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Power of the Letter - From Tulane
Posted By: CaptainRaspberry<jptaber@gmail.com>
Date: 8 May 2009, 4:21 am

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Nobody cared about the soldiers in the field. Actually, let me clarify: nobody cared about the soldiers in the fields. War correspondents littered the front lines, anchormen reported live from military headquarters in the rear lines, but nobody ever bothered swinging by the Boss -- firebase Bravo Orca Six Sierra. We weren't trying to kill anybody or telling anybody to kill, so we weren't important enough. Politicians came to personally pin medals on soldiers at the front and have shadowy conversations with generals in headquarters.

It was expected that the news people and politicians wouldn't care about us, but sometimes we were surprised at just how cold the rest of the galaxy could be.

It was a cold May in our part of Tulane that year, 2550. It was the second year of hard fighting between UNSC and Covenant forces, and cold because the brass had decided to nuke the city of Itana. It was only fourteen kilometers away, and while we hadn't been killed by the detonation or shockwave, it had snowed ash for a while and the clouds often blocked out the sun.

As I and the rest of Fireteam One-Alpha humped back to the Boss, we already knew there was something different. Among us, Corporal Valenzuela had a bloody bandage over his shoulder, which was the cause of an unusually high amount of cursing from him: a Carbine round had slammed into him, punching through his already-decrepit armor and possibly breaking his collar bone as well. None of us could tell, and unfortunately not long ago our medic, Corporal Rocky Sharpe, had killed himself. PFC Tameka Chapman was still crying and still going through the motions of being a professional soldier. It unnerved us, but we didn't say anything. She could still fire her gun.

Anyway, Sharpe was dead, and we had a new girl, Private Angeline Boyd, who was unfortunately as green as green could get. I swear, she still put on eyeliner and lip gloss every morning. Her records said she was eighteen, drafted from Earth, but she didn't look like she was over sixteen. Her fatigues were loose, her armor just hung on her shoulders, and her medic bag looked about half her size. So far she had only been treating scratches and infections around base and hadn't dealt with a combat injury yet. I can only imagine Valenzuela wasn't looking forward to finding out if she was really qualified.

But as we walked past the sentries, we realized they weren't paying much attention. This wasn't unusual, but when we caught sight of the manila envelopes on their laps we realized mail had arrived while we were out on patrol.

It wasn't often we got mail. The ever-changing space superiority kept things like supplies and replacements from being at all regular, and that had been before the nuclear clouds.

Seeing those envelopes, we forgot all manner of protocol and rushed into the base, weapons slapping our thighs, hooting and hollering and running for the depot. PFC Dave Damian Clarke from second squad was handling the mail that day; he was a good person, but too much of an opportunist. He managed to live pretty long, almost to the end, but he finally died in an "accident" during a combat operation while riding shotgun on a Mongoose. None of us were surprised, of course, after he tried to cop a feel on the driver, "Ready Bettie" Gibbs.

Since he wasn't dead yet, he was handing out letters, which was good because having a corpse handle the mail was usually considered bad form. As we clamored around him, shouting out names and pushing each other, miraculously not setting off our still-not-safed weapons, he laughed and passed packages to some, slips to others, and shrugged his shoulders at still a few more. Not everyone got mail.

Everyone in One-Alpha did, though. I got a package from my mom, a letter from my father, and a letter from my sister on Reach. She was just going through boot, though she said the Office of Naval Intelligence had their eyes set on her. Corporal Valenzuela, forgetting his pain for a moment, received five letters, all from romantic interests across the galaxy. His elation sobered slightly when he read the letter from Wendy, his conquest on Paris IV: we knew it had been over a week delayed, because just a week ago we had gotten word that Paris IV had been glassed with a hundred million dead. He cheered up quickly enough with the other letters.

Private Myles Burnett, also of One-Alpha, got two packages and one letter. The packages were from his parents, who always sent two of whatever: one to keep, and one to share. We all hoped it was candy, as Mr. and Mrs. Burnett always seemed to find the best, most difficult to get stuff. The letter was from his kid brother and included a drawing he had made of Myles in full BDU. Though he joked about it being a "piece of crap," we all knew that he folded it up and kept it in his vest pocket, occasionally sneaking a peek while we were on patrol.

Finally, there was PFC Man Hong Hendrix, "Man-Man" to his friends, of which I was one. He only got one letter, but we instantly knew who it was from and envied him for it. It wasn't hard to recognize her handwriting, flowing and easy. They were like totems to him, little proofs that somewhere in the universe someone cared, and they made him invincible. He even handled it carefully, gingerly taking the envelope between gloved fingers, not daring to fold or crease or bend it. We stepped out of his way as he headed back to barracks, before we all turned on Burnett to find out what he had for us this time.

We never got to know what was in Man-Man's letters. All we ever knew was how strong they made him. After his first letter, we had been called to the front to assist in a clearing operation. The Covenant had taken a village next to a river that had a water-powered dynamo. We already knew the entire village was dead--that's just how the Covenant operated. Strategically it wasn't particularly important either, just a hamlet on the water. The Colonel just didn't want the Covies to have free power.

November Company deployed besides Bravo and Hotel Companies, and it fell on November's first squad to take a protected gun position on a hill. It was mostly held by Elites, only a few Grunts and no Jackals. We had to fight down a street, running from cover to cover, as plasma sizzled around us. Every time I poked my head out to try and sight my M41, I'd be blinded by plasma and molten concrete, unable to get a lock. All of our attempts at drawing their fire weren't working either, the split-chins having already figured out I was the lynchpin to the plan (they always do).

