Traw's metal boot touched down on the surface of his home planet. He took off his helmet for a moment and breathed in the familiar air. He relished the sensation of sunlight upon his skin. Something about Sino had a homelike quality to it, despite its arid climate. It was like a workplace one once hated, but learned to love with the passage of time and repetition of visits.
“Apparently there's a riot in progress as we speak,” Clayton notified, stepping down alongside Traw, his armored boots settling into the hot sand.
Traw drew himself back to the current situation, sifting his helmet onto his skull. “Let's get rollin', then,” he agreed.
“Wait,” Aveer muttered, seeming a bit perturbed. The other four turned about. “We are going into the city to kill humans. Not Nektro.”
“So what, man?” Moore laughed, waving his shotgun with levity in his movements. “We've done it before. That was our second mission, remember? Those thugs in that hotel? We killed every last one of 'em, and I didn't see you complainin'.”
“They were going to kill other humans. These people want freedom,” Aveer argued.
“To hell with that! I don't know why you're all saintly all of a sudden. Half the people in that hotel suite were sex slaves, remember? They ain't done nothin' wrong, but we lit 'em up and mowed 'em down just like the rest. You signed onto this job. Learn to suck it up, big man,” Sanchez quipped.
Aveer turned to Traw, hoping to gain some aid in the argument. Clayton certainly wasn't going to say anything. Traw looked to the sand at his feet for a moment. “They got a point. A paycheck's a paycheck. I don't rightly care how I get it,” he concluded, walking off with Sanchez and Moore.
As Clayton was beginning to walk off with the other three men and the dropship ascended into the vivid sunset, Aveer called out, “I didn't hear from you.”
Clayton paused, half turning around to face Aveer. “These rioters aren't so different from the criminals, as you seem to believe. Sure, they might be less malicious, but they're still violent. They could still deal harm. Either way, I'm the technician. Killing isn't in my job description. You're the heavy gunner. It's in yours.”
The city was large in the distance, about two miles from the drop point. At the center of it there was a cluster of skyscrapers, looming over the rest of the dense residence like faceless sentinels. As the squad drew closer, they realized the outskirts had been mainly deserted. A few people lingered about, but they appeared to be fearful of something. None of the men bade the civilians any notice, except Traw.
A violent clamor of sirens, shouting, fire and shattering glass could be heard as they drew nearer to the center of the city. They walked freely in the open streets, but became a bit more apprehensive to do so as they encroached on the edge of the riot. “Hey, I say we go up on the rooftop, I can scope it out,” Traw suggested, pointing to a fire ladder attached to one of the nearby buildings.
“Yeah, go ahead. The rest of us are gonna stay here for a sec,” Moore confirmed, gripping his shotgun. He glanced suspiciously at one of the citizens meandering on their way.
Traw ascended the rusty ladder, afraid it might snap off, due to the weight of his armor. Once on the rooftop, he crouched low and made his way across. He wasn't yet ready to draw any attention. His hand on the pistol holster, Traw poked his head over the ledge and looked out into the open city square. Two blocks away the riot was in full criscendo, plumes of black smoke rising from burning cars and ruined buildings. The pandemonium seemed to spill out into some of the adjacent streets, but Traw knew he was at a safe distance. There was an unintelligible chant that vaguely lined the chaotic shouts and noise. He unstrapped the rifle from his back and detached the scope.
Adjusting the dial on the side, he zoomed in to see the capitol tower, which was taking the brunt of the anarchic attacks. There was a cobbled-together barrier on the broad front steps, which was held fast by a company of Marines and a few remaining riot police. It became quickly evident to Traw that the line of defense would be soon a trampled pile of rubble and corpses. A loose volley of tear gas was being tossed as well, adding to the madness of the situation.
As Traw was scuttling back across the rooftop, he noticed two people standing atop one of the other roofs. He crouched lower and adjusted his scope. One was in a suit, holding a microphone, and the other had some sort of small video camera mounted to his shoulder, operating the device. The suit-clad one appeared to be saying something in an urgent tone, pointing to the riot. “Goddamn media,” he grumbled, then shuffled back down the ladder.
“What's the news from our eyes in the sky?” Sanchez asked, leaning up against a brick wall facing the desolate street.
“Big riot, at least two or three thousand. We're talkin' tear gas, broken windows, car fires. It ain't pretty. There's some Marines holding a defense up at the capitol tower, along with a few other riot police. But it doesn't look like they're gonna hold much longer.”
“I say we go up along those rooftops,” Aveer suggested, pointing to the roofs of the buildings lining the city square. “We can group up with those last men at the tower and make a plan of what to do.”
“Or we just hit those animals in the back with some hot lead. Give 'em an idea of what true power is,” Moore smirked, holding his shotgun like he was going to shoot someone begging for mercy at his knees.
