Traw kicked down the door to Madame Donovan's car. His headlamp illuminating the foggy darkness, Traw scanned the area. Not a soul was to be found. Then he noticed a body on the floor. He stooped down and turned it over. It was one of the security guards, his neck sliced. Traw set him back down and returned to Aveer, who was waiting in the doorway. “Moore, where are you?” Traw asked over the communication link.
“Sanchez, where are you guys?” he asked again, his voice a bit more urgent.
Again, there was nothing.
“This isn't good,” Aveer commented, hopping down to the track below. “We should walk ahead and look for them.”
“Agreed,” Traw replied, sliding his hand along the railing as he leapt down. They noticed a crackling orange glow ahead, and he had a good idea of what it was.
With light legs he sprinted ahead, approaching the bend in the tunnel. Flickering bulbs sent down rays of pale light briefly onto him. He turned the curved corner and beheld the engine car in flames, with its fuel cells being licked by encroaching streams of fire. “Traw!” a familiar voice shouted nearby. Traw scanned about, motioning for Aveer to join him. “Who's there?” he asked.
“It's Moore!” the voice answered. “We're under the third car. Get here, quick!”
Traw looked at the third car, and saw a glimpse of human forms beneath it. He shuffled up to the car, and Moore shimmied his way out from beneath it. Traw noticed a few char marks and dents in Moore's armor. “That engine's gonna blow any second, so get under here with us.”
“Why didn't you turn around and go back?” Traw asked, pointing back to the point from whence he came.
“The insurgents attacked us while you were gone,” Sanchez added, crawling out from his cover. “Dozens of 'em. We couldn't turn back. Now get in here. I don't wanna be grilled.”
Deciding to save the rest of his questions for later, Traw crawled under the car with Madame Donovan and the remainder of her security team. As Aveer shimmied his way under the car and scraping his suit along the hot Martian rocks, Traw wondered, “Where's the captain?”
“He went with the engine,” Sanchez answered, gesturing toward the engine car. Traw nodded solemnly in reply.
Traw slipped the pistol into its holster. Any moment, he knew, there would be a massive explosion. He wasn't even sure if he or any of his companions would survive. Muffled through the filters in his helmet, Traw heard Madame Donovan weeping out of fear.
A powerful wave of unrelenting flame rushed through the tunnel, littered with particles of searing shrapnel. From the engine cells, the blast tore apart the car directly behind it and shattered the one behind that. The car under which they sought refuge was partially eaten by flame and the corrosive teeth of fuel alight.
As the explosion raged through the tunnel outside of their cramped shelter, Aveer used his armored body as a shield, spreading himself out across the thin gap underneath the car. Traw crawled up beside him, feeling the heat through his suit. Traw clenched his teeth and thought of his home. In a fit of desperation, he squeezed his eyes shut and tried to transport himself back to the farm.
At last he found himself at home, at peace. He could feel every sensation of his homestead, even how his daughter's smooth hand felt against his hairy, dust-infested arm and how his wife's hair felt matted against his stubble-covered upper neck. “Traw,” a voice shouted, interrupting his paradise. “Traw!” Traw snapped himself back to reality. He was in a cave on a distant planet, with a company of people he disliked and a mission he wished he had never been assigned.
A hand was extended to him in the darkness, and he grabbed it. Traw picked himself up from underneath the rail car. The rest of his team and Donovan's company had already crawled out. He had evidently been in his mental paradise for longer than he reckoned. Sanchez brushed the dirt and embers off Traw's breastplate after helping him up.
“Let's get movin',” Moore suggested, checking his shotgun to make sure it was still functional. He aimed at a clear place on the side of the rail car and fired a pepper shot. A small circle of buckshots punched through the metal wall.
“What are you doing, you daft punk!” Madame Donovan scolded, grabbing Moore by the arm. “Those are highly valuable possessions in there! I've already lost enough in that dreadful fire!”
