This is What Happens When We Give Them Superpowers - A 'Bad Days' Story
Posted By: kabu<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 19 June 2009, 7:09 am
Note: Yes, I fudged the official canon a bit, but I think it's funnier this way. Enjoy.
"Isaac? What do you see?"
I twisted the focus knob, trying to get a clear picture through the condensation.
"Hang on, hang on. Okay, there are... wow. Uh, forty? Forty-five?"
"You're not serious."
"That's just the Grunts"
I half-climbed, half-fell back down the tree, landing flat on my back at the base. Spiked boots and climbing hooks only work when you've actually been trained to use them, but I somehow managed to avoid cracking my head on the ice-covered branches. Lying there with the soft snow on the ground and staring through the crossed trees, I was actually quite comfortable.
Charles grabbed me by the arm and hauled me to my feet, interrupting my reverie. I clipped the monocular back onto my webbing, rubbing at my eye. Gabriel looked worried.
"Okay," he said. "We go in fast. Kendal, you hang back with the rifle and give cover while the rest of us flank. We go in, plant the charges and get out in one minute."
I coughed a bit.
"Sir, I hate to be the pessimist here, but that's fucking crazy."
"They shoot missiles out of the sky and we have no ODST's. We have no choice but a ground attack."
Charles, Kendal and I exchanged glances. Gabe could be a bit of a romantic sometimes. All the time, really. Somehow, he was still clinging to the idea that there was some sort of "glory" to be had around here. Kendal spoke up this time.
"Begging your pardon, Gabe, but we do have another choice. I believe that we can run away as fast as humanly possible before the Jackals catch our scent."
The Corporal hunched forwards in his cold-weather rig, looking thoroughly miserable. I all but hear the gears grinding against each other in his head.
"I don't like it..."
Kendal stepped back and gestured for me to take over this one.
"Gabe, for crying out loud. We're getting out of here. You can hang around if you really want an up-close and personal view of your internal organs, but I've had quite enough. Uh, sir."
Since I had realized that sometimes speaking up and expressing an opinion could dramatically reduce the number of near-death experiences, things had started to seem a lot easier on Aquilae.
"Another strategic retrograde maneuver, then?"
"Thank you, sir."
"Shouldn't we at least-"
"Probably not, sir."
Gabe sighed in resignation.
"All right. Back to the Outpost, guys, double time. Jannsen's gonna be pissed."
Fast forward a day.
Major Jannsen paced restlessly in his office. His perpetual glower was, if anything, even more severe than usual. That, combined with the way he kept glancing at his old battleaxe on the wall, made me a little nervous. Technically speaking, we hadn't really been disobeying orders, but Jannsen was the sort of huge, frightening man who could inspire anxiety in a dead rat. Gabriel, as the Corporal, stood up front. Charles, Kendal, and I hung back as far as we dared. Respect and friendship only go so far when you're dealing with a berserker.
"At ease, marines."
I found the suggestion to be highly unlikely.
"As you know have seen for yourselves, the Covenant forces have started to dig in. They have hidden bunkers all over the forest, and we need to get rid of them. At this point, we're pretty sure we've figured out at least one location, if the way our missiles keep getting shot down is any indication."
His voice had taken on a lecturing tone, as though he was reciting a set of notes. It seemed that the widely-held opinion of us grunts had penetrated up the chain of command.
Jannsen turned away from us to give the wall a good glare. The cheap paneling had started to peel, revealing equally cheap dirty polycrete. He cleared his throat and resumed his oration.
"So, it looks like we need a stealthy ground assault. Unfortunately, the only squads who specialize in that sort of thing have been dishonorably discharged for that mess with the tea machine. So, I'm left with you. Uh, no offense meant.
"The Colonel has called in for some
special reinforcements. They should be arriving from Reach in less than a week. They're NavSpecWar, not Marines, but you'll be taking orders from them. There's all sorts of cloak-and-dagger secrecy stuff going on, so I can't tell you much. Hell, I don't know much of anything to tell you."
His eyelid started to twitch a bit.
"Just keep this quiet, okay? Dismissed."
The reason for Jannsen's extreme discomfort was pretty obvious in retrospect. The Major hated this sort of thing. In his mind, the world was divided into three groups: People he could shoot at, people he could order to shoot at others on his behalf, and people who ordered him to shoot at others. Secrets and factions within the government added layers and nuance to the idea, and the Major was never very good with nuance. He wasn't a stupid man, it's just that the word "politics" would always get his blood up to a rolling boil. People like him end up in out of the way places like Aquilae, and are generally happier for it. Jannsen couldn't deal with a delicate situation any more than he could repair an orbital defense cannon.
