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Not the Face! - A 'Bad Days' story
Posted By: kabu<will36@gmail.com>
Date: 18 December 2008, 6:43 pm

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      In most of my experience, the phrase "gung-ho" usually means "obsessed with killing things." In the rest of my experience, "gung-ho" is not a phrase I would apply to most of the marines I know. The UNSC Marine Corps kept the slogan from the good old days, back when people killed people in a proper and civilized manner, namely, not by orbital bombardment. The phrase usually applies to marines who are very enthusiastic about their duties, who love nothing more than to charge out into the battlefield, guns a-blazing, like an action hero from a bad movie. This is the reason that most of the "gung-ho" marines I have met are very, very dead. Usually in very, very bad ways.
      Corporal Thompson was gung-ho, and took great pains to remind us of that fact every day. He always took point on patrols, he always volunteered for the riskiest ops, and rumor has it that he applied for a transfer to the ODST division four times. I've met a few ODST's. From what I've seen, they are all one hundred percent, absolutely certified bat-fuck insane psychopathic killers. It's a prerequisite, I think. There is probably a question on the written exam along the lines of "have you ever murdered a man for stepping on your towel, and if so, what technique did you employ and did you enjoy it?" Thompson would have fit right in, but Private Kowalski lived through that whole towel incident.
      Putting aside, for the moment, his tendency to use extreme violence in the face of inconvenience, Thompson probably had a lot more luck than skill. He was a good shot with a rifle, but not the best. He was good at hand-to-hand, but he'd been beaten. What he did have was a complete lack of awareness in regards to his own mortality, which lead directly to a ridiculous amount of medals (mostly purple hearts), commendations, and relentless bragging.
      Anyway, two weeks after the shindig at Outpost 5, my new buddy Gabriel Rodriguez, Kendal, Charles and I were tapped for a scout, lead by our resident macho man, Corporal James Thompson. We ignored his growling and grabbed our equipment from the racks on the armory wall, lined with shelves of guns and ammo. He glowered at us as we geared up, evidently thinking that anyone who only needed two grenades didn't deserve them. He took seven, as well as a twenty-inch combat knife, a bandolier of MA5B mags, an extra high caliber rifle, his own ridiculously large custom sidearm and a partridge in a pear tree. I limited myself to just the regulation rifle and pistol, and a slim, disposable fire extinguisher, having decided to leave my pear tree at the base. We all decked ourselves up in the latest (highly flammable) forest camo from the bin near the door and headed out into the wild.
      Four hours later, the sun was passing the horizon and the moons were out, bathing the trees in a tranquil and ghostly silver light. The whole forest was hushed by the soft, dusky illumination. Through gaps in the shadowed canopy, the brilliant pinpoints of distant stars were beginning to shine in the purple sky. It was like a stanza out of a bad poem. Everything was quiet and peaceful; the local cricket-like things were rasping quietly, and we were taking a five-minute break at the base of a shallow ridge. I was looking up at the moons through the leaves of an oak, trying to remember the ignition temperature for human hair, when Gabe paused, midway through a power bar.
      "Isaac," he whispered. "Do you hear that?"
      "Hear what? Everything's quiet."
      "Exactly." He looked around skittishly. It took me a few seconds to get what Rodriguez was saying.
      "Oh fuck. Not again."
      I crawled over the leaf litter and tapped Thompson on the shoulder. "Corporal," I whispered nervously. "The bugs all just stopped chirping. Like, all at once. About thirty seconds ago."
      "What?" He was cleaning his rifle and not really paying attention to his surroundings. He had no head for strategy at all. Which is actually pretty ironic, now that I think about it, considering what was about to happen to his cranium.
      "I said we are all about to die, Corporal."
      He finally got it. Careful to not let anything smudge his rifle, he clipped it to his back and grabbed his knife in one hand and that preposterous pistol in the other. "I'm gonna take a look. Stay down, privates."