Trapped in a narrow alley with Man-Man, all I could do was hunker down and wait until I starved to death. But Man-Man pulled out his letter from his pocket, just held it in his hands and looked at it. I watched him as he put it to his lips, kissed it, and stood up. He walked to the edge of the alley, brought up his MA5B, and fired. The plasma stopped, and he stepped out, still firing. He crossed the street while firing, and ran out of ammo just as he reached the safety of an alcove. I could only watch in amazement until my wits returned and I stuck my head out.

The Elites were howling, hammering on the mounted turret and making sounds that sounded an awful lot like cursing. Somehow Man-Man's barrage had damaged something. I didn't wait, putting two rockets quickly into the target. Two big booms, lots of secondaries.

As purple debris rained down on our heads, Man-Man walked across the street, holding his letter in one hand. "There's power in here," he said, carefully replacing it in his pocket.

All I could do was agree.

I was happily cleaning my launcher, two empty candy bar wrappers in my lap, when Man-Man sat down next to me. I only glanced up, seeing him holding the carefully torn envelope reverently. "Now this," he said slowly, "has real power, Walt. Real. Power."

Nodding, I grabbed the brush and started cleaning ash out of the inside of the barrels. "Real power," he repeated, "enough to change the world." His hands were steady, like a statue offering the letter up to the gods.

I kept cleaning and Man-Man kept staring, whispering things about power. Too soon, Sergeant McClure came in, holding a map. "Bad news," he said. "Covie heavy patrols were spotted about three klicks out. The cap wants up and out in fifteen." I groaned, joined by others around me from first squad, all except Man-Man. He just kept staring.

Nobody really knew anything about Hendrix and his girlfriend. Some people said they had been dating for years, others that they had met only a week before he was sent here. It was impossible to tell what she looked like: we could only hypothesize that she was a knockout, or a bookworm, or a heavy chick. Some said she was still in high school, one of those Catholic institutions on Troy where they wore short skirts and tight blouses.

We didn't know what were in the letters either. Some said it was poetry, another said long dialogues that were philosophical in nature. Most people said that it was probably just your standard letter, perfumed and hand-written, but Warren Langley swore that he had caught a glimpse and the envelopes were always stuffed full of erotic, naked pictures. We told him he was himself stuffed full of something, but secretly we all fantasized about what was inside.

Man-Man never said what was in there, just that it was powerful stuff. To most of us, that was the important thing.

Things were initially pretty panicky when we first hit, as thing should be, but it was even worse when we saw the Hunters. Massive, walking tanks with shields and big big guns. My rockets were usually called upon first for the duty of wiping them out, but as usual the Covenant knew who would be doing the shooting and kept the fire hot and heavy on my position.

Trapped with me in my own personal hell were Tameka Chapman, tears streaming down her face as she blindfired over the edge of our little ditch, and Izzy Bowen, clutching his leg and screaming. Reinforcements, including our new medic, were still fifteen minutes away, and I had no idea where the rest of first squad was hiding. I knew the sergeant was still alive, though, because I could hear the occasional crack crack crack of his S2, just as I could hear the ineffectual pinging noise his rounds were making on the Hunters' shields.

As I cradled my launcher and hoped I would live, I heard light thumping and a shape dropped into the ditch. I fumbled with my M7 until I noticed that it was Man-Man, smoking from both sleeves but completely unhurt. In his arms he carried his ruined MA5B, slagged by plasma fire.

"They got my gun," he said, but while smiling. I just nodded. What could I say? From the looks of him he had just danced across hot coals, dove through a ring of fire, and then poured gasoline on himself, but he was still up and still smiling.

As he opened his vest pocket, I realized why:

He still had his power.

He went through the ritual as Fuel Rod Cannons detonated around us, showering us with white-hot debris. I did my best to keep my spare munitions from cooking off and Chapman just kept shooting while crying, but Hendrix just held the letter, caressed its stiff envelope, breathing it in. Even Izzy stopped screaming while my friend went through his routine, eyes wide with wonder.

"I got it," he said at last, and stood up. I was about to offer up my M7 until I saw he held his sidearm in his hands, a little M6 to use against titans.

I wanted to say he was fucking crazy. I meant to say it. My mouth was open, vocal chords starting to vibrate, but he was up and over before a syllable could form. I shouted his name and tried to go up after him, but renewed fire kept me down. I was trapped.

There was a gunshot, distinct above the carnage, and a bass, inhuman roar. The ground shook. A bellow, thumping, another shot and a final thump. Suddenly everything was quiet.

I peeked. Letter in one hand, M6 in the other, he stood over the corpse of two blue-armored behemoths. Even the Elites were gaping in shock. I never saw it, but most everyone else in the squad did and would later attest to the truth of the account, as would the orange blood caking his armor.

The rest of the squad quickly finished off the rest of the Covenant patrol, greasing the Elites and taking a few Grunts as prisoners. I still sat in my trench, watching as Man-Man walked towards me. Finally he stood over me, like a god looking down on mortal man.

"So," I finally managed to say. "The power, huh?"

"Yeah," he said, with a hint of sorrow in his voice. "But it's gone now." He handed me the letter and turned away. Scarcely believing it, I opened it and read:

Dear Mannie,

I'm sorry. I can't take the pain anymore, the anxiety. At any moment the cold galaxy could take you away from me. I have to let you go, before I feel that and crack under it. I'm moving on.


A cold galaxy indeed.