“I'm almost glad I was put into the infirmary,” Clayton remarked. He sat on the edge of one of the medical beds, dressed in a plain garb. The other four men stood around him in the quiet medical bay. They were in the recovery area which, to Clayton's peace, none of the Marines were in as well. “She sounds like a real gem. Do you think all her guards were in on it?”
“Don't know,” Traw shrugged. “Don't think so. Most of 'em died at that point, directly by insurgents. I'm pretty sure it was just those three aboard the dropship with us.”
“Let's just watch our backs next time then?” Clayton grinned. It was half meant as a joke.
Twelve walked into the room, his hands folded behind his back. “You're all wanted in the Captain's office for a meeting, except Mr. Clayton, for he needs his rest.”
“Oh, to hell with that,” Clayton muttered, slipping off the edge of the bed. “I need to get up and walk about. I've had plenty of rest. Believe me, I helped design a few of these machines. I know what they did for me. The last thing I need is more rest.”
As they were walking through the hallway, led by Twelve, Sanchez inquired, “Clayton, what exactly did you do, man? I thought you built gears and junk like that.”
“I designed and built mechanisms for IRO's research station on my home planet,” Clayton answered, comfortable back in his regular jumpsuit. “And that included medical equipment. Guns, tanks, elevators, engines, drones, appliances: I had a part in designing and/or building probably...fifteen percent of the equipment on this vessel.”
“And you got paid pretty nicely, I'd guess?” Moore inferred, making a motion with his hands as if he was flipping through a stack of paper bills.
“You would guess,” Clayton muttered. “People like myself are easily taken advantage of for our skills. You see that cook over there?” He pointed to a cook hanging up his apron as they passed through the dining hall. “I probably made the same as him. He flips burgers. I designed the machine he flips them on, along with half of the other appliances and tech in that room. We made the same wage. Does that seem right to you?”
“Good point,” Traw muttered. Clayton seemed a bit peppier than usual. Traw figured he had more than a few medical steroids running through his recovering system.
They arrived at Vault's office, the steel door opening with its ominous mechanical presence. The Captain stood in the center of the office, rather than in his chair as he usually did when he summoned the Death Squad for a meeting. He dismissed Twelve with a brief gesture, and the five men entered. The door shutting behind them, Vault began, “I have two matters to address. Firstly, and to your relief I'm sure, Agent Dart departed from the Indefatigable while you were down on the surface of Mars. He only left me a message stating he had imperative business at Neptune he had to attend to.”
“Did it seem like he was gonna arrest any of us?” Sanchez asked, tapping his fingers with his arms crossed. The squad stood in a semicircle opposite of Vault.
“I know as much as any of you. Inquisitors aren't known to be the most revealing type. Also, I have an evacuation plan for you if things do go...southward. It'll send you off the grid with enough supplies to survive for a couple of months on any one of the nearby planets. At least until I can pull some strings and get you declared innocent back on Neptune.”
“You almost sound like you're counting on it,” Traw remarked, his brow furrowed.
“I hope for the best but prepare for the worst, Mr. Traw. Second order of business: shortly before you returned aboard, Venko issued another mission. Traw, you may like this one. It's on your home planet, Sino. Apparently there's been a rebellion and frequent riots in City 9. Your orders are to...keep the peace.”
“Do the Umbragites got a hand in any of this?” Moore wondered.
“Not from what it looks like. Their involvement is sporadic, hit-and-run tactics. Nothing of this scale. Besides, the riots are because the people want to see less GAM presence when they walk down the street; the Umbragites have no such agenda, nor any at all, from what we've seen.”
Aveer remained still, his burly arms crossed and his eyes squinted with suspicion. “What is the second point?” he inquired.
Vault bit the inside of his lip for a moment, like he was about to retract the third point. “Your contract's been cut short. After this mission, you'll get paid and go home to your families.”
Moore grinned and laughed. “I'm gonna buy a hundred whores and get a beast mansion on the beach.” He pulled out his palm tree necklace, staring at its golden lines. “Paradise, here I come.” Sanchez and Moore fist bumped.
Sanchez licked his lips, looking to the ceiling and smiling wide. “I'll join you, man. Get a nice boat and take it sailin'. Then drop by your place and test out a few of them whores.”
Vault was uneasy, not by what the two men were suggesting, but something else entirely. Traw noticed and mentioned, “Anything else up?”
Captain Vault paused a moment. “This is something I'm just theorizing, so don't take it totally to heart. But when Venko sent me the message, something wasn't right. It was like his lips were saying one thing, but his eyes were saying another. I don't know if that makes any sense to you. Here...” Vault brought up the recorded message on his datapad. “Watch.”
Yes, the Death Squad will have a two-day leave and be granted access to their families again and be paid their full amount. That is correct, Venko's calm voice uttered. Traw watched intently, alongside Aveer and Clayton. Vault was right. There was something afoot.
“I've never trusted that man,” Traw muttered. “This just makes me wanna punch his teeth in even more.”
“I'd be cautious of where you say that,” Vault mentioned, glancing up at the security camera lurking in the top corner of the office. “Anyway, proceed as if you never saw this. The last thing we need is to inform him that we know something's afoot. You three understand?” Sanchez and Moore had already left, cackling to one another about what they would do with their paychecks.
“Of course,” Clayton replied. “I find it interesting how what you people say and what you people actually execute is so different. When I signed onto this squad, I was under the impression that I would be serving for two years. But now I've served for eight months and my job is apparently through. I know none of these changes in the plan come from you, but I find this organization unreliable nonetheless. But regardless, when do we leave for our last mission?”
