In Which Our Protagonist Finds a New Friend - A 'Bad Days' Story
Posted By: kabu<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 20 March 2009, 12:19 am
I remember the lake a few miles from my house. The forest came down right to the edge on the north shore, but to the south there was a long, sandy strip of beach, wide enough to hold a few small boats on their dollies. When the wind kicked up and white cats-paws played at the surface, little bursts of froth spraying outwards from the peak of each ripple, I would drag a boat down to the water. Once it was pushed out far enough, I would pull the cord on the rudder to drop it into the water and hop in. I would be soaked up to my thighs as I raised the sail, but the wind streaming over the bow would dry my clothes as the boat suddenly jumped forward, air straining at the taut canvas. My hands and arms would lock in place on the mainsheet and tiller, and I would lean back as the water glittered in the sun just below my head. After a while, I was just along for the ride. It was the boat and the wind and the water and the sun pulling the bow across the shining blue, guiding and shaping the waves and ripples. Not the hand on the tiller.
There's a certain peace of mind that comes with knowing your life is out of your hands. You're just going along with the boat, the wind pushing you to its own destination. When the breeze is really good, you can nudge the tiller a bit to change trajectory but you end up at more or less the same place. Or maybe I just wasn't a very good sailor. This whole human-Covenant war thing was like a gale hitting out of a placid sea. You can be sailing along any tack, but once a big one hits, everybody gets shoved in the same direction and will probably capsize, or get blown up. Okay, a sailboat blowing up is pretty unlikely, but I have learned that you can never totally eliminate the chance of something bursting into flames. Unfortunately, I've been through a few explosions and I can tell you that they're not the sort of thing you ever really get used to.
I was trying to keep myself in a good state of mind. Two months ago, I actually dove through some flames, in defiance of my persistent phobia. The flames weren't that huge, but in my mind I knew that it was an important first step. I studied psychology, I knew all about facing deep, irrational fears and whatnot to get over them, at least in theory, but in reality you can't just sit up and go, "today, I will face my deep, irrational fears and whatnot to get over them." It just doesn't work.
That charging Elite had taken the matter out of my hands, though, and forced me into action, and for that I was thoroughly grateful to it. Not enough to let it skewer me, but enough to feel a little pang of regret when Kendal blew it up. Right after that eventful morning, I took to borrowing Gabe's lighter and was making sure to flick it on at least once a day, just to make sure that I wouldn't flip out and smash it with the butt of a fire extinguisher. So far, that had only happened once. Well, twice. Three times, if you want to get technical and count the time where it was snatched out of my hand before I could get my swing going.
After a long while on Alpha Aquilae, I was getting very tired of the patrols, the cold sunlight and the massive explosions that happened depressingly close to me almost every time. I took solace in my great skill at Hearts in my regular games with the squad, though Kendal could kick anyone's ass up one wall and down the other at poker. Spent shell casings make good poker chips they're small, they pack easily, and if you ever need more, the ground is practically covered in the things. A few attacks outside one of these Outposts, the dirt would be so shiny with brass and glass that it looked like somebody had packed a cheap tourist-trap jewelry store with dynamite, and then tossed in a nuke.
We were all cheered up when we heard that the base was going to get an AI to administer the remaining six Outposts. A real AI, too, made out of a human mind, not a dumb program. Everybody who's met a "smart" AI says that the friendly ones are happy to stop and chat, seeing as they can be pretty much everywhere at once and don't really have to prioritize. Even the more withdrawn AIs make things easier on a ship or on the ground. Scheduling is more even, supplies get sent out on time and in the right quantities, paperwork speeds up by a hundredfold - though that last one is not really saying much, what with the bureaucracy taking up half the military. Everyone was excited about Leon's imminent arrival on the next cargo drop. With our luck, we really should have known better. Or at least asked why, exactly, one would decommission a battleship AI.
It started with a crate of lighters left on my bunk. It might have been a practical joke, but I couldn't rule out the God of Irony laughing in the corner with Fate and Destiny again. All I knew was that one day I walked inside and there was a little grey plastic box sitting neatly on my bed. The label said it had been delivered about an hour previously, and that the order had been placed just that morning. I carefully peeled back the adhesive, which as usual immediately got all over the floor in little fuzzy lumps, and beheld several neat rows of little plastic cigarette lighters. I tossed them carefully into the hall, only for a fresh crate to arrive the next morning. This time I checked the digital order form. It was under my name, with my ID, and had set me back thirty credits. The possibilities had been narrowed down to either a clever bit of fraud or dissociative personality disorder, which, given the not exactly stellar state of my brain, I once again couldn't rule out. When a third crate was delivered (this time filled with matchbooks) I decided to ask our new AI about it.
The pedestal in the corner whined pathetically as Leon materialized above it. It was the first time I had personally seen him. He looked quite dapper in a dark bowler hat and pinstripe suit, but the image was spoiled by the quartet of flaming batons he was juggling.
"Uh, Leon. Hi. I had a question-"
"Isaac! How's it going? I've been waiting for days to hear from you!"
nice, I guess. I've been getting these weird deliveries, and I wanted to know where they came from."
The four twirling batons became eight, forming two intersecting circles of fire in the air.
"What, those lighters? I thought you got over that whole fire thing."