Moore turned about and slapped her with an armored hand, sending her to the hot, rocky ground. This time her security guards unholstered their guns and aimed them at him. They seemed to do so out of duty, not defense. “I don't flip shit about your precious junk in there!” Moore snarled, taking off his helmet. “So shut the hell up and just follow us if you plan on living. If you think we're a bunch of saints for helpin' you, you couldn't be more wrong. I'm a rapist. Sanchez is a street thug. Traw's a murderer. Aveer over there's done some stuff he doesn't even wanna talk about. The only decent fellow on our team is in the infirmary right now with busted ribs. Ya see? Don't think for a second that we're helpin' you out of the goodness in our hearts, 'cause that isn't what's goin' on here. We're doin' this for a paycheck, plain and simple.”
Donovan struggled to pick herself back up. With a bold air, she took a step forward at Moore and stuck her finger in his face. “You are a demon,” she declared, regaining her breath from the blow she was dealt.
“Tell me somethin' I don't know,” Moore quipped, squinting his eyes. Traw watched him. He was not at all disturbed by what she had said. He had no remorse. It was almost as if he enjoyed the insult she dealt him, like it was a confirmation of his status. “We're movin' out. Fatty over here can choose to follow us if she wants, or she can obsess over all her precious dolls and trinkets, then get shot by those same bastards who set the land mines on this track. But I ain't gonna get blown to dust for her.” Moore fitted his helmet back on and knocked the side of it with his fist. He began to walk down the long, wide path alight with an array of embers.
One by one the other members of the Death Squad followed him, each of them passing Madame Donovan. She was torn between rage and fear. Never had she been treated with such brutality and bluntness. Since birth she had been treated with a high level of grace and temperance, always receiving exactly what she desired and exactly when she desired it. She had blown through four husbands, a myriad of beaus, and had accumulated over seventy million kaoris in assets.
The Death Squad marched through the long, dark tunnel for some twenty minutes before Madame Donovan and her company had caught up with them. “Wait, wait, I beg you!” she pleaded, hurrying up with all her pathetic strength. Moore and the others turned about. Traw was half relieved to see her because he wouldn't miss his paycheck, but also irritated to see her return for reasons that go without saying.
As soon as she assured she was well within speaking distance, she continued, “I have rethought our disagreement. I will join you, but only for my own welfare.”
Moore rolled his eyes. “Great. Keep walking,” he replied with an air of nonchalance. It was like he was only receiving confirmation for something he expected would happen.
“But won't we rest for ten minutes?” she interceded.
“No, we're gonna keep walking,” Moore argued, making it clear he was not going to be moved on the subject. “Once we make it out of this tunnel, maybe we can take a break. Those insurgents sure as hell won't stop anytime soon. Keep walking, all of you.”
It was a long hour of walking, accented with Donovan's complaints and overly loud panting. Traw noticed the tunnel was growing a bit lighter. The air was a bit less clouded with smoke from the explosion. “Any of you fellas notice we haven't run in with those Umbragites, or insurgents, or...whoever they are yet?” Traw mentioned. His tone was that of a dark realization.
“Yeah,” Aveer noted, adding his piece, “maybe they're retreating.”
“That ain't happenin',” Sanchez corrected, a brief laugh slipping out. “I'd bet my chips that they're gatherin' for another attack. Maybe a trap at the end. Maybe they've been a step behind us the whole time, I dunno. Either way, we just gotta make it out alive.”
“You would not be wise to leave me unattended, should an ambush arise,” Madame Donovan mentioned, her voice echoing with great magnitude.
“Yeah, we'll get on it,” Traw replied dismissively.
They marched onward, the air growing less foul and the darkness lightening a slight degree with each passing minute. Their pace was constant, but tense. Though they had been walking for some two hours without ambush or attack, Traw was still on edge. His trigger finger itched.
His breathing was rapid, while everyone else was fairly calm with the passage of time. “Traw, you alright?” Sanchez asked, clapping Traw on the shoulder. “You didn't seem all that with it back there under the car.”
Traw tensed up for a moment at the contact. “Yeah, I'm fine,” he nodded, settling back into reality. “Thanks.”
“Death Squad for life, man,” Sanchez grinned.
When they emerged from the tunnel, the sun was on the verge of decline. Its orange rays beamed across the sky with a plethora of warm colors. “We gotta start a fire or somethin',” Moore remarked, looking around at the open space. “I don't know what the climate's like here. But I don't wanna be caught off guard by the cold.”
“What about the insurgents? They'll see us,” Madame Donovan interceded, eagerly sitting down on a large rock.
