Walking in a Winter Wonderland - A 'Bad Days' Story
Posted By: kabu<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 15 May 2009, 3:16 am
Cigarette smoke swirled through the air, splashing against the idle ceiling fan. Outside, a gale battered at the windows. Winter had hit hard this year on Aquilae. The dilapidated heater was straining, and failing, to keep up. I was used to cold winters, back on Earth, but this was something else. Icicles grew from antennae and had to be knocked down, fresh snow had to be dug out from around the doors every morning. Every hour or so, we would jump a bit as a nearby tree cracked as the sap froze in its veins. That sort of thing wears down your nerves very quickly.
Gabriel, who hailed from the sunnier parts of Spain, was hunched over in a blanket. He was the source of the cigarette smoke. He never really smoked that much, but in this biting cold he had gone through half a pack since we first broke out the deck of cards. Kendal was his usual enigmatic self, a light jacket and what looked like a knitted scarf his only acknowledgement of the weather. He was a Texan, he should have been freezing. His blue eyes peered out from under hooded lids as he lay back in the chair, glancing occasionally at his hand of cards.
Charles, hailing from one of the icier bits of Reach, was right at home. He was energetic as ever, which always translates into lots of nervous twitches. He frowned, and hesitated a bit before flicking a few spent shell casings from his pile onto the center of the table.
"I see your shotgun shell, and raise you... five 7.62mm casings. No, six. Six casings."
I suppressed another sneeze. I had caught a nasty cold, and had been hacking my lungs out all morning. The others had given me the spot under the heater out of pity, for which I was thoroughly grateful. I felt like my head would fly off with one more good blow. I blinked at my hand - two nines, two kings, ten high. The king of clubs had a bent corner, but then again so did half the ratty deck. Nobody would notice. I tossed a handful of brass on the table.
"Uh... raise. I see your six casings and a shell, and raise you a bit of melted slag."
Kendal leaned forward, grumbling.
He slapped his cards down, and started to rummage through his bag for something.
A little red light blinked twice on one corner of the table. Propped up against a book were five cards, carefully placed in front of a camera and dealt with eyes closed. The shutter made a little hissing noise as it dilated and refocused on the hand. Leon, the base's AI, spoke through our headsets.
"Ah, whatever. I call the wager. No peeking this time, Isaac."
The camera swiveled on the plastic mount, focusing on each of our faces in turn.
"Oh, and by the way, Charles is bluffing. He has, I dunno, a pair of threes at most."
I reached over to the pile behind the camera and picked out the casings and glass. So far, Leon was trailing Rodriguez, a fact that pissed him off to no end.
Gabe looked up, and carefully maneuvered his hand through the myriad layers of jacket and blanket to bring it up to his face. Carful not to light himself on fire, he slowly snuffed out his cigarette in the ashtray. He scooted forwards a foot, chair screeching on the ground, until he could pick his cards off the table and examine them. Gently, he leaned back.
"Call. I see the wager, and... uh, Isaac? Could you? Thanks."
I reached over to Gabe's pile of casings and glass to drop the relevant pieces on the pot. From the look of him, you would have thought he was dying of pneumonia. Huddled in his cocoon, eyes barely visible under ruffled black hair, he looked like a very confused mouse tossed into a bale of hay. He wasn't getting up for anything other than a wildfire, bonfire, incendiary air strike or possibly a piece of cheese.
Charles called the wager, clicking his toes on the floor as he threw in a bit of melted glass. The one good thing about Covenant plasma weaponry, they give you plenty of shiny bits to use as poker chips. Of course, most of it is white-hot and landing in your eyes upon delivery, which does kind of outweigh the benefits.
"Okay, everyone. Draw." Kendal was the dealer this round, so he spoke up.
Gabe shifted a bit, nodding in my direction. Belatedly, I reached across the table to flip over his hand for him. Two pair, jacks and tens. Ha. For once, he was going to lose this round. I leaned forward to show my hand, and I am not ashamed to say that I felt a little smug. I flipped Leon's cards where we could see them. A pair of nines. Charles paused for a minute, looking thoughtful. He frisbeed his cards onto the table. Full house, aces full of queens. He grinned as he hauled the glittering loot to his pile.
Gabe glared at the camera.
"I thought you said he was bluffing."
"Did I now?" Leon's voice danced with laughter. "Ah, I have to go anyway. Play nice, kids."
The red light flickered and turned off.
Counting my rapidly diminishing stash, I sighed in exasperation. Looks like another trip to the shooting range tomorrow. I stood up, sniffling a little around the pillow that had somehow found its way into my sinuses.
"I'm gonna make more tea. Anybody want?"
Gabriel shifted a bit, nearly shedding his insulating winter habitat.
"Decaf, Isaac. One sugar, no milk."
