|This article, The Onyx Chronicles/How I Learned to Fix Things, was written by Ahalosniper. Please do not edit this fiction without the writer's permission.|
You could also call this story the Tank Incident. We do, and Erin gives us looks cold enough to freeze her own coffee whenever it’s brought up around her.
Although it’s generally assumed to be us at fault, I’m still willing to debate the point. We don’t know who it was that left that storage house unlocked, but they should’ve known better with more than three hundred kids around being trained in arts that could’ve made them troublemakers of biblical proportions . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself.
This all began on Onyx, less than a year after my sibling Gammas had all been brought together as recruits. Teams hadn’t even been picked yet, but Kodiak and I had been partners in mischief even before I first stepped onto the ship that brought us in. It was a late evening in spring, which on Onyx could still manage to freeze the sweat on your back put there by the sweltering heat Mendez would have us run through all afternoon. Lots of the IIIs still think the Chief was some kind of robot, but I swear I saw even him shiver once on one of these evenings.
We’d gotten into trouble earlier that day for one reason or another. It happened so often I can’t remember what it was for that time, but it was always something, wasn’t it? We’d come into the mess hall late after finishing the extra two miles of running and started walking back to the barracks even later. The gravel in Currahee’s motor pool crunched and complained under our feet as we walked by garages and equipment storage buildings, when the last lights coming over El Morro Point illuminated for us the glittering aluminum siding on a semi-cylindrical building – and no black lock on the door to sit stubbornly like a single dot of ink ruining a good page. The sight cried out with a hypnotic Siren’s song for any boy under the age of ten.
We were seven.
The two of us saw that and came to a dead stop at the exact same moment, but before I could beat him to it, Kodiak stated, “The door’s unlocked.”
I can always count on him to top me as the undisputed master of the obvious.
For about a half-second, we stood on tip-toes and swiveled our heads around like meerkats, checking to be sure none of the DIs or Old Man Winter’s cameras could have spotted us plotting trouble. There was only Ash, who at the time was the guy I’d have most liked to see as a chalk outline, walking across the compound to run some errand for Ambrose. We hit the deck, and although we immediately acquired scrapes and cuts on our hands and knees as painful reminders that we’d been standing on gravel, our gray trainee’s uniforms blended in seamlessly. Olivia couldn’t have done better.
As soon as Ash was out of sight, we scrambled up and made a break for the door, hoping the crunching of our strides wouldn’t break our cover. Upon reaching it, we stopped short when we sensed that this was the point of no return, on the line between when you knew you could break the rules and were actually breaking them, although thinking back now we might have just been trying to tell if the door had any extra alarms we’d need to disable. We tore over that line like a Warthog on a jump, and Kodiak pushed the door open with the same caution an EOD technician handles a Fury Tac-Nuke. The inside was filled with a sinister, impenetrable darkness before my hand fumbling around beside the door found a light switch.
A treasure trove was revealed before us. Amid a maze of storage containers stretching back into the far corners of the single room, TTR mags sat in neat rows beside the freshly-cleaned MA5Ks we’d spent a half-hour polishing earlier that day. Rappel cables coiled around pegs on the walls, and a whole crate of smoke grenades sat proudly atop an ammunition shelf with the kind of “do not touch” labels we were born to ignore. In a flash, we plotted a course further into hot water, and located a pair of rucksacks. Time was short; Stacker would be on his nightly trip between the mess and his office in just minutes.
We grabbed a carbine and clip of paintball rounds apiece, then split up to grab whatever else caught our eye on our way out. I lost Kodiak behind a crate and turned away, hoping to cover more ground. There was an oddly-shaped device sitting on the edge of a table I was tall enough to swipe from, and after I grabbed and stuffed it in the rucksack my attention turned to the smoke grenades. My eyes kept locked on target as I got a running start at the crate they were on, but weighed down by the carbine and bag slung over my shoulders, my jump was just a little low. My fingertips caught, but I was unable to push my legs forward in time and ran face-and-chest first into the side of it. I gasped, my fingertips slid free, and I collapsed at the base of it and groaned.
I wised up for my second attempt and first pulled myself onto the table, then jumped across and got the full length of my arms above the edge. I flailed my legs uselessly, a critical part of the process, while pulling onto this second platform. Refilling my lungs triumphantly, I got into the smoke grenades and stuffed as many as I could in the rucksack before Kodiak called me. “Psst! Hurry up, camper!”
Over the assorted crates and tarp-covered R&D projects, I could see Kodiak standing by the door, looking back for me. In addition to his rucksack, a coil of rope was wrapped around his torso like a bandoleer, and a sheathed blade hung from the other shoulder.
“I’m hurry upping, knife nut!” I hissed back, zipping the bag closed. With all the grace of a drunken Unggoy, I jumped to the ground and kept my balance despite shock going up both of my locked legs and the erratic swinging of the slung-on weapon and bag. He cracked open the door enough to peer through as I caught up, then motioned forward and dashed outside before I had a chance to rest a second. Still, I followed him because there was absolutely no way I’d be the rotten moa's egg.
