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We Lucky Few - A 'Bad Days' story
Posted By: kabu<will36@gmail.com>
Date: 5 February 2009, 3:45 am

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      I've always thought the expression "safe as houses" was a little strange. I heard it all the time back on Earth. Me: "Mommy, is the bike going to fall over?" Mom: "Don't worry, you're safe as houses." Me: "But the Jacobsons' house burnt down last week. Their dog died." Mom: "Just put on a damn helmet, you'll be fine." Ah, that was a memorable trip to the emergency room.
      Anyway, a house does an adequate job of keeping out the weather, as long as the damn contractor doesn't skimp on the insulation again, but a house isn't invulnerable. Sure, a house might be safer than, say, a car, but a house isn't going to fair all that much better than that car when the rampaging eighteen-wheeler hits it. Houses burn down, houses get flooded, houses get robbed and houses get infested by bugs, or worse, in-laws. Maybe "safe as nuclear-hardened military installations" would be better. I hear they've got a nice one on Reach, and a couple on Earth as well. I really, really, really wish that whoever had designed these pre-fab military outposts held the same philosophy. I have firsthand experience that concrete [I]will[/I] burn when exposed to high-energy plasma blasts.
      The first Covenant attack on Outpost 5 a few weeks ago had been beaten back with surprisingly few casualties, but quite a bit of structural damage was incurred. The aliens had gotten understandably careless after they so easily rolled over Outpost 4. There, the sentries and marines manning the surveillance stations were high as rocket-propelled, helium filled trans-orbital kites and didn't notice a thing until they were exploded. Fortunately, the new drug-screening policies instituted in the wake of the first attack ensured that the forward scouts of Outpost 5 kept their eyes focused on the forest and not on the gigantic rainbow flying lemurs hiding in their pockets.
      In the aftermath of the full-scale attack, the military strategists upstairs came to the startling conclusion that the Covenant would attack again while our defenses were at minimum strength, and that we should be ready. This meant more early-morning patrols delightfully farther afield, as satellite surveillance is difficult in dense forest. Those tricky aliens, always with some wacky plan up their gauntlet, had figured this out and limited their movements to the most miserably impenetrable parts of the forest. Guess where some hapless Marines had to patrol every day at three in the morning.
      Carl Charles, David Kendal, Gabriel Rodriguez and I had taken to requesting to go on patrol together. There's something about watching one's commanding officer get shredded to bits, burned to pieces, melted into parts and sliced into chunks that really brings a team together, I guess. Rodriguez, having shown "great courage in the face of overwhelming odds to leading his fellow Marines to safety" (their words), was just recently bumped up to Corporal. To be fair, we all pitched in with the botched recovery of our previous Corporal's mangled corpse, but in the end we all had to admit that Rodriguez was the one who pulled us together. We had a small party for him, with cake and everything. Well, not really cake, just some energy bars dipped in chocolate and aspartamine, but the (surprisingly delicious) sentiment was there.
      It got to be pretty routine. Every third day, the four of us would get up way before the sunrise, strap on our gear and stomp into our boots. Great emphasis was put on stealth, for obvious reasons, so it was full forest camo and silenced weapons all around. I even painted my pairs of one-shot fire extinguishers green and brown to make them completely inconspicuous. We would tramp out into the jungle for twenty kilometers, then turn around and head back by a different route, avoiding hostile contact with the aliens at all cost. Sunrise is early on this Godforsaken planet, so it would be full light out by the time we got back, transforming the forest light from a muted green and brown in the pre-dawn glow to a harsh blue-white glare. The sunlight was somehow thin, insubstantial, and even though the temperatures stayed relatively high it always felt colder than it actually was. I've been to quite a few planets in my time, but I could never help but feel that a sun should be [I]yellow[/I]. There's something fundamentally screwed up about living under what looks like a cheap light bulb instead of a normal G2 main-sequence star.
It was after one such patrol that we came upon a most interesting sight. Somehow, in our stealth, not only had the Covenant completely missed us, but we had missed them too. On the last leg of our trek back to base, we all stopped and hit the dirt at the dreaded blast of a Wraith mortar in the distance. Whoosh, thump, krshshk. Whoosh, thump, krshhskk. Crawling slowly forwards, we found out exactly how hard the proverbial shoe had stomped all over us.
