Three figures bolted through the urban shadows, slivers of cool moonlight grazing their agile silhouettes. The city was quiet, like a dormant beast. Disturbing it in any way could be immediately disastrous.
The three figures were careful to keep to the alleys and rooftops, to be heard little and seen less. “This is Traw, what's your location?” a familiar voice spoke.
“Three hundred yards from power transformer. The corner of 32nd Street and Gorge Avenue. What do the eagle eyes see?” Moore replied, slinking up alongside a brick wall with Clayton and Sanchez beside him.
“Oh, I see you. Damn, you are hard to catch in the dark. I guess that's a good thing in this case. You got a couple drunks approaching about ah...thirty yards to your right. Other than that, nothing stirring around you. Proceed to the next corner. I gotcha covered.”
Moore, Clayton and Sanchez slipped across the long, desolate street, their armored boots clanking against the asphalt, which they couldn't stop from happening. Luckily it was shrouded among the sounds of old vents and air conditioners. Moore kept in mind that gunfire would not be camouflaged by any means.
“Yo, hold up,” Sanchez halted, raising his fist and crouching to the pavement. Clayton and Moore followed suit, looking in his direction. Sanchez was staring behind him, wishing he could seep into the environment. Two trucks turned the corner behind the three men, roaring their ill-maintained engines and blaring their ominous lights down the empty black street ahead. The rumble of their mechanics gave them the presence of predators.
“You ready to light 'em up?” Moore asked, clutching the fore-end of his shotgun.
Tires rolling along the littered street, the trucks passed without disturbance. “Follow them,” Clayton urged, rising from his position. The three men advanced with as much silence as could be mustered, tailing the trucks. Due to the enhancement in their armor, they could run with greater speed and endurance than any man possessed, and were able to keep at a steady pace behind the vehicles.
For two more streets they followed the trucks, sticking to the shadows and creeping along walls. “In here, guys. We got a target,” Moore ordered, slipping into an alley. Clayton and Sanchez came in beside him.
The power transformer yard lay at the end of the street, surrounded by barbed wire fences, standing fifteen feet tall. Four poles stood at each corner of the fenced lot, each of them mounted with a rack of heavy lights that illuminated the area. At the center of the lot was the transformer, massive and complex, with wires attaching each of the bulky, metal limbs to the behemoth center.
The two trucks stopped at the gate, and a small squad of armed men approached them from the checkpoint booth stationed beside the gate. “Traw, you getting this?” Sanchez asked, watching the lot from fifty yards down the street. He and his two team members were tucked safely in a dark alleyway, clear of any unfriendly eyes.
“I didn't know citizens could own guns like that around here,” Traw marveled, focusing his scope on the squad inspecting the trucks. “Not that these folk seem the legal type anyways. Hey, those trucks got somethin' in their top hatches. I dunno, it looks like...yeah, more guns. Big ones. I can't be sure, but they look like turrets. Okay, they're movin' in. You three go and get a closer look.”
The three men advanced with extra caution in their steps and movements. Sanchez bolted ahead, pressing himself up against the corner of the wire wall. The other two were close behind. “Damn, son...that's a lotta guns,” he muttered, gesturing for them to come next to him. Around the transformer and scattered about the fenced lot were armed men, most of them with combat gear and sidearms strapped to their hips. Sanchez counted eight trucks parked in the lot, five of them with turrets mounted to their flatbeds.
“I gotta wonder where all this comes from,” Traw remarked, taking it all in through his scope. “I'm pretty sure that stuff ain't easy to hide with a few platoons of Marines crawlin' around the city.”
“Alright, we're all here!” an unfamiliar voice hollered from within the fence wall. Clayton crawled a few paces to his left for a better view. A man was standing on the hood of one of the trucks, evidently the leader of the mob. He wore a brown coat that stretched to his knees, a rough, broad-brimmed cap, leather gloves, and a shabby old breastplate. A revolver was strapped to each hip, held on by a ragged belt with a buckle that looked like it had been to hell and emerged in one piece.
A standard-issue GAM rifle slung over his shoulder in one hand, he continued in a voice of haggard authority, “We're gonna get what we want finally, and this ain't gonna be easy. It never has been. Some of us ain't gonna make it once we charge on that tower. It might be me, it might be you. But we got the means, and we got the men...so we're gonna demand our rights with gunfire!” The majority of those congregated raised their guns and cheered. “Alright, let's move!”
Still engaged in an excited rabble, the militia soldiers piled into the trucks and mustered into companies on foot. The gates opened, and vehicles sped out, bullets spitting into the air from the barrels of turrets and rifles. Behind the convoy of trucks were organized companies of militia soldiers, marching in rigid formation. The three Death Squad members near the fenced lot had to seek cover, and did so just in time. Had they done so with a second's more delay, there would have been certain situational complications.
