Traw, Clayton, Aveer, Sanchez and Moore stood in an orderly file at attention, wearing their formal uniforms. Before them was a crowd of reporters and GAM top brass, as well as a few representatives from the Intelligence and Inquisitor Division mingled amongst the audience. On an elevated platform with the Death Squad, Commander General Venko presented a small box lined with five medals that glinted in the dusk sun.
“Citizens of the State: today signifies a momentous occasion concerning the Nektro War. The men you see before you, known as the Death Squad, are about to embark on their first official mission. For the welfare of the State, they will succeed. I can assure you of that. Gentlemen, I put my faith in you on behalf of this entire country. Hence I present you with these medals of honor for joining the Galactic Armored Marines in our Special Forces group. Please accept these as a token of our appreciation.”
Traw hesitated, as he pondered whether or not he deserved it. He picked up one of the medals anyways and nodded in polite gratitude. As the rest of the men were handed their medals, Traw looked out to the edge of the city, where the resorts lay. He knew his wife and daughter were there somewhere. For a moment he almost lost touch with the situation at hand. He zoned back in, to hear the generated applause from the audience. The Death Squad was receiving a standing ovation. Traw noticed each of the IID agents did not clap: in fact, they were all looking directly at him.
Venko paced back to his original spot behind the podium, and whispered as he passed Traw, “You will succeed.” From his tone Traw could distinguish that it was not a word of encouragement. The way it was said, Traw could not help but wonder if it had a threat tucked in there.
Traw unpacked his one bag in his room aboard the Indefatigable. He found it almost humorous how much of a contrast there was between it and the suite he had been accommodated to during his time board with his family. It was a small, dark room with a rectangular window opposite of the door that provided a view into the void of space beyond. There was a slight crease set into the metal wall that he suspected would reveal his suit of armor: granted the command bridge would allow it, of course.
His rugged hands adhered a picture of Luella and Louise to the wall, which was torn at the edges and a bit sun-bleached. Traw leaned against the cold wall and peered down to the planet below. “You'd better keep them safe, Venko...”
Interrupting his pensive moment was a knock on the door. “Enter,” he told the computer, and the door slid open with a smooth sound. Twelve the manservant stood in the doorframe, and when Traw identified him, the clone's lean frame looked somewhat thicker and harder. “Master Traw, so good to see you again. I wasn't interrupting, was I?”
“No, no, you weren't,” Traw answered, looking back out the window. “What's the matter?”
“Captain Vault has summoned you and the other team members to his office at once. He needs to brief you on the mission. So he sent me to alert you.”
Traw stood erect once more and buttoned up his uniform. He paused, looking down at the top button. Looking back up, he asked, “Twelve, you wouldn't happen to know how to fight, would you?”
“No, sir. Even if I did in my memory, it would be physically impossible, as all clones are built to be incapable of violence. That is, until the next wave of..”
“That's enough. Thank you, Twelve.”
“Of course, sir. Would you like me to accompany you to Captain Vault's office?”
“I'll be fine, Twelve. Just go...do, whatever you do in your free time.”
As Traw left the room, Twelve notified, “I will be at attention here, sir.”
Traw entered the office, taking a deep breath. Everyone else was there except Moore. “Sit down, Traw,” Vault beckoned, motioning to one of the two remaining seats arranged around his desk. “Now we're just waiting on Moore.”
Traw settled into his seat and waited. Two minutes passed. Fingers tapped and glances were exchanged. Finally, just as Vault reached for the intercom on his desk, Moore signaled at the door. “Enter,” Vault sighed. “Where were you?”
“Tryin' to get a little pinch from one of your girly officers a couple decks back,” Moore explained, slumping into the last chair left. “You got some real hot chicks here, Cap. Surprised you don't try to hit 'em up. You can get some real action.”
Vault bit his tongue and blinked rapidly as Moore slid into his seat. Any awkwardness from the preceding two minutes were multiplied sevenfold. “Assuming you're done bragging about how you tried to seduce one of my female officers, we can get to business,” Vault began. He brought up an image on the blank wall and the lights faded out. “Kentus System, heart of the criminal syndicates. Fortunately for the State, it's located far on the borders of our dominion. Unfortunately for us, we have to go there and clear out some of the criminals that would deter most of the GAM.”