A minute later, and we were set up atop the turret of one of the big Scorpion Tanks in the motor pool, which gave us an unobstructed view of Stacker’s never-deviated-from route in the dusk light after Zeta Doradus had gone behind the mountains. We were a few minutes early by Stacker’s watch, which I’d managed to snag earlier in the day, so I sat on the tank’s deck and started going through our hauls as Kodiak swung from the cannon. Amid all the cylindrical grenades in my rucksack, my hand happened upon the oddly-shaped thing and pulled it free. It was an enigma, and as all men must do when faced with something they don’t understand, I stared at it and pondered.
“What’s that?” Kodiak asked, dropping to the tank’s deck to help me stare and ponder.
“Dunno.” I told him. “It was inside.”
“Maybe it’s a pistol?” he ventured, “Kinda looks like one.”
“Yeah, but there’s no slide, or clip or anything.”
“It’s got a trigger.” Kodiak pointed out redundantly as my finger curled around the part. “Point it over there, see what happens.”
It was only this far along that I hesitated. We’d avoided all the real ammunition in the storage building, having been told in no imprecise detail by Mendez that anyone off the range with live ammunition would be considered a washout, and so I felt a bit nervous as I pointed the thing over at over at the distant generator, looking lonely separated from the other buildings within the perimeter. But then, it didn’t have a clip or slide, did it? It had to be harmless.
More oblivious thoughts were never conceived.
I pulled the trigger back, and the device emitted an anti-climactic click. A screen in the back lit up for a second, but that was it. I turned it around to look at the front briefly, then turned it back and clicked the trigger a few more times. Each time, the screen glowed night-vision green, and Kodiak peered over my shoulder.
“Hey, hold it down, I want to see what’s on there.”
I complied, aligning it so Kodiak could see the screen while I kept it facing the chosen direction of our firing range. You have to always treat a weapon like its loaded, and I kept it looking out into that no man’s land even as I decided it wasn’t a pistol, when the thing bleeped at us. The screen went dim after the noise, too.
Kodiak pushed closer, wanting to see it. “What’d you do?”
“Nothing! I only pressed the trigger.”
“You must have pressed something, try it again.”
Pointing it straight down so I could see the screen now, I released and squeezed the trigger again. The screen lit back up, and for the first time I noticed a horizontal bar filling along the bottom of it. Then came the rude bleep again, and the light went away with it. We had just begun another cycle of pondering when the whistling began filling the air and our ears, coming from somewhere above us. Not the melody of a human whistle, but a constant, increasingly loud whoosh.
We had just gotten to our tip-toes when a star fell straight down on the generator building, streaming a vapor trail behind it. The moment it touched the top of the generator, we had a few more seconds of sunlight in Camp Currahee. By the time we got our eyesight back, all that remained of the building was shreds of carbonized metal falling out of their arcs into the grass near the edges of the giant crater that had been dug where the building used to be.
We knew every Drill Instructor on the continent was about to wake up and home in on us, but at that second we were looking at the target locator pointed straight at our feet.
“Book it.” Kodiak managed to get out, and boy, did we.
Abandoning carbines, rucksacks, and all else atop the tank, we sprang off of the front bogey and hit the ground at a dead run. Panic made our feet miraculously light, and we shot across the motor pool before a trail of dust and kicked-up gravel as the whistle began again. Neither of us chanced looking back, but we knew when it hit. It wasn’t even by hearing, because all of a sudden the only thing to hear was ringing. What told us it hit was the invisible force that slammed into our backs, and I ate gravel as it pitched me forward.
I rolled to a stop face-up, once my vision straightened out seeing the first stars coming out overhead. The jagged gravel stabbing into my back was a blessing compared to the overpressure wave I’d felt a moment before. Just as I was getting comfortable, Kodiak crawled over to me and shook me by my collar.
His lips read something like, “Are you okay?”
I replied, “Yeah, quit it!” at some volume, still deaf for the most part. I looked down past my feet, and saw the two Scorpions we had on base were gone, along with the unfortunate ATVs that had sat next to them. A crumpled frame remained of Stacker’s personal ‘Hog, a vehicle which had the one reliable habit of breaking down. A crater was dug into the wet earth beneath the gravel, still smoldering, although most of the smoke could probably have been chalked up to those grenades. The Warthogs outlying the blast zone were only mildly singed, at least. Just as we stood up, brushing off the rocks dug into our skin and surveying the hole we’d made in the motor pool, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I spun towards Kodiak, thinking he’d gone and tapped my opposite shoulder again, and saw him look up at the same time. Stacker towered behind us, light from residual flames shadowing his eyes beneath the brim of his cap.
Like a good poker player, Stacker’s voice was deceptively calm as he started. That or my hearing wasn’t quite back yet. “You know, I can’t say I’m all that concerned about the Mongooses, not even my Warthog. I’m a little curious about the rest of the Warthogs, and I’d love to know why the generator is a crater, but what I really want to know is WHERE ARE MY GODDAMN TANKS!?”
From there, we were dragged along by our ears (which, fortunately, we still couldn’t feel) to Ambrose’s office, and after they decided extra running wouldn’t help anything, we were punished by having to help rebuild anything we damaged, which included the generator, Mongooses, Warthogs, and tanks. And that’s how I started learning to fix things.