      Four Wraiths were lined up side by side, at the very edge of the cleared ground around the base. A pair of Spirit dropships was lying like discarded purple tuning forks halfway to the outpost, wedged into the ground at that jaunty forty-five degree angle that suggested an unexpected nosedive, amidst six twisted bits that used to be Banshees. The Wraiths had some scorch marks and didn't seem to be moving much, but their cannons were doing fine. On closer inspection, all four had plasma leaking from their reactors, little dribbles of blue that fell and evaporated into a pale mist before they could touch the ground. But from the fact that no more missiles were flying and the Wraiths were still plugging away, I concluded that the base had only gotten off two or three volleys before the launchers were slagged. Twenty yards in front of the Wraiths, a few squadrons of Covenant infantry were massed under thick barricades – maybe thirty five grunts and ten jackals in total, lead by six elites – waiting for the signal to begin their charge. Small arms and chaingun fire were zipping towards the line, but at that range, without the Jackhammer and Anvil launchers, there really wasn't very much us monkeys could do against heavy armor. In short, Outpost 5 was completely fucked.
      "What can we do?" Whoosh. "We have to think of –" Thump. "Think of something." Krshshk. Somehow, Charles always managed to look like a nervous sparrow, whether he was under threat of imminent fiery death or just picking up a lunch tray. He didn't twitch as much during meals as he was doing now, though.
      I tried the radio, but got nothing, just a hiss of static. "They must have hit the antenna, radio's completely dead. Or they could be jamming us. Can they do that?"
      Gabe had taken out his binoculars to study the situation as best he could, flipping on the night vision in the dim light. "There. Twenty meters back from the Wraith on the right, looks like reserve weapons for the ground troops. Only two Grunts are guarding them, they're looking forward." He put his binoculars away, carefully easing down onto the forest floor. "If they have explosives, we could… I dunno. Use them to create a diversion."
      "Or, you know, blow them up. Or shoot them." Kendal was keeping his cool, as usual.
      "Let's see what we've got, first. Kendal, you think you can take 'em out from this range? With a silencer?"
      Kendal could shoot a coin out of the air, and to my knowledge had done so at least twice, to win a bet. He came from a long line of Texas gunslingers, or so he claimed. A question like that was not a suggestion or even an order, it was a personal challenge, and maybe an affront to his peculiar sense of honor. Or maybe I'm just reading too much into these things.
"Huh," he verbalized.
He unlimbered his submachine gun and pulled back the stock to rest against his shoulder, quickly threading the silencer into the weapon's barrel. The gun was tough and could dish out a lot of damage very quickly, but it was not meant for sharpshooting, especially at this range. Kendal didn't seem to mind, though. He flipped the selector to single-shot and carefully took aim.
      Three muffled coughs sounded out, each a half second apart, hardly louder than someone smacking a book against a desk. The noise was easily drowned out by the hum of the Wraiths' wraith-like engines. The Grunt on the left jerked backwards, as if struck by a sudden thought, as the first of the low-velocity rounds went a bit wide, smashing into its shoulder and lodging in its armor. The second blast carried the majority of the mass of its head out through the front of its face in a disgusting shower of blue-ish gore. The other Grunt didn't even have time to finish turning around when the third shot caved in its temple, ripping the straps of its breather off one side and coming to a halt in the tough bone of its brow ridge. More ichor hit the ground, and the Grunts toppled over under the weight of their methane tanks. The Covenant ground troops, more than a hundred yards away and focused on the action, didn't notice a thing. The little aliens twitched once or twice before lying still. For once, the methane did not burst into flames.
      We slinked as fast as we could up to the weapons cache. Plasma pistols, useless junk, spare parts, some sort of weird green spiky thing, and then we hit the jackpot.
      Charles opened up bulky, square crate, heavily armored and about three feet on a side, to find it full of plasma grenades. Hundreds of the damn things, purple and blue and red balls of fizzy, pretty death. While I personally detest them, they could prove very useful in a spot of bother like this one. I hadn't noticed before in the shadowed dawn light, but I could see that the Covenant had half a dozen similar crates in their ranks, each securely closed and behind a heavy barricade thick enough to stop a rocket from setting them off. This one must have been just a spare.