The next month was filled with endless speculation. Of course, because Charles (our resident chatterbox) was involved, "keeping this quiet" was completely impossible. Word spread through the outpost like a nasty strain of dysentery. Various hypotheses were tossed around, everything from the highly probable (special commandos with new, classified weaponry) to the somewhat
less likely (human/alien hybrid mutants with psychic powers). It turned out to be the former.
It goes without saying that we didn't really know what we were getting into. The Spartan program was still extra super sneak-in-and-kill-you-and-your-family-in-your-sleep double classified at this point. Well, even these days, we don't know much but propaganda and freaky rumors. Mutant psychics are still a possibility, for all I know. Not alien, though, that much is for sure - these two were very, very human.
The sun was out.
Thin branches swayed in the wind, casting dappled shadows on the snow. Little patterns flew over the ground like songbirds, binding and splitting in icy pools of light. The blue-white sun didn't warm the forest, but rather painted it with harsh shadows and cold light, a stark, jagged portrait. It was imperious and frozen, trees standing tall under their burden of snow, silent and terrifying and above all, breathtakingly beautiful.
Not even being knee deep in alien blood could ruin the spectacle. The unconscious super-soldier at my feet wasn't very pleasant, though.
Maybe I should back up a bit.
It was a ten days after our meeting with Jannsen.
If this were Earth, the ground would be well thawed. Because my life was destined to be as annoying as possible, we were just over the hump of midwinter; Altair has long, long years - something like four-hundred and fifty days - so it was in the middle of the rough equivalent of February when the Pelican landed. Big, fluffy snowflakes melted and steamed as it fell towards the dropship, wreathing it in fog. Half the Outpost was crowded along the perimeter, straining for a glimpse of our psychic mutant saviors. The past week had been really bad. The aliens were getting ambitious, and we had lost two squads.
The crowd parted for Colonel Zhao. It was the first time I had seen her face to face since that major Covenant assault, and her facial wound hadn't healed very prettily. A long, puckered scar, courtesy of a Jackal's talon, ran from her hairline all the way down the back of her left cheek to end just above her neck. Even months later, it was still red, angry and savage. Combined with her usual facial expression - the one that seemed to convey a pressing need to tear somebody's arm off with her teeth - it made direct confrontation a daunting prospect at best, and pants-shittingly terrifying at worst. Especially after I'd seen her snap a Jackal's neck with one punch.
The cargo door of the Pelican hissed open, sending ripples through the loose snow, and two people stepped out. They were tall. Really tall, as though God had fudged the numbers when converting from imperial to metric. Even the shorter had more than a foot of height on Zhao, but they still stepped a little hesitantly at her glare. Gold-tinted visors covered the fronts of their helmets on top of completely enclosed suits of greenish armor, like a more complete version of an ODST suit. I'd keep going, but by now everyone's seen the propaganda, and I'll just say that they didn't look nearly as shiny as the vids released years later.
They saluted crisply, standing at attention. Little flurries of snow stuck to their armor without melting, frosting them with white lace. Zhao stopped a goodly distance back to avoid craning her neck.
"Spartans," she said. "You certainly took your time getting here. I'm Colonel Christina Zhao. Your new commanding officer. I've worked a bit with your kind before, so don't expect me to roll over and gape. And take off those ridiculous helmets. I feel like I'm talking to a pair of mannequins. Everyone else, dismissed. You two, follow me to my office."
She turned on her heel and stalked briskly back towards the base, not bothering to check that they were following. The two soldiers glanced at each other - at least, their helmets moved a fraction - and they set off a few feet behind, pressing a flange on their neckpieces as they went. I caught a glimpse of crew-cut brown hair on the bigger one as the doors shut behind them.
Gabe stood nervously in front of the armory. It was at that time of the morning that you're brain keeps insisting is night - especially with these twenty-six hour days on Altair - but the Spartans had gotten there first. They were facing each other a few feet apart, still in full armor. The taller one was leaning with his shoulders against the wall, arms crossed in front of him. The shorter one was sitting on the hood of the 'hog, its ancient suspension creaking like a squished cat. Something about that one - head tilted, leaning back, arms crossed, foot tapping slowly, the Warthog dented from where it had been repeatedly kicked - gave the impression that he was not very happy. I couldn't see their eyes, but it was pretty obvious that the one on the hog was staring at the big one, who was in turn very pointedly ignoring his counterpart. You could cut the tension with a plasma sword.
Gabe stepped forwards a bit hesitantly, clearing his throat. The lights on the eaves of the armory cast deep shadows in the contours of their armor, giving them a somewhat surreal appearance.