“That sounds good, I gotta say we should go with Aveer's plan. It's gonna work better for us. We don't know what kinda weapons those rioters got,” Sanchez argued.
“Alright, alright, we'll go on rooftop,” Moore conceded. As they were ascending the ladder one by one, Traw, who stayed behind to go up last, noticed something trampled and torn lying on the filthy ground. He stooped over to pick it up, brushing the dust and grease off its surface. It was a poster, featuring five silhouetted men with a faded star burst background. Below, in bold print, it said,
The Death Squad: Protecting Our Homes And Families
Vanquishers of Foreign and Domestic Enemies
Heroes of the State
“My god,” Traw gasped. His eyes focused on the dark figure on the illustration holding a long sniper rifle.
“What?” Clayton asked, halfway up the ladder.
“Look at this,” Traw answered, handing the poster to Clayton. Clayton looked it over, then looked at the figure that was supposed to resemble him: shorter than the others, bearing a stocky gun.
“I look a bit tall,” he joked, then handed it to Sanchez, who was peering over from the roof.
“Heh...heroes,” Sanchez smirked after reading the patriotic phrase. “Yeah, that's definitely what we are. They should make statues of us back on Neptune.”
As they made their way across the rooftops, Traw kept an eye on the condition of the riot. It grew more intense with the quick passage of time. He noticed the soldiers running out of both options and tenacity. At any second, the defense could crack and the seething mass of chaos would overrun the barriers.
Finally, the Death Squad was just twenty yards away from the base steps of the tower where the soldiers were making their last stand. The squad members crouched down in an alley, letting the shadows conceal them from the gaze of any unfriendly eyes. “Alright, we gotta spill some blood at some point,” Moore muttered, eager to spring out and start firing off buckshots. “And this crowd isn't getting any calmer. Once we give 'em a taste from our barrels, they might get wise and back off for a bit. Aveer, we're gonna need you to do the brunt of the shootin'. You up for it?”
Aveer swallowed hard. His breath rate increased. “Yes. I'll do it,” he replied, the reluctancy less than subtle in his voice.
“There's our killin' machine,” Moore grinned, clapping him on the shoulder. “Back in business.”
Moore stepped out from the alley and fired off a blind shot into the crowd. Sanchez walked up alongside him and let out a brief spray of bullets. Four people fell dead to the pavement. Traw pulled out his pistol and walked up toward the tower, Clayton and Aveer by his side. Traw fired three shots into the mob swarming at the barrier. A few of them appeared to be carrying weapons, and fired at him in return. Needless to say, they were ineffective in piercing his armor, and he shot each assailant down in rapid succession.
The rioters seemed intimidated, backing away like a herd of animals. “You all just get gone!” Traw hollered, turning the volume of his helmet speakers to full. He fired off a few more shots for extra effect. Two more people fell dead to the ground, and another clutching his bleeding shoulder. Four burly men emerged from the crowd and tried to tackle Moore and Sanchez. Sanchez shoved one back with a couple pulses of bullets, then was knocked back by two others. With armored fists he beat them both to the hard ground and made sure they wouldn't get up again. Moore left the last man with a knife wound to the neck and a shattered spine.
Traw approached the leader of the Marines stationed at the frontline. The barrier was about eight feet tall and a few feet thick, with men hunkered down atop it. “You boys look like you could use a hand,” Traw remarked, gesturing to the mob, who was slowly backing away and dispersing.
“I didn't know you'd be using lethal force,” the leader replied, shuffling down the side of the barrier. “Corporal Ramos, 151st Division.”
“Sebastian Traw, DS05.” The two men shook hands. “This is Clayton, and the big one's Aveer. Those two fellas over there are Moore and Sanchez. We make up Death Squad.”
Corporal Ramos nodded for a moment, resting his hands on the side of his belt. He scanned the area. “I'd be leery of what kinda force you use. Not that I have an issue with it...they probably will, though.” Ramos pointed to the cameraman and reporter across the city square.
“I'll keep it in mind,” Traw noted. “Let's get inside and talk. I usually like Sinoan sunlight, but not right now.”
The Death Squad and twelve Marines stood in a circle below ground level. Even in the bunker twenty feet underground it was hot. A few fluorescent lights flickered overhead, hanging from wires along the concrete ceiling, giving the room a pale glow and leaving the corners in eery shadow.
“So why are they rioting, exactly?” Clayton wondered, brushing off the visor on his helmet. “I don't recall anything like this back on my planet. I'd assume it's a new development here as well.”
