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“A dignitary?” Sanchez sneered, sending another throwing knife into the head of a practice target. “What are we, bodyguards?”

Moore set his jaw and rolled his eyes. He looked at the floor and shook his head. “They told us we'd be rushin' headlong into battles and takin' on Nektro. Not this BS. I didn't sign up to be a meat shield.” He picked up a bowie knife and hurled it at the target. The blade sank in three inches.

Sanchez turned about and looked at Moore's hand, raising his eyebrows with pleasant surprise. Traw walked into the training room, Aveer by his side. “There's the softies,” Moore muttered, glancing at the two men entering.

“Hey, you guys hear about the mission?” Sanchez asked, turning around with a throwing knife dancing between his rough fingers.

“No, what is it?” Traw wondered, picking up his sniper rifle from the rack. There was a long, narrow firing range he had the intent of using, as he had many times recently.

“We're protecting some high and mighty dignitary from Mars,” Moore answered with a twinge of contempt to even speak the words. “Posh, white, snobby: the whole deal. Classic aristocrat. Apparently this rich chick's running some train shipment on Mars, and they want us to escort her. There's been some shady activity goin' on around there.”

“Why do they want us?” Aveer asked.

“We were thinkin' the same thing. We're a strike force. Not bodyguards,” Sanchez grumbled. “But hey, it's one less brush with death that'd take me away from my reward.”

Moore pulled the gold palm tree out of his pocket and looked longingly at it, dangling it in front of his face. “I'm lookin' forward to the day I get outta here. My paradise is gonna be sweet.”

Sanchez chuckled, tapping the end of the knife onto the edge of the chilling steel table where an array of weapons were laid out. “You guys seen Clayton?” Moore wondered. “Haven't seen the little guy about today.”

“No, I haven't. You, Aveer?” Traw replied. Aveer shook his head.

Traw picked up his communicator. “Captain Vault,” he addressed.

“This is DS05?”

“Yeah,” Traw answered. “Where's Clayton? Er, DS04?”

“Checking. His tracker's in the portside barrack section. Don't know what he's doing over there. He's only three decks away from your location, so you could go check on him.”

“Alright, thank you, Captain,” Traw acknowledged. He put the communicator back onto his belt. “I'm gonna go find Clayton. Somethin don't smell right. Anybody wanna come with?”

Moore hesitated. “Yeah, whatever. Got nothing better to do. Could probably use the walk,” he shrugged. “Sanchez, you wanna join us?”

Sanchez nodded and set the knife down on the table. “Why not,” he conceded. “Aveer, you may as well.” Aveer shrugged. Traw looked over. Something was obviously on the large, dark man's mind. But Traw didn't say anything, despite his perturbation.

“Let's go,” Traw concluded.

The four men walked through the corridor, silently prompting the other officers and Marines to move out of the way with their mere presence. There were a number of dodgy glances, none of which were responded in kind by the Death Squad members. They had a certain ambiance that traveled with them when they were together, like a wolf pack.

They entered a quieter portion of the ship. “I take it this is the portside barrack section,” Moore muttered, remembering what Vault had said to Traw.

Suddenly, at the end of the long, desolate hall, they saw Clayton being thrown against a wall, the sound of his body smacking against the metal wall heard all the way to where the rest of the squad stood. “Clayton!” Traw shouted, and began sprinting, with his team members close at his side. Six Marines approached Clayton, who was struggling to rise after the brutal blow he had sustained.

The Marines beat and kicked the downed man, who was curling into a ball to protect his gut and head. As soon as he was close enough, Traw gripped one of the Marines by the neck and threw him against the wall. Aveer tackled another one and slammed him into the wall. He heard an ominous crunch, and the Marine dropped limp onto the floor.

The Marines diverted their attention to the rest of Death Squad, leaving Clayton to crawl over into the corner for shelter. Moore punched one of the Marines in the face, knocking him back onto the floor after a brief, dazed stumble. He followed it up with a roundhouse kick to the side of the head.