“As if they won't already,” Aveer muttered. He set his massive gun down against a boulder and rolled his shoulders. He let out a relaxed moan and sat down on the rock. With a fresh breath he took off his helmet, letting his dreadlocks hang free.
“Breathe that fresh air, man,” Moore remarked, taking off his helmet. He turned it about and looked at the long, broad visor. “I think I'm gonna carve somethin' on this. Like war paint.”
Three of the security guards searched about on the ground for some small rocks, then brought them together in a ring where everyone else sat. One of the other ones pulled a device off his belt and before tossing it at the center of the ring, pressed a button on the side. A few seconds later, the device burst into a large, thick flame and the rest of the security guards huddled close by it. They unbuttoned their jackets and slipped off their caps.
“Did I say you could undress?” Madame Donovan snapped, pointing to the security guard company. They looked sheepishly at the ground with almost a collective mind. Traw noticed their movements were almost singular, like different appendages of a machine.
Moore barked, “They've been doin' a hell of a lot more work than you. I think they deserve to loosen up a bit.”
Madame Donovan bit her bottom lip, clenching her fists. “I've had just about enough of you people, especially you,” she snapped, shaking her rigid finger in Moore's face. “I'm the most important person here, and that's a fact you should all face. I should be calling the orders. Animals like you should fall into your place. Who put you in charge of this...this death squad, anyways? I don't see any markings of authority on your armor.”
Moore stood still, looking her in the eyes through squinted lids. A sinister, smug grin spread across Moore's face as Traw rose from his seat. Traw had a few ideas whirring about in his head as to what he would say in reply. Something had to be done. He stood next to Moore, and Donovan lowered her accusatory finger. Her intense gaze turned to Traw.
“Shut up and sit down,” he ordered, putting a firm hand on her shoulder. It just rested there, ready to inflict some kind of pain, should he want to do so. “Look at me,” he told her in a calm but formidable voice. She glanced toward the rocky ground, swallowing hard. “Look at me.” His voice was more tense and commanding. Donovan looked up at him with a look in her eyes Traw had never seen. She looked into his eyes like a brave prisoner facing execution.
“You're gonna sit down on that rock and you ain't gonna speak another word unless we tell you to. Us four are in charge now. Our orders are to make sure you get to the destination in one piece. Not cater to you like those servants you abuse. That clear?”
She nodded, clenching her jaw. Then she turned about and sat down on the rock with a timid obedience. The security guards looked over at her, somewhat confused. She was always the one dealing orders, not taking them. “We're in charge now, boys,” Sanchez told them, taking a few steps forward. “You take orders from us, not her. We tell you what to do. Raise your hand if you understand.”
Each security guard raised his hand immediately. Traw noticed again the singularity of their movements; it was almost troubling. “Good,” Sanchez grinned, fitting his helmet back on. “I'll be asleep if any of you need me. Dreamin' of hot girls and cold drinks.”
Moore pulled his knife out of his sheath, examining it. He looked down at the helmet sitting beside him on one of the boulders. Setting the knife down, he picked up the helmet, looking at the long, broad visor that encompassed almost the entire front part of the helmet. The chrome visor allowed no one to see inside yet allowed him to see outside without hindrance. He picked up his knife once more and set the helmet on one of his knees. With a determined nature, he began etching something into the helmet's visor with the tip of the blade.
Traw laid back onto the ground, his muscles relaxing strand by strand. He let out a faint groan of both relaxation and aching. The sniper rifle was in one hand, and the back of his head was resting in the other.
He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, though he could not sleep. His blood was running too hard. Maybe back on the ship I can get some good rest, he thought, already aching at the thought of another sleepless night followed by a long day of hiking and likely battle.
He heard the wind rolling over the red, arid Martian plains. It was harsh, even when it hardly rolled through the mountain passes and between the dusty boulders. In a way, Traw was reminded of Sino, his home planet. Mars was similar, yet it always had an unforgiving, infertile ambiance. One would never find a shrub or stalk on the Martian surface, whereas Sino had foliage here and there.
Traw's thoughts drifted to Clayton, and where the man was at that point in time. From what Vault had told them, Clayton would be fully recovered at that point. Then again, Traw reckoned, information passed along in the GAM was never to be trusted. Plans always changed. Facts became fiction. What was once taboo became standard protocol with a hidden sweep down the chain of command.