      Kendal and Charles each grabbed a handle and ran back to an old crater we could use as a foxhole, with Gabe and I running backwards to keep an eye on the aliens. So far, so good. We slid down into the ditch and sat in a circle around the crate.
      "Okay. That was terrifying. What do we do now?" Charles had started to twitch a bit more violently.
      Gabe stared at the crate for a while. "Well, I think if we get close enough, we could… okay. I have a plan. We can sneak up, and toss these down the exhaust ports on the tanks. They burn way hotter and longer than frag grenades, so they should actually detonate the reactor instead of just disabling them. That… that might actually be enough to take them all out."
      It took me about a millisecond to find the gaping flaw in that plan. "Gabe, I hate to play devil's advocate here, but wouldn't that, you know, kill us too? In a horrible, fiery way? Don't get me wrong, I'm all for honor and glory and all that jazz, but I would prefer that they pin the medals at the hospital and not at the fucking funeral.
      "I really doubt there'd be enough left to pin a medal to, Isaac"
      "Thank you, Carl. Thank you for that wonderful image. I feel so much better now."
"Relax, guys." Gabe was actually smiling, the loon. "The exhaust hatches are blown wide open. It's still dark enough to sneak up, we can throw from a distance, and we'll be out of the blast radius. Trust me." He frowned, suddenly. "But first, does anybody actually know how to use these things?"
      He gingerly picked up a grenade between two fingers, holding it like, well, like a dangerous grenade that could go off at any minute.
      "I mean, we've all seen the vids, but has anyone thrown one? In real life? You squeeze here, right? And then you have three seconds to throw?"
      I looked up, suddenly alarmed. "Wait, aren't you-"
      Gabe pressed his thumb down onto the activation glyph. It pulsed red for an instant, and the skin of the grenade erupted into the familiar liquid-blue flame. He held onto it for a second, startled by the sudden, ominous whine emanating from the device. Frantically, he tossed it as hard as he could back towards the treeline, where it would explode without alerting the Covenant. At least, from his facial expression when he found the grenade to be stuck fast to his glove, that was what I inferred to be the plan. In reality, Gabe quickly yanked off his right glove (now engulfed in a terrifying blue light and clinging to the grenade like a dog to a brand-new shoe) with his left, and threw the grenade and glove ensemble to detonate barely a second later in the trees. We all held our breath, but those goddamn aliens were so focused on their attack, never mind the noise of the mortars, that they didn't so much as flinch. That is some seriously lax protocol. I had half a mind to speak with their commanding officer about proper military discipline. Seriously, if your going to utterly and completely wipe out a species in a horrifying, atrocity-filled war of attrition, at least do it properly for God's (or the Gods', I guess) sake(s).
      I glared at the Corporal. "Uh, as I was saying. Aren't you supposed to press as you throw? Because it- it, uh, sticks almost right away. It detonates after three seconds." I was clutching nervously at a fire extinguisher, staring at the frail whisps of blue plasma playing over the blackened ground, swirling into the sky. The air smelled of ozone.
      Gabe was contemplating the burn on the palm of his right hand. It didn't look to bad, and I told him as much. I should know, I've researched the subject extensively.
      Gabe looked a little chagrined. "Alright. One more try. I'll wrap in something so I'm not actually touching it. Or, or I could make a sling or a bola, just hold onto the end. Let's see…"
      He pulled out a long bandage and wrapped it tightly around the grenade, leaving a tail about eighteen inches long to grab in his right hand. He reached with his left to push the activating symbol, but Kendal grabbed his wrist.
"Here, you've already gone and burned yourself, it's gonna slip out of your hand. Hand it over, let me try." Gabe was more than eager to comply.
Kendal gave the sling a twirl, testing the weight. Holding the grenade in his left hand, Kendal carefully pressed the activation symbol. Once again, the grenade burst into a blue light, but this time it burned right through the thin gauze and dropped squarely into the palm of his left hand.
      "Oh, f-"
      Ripping off his glove with his right hand, burning it cherry-red in the process, he hurled the mated glove-grenade pair as hard as he could. In the wrong direction. Over the Wraiths, directly into the massed covenant infantry. In fact, it landed maybe three feet away from one of the crates of grenades, which the Grunts had opened sometime in the past ten minutes under the assumption that the base had no explosive weapons that could reach that far.