Sanchez assumed a fighting stance as one of the Marines approached him, armed with a combat knife. The armed Marine took two broad swipes at Sanchez's gut, neither of which so much as nicked his shirt. Sanchez clutched the arm holding the knife and twisted it, causing the Marine to drop the knife onto the floor. Sanchez bent down to pick it up, then felt the Marine tackling him. They were both sent to the floor in a tussle. Sanchez wrestled his way on top of his opponent and dealt a swift, cracking blow to his jaw. As the Marine gripped his broken jaw and groaned, Sanchez clambered for the knife and as soon as he could, plunged it into the Marine's chest.

Traw was in a headlock, struggling to escape. He kicked back into his opponent's groin, sending him stumbling backward in agony. Traw grabbed the back of the Marine's neck and with his other hand, punched repeatedly into the Marine's gut, tireless in his blows. As he heard the pained exhalations of his enemy, Traw did not wince. He could only think of seeing the Marine lying dead. With a merciless sneer painted over his mouth, he smashed the Marine's face into his knee, growing angrier with each pound. Finally, the Marine slumped onto the floor, his face bloodied and unrecognizable. Cracked teeth were strewn on the floor. He looked down and saw only a downed opponent: not a fellow man.

By that point, there were five other unconscious, thoroughly beaten men lying on the floor. Blood droplets soiled the metal walls and floor. Out of breath, Traw crouched beside Clayton and turned him over, prompting an agonized groan from the wounded little man. “Talk to me,” Traw urged, positioning Clayton's head up. “Where does it hurt?”

“Where doesn't it?” Clayton grumbled, blood running down his jawline from the edge of his lips.

“Why'd those bastards attack you?” Moore inquired, stooping down low. Sanchez did so beside him, with Aveer on the other side of Traw. They formed a semicircle about Clayton in the corner of the corridor.

“I'm small,” he answered simply in a weary voice, struggling to keep his eyes open. “My guess is they inadvertently realize their personalities are worthless and shallow, so they target anyone they feel they have an upper hand over, even if the transition is from emotional to physical. Which, in this case, was me. No surprise, coming from the likes of these Marines. I never considered them to be a virtuous group. Thank you all, though.”

“Hell of a lecture,” Moore grinned.

“We're a team,” Aveer reminded. He snuck a glance over at one of the Marines strewn on the floor.

“Alright, we gotta get him to the medic bay. He don't look so good,” Sanchez urged, starting to pick up Clayton's bruised and broken body.

Tensing up, Clayton halted, “D-do be careful. I have at least three broken ribs and one fractured hip, which won't be an issue by this time tomorrow, thanks to the medical technology aboard this ship. Regardless...until that point, I would appreciate it if you were careful in transporting me.”

“Yeah, let's all grab a side,” Traw prompted, positioning himself to lift Clayton's shoulder. After a brief few moments of arranging themselves, the squad picked up Clayton and carried him away, but not without some deal of groaning and biting of the tongue.

“And that is what happened, you're absolutely sure?” Vault inquired, typing a few notes into his computer.

“Yessir. That's what happened,” Traw answered in a grave tone. “Six Marines, all of them incapacitated. Along with Clayton, of course.”

Vault paused, folding his fingers and looking down at the top of his desk. He took a deep breath. “That's the thing, gentlemen...” Vault replied, trying to address the issue with diplomacy. “Four of the Marines suffered several broken bones and concussions, and that will be dealt with in due time. But two of these Marines are in critical condition because of the damage you inflicted. They could be nearing death, if their conditions don't improve. The medical bay is giving me updates every fifteen minutes.”

“I don't regret a thing,” Moore muttered boldly, leaning forward in his seat with his elbows resting on his knees. “Those bastards were hellbent on hurtin' Clayton, and they probably would've killed him if they had the chance.”

“All that hate's gotta go somewhere, and they probably ain't shot a Nektro in a while,” Sanchez added.

“Yes, I agree,” Vault conceded somewhat reluctantly, “however, your team is something unlike the GAM has ever hosted. You hold a position somewhere between soldier and mercenary, so court martial, for both you and the six Marines, will be...complicated, to say the least. That is, if Commander General Venko doesn't sweep this under the rug. If the media gets coverage of this, it's going to hit every screen in the nation.”

