Through the night air the dropship sailed, carrying the armor-clad Death Squad. Just below the clouds it soared as thunder began to rumble with the friction of the sky. Inside the dark cabin, the Death Squad was seated with their weapons, and Captain Vault stood at the end of the room with a diagram. “Listen up,” he instructed, extending his baton. “The information you're about to receive is crucial. Should you forget it, you will be spelling your own doom. Understood?”
The men nodded. “Good. We will be making a brief landing on the top of the mothership's hull, where you will exit the dropship and enter through an emergency hatch.”
“Those things are covered with cannons,” Sanchez criticized, “won't we be shot down?”
“We've found a certain point at the upper hull where theoretically their guns are out of range. In practice, this remains to be seen, but our dropships can take a good number of hits before total destruction. As I was saying, you will be entering at this port, as you can see on the diagram, thirty meters away from the landing point. From there you will ascend through the corridors into the main reactor room, and drop off the bomb there. The route is fairly simple, as shown here. You will be met with resistance: make no mistake. That's why you were assigned this task. Also, time is of the essence. Be aware of that.”
“Thirty seconds to drop, Captain,” the pilot notified over the cabin speakers. Vault nodded.
“Once the bomb is secured to the reactor, take the same route to the hatch and we'll return the dropship to pick you up. We'll be nearby during the entire operation, so if you require help, just signal us with your communicators. Another company of Marines is on standby in the frontal cabin. Remember, get the bomb to the reactor. There are too many bulkheads in the corridors, so it would seal off the blast if it detonated anywhere else, merely harming the ship. The capital depends on this mission. Good luck, gentlemen.”
After a few narrowly avoided cannon shots, the dropship landed onto the upper hull as planned, and the back port opened. “Go, go, go!” Vault shouted as the Death Squad ran across the smooth metal surface of the ship. Traw recognized the ship from the battle at Sino: it was exactly identical.
“Never thought it'd be this big,” he remarked as they rushed to the access hatch.
“Don't sound so impressed,” Moore sneered. “This whole thing's made for one purpose: to kill us.”
With the dropship departing in the distance under the mothership's cannon fire, the Death Squad advanced toward the hatch, still getting used to their suits. To his surprise, Clayton found his to be well tailored to his personal frame.
Aveer stooped down and grabbed the circular handle of the hatch, turning it with no small deal of effort. Sanchez clutched the other side and helped swivel it. With a satisfying creak, the winch began to turn more easily, and they were able to open the hatch. “Let's kick some Nektro ass,” Moore shouted as he descended into the darkness.
“Tell us when you reach the bottom,” Traw told Moore over the helmet communicators.
A few seconds later, Moore slipped three ladder bars down to the floor. “Found it,” he told them. “Fog everywhere here. Kripes. Are we near the reactor already, 'cause it sure smells like it.”
“The Nektro gills prefer this fog to our regular human air composition,” Clayton informed as he descended the ladder, his boots clinking against each bar. “They can survive on our planets, but they're most comfortable on their home planet, where this fog covers the whole surface.”
“Which is where?” Sanchez asked.
“To my knowledge, it's a few lightyears away from here. It would take a drive capability beyond anything the GAM currently possesses to reach it.”
“How do you know we don't have it?” Traw corrected as he began the descent.
“Good point,” conceited Clayton.
Once all five men were inside the ship, they shut the hatch and turned on the lights attached to their helmets. “This is jacked up, man,” Sanchez muttered as they walked through the hall. Fog permeated all about them, minimizing visibility. “Yo Clayton, you're smart. You got a way to kill this fog?”
“Hmm,” Clayton pondered. “I'd suppose there's some sort of system of fog generators in the walls here. Locating them's going to be a problem, though, and our priority is attaching the bomb to the reactor.”
“What if we're shot in the dark because we can't see the Nektro in this fog? The mission will fail,” Aveer argued.
“The negro's right,” Moore agreed. “We gotta kill this smoke before the Nektro kill us. Shut it down, Clayton.”
Sighing in reluctance, Clayton moved toward the wall and scanned it with his headlamp, looking for a grate of some sort. He glided his hands along the curved edge of the wall, feeling for a ventilation shaft. “Anything?” Sanchez inquired after about twenty seconds.
“If I had found something, I would have told you. Now quiet,” Clayton quipped, continuing his search. “Here it is.”
They heard a click, then a sparking sound, and the fog slowly began to clear. “Thank god,” Traw grumbled, swiping the remaining wisps away from his face. “Any of you guys ever done somethin' like this before?”
“Nope,” each of them answered independently.
“That makes five of us,” Traw smirked. “Let's go.”