“Who are they?” Sanchez inquired, leaning back in his seat.
“Based in the city of Syoto, there's a crime ring known as the Snake Kings. Very dangerous targets, and definitely beyond any of what the regular Marines can do. That's why we're going in. Your mission is eliminate the leaders, who will be gathered at the Joven Hotel for a meeting in eight hours.”
“Wouldn't that be something best left to an explosive team? They could rig the whole suite to blow and be off the planet when it detonates. No one will know what happened,” Clayton suggested.
“That was the original plan,” Vault conceded. “However...the Joven Corporation has made it public knowledge that they will hunt down and sue anyone who causes any sort of damage to their property, governmental or otherwise. They're known for housing criminal enterprises, and oftentimes those turn ugly. We've seen what they'll do over a totaled van. I can only imagine what they'd do if we planted a bomb in one of their suites. The Council decided we can't afford that. So you are to go in, eliminate each of those men and anyone you see bearing the tattoo of the crowned snake on his face. It's a signature among the gangs, which makes it easy to distinguish them.”
Traw wondered, “When do we start?”
“We arrive at Kentus in six hours. You have free leave aboard this ship until then, so do as you please. But I would not appreciate it if any of my crew is sexually harassed. Clear?”
“Sure,” Moore smirked, getting up from his chair. “You should really consider tryin' to get some of these gals into the captain's quarters. I'm sure you'd get a lotta fun out of 'em.”
“I'll have you court marshaled if I get a report like that with your name attached,” Vault dismissed.
Stirring up sand and stray trash, one of the Indefatigable's dropships landed on the outskirts of Syoto, where only the wandering homeless man, shady deal or drifting trash can were to be found. Concealed in their suits of armor, the Death Squad stepped off the platform of the dropship and into the rough sand. Staying no longer than was necessary, the dropship departed into the stormy sky that loomed overhead. “Think it'll rain?” Aveer wondered, looking up.
“Just acid,” Sanchez replied. “This planet's like my home. It only ever rains acid from the factories past the city. No water.”
The men walked into the city, where there was no border wall separating civilization from wilderness. Haggard folk walked to and fro, hobbling along in ragged cloaks. Some of them wore helmets and old, dented pieces of armor scrapped from trash heaps or skirmishes in the street. Buildings plumed smog from vents and pipes, whisking away into the darkened sky. On rooftops and in doorways, gang members stood with rifles slung over their shoulders. Each of them had the tattoo of the crowned dragon upon their face. If Traw didn't know better, he would have guessed that the Snake Kings were the true legal authority in that city.
After a dismal journey through the streets, the Death Squad finally approached the Joven Hotel. On the edge of the inner ring it stood, with the company name plastered above the archway entrance. “Alright, Traw, this might be your time to shine,” Moore remarked, looking up at the daunting mass of the building. “Assuming these boys are at an upper level, and they probably are, we're gonna need you to snipe a few of 'em. Clayton, can you get him into another one of those tall buildings for a good shootin' point?”
Clayton adjusted his viewer at one of the nearby skyscrapers. “Shouldn't pose a problem. I'll also find out what suite our targets are meeting in.”
Traw commented, “Last I checked, we were fightin' Nektro. Not humans.”
“I specialize in this junk, man,” Sanchez grinned. “Me and my boys used to run jobs like this all the time. You'll get used to it.”
After no small deal of sneaking about and hacking into security systems, Traw was lying down in one of the adjacent skyscrapers, which was under construction, and hence desolate. His only companions there were cinderblocks, equipment, and sheets of metal lying about. The crews weren't scheduled to work for another week.
“Alright, I'm in position,” Traw notified over the communicators. “What's your status?”
“Limousines are pulling in now,” Sanchez replied, crouched with the rest in an alleyway with a clear view at the hotel entrance. “Clayton just wirelessly checked in with the hotel's books, and the bosses are supposed to be on the 22nd level, at suite #324.”
“Where is that in relation to me?” Traw asked, scanning up the building for the 24th level.
