Traw leaned against a pillar in the training room. The room was like the one in the compound back on the Neptune, but of a smaller scale. Some twenty meters away, Moore was engaged in close combat with two dummies. In his right hand he grasped a bowie knife, clenching the other hand into a fist. “Come on, Farley,” he growled, thinking no one was within earshot. “Let's dance.”
One of the dummies threw a punch, swiftly blocked by Moore's tough fist. He then grabbed his opponent's arm, pulled it in, and plunged his blade into the chest of the dummy. Moore elbowed it to the ground, extracting his blade. The other dummy lunged at him, and he launched a retaliatory punch into the mechanical opponent's face, smacking it down to the ground. He gave it time to rise, ignoring the obvious advantage and opportunity to finish it with a stab to the chest.
The dummy sprung to its feet and resumed its defensive stance. It threw two swift punches, both of them missing, and Moore pounded the dummy's midsection with a salvo of punches. His opponent staggered back, then Moore clutched the back of its neck and thrust his knife into its gut three times. After Moore drew back, the dummy stumbled over, struggling to survive on its last cell of energy. With a merciless scowl upon his face, Moore delivered a powerful kick that sent his opponent sailing off the training platform. It hit the pavement four feet below with a thud and a crack.
Moore stood at the center of the training platform, sweat dripping off his brow and rolling down his tattooed, shirtless back. He tossed the knife spinning in the air, then caught it again. For the first time, Traw thought he noticed a glimpse of weariness in Moore.
“You got somethin' you wanna say?” Moore asked, pointing the knife in Traw's direction.
Traw shook his head. “Then leave,” Moore ordered, aiming the blade toward the door. “I don't like it when people watch me.”
Traw made his way toward the door, then paused before stepping outside. “Who is Farley?” he inquired after hearing the name uttered again.
“None of your goddamn business,” Moore dismissed. “Now out.”
Traw bowed his head and tightened his lip, walking out into the hallway.
After walking about the ship for a bit, Traw took a seat down in the dining hall, where a couple dozen personnel were seated. Most of them were quiet, eating their meals in peace, hunched over their food with their armor pads leaning on the metal tabletops. Traw sat down at one of the empty tables, reclined against the dull metal edge as he gazed out the window. Though the Indefatigable was traveling at incredible speed, he could see no visible progress outside the window.
For a moment he closed his eyes, enjoying the serenity. He felt bad for the rest of the ship's personnel, who spent almost all of their waking minutes at work. His only service was on ground missions. Other than that, the ship was his to roam.
Two of the Marines sat down ten feet down the table from him with their platters, chatting in low voices. “There's one of them Death Squad guys,” one of them grumbled, bidding Traw a dark, brief glance. He shifted so his back was turned to Traw. “I don't trust 'em. You shouldn't, either.”
“I dunno,” shrugged the other Marine. “They seem alright enough.”
“Untrained, that's what they are,” argued the first. Evidently he did not realize Traw could hear every word spoken. “They're loose cannons, if you ask me. We'd all better watch our backs. I'll be sleepin' with one eye open.”
Traw put his hand to his chin, mulling over the Marine's overheard words. “I like 'em well enough,” the second Marine admitted, digging his fork into his potatoes.
“Well don't,” the first Marine sneered. “They're potential traitors. I dunno who decided they should go on this ship, but somethin' ain't right about 'em. If I get a chance, I'm puttin' slugs in every one of their skulls. Call it a preemptive strike.”
Traw rose from his seat and stretched his haunches. He walked past the two Marines and bade the first one, whose opinion of Traw was made quite clear, a polite nod, to which he replied by burying his line of vision into his food tray. “Gents,” he greeted in a dismissive tone as he passed by. The second Marine looked at the first one with a twinge of fear in his eyes. The first responded in kind.
Before Traw could exit the dining hall, Twelve jogged up to him, in a manner that told Traw something important was up, yet it was not dire. “You've been summoned to the hangar bay, sir,” Twelve reported.
In a dismissive tone, Traw answered, “I'll be right there.”
“You must armor yourself first, sir,” Twelve corrected.
“You and the other Death Squad members are being deployed urgently.”
“I thought we weren't at the planet yet.”
“A special transport has arrived under the authority of Rank Alpha. You are to depart with it and its crew.” Twelve almost sounded concerned, like something perturbed him.
Traw paused, looking at the ground. “Alright, thanks for telling me,” he concluded.
“It's my job, sir.”