They advanced down the hallway, their tactical boots clinking against the metal grating on the floor. “Two more drops,” Moore reminded.
“Thanks, chief,” Sanchez sneered.
“Hey, I'm tryin' to help, jackass! So shut your trap,” Moore snapped.
“Enough,” Aveer scolded, his voice like a bass drum. There was a long silence that followed.
One by one they descended the ladder, each of them trying to lower their breathing rate after realizing that everyone else on the team could hear it over the communication link. After Clayton slipped down the last notch, they heard some sort of ominous squawk coming from down the dark hall. “You hear that?” Sanchez asked in a whisper. Their external speakers were not online, but he felt the need to whisper nonetheless.
A brief silence passed before anyone replied. They were all looking down the hallway, some left and some right. “Yeah, we heard it,” Traw answered, his voice low as well. “Sounds like a Nektro call.”
“You're our sniper, Traw,” Moore corrected. “You've been at the background. How would you know?”
“Fine, anybody else agree with me?” quipped Traw.
“Yeah, that sounds like Nektro,” Aveer confirmed. Clayton nodded, though he didn't say anything.
“Shoot at anything that moves,” Sanchez advised. “Ain't nothin' in this hellhole but enemies.”
“Let's just drop the payload and get outta here,” Traw concluded. “Gunnin' down those bastards is a number two priority.”
They made their way down the metal corridor, fingers on the triggers and eyes glued to the darkness ahead. Suddenly, they heard more squawks. “Movement?” Clayton asked, his eyes darting about.
“I...I got nothing,” Aveer answered, his machine gun at the ready. The squawks went back and forth like a volley, with two slightly distinct voices. One was deeper, while the other was more shrill.
Every man had his finger wrapped tightly around the trigger of his rifle. One of the Nektro crawled up the shaft, setting its rifle down as it propped itself up off the ladder. Without a second thought, Aveer opened fire with his machine gun. The Nektro guard flew back with the storm of bullets, punched by every round in its chest. As the men ran toward the shaft, the other guard slid down the ladder and fled the scene in the lower level.
Sanchez leaped down the hole, eager to bring down the other guard. Though it was a full twelve feet, he landed without so much as a shock. Headlamp engaged, he glanced both ways as the others scuttled quickly down the hole. “Just jump, idiots!” Sanchez hollered. “These suits can take it!”
Moore dropped the rest of the distance and took aim from Sanchez' back “Find that little bastard before he pulls the alarm!” Traw yelled before jumping down. Sanchez and Moore started sprinting their opposite directions, scanning for Nektro movement. Then they heard the terrible sound of sirens blaring. Red lights flashed all through the hallways. “Dammit.”
Once they had all descended into the lower level, the Death Squad regrouped at the exit of the hatch. Aveer ran at the front of the group with his machine gun held at the ready and Moore at the back with his shotgun. They approached the second hatch without disturbance, and Moore slipped down the hole.
He landed with one hand pressed to the floor. He rose from a crouching position after scanning all about him. “Give us clearance,” Clayton reminded over the communicator link. Moore said nothing in reply.
“Katoi katoi!” a Nektro voice yelled over the sound of blaring sirens. From the darkness came blasts of energy, obviously from Nektro rifles. Moore sprinted toward the source of the gunfire, sending shotgun blasts into the shadows. He heard the pained cries of Nektro footsoldiers erupt and continued firing. Seven times he took direct shots to the chest, but he was unfazed, standing firm and delivering brutal shots to his enemies.
“Get down here!” he called over the sound of his own shotgun. Sanchez dropped through the hole next, his pistols firing upon his arrival. Three bullets hit Moore in the back, causing him to stumble forward. “What the hell?” Moore hollered, scrambling to his feet.
“Sorry, man,” Sanchez apologized, joining him while still firing at the enemies ahead. “Where are the rest of you boys?” he called up the hatch
“Coming,” Traw answered, irritation clear in his voice. “You wouldn't want a sniper, though, would you, Moore?”
“Better than nothin',” Moore replied, pressing forward. Lasers still fired from the darkness, zipping past their shoulders and over their heads. With a thud, Aveer landed on the floor, and the others knew to go behind him. Clayton scuttling down the last bars of the ladder, Aveer opened fire into the hallway, ensuring that any remaining Nektro would have the life blasted out of them. It took four short seconds until he lowered the hefty gun, the hallway ahead littered with bullet-ridden Nektro corpses.
“Holy shit,” Sanchez remarked, staring at the smoking end of Aveer's machine gun. “Remind me to stay on your good side.”
“I think I like this weapon,” commented Aveer, his toothy smile audible.