"Well, sure I have, it's just that I'm not completely over it, per se, and- and- could you please stop that?" He was tossing the batons with such abandon that they were flying off the range of the projector, filling it with streaks of bright flame. He deftly snatched them out of the air and popped them one by one into his mouth, extinguishing them.
"Isaac, I was only trying to help."
"You sent them? You hacked my account?" I was too startled, for the moment, to feel any actual emotion.
Leon coughed, sending a jet of flame out of his nostrils. "Pathetic security, really. I didn't need to hack anything, I'm in charge of the money in these parts."
"You can't do that!"
"Well if you didn't want me to, why didn't you speak up earlier?"
"I didn't want to make a huge commotion, I guess."
He paused to pull a cigar out of the air and bite off the end. "That's your real problem, you know. You don't speak out. Shout a little, let yourself be heard. It gets you places."
Now that what he was saying had a bit of time to sink in, I was starting to get seriously pissed. "Oh yeah? How'd that work out for you? Shouldn't you be on a battleship?"
He glared at me through a haze of holographic smoke. I didn't know the whole story behind his transfer here, but it seems my comment struck a nerve. Or a circuit.
"Look, that wasn't my fault. I did great. I took down five Covenant cruisers."
"Uh huh. Sure. And now you get your kicks playing practical jokes."
"What's your point?"
I settled back on my heels and grinned. After calming down a bit, I realized that I was really getting into this. "You're like a kid who gets sent to detention and scrawls graffiti on the desk to get back. It's pathetic. It shows just how far you've fallen. Really, an out-of-the-way, worthless planet like Altair doesn't need an expensive smart AI. You messed up, and you got shoved aside."
"You know what? Fuck you, Isaac." He still hadn't lit the cigar, which was lying on the "floor" where he had dropped it.
"That's more like it. Thanks for the lighters."
I strolled off as he shouted and hurled fire after me, feeling truly happy for the first time in weeks. I actually whistled a few bars.
It rained most of the day, and as a result I was sent out on another miserable patrol. Standard issue UNSC Marine armor is just waterproof enough so that it keeps the bulk of the rain off, yet prevents the little trickle that leaks through from escaping. The tough leaves on the trees collected water in discrete globs which would fall to smack against the backs of exposed necks, so walking through the cloud forest was like being gently flogged by a sock filled with cold pudding. Nobody felt like talking, understandably enough, so I spent the time speculating on the weather and the peculiarities of our enemy. For example, did the Elites' energy shields keep out the rain? If they didn't, then it must be terribly itchy to get water under all that metal. If they did, the air inside the field must get uncomfortably warm, not to mention an insult to whatever olfactory receptors that the aliens might possess.
That evening, I had hardly peeled off my armor and wrung the water out of my skin when the Major called me into his office. I walked to the room nervously, trying desperately to look less like a drowned rat and more like a drowned Marine. The pre-fab concrete and plastic that made up the entire Outpost was covered with some tacky faux-wood paneling in an effort to liven up the place. The Major himself was sitting behind his heavy desk. Jannson was a big, startling, Viking looking guy. He was around six and a lot feet tall, with piercing blue eyes. His blond hair would have looked more natural cut into a rough tail than the precise military trim. The old battleaxe hanging on the wall over his desk, a family heirloom, completed the image. Something about the way he looked down his nose at everyone always gave the impression that he was waiting for an excuse to rip down the tarnished axe and hack something to death with it. Right now, Jannson looked like he would rather use a rocket launcher, or possibly a tank.
"Meyers. Thanks for getting here so quickly."
"Um. Yes, sir." I relaxed a bit (which is to say, regained a bit of voluntary muscle control) when I saw that his rage wasn't focused in my direction.
"I need your help with something. You did school, right? Psychology?"
"Okay. This damn AI is driving me off the wall. I can't get anything out of him." I glanced aside, and noticed that the projector crystals in the ceiling had been forcibly removed and were lying in the corner. He hadn't been particularly careful about it either bare wiring was still attached in some places, partially stripped.
"I need your help. You-"
He was cut off when the glass double screen on his desk positioned to allow someone on either side to see the view flickered and turned on. Leon appeared, his hat and suit hanging neatly on a coat rack off in the corner. He was dressed in matted furs and leather with a ridiculous horned helmet. Snow and ice swirled theatrically around him as the prow of his longboat crested the waves. Lifting an axe bigger than he was over his head, the AI gave a piercing battle cry before collapsing into a fit of laughter. Jannson savagely yanked the power cord, and the image disappeared. The Major visibly collected himself, muttering something in Swedish that I assume is unprintable.
"Private, I'm giving you a special assignment. Leon tells me he likes you you're the only one who gave him a decent conversation."
"He reminds me of my little brother, sir."
"Well, congratulations. You're the liaison between him and this office. You'll work with him directly. Maybe psychoanalyze him a bit. I don't want to order you to do this, but somebody has to talk to Leon and it isn't going to be me."
I found Leon waiting on a pedestal outside the door. He looked up and put away his cigar as soon as I walked into view.
"Well? What did Erik the Red have to say?"
"Sounds like we're gonna get to know each other a bit better."
"You're a hologram, Leon."
"No need to be racist, now."
By the next morning, all the fire extinguishers in the Outpost had been robotically painted bright pink.