“Day number 117 of my service in the Galactic Armored Marines. Private log entry. Things've been...rough, around here. Since the missions with the 122nd battalion, I haven't been the same. Can't say any of the other guys have, either. After we took out the outpost on Joedo-12, Rank Alpha ordered that we eliminate a Nektro mining facility, some two days' travel away. We did, but...only me and the other members of Death Squad came out alive. Icarus and the rest of the platoon died there. We had one pilot in the hypercruiser taking us back to the Indefatigable, where I am now. I wanted to take somethin' up with Captain Vault, about the dropships I shot down near the outpost, but I've decided not to. It's not worth it. Apparently they were just coming to establish some sorta colony. Anyway, we're on a course for Neptune now...some public meeting with us or somethin' like that. I don't know. Either way, I figured I'd log it in. Y'know, in case somethin' bad should happen to me. Alright, end entry.”
Traw sat back against the metal wall in his quarters. He let out a deep breath. A grizzly beard had overtaken his face, and his eyes were heavy with fatigue. Leaning over, he touched the picture of Luella and Louise on his wall. To him, they were a memory: nothing more. He had been assured by Admiral Venko himself that in about four months, Traw would be able to see his family again for a day while on vacation. Four months seemed like the longest time in all the world. That is, if Venko was even tellin' me the truth, Traw thought to himself, his eyes narrowing at the notion.
Twelve knocked on the door. “Enter,” Traw ordered, and the door slid open.
“Your evening meal is prepared in the dining hall, sir,” Twelve notified, his voice gracious and smooth.
“I don't feel like eatin',” Traw dismissed, looking away.
“Sir, you must eat now, due to scheduling aboard this ship, or you will not--”
“Shut the hell up!” Traw barked, turning about. Twelve did not back away or show any sign of aggression. He just remained there, as if nothing had happened. “I'll eat when I want to. Now just...get out.”
Twelve paused a moment, as if computing something. “As you wish, sir,” he granted with a slight bow, then departed. The door closed, leaving Traw in the cold gloom. He knew he had to leave sometime for food. He had to maintain his strength. For six hours he had been in his quarters, sleeping or thinking or gazing at the stars. He wanted to do nothing else. Something addled his mind.
Reluctantly, Traw straightened his suit and walked toward the door. He paused before opening the door, slightly turning his head to look back at the picture on his wall. He didn't quite look at the picture. Setting his jaw, he walked out of the room and closed the door in his wake.
Standing in line in the dining hall, Moore asked Traw, “Which one of these girls would you hit, if you didn't have a wife?” Moore's eyes were slim as he scanned the crowd, like a predator stalking his prey. Traw hesitated for a moment, disregarding the question. Then he looked up at the milling crowd, glancing about. His eyes fixed on one of the female officers. Her dark brown hair was tied back in a bun. She had eyes of hazel, and a soft nose and chin. She almost looked like Louise, he reckoned.
“Maybe that one,” he answered, pointing discreetly to her.
Moore grinned upon hearing his team member's reply. “Yeah she's pretty hot,” he agreed, his gaze tracing her from up to down. “Maybe we could arrange somethin'.”
Traw filed away the thought, then grabbed his food tray from the counter and shuffled along. He thought for a moment about his wife. Then he thought of Luella. They'd never know if I ever did anything like that here, he reasoned to himself.
He looked at her once more, and their eyes met for a brief moment. She smiled as if he had just complimented her, and he looked away with a sheepish expression. Aveer, who was sitting across from Traw, noticed his playfulness with the officer. He looked behind him, turning his broad-shouldered back, and the girl looked down at her plate, as if returning to business. Aveer looked back at Traw. “Wife is no longer a priority?” Aveer wondered, though he suspected the answer would not be revealed so easily.
“It's not what it looks like,” Traw dismissed, arranging a forkful on his plate. “She just looked over at me.”
“I hope it stays that way,” Aveer mentioned forebodingly, turning his face down to his plate. He paused for a moment, collecting his thoughts. “In my village, we have a tradition. If a man lies with another woman and they are not bound by the seal of marriage, he must serve her father for ten years and never touch her again. And if she becomes pregnant, he has to kill the child himself. With his bare hands...you don't want to steep into that kind of mire.”