Sebastian Traw entered the hangar bay in his full suit of armor, holding his sniper rifle with his finger close to the trigger. His eyes darted about. When the doors opened, he saw a large transport ship parked in the center of the hangar bay, with guards clustered about it. A man in a GAM uniform was talking to Captain Vault on the side. The other Death Squad members sat next to the door on crates, Sanchez and Moore playing cards. “What's with the ship?” Traw asked, pointing in that general direction.
“Change of plans,” Moore answered, keeping his eyes on his cards. “Some captain of a special ops platoon is gonna take us to the planet instead of Vault. Heard 'em sayin' somethin' about a kamikaze mission. I couldn't care less why.”
“Kamikaze?” Traw repeated, confused. “The mission didn't sound that bad. Kripes, what are we getting into?”
“Beats me. All I know is I gotta shoot up some bastard Nektro troops, and those boys are gonna help us do it,” Sanchez muttered. He tapped his cigarette end into the portable ashtray that was normally clipped to his belt.
Vault walked over toward the Death Squad, his jaw partially set and his nostrils flared up a bit. “Gentlemen,” he addressed, rolling his tongue along his bottom teeth, “there's been a change of plans. You're going with the 122nd Battalion's hypercruiser. Apparently the target Nektro base has begun launching attacks on the nearby civilizations, so I have orders to put you aboard the hypercruiser instead. It'll take a fraction of the time to arrive at the planet.”
“Why are there so many soldiers?” Aveer inquired, glancing at the guards amassed around the ship.
“The 122nd Battalion is known for their kamikaze attacks, and the consequent casualties. This is one of their platoons, commanded by Sergeant Icarus. Their objective is not to survive, but to bring down as many enemies as possible before death. These are convicts, suicidals, thugs...anyone who doesn't feel like living, but wants to go down in flames.”
“That's cold, man,” Sanchez muttered, stacking the cards into the compact carrying case. “How do they recruit these guys?”
“Ignorance is bliss,” Vault answered grimly. “Once the mission's done, you're to rendezvous here with what's left of the platoon. And lastly, under no circumstances are you to turn back for a wounded soldier. There's no point in trying to retrieve them.”
Traw took another subtle look at the guards. They seemed less uptight and uniform than the guards normally aboard the Indefatigable. Their helmets were slouched, they chewed gum, they held their guns at incorrect positions. What Traw found more interesting, however, was their lack of armor. Standard Marines had a durable suit of armor, like a simpler version of what the Death Squad wore. These Marines had only a pair of vambraces, an older helmet, some sort of broken breastplate, a tattered uniform, and a rifle with twenty rounds. Traw was no expert, but he knew twenty rounds wasn't enough to keep a man alive through a firefight.
Sergeant Icarus approached the Death Squad with tall, powerful strides. He had a stocky build, and a few scars on his hairy arms. He wore an older, torn uniform and a rugged green ballcap that covered his greasy, unkempt hair. Unlike most other sergeants in the GAM, he had no sidearm strapped to his hip. “It'll be an honor fightin' with you boys,” Icarus greeted. “I'm in charge of this platoon. I'm sure Vault already told you the...nature, of my soldiers.”
The various members nodded their heads, vexed by the mere notion of sending suicidal men into combat as an escape for their mental illness. Knowing it was a present reality was worse. “Alright, let's move out, then,” Icarus urged, motioning toward the ship's back hatch. The Death Squad rose from their seats and made their way to the ship.
Icarus began to walk with them, but Vault put his hand to the sergeant's chest, stopping him. Icarus looked over. “Venko never told me you'd be taking my team,” Vault objected, his voice lowered.
“I was never told a lot of things, either,” Icarus reminded. “It seems Venko's the only one not in the dark around here. Plans change like the whims of girlfriends.”
“Tell me about it,” Vault sneered. He paused, looking to the floor. “Keep 'em safe, alright?”
“With those suits, they're gonna be a hell of a lot safer than any of my men. If anybody's walkin' out of the battlefield alive, it'll be your boys,” Icarus grinned. He seemed oddly calm about it, like he had already accepted the impending doom. He advanced toward the ship and motioned with his hand, ordering, “Alright, let's pack up this show, boys. All of you in the ship, right now. We got a schedule to keep up.”
Vault watched as the ship hovered in the hangar bay for a brief few moments, then departed, thrusters igniting. “God have mercy on their souls,” he muttered, eyes weary.