“Your side, about...what's that, Clayton? Okay. He says it's three rooms right from the exact middle.”
Traw scanned according to the directions. “Alright, got it. What's your plan down there?”
Clayton interrupted, “I've actually formulated a plan, if none of you have a fully developed one yet.”
“Let's hear it,” Aveer granted.
“Alright. So Traw will obviously be sniping, and the sequence of the break team will go as follows: Moore, Aveer, Sanchez. Traw will fire a sequence of shots into the suite, inciting havoc. Moore, having both the shotgun and skill in hand-to-hand combat, will be the entry. Once he's entered and fired a couple of shots to thin the herd with Traw's long-range support, he'll step to the side and Aveer will eliminate the rest of the targets. Sanchez's job is to provide backup and defend the door during this skirmish, as well as make certain none of our targets escape. Is that clear?”
“Yeah, that sounds good,” Moore agreed. “I may fire more than a couple shots, though. What do we do once this is over? And how are we gonna get into that hotel in our full armor and guns and the whole do-dah. Not gonna go over so well with security. Wait, what are you gonna be doin', little man?”
“Making sure you don't get blown to pieces. I'll be right here. For the next thirty minutes, all security tapes will be playing a false recording, and all security drones will be in 'docile mode.' As for our entry, according to these schematics, there's a back entrance used for trash disposal. We can slip in through there undetected and go about the unused hallways until we get to the suite where the targets will be.”
“Alright, let's get goin',” Sanchez urged, making his excitement obvious. From the tone in his voice, Traw would almost have called his attitude sinister.
Slipping between alleys and behind trash cans, the three men advanced toward the designated entry point. To their knowledge, no one took note of them. Moore was the first to climb up the chute, activating a magnetic function on the gloves and boots of the suit.
He poked his head up the dark entrance shaft and scanned the back room. One of the bellhops was walking in during his break, a lunchbag in hand. “Yeah, we got a worker here. It looks like he'll be here for a while,” he told the rest over the communication link. “I'm gonna have to snap that head.”
“No, Moore, just wait!” urged Traw; but Moore had already slipped out of the shaft and was rushing the bellhop, whose back was turned to him. Shotgun strapped across his back, Moore grabbed the man's neck from both sides and snapped it in a quick, crunching motion. The man didn't make a sound before his death.
“Aveer, Clayton, get up here,” Moore told them. The external speakers on their helmets were turned off, so anything they said could only be heard by each other. Aveer struggled up the chute with the machine gun attached to his back. He heaved himself up on the outlet and tumbled out onto the floor.
“You tryin' to tell the whole city we're here?” Moore scorned, keeping his eyes locked on the door. “Sanchez, let's hurry it up. I think I hear someone coming.” In a few short seconds, Sanchez slipped out of the chute and was ready for combat.
The three men crept through a back hallway that was illuminated by a single flickering light overhead that radiated an eery glow. Moore stopped when he found an elevator. He tore open the rusty, diamond-pattern grate that stood between them and the elevator cabin. “Clayton, we found an elevator. We're gonna try and climb up through the shaft. We can't risk someone else seein' us,” Moore told him.
“No, you'll be fine. I can make your elevator inaccessible to anyone else, provided you get into one that is functioning.”
“Screw it, we're taking this one. I'm not risking it,” Moore argued. He wedged his fingers between the sliding doors and pried them open. The interior of the elevator cabin was dusty and decaying, like a corpse left to rot and never buried. Moore stepped inside and looked toward the ceiling. There was a rectangular exit in the ceiling, covered by a light fixture. He leaped up and yanked it down to the floor, shattering it onto the grungy, mold-infested carpet.
After each of them had shimmied up through the hole, they began ascending the tall, dark shaft, activating their magnetic gloves and boots once more.
Their pace was slow: Clayton and Traw could tell. “What level're you boys at?” Traw wondered. “The meeting's started, and I don't know how long these fellas are gonna stick around.”
Moore took a few more steps up and faced a painted number five on the inside of the giant shaft. He sighed, “We're at level five, Traw.”
“Decade drought,” Traw cursed. “You gotta find a quicker way up.”