“I ain't gonna have no ruttin' sex with her,” Traw snapped, pointing his fork at Aveer. “Just...back off. Don't think you know what's goin' on inside my head.”
Aveer rubbed his tongue along his teeth and proceeded to eat his meal. He didn't say another word to Traw.
The Indefatigable touched down on the surface of Neptune's capitol ground, with a host of far smaller maintenance ships surrounding it and going about their routine duties. Vault and the Death Squad were escorted to a dropship waiting near the border of the dockyard, after no small deal of shuffling through thick crowds.
Sitting in the first class cabin of the dropship, the Death Squad members were dressed in their ceremonial uniforms. None of them were comfortable. “What's this whole press conference thing about?” Sanchez asked, trying to settle into his suit.
Vault, who was reading a book across the aisle from them, answered, “Just a bit of questions from the local media for you guys. Pretty much all you have to do is give answers that make the GAM look good. After that, the top brass has arranged for some evening entertainment for the team.”
“Are we gonna get to see our families?” Traw inquired.
“Considering they're all on a cruise on the other side of the planet...no,” Vault answered. “Sorry. I did what I could to arrange something. Commander General Venko insisted that they go.”
“Why now, though?” Traw insisted on finding out. “Wasn't this conference planned? He'd know that we were coming.”
“Just...stop asking questions,” Vault dismissed, leaning in. His voice lulled to a hush, and he closed the door to the cockpit, where two pilots were controlling the aircraft. “I don't know either, alright? Something's up with Venko, and I don't know what exactly that is. But it isn't good, I'll tell you that much. Don't trust him. Ever.” Vault returned to his book, burying his thoughts into the pages.
Traw took a long look at Captain Vault, partially lingering on the man, and partially on his words.
The dropship landed in the main hangar bay of the GAM tower, which was desolate. On their way in, Traw noticed the leftover scorch marks from the insurgents' attack when he had first came to the tower. The Death Squad stepped off the landing platform of the dropship one by one, each of them recalling their own experiences when they entered the tower for the first time. Only Traw showed any sign of it, though.
As they approached the center elevator, Traw heard the muffled sounds of media clamor coming from within the large elevator cabin. “Haven't faced worse than this yet,” Sanchez joked. “Nektro ain't got nothin' on these reporters.”
The elevator doors opened wide, revealing a gaggle of reporters and cameramen, each of them as obnoxious as the the one beside them. There was a myriad of probing questions such as, “What was your most intense experience during your service so far?” and “Is there anyone special waiting for you here on Neptune?”
None of the men replied.
Confined to the elevator cabin with the small mob of media representatives, the Death Squad members began to feel they were developing a quick case of claustrophobia. Finally, after what seemed like an eon, the doors opened to the conference room, where there were ten times as many reporters and cameramen anxiously awaiting the arrival of the men. Traw was grateful the room was spacious.
Having to budge through the crowd, the men took their seats at the end of the room, on a raised platform. Traw scanned the crowd and estimated there to be somewhere around a hundred media workers, each of them eager to get just one quote or photo for their respective companies. About half a minute after the Death Squad had entered the room, Commander General Venko walked in, clothed in his full ceremonial uniform. He bade the crowd the general waves and polite shaking of hands.
Traw watched Venko's every step, sensing something insidious about him. He wasn't sure how he came off, so he tried to maintain a poker face as the focus of the reporters shifted back to him and his team.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming on this fine afternoon,” Venko greeted, stepping onto the platform. “Please, take your seats.” It took some hesitation, but the crowd eventually sat down. Albeit, they sat on the edges of their chairs, microphones and cameras at the ready. “This, as many of you know, is the Death Squad. They have served for four months now as a special operative team, executing high-risk missions across the galaxy in guard of the State.”
Everyone enthusiastically clapped and gave their thanks in the form of clamor. Traw looked down at the table, unsure of how to respond. Clayton did the same, then glanced at Traw. Moore was waving and smiling falsely, even winking at a few of the attractive female reporters in the front row. Aveer forced a polite smile, but Traw had worked with him enough to recognize he was uncomfortable. Even still, he made an effort to look at the crowd, whereas Traw felt a bit guilty for not doing so. Sanchez grinned smugly and gestured with his hands, signaling the crowd to give him more applause. A few of the ladies bit their lower lips and began to chatter among each other.