“Aveer, get ready. You got at least a hundred armed men comin' your way,” Traw notified. He looked out at the city square from his position at the roof of the tower. For a brief moment he was lost in the landscape that lay beyond. It was the landscape of his home.
“Me and my company are prepared,” Aveer replied. He and a dozen Marines were lined up behind the repaired barricade.
Then, to Aveer's surprise, a group of children poured out from a few of the adjacent homes lining the city square. “What the hell?” Traw wondered, peering down at them. Then there was another group coming from the opposite side. Several other clusters walked out of the buildings surrounding the tower. Soon there were close to fifty children huddled together in the broad space, advancing toward the tower.
“Get gone, all of you! Go!” Corporal Ramos shouted, firing his pistol into the air in an attempt to spook the disturbing mass of children. They continued toward the tower, at a faster pace.
“They're gonna get killed, do somethin'!” Traw urged over the communicator. He began to sweat along his nylon jumpsuit within his armor.
“I can't, these kids aren't leaving,” Aveer answered, his eyes darting from side to side. “Get gone! All of you!” The children were only twenty meters away, and growing closer with every second. Aveer saw the truck convoy approaching and heard the rumble of their engines.
“What's going on down there?” Moore asked, turning around to see the rear flank of the militia companies down the street. Clayton was approaching the transformer with his gun charged, and Sanchez was patrolling the area for any remaining soldiers lurking about.
“There's this, this mob of kids. There's somethin' like fifty of 'em, all comin' at the frontline of our boys down at the steps of the tower,” flustered Traw. “I dunno what's goin' on, but this sure ain't goin' without a plan. Those boys organized down at the transformer, and these kids here...somethin's up. Doesn't look like any of these fellas are masterminds, I'd say someone's behind this.”
“Well, we can theorize once we got enough militia corpses. Priority right now's those kids. Just shoot one of the little bastards, and the rest'll scatter,” Moore suggested with an air of nonchalance. Traw could tell the difference between when a man was being crass and when a man was being sincere. Moore was eerily honest.
The children stopped at the base of the stairs, and one walked forward to Aveer, who was at the center of the barricade. The trucks were closer, their engines louder. “Get out of here,” Aveer urged in what could be called a holler, pointing away.
The lone child looked up at him with eyes that seemed innocent, almost helpless. It was a boy, of maybe ten years. His small brown eyes looked like they belonged in a mouse, and his upper teeth bent over. In the dim light of the lanterns along the ridge of the barricade, Aveer noticed the boy was wearing a long, heavy coat. “The boy's wearing a big coat,” Aveer muttered.
Traw's eyes grew wide when he heard those words come from Aveer's mouth. “Oh, god, get out of there, Aveer! All of you get away from that boy!” he yelled into the communicator.
With the same innocent eyes, the boy opened up his jacket to reveal padding and wires strapped to his chest, with a red blinking light at the center.
The barricade shattered in violent flames.
The rest of the children in large coats rushed up the steps and sifted through the hallways, and there were more explosions inside the tower at different levels. Traw rose to his feet and felt the building shake with explosions in rapid succession. The militia trucks arrived with wild gunfire heralding them, then the city went dark. Only flames and fire lit up the city square.
Traw fell to his knees. He began to shake, thinking of his own daughter. “We did it!” Sanchez hollered, interrupting Traw's troubled thoughts. “We just gotta wait these bastards out now and fight off those militia at the tower.” Traw didn't reply.
Moore and Sanchez looked at each other. Clayton looked up as well. They knew something was wrong. “Anyone there?” Clayton asked.
Drawing a shallow breath, Traw answered, “Th-the children...they had bombs. All of them had bombs attached to their chests.”
“Oh, dear god,” Clayton gasped. “Where's Aveer?”
Traw paused. “I'm getting him,” he answered determinedly, scrambling to his feet and hurrying toward the door.
“We'll get back as fast as we can,” Moore replied.
Traw hustled down the narrow stairwell, his pistol drawn. Smoke drifted up from the first floor twenty flights below. He heard several men entering the stairwell. Shuffling down another flight, he heard the militia soldiers' footsteps stop. There was a brief exchange of gunfire and a holler from a riot cop, then they continued. Once he was only three flights away and could see the feet of his enemies, he threw an adhesive grenade to the railing, and the men drew no more breaths. Traw passed over them and through the rubble smoke without a second thought.
He exited the doorframe to the lobby and was greeted with punishing machine gun fire from a truck parked on the front steps. Traw immediately backed up into the hallway as the bullets chipped the side of the doorway and sprayed searing pebbles past his face.