“Break out at the next door and take the stairs until you get to the 24th level,” Clayton ordered, his voice stern. “If we want to succeed, you need to follow my advice.”
“Clayton's right,” Traw agreed.
Moore paused. “Fine,” he conceded. “There's a doorway about four meters up.”
“Glad I get a say in this,” Sanchez commented sarcastically.
“Just speak up, dumbass,” Moore quipped.
Moore dug his fingers into the door and pried it open half an inch, scanning the hallway. It was desolate. He propped himself up and rolled onto the floor, immediately rising and scanning the area further. Aveer scrambled up, then Sanchez. Trying to make every footstep silent, they crept into the stairwell. Aveer looked up the tall, winding stairwell and took a deep breath.
Taking the steps three at a time, Aveer asked, “This place is empty. Where is everyone?”
Sanchez answered, “With this kinda thing, the bosses usually get most of the guests out. They don't like other people bein' around to overhear things.”
“You're going to need to move faster,” Clayton told them. “My security tapes are only good for another twelve minutes.”
As the three men ascended the stairs, Traw had his sights fixed on the room where the bosses were seated. They all seemed relatively similar in appearance, wearing an open-collared shirt with a slick blazer, and some arrangement of gold rings on their hairy fingers. There were eight of them, surrounded by well-armed bodyguards and mistresses in an outer ring, standing by as their employers discussed their criminal matters.
Traw glanced over at the mistresses, adjusting his scope. I'm gonna have to kill every one of them, he thought. His trigger finger suddenly felt a little looser. I wonder how they got there. Women typically don't just give themselves up to these kinda bastards. What kinda rough times brought them here? Would they want to escape, given the opportunity?
His thoughts were interrupted by Moore's voice, saying, “Traw, we're here at the last level. You gotta start gunnin' down those bosses if we're gonna break and enter.”
Traw blinked himself back to the situation at hand, and shifted his crosshairs to the head of one of the bosses. “Alright,” he told the rest of the team, “I'm taking the first shot in three...”
One of the mistresses glanced to the floor as her employer stroked her back.
One of the bodyguards flipped off the safety on his pistol and fixed his gaze on his boss.
With a silent bolt of death, Traw took the first shot, making a clean hole in the window and leaving seven kingpins alive in the room. Chaos ensued. The bodyguards took a defensive stance, the bosses and women diving for cover. Without a second thought, Traw landed a bullet into the head of one of the bodyguards, then another. They began firing blindly in response, none of their rounds coming anywhere close to Traw.
Then, budging through the wall of suit-clad meat, one of the mistresses dashed for the shattered window gap and leaped through it, tearing the heel of her shoe on the shards of glass as she took the final jump. Traw pulled his head back from the scope and watched her fall twenty-four stories to her death. He covered his mouth in shock and couldn't remove his gaze from her fallen corpse.
“Go!” Moore shouted in a growl after blowing one of the bodyguards aside with a blast from his shotgun. Immediately he was hit with a spray of bullets, but being impervious to their weaponry, he only ran further into the fray, landing his armored fist into the face of one of the bosses. Aveer took a firm stance in the doorframe and opened fire into the crowd, mowing them down like wheat in a field.
Moore blunted one of the mistresses in the face with the butt of his shotgun, knocking her aside, and then, after flipping it about, delivered the killing blow with a condensed spray of lead. One of the bosses tried to crawl into the bathroom for protection, but Sanchez bolted in and shot him mercilessly, then returned into the main room to finish off a few of the crippled guards.
Thirty-seven seconds had passed. There were twenty-eight corpses on the floor of the suite, and one on the ground outside. Moore meandered throughout the room, checking each body to make sure the person was thoroughly dead. He crouched over the corpse of one of the bosses, who was wearing a necklace with a gilded palm tree dangling on it. He tore it off the stiff neck of the man and slipped it into his ammunition pouch.
Traw lingered in his position for a moment, his mind mulling over the very recent events. “Traw? Traw? Are you there?” Clayton interrupted.
“What? Oh, yeah. I'm here.”
“I've been calling you for the past minute. Are you okay?”
Traw hesitated a moment. “Yeah, I'm...fine.”