“Great group of fellows, am I right?” Venko laughed as the applause finally began to die down. There was a short encore of hoots and claps, accented with a few spots of laughter. “So we'll be taking questions from the front row, then work our way back,” Venko told the crowd, pointing to the first row of reporters. “We can only take a couple questions from each row, so we'll just point to you and tell you to answer. No blurting out, for time's sake. You in the front, go ahead.”
A stocky man in a slick suit rose from his seat, sliding his hand along his thinning hair. Raising his microphone, he said, “So I'll start with the obvious question: how was your time in the GAM so far?This is directed at any of you, really.”
Sanchez began, “It's been really great so far. The guys on our ship've been great, ah, super helpful. Venko here's a super nice guy, I like him a lot.” Venko grinned, looking at his feet. “I, ah, I recommend joinin'. It's an experience you don't wanna miss.”
Moore chimed in, “Yeah, and the girls are super hot too.” There was a wave of laughter from the crowd.
“Well, I'll be sure to sign myself up then,” the reporter joked, sitting down. “Thank you, gentlemen.”
Venko nodded to a female reporter in the front row. She stood erect, holding her microphone with a hand like wire. “You, sir, with the long hair,” she called, pointing to Aveer. He positioned himself to her, taking a deep breath. “Yes, I have a question for you. What would you say is the toughest experience you've had in the GAM?”
Aveer thought for a few seconds, stroking his grizzled chin. “You never quite know what you should expect, going into war. There is no beauty in it. I have seen things...I would not wish upon any of you to see.”
“Can we get some details?” the reporter inquired. Traw reckoned she was either aware of his discomfort, or simply didn't care.
Aveer set his jaw. “Corpses...” he muttered, looking at the tabletop. “Many corpses.”
“Can we have any more..” the reporter continued, taking a step forward.
Then she was interrupted by Traw, saying, “We've all seen the same stuff. No need to try to get inside this fella's head.”
“Do you have anything to say?” the reporter asked, turning to him eagerly.
“Not to you,” Traw sneered. “Who's next?”
The female reporter sat down, a repulsive scowl across her makeup-coated face. At Venko's pointed finger, a different woman in the second row stood up. She had a softer face, her features less enhanced by makeup. In a petite voice, she asked, “Do any of you have families waiting for you when your service is over?”
Traw instantly thought of his wife and daughter. Clayton mentioned, “I have a younger brother waiting on my planet. I don't know if you're watching this, but I'm thinking of you, Thomas. It'll be alright.”
“I got a wife and daughter. They're on cruise right now here on Neptune, or so I've been told. Louise, Luella...stay strong, dears. I'm gonna be back real soon,” Traw said, looking straight into the camera's lens.
“Any of you other gentlemen have something to say to your loved ones?” the reporter wondered, turning to the other side of the table.
“No comment,” Aveer muttered.
“My brothers back in the Las Doreson,” Sanchez mentioned, pointing into the camera. “When I get back, we're gonna be kings.”
Moore stood from his seat and gestured at the reporter, glancing at her bare hand. Nothing gold glinted on any of her fingers. “Come on up here, little lady,” he beckoned with a smug wink. With blushing cheeks she made her way up onto the platform, stepping up the short stairs with her petite stiletto heels. Moore took a couple steps closer to her, then looked at the camera boldly.
“I'm livin' for one man in this whole galaxy: his name is Bruce Moore, and you're lookin' at him,” he told the crowd, then grabbed the reporter and kissed her. There was an array of gasps from his audience as he would not release her from his embrace. Finally he let go of the stunned reporter, and she staggered back one step, blinking rapidly and breathing as if she had seen a ghost. “You and me are goin' back to my place after this, alright?” he whispered to her, leaning in close.
She nodded, unsure of what to do or what just happened. Heart thumping, she went back to her seat and, straightening her attire, sat down in a professional manner. Moore slumped into his seat, grinning smugly at the crowd and leaning his elbows onto the table.
“What just happened?” Traw muttered jokingly to Aveer, who was sitting next to him. Aveer chuckled for a moment.
There was a following forty-five minutes of additional questions and personal inquiries as to the experiences and lives of the Death Squad members, then the meeting was adjourned and the room cleared out with haste. Venko and his small company of guards and officials lingered a few minutes after the exodus of the crowd.