He pulled an adhesive grenade from his belt and noted he had two left, along with two shrapnel grenades. Traw threw himself out of the doorway and tossed a grenade at the hull of the truck, then tumbled onto the rubble-covered lobby floor. With a deafening blast, the grenade detonated on impact and blew away five other men rushing up the steps behind it.
Traw looked around and ran toward what remained of the frontal barricade. “Aveer!” he called, panting from exhaustion and stress. The rest of the militia were evidently in the basement levels, locked into combat with the few Marines and police left. Traw knew it would be a long time before they broke in, as the fortifications had been made thick and dense.
Over the sound of crumbling debris and roaring flames, he heard a groan nearby replying to his call. Traw frantically looked about him, then noticed two armored legs protruding from beneath a heap of barricade rubble. He reached for a large hunk of concrete and lifted it aside, causing a small avalanche of chunks to tumble where the large hunk once lay. Traw cleared it aside and pushed the rest of the rubble away. There lay Aveer, his suit ruptured and scorched. His helmet had a crack running along the side.
Traw lifted the mask off Aveer and propped up his bulky torso with a weary arm. “Aveer!” Traw called, patting Aveer's face. Then he heard footsteps approaching from one of the basement stairwells, so he clipped Aveer's mask back onto his face, slung the heavy man over his shoulder, and rushed for the upper stairwell.
After reaching eight flights, Traw found himself forced to rest on one of the landings. He lifted off his own helmet and drew as many fresh breaths as he could. The smoke and ash choked his tight lungs. He coughed and spit onto the concrete, tasting the fine dust on his tongue. Aveer showed no sign of waking. Traw laid his head against the corner of the wall and tried to breathe deep. He squinted his eyes and thought of home. It was on the very same planet, but he felt like he was in an entirely different world.
“Just...twelve more,” he muttered to himself, looking up at the flights above him. Then he heard a rabble of militia soldiers bursting into the stairwell. They were assembled in clear task squads: one for each level. Traw grumbled, picking Aveer back up.
With the last ounces of his energy and the suit becoming of little help to his strength, Traw nearly crawled up the last flight of stairs. The doorway to the rooftop lay just ahead. Once emerged, he could close and lock the door behind him. What he would do after, he had no idea. Sweat ran down his trembling brow as he inched up the stairs with the heavy armored man lying across his back.
Finally, he fell down on the gravel-layered rooftop and let Aveer fall beside him. He picked up his helmet and fitted it back onto his head. Panting, he opened a channel to the Indefatigable with a set of verbal commands. “DS05 Traw requesting immediate evacuation. At roof of central tower. DS01 Aveer wounded. Ground forces engaging us now.” He laid his head to rest. Two militia soldiers emerged from the doorway and approached Traw, who appeared dead. One of them scuttled closer and prodded the tip of his gun at Traw's helmet, checking for any sign of life. The soldier muttered something to his companion, then reached for Traw's helmet. Traw mustered his energy to lift his arm and shot down both militia soldiers.
A few minutes later, Moore slid down by Traw's side after running toward him across the short space of gravel. “You here, man?” he asked, lifting off Traw's helmet. Clayton budged Moore aside and pressed his index and middle fingers at a certain point on Traw's neck.
“He's alive,” Clayton confirmed, stepping back. Sanchez lifted Aveer's mask, and Clayton knelt down beside the larger unconscious man. “So is he.”
Traw blinked himself awake and instinctively clutched his pistol. “Hey, it's cool, it's just us,” Sanchez assured, snapping his finger to draw Traw's attention. “Ain't none of those militia bastards left. We took 'em out.”
“You see that there?” Moore said, pointing into the distance. There was a small pair of white lights approaching in the sky. He gently held Traw's head up so he could see the lights. “That's the dropship. They're comin' to get us. You'll be alright, just stay with me.”
Even in his addled state, Traw noticed Moore was kinder than he had ever seen him. His mouth hanging open to reveal blood spilling down the side of his cheek, Traw relaxed and let the Sinoan breeze flow over him. The sensation never felt so pleasant. He reckoned it was because now he could fully appreciate it. He had been through war and seen the ugliest sides of it. All the memories stirred in his head like a symphony. Yet he couldn't remember Luella or Louise's faces. For a moment he panicked inside. He couldn't fully recall what either of them looked like. He could only see blurs of their faces, like reflections in a murky pond. I have a picture of them in my quarters, he assured himself. I'll be able to see them again. I will. I'm going to make sure it happens.
“Here they are!” Sanchez hollered in a rugged voice, waving to the cockpit with both hands. It hovered a foot above the surface of the roof, and a small team of medics came to assist Aveer and Traw. The other three men climbed onto the ship without aid.
