After a long, uneasy ride, the hypercruiser descended through the atmosphere of the planet. A thick, orange mass of clouds shrouded the path, making the pilot apprehensive.
Sergeant Icarus entered the Death Squad's cabin, closing the door behind him. Before speaking with them as he intended, he took a discreet peek into the back room. It was clear of any trace that a man had died.
“Here's the situation, and our orders,” he began, hooking the men's attention. “All of us aboard this ship, except for the pilots, will be attacking the ridge where the Nektro outpost is located. It's next to a large plateau with tall grasses, so unless the Nektro have heat sensors, we'll be hidden. The goal is to drive them against the edge of the cliff from behind and finish them to the last man. Destroy all of their tech.”
“Wouldn't we want to keep it, for studying purposes?” Clayton interrupted, concerned.
“Orders are orders. Everything on that ridge goes up in smoke,” Icarus retorted. “We'll be landing two miles from the outpost, beyond cannon range. The hypercruiser'll be parked there until we get back.”
“Well...” Traw chimed, “I ain't a strategist or anything like that, but why couldn't we just take a bomber and drop a payload onto the outpost? This don't seem that efficient.”
Icarus shrugged, rolling his eyes. “What'd I tell you,” he repeated, “orders are orders. I take 'em and never ask questions. You should do the same.” He fitted his shabby, old helmet onto his head and fastened the strap about his chin.
“You expectin' to walk outta this one alive?” Sanchez wondered, gesturing to the sergeant.
“Nope. And that's my job,” he answered without a care. “This is my fifth mission, and the average member of the 122nd survives two. Statistics gotta catch up with me at some point.” He loaded a magazine into his rifle and walked into the other room.
Traw bowed his head and slipped on his helmet. Clayton picked up his thunder rifle and checked the charger on the side, making sure he had enough power in it. He was not quick to place his finger on the trigger. “Death Squad and all Marines to stern cabin. Prepare for departure,” the pilot ordered over the speakers.
The five men entered the back cabin, where most of the Marines already stood, murmuring to each other and preparing for battle. A low lull fell over the room when the Death Squad entered. There was something daunting about the Death Squad members, like they were gods among men. They could be shot a hundred times and still press on. Their faces were usually shrouded, and their frames a great deal taller than the average man. A certain immortality enveloped their presence.
“What're you lookin' at?” Moore sneered, waving his shotgun in the crowd's general direction. They looked away without question. Icarus entered the cabin, and the Marines stood vaguely at attention. At the very least, he had the attention of most of them.
“Once that bay door opens, we're rushin' out into the grass and straight for the outpost,” he ordered, pointing to the door. “Once the Nektro start firing shots, we don't turn back. We press those bitches to the edge of the cliff, and fill their guts with lead and lasers to the last man. Y'all wanted to die, that's a fact. Here's your chance to do it with a shred of honor.”
Icarus took a cigarette pack out of his pocket, and passed it about among the men. A lighter was passed about and used accordingly, then returned to Icarus. “I'd offer you some, but it wouldn't quite work...with the helmets and all,” the sergeant remarked to the Death Squad members, puffing the cigarette between his lips.
The pilot's voice alerted over the speakers, “Dropping in five...four...three...two...one.” In a flash of light, the bay door opened, and the Marines rushed out, their armored forms disappearing into the tall grasses. Sergeant Icarus and the Death Squad rushed to the front of the assault after all the men had poured out of the hypercruiser.
As they were advancing through the grasses with the dusk sun splintering through the peaks of the grass stalks, Sergeant Icarus brought a small, tube-like device out of a pouch on his belt and snapped it onto his helmet. “What's that?” Clayton inquired, noticing the sergeant had attached it.
“Camera,” Icarus replied, tapping it with his free hand. “It's transmitting all our activity back to Neptune as we speak. Some sort of propaganda, at least that's what I've been told.” Clayton decided to ask no further questions.
Traw took a few rapid steps up ahead of the group and crouched low. He engaged a special sensor on his visor, allowing him to see beyond the grass that shrouded his path. “Four hundred meters to the outpost,” he told the rest of the men.