“Good work,” Venko complimented the men. “Sanchez, I liked that bit about the GAM. Nice promotion tactic. Moore...that was something else. You're gonna have to go back to her house though, because barracks are off limits to civilians.”
“Whatever you say, boss,” Moore grinned, picking his teeth.
“And Traw...” Venko muttered, turning to him. “Lighten up a bit. That whole dark wolf stuff's gotta stay behind. It makes us look bad.”
“Sorry for standing up for Aveer and taking on that pushy reporter,” Traw snarled, clenching his fists. “Sorry for sticking with him like a team member. Maybe we can do more than just stop each other from being shot by Nektro, huh?”
“That's enough,” Venko scolded with a chilling scowl. “Leave, the rest of you. Including my staff. Traw and I are going to have a word.”
Venko's personal staff filed out of the room without question, assembling in single file flawlessly with their hands folded together behind their backs. Sanchez and Clayton left, their heads low, dodging Traw and Venko. Moore looked Venko over like he was scanning him. He seemed almost critical of the Commander General. Moore left the room without a word. Aveer stood by Traw, glowering at Venko with eyes that did not blink.
“I said leave,” Venko ordered again, maintaining his cool composure.
Aveer looked at Traw. “Go ahead,” Traw assured in a low voice, then continued his silent staredown with Venko. Aveer left the room, leaving just the two men.
“What's your real agenda, huh?” Traw inquired after a few moments of dead silence. “It's pretty goddamn clear you ain't out for the good of the State or even the GAM. I can tell when men have a night business. There's a lot of skeletons in your closet right now, Venko.”
Venko furrowed his brow. “I don't know what you're talking about,” he stammered, almost indignant.
“Like hell you don't,” Traw snarled, taking a step closer. “Don't think I'm an idiot just 'cause I come from the backwater of Sino. What you're doin' makes one hair stand up on the back of my neck, and don't think I'm gonna hush down for a few extra kaoris in my wallet.”
Venko took a step forward in reply. “You rush headlong into dangerous situations for a living. It would be most unfortunate if you were to die in combat, or if you were captured by the Nektro. Though, it will be a tragedy none will find unusual.”
“I don't fear death,” Traw grinned with determination in his features.
“I know,” Venko smiled insidiously. “You have a wife and daughter, though. They are most vulnerable, as you are aware. Since you signed onto this job they have been within my grasp. Wouldn't it be a shame if they were on a cruise, and it was attacked by pirates this very day? They would undoubtedly be raped and murdered, or even captured, followed by more raping, and then, when they are treated like the disposable objects they are, they would be shot dead in the back of some ship and ejected into the cold void of space. And you know who'd hear of it? Not a soul.”
Traw set his jaw, breathing through his nostrils. “You piece of shit!” he roared, grabbing Venko by the collar and throwing him onto the metal table. Venko winced as his head banged against the tabletop. “If you lay a hand on any of my family, I will personally come and tear you apart. You don't know hell yet. I will give it to you.”
Venko, almost smiling, replied, “No you won't. I'm at the top of the pyramid. You can't touch me.”
“Feel me say otherwise,” Traw sneered, pulling back his fist. Suddenly he felt four burly arms pull him back from his damaged opponent. Two of Venko's personal guards were restraining Traw, who made little effort to break free. He was strong, but the guards were enhanced with a serum, like all the other bodyguards Venko had. No one of untampered physical strength could face one of Venko's bodyguards and win: let alone two of them.
“I'm willing to keep these grounds for court martial a secret if you're willing to lay low about your little conspiracy theory,” Venko told Traw, straightening his suit and stroking his own bruised neck. “Are we at an understanding? For the sake of not only you, but the ones you care about?”
Traw knew if he was court martialed, all funds from the GAM would be severed and his family would be in financial and emotional peril. “Fair enough,” he agreed. The bodyguards let him loose. Then he remembered something. “So those pirates...do they happen to have a name?”
Venko thought for a moment. “You know them,” he told Traw cryptically, then walked out to the dropship waiting on the helipad outside. He stopped at the glass door, holding the metal knob. “I bid you farewell for now, Sebastian. Stay quiet and stay safe, for all our sakes.”