"Aye aye, sir." Geez, what am I, an errand boy? He's not even sick! I'm the one who can't breathe.
I stuck two mugs into the microwave unit, and hit the button. The actual tea-machine broke when some Marines had torn it apart to make a still, so we were using this old piece of junk. Luckily, Major Jannsen had been kind enough to donate some real, actual tea bags filled with real, actual tea leaves. It was amazing. I hadn't had real tea the entire time I was in the military. It's not until you suddenly don't have, for example, non-synthetic food products that you realize how much you hate powdered cheese substitute.
The machine went whirrr as the motor turned. Kendal had finally found what he was looking for in his bag, and had just put it on his lap. It was fuzzy and blue.
"Kendal," Charles asked, "what is that?"
"Knitting a scarf for Gabe, here." Kendal pulled a pair of frightening metal needles out and started to poke at the blue yarn. He reached into his collar and pulled a similar scarf out, this one of green thread with a pattern of white snowflakes. "Made one myself, but the Corporal seems to need something as well."
Gabe sat forwards. "You know how to knit? You know, I really wanted to learn, when I was a kid. Never got the hang of it."
"Ain't hard, once you try a bit. I have three sisters, they taught me when I was little. I find it to be a very relaxing pastime. You want, I could show you some day." The needles went click-click. The microwave went whirrr-bing!
I opened the door of the microwave, wincing a little at the steam, and reached for a mug.
Gabe suddenly looked alarmed.
"Wait, Isaac, stick a fork in before you grab the cups or-"
Or, as it turns out, the superheated water from a microwave instantly boils when you touch it and explodes all over you. Fuck.
I expressed my acute discomfort with a few well-placed obscenities and more than a little jumping around frantically. I quickly stuffed my throbbing hand under the cold tap, and nearly froze it right off.
In my head, I said this:
"God dammit! Dammit straight to hell! This happens every time! I go out on patrol, or walk down a hall, or- or- or I try to get some sleep, and I get lit on fire or burned or blown up! And I get nothing! Dammit, Gabe, I'm the one who's sick, you're just cold! You always had it easy. You come from Costa del Sol, you never even had winter! Get used to it! Make your own tea, for fuck's sake! This isn't even hygienic, I have a cold, you could get sick! And now Leon is going to make fun of me, and I won't be able to hold a gun properly and I'm really fucking cold! Gah!"
Out loud, I said this:
"Oh, sorry. Ow. Um, I'll make some more, just- just give me a minute. Ow."
I sneezed vigorously.
The wind howled.
Charles stood up.
"No, you know what, I'll do it. Just sit down for a bit."
I don't like the forest. No, let me rephrase that. I don't like this forest. I am completely in favor of woodlands in general, and a few specific ones on Earth, but not this one. A forest should have trees and small furry animals and deer and maybe the occasional hiker or pile of litter. A forest should not have great big explosions and homicidal aliens. If you pick a random direction in the forest and walk for half a mile, you will almost certainly come upon at least one patch of blackened, barren ground. I've been to quite a few, many of them while they were still on fire. But somehow, when you add a blanket of thick, pure snow, things seem... nicer. Cleaner. Less likely to blow up and burst into flames. And, of course, really damn cold.
We weren't of course, scheduled to go on patrol that day. But I have found that what is supposed to happen and what actually happens in any government organization have only a passing resemblance to each other, like going to a beautiful landmark based on photographs and finding it to be rather tacky and filled with tourist shops, and high explosives.
Here's how it happened: I had just accomplished the daunting task of heating up water in a microwave (without killing myself) when we were all ordered to the ready room to gear up. Corporal Michaelson's squad, apparently, was responsible for making that still out of our tea machine. They had gotten it slightly wrong and were now all in the sick bay with various combinations of alcohol poisoning, frostbite, broken ribs and, in one perplexing case, anaphylactic shock due to bee stings. I know, I have no idea how that's even remotely possible. If it weren't for the frostbite they could have handled a patrol, but Major Jannsen thought it would be best if we covered for them today. Luckily Kendal had finished making scarves for all of us to provide a bit of much-needed warmth.
Anyway, we were out on patrol. Gabe was looking miserable, and his face was all but invisible under the pattern of knitted snowflakes. I was doing all right, except for the occasional explosive sneeze. Whoever designed these uniforms clearly knew of winter in only a theoretical context, and couldn't imagine it getting colder than, say, forty degrees Fahrenheit. The scarves definitely helped.