“Stupid ideological bullshit,” Ramos grumbled. “Some politician got 'em all riled up with a campaign about how they need more wages and better homes and less governmental interference. This, that and the other thing. They want it all. And apparently the best way to go about that is to riot in the city square and kill thirty of the local police. Whatever they want, they're dangerous, and we need to shut 'em down ASAP. If you got any ideas on how to stop 'em, now'd be the time to bring 'em up.”
“Last I checked, we're just the wreckin' crew. You tell us how to do it,” Moore commented, casually aiming the tip of his knife toward Corporal Ramos.
“You mercenaries, or special operatives, or...whatever you are, are more experienced than I am. This is the first time I've seen real combat. And I'm supposed to be runnin' this show. Everyone else 'round here are just privates,” Ramos explained. “That's why I'm asking you for your two cents.”
There was a lull for a few seconds. “Cut their power,” Aveer suggested. “These people need it to live. They rely on it. Back on my planet, whenever there was a neighboring town that would attack us, we would come in the night and ruin their power generators. It did not take long for them to stop.”
“You got a technician then who can figure it out? Ours...didn't make it,” Ramos replied.
“The little guy there. Knows his way around a motherboard,” Moore answered, pointing to Clayton.
“Good. Nightfall's comin' in a couple of hours. We'll do it tonight. Marines, get to work on repairing and rebuilding the barrier. I want guards in each direction posted every second. Eyes everyhwere. No one moves around here without us knowing it. You understand? Death Squad, you boys stick with me. I'll show you all the full situation upstairs.”
After shuffling up five flights of chipped stairs under dying light, the six men entered a trashed, desolate office. Picking up his datapad from the large table in the center of the room, Ramos apologized, “Sorry about the mess, gentlemen. Last week while we were out on patrol, some punks came in and trashed the place.”
“There've been riots every day?” Traw inferred, examining a mechanical device he picked up from the desk beside the door. A warm breeze flowed in from the open balcony that overlooked the city square.
“They don't seem to stop. I dunno what these folks are hopin' to gain from takin' over the local authority, but it ain't gonna work. Even if they take over the whole city and there ain't a single Marine for a thousand miles, that won't prove anything. They'll just sit here in the desert with no aid until we finally get the green light to come back with more men and more guns and kick their asses back into submission. If you ask me, this city isn't worth you guys comin'.”
“That's 'cause it ain't about the city,” Traw corrected. “It's about what the rest of the nation sees. And that's us: Death Squad. We're icons. Heroes. Our job's to look pretty and do the not-so-pretty jobs. So you're right. This city ain't worth jack. We are.”
“You hit the nail on the head, son,” Sanchez grinned, setting his helmet down on one of the desks. “We're good, but we ain't that good. I mean, these people think we're some kinda...war gods, or somethin'. I'm just a punk from Las Doreson.”
“Alright, I don't care about the propaganda those top brass are crankin' out,” Ramos dismissed, changing the topic. “I just care about lasting the night. I gotta fill you guys in on the supply situation. We're runnin' low. Unless we get restocked soon, we're dead in the water. We'll have to venture out into the city if we want any more. And that sure isn't gonna happen. Those folks'd have us dead before we even left the city square.”
“Can't you just call in for support?” Clayton asked.
“Communications relay got knocked out a few days back. We're off the grid. Only reason you all were able to come was because we were able to call for aid just before we went dark.”
“Yeah, figures. That'd make it too easy,” Moore grumbled. “I just want to finish this last mission and get my paycheck. Alright, we'll get goin' at nightfall, kick out the power station, and haul outta this rock planet.”
“It probably won't be that easy, I'll tell you all right now. Your mission's to settle the conflict down here, right?”
“Correct,” Aveer chimed in. Keeping his helmet on, he seemed somehow more formidable than the rest. His size certainly added to that effect as well.
“Yeah, so the point is to shut 'em down any way we can and make sure they stay that way. Cutting the power is the first step. Then I've got a list of targets I'm gonna have you take out. Then we demonstrate a few public executions, and in between all of this we shut down a few riots, should they spring up. We gotta make sure those bastards never even think of rioting again.”
“You seem awfully...capable, for a corporal,” Traw remarked.
Ramos rose from his seat. He seemed tired, but tenacious. He had the bearing of a man who had no intention of surrendering. “When you see every one of your superiors on site get beheaded by a mob of raging bastards, you learn to be capable. There are twenty-seven Marines left here, and five riot cops. We started with sixty Marines and thirty-eight riot cops. These've been dark days and darker nights. I was hoping you would make 'em a bit brighter.”
“Then you hoped wrong,” Moore smirked, tapping his knife to the side of his helmet.
“We are the shadow of death that heralds the unfortunate,” Aveer muttered. He said it not out of pride but out of fact.
“Awfully poetic,” Ramos remarked, taking his leave.
“Awfully true,” Clayton concluded.