“Once we arrive at Sino. That should be a couple of days' trip. Get some rest. Train up. The last thing you want is to be caught off guard just before you get your paycheck.”
The third bashed practice dummy was lifted away by a mechanical arm in the training room. Moore stood dripping with sweat, swinging the kukri in his hand. “Come on, Farley,” he muttered as the fourth dummy was lowered from its gantry. “Let's go, sucker. You and me.”
Traw stood leaning against a pillar, as he usually did when watching Moore. The dummy switched on and took a defensive stance immediately. Moore dropped the knife to the floor and raised his weary fists. The dummy threw two side hooks, both of which were blocked, followed by Moore dealing a hard kick to the dummy's right knee. It stumbled backwards, then rushed headlong at Moore, knocking him to the ground. The dummy got on top of him and started landing punches at Moore's face. Traw took a step forward, wondering if the violence restrictions were engaged in the dummy's software.
Moore grabbed the dummy's leg and flipped it off him, then turned about and grabbed its skull. “No you don't. Not this time,” he growled, reaching into the cold mouth of his mechanical opponent. He tore harder and harder at the skull, the dummy throwing punches at his side in furious protest. Moore didn't care. It was as if he didn't feel the punches at all. In one deciding roar, he lifted the artificial skull and ripped the jaw off and pounded the dummy to the floor with a fist like thunder.
He fell to his knees, his mouth bleeding. With a limp hand Moore felt his rows of teeth. They were all intact, by some miracle. “You still haven't told me who Farley is,” Traw commented. “You must hate him an awful lot to name your practice dummies after him. How many of those've you gone through? 50? 70? 100?”
“117,” Moore surrendered an answer. Small puddles of sweat began to gather on the platform where he knelt.
“That's real specific.”
“I got a real specific enemy,” he replied, descending the short staircase and reaching for the water bottle sitting on the nearby table. He reached over and grabbed his kukri, sliding it over onto the table. There was blood on the grip.
“And that would be..?” Traw stood at the other end of the table, casually examining one of the throwing knives.
“It's none of your concern,” Moore dismissed, dabbing his face with a wet towel.
“If this comes up in combat, and there's a good chance it will, I'd like to know beforehand. Seems like you're hellbent on beatin' the shit outta this Farley guy. I just wanna know why.”
“You wanna know why?” Moore replied, his voice raised. “You really wanna know why? Old friend of the family, thought I could trust him. Looked up to him. Everybody did. 13 years old, found out the hard way that he was a predator. And I kept findin' out until the day he died. The only fantasies I ever had, the only things I ever dreamed of...was rippin' that maggot apart. Four years, four long years, I wanted nothin' more than to turn around one of those times and stick a blade down his throat. Feel him bleed and beg for mercy. All I wanted was to say no.”
Traw paused. He was taken back, but not enough to give up his investigation. “How'd he die?” Traw wondered.
Moore laughed, accented by a grimace. “Heart attack. I remember the funeral he had. Everybody was cryin'...including me. But they were all cryin' because he was gone. I was just sheddin' tears because I never got to live out my dream. So there's your answer, Sebastian. Farley was my predator. I just imagine his face on every one of these mechanical bastards. It makes life a little easier.”
“I'm sorry, man,” Traw apologized.
Moore smirked. “Don't be,” he corrected. “You see...every time Farley took advantage of me, I just got angrier and angrier inside. Before any of that, I was the laughing stock of any circle of friends. I got beat up. I got spat on. After a while, that little boy grew up into a man. A big man. I mean, Farley was always stronger than me. But at school and in the hood, people learned not to mess with me real fast. That's how I got to where I am. By the time I graduated, no one ever double-crossed me or jumped me.” Moore took another swig from his water bottle. “Now you know I'm not an asshole without reason. See you around, Traw.”
At the table during mealtime, Traw nudged Clayton the shoulder, who was sitting next to him. “What're you gonna do with your paycheck? Retire?” Traw wondered.
Clayton gathered his thoughts. “I have something to arrange for my brother, Thomas,” he replied. “He has some...special needs. Hopefully I can arrange a good home for him with medical treatment. And what I'll do with the rest of the money, I'm not entirely sure as of yet. I might buy an apartment on Neptune and open a penthouse studio. I've always wanted one.”
“How 'bout you, strong-but-silent?” Moore asked, jabbing at Aveer playfully.
“My village needs work. The paycheck can help them,” he answered plainly, scraping up the last bits of food into a small pile.
“I might do the same, now that I think 'bout it,” Sanchez added, placing his hand against his chin. “My hood could use some work. I'd give 'em a new park, maybe a school, maybe a..”
“Man, get that boat and them whores. If you got cash after that, then yeah, do your...saint-y things,” Moore interrupted. He was almost offended. Sanchez looked down at his plate, somewhat ashamed. Nobody asked Traw.
That night, Traw sat in his bunk, with muscles that didn't ache as much as a soldier's usually do. He held the delicate photo of Louise and Luella, looking up at it with weary longing. “I'm comin', gals,” he muttered. “Just hold on tight.” He kissed his index finger and pressed it to each of their faces.
He felt his throat getting tight, and placed the photo back in its place on his wall. Traw drew a deep breath. “One last mission,” he told himself, resting his tired lids. “Then it's homeward bound.”