“From what I've read,” Clayton added, “their snipers will likely spot us at two hundred meters, in these conditions, and the artillery will engage fire at once.”
“Into hell's maws,” Aveer remarked, imagining the battle ahead.
The platoon marched on, anticipating a Nektro sniper to spot them at any moment. Traw wished he could have some sort of high ground, so he could start eliminating enemies and do so from a safe distance. What'd happen if I died here? Traw wondered, swallowing hard at the thought. Luella would be without a pa. Louise'd be without a husband. I'd die serving them so we could have a better future together...if that ain't ironic, I dunno what is.
He noticed Icarus was rotating about slowly with his helmet camera, to document everyone present. The sergeant made a point to linger his gaze on each of the Death Squad members, scanning them from up to down. Moore just smirked and shook his head. Suddenly, there was a deathly squawk coming from the direction of the outpost. Then there was the sound of a laser rifle discharged, and one of the Marines fell dead. “That'd be the sniper,” Sanchez grinned, rushing toward the outpost.
Moore, who was close behind, took two sniper shots to the chest, but was evidently unfazed by the way he continued running forth. After a few short moments, the artillery joined the fight, and the unfortunate, or rather welcoming, men in the rear flank of the platoon were obliterated from the battlefield, their loosely armored corpses tumbling among the singed grass stalks.
In a burst of gunfire, the Death Squad emerged from the grasses, attracting the attention of all Nektro present. Footsoldiers poured out of the back door of the outpost, only to be pummeled down by Aveer's bullets. Clayton sprinted up to the door and pressed the barrel of his rifle to the control pad. He charged it until the gun was subtly rumbling in his hands, then released a massive surge of electricity into the control pad.
The door sealed shut, all sirens and lights shut off, and the cannons lost power. Moore switched on his magnetic gloves and lept to the side of the building, immediately shimmying up the wall and clambering onto the roof. One of the snipers flipped open a cover on the roof and began to crawl out, but Moore blasted it against the hatch door, then approached the hole and shot down at the sniper who was climbing up as well. After pulling the pin, Moore tossed a grenade down the hole and closed the cover. There was a quick, ominous rumble.
Traw noticed two footsoldiers slip out of one of the side doors, where the generators and life support system blocks were placed. He waited for them both to come out of the mess of pipes and pumps, then shot one dead. The other tried to run, but he sent a lethal round into its back.
Sanchez came up beside him as Marines flooded toward the outpost defenses, most of which were rendered useless at that point. “We got long-range trouble, comin' in hot,” he told Traw, pointing to the horizon. Traw lifted his rifle and nestled his eye into the scope. Two Nektro dropships were approaching, their silhouettes looming closer to the ridge. “Think you can nail the pilots?” Sanchez wondered.
“I can try,” Traw replied, settling his crosshairs on the cockpit windshield of one of the ships. “Icarus, I'm gonna shoot down two incoming dropships. Do I have clearance?” He kept his crosshairs on the cockpit, waiting a response from Sergeant Icarus.
“Green light, Traw,” Icarus replied over the communication link. “Eliminate incoming dropships.”
Traw pulled the trigger without hesitation. The round penetrated the glass and sunk into the skull of the pilot. Its body slumped over at the controls, jamming them inward and causing the dropship to veer sharply left. Traw lowered his rifle and watched the result of his shot.
The dropship with the dead pilot swerved into the hull of the second one, causing the two vessels to crunch together and careen toward the planet's surface in streams of thick flame. In a deafening blow, they crashed together, tumbling along the ground and skidding. A trail of wreckage and churned ground smoldered in their wake. Finally, they both came to a grinding halt forty meters from the bottom of the cliff, among a field of boulders. “Holy shit,” Sanchez remarked, laughing. He clapped Traw on the arm and walked off to join the other Marines.
Moore jumped down from the roof, smoke rising from the top hatch of the outpost. “Icarus, is that the last of the little bastards?”
“I think so,” Icarus answered, closing the eyes of one of his fallen Marines. “This mission was surprisingly low in body count: 23.”