“Why are you so worried?” Aveer wondered. “If Venko doesn't want us in a bad light, we won't get in a bad light. That man has much power to his name, we all know that.”

“Two things...” Vault corrected. “One, that is under the assumption that Venko does not want us in a bad light. He very well may, for all we know. And, of course, he has the influence to spin the situation in such a way that puts everyone in this room at the chopping block. He has our necks in a vice. Second thing: there is a code that's often forgotten when it comes to the Transition of Power.

“As you know, the power of the State is held in the Trinity: the Galactic Armored Marines, the Intelligence and Research Offices, and the Organization of Governmental Supremacy. Depending on the national situation and crises, certain powers will be put into the chiefest place of authority and the other two will fall under it in ranks of authority. Right now, the GAM is in power. That's why we refer to Venko as Rank Alpha. He's currently the most powerful man in the nation. Usually, the OGS is in power, so Venerable Minister Lucius Verassus would be Rank Alpha. However...IRO has a certain point at which they can override Rank Alpha.”

“And that would be?” Moore asked.

“Suspicious activity. IRO agents don't need a reason for intervening under those circumstances. If Highest Intellect Matthias Tirion, the head of IRO, approves an investigation, it can't be stopped. If there are any reports of suspicious activity among the ranks of any of the three State Powers, IRO will send an agent to inspect the situation.”

“You're describing this like it's gonna happen,” Traw mentioned, sensing something was afoot.

Vault hesitated. He put his hand to his chin. “IRO has sent a high-ranking agent to inspect the activity aboard this ship. Someone reported what happened to them, as all GAM officers are instructed to do. He'll be here a minimum of two days, probably more. The agent will ask some questions around the ship, be given access to full range of the data files, and have the authority to question anyone and everyone aboard this vessel as many times as he sees fit. To my knowledge, he'll be arriving in a couple of hours. So if you have any dirty secrets...now'll be the time to dispose of them. You're dismissed.”

The team left the room, each of them with the intent of going back to their respective quarters and cleaning up any potentially damning evidence. Just after Aveer left the room and Vault was going to resume his work, he got a call on his computer. Slightly irritated, he checked it. It was Venko's office. Vault swallowed hard, then pressed the green phone button on the pad.Venko appeared on the screen, with a polite nod of greeting as he saw Vault. "Good evening, Captain Vault," he greeted with a modest gesture of his hand. "And good evening to you as well, Sir," Vault replied after taking a deep breath. He continued, trying to mask his discomfort, "What's your reason for calling my office? You're a busy man, so a scheduling triage must be necessary for you. Surely a ship in the outskirts of State territory wouldn't normally fall very highly on that priority list.""You're a smart man, Captain," Venko granted, with a slightly suspicious grin. "You're not on the Council of Officers without reason. Claudius, I have seen many officers in the GAM rise through the ranks. I've seen bravery, tenacity, cunning, wisdom, and all the other traits of an exemplary officer. You have nearly all of them. Your potential is unrivaled, from what I've seen. You are 31 years old, the youngest officer on the Council. The rest of the top brass, myself included, are superbly impressed with your career. And yet, there seems to be one prevailing flaw."Vault suddenly became stiff in his chair. The conversation was going in a direction he didn't like in the slightest. Keeping his composure, he replied, "And that would be?""Privacy," Venko answered with a tongue like steel. His diplomacy had exited now. "Captain, the State is founded on a series of principles designed to uphold justice, security, and truth. Privacy has no place here. When the State was founded by my grandfather--Antonias Venko--and the other Hierarchs, they had to leave many things behind. Privacy was one of them, religion was one of them, history was one of them. As you know, the Disciple is charged with preserving history in his mind and his alone, but that's beside the point. You seem to relish those secrets you keep. You operate the Indefatigable as if you have no superiors. This kind of attitude is intolerable.""What made you bring it up so suddenly?" Vault wondered, a twinge of defensiveness in his voice.Venko paused. "I know what happened aboard your ship earlier today. I know about the incident. Do not try to hide anything, for the sake of both your welfare and your dignity. Am I understood?""Yessir," Vault answered immediately, looking Venko in the eye. Venko cut the transmission.
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