The dropship touched down onto the surface of Mars, sending clouds of red dust whirring away in all directions. The squad fitted on their helmets and strapped their guns to the clips on their backs. “I heard Mars was one of those red rock planets. Terraformed, but still dry,” Sanchez remarked, glancing through the window to the harsh terrain waiting outside.
“Never heard you get so poetic,” Traw smirked. “Clayton's usually the one with such a vocabulary...I hope he's doin' okay. Kinda miss his big brain.”
“That makes four of us,” Aveer commented. “Let's run this mission and get back as soon as we can. I hate rock worlds, but I more hate knowing a comrade is in trouble...and being miles away.”
The back hatch of the dropship opened, and the squad made their way out. The bright sun gleaming in their faces, though filtered through the visors on their helmets. Some hundred yards away, there was a train track, with twelve cars resting on it, the engine pointed south.
Ignoring the ladder on the side, a man in uniform—evidently the captain of security—hopped down to the dirt from the edge of the train car and approached the Death Squad. “I take it you're the squad sent to protect Madame Donovan?” The captain asked, squinting. Traw couldn't tell if he was squinting from the sun or his own suspicion.
“That's us,” Moore answered plainly. “Why're we here, anyway? Our job is to run high-risk missions for the GAM. This doesn't seem like one of 'em.”
“Mars is full of surprises,” the captain retorted, motioning for them to follow him back to the train. “We've been dealing with a number of insurgents lately, and to date there've been three attempts on Madame Donovan's life. I've lost eight men in my service to the Dignitary Guild, and all of them have been during those attempts.”
“And what's special about her? Why not any of the other dignitaries?” Traw wondered.
“She's been publicly proposing some very...new, ideas during the summits in the past few months.”
“Such as?” Traw continued.
“Giving money back to the people, higher taxes on big corporations, more power to the governmental intervention...stuff like that. Whatever philosophy these insurgents have, it's clear what she's saying doesn't go along with it. Anyways, I have fifteen guards ready to protect her: two are stationed in the engine car, six in her personal car, and the other seven patrol the other ten cars. I heard there were going to be five of you, but apparently I was misinformed. So I'll have you all in her personal car, in light of that new information. Sound good?”
“Whatever you say,” Sanchez shrugged. “I got sixteen months left on this job. Don't care how I spend 'em.”
“Typical Marine,” the captain muttered as he opened the door to Donovan's personal car. The men stepped inside the spacious car, and even through their breathing filters, the smell of heavy perfume entered their nostrils. Out of politeness, Traw struggled to hold in his coughs. Moore didn't bother, hacking in his helmet once he entered. The six guards stood at the windows of the car, and in the center, lounging in a plush leather chair, was Madame Donovan herself. One foot on an ottoman and the other resting on the soft, ornate rug, she slept in the massive recliner, letting her hands hang on the sides of the chair. The captain cleared his throat rather loudly, and she awoke, making a foul snort that interrupted her last snore.
“Ah, we have visitors,” she exclaimed, trying to regain her pompous composure. Due to her immense size, it became difficult for her to rise from the chair and greet the squad, so she soon abandoned the endeavor. “Make yourselves comfortable, gentlemen.”
They awkwardly filed into the room, sitting down in the chairs and couches lining the walls of the cabin. The captain excused himself, “I'll be in the engine car, and we'll begin the trip as soon as the thrusters are prepared.”
“Er, how long is this trip expected to take?” Traw made a point of inquiring. He noticed the dropship leaving. Suddenly the prospect of standard military life had a certain attractiveness to him.
“Ten hours, assuming all goes according to plan,” the captain answered, then departed with the seal of the door.
Moore turned to Traw and tapped the speaker on his own helmet, subtly motioning for Traw to do the same. He nodded in reply. They both turned off the external speakers of their microphones, allowing only a link between them and the other squad members. Traw whispered over the squad link, “If those insurgents don't start shootin' up the place real quick, I might have to.”
Moore held in his smirking laughter. Sanchez and Aveer caught on and turned their external speakers off. They felt the train shake with the igniting of the thrusters, and it was soon on its way. “Ten hours...” Aveer grumbled.
“Oh, do take off those dreadful helmets, gentlemen,” Madame Donovan pleaded. “I can't stand it when the Marines send a rabble of helmeted robots to do their work. It chills me.”
Traw turned his speaker back on. “No thank you, ma'am. We have orders to keep them on at all times, for our own protection. And it helps communication.”