After what he thought was an hour of lying still on the ground, Traw rose from the bed of rocks and dust, stretching his sore back. He was glad to have never broken a rib or an arm in the events of the past few hours. The fire in the ring of rocks was still alight with the same enthusiasm. He slung his sniper rifle across his back. That was the last thing he wanted to lose. He gazed out at the long stretch of tracks, their destination nowhere in sight. “It's gonna be a long day,” he told himself in a low whisper, so as to not wake anyone who was asleep. They had received a luxury he did not want to spoil.
“You like it?” Moore's voice interrupted Traw's drifting thoughts. Traw turned around, overcoming the brief startle.
“Do I like what?” Traw clarified.
“The helmet,” Moore answered, then tossed Traw his helmet. Moore slipped his knife back into its sheath and clipped it shut. Traw examined the helmet tossed to him. The visor had two sinister-looking slit eyes etched deep into the glossy chrome finish. Traw smirked, then tossed it back to Moore. “I can still see fine in it. Adds that little touch of intimidation.”
Traw let out a low chuckle. Then he heard a sound not far in the direction of the tunnel mouth. It sounded like rocks on the ground being disturbed from their rest. Moore flipped his shotgun out and turned on his headlamp. “Let's go check it out,” he muttered, sliding down the side of the boulder. Traw pulled out his pistol and walked up alongside Moore, who was slowly advancing toward the source of the sound.
“Think we should wake the others?” Traw asked, scanning the area. It seemed clear, but he was wary of trusting appearances.
“Nah,” shrugged Moore. “If there's trouble, one of my shotgun blasts should wake 'em up real easy.”
From the wafting darkness came a chaotic wave of bullets, a few of which found their places denting against the armor of Moore and Traw. “Aw hell,” Moore grunted, returning fire and rushing headlong into the direction from whence the bullets came. Traw sneered and fired back, having no idea where he was shooting or if he hit any of his targets. Some ten seconds later, Aveer was standing firm on the hard ground and unleashing a storm of thick rounds, with Sanchez flanking round the side and letting loose a generous spray of bullets.
It soon became apparent to Traw that the enemies, whom he assumed to be insurgents, were backing into the mouth of the tunnel from whence they had attacked. He stepped over three corpses similar to the ones he had seen in the train cars. Backed by four security guards, they pressed the surviving enemies into the smoke-filled tunnel. “Get gone, you bastards!” Traw hollered to the tune of sprinting footsteps growing more distant. He fired off a couple more shots, in the thrill of the moment.
His gunfire-induced thrill was interrupted by Madame Donovan's helpless cry back at the home base. “Goddammit,” Sanchez grumbled, running back. A small dropship hovered twenty feet above the ground, the campfire blown out by the punishing wind swirled about by dual rotors. Four security guards lay strewn on the ground, their bullet wounds fresh. An unconscious Madame Donovan was being pulled up by a wire harness, and two insurgent soldiers stood at the ground, guarding the dropship.
Traw unclipped his rifle and expertly shot down both guards from where he stood. Aveer opened fire on the cockpit, the bullets making mere dings in the window. Moore and Sanchez sprinted toward the dropship, though Moore never gave any thought as to why he was so concerned with Donovan's welfare all of a sudden.
Two dark figures stood in the bay of the dropship, one of them aiding the winch in pulling up their unconscious captive. Traw adjusted his sights and focused on the one who was pulling up the cable. He was interrupted by two shots at his feet from behind, which made him jump from the startle. He turned about, only to face more gunfire, to which he responded in kind. Then a storm of bullets from Aveer finished the task at hand. Traw gave a thumbs up, then rushed back to where the dropship was hovering.
Moore leapt up and gripped the cable, shimmying his way upward to the open bay. The two insurgents shot at him with furious desperation, but he climbed up and threw them off the edge in rapid succession. Sanchez took out his knife and sliced the cable, making sure his unconscious client fell to the ground with ease. The two downed insurgents were greeted to the Martian surface with equal lead fillings, courtesy of Sanchez' automatic pistols.