The transplanted winter wildlife was out in force today. Rabbit tracks crisscrossed the ground, and every once in a while a deer would bound off in fright as we approached. An owl hooted overhead, gliding silently from tree to tree. The thing about terraformed planets is that the plants and animals are better managed than on Earth. There are no invasive species, no rabbits tearing up Australia or feral cats messing up the more isolated bits of New Zealand, and certainly no humans to mess up, well, everywhere. Populations were placed carefully, with the same bureaucratic single-mindedness that made sure all the pencils were properly stored and processed. You didn't get the really good old oak trees after a single century, but what grew in the meantime was much better than what you find on most of Earth these days. It reminds me of home.
As I was saying, the boredom and cold of the long patrol was alleviated somewhat by the scenery, and the lack of alien contact. The forest had been quiet on that front, lately. Rumor has it that the Covenant was busy hunkering down and building better fortifications. It was a blessing for us in the meantime.
Gabe gave an especially pronounced shiver.
"Corporal," said Charles. "Why'd you transfer up to this latitude if you hate the cold so much?"
"It wasn't exactly my choice."
"What'd you do? Punch an officer? Sleep with an admiral's daughter? Check the wrong box on the forms? Or maybe-"
"Dammit, Charles, I don't want to talk right now."
The words went right over his head. Charles was one of those people who could never let go of a thread once they had a good grip. Talking to him for any length of time was always a challenge, not only because of his investigative mind, but because he was sharp enough to be right most of the time. Also, he never stayed in one spot for more than a few seconds, which makes eye contact difficult.
"Slept with the admiral's daughter, then."
"Look, it was a Colonel's niece, okay? Dios, just shut up. It's way to cold for conversation."
"Hmm. What about you, Isaac?"
"Huh?" I had been thinking about the forest so much that I had completely tuned out the conversation. Startled by his question, I stumbled on my feet and neatly smacked my head on a low hanging branch, which dumped a load of snow down my collar.
"I said, why did you come to Alpha Aquilae?"
"Oh, I like this kind of place. I, uh-" I paused for a moment to sneeze. "Um, I grew up in a bit of a rural area, in New England, so this is familiar."
I stepped aside to let a rabbit to run past my feet.
"I always liked the forest, there. And the lake."
I was feeling unusually talkative. Something about being in the forest, cold and white and perfect, reminded of home. It really brings out the introspection, I guess. I ducked instinctively as a murder of crows flapped towards us, cawing wildly.
"Sailing, that's what I really miss. I- uh, wow, you okay there Kendal?"
Another rabbit had gone careening by, but this one had run smack into Kendal and tried to run up his leg. He tripped and fell into a snowdrift. Gabe hauled him upright, and he dusted himself off a bit.
The owl from earlier blew past us with a surprising turn of speed.
"Anyway, sailing, and I- oh, wow. Am, uh, am I hallucinating again or did a herd of deer nearly trample us? What's gotten into... these... animals..."
We all stopped short and stared at each other. Heavy, crunching footsteps were approaching.
And it had been going so well.
Gabe broke the silence. "Everyone down, now. Bury yourself if you can, and stay quiet."
We all dove into handy snowdrifts. The white camouflage on our armor was nearly flawless, but better safe than sorry.
"That's odd. Not picking up anything on thermals." Gabe was squinting through a monocular pulled from a pocket.
"Grunts?" Charles hissed from behind a tree.
"Too heavy. Quiet."
We waited in silence. All through the forest, not a creature was stirring, not even a... a... something that rhymes with 'forest.' The big, thumping footsteps came closer. It sounded like there were two of them.
God damn it all to hell.
I could see them after another few minutes. They were big, hulking lumps of grey and blue metal, with flickers of livid orange showing through the gaps. Their armor was gouged and pitted from years of heavy use, with cracks showing the bare metal under the brightly colored enamel on their shoulders and arms. The tips of some of the spines on their backs were shorn off, and the massive plasma mortars they carried on their hands were scorched inside the barrels. There was a sense of grace to them, as absurd as that sounds. They moved with elegant steps, almost dancing from place to place as they swayed gently, but with a sense of ponderous weight. Their shield arms swung in slow ellipses as they balanced from one foot to another, countering their massive weight. They had no true joints, but rather each individual orange worm that made up the massive colony stretched and bent on its own, turning their walk into a fluid stride. This close, however, I could see there was something wrong with the pair of them.
They were hunched low to the ground, almost walking on all fours. The individual worms were taught and shivering. I could see grey spots on a few. A low, almost subsonic groan filled the air as they strained and crackled. Every once in a while, one would stumble slightly and grasp the other to keep upright. I guess that when you're a huge metal can filled with worms, the cold gets to you really badly. Worse than us monkeys, at any rate.
And then the unthinkable happened.
I felt it, in the back of my throat. That familiar tension, the horrible feeling of pressure. It came with the terrifying inevitability of Thanksgiving dinner with your annoying cousins. I swear to any god you care to name, I couldn't stop it.