Donovan rolled her eyes. “If you must,” she conceded. She looked herself over and realized she was not dressed properly for a meeting. “Oh, good heavens,” she exclaimed. Then, evidently bothered, she remembered, “The security captain insisted that I leave my servants back at the last station, in case one of them was a spy.” She laughed sharply, piercing any serenity in the room. “I would know if they were spies. I've known them since they were born in the rooms of my house. If only their mothers survived the birth, though. They made such splendid fashion advisers.”
Sanchez set his jaw, realizing just how long the trip was going to be. “Would one of you be so kind as to help me get dressed?” she wondered, struggling to rise from her chair. “I asked these gentlemen here, but none of them responded. I swear, if the captain doesn't train them to be polite, I might have to fire him. Ha, who am I kidding? He adores me. I'm certain he would comply with what I asked of him.”
The men hesitated. Each of them were trying to formulate some sort of excuse of their own. Finally, Aveer corrected, “Our task is to be on guard. Helping you...in that way would be hindering our duty.”
“Fair enough,” she grumbled, rising from her chair. She walked behind a thick veil at the other end of the room and closed it behind her, where a small portion of her wardrobe was held.
Thirty silent minutes later, she pulled open the curtain and emerged in her normal attire. Her face was so caked with makeup that it was nearly impossible to discern her from the woman they had just seen. She wore a crimson dress with a gold pattern running along it from the bottom. Two massive gold earrings dangled from the sides of her face, in front of a lush, wavy hairstyle that was difficult to ignore. “Kripes,” Sanchez muttered, blinking and looking away. Despite all her efforts to look beautiful, her very demeanor was enough to repulse the men present.
“You'll have to pardon me for not looking my finest,” she excused with a wave of her hand. Then she made her way to the liquor table and helped herself to the contents thereof. “So...” Traw struggled to make conversation, “what's in the other ten cars? I mean, it's just you and the guards. Why do you need all that?”
She turned about and laughed that same shrill laugh, causing him to cinch his eyes shut. “My possessions, darling,” she answered, with a pompous air about her that suited her. “Gold, silver, silk, leather, hickory, oh...and the things you should see. It would put the State's treasury to shame. I have a few large empty cages in the back room, though. What a bother.”
“Cages for what?” Moore inquired. He was genuinely interested, but suspected he already knew the answer.
“Well, my servants need to go somewhere, dear. And having thirty of them in my kind of living quarters would be impractical.” She took another generous sip from her pinot noir, then set the empty glass onto the table, exhaling with satisfaction.
A long two hours passed. Madame Donovan had fallen asleep in her chair once again, but not before she made certain the members of Death Squad were fully aware of her lengthy list of achievements and honors. She had made a point of revealing her case of medals, and displayed her many ceremonial sashes with pride. In reply the men said nothing but the occasional remark that could be said of anything which was displayed.
“We're approaching the tunnel now,” the captain notified over the speakers. “It'll be about twenty minutes until we're in the light again.”
“I don't like tunnels,” Sanchez grumbled as the train slipped into sheer darkness.
The interior lights flickered on after a couple brief seconds of shadow. “There we are,” Madame Donovan remarked, looking at the lights overhead.
Suddenly, there was a jolting rumble. The security guards took a defensive formation round Donovan, and she looked all about like a cat that has heard a sudden noise. The Death Squad rose from their seats. “That came from the rear,” Aveer noted. He picked up his machine gun from its place resting beside the chair. “I'll go check.”
“I'm coming with,” Traw told him, strapping the rifle to his back and unholstering his pistol. “Everyone else stay here. You got the short range guns, so if somethin' happens...you'll be better ready to take those insurgents on.”
“I'm gonna shoot to kill,” Moore grinned, holding his shotgun at the ready. “Donovan, you just stay down and...try not to get shot.”
“You'll refer to me as 'Madame',” she corrected, crouching to the floor.
“How bout we refer to you as 'shut the hell up'?” Sanchez barked, maintaining his defensive, terse composure.
Traw and Aveer slipped through the train cabin directly behind Donovan's. It was dark: evidently the power line had been severed somewhere along the way. They heard the automatic door swoosh closed behind them. “Turning on headlamp,” Traw mentioned, clicking on the flashlight strapped to his helmet. “I suggest you do the same.”
