"You . . ." Chris is close to tears. It's as though he feels the sting of betrayal.
Wilson is strapping his wounded side, cursing softly.
I lay my head against the wall of the Pelican and close my eyes.
You bastard, is what Chris wanted to say. You son of a bitch.
The uniform I wear sticks to me damp skin and gives me no respite from the chill I feel but I am no longer shaking. People shake before they die.