The Death Squad sat in the cabin of the hypercruiser, the walls lined with a cargo mesh. Soldiers walked about the ship freely, very few of them sitting down. Some of them muttered to themselves, and those that did sit down were shaking and grinding their teeth. Traw glanced over at one of the Marines, who clutched his gun to himself and curled up tight in his seat. He was murmuring something unintelligible to himself, staring at the floor. At least he'll be at peace soon, Traw mused. That's no way to live life.
He almost felt like rising from his seat, as it had already been two hours of him and his team sitting down in the hard, rigid seats. But something uneasy made him remain seated. Traw could almost sense the others were feeling it too. Something glued them to their seats, like a weighing guilt that they were the real executioners, as they would be the ones emerging from the battlefield: not the platoon soldiers.
Traw glanced over at the other members of his team. Moore had his fists clenched, punching vaguely while hunched over, as if he was preparing for a boxing match. Sanchez was settled asleep in his chair, his head leaning against his arm. Aveer lined his armored finger along the edge of his gun's barrel, tracing it about. Though Traw couldn't see his face, as they were all wearing helmets, he could tell something was occupying Aveer's mind. Clayton had a ship manual in his hands, flipping through the pages. It was old, at least twenty years. Nonetheless, Clayton seemed to be absorbing the material like his mind was a sponge.
Icarus was passing by, so Traw mentioned, “What's our ETA?”
Icarus looked at his military-grade watch, the one accessory he had that was up to date. “Approximately three hours. I would suggest getting some sleep. This battle ain't gonna be easy.”
Traw nodded, and Icarus continued his path. He tried resting his head back, the thin layer of cushion on the inside of his helmet pressing against his short-trimmed hair. He waited a moment before closing his eyes. Then he thought of his two girls. Through his memories he was transported to a different place, a better place. Traw remembered the feel of the warm desert wind against his skin. Then he recalled the sound of Luella's excited squeal upon his return. Finally he recalled the taste of his wife's lips.
Suddenly, his thoughts were interrupted by an unholy scream that came from the cabin behind them. He opened his eyes to the cold place he was in, blinking rapidly to reacquaint himself with reality. Traw scrambled up from his seat and rushed out the back door. One of the Marines was grasping his mouth, staring at the ground with a panicked look in his tired eyes. Traw traced the Marine's line of vision to one of the other Marines, lying on the floor with a knife handle protruding from his chest.
“Sergeant Icarus!” Traw shouted, crouching down beside the stabbed Marine. “We've got a man down back here!” A few moments later, Icarus was in the doorframe, leaning against the side. Traw took off his helmet and glanced back at the sergeant, who seemed eerily placid. “What?” Traw asked, pointing at the body. “Aren't you panicked?”
“He killed himself,” Icarus explained matter-of-factly, his voice heavy. He wasn't pleasant, but he wasn't disturbed. “This Marine's not the first one to do so in the 122nd Battalion. I doubt he'll be the last, either.” Icarus returned to the cockpit and ordered nonchalantly, “Eject the corpse out the back hatch, and clean up the blood.”
Traw walked back into his cabin, where the rest of his team stood, alerted and confused. Only Aveer had his helmet off. “What happened?” he inquired, craning his head to look into the back room.
“One of the men...killed himself, apparently,” Traw conceded, running his hand along the back of his head. Aveer looked to the floor as a solemn ambiance overtook the room.
“What do you expect?” Moore asked, almost laughing with a shrug. “This whole platoon's made up of freaks. Half these boys were gonna kill 'emselves anyways. Why're you surprised that one of them decided to do it without a Nektro's help?”
“You cold bastard,” Traw sneered, taking two offensive steps. Aveer placed his hand across Traw's chest, and Sanchez took a cautionary step forward. Neither of them said a word. “Haven't you got a soul inside that chest of yours?”
Moore smirked, tapping his finger to the left part of his chest, his other hand resting on the barrel of his shotgun. “Ain't nothing of worth inside there,” Moore shook his head, at peace with the fact. “This old heart went cold a long time ago. Hasn't beaten since. Y'all got families and loves and all that shit, and that's great. But not me. Not ever.” He pulled the gold palm tree out of an empty ammunition pouch on his belt. “I'm doin' this so I got a place to go to after my two years are up. I'm goin' to a place like this. Sit back on a beach with a pina colada, some chick in a bikini on my lap, and a palm tree overhead. I'm a simple man. You all can look forward to your families and wives, and that's well and good. Just don't expect me to want the same.”