Both of them turned their lights on. A thin smoke stirred about in the remainder of the room that wasn't conquered by the products of opulence. After hearing a crunch, Traw looked down and realized he had stepped on a ceramic doll that had fallen from its place among many others of its kind. “She ain't gonna be happy about that,” he muttered, continuing on. Then there was a shuffling noise. One of the other crates fell over, toward the other end of the cabin.
Aveer stopped. “Run a heat scan,” he told Traw in a low voice. He wasn't sure how loud it was over the speakers on his helmet. “I'll keep watch and shoot at anything that moves. Let me know what the scan brings up.”
Traw struggled for a moment to find the heat scan command on his helmet, then found and engaged it. On the display inside his helmet, he saw eight red figures blinked, hazed somewhere between the physical mass before him and the visor across his face. “Eight of 'em. Six in the car in front of us. Two in this one.”
“How far?” Aveer asked, concentrating on the space before him. He would run a heat scan himself, but he had to lock his attention on what lay ahead.
“Three meters, one on each side of the cabin,” Traw answered, stepping up alongside Aveer. “I'll take the one on the right. Neither of them are moving.”
“Where are the other guards?” Aveer wondered, slipping his finger onto the trigger.
“Don't matter. Just shoot,” Traw dismissed, squinting on the space the heat signature appeared. “Three...two...one.” Without hesitation, Traw fired shot after shot at the place where the heat signature appeared, and Aveer sprayed the area with gunfire. Not a single cubic foot in front of him was devoid of a bullet.
“Are they dead?” Aveer asked.
Traw looked over. “Yeah, but there're more coming. Wish I could see 'em.”
“Maybe it's better that they don't have faces we can see.” Aveer positioned himself in front of the door and fixed his illuminated gaze on the doorframe. Traw loaded a fresh magazine into his pistol and cocked it.
They heard shuffling from the car. Twelve feet advanced toward the door, swift and agile. Traw set his jaw and looked intently at the other side, aiming his pistol directly at the point where an enemy's head would appear. There was a noise coming from the other side of the door which sounded like welding sparks. “Don't think about their faces,” Traw reminded Aveer, his eyes fixed on the door. “It makes it easier, whoever they are.”
“Is that how you sleep at night?” Aveer asked, also keeping his gaze fixed on the door.
Traw replied with silence.
With a burst of smoke, the door broke down, and Aveer immediately opened fire into the blast-marked gap. There were several unholy screams as the hazy silhouettes of the enemies collapsed in the doorframe. Traw fired off six shots into the darkness, then stopped. Neither he nor Aveer were suffering return fire. He lowered his pistol. Aveer continued to fill the doorway with piercing lead, stepping forward and sneering as he loaded an army of punishing shots into the flesh of his enemies, whoever they were. He did not know. Nor did he care.
Five more mutilated corpses lay in the space just behind the doorway. “There's another,” Traw told Aveer, who was already charging into the smoking gap. Bolting with unrivaled celerity, a dark figure emerged from a pile of suitcases, heading for the back door. “Not happening,” Aveer growled, clenching the trigger and unleashing a devastating stream of bullets.
Punched down by the barrage of lead, the last enemy fell onto the carpeted floor. Traw stepped through the blasted-out doorframe, his eyes sweeping over the bodies that lay strewn on the floor. He picked up a tool one of them was carrying. The tip, a cone-like apparatus, was searing hot. Traw assumed that was most likely what had allowed them to break through the door in the first place. Aveer strapped the gun to his back and crouched over the corpse of the one who had attempted to flee.
With tough, armored hands, Aveer turned the body over. It was a man, with long, ragged hair and a beard that had the consistency of a bush. His skin was wrinkled and coarse, like sandpaper. The clothes he wore had obviously seen better days. Two feet away, evidently knocked out of his hand, the man's rifle lay. Aveer picked it up, examining it. “This is old,” he noted. “Very old. I doubt it still works.”
Traw turned over one of the bodies. He appeared similar to the one Aveer had turned over, yet slightly different. This one had a shoulder pauldron, with an odd marking painted in black onto the metal. “I think I've seen some of the officers lookin' at this symbol on their datapads. These'd be the insurgents then.”
“The Umbragites is their name, I believe.”
“Yeah, that's what they're called.” Traw set the corpse back down in its place against a broken crate. “Alright, let's get back to the main car. We'll tell 'em what happened.”
Just as they were returning, there was a massive blast, with magnitude that dwarfed the one that first shocked them. The train ground to a screeching halt, shaking and rumbling off the tracks. “We got a problem,” Moore grumbled over the communication link.