Clayton tapped the side of his helmet, and a viewscreen appeared on the interior. It displayed the diagram of the ship. “Down this hallway one hundred yards is the reactor,” he informed, shutting down the viewscreen.
The Death Squad hurried to the reactor room, trampling the strewn Nektro carcasses along the way. Traw noticed the sound of enemy squads on the move in the lower and upper decks.
At the end of the hundred yards, there was a massive, circular door with a keypad on the front as promised. “Your time to dance, Clayton,” Moore called, flipping down the cover of the keypad and stepping aside. Clayton approached the door and pressed the barrel of his rifle against the keypad.
“As I understand it, Nektro security systems can be deactivated with a precise amount of voltage, which I can adjust in this rifle.” He adjusted a knob on the side of his rifle and paused as the gun charged itself, beginning to vibrate. Traw turned around, hearing Nektro guards enter the hallway.
After a few seconds of the gun charging, Clayton pulled the trigger, and a visible shock of electricity surged into the keypad, transmitting all throughout the door's individual locks. It rolled aside, revealing the reactor room. Each of the men slipped inside quickly, closing the door behind them to keep out unwanted company.
The room was spherical and massive, with wires running along the floor and leading to a pedestal at the center of the room. Wires crawled up the pedestal like ivy, and at the top of it was a pair of curved prongs, sending electric signals to one another. Eery blue lights glowed along the edge of the room and at the base of the pedestal, with a single light shining down from the ceiling. Traw was almost ready to marvel at it, had it not been the design of his enemies.
Clayton advanced toward the pedestal, the unarmed bomb strapped to his back. “I'll take care of this,” he told the rest. “You all just guard the door.” Unaware he was taking orders from Clayton, Moore complied and stood by the sealed entrance with his shotgun ready to blow the head off any Nektro who tried to get in. Clayton slipped off the bomb backpack and rested it against the base of the pedestal. He punched in several command keys and tapped the screen precisely.
After he thought he had armed the bomb, a timer activated on the screen, counting down from ten minutes. Clayton stepped back, staring at the screen. “Traw, come look at this,” he called, motioning for him to come over. Traw jogged over, examining the bomb.
“What?” Traw asked, confused.
“This isn't supposed to be a timer. Vault told us it would be remote detonation from a safe distance.”
“Oh, god,” Traw gasped, rubbing his hand on the back of his head. “Let's get outta here then. Only thing we can do, with nine and a half minutes.”
Clayton picked up his rifle, heading for the door with Traw. “Open that,” Traw told the others.
“Not such a great idea, man,” Sanchez corrected. “Didn't take long for Nektro guards to get here. I can hear 'em outside. We'd be walkin' into laserfire.”
“Just open the door. Aveer can mow 'em down. We gotta get outta here fast, though. That bomb's set to go off in nine minutes.”
Sanchez and Moore exchanged glances. Aveer stood firmly on the sloping floor of the reactor room, his machine gun ready to unleash death's metal herald. Sanchez pressed the button on the wall to his left, and the door rotated open. Sure enough, two ranks of Nektro guards stood at the front of the door.
Aveer opened fire.
Empty ammunition belt spewed out the side of the machine gun as Aveer pivoted, making certain every Nektro was thoroughly rid of its life. His enemies fell in agony, pounded with every thick metal round that pierced both armor and flesh. Thinking only of his family, the robust, dark-skinned man let loose the barrage of bullets upon his foes without mercy or relent. He slung the gun over his shoulder in conclusion, observing the brutal damage he inflicted.
The Death Squad victoriously trampled the path of mutilated foes, bolting toward the hatch. As they drew closer, two guards slipped down from the hatch opening. Sanchez nonchalantly shot them down while running.
They ascended through the corridors, gunning down the few guards who did try to stop them. Traw had an uneasy feeling the entire way back to the final exit, besides the fact that there was a bomb rigged to detonate hardly one hundred and fifty meters from his location.
As Clayton sealed the hatch door behind them, Moore contacted, “Vault, we're ready to be picked up now. Like, right now.” The rest of the team stood on guard, planting themselves firm onto the metal hull of the massive warship. Traw noticed the city was significantly closer than when they first infiltrated the mothership.
Moore waited for a response. There was only static. Traw turned to face Moore.
“What'd you do?” Traw asked, his breathing rapid.
“I didn't do anything, idiot. Vault's not responding, and you don't got me to blame. Clayton, when's that bomb gonna go off?”
“Two minutes, twenty-seven seconds,” Clayton replied, keeping his focus on the hatch. He wanted to be certain the Nektro would never break out, having no idea what kind of firepower they bore.
“Vault?” Sanchez yelled into the communicator. “Vault, you there? Vault?”
