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Never Bring a Gun to a Pillow Fight - A 'Bad Days' Story
Posted By: kabu<will36@gmail.com>
Date: 17 April 2009, 7:38 am

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      People don't like a winner.

      Sure, people like heroes. We throw parades, broadcast vids, throw all sorts of celebrations, but we always have them far away. Preferably, six feet of dirt away. Dead heroes, distant heroes, people remembered for one great battle or book or whatever, those are the people we love. It's the people around us who are competent and good and get things done, those are the people we can't stand, the smarmy bastards. Every bit of admiration comes with a bit of jealousy, which is why the best heroes always have flaws to feel superior about. Or maybe that's just me. I see it in everyone, though – Kendal is a perfect shot and a great fighter, but is laid back enough to seem pretty lazy. Gabe is amazingly charismatic, but when it comes down to it, he's not exactly a tactical genius. Charles is, well, twitchy. Nice guy though. As for me, I've always been smart, but never that great of a soldier. Crippling pyrophobia goes a long way towards bringing someone down to Earth. Or wherever.

      This was pretty much what I was thinking when we found out we were getting a new Colonel. Nobody valuable could possibly be sent to a nowhere-planet like Aquilae, and it would be cruel to send even the most terrible officer to administer these pathetic outposts. I shared my ideas with Gabriel. Being the sunny guy that he is, he called me out on my cynicism.

      "Maybe," said Gabe, "they just wanted to get somebody here to turn things around. By everything I've read, Christina Zhao is supposed to be good."

      "Isn't it more likely that somebody really hates her? She must have really screwed something up to get sent here."

      "Well, the public file says she's worked with Leon before. Maybe they wanted somebody familiar with him."

      I sidestepped half a dozen brightly painted service robots, under control of our AI, Leon. They were drag racing down the hall, rolling along at breakneck speed. Three of them stopped to make a dizzying orbit around our feet before zipping off.

      "That just reinforces my point. If she knows Leon, wouldn't she want to get away from him?"

      "Well, there is a rumor that she assaulted a superior officer. Something about a stolen rug…"

      "I knew it. They find the first excuse to get rid of people who do their jobs correctly."

      "Since when is decking a Colonel 'doing your job correctly'?"

      "Maybe he deserved it?"

      A week passed. Zhao arrived on the next of our infrequent cargo drops, and spent a while personally inspecting each outpost. Leon could spend an hour talking to anyone who would listen about the injustice of it all, about how terrible she was. I believe his exact words were "intolerant, prejudiced, vindictive crazy bitch who is probably a lesbian." For somebody he had only met for ten minutes, Leon was full of detailed opinions on everything from her supposed racism against AI's to speculation on possible canine heritage in her family tree. I bore his ramblings with Herculean patience. From everything I had seen, she was an efficient and effective, if a bit angry, leader. It seemed that Leon ranted at me the most. We had developed, if not a friendship, at least a mutual non-aggression treaty since Major Jannsen had ordered me to talk to him.

      For security purposes, Leon's data crystal was moved from Outpost to Outpost at random every couple of weeks. The Covenant didn't have enough manpower (Gruntpower?) to attack every single aerial convoy, but by this point they had figured out that an AI had the coordinates to every single human colony. They were willing to sacrifice huge numbers of troops to get their claws on him. So one early morning, when Leon had been freshly installed at my Outpost and Zhao had come over for an inspection, the warning klaxons started sounding a frantic reveille.

      I woke up from a nightmare of the building being on fire to find that the building was on fire. Not a big one, as fires go, but there was still a small amount of smoke. The next thing I noticed was a lot of flashing red lights. The last time I had seen those, a plasma mortar had nearly killed me. The fact that the base was still intact told me that we were under an infantry attack, which meant that despite all our fancy security procedures, the Covenant had found Leon. Damn.

      I hit the floor, slid into my boots, grabbed a rifle and stepped into chaos. Twenty minutes later, everything had gone to Hades and I was alone in a hallway, out of breath and holding a nearly empty rifle. I figured that I was about a minute from becoming the main ingredient in a dish of Marine à la energy sword. For all I knew, we had already lost. Leon sure as hell wasn't going to commit suicide until the last moment, which meant that the base was, metaphorically speaking, ass-deep in aliens. I paused for a bit and looked around.

      I was in the middle of the hall. The ammo counter on my MA5 read 15 and I only had one reload left. God knows where my pistol had run off to. I took the opportunity to catch my breath, all six senses (I count fear as a sense) straining for any sign of Covenant.