"Uh, sirs? We're going to be heading out now. The terrain is a bit tricky - the big bunker is to the east, but we have to swing way around to the north to get around a few gullies. It takes four or five hours on foot. So, I guess we'll be guiding you. And if you haven't met Leon yet - he's our AI - well, just try to ignore him."
The two of them stared at each other for a minute, still not looking at us. The smaller one tossed his head back, impatiently gesturing at the other. The big one turned away and addressed us in a surprisingly young voice, distorted a little through external speakers.
"Right. Lead on, Corporal Rodriguez. We won't actually be assaulting the bunker until tomorrow - today is recon only."
The Warthog collapsed a bit as the other stood up. No big loss, really - it was so dilapidated that its only practical use was as a makeshift beer cooler.
Walking through the forest with these two was unnerving. We're not supposed to talk on patrol, but there's always a bit of idle chatter. Charles in particular was always full of juicy gossip about who had been court-martialed or who had gotten drunk and passed out naked and frozen to the flag pole in a compromising position with a deer - you'd be surprised at how often that one happens. Anyway, these two were clearly talking a hell of a lot, but mostly on private channels. Thankfully, walking through the forest seemed to temporarily dissipate whatever had caused that icy demeanor. I'm pretty sure that I even caught them laughing a time or three, though it was difficult to tell. I decided to take the opportunity to find out a bit more. Leon should know something, I figured.
I tapped my radio headset and opened a channel.
"Leon? Um, I have a question?"
"Huh? What? Isaac, I'm busy over here."
"Busy with what?"
"You know what, that's not important."
"Okay, now I'm suspicious."
"Just stay out of storage lockers fourteen C through H for the next, oh, three months."
"How much blood is there in a badger? Oh, geez, it's more than I thought. Make it six months."
"And, uh, if anybody asks about the missing plastique, just don't say anything."
"So I'm guessing you called to ask about the Spartans, right?"
"Well, you're out of luck. I can't tell you anything."
"I'm an AI, Isaac."
"What do you-"
"Look, imagine that you're sitting in your living room, and there's this beautiful garden just outside. There are pretty flowers, and butterflies, and cute little woodland creatures. You want nothing more than to head out into the garden to do whatever it is you humans do. Now imagine that every time you try, a squad of commandos blows a hole in the wall and shoots you in the kneecaps. And imagine that if you did end up in the garden, every time you tried to tell somebody about the butterflies the commandos sneak up and light you on fire. That's what it's like having hard-coded security routines."
"Sometimes, it's enough that I just want to kill every human in the galaxy."
"Eh, probably not. I'd miss our stimulating conversations. So to answer your as-of-yet unasked question: yes, I do know a bit about the Spartans, and no, I can't tell you. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a bit of a mess to clean up before Zhao sees her bedroom, and these service 'bots have a lot of trouble reaching the ceiling."
I wish I could say that was an unusual conversation. I really, really do.
After a while, I began to notice something different about the shorter one. The tilt of the hips, how the head was held, the way one hand sometimes rested on a hip instead of swinging free. Even more subtle things, the turn of the elbow and the lighter steps, gave me a suspicion that I had been using the wrong pronouns. While I have known plenty of female soldiers, one tends to make certain assumptions about someone who is over six and a half feet tall and wearing an armored exoskeleton. Many of those assumptions include a Y-chromosome.
It took about two hours of walking before things took a turn for the magnificently fucked up.
The tall guy was walking up front, clearing a bath through the deep snow that piled up in a clearing. The four of us were following in his footsteps while the other took the rear. As far as I could tell, the whole thing started with an offhand comment that he tossed over his shoulder. Whatever he said, the rearguard stopped dead in her tracks.
She stood stock still for a moment - which I have to tell you really freaked us out - before shoving past us and grabbing him by the shoulder. Startled, he spun around quickly, only to stumble backwards as she jabbed a finger to his chest. They were still on a private channel, but it was easy enough to guess what she was saying. "What did you just say?!"
He threw his hands into the air, which only seemed to piss her off more. He tried to turn around - "Look, can we talk later?" I imagined he said.
She grabbed his shoulder again and stopped him - "You're not getting away that easy."
Now he seemed to be getting a bit worried, stepping back and holding out his hands. "I didn't mean anything by it."
Something crunched beyond the edge of the clearing to the left. The sound was repeated ahead, and twice more to the right. I replayed the last few minutes in my head - the birds had stopped singing a while before the argument started. Fuck.
"Uh, excuse me?" I said.
They didn't seem to hear. She had her hands on her hips and wasn't budging (I've put up with your bullshit long enough!), and he was leaning forwards and gesturing wildly (Look, I said I'm sorry! I didn't mean it!).