      Grunts dove stupidly for non-existent cover. The Elites closest to the front barricades tore up great clods of dirt as they made powerful flying leaps over the barriers, their back-jointed legs acting like springs. An instant later, the universe turned blue, then white, as grenades and methane tanks all went up in blasts of hellfire. For an instant, the Wraiths were silhouetted against the explosion before they too were consumed, their reactors adding to the blast. The shockwave felt like a gigantic feather pillow shot out of a cannon as it hit and lifted us bodily off our feet before depositing us, sans weapons and half our gear, on the bottom of our little foxhole back in the trees. A rolling, solid-looking cloud of black smoke billowed into the air as the flames cooled from blue to red, spitting chunks of burning debris out over the field and forest. We all lay there for a few minutes, listening to the isolated pops of grenades that had missed the initial blast as our hearing returned. We were far enough away from the hypocenter that aside from a rough landing, nobody suffered more than a slightly broken arm (Charles), a dislocated shoulder (Gabe and Kendal), a few minor lacerations (everyone) and a few bruised ribs (me). Gabe sat up, clearly favoring his left arm.
      "Isaac? Charles? Kendal? You alright?"
      I said no, Kendal said yes, and Charles just muttered a few curses in Kendal's direction. We slowly clambered to our feet, patched up our injuries with a med kit and climbed up towards the wreckage. The Outpost was slowly becoming visible through the dissipating pall of smoke. As I had thought, there wasn't too much structural damage, but even from this extreme distance it was obvious that the entire defense system had been shot to hell.
      There was a flicker of motion just ahead.
      An Elite had apparently grabbed a Jackal's shield before diving over the barricades, and between that, the heavy barriers and his own armor's energy defenses, it was mostly unharmed. It dug its heels in and bounded towards us, long, loping strides rapidly eating up the intervening distance. The Elite shook out a plasma sword and roared its defiance as blue sparks and little flickers of silver light trailed over its shield emitters – its shield was busted, unable to recharge at all.
      We all reached for our weapons, but Charles and I had, in our post-explosion daze, left them in the hole. Kendal opened fire, but his gun was broken; the firing pin and slide had been sheered right off. Gabe managed to get off a short burst before the Elite was upon him, and at least one bullet connected. The alien didn't even notice. The Corporal rolled with surprising grace under the Elites blade, but caught a vicious backhand to the face and dropped like a broken puppet as the alien ran by, dismissing Gabe as a threat. There was nobody else left. It was up to me to stop the Elite from killing us all.
      Blind with rage, it charged towards me. I turned and ran to the foxhole, where I could see my SMG lying in the dirt. Adrenaline gave my feet wings as I ran, tensing for a flying leap.
      The Elite must have seen my plan, because its sword went flying over my shoulder in a terrible blur to slam into the crater with greater force than any human could muster. If it had been at its full strength, I have no doubt that the Elite would not have missed. Instead, the sizzling, superheated, crackling, snarling, burning oh-so-very hot blade sliced into our medical kit, between me and the guns, just before the sword gave out.
      Bandages, alcohol, biofoam, plastic wrappers, and grass promptly burst into cheerful flame. Between me and my objective. I would have to dive. I would have to dive right through the flames.
      I would rather die.
      I leapt. In midair, I twisted to grab both portable fire extinguishers from my shin-harnesses. I swung them forwards, bellowing a fearsome war cry (most certainly not screaming like a little girl) and smashed the buttons. Time slowed down, as I felt the shock of the compressed gas cylinders releasing. A blast of powdery foam soared ahead of me, like the waves breaking over the prow of a ship sailing through a hurricane, except instead of a hurricane it was fire retardant and instead of waves it was flames. I sailed through the air, arms outstretched, tossing the spent extinguishers to each side as I landed and rolled over the still-glowing embers. I fumbled the strap of my gun coming out of the roll, set it against my shoulder, pointed it at the battle-mad Elite, squeezed the trigger, and had completely forgotten to turn off the safety.
      I landed ten feet away, sprawled in an ungainly heap after the Elite introduced my chest to his clenched fist. I could only gasp, the wind knocked out of me. It gave a satisfied snort and walked back into the foxhole, suddenly calm, to grab it sword, shaking it a few times before thumbing the activation switch. It was obviously in no hurry. The Outpost couldn't see a thing from here, Charles was unarmed, Kendal didn't have a working gun, and Gabe was down. A few thoughts ran through my head, stopping to wave hello as they jogged by.