      I tapped my radio. The main mast was down, obviously – I never understood why they built the damn thing in such an exposed position – but we still had point-to-point communications.

      "Leon, you there? Um, need some support, here.""Hey, Isaac." The familiar voice was laced with poorly concealed worry.

      "Can you give me anything? What's going on?"

      "Lots of chatter, no clear picture. Sounds like… okay, I think we still control the armory, and the kitchens, but I can't be sure of anything else."

      "There are Jackals between me and the armory."

      "Well, I can't help you. All the cameras are shot, I'm riding blind. Get down to the kitchen, grab a snack. You'll feel better. I mean, you'll still be dead, but whatever."

      Great. Leon couldn't do anything, and I had no idea where to go next. For that matter, I had no idea if anyone in my squad was dead or not. If Leon could have at least gotten some motion sensors online, I would know if anyone was sneaking around the corner. My earpiece crackled, Leon again.

      "Well, at least I've gotten some motion sensors online -"      

      Oh. Good.

      "- and now you can know if anyone is sneaking around the corner. Which… they are. From both ends of the hall. Four contacts each on each side, small, very cold, and no transponders. You have maybe a minute."


      "Could be leprechauns. Or elves. Or the fucking ghost of Christmas past, of course they're Grunts, you idiot." Leon was actually sounding a bit shrill now, which was never a good sign.

      I looked around wildly, clutching my rifle to my chest. In a minute – make that fifty seconds – eight Grunts were going to be on me like a pile of methane-breathing bricks. There. The hall was lined with doors – officers quarters, all deserted for now. There was evidence of hasty departures in the hallway, with bits of clothing and papers lying on the floor. I kicked open the nearest door – Captain Dale would just have to live with a broken doorknob – and ran inside. Dale had a very limited imagination when it came time to decorate. There was a bed, a desk, a chair, and a small picture of a deer on one wall. Not much in the way of cover either, the furniture was all pretty flimsy. Optimistically, I shoved the bed onto its side and hunkered down behind it.

      "Leon? Anything?"

      "I really can't help you. I've had to repurpose the radar array to scan inside the base, and I have to say I'm not getting very good resolution. There's movement in the hall, but that's really all I know. Just use your ears."

      My ears were not very good, what with my pulse pounding like a demented marching band, but I listened as best I could. There was a pop and a sizzle from down the hall as a lock was blasted out of a door. It was repeated a bit closer a few seconds later. They were checking the rooms. I glanced down, but the ammo counter still stubbornly read 15. If they all came in at once, I wouldn't have time to reload. I wished I had spent a bit more time at the shooting range. I slunk down as far as I could behind the upturned bed frame and grabbed the two pillows I had flipped onto the floor.

      There was a loud pop, and a rush of hot air accompanied the vaporized handle out of the door. Weird, guttural barks and snorts sounded out from the hallway. I couldn't see them, but I knew that at least three Grunts had walked into the room. They were getting a little puzzled at the non-standard arrangement of the furniture (in that it was mostly upside down) but they were not familiar enough with human culture to spot anything out of place. It actually looked neater than my room had been a few years back, so I wouldn't have found a few upturned chairs out of the ordinary either. I took a breath, jumped up and opened fire.

      I had been counting on no more than three of them actually walking inside, and for once in my life my guess turned out to be right on the money. Two were inside already, with greenish pistols gripped in bulky paws. A third Grunt was silhouetted in the doorway, light from the hall striking beams in the dust around it and rippling in the heat off his pistol. Only the two in the room had their weapons aimed anywhere meaningful, but the plasma bolt missed as a three-round burst took of the leader's head.

      My back was showered with dust and ash as the wall behind me flared red-hot. Another few rounds pounded into the second Grunt's chest, plasma pistol strobing as its hand twitched in death. Patches of the ceiling glowed green, then red. The one in the doorway shrieked in a grating voice, but it didn't have time to bring his gun up before it fell out of the light, followed by bursts of dark blood. The remainder of the magazine went into the walls to the left and right of the doorway. The wall behind me hissed and bubbled as it cooled, sending out little showers of sparks. I was pleasantly surprised to find my head and all four limbs still nicely attached to each other.

      If Leon was right, which was never a guarantee, there were another five Grunts to deal with, and I wouldn't be catching them by surprise this time. The rounds through the wall would give them something to think about as I reloaded. I wouldn't catch them by surprise this time, but Grunts weren't exactly known for their bravery. They would be cautious, slow, and probably bunched together. Come to think of it, not all that different from humans.