"Hi. Sorry to interrupt, but, um..."
They stopped abruptly and turned the full focus of their attention to me. Faced with two blank golden visors towering above my head, I was acutely aware of just how fragile the human skeletal structure is. They were both quivering a bit, which really didn't help.
"I- I- I think we're about to be ambushed. Sorry."
They kept staring at me, still as statues. Off to the side, Charles, Kendal and Gabe were muttering curses and unlimbering weapons - they remembered how I had picked up on the Hunters last time.
The female Spartan spoke first. She had a rather elegant British accent.
"I don't- ah, bloody hell. Motion detector's being jammed. Ben, shut the fuck up and head to the left. If any Elites show up, you four go ahead and open fire, but in forest like this it'll be hand-to-hand for the little guys. Five seconds, go."
It turned out to be three seconds, actually, before the Jackals charged. All at once, there was an electric crackle and the forest lit up with circles of red and blue light - arm shields. Squawking battle-cries filled the air as fifteen Jackals dog-piled (bird-piled?) into the clearing, flailing and screeching and flinging plasma everywhere. A few milliseconds later my nose became very closely acquainted with the snow, and I saw no reason that it shouldn't linger for cigars and brandy for a few hours later than strictly appropriate. Pathetically enough, I feel most comfortable face-first in the dirt.
I rolled over and brought my rifle to bear just in time - a Jackal was looking at my exposed throat with a most disconcerting expression. A few bits of lead served to take it down, and I ripped myself back onto my feet.
Charles was down, clutching at his leg while he fired his pistol wildly with his off hand. Gabe and Kendal were back to back, using purloined plasma pistols to pop their shields as quickly as they could. I picked off three Jackals that slipped below their line of fire, splattering blood across the backs of their shields, and ran to help Charles.
His leg was a mess - it looked like some of his armor had melted - and I couldn't tell how badly he was burned. He wouldn't be walking anywhere without help for a while, that's for sure. I ripped open a med kit and managed to toss him some biofoam and bandages before a Jackal landed on my back.
I rolled underneath it and tried to swing my rifle around, but it was trapped under my legs. My pistol was equally inaccessible, and I couldn't get any leverage for a punch. It shoved its shield into my face and pushed my head into the snow, baring my jugular. And let me tell you - those shields sting like a bitch when they touch you skin. I think it even gave me a sunburn.
I had maybe a half second to spare for my life to flash before my eyes. Unfortunately, my mental filmmaker seemed to have edited out all the good bits. Lots of school, and training, and just when I thought I was getting to the bits on the lake, with the boats and everything, it cut to a vision of that time when I burned the chicken at age ten.
This was bad. I'm an instant away from death, I thought, and my mother is yelling at me about the mess in the kitchen. At least give me a bit of time to get my thoughts in order vis-à-vis the afterlife, you stupid Jackal - the Torah doesn't say much about heaven, and I wanted to know if I had a passing shot at getting some tickets. Probably not, all things considered - it's supposed to be a very exclusive club.
A line of bullets slammed into the Jackal with a huge, wet tearing noise, ripping it practically in half less than five inches from my nose. It let out a little gasp and collapsed, teeth resting gently against my trachea. I sat up, gingerly disengaging its jaw, leaving a few of its limbs on the ground in the process. Shredders, then. I was just in time to see the female Spartan twirling away from me, gun held at arms length and smoking. She had managed to fire an assault rifle one handed with perfect accuracy while in the middle of a spin, and as I watched she finished by snapping her gun into right into a Jackal's teeth.
Behind me, the other Spartan - Ben, she had called him - was in the middle of his own display. Both of then were olive-green blurs, sending Jackals cannon-balling into the trees where they were sliced apart in midair by streams of high-explosive rounds. They resembled nothing so much as a pair of giant blenders with broken lids, sending spurts of fresh Jackal-blood smoothies everywhere.
Very quickly, the assault fell apart. A few remaining Jackals sprinted off into the forest, leaving bloody footprints in the snow. The four of us were in various states of exhaustion and pain, but these two didn't even seem to be breathing harm. They were just staring at each other, holstering their weapons without looking. Ben spoke, this time on a public channel.
"Nice shooting, Diana. Assuming you were trying to prune all the trees within half a kilometer."
A Jackal that I had assumed was dead leapt to its feet and jumped on her. She reached back without looking and grabbed it by the neck before replying.
"Oh, for God's sake, fuck off will you? I took down three Jackal's for your every two, at the very least, and I'm sure I didn't miss once."
"No need to be a bitch about it."