      At least I'm not on fire.
      Man, I am really hungry. I haven't had breakfast.
      What's Kendal looking for on the ground over there?
      Waffles. I could use some waffles.
      The Elite finally managed to activate his sword, and turned towards me. I managed to push myself shakily to hands and knees, digging my fingers into the soil. Sweat and blood dripped onto my hands, and I tasted iron. My ribs were a plate of burning agony, almost certainly cracked. I could only lift my head to watch dumbly as the beast prepared to skewer me.
The Elite gave out a startled snort, flinched, and whirled around. Kendal was standing, his right arm hanging limp, grinning triumphantly through the blood on his face. Now that the Elite was facing away from me, I could see a fizzing blue glow on the back of its neck. Roaring, it charged towards Kendal, flailing with its sword in blind panic, and was swallowed up by bright blue light before it got halfway.
I managed to flip myself around and sit normally, taking a moment to stare at my hands. The pain in my chest started to fade. Charles was helping up Gabe, who looked a little out of it. Concussion, I've been there a time or three. Kendal walked over and gave me a hand up with his good arm.
      "Son of a bitch, it worked. Didn't even burn my hand off. You were right about the quick fuse. You okay there, Isaac?"
      I couldn't really speak yet. "Waffles."
      "What was that?"
      "I could really use some wa- uh, I mean, thanks. Saved my ass."
      "Gimme a hand with my shoulder, would you?" Kendal was gesturing to his dislocated arm, his Texas drawl not betraying a hint of pain. I swear, the man was made of iron or something.
      "What?" I was still out of it, not really understanding his words.
      "Help me pop it back into the socket. Then we can fix the Corporal's."
      I tried and failed to stay standing up. My ribs hurt like hell, and I could barely move, let alone wrench a joint back into place. I staggered upright to give it a whirl anyway, but ended up flat on my back.
"I can't. Wait for a medic to do it. You just got blown up, and you're bleeding like… somebody who just got blown up. Shouldn't you need some painkillers or something?" I could see that there were a few medics with the fire teams.
      "You're insane, you know that? Completely off your rocker."
      The last few plasma grenades were bursting in the burning wreckage. Fire teams and Marines were running out of the base, probably wondering what the hell just happened. Just as I managed to get my feet under me, a bit of burning debris landed next to me. I flinched instinctively, then paused. I had dove through the flames. I was a bit singed, but not really burned. The little bit of fire on the ground wasn't so bad at all. It was dangerous, sure, but so was a loaded gun, a berserker Elite, the drill sergeant. I could deal with those, I had more than once. Well, the first two, at least. I stopped backing away and smothered the flames slowly and deliberately under my boot, little whisps smoke curling away from the purplish material, the hardened sole barely heating up at all.
I sat down again, suddenly a little dizzy as the enormity of what I had just done started to hit me. I pushed the thoughts aside, for the moment. I wasn't in the mood for big, life changing, profound epiphanies. For now I was content to wait for a stretcher, while Kendal braced against the ground and did something horrifying and crunchy to his arm until it worked again. The sun was nearly above the horizon, casting beams through the haze in a blue light, paler than the Covenant weaponry.
      "Hey." Gabe looked up. "We're heroes now, aren't we?"
      "Is that why you signed up, Gabe? To be a hero?" I was looking at some clouds.
      "Not really. At first, maybe. Is that why you signed up, Isaac?"
      "No. I just needed to pay for graduate school, back on Earth. Or maybe Cygnus, they have some great universities." I had to stop for a bit as my chest gave another twinge. "Two weeks later, the UNSC broke the news about the Covenant, and well, once you're enlisted…"
      "Who? The military or the Covenant?"
      "Does it matter?"
      "Guess not."
      We four, we happy four, spent the next few minutes in silence, watching the sunrise. The light was strange and harsh and far from home, and I was hurting a lot, but I was content to sit with my comrades – friends, I guess – letting the sun take the chill out of our bones. We had overcome a lot together. Today, I might have conquered my greatest fear. I guess that in this day and this age, you just have to take your peace where you find it, and hold on as long as you can. I did. The only other choice is to go insane, and I have had quite enough of that.