In Which Nothing Explodes - A 'Bad Days' Story
Posted By: kabu<email@example.com>
Date: 27 November 2009, 3:49 am
Friendship is an elusive thing.
I loved to walk through the woods as a kid. The area around my house had been moderately populated in the nineteenth century and was reclaimed and deserted three times in the intervening half-millennium, but by the time I was born it was century-old forest around scattered homes. I could get lost for hours without running into a soul, or I could sit on the shore of the lake and ogle sunbathing girls. There was this one girl, Michelle, who always wore this pink bikini in the summer, and I think it was in July of '22 when... sorry. This is getting off topic. She's married now anyway. Actually, I think she's the CEO of a big weapons manufacturer. But when she was a teenager... this isn't really relevant.
I don't have proof, anyway.
So. I would wander through the woods, and every once in a while I'd find something interesting -- usually from one of the old settlements that had fallen back to wilderness. The ruins of an old factory, with a gnarled oak tree pushing through shattered skylights. Bits of carved stone, fragments of statuary from a forgotten church. A rusted-out old car that I spotted it by the glare of an unbroken side mirror. I'd find things from the here and now, too. Herds of deer that sprang away in fear as I walked closer. Michelle's magnificent... personality. One heart-stopping incident where I nearly walked into a mother black bear. Junk from other wandering kids - candy wrappers, footprints in soft dirt, the occasional discarded bra and used condom.
Whenever I took it into my mind to really search, I could almost always turn up something interesting in the old ruins. A fragment of something precious or antique. I was quite the little magpie as a kid. My mom was continually throwing out bits of machinery and metal that I dug out of decayed streets and transferred to the kitchen table to clean off and classify. Once I found a fancy old wristwatch that still worked when I wound it up.
So I got some great finds when I set out to search deliberately, but my favorites were almost always found by accident. They were the transient things, the ephemeral things, bits of experience to hold close in my heart. An eagle scooping fish out of the lake, a squirrel stealing a peanut right from my hands, a fire-rainbow in the afternoon sky, or that interesting encounter with Michelle in her pink bikini. These are the keep I hold with me until I die, long after the events have faded into old memories.
That's what friendship is like. You can look at the forest around you and find something, take it home, polish it, and keep it for years. It might tarnish over time, sure, but it will always stay with you. That's what you get when you find somebody interesting and talk for a while, or get blown up together like me and my squad (trust me, nothing builds a sense of camaraderie like a harrowing near-death experience). But it's the chance meetings, the encounters with something strange and wonderful and unexpected, it's those one-in-a-million passers-by that stick in your mind forever, long after childhood friends are forgotten.
I think so, anyway. I never was one for great friendships, or even bad friendships, or friends in general -- maybe because I used to wander out alone into the forest instead of going to parties -- but I like to think I understand the theory. In any case, it gave me yet another thing to mull over anxiously while riding shotgun in a Warthog for a few hours.
Back in the here and now, it was two weeks after meeting our mysterious super-soldiers, Ben and Diana, when the squad again pulled long-range recon duty. We were to drive out a few kilometers, do something sneaky, and get some video of a Covenant bunker from ground level. Charles was sitting this one out until the nasty plasma burn on his leg healed, so it was just Kendal, Gabe and I in the (very, very) old Warthog. Or at least, next to the old Warthog.
"Gah! Fucking fuck! Fuck..."
"Gabe, calm down."
"...Motherfucking piece of... fuck..."
"For God's sake, Corporal, stop before you break your foot!"
Gabriel Rodriguez stumbled back from the wreck, panting with exhaustion, face flushed from a combination of the cold and an entirely uncharacteristic rage. His breath steamed in the air as he flopped to the frosted ground. Kendal promptly grabbed him by the collar and hauled him upright.
"Corporal, you're just gonna make it worse. It's already busted, and we'll never get out of here if you keep on kicking it. Isaac, go see if he broke the wheel."
Already face-down in the snow where I had been flung, I made myself useful and crawled over to the vehicle to examine the extent of the damage. Frozen dirt, scraped clean of snow by the 'Hog's wild fishtailing, crunched under my knee. The hubcap groaned and popped free as I prodded it.
"Um. You kicked the hell out of the tire, Gabe. We're not getting this thing rolling any time soon."