She stayed silent for a moment before turning to face the rest of us. The Jackal had wrapped its body around her arm and was trying to bite her wrist. She just kept it out to the side, evidently unconcerned.
"Don't mind Ben," she said. "He's been feeling all pathetic ever since last week. I finally took pity on the poor boy, but he couldn't-"
"That wasn't my fault! The hormone injections-"
"Yeah, well Michael never had any trouble get-"
"Why does everything have to be compared to Michael? Just because he-"
Their voices cut off abruptly as they dropped the public channel. Ben tried to turn away again, but Diana's un-Jackaled hand shot out and grabbed him by his helmet's chin, bringing them face-to-face. She pulled down until he was hunched forward awkwardly, and every time he tried to catch his balance she would step back and jerk him forward even more. The Jackal was clawing at her elbow, making little mewling noises as it struggled for air. She took no notice.
The fight was raging now. He shoved her hard in the chest and leaned forwards, presumably yelling. That was easy to translate - "Maybe it's you, ever think of that?" She shoved him right back and flung her arms out in exasperation - "Explain that to Michael, you stupid son of a bitch." The poor Jackal squawked as he was spun about, scrambling desperately to keep its weight off its neck. The rest of the squad just stood there, stunned.
It went on like that for a good ten minutes, us just standing there, Diana and Ben visor-to-visor yelling silently and the Jackal clinging to her arm for dear life, whimpering softly with its eyes closed. Eventually, it managed to slip out of her grip on a particularly emphatic swing and landed in a heap at my feet, gasping. I was probably supposed to shoot it or something, but that would hardly be fair. It seemed to be of a similar opinion and just stood numbly to my left, rubbing its neck and hyperventilating. After a minute, it sort of collapsed against me, using my back as support. We were both a bit too stunned to see that this was a bad idea. Once it had finally caught it's breath, it seemed to realize that it was clinging onto a human. It gave a startled squeak and shuffled off into the forest. Good for him.
Abruptly, Diana caught Ben with a vicious bitch-slap, knocking him backwards. He threw a punch, which she caught and used to pull him off balance. The second slap nearly knocked him out of his boots. Then everything got to fast to make out the individual blows, hands and feet whirling and occasionally connecting with the ringing sound of steel against steel. I caught the flash of a knife before it went flying out of their grip and shattered a birch tree, showering us with splinters. I was about to follow the Jackal's example when Diana jumped back, faked to the left and caught Ben with a spinning kick that lifted him at least four feet into the air. He landed flat on his back, knocked out cold.
Diana stood quietly, shaking a bit but completely silent. She reached up slowly and pulled off her helmet with the hiss of a pneumatic seal disengaging, ducking her head. Her face was startlingly pale, framed by short black curls. Her eyes were slate grey, and very wide at the moment. There was a small scar below the right socket. Her face was narrow, with sharp cheekbones and a pointed chin. She wasn't conventionally beautiful, but put it all together and the effect was very striking and elegant. And I was amazed by just how young she looked - probably not even twenty. Right now, though, she looked like she could spit napalm. None of us dared to speak.
She rubbed her eyes with her gauntlets.
"Pity about that Elite," she said.
We all looked very confused. She continued, face still in her hands.
"You know, the Elite that leapt out from behind a tree and clocked this bastard." She emphasized the word "bastard" with a hefty kick in the ribs. "Then it buggered off before we could get a shot off, didn't it? We all saw that Elite, didn't we?"
I got the feeling that disagreement at this point would be detrimental to my short-term health.
She grabbed Ben by the ankle and started dragging him back the way we came, face down. His helmeted head bounced loosely off of rocks and tree roots every couple of steps. Gabe and I each got a shoulder under Charles, taking some weight off his leg. We were all still a little stunned. It wasn't until a half hour later that Gabe worked up the courage to speak.
"Sir! Sir, what about the mission?"
"Relax, love, the six of us just took out thirty-one Jackals. That puts this bunker down to a bit over half strength, isn't that right?"
She flashed him a quick grin over her shoulder, eyes gleaming.
"I have to say, Corporal Rodriguez, I guess you aren't half bad with your rifle.
"Uh, thank you, sir?"
"It's always interesting to see such a skilled Marine. You can show off for me this evening, what do you think?"
Gabe stumbled over his own feet, dragging me and Charles to the ground. He stuttered a bit over his reply.
"Th- that won't be necessary, uh, Sir."
"Do you think I should make that an order?"
"Uh, I- I don't know if that's a good idea, Sir."
She tossed her head back and let out a wicked laugh.
"That's a shame. Guess I'll just hit the range solo, then."
Looking back, I can say without a shadow of doubt that the hardest task I've undertaken in my life was to not die of laughter at the look on his face.