One dead pilot later, Moore landed the dropship to the surface and the men regrouped. There were three security guards left. Although bruised and dusty, they seemed relatively hardy in spirit. Sitting in the small bay of the landed dropship with the rest of the men, Aveer asked, “How are we going to get to the destination?”
“I could fly this thing,” Moore suggested in all honesty. He patted the hull of the bulky ship, glancing it over fondly.
Sanchez chuckled, shaking his head. “You landed it from twenty feet in the air. That doesn't mean you could fly it all the way to the checkpoint.”
“Watch me,” Moore grinned. “It's this or walking for another couple days with Madame Donovan.” He gestured over to Donovan, who was asleep against one of the boulders. “Your choice, boys.”
“Then dropship it is,” Traw decided. “At least, I'll be taking this. Y'all can go ahead and do as you please.”
“What're you boys thinkin'?” Moore wondered, pointing to the remaining security guards.
They hesitated, as if gathering their collective thought. One of them spoke up, “We will go wherever you go.”
“That's settled, then,” Moore concluded. “We're takin' the dropship. Get the Madame in here. We're haulin' out.”
Ten minutes later, the dropship was airborne and sailing parallel to the train track. Traw felt safer in the air for some reason he could not quite explain. As he looked out the circular little window he felt as if he had passed some challenge or danger, even despite the lack of steadiness in Moore's piloting. The dawn sun began to rise, stretching its little wisps of orange fingers into the dark sky.
Traw glanced over at the three guards. He noted a bit of apprehensiveness in their mannerisms: some quick breathing here, a tapping finger there. “You boys alright?” he asked, partially to let them know he noticed something was on their minds, should it be malicious.
“Of course,” one of them blurted, forcing a brief smile. Traw nodded, pretending he believed the guard.
“I see the checkpoint in the distance. We should be there in a half hour or so,” Moore notified over the speakers in the rear bay where the rest of the men sat, along with Madame Donovan. Traw was thankful Moore broke the tension.
“Kinda ironic, huh? All that stuff back on the train,” Sanchez remarked, looking at the still asleep Donovan.
“What do you mean?” Aveer wondered.
“Well, the captain mentioned she stood for a lot of ideas like givin' back to the poor, taxing the rich, all that stuff. And she's sittin' on fat stacks of kaoris, with this train full of antiques and dresses and that kinda shit. Why don't she cough up some of this trash if she really stands for taxin' the rich?”
Traw grinned, realizing the truth in what Sanchez had said. “You got a point,” Traw conceded, raising his eyebrows and nodding slowly. “Hypocrites come in all shapes and sizes.”
“All too true,” Aveer concurred.
“You got some experience with that?” Traw wondered.
“Not worth speaking of.”
“I'm not one to pry, so I'll leave that be,” Traw dismissed. From his own experience, he knew to respect a man's privacy. With a discreet glance he looked over at the three guards. Two of them had their hands resting on the exposed parts of their guns, sitting in their holsters. The other one was sending nervous, darting glances toward the Death Squad.
Traw hesitated to say anything, his blood becoming more and more tense. Something was up: what exactly, he wasn't certain. He looked over at Aveer, who was equally on edge. They could both sense something was wrong: the storm had not yet passed. “You can take your hands off your guns,” Aveer reminded. “We're in the air now.” He pretended to play dumb.
One of them sprung from his seat and grabbed Madame Donovan, placing his gun to her forehead. She was fully awake at that point. “What the blazes are you doing?” she exclaimed, struggling to break free, but without any result.
“Captain Polaris of the Umbragites,” he stated, ignoring her cry. The other two guards surrounded them, aiming their pistols at the Death Squad. “Reporting for extraction.” He appeared to be speaking into an earpiece.
Though no one else could hear it, he nodded and seemed to be receiving a response. One of the other guards hit a switch on the wall, and the bay door opened, hot air blowing into the cabin. “It's been fine working with you, gentlemen,” Captain Polaris shouted over the sound of rushing wind. “But I'm afraid this is where we bid you farewell!”
Moore shut the bay doors from the cockpit and overrode the order. One of the guards tried pressing the switch again, but Moore was in control. Captain Polaris looked Traw in the eye with a scowl that could have curdled milk. Traw felt the trigger of his pistol in its holster. “Try it out,” Polaris grinned, noticing the movement of Traw's hand.