“Ah, shut up, Sanchez. He's not comin'. That bastard's wussin' out on us, and we're all screwed,” Moore scolded. “Damn cannons.”
“Yeah, maybe we don't need your chimin' in, Moore,” Traw barked. “It ain't gonna help nothin' if you're just whinin' about it.”
Their argument was interrupted by the sound of machine gun fire. Everyone looked over to Aveer, who was standing with the barrel of his gun smoking, aimed to the sky. “Shut up, all of you,” he commanded. “Vault is not coming. I say we jump.”
“Off the edge?” Sanchez asked for clarity.
“Yes. These suits can protect us.”
Clayton rose from his crouching position and glanced about. “Little man, you're smart. What do you think?” Moore wondered, tapping Clayton on the shoulder.
Clayton paused. “Aveer is right,” he conceited. “From this distance, the suits could probably sustain the landing. We have small thrusters on the waist and heels that prevent us from taking a full blow when we come down to ground. If we are, though, we should do it now. That explosion won't wait forever.”
Moore strapped the shotgun to his back and rolled his shoulders, approaching the edge of the hull. Sanchez followed behind, holstering his pistols. Aveer clipped the machine gun to his ammunition backpack, approaching the edge with Clayton. Only the thought of Luella and Louise in his mind, Traw stepped to the edge as well. “All or nothin', boys!” Moore shouted, then dove into the vast abyss of clouds. Each man followed suit, careening through the wind and hazy orange clouds.
Traw felt the urge to vomit as he fell through the vast expanse of chaotic air. Rather than look at the ground below, he glanced over at his team members. He thought of the ship that was rigged to explode. Any second, and it would send massive hunks of flaming wreckage down to the city below. What about my girls? Traw worried. Is any of this gonna hit them? Are they gonna be okay? If there's a God, I hope He hears this. He'd better hear this. Keep my daughter and wife safe, even if I gotta die for it.
His thoughts were interrupted by his armored body breaking through the dense clouds. The city below suddenly became visible. Windows glinted with the orange array of dawn's light, reflecting to make a portrait out of the normally cold towers that dominated the cityscape.
“Hello?” a familiar voice crackled over the speakers in Traw's helmet. “Do any of you hear this, over?”
“Yeah, who is this?” Traw answered urgently, spreading his body out to delay his landing.
“Death Squad, this is Captain Vault. We're coming to catch you, so spread your bodies out and come together. Link arms, do you hear me? Link arms. We have a visual, so maintain your course.”
“Got it, Captain,” Moore confirmed. Slowly and with no small effort, the men drew closer to each other, spreading out their limbs all the while to slow their landing time. Aveer grabbed Clayton's arm once they came close enough. Then Sanchez grabbed Aveer. Traw linked with Clayton, and Moore with Sanchez. Traw glanced over at Moore. There was a hesitancy.
“Link arms, or we're gonna spread out too far!” Sanchez urged. Sucking in his own will, Traw grabbed Moore's arm. No sooner did they link up than Vault's dropship glided below them some two hundred yards. A top hatch opened, revealing the internal cargo bay.
“Engage thrusters, now!” Vault commanded. Each of the men ignited the landing thrusters on their suits, and fell into the cargo bay with a deafening thud nonetheless. They had gained too much speed for it to be a soft landing, regardless of how many landing thrusters they had. The bay doors sealed shut, and the dropship sped toward GAM headquarters.
As the men clambered to their feet, Vault entered the cargo bay from the back door. Moore ripped off his helmet and shouted, “What the hell was that, Vault?” Vault struggled to explain, but Moore continued, “What happened to us getting picked up by a dropship at the landing point? Huh? If Aveer didn't have the idea of jumping, we'd all be blown to ash! If we're so important to the GAM, how come we were just 'forgotten' at the mothership? I'd like some answers, Cap'n, before I dig them out of you with my bare hands!”
Traw and Sanchez held back Moore, wrestling to pin him to the wall. Traw pulled off his helmet and blunted Moore in the face with it. “Get a hold of yourself, boy!” he barked, spitting in Moore's face. “We're safe now! The mission's done. Did you happen to note that there was an array of guns ready to pound this very ship to shrapnel? If Vault had come to get us, he'd have been riskin' the whole mission. We barely got to the mothership in one piece in the first place, that was a lucky run. Nothin' more. You owe him an apology.”
Moore glared at Traw for a long five seconds, and Traw returned the favor. They bade each other a gaze that burned with an unseen flame. “Thank you, Traw,” Vault concluded, stepping between them. “We're going back to GAM headquarters, where myself and the rest of the Council of Officers will be reviewing your performance tomorrow morning. So look like you have it all together, or at the very least, don't reach for each other's throats.”