      Thompson inched his way to the top of the ridge, careful not to step on any twigs. The chromed gun in his hand was reflecting the setting sun like a floodlight on an opera singer. It was so bright, in fact, that it almost outshone the blast of green plasma that smacked him right in the kisser, tidily vaporizing everything North of his C3 vertebra.
      Nobody moved for a minute. No grenades fell on us, which was good. No aliens climbed over the ridge, which was also good. Kendal was giving me an odd look. I realized that I had dropped my rifle and grabbed my fire extinguisher instead. A little embarrassed, I put the extinguisher back in its harness. It was a perfectly reasonable reaction, really, I was the only line of defense between us and an oncoming firestorm.
      Gabe was the first to recover. "Okay. They only took one shot and haven't assaulted us yet. They probably don't know how many of us there are, right? So they're being cautious."
      "We don't know how many of them there are, either." Charles was looking around like a twitchy sparrow.
      Using my free hand, I slowly pried my fingers off the harnessed fire extinguisher. "All in favor of retreating?"
      The question received a whispered chorus of ayes. We all looked at Thompson's body, lying on the top of the ridge, presumably in plain view of whatever aliens we were up against. Nobody moved.
      "If we run, won't they see us and gun us down from behind? I mean, they're probably climbing the hill right now. And, um. We really should get the Corporal's body. Or at least his tags." Charles was right, we could hear the faint sound of claws on the other side of the ridge. And nobody wanted to leave a marine's body to be devoured by hungry Jackals.
      Gabe closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "We have to get him back to the outpost. And maybe it's only a trio of Grunts, right? I- I should go take a look."
      Very slowly, Gabe crawled to the peak of the ridge, only a few feet from Thompson's decapitated form. Green and blue light filled the air, reflecting off the surrounding (oh so flammable) foliage in shimmering waves and filling the dusk with the sharp scent of ozone. Gabe flew right back down, ass first, landing squarely on Charles.
      "I'm okay. I'm okay. They missed." Gabe was panting a bit as he rolled to his feet.
      "What did you see?" Charles' voice was a little muffled by the dirt his face was shoved into.
      "Um. Ten. Ten Grunts."
      A war council was convened. We were outnumbered more than two to one, but without an Elite in charge the Grunts were unlikely to take any risks. We couldn't run, because we would be gunned down from behind. If we attacked, we could probably take them out, but not without incurring more casualties ourselves. Plus, we wanted to recover Thompson's body. The man was an unbearable jackass, but he was still a Marine. What we needed was some sort of distraction.
      "Okay." Gabe Rodriguez had become the de facto squad leader by this point. "Kendal and Charles, you go left and right, around the ridge, and open fire from flanking positions. That should keep them down. Me and Isaac will run up and grab Thompson's body."
      "They'll see you," Charles hissed. "Even though it's getting dark, the moons are plenty bright enough."
      Kendal spoke up, for the first time in three hours. "Gonna need some kind a distraction. Some cover or somethin'." His Texas drawl seemed wildly inappropriate in the dense forest.
      "Smoke grenades? Flares?" suggested Rodriguez.
      "All on Thompson's body."
      "Frags would be to dangerous on top of the ridge, at that range. We need a smokescreen, or debris, or-." Rodriguez stopped short. Everyone looked at me, and then at the cylinder clipped to my shin guard.
      "Oh, no way," I said. "No no no. I only brought one this time, we might need-"
      "Do you want to die, Isaac?"
      I sighed in defeat, pulling the fire extinguisher from my leg harness.

      "Three. Two. One. GO!"
      Kendal and Charles, positioned on either side of the Grunt formation, let loose on full auto from their rifles. Squeals and growls and bullets and plasma filled the air.
      "Meyers, now!"
      I hurled the fire extinguisher in an arc over Thompson. Gabe hit it at the top of its parabola with a burst from his MA5B. The cylinder exploded in the air, sending a massive burst of foam into the night. We ran up the ridge, invisible under the cloud, and grabbed Thompson by the arms.
      Three grenades fell off his webbing.
      The psychotic bastard had put them on quick release, attaching the pins directly to his harness. Oh shit. Shit shit shit.