Captain Vault came up alongside Traw, who was laid out on a stretcher. Holding his cap down from the wind, Vault assured him, “You're safe now, Sebastian.” Vault bit his lip and looked back at the two militia corpses. Traw mustered a vague nod, then laid his head to rest. “What about the rest of the militia out in the city?” Sanchez asked, pointing out to the night city that lay beyond. “We came to finish the job.”
“Jobs change. We got three platoons coming down at 0600 tomorrow morning. Your work here's done,” Vault informed Sanchez, as well as Moore and Clayton, who were standing nearby.
“This was organized. We've all been deceived,” Clayton muttered bluntly.
“What?” Vault almost laughed.
“I've never seen militia this well armed and organized. They marched like us. They fought like us. They used children as walking bombs. They used a brutal attack formation. This kind of warfare doesn't come from a planet like Sino.”
Vault paused for a moment, checking about to make certain the area was clear and evacuation was ready to go. “Get inside the transport, and don't speak a word of this to anyone,” he ordered dismissively. Moore and Sanchez walked into the aircraft, then Clayton, after a moment of hesitation. Vault took a moment to gaze out at the city, his hands on his hips and his jacket slipped back. He wondered for a moment if Clayton's presumptions were accurate.
“Sir, we have to leave now. Another group of insurgents are inbound,” one of the pilots informed into Vault's earpiece. Vault stepped into the dropship, the hatch closed, and they departed into the night sky.
Traw awoke to Aveer's voice, saying, “I've never been favored in such a way, my friend.” Traw blinked, turning his head. He was in the infirmary aboard the Indefatigable, with a host of nurses and doctors meandering about, each with their own task. Aveer was sitting upright on the bed beside his. Traw muscled his way to a propped up position, letting out a little groan.
“Death Squad for life,” Traw muttered with a warm grin. “We watch out for each other.”
“Yeah, we made it. This is the end of the line. We all get to go home and live rich.” Aveer sounded a twinge disappointed despite his satisfaction.
“I'm going to make a lotta love to my wife back home,” Traw laughed. Aveer chuckled, thinking of his own wife. “What's yours like? Dark-skinned, like you?”
Aveer paused for a moment. He reminisced, like anyone does while filing through old memories. “Yes...none of us in the village aren't. She has eyes fit for a goddess, and the stature of a queen,” he described, looking blankly to the floor. “Her hands are always soft after a day of work. And her hair always smells like the flowers that grow in the fields beyond our village.”
“She sounds great,” Traw remarked. Aveer's life seemed so simple at home, and yet so full. Aveer was silent a while longer. Something else seemed to perturb him. “Somethin' on your mind?”
He held in his words for a moment, trying to compose them. “Those children...few things in this world are more horrific than that. They were so innocent. Many of them seemed almost pleased with themselves. Who would tell them to do such a thing?”
Traw swallowed hard. Again he thought of Luella. “Someone's got a sick mind,” was all Traw could mutter. Although he wasn't certain, he assumed Aveer's children were around the same age.
Both men sat in their beds in silence for a long time.
“Liar!” Moore yelled, pounding his fist to Captain Vault's desk, vicious spit spraying across the captain's face. “I'm gonna tear you apart, you piece of shit!”
“And be court martialed for life, saying goodbye to that pretty check. I shouldn't think so,” Vault quipped with calm confidence. Moore stopped, clenching his fists and panting from rage.
“That was organized, I'm telling you,” Moore insisted, with slightly less violence bursting from his throat. “There's no goddamn way that this was just a riot. Clayton mentioned this. You know this. Venko knows this. That was a planned, calculated attack. They had better guns and gear than our own Marines, they were trained, and those kids...that was just wrong.” Moore looked down at the table, his jaw set. “I just want my paycheck, and to be done with this whole fiasco. This is not what got advertised.”
“I didn't know about any of this,” Vault assured him. “I just relay the orders to you, nothing more. Venko organized this whole mission, I had no part in it. And I'm sorry about the kids. I didn't..”
“You have no idea what was going on there, don't play the saint,” Moore interrupted with a scowl.
“I know it was bad, and I wish I could've came in sooner. But...I want you to redirect your energy toward someone else. Someone who's responsible for this.”
He knew exactly of whom the Captain spoke. He then looked up, dark determination in his eyes. "Go on, Captain," Moore grinned.
"We're not the only ones who think like this," Vault continued, rising from his chair and observing the forum from the veil of his tinted window. "To my knowledge, there are fourteen other officers on the Council who share my contempt for Rank Alpha, including George Derringer, who is poised to succeed Venko, and has the loyalty of many other lower ranking officers. Five of these council members and their respective armies are currently stationed on