Betraying its earlier ponderous movement, the nearest Hunter whirled in a blur of flying metal, shield arm scything through the air. I was already five feet away when it struck the tree, sheering through three feet of birchwood with no more effort than breaking a spiderweb. Splinters exploded into the air as the tortured wood groaned and toppled over. The second Hunter caught the stricken tree in its hand, braced against the ground, and snapped it in half. Twin bellows of rage shook the snow from the trees.
Dimly, I was aware of gunfire off to the side. The first Hunter had made a small shrugging motion to pull up its shield. Lead smacked into it like supersonic popcorn and bounced off into the trees without leaving a scratch. Hemmed in by trees, it couldn't get its gun arm around for a clear shot, so it settled for a charge at the rest of the squad. They scattered just fast enough to avoid being bisected.
The second Hunter tossed aside its tree and tried to take aim at me, but branches kept getting in the way. It settled the matter by slicing down all the trees within a ten foot radius with a couple of sweeps of its arm. Horrible cracking noises filled the air as trees fell and snapped like twigs. With more room to maneuver, it swung around until I found myself looking right down the barrel of a very big gun. It began to glow green.
I scurried off to the side like a crab on cocaine, and a line of trees where I had been standing flared to incandescent ash. Steam rolled out in clouds as a few tons of ice boiled away in an instant. I knew it wouldn't miss the second shot. I had to hope that Kendal and Gabe and Charles could take care of their Hunter, because I sure as hell had my hands full. I needed a plan. Failing that, I needed a half-assed attempt at a plan.
The felled trees had propped themselves up against each other to a certain extent, held together by the few that were left standing. The setup was very precarious. Shivers ran up and down the trees. Excellent.
I came to a halt behind a thick oak tree, panting like a dog. Frozen air bit at my dry throat, and my legs felt like they were covered in acid. I would have about five seconds before it fired again, but hopefully that wouldn't be an issue. I mean, if it did fire, I wouldn't be around long enough to regret that my plan didn't work. I don't think the plan even qualified as half-assed. A tiny fraction of an ass, maybe. A sixteenth-assed plan. Which is roughly how many pieces mine would be in if I screwed up.
Thudding footsteps started up, getting faster and faster. Closer and closer. Just a few more seconds...
I leapt forwards just as the Hunter struck. This tree was good thick oak. Nobody could get through it in one charge, not even someone made of worms and covered in enough armor to make a battleship. The tree cracked, but stayed upright. The Hunter swayed wildly, slipped on the snow, and splayed itself out on the snow. If it had been warmer out, I'm sure it would have been upright immediately. As it was, it pulled itself together with slow, jerky movements. The difference was just enough time for me to stuff a frag grenade into the split tree and leap away.
From under my pile of snow, I heard a crash of thunder. The old oak couldn't decide whether to split in half or fall over, so it did both at once. It missed the Hunter completely. Damn.
The half dozen smashed birch trees the oak had been supporting, however, were suddenly not supported by anything at all. In compliance with the laws of physics, several tons of wood, ice, and snow fell all at once onto the Hunter. It had just managed to get a leg under itself when it was smashed into a gooey orange pancake. Take that.
From my vantage point on the ground, things looked promising for the rest of the squad. In the cold, the Hunter was sluggish and couldn't seem to focus on all three of them at once. It looked like they had already done some damage, and long streaks of ash spoke of the Hunter's poor accuracy. Charles had somehow ended up clinging to its back, and was firing his rifle into an exposed spot its waist. Apparently, the Hunter hadn't learned the art practiced by older siblings everywhere of slamming someone clinging to your back into a wall. I could never get the hang of it either, to tell the truth. They would just hit me over the head.
Unable to withstand the punishment, the behemoth collapsed into a puddle on the ground. It shivered for a few seconds before laying still. Charles disentangled himself from the spines on its back and fell headlong into the snow, panting. Gabe and Kendal poked at it cautiously. Kendal's arm was bent at an odd angle, and his face was white with pain. Gabe pulled out his scarf and with a practiced motion, fashioned it into a rough sling. They both collapsed against some trees. I hauled myself back together and stumbled over.
"I think mine is dead."
"Ours is too. I think."
I nudged it carefully with my boot.
"It certainly looks- gah!"
A few dozen worms suddenly pulled together, twisting all at once into a braided rope. If I had more time to watch, I would have probably found the effect to be oddly beautiful. As it was, the mass bent and flexed right under my feet. A few confusing seconds and a hail of gunfire later, I found myself looking around from a very odd perspective.
"Could... could you get me down from this tree? Please?"
The tree groaned ominously.
"Like, quickly? Please?"
Gabe just gave me a tired glare.
"Dammit, Isaac. You couldn't have just taken some cold medicine or something?"
"Sorry sir. Um, please help me down?"
"In a minute, Isaac."
All around me, the birds began to sing.