      "Fire in the hole! Down, down, GET DOWN!"
Gabe and I frantically kicked the fizzing balls of death down the hill towards the Grunts. Two were already dead, but the rest were firing into the trees, pinning Kendal and Charles behind a tree and a rock, respectively. The rock was holding up, the tree, not so much. This was not a good plan. We (humans) hurled ourselves to the ground as three rapid explosions ripped through the forest. Blam blam blam. Shrapnel whizzed over our heads, but Thompson's corpse caught most of it. Oops.
      I peeked over the ridge. Seven Grunt corpses.
      "Kendal? Charles?" They had been in the killzone for the explosions.
      "I thought we said no to the whole grenade thing. I've got an entire orchestra going in my ears." Kendal sounded shaken. "Charles? You there?"
      "Ow. Um. I think so. Landed on a tree stump. Grunts took most of the blast. Could use a band-aid, though. Maybe an aspirin."
      We all paused for a moment, relieved to be alive. Quite a luxury, in this day and age.
      "Did you actually say 'fire in the hole,' Isaac?" Gabe was grinning at me.
      "It seemed appropriate at the time. Um. How many Grunts did you count?"
      "There are only seven bodies."
      Gabe said something in Spanish that shouldn't be repeated in front of children.
      A whisper came over our headsets. "Meyers, Rodriguez, I see movement coming your way, on your nine. They're flanking you. Stay low and get to cover. I'll take 'em out." Kendal sounded very professional and calm all of a sudden. Like a real marine, actually.
      Gabe and I hunkered down behind Thompson, the only cover available on the hillside. I though I could hear claws on dirt moving towards us. The next thirty seconds felt like an eternity, as did the ninety seconds after that. I took a peek over the late Corporal's arm, and immediately plasma bolts streaked towards us, thunking into the body. Again. Crap.
      Three shots rang out. Three grunts fell, perfect hits to the head. Gabe and I stood up to see Kendal, the best shot in the Outpost with anything from knives to rockets to sniper rifles. He was standing a good fifty feet away, coolly holstering his sidearm after, and may God strike me down if I lie, twirling it once around his finger. With a stunt like that and his old country twang, he was only a set of spurs, a ten-gallon hat and a loyal mustang from a real cowboy.
      We all gathered around Thompson at the top of the ridge. His dog tags were a bit scorched and the chain was melted, but they were still intact. He was not going to get an open-casket funeral, that's for sure, but that was hardly unusual for a soldier. Headless, covered in massive burns, shredded by grenades, and, on closer inspection, missing an arm, he wasn't looking so pretty. We were all trying to think of something solemn to say when a bit of burning tree branch fell at my feet.
      I instinctively grabbed at my leg, but my fire extinguisher was gone. Rodriguez, damn him, had already exploded it. I fell right on my ass trying to run backwards, too quickly for anybody else to react. In the heat (ha!) of the moment, I realized that it was I, and only I, who was in reach of the hungry flames. Still on my back, I kicked frantically at the bit of wood and let out an explosive breath as it flew away into the night.
      It bounced off something in midair, fifteen feet away.
      A crackle like an electric lamp thrown into a bubble bath whooshed into the shining blade of a plasma sword, seemingly hovering five feet above the ground. The dirt of the hillside churned with invisible running footsteps, and a bestial roar shattered the night. Everyone freaked out and started shooting.
      Unable to withstand the hail of hot lead, the invisible Elite eventually stumbled and fell down dead no more than two feet away. Its sword, still active, dropped from a now visible hand right into Thompson's ribs. The superheated blade sizzled into the ground until the hilt was resting on Thompson's abdomen. Shifting under its own weight, the sword cut sideways through the body like a hot pickaxe through butter and took off the remaining arm at the elbow. I reached out and deactivated the blade, leaving the forest in peace. A minute later, the bugs resumed their evening serenade. Nobody said anything. The foam drifted to the ground. It was about five minutes before Charles broke the silence.
      "Okay. So who, uh, who carries which half?"