Steam curled up gently from a big old oak tree, condensing on the Warthog. The car looked like it had been trying to slide sideways through the trunk before realizing that the tree was not, in fact, going to leap aside at the last moment. Now the two were locked in a drunken, mangled embrace, like a passed out frat guy and an oversized stuffed animal.
A few choice expletives came to mind. I chose not to voice them. It would have been redundant, anyway, what with the colorful stream of invective Gabe had provided us.
Here's what happened:
We woke up at the delightful hour of three in the morning and strapped on our gear -- from my experiences with long-range walks back home, I knew that extra water bottles, granola bars and a scarf are essential for recon. We all had scarves, actually. Kendal had a good hand with a knitting needle. We set out in the bitter cold of Alpha Aquilae's long winter and jogged over to the garage to inspect the decrepit old Warthog.
Kendal kicked it lightly on the bumper. It rattled as the suspension groaned and labored to keep the 'Hog level. I took a look at the one working headlamp to make sure it was still attached. The right rear hubcap was missing completely. Inspecting the rim, I saw bits of concrete and scraped-off paint. The damaged wheel, coupled with the suspicious crunching noise a few hours ago, meant that Henderson's squad took it out for a drunken midnight ride again. God dammit.
And foot or so of the roll bar was gone completely, ending in a melted off stub courtesy of a Jackal and and a poorly aimed plasma pistol.
In the shadows of the garage, the vehicle crouched like some sort of menacing, malevolent old frog, daring us to poke it with a stick before it pissed all over us. Business as usual, then.
We did the customary one-two-three-go rolling start with the Warthog while Kendel and I swung into the gunner's and passenger's seats respectively before the stuttering 'Hog could buzz off alone into the night. The woods were sparse enough to the north that we could maneuver without too much difficulty -- a task made trickier by the single working headlight. And then we were off, seeking out the entrance to a bunker that could evade satellite surveillance and whatnot.
And as usual we didn't find anything but trees and snow, which, while very pretty, have no real tactical significance. I kind of nodded off for a while, which isn't very soldierly of me, but hey. It's war. Kendal noticed Gabe was about to follow suit, so he started some "casual" conversation to keep us awake.
"So, Gabe, how are things going with your new girlfriend?"
"She- she's not my girlfriend, David."
I pushed my helmet back out of my eyes and sat forwards, trying to pretend I hadn't been snoring.
"She seems pretty into you. I hear you guys have gone out on a few dates."
"Dammit Isaac, she outranks me. And having dinner and going down to the firing range doesn't count as a 'date.'"
"The firing range, eh?" Asked Kendal.
"For God's sake, first of all, Diana is five inches taller than me and weighs close to a thousand pounds. Second, she's a superior officer, and whatever the hell this whole 'Spartan' thing is that we're not supposed to talk about."
I turned to size him up. He was probably exaggerating. Diana was certainly tall, though. In that odd green armor of hers, she stood at the better part of six and a half feet. With the helmet off her startlingly pale skin made her grey eyes seem darker then they actually were. She had a piercing gaze and a sharp face that gave her a bit of an intimidating presence, though she was definitely more outgoing than the other Spartan on the base. I have to say that she was indeed attractive, even with a small scar below her eye. But Gabe was pretty tall too, and had a refined Castilian look that was more than enough to keep up with the likes of Diana. Ladies dig the whole tall, dark and handsome thing, right?
"Seriously? She's really hot for somebody who weighs half a ton. And tall people need love too," I said.
"Yeah? Well it's not so hot when she has you pinned up against a wall."
I nearly dropped my rifle.
"Wait... you mean you two... seriously?"
Gabe glared at me and Kendal, who was trying and failing to choke back laughter.
"Look, I have bruises in places I didn't know you could have bruises. Let's please drop the subject now?"
I twisted around to see Kendal bearing a startled grin from behind the chaingun.
"Does Ben know?" He asked. Ben was the other Spartan. He and Diana had apparently been... something in the not-too-distant past.
"If Ben knew," said Gabe, "I would be a red stain on the floor. I may yet end up as a red stain on the floor whether or not he does find out. Now please I have to concentrate on-"
We all jumped a bit as static crackled over our headsets and a new voice joined the conversation.
