HBOFF: Feet First Into Hell
Grand Prize: The King's Robes, by SeverianofUrth
Discussion Thread on the HBOFF Forum
It didn't take much work to get the soldier down. The rod hadn't been buried in too deeply, and came out with a bit of wiggling. The body flopped to the floor, limbs flailing in odd directions, and ended up on the ground with its legs all bent together like two wires bent and twisted into a semblance of a rope. It was odd to see him like that. Moses remembered another ODST climbing out of the pod, hours earlier in front of the school, all confidence, exuding charm, and looking pretty cool in that black armor. For that moment, Moses had wanted to be him. For that moment only. Not now, he thought, with a weird sense of satisfaction. There was such colossal work built up in that corpse, all the days of training, a human body trained to kill--yet, now, lying there dead and without purpose, all that work gone to waste. Moses stared at the ODST, knowing that somehow, he had triumphed over this accomplished soldier, because he was alive and the man was dead.
He bent down and removed the ODST's helmet. The soldier turned out to be a young black man, clean-shaven, no hair at all. His eyes were open and Moses wondered just what they saw, knowing that they saw nothing, but still--it was fun to wonder. He played around with the helmet a little, noting how it was worn, and peered inside and grimaced at the dried vomit and blood coating the helmet within.
The soldier's eyes were still open and he reached over to close them. It felt odd, doing something he had only read about, closing someone's dead eyes. The eyelids slid down without resistance and he felt the firmness of the eyeballs as his fingers brushed against them.
There was a restroom in the back, and the sink still worked. He ran the helmet under the water, and cleaned out the vomit inside.
The mirror was damaged--a long hairline crack that worked up diagonally across the surface, dividing the mirror into two sides. He stared at himself, a young man with a bit of a paunch and a terrible mustache. He remembered how imposing the soldier had looked, when he was alive. The armor had lent him an aura of authority, reinforced by the reputation of the ODSTs alone.
The helmet fit tightly, but it fit. He blinked, and stared at the figure before him. It wasn't him; something else stood there. Something better.
It took a while to get all the armor off the corpse. It wasn't a hot day, but there was a smell in the air, a faint scent of rust and shit. When he was done, Moses stared down at the dead body, almost naked, broken and without dignity. For some reason, he was drawn to the tattoo on the ODST's left arm--it was some kind of a Japanese letter, some weird dashes and lines all clumped together into one illegible mess. He shrugged and took everything to the restroom.
He didn't know how everything fit. It was almost like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, with all the locks and clasps and buttons. Thankfully, size-wise they were a good fit, mostly; although he was probably a bit fatter than the dead soldier, he'd also been a bit shorter, and everything worked out in a satisfactory fashion. It took him a while to work everything out, but in the end, he put them all on.
It's amazing, he thought, how someone can change in such a short time. In the mirror stood someone that was more than him, someone that stood straighter somehow, someone who was confident and capable. He moved, turned, swung his arms, and although the weight of the armor hung heavy on his body, there was something intoxicating about the knowledge that, for the moment, he was no longer Moses the idiot, but rather, Moses, the soldier.
He would need some... props. Moses lurched around the wreckage of the church, the altar smashed from the drop-pod crashing down on it, the pews burnt from what looked to be a battle that had ensued afterwards. He felt awkward, moving around in armor that was not his, and some of the illusion faded as he stumbled about, looking for guns, bullets, whatever--he felt like a kid trying on costumes, hunting around the bargain bins for the nanopolymer masks, trying to find one that fit him.
Near the base of the eastern wall, he found the remains of the trooper's battle rifle, the stock having been snapped off by the force of the ape's swing. He picked it up, and was surprised at how light it was. Grinning, his smile hidden by the helmet, he raised the rifle and pointed it at the door. He pulled the trigger. Nothing happened, and the silence was unnerving, so he said:
And as he said it, as the word escaped his lips, the door slowly swung open. He stared as a young boy lurched in, covered in smoke and ash. In followed a middle aged woman; and behind them, more people streamed in, some dazed and some bleeding, but all of them unmistakably alive.
They didn't notice him at first. They were too occupied with their own private sorrows, their pained limbs, to consider anything else. But the boy that had staggered in, now saw Moses, and he tugged at his mother. She looked up. Her eyes, thought Moses. Look at those eyes. So blue. They were staring at him. Moses had the sudden impulse to look away. But he remembered the helmet that covered his eyes, his face, and safe in his anonymity, he stared back, studied her as she studied him. She was growing old and bulky, yet--her eyes were so blue, they looked artificial, almost, as if someone had taken a vial of blue paint and had injected them into her eyeballs.