Traw knew he could take the shot, but Madame Donovan would only be put in further jeopardy. One wrong move, and the mission became a failure. Suddenly, Moore tipped the ship and swerved to the side, shaking everyone in the rear bay. Traw pulled out his pistol and shot down one of the guards, prompting the other one to open fire at the Death Squad. Sanchez tackled him, sending him onto the hard metal floor. Polaris, steady on the floor, pressed the cold barrel of his gun harder into Madame Donovan's head and commanded, “Stand down or your paycheck is forfeit!”
The three squad members looked at one another, realizing the need to drop their weapons. “Ah, I speak in a language you finally understand,” Polaris mocked. “If there's one thing I learned from my time in the GAM, it's that everyone there is looking out for himself. Camaraderie in those ranks is a myth, like the planet earth.”
Suddenly, the cockpit opened, interrupting Polaris. Moore turned round the corner of the cockpit doorway and shot Polaris square in the forehead. The captain's body dropped, then tumbled off the side of the hatch door. Moore set a smoking insurgent rifle in the co-pilot's seat and descended the short flight of stairs into the bay.
Traw heaved one of the corpses over his shoulder and tossed it out the open hatch. “I suggest you do the same,” he muttered to Aveer and Sanchez. They each picked up a body and jettisoned it from the dropship. Moore clapped Madame Donovan on the shoulder. Her makeup was smudged, making her face a strange mix between beauty and filth. There were countless tears and singe marks in her dress.
“Not every day you get held at gunpoint, huh,” Moore smirked. She shook her head, her eyes wide and her breathing heavy. Traw noticed her hands shaking in her lap. “Funny how all that wealth you've built up can all go away, in just one motion of a finger. All that gold, all those antiques, all those dresses, all that reputation, all that position...bang. It's gone. There'd be a nice, fancy funeral with a bunch of big-wigs, but in a hundred years, you're gone. One bullet. One wound. One death.”
Traw almost felt bad for her. She seemed genuinely frightened. Such trauma was evidently new for her, and Traw wasn't surprised. A life of wealth and pampering would never have opportunity for a life-threatening situation such as the one she just endured. For a moment he considered speaking up on her behalf. Moore continued with his monologue describing the futility of her hypothetical demise, in a cruel tone that he seemed to savor. Traw reckoned that Moore wasn't particularly intelligent, but he had a tongue that could shatter any man's morale.
“I gotta get back to piloting this rickety death trap. We'll be back soon. Just...don't trust anyone,” Moore concluded, grinning. He bade her a smug wink on the way back to the cabin. Madame Donovan's face was frozen in a state of trauma, her hands shaking beyond her conscious control.
I should say somethin' to her. What happened to her wasn't right, Traw reckoned in his own mind. But she's a snob. She deserves it. Those high and mighty folk could use some roughin' up from time to time. It'll do her some good.
Without any further turbulence, the dropship landed on one of the helipads of the checkpoint. It belonged to a small base which included a railway station, three helipads, and a small relay station all in one compound building. Out of an elevator door came a platoon of Marines, their rifles aimed at the descending dropship. They grew tenser as the hatch door opened, a few of them almost opening fire immediately.
“This is Corporal Trepp of the 77th Battalion!” a voice shouted over a bullhorn. “You are ordered to surrender immediately, with no weapons on your persons! I repeat, you are ordered to surrender immediately with no weapons on your persons!”
Traw stepped out of the hatch door, with Madame Donovan a couple steps in front of him. Corporal Trepp stepped up to Traw, after a pair of medics rushed up to Donovan and assisted her inside. “Do explain how you acquired an insurgent dropship,” Trepp ordered, gesturing up to the hull of the ship. “It's not often you find the poster boys of the GAM freely exiting an enemy ship.”
“Things got hairy,” Moore explained, stepping up beside Traw. “Couple explosions, a downed train. With those insurgent bastards peckin' at our skulls, we had to improvise.”
“And that involved using their ship to get here safely,” Traw added.
“My god,” Trepp remarked, his hands on his hips, “you really are mavericks. What happened to the insurgents?”
“Out in the desert. You'll find some corpses,” Aveer answered. He pointed out in the direction from whence they came.
Sanchez concluded, “And make sure Madame Donovan gets shut up.”