"Hey! Gabe's boning the Spartan chick?"
Gabe scowled into the air. "Leon, shut up."
"I'm going back through the surveillance archive, and now I have a blackmail video of you two in the barracks. Wow. Look at her go." Leon let out a creepy wolf-whistle. "I didn't even know it was possible for somebody to-"
"Fuck, Leon, delete that stuff!"
"She's such a fox, isn't she?"
It was all Kendal and I could do to keep from falling out of our seats. The Corporal was usually so poised and self assured, it was interesting to see him flustered for once. Of course, Leon could do that to anybody.
Leon, our base's administrative "smart" AI was, to use the typical (though insufficient) euphemism, "idiosyncratic." Most people just called him mad as a hatter on heroin. He had a habit of drag-racing those little service robots down hallways at two in the morning and going on the occasional wild painting spree. He and Colonel Christina Zhao had apparently met sometime before they arrived at the Outposts on Alpha Aquilae, and as an inevitable result, they had a near homicidal relationship. Leon would just lean back and grin at you in his pinstripes and bowler hat while he sent a robot to drop an eviscerated badger in your bed, though he tended to react badly to adversity. Rumor has it he killed a few hundred people before he was reassigned here. I wouldn't be surprised if it was a few thousand.
I was a bit surprised to say that I kind of liked him. I've never been one to draw attention or make a fuss or speak up, so I kind of got a kick out of watching him at work. Weirdly enough, I think he liked me too. At least, he played poker with me and the squad on occasion, and helped out sometimes with day to day stuff.
"Okay, okay! Diana is hot, she's very, uh, athletic and more than a little creepy and can we please, please, please talk about something else?"
"Gabe and Diana, sitting in a tree. F - U - C -"
"Well fuck you too."
Gabe hit the radio button before Leon could resume his inspired ballad.
We drove on in an awkward silence for about half an hour. A light, powdery snow started to fall, dusting the windshield with pale tracks that swirled in the wind of our passage, collecting in the grooves of our crenelated armor. I completely zoned out - not asleep, but rather caught up in contemplating the forest. The sun was rising, flooding the snow with weird violet light as the blue-white star refracted through the atmosphere. Small forest creatures bounded out of our path, frightened by the stuttering whine of the elderly car's motor. This was the time I liked best, when the sky was just lightening but still streaked with violet and gold. It was the wrong color to remind me of Earth, but at least the trees were familiar.
Curiosity got the best of Kendal, and he spoke up again.
"Begging your pardon, Corporal. But I've never seen her without the armor. Does-"
"Yes, she takes the armor off and yes she has a great body underneath, and, uh, oh shit."
"The brakes just failed."
And that was when we skidded into a tree.
Unprepared for this new development, it took a moment for me to react properly to my impending splattery doom. I mean, of all the ways you can die in a lonely forest surrounded by aliens, you'd think "car accident" should be a pretty low probability. Evisceration, dismemberment, incineration, exsanguination, liquification, detonation, impalement, crushing (in Gabe's case, at least), decapitation, defenestration, overdose - these are all ways one would expect to die in war, at least two of which had already happened to me. I wasn't about to let some bullshit car accident kill me. I screamed my girlish, high-pitched defiance into the dawn light.
Being in the passengers side, and thus about to hit the tree nose first, I managed to fling myself sideways out of the cab and into what I thought was a snowdrift but what turned out to be a large rock. Two seconds later, the tree enthusiastically introduced itself to the 'Hog with an unpleasantly loud wallop. The side panels crumpled and sheered off most of the roll bar, the hood ripped off its hinges and ended up ten feet away, and the engine gave a sort of pained wheezing noise before giving up the ghost.
And thus we were stranded, broken down, shaken, tired and freezing our asses off with a mangled Warthog and an all-too-sturdy tree.
With all the wildlife in a half-kilometer radius frightened out of their minds, the forest was unusually silent. The only noise came from the panicked wheezing of three badly shaken soldiers and the occasional bits of Warthog that fell with soft thumps to the snow in a steady stream. The cold forest offered us no solace.
I spent the next vague time interval staring up at the trees and listening for the transplanted wildlife while Gabe tried in vain to raise the Outpost on his radio. The main transmitter was in the 'Hog, of course, and we were just barely out of range for our headsets. Gabe started cursing and kicking, and I tried not to drift off.