Then she smiled. "Oh, my god," she said. Moses barely heard her. Her words were almost drowned out by the rising voices, from all the other refugees, who had seen him. Moses wondered just why they were staring at him so--and then, it hit him. They didn't see Moses, they saw a soldier, and as he had attributed an aura of competence to the ODST he had seen in the morning, so they did, now, to him. They saw him and his armor and his gun, broken as all three were--they saw someone that was professional--and as he stood, clad in stolen armor, he realized that they saw him as a savior.
It was all a mistake, of course. He thought of just what to say to them, to tell them the horrible truth--that he needed saving as much as they did. But an old man rushed him, and hugged him, hard. The old man's face pressed against his chest plate, and Moses took a step back as the man's tears and snot ran down the metal surface. And the others, they all came at him, smile on their lips, eyes full of desperate hope.
"Thank god," said the woman. The same one with the blue eyes and the child. "Thank god."
Others echoed her; muttered prayers to various faiths, different gods, filled the air. He stood in the center and Moses realized that he himself was crying, although his sniffling was muted by the noise around him, and was muffled by the confines of the helmet. He tasted the tears trailing down his cheeks, tongue slurping at the little salty droplets--oh, God.
It's a strange feeling, he thought, to be needed. So odd.
"Okay, people. Quiet down please." He waved at everyone to come closer. They all gathered into a ring around him, and he was unnerved once again by the rapt attention with which they stared at him. My flock, he thought. My sheep. "Quiet down, please."
"I'm, I'm, I'm a..." and he was stumped, but they couldn't see the indecision on his face, couldn't see how he chewed his lips as he decided what to say. Emboldened by this, he continued, "I'll help you folks get home safe, so don't worry." Lame, he thought. That's not what heroic speeches are made of. Not a whole lotta fire in them words, big guy.
But they all cheered, as if he was Lincoln and Lincecum and General Takesu all rolled into one. Moses grinned. He was beginning to understand why politicians did the things they did. Being cheered at--it was like worship, almost.
"So where are all of you from?"
"From the Grand Teton junction," said a man. He held a sodden rag to his bleeding nose. "At least, that's where a couple of us did. The Covenant hit the station just as we were about to take off."
"Yeah," said someone else, a woman this time. "It was kind of scary, but the marines there helped us get away. They told us to follow the road east, since the enemy hadn't gotten that far." She looked around the ruined church. "Although I guess they were wrong," she said, dubiously.
"It was... it was just a patrol," said Moses. "A scouting party. At least, that's how I understand it, from, uh, my training."
"Oh!" It was the boy, the one who had staggered in through the door. "Did you kill them all?"
"Well, uh, yeah. Although it took me quite a while," and Moses smiled as he tapped at the chestpiece, which had a couple of dings and dents to it.
"What's wrong with your gun?" asked the man with the bloody nose.
"Holy shit," said someone from the back, "there's a dead guy here!"
"Damaged," replied Moses, and then he said to the people who were beginning to cluster around the corpse, "he's a civilian. Was, that is."
"He was a soldier," said someone else. "Check out the fucking tag, man. Jesus--it says--'Rivers Horowitz.' "
Ah, thought Moses a tad inanely, so that had been the dead man's name.
For the moment, all their focus was on the dead man, who clearly wasn't a civilian as the other--living--ODST had said.
"Why did you say that he was a civilian?"
Oh, shit. "Well, we lose our rank when we die, so..."
"Are you sure about that?"
"Not really, but--that is, why would I lie about this? Besides," said Moses, "we have bigger things to worry about, like getting you guys out of here."
"I recognize that tattoo--that's for the Helljumpers."
"Hey," said Moses, "how the fuck would you know?"
"I served in the UNSC for thirty years."
What had once been blind admiration had turned into suspicion. Moses stood, feeling too conspicuous in his ill-fitting armor, the broken rifle in his hand. He fiddled around with it, trying to ignore the rising murmurs, and moreover, the impromptu investigation that had been launched in front of him of the dead soldier. There was a button on the side of the rifle, and he clicked it forward and back, feeling like he was shrinking, smaller and smaller, and wishing that he was indeed shrinking, so he could go hide in a hole or something. The illusion of being a soldier--someone with power--someone who was needed, someone who was a savior, had disappeared. Its absence hurt like hell.
"Hey," said a man. He was the old guy, stocky, who had talked about his years served with the marines. Old muscles had turned to fat, but he still had that presence about him, that said he was confident in his own abilities. It was something Moses had never had.
"You hear me?"
"What is it," muttered Moses.
"Something about your story don't add up."
"Look at me," said Moses. "Look at me and tell me I'm not a Helljumper."
"Yeah, that's what I'm telling you."