Traw stood on the sidelines, watching as the rest of the Marines exited the outpost and mustered at the back entrance. He glanced over and noticed Aveer standing at the edge of the cliff, his hand resting on the barrel of his machine gun. Traw slung the rifle over his shoulder and approached his fellow team member. “What're you lookin' at?” Traw asked, curious.
Aveer paused, looking down at the wreckage of the two dropships Traw had destroyed. “Something's not right,” Aveer answered, his tone dark. “Those ships should not have been shot.”
“But they were comin' for us,” Traw argued. “We'd be in some serious trouble if they did get close enough.”
“No...” Aveer replied plainly. “You did not know. None of us did. Come with me.” Without leaving time for a retort, Aveer clipped his gun to his backstrap and leaped off the cliff. He cushioned the landing with his hip and boot thrusters. Traw looked behind him. Icarus was mustering the remnants of the platoon, out of sight. Traw joined Aveer.
The two of them walked toward the wreckage, still alight in some places. Traw knew the fuel cells had already ignited, so there was nothing unexpected to be worried about. The crunched frames of the ships lay slumped, side by side. “Shhh...” Aveer hushed, tapping his ear. Traw stopped in his tracks and listened. He lifted his helmet, scanning the area cautiously. Aveer did the same, slipping back his dreadlocks to expose his large ears. There was a faint crying sound, coming from the direction of the wreckage. “You hear it,” Aveer recognized, looking Traw straight in the eyes.
They approached the wreckage, turning on the flashlights mounted to their shoulders. The strength of the crying sound ebbed and flowed, but Traw knew he was drawing closer. He felt along the edge of one of the damaged hulls and tore away a piece of the armor plating. It ripped off like tinfoil for him. As he did, the crying sound grew more panicked, and there was a brief shuffling sound from within the hull. “I think I found what we're looking for,” he told Aveer.
Trying to be as discreet and quiet as possible, so as to not attract attention from the platoon members, they worked together to haul off pieces of the hull's plating. Finally, they pulled off the last piece of the frame, opening a hole big enough to slip into. They looked at each other before entering. Aveer shimmied in first, crouching low. Traw waited a moment. “It's clear,” Aveer whispered. Traw slipped in, still carrying his helmet in his arm.
The ruptured cabin of the dropship was large, with streams of moonlight peeking through the slim gaps in the cracked hull. A few dangling wires sparked from the ceiling. There was another shuffling sound like the one before, but longer and a bit more manic. Traw tried to illuminate the area with his mounted helmet flashlight. He saw something move among the rubble. “There,” he alerted, sneaking closer. Aveer was by his side.
They approached the end of the cabin, where a few crates were tumbled about. Aveer lifted one of the crates, and revealed a small cave, of sorts. Far more fascinating to both of the men was what they saw within the cave. Two creatures, similar to what they knew of Nektro footsoldiers, lay huddled together, pressed against the furthest wall. They were approximately five feet tall, with slender limbs and long necks. Both of them had several wounds rupturing their slim, purple garments. Both of the men crouched low, getting on the level of the creatures. Their eyes darted back and forth between Aveer and Traw.
“You think they're Nektro?” Traw asked.
“What else would they be doing on a Nektro dropship?”
“They don't look like soldiers, though. They're...civilians. Maybe female.” Traw paused, a dark realization coming over him. “Aveer...check the rest of the cabin floor. Search around. What do you see?” Aveer rose and began looking about as Traw remained in his position, keeping an eye on the two Nektro civilians.
“Thousands of demons,” Aveer exclaimed, holding a lifted grate in his hand. “Corpses. Corpses everywhere.”
Traw stumbled to his feet and ran up next to Aveer. Eleven Nektro corpses lay strewn underneath rubble. They were smaller, with different physical builds. “Children,” Traw muttered, looking at the corpses with a feeling of dread twisting his gut. “These are children.” Traw fumbled back against a crate, running his hand through his hair. He looked back at the two survivors. “I killed children, Aveer.” A tear trickled down Traw's hard cheek as his head hung low. It dropped to the metal floor. “I killed women and children.” Traw covered his face with his hands.
Aveer went to help up the two survivors, but to his disappointment and silence, they had succumbed to death's herald. He said nothing.
Sebastian Traw, Death Squad Member 05, wept.