"Gabe," I said from my comfy snowdrift. "We have to head back on foot."
The corporal, still red-faced and panting, looked up at the sound of my voice
I continued. "We just need another mile or two to get in range. They'll send someone to pick us up, if they notice we didn't come back."
"Right. Right. Okay, form up guys. I'll take point. Let's head south until we're in radio range."
We started the long, cold walk back to the Outpost. Regular Marine armor wasn't nearly as good at keeping out the cold as, say, ODST armor, or a survival suit, or a ski parka, or a scarf. I was pretty used to the weather from my early life in New England, but Gabe (Spain) and Kendal (Texas) were shivering miserably after a few minutes. The sun was up by then and I was wishing dearly that I could polarize my visor like an ODST -- the harsh rays were boring into my brain like the drill of an epileptic dentist. The birds were singing though, which was nice. I was getting pretty good at picking out the different calls. There was a warbler trilling delicately, a flock of shrieking starlings, some little peeping sparrows, all of which were pretty much drowning out a growing high-pitched whine behind us.
Wait. What high pitched whine?
"Gabe, Kendal. Contact at six o'clock."
Gabe looked up suddenly, startled by my breaking the silence. A few silent hand signals from the corporal sent Kendal and I behind a few trees, guns clutched tightly in nervous hands. It didn't sound like a Ghost, and there was no way for a Wraith to get through the forest so quickly. And neither of them had headlights...
It was the Warthog. Only, not quite. The one headlight had been moved to the center of the grill, which was now arranged with loops and whorls instead of the usual cross-hatching. It rode a bit higher on its suspension, and the engine sounded subtly different too. The roll bar looked funny -- it was a bit wider and more swept forwards, leaving more room to board but offering better protection to the driver. And driving it was... something. Something big, and purple, with long, spindly tentacles. A cluster of arachnoid eyes peered out from a narrow face, and its "arms" were wrapped tightly around the steering wheel. It parked neatly, and I was surprised to see that it floated freely in the air as it dismounted from the driver's seat. And, most importantly, it looked to be unarmed.
I poked my head around the corner and was pleasantly not vaporized. In fact, I couldn't see evidence of any weapons at all. What the hell? What was this thing?
I was extremely surprised to see the alien wave a tentacle at me in a friendly, non-murdering alien-ish way. Thinking quickly, I signaled for Gabe and Kendal to stand down, and was again surprised when the both lowered their weapons. I was about to speak when Leon's voice crackled over our headsets, making us jump again.
"Isaac?" he said in a tone of voice I'd never heard before. He nearly sounded thoughtful. "I think... I think you should trust this guy. We've been talking and... well, he's... nice. I'm not fucking around here. Trust me on this one, please."
I stepped hesitantly out from behind the tree and walked forwards. The alien didn't float away, but rather beckoned me to approach again. My footsteps crunched loudly over the sound of the 'Hog's engine. I paused just out of tentacles' reach.
It said, "Oooooo."
I poked it gently with the tip of my rifle, still not quite sure this wasn't all a hypothermia-induced hallucination. It gently reached up and took my MA5B before I could react, unloaded it, pulled apart the mechanism, dissected the electronics package, put the whole thing together and handed it back to me, all in the space of a second or two.
It whistled, gently grasping my hand to lead me to the new and improved Warthog. It was absolutely pristine, better than new. Overcome by a sort of exhausted gratitude, I reached out to pat the purple alien on what looked like its shoulder, and I swear it nuzzled my hand.
"Thank you," I said.
It just whistled, waved, and floated away into the shadowy forest, snow falling off its skin in little flurries. By the time anybody recovered enough to think about giving chase, it was out of sight.
Gabe punched me in the back of the head.
"Isaac, you idiot! What the fuck did you just do?! What was that thing?!"
"A friendly, I think."
Given the evidence at hand, there wasn't much he could say to that. Gabe looked down at the purring Warthog.
"Zhao is going to murder us."
"At least nothing exploded this time."
"I mean, we hit the tree hard. We're really lucky the whole thing didn't just blow up."
Gabe still had that stunned look on his face. He hadn't turned away from the Warthog. Kendal walked up and took us both by the shoulders.
"Let's go home."