"Really. Well... well, fuck you. I was going to--I was going to save you all. All of you. I was going to help you fucking assholes get out of here, because, because I'm an ODST and you fuckers are just old men and women and fucking children." The words tumbled out his mouth. He couldn't control himself. He was aware of how he was stuttering, gasping for breath, because he was crying again, Jesus fucking Christ, he couldn't even keep up the masquerade of being a soldier, let alone actually being the real thing. "So, so, fuck... fuck you all. I'm, I'm leaving."
"I don't think so." This from one of the people who had looked over the dead body, one Rivers Horowitz. "What happened to this guy? How did he die?"
"I think you killed him. Maybe he was helping you and you hit him with a rock or something."
"Oh, fuck. Jesus... what?"
"Oh, god. You did kill him."
"No, no, no." He could feel the conversation slip away and tumble to unpleasant places.
"How did he die, then?"
Moses thought of how he had stumbled in like they did, and finding the dead ODST, hanging from the wall with a spike rammed through his wrists. A statement of sorts from whatever had killed him. The drop-pod half-buried into the concrete with the wrecked altar lying split into pieces. Orange sunlight, tinted by the haze of the smoke funneling from all the destruction in the city, streaming from the holes up on the roof.
How he had taken the ODST down. How he had compared the ODST to the one he had seen before, a few hours back, who had helped evacuate the developmental school.
"I don't know," he said. "I don't know."
"You're not really a soldier, huh?"
It was hard to keep them separate. The people were blending and mashing together into one hostile being.
He stood, in silence, the gun in his hand.
It was the old man again, the one who had once been a marine. He stepped forward, laid a hand on Moses's shoulder. The old man said something. Moses didn't hear him.
Then he reached out, and tried to take Moses's helmet off.
Moses lashed out, and caught the old man on the forehead with the back of his hand. The man cried out and fell back, landed on his ass with blood starting to seep out from the gash, where the metal edge of the gaunlet had torn the skin.
He wanted to say sorry, but he didn't get a chance to. His reaction had been automatic, Moses hadn't meant to strike him. But before he could get the apology out, the old man rose up, and snarling, went at him. Everyone else stood and watched as Moses was tackled to the ground. They fumbled around a bit, before the old man, who was somehow stronger than him, this old man with wasted muscles, he was being beaten in full fucking armor by an old fucking man--
The rifle was still in his hand, and he caught the fucker right in the gut with it. The old man grunted as the remnant of the stock buried deep into his stomach. He crumpled backwards, again, all wind knocked out of him, and Moses trembled as he got back up.
He pointed the gun at the old man, and pulled the trigger. He was going to say 'boom,' because the rifle was broken and it would scare him a bit. A part of him wished that it would actually fire, that it still worked, as a part of him had wished he was something he was not, that, by wearing the dead soldier's armor he had ceased being Moses the weak, that he had become, instead, Rivers Horowitz, the dead soldier lying half-naked on the floor.
His wish came true.
The bullet spat out with an unnerving roar. The blast echoed around the ruined church, before dissipating into the suddenly cold air. It caught the old man right on the chest.
In all the movies he had seen, when people were shot in the chest a little hole would bloom into vision, and blood would soak their shirts, red blossoming into a blotch of crimson. It wasn't anything like that. The bullet caught the old man and punched through his chest, like how the drop-pod had punched through the walls of the church, leaving a shattered ruin in its wake.
It was so quiet. It reminded him of nights spent awake in his bed, staring out the window into the unfamiliar sky, wishing he was back on Earth. He had never wanted to become a colonist, but being a child and all back then, he had no options. Nights spent wondering and dreaming, and he missed them, because they were full of expectations, expectations that the morning would bring something better, that, in the years to come, he would be happy.
Moses remembered fiddling with the little switch on the rifle. He felt so, so stupid. It had been the fucking safety. The rifle was never broken. It had been the fucking safety. The rifle had never been broken, it was, it was just that the fucking safety was on. He wanted to cry. He shivered, continued to shiver, as a shocked quiet descended over the group.
That silence was broken by the people in the back quickly getting out of the church. The shuffle of many feet stamping on the floor in their hurry to run, to get away from this murderer.
It said something about them, that the first thing they could think of was to run. But that's what he wanted to do, too. He wished they had never come. He wished that when he had whispered 'boom' in the silence, no one had come through the door. That, even though he had been so absurdly happy for a while that he was actually needed, now that they were gone, for the last of them were indeed gone, it struck him that he had failed so spectacularly at playing even the masquerade of being a Helljumper, he had killed an old man who had once been what he was not.
Moses closed his eyes. He was crying again. But that was all right, because he was no soldier, and it was okay for children to cry. That's what he was, after all. A child in a man's body. They whispered about him back in school. A man-child. Dim-witted. Would never amount to anything.
He cried, his face hidden in the helmet. It was okay to cry, although soldiers never cried, because it was okay for children to cry.
That's what he was, after all, nothing more, nothing less.
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