      There was a hiss and crackle, and the bedframe started to shake. Smoke rose up from the burning mattress as plasma bolts sizzled into the metal. I had maybe three seconds before the cheap aluminum was melted through. But this time, I had a plan. Whether or not it was a good plan I leave to the historians. I had used it once before, sort of. It had worked then, there was no reason it shouldn't work now. Of course, then it was outdoors, in the middle of the night, I wasn't cornered and had plenty of backup, but that's the kind of negative thinking that holds us back in life.

      I hooked my foot around a pillow, kicked it into the air, and fired.

      My rifle was loaded up with shredders. With a fancy range-finding electronics package in each tip, they're ridiculously expensive and only work about half the time anyway. When they do, however, the results are impressive. A short burst of shredder rounds blasted the pillow to pieces, sending bits of grayish-white fluff around the room. They don't use feathers these days; it's some sort of plastic polymer stuff that gets all over the floor when the pillow rips. It's very light and designed not to clump together, so when flung into the air it flies apart like smoke. And it is completely impossible to clean up. It's probably easier just to burn the whole base down and rebuild it after a pillow rupture.

Blind, the Grunts immediately panicked, just as planned. Shots flared wildly in the haze, drawing lurid green trails through the mess. Dust in the wake of plasma turned contrails of black ash that tumbled wildly in the roiling air before drifting down to the ground, melting into the concrete. I counted to three, and then dove out of cover towards the left corner. The Grunts couldn't see a thing as I came up firing.

      Four seconds later, my gun clicked empty and the Grunts were down. Blue ichor splattered the walls behind small bodies slumped in death. I tried to let go, but something had shorted out between fingers and brain, so my hands just clamped tighter. I took inventory. Once again I was intact, but the armor over my ribs was smoking in a suspicious way that I decided not to investigate further. I'd had worse. For me, of course, "worse" includes some very nasty explosions, among other things, so that's not really saying much. My hands finally got the message, and I slapped my now useless rifle onto the magnetic holster on my back. Now I just had to get my feet moving.

After two tries I managed to get up and grab a plasma pistol from the ground. They're surprisingly bulky, not really something I'd want to use in a hurry. Bits of dust sizzled against the still-glowing tip as I moved towards the door. I tried my radio.

      "Leon? Hello?"

      There was a burst of static and a nervous interval before I got a reply. "Isaac? Holy shit, you're still alive?"

      "Nice to see you too."

      "Yeah, well you're properly screwed now. They took the armory. And it looks like Jackals are heading your way. A human too, so you'll at least have company when you get ripped to shreds."

      "Fuck me."

      "Hologram, remember?"

      I could hear the clicking of running alien feet on the floor. Terrified, birdlike squawks echoed down the hall, followed by a frighteningly loud battle cry that it took a minute to identify as human. A Jackal rounded the corner, casting watery patterns of light on the walls as its translucent shield flailed in panic. It looked like a giant, skeletal vulture that had traded in wings for arms. It wasn't holding a gun. The Jackal didn't even see me. It was blind with fear, and just barreled into me at a full sprint and knocked me off my feet. My appropriated pistol went skittering down the hall.



      The Jackal's vulture-like head darted forward to bite me, but its small, needle-like teeth couldn't get through the armor in one go. I wasn't about to let it take another try, so I punched it in the face. Unsurprisingly, this didn't work very well.

      About three seconds later, I was on the floor with two Jackals standing over me. A third was leaning against the wall, growling and glaring at me and rubbing its face – a boot to the teeth works very well against something with a jaw that long – and a fourth and fifth were standing a few feet back, crouched as low as possible behind their shields, apparently keeping watch. They both had pistols, but the red hologram on the butt end showed about one-fifth charge. The two of them kept making little scratching noises, heads darting back and forth nervously.

      The screaming human voice got louder.

      Colonel Zhao burst around the corner, blood streaming down one side of her face. She had a combat knife in one hand, soaked from tip to tang with gore, and her usually tidy uniform was liberally splattered with various unpleasant substances. Her eyes were filled with mindless fury, and I wouldn't have been surprised to see her foaming at the mouth. She jumped, kicked off a wall, and aimed to hit a Jackal's shield boot first.

      I winced as I heard the Jackal's arm, still strapped to the shield emitter, snap like a antelope in a crocodile's jaws. It screamed, lying on its back, as Zhao drove the knife into what could loosely be described as its sternum. The other four aliens scrambled backwards. Zhao started yelling at them, or rather, at whatever those mad eyes saw in their places.

      "I know that he stole my favorite rug!"

      The one Jackal still with a gun started firing. Zhao leapt into a graceful roll under the deadly stream of plasma, ducked to the side, and body-checked it into the wall behind its shield in time with the word "rug." It collapsed, wheezing and gasping.

      "I asked him politely! I went to his office, knocked – "

      She hit the inside edge of the next Jackal's shield with her elbow, slamming it aside and leaving the alien exposed. It growled and drove a talon towards her eyes. She caught the punch, broke its fingers all at once, and stabbed it in the face.

      "I knocked -" (stab) "- on his door, I asked for it back!" (stab) "I was perfectly proper!"

      The last two Jackals, the ones who had been standing over me, stood frozen, looking at their fallen compatriots. They both did the smart thing, which was to run away very fast. Zhao took off after them, flying down the hallway with streamers of gore trailing from her knife like some sort of avant garde kite.

      "He laughed at me! He fucking laughed! He deserved the concussion!"

      She hit the first Jackal in the back, knocking it off balance. It got in a lucky swing and knocked the knife from her hand. She didn't even notice. She grabbed the central shield emitter and yanked it towards her, giving the Jackal a bone-cracking punch to the back of the neck as it stumbled past her. The other one tripped over it's own feet and measured its length against the ground. About an eighth of a second later, it was very, very dead.

      "He didn't even have the rug in his office! He had it in storage!"

      The Jackal she had smashed against the wall had recovered. It spat out a few broken teeth and leapt for her back, squawking with rage. She twisted, reached behind her, and pivoted with her hips. The Jackal went into a perfectly horizontal trajectory and hit the wall nose first, at the end of the corridor at least fifteen feet away. A boneless heap crashed to the ground and didn't get up.

      "It's all Leon's fault! Fuck!"

      The entire thing had taken maybe ten seconds. My brain was a little bit behind on recent events, and was still giving my body that familiar "Run! Run! Run! Run!" message. It took a minute to clamber to my feet, wincing around the pain of Jackal bites and what I horribly suspected to be a plasma burn. Zhao carefully wiped off her knife on the one clean bit of her sleeve and sheathed it. I managed a shaky salute.

      "Private! You're radio, if you please."

      I handed over my radio. Zhao jogged to the end of the corridor to recover her knife and grab a pair of plasma pistols, one of which she handed to me. I set about unfastening a pair of shields from some deceased Jackals and picking up a few plasma grenades, trying not to think about them too much. She accepted a shield and the grenades with a nod of thanks, brow furrowed in thought. The Colonel's eyes unfocused as she activated the radio. I could only hear her side of the conversation.

      "Leon, this is Zhao. Shut up and help me. Yes, armory. Not what I want to hear. Not what I – yes, good. Finally. Don't call me that, Leon. Have you ever seen what happens when you shoot a computer with a plasma pistol? God, you're pathetic. Now patch me through – I don't care, Leon, patch me the fuck through right now. Excellent. Major Jannsen? What's your status? Good. Here's what we'll do…"

      Zhao swiftly set up a coordinated defense of the base, which was impressive, considering that we had undergone massive casualties and were scattered like a pack of puppies in the presence of a pit bull. My squad, as it turned out, was still alive. Gabe was near the barracks; Charles and Kendal were holed up in the kitchens. Leon was given and active role to calm him down a bit, using the service robots as shields and decoys. Jannsen, along with four Marines, was going to attack the armory from one side while Zhao and I snuck up from another. I spotted a slight flaw in that plan.

      "Um, sir? How many Covenant have taken the armory?"

      "Leon estimates between ten and fifteen."

      "Sir, there are only two of us attacking from this end."

      Zhao finished clipping on a Jackal shield. She tapped a few buttons experimentally. With a slight crackle, her features were obscured by a glistening red haze. She bared her teeth in a feral grin.

      "What's your point?"

      "Um. Nothing. Sir."

      Strangely enough, the counterattack went flawlessly. I had forgotten that Covenant won't use human weapons, ever, and a couple of surprise grenades did wonders with thinning their numbers and killing the Elite crouched behind the doorframe. The Colonel was small enough that she could cover almost all of her body with a shield, and wasn't shy of using it as a battering ram, punctuated by the occasional kick to the back of a knee or neck. I soon realized that one of the first things Zhao had done when arriving was memorize the layout of the base, so we were able to get behind their perimeter with a minimum of fuss. It was less than two hours before the Marines had reclaimed the essential areas of the building, and once the armory was under our control, only another hour to mop up the remaining alien infantry. Really, Zhao was one of the most competent commanders I have ever worked with (once again, that's not saying much) and unlike most officers, she wasn't shy about getting her hands dirty with the occasional exsanguination.

      No wonder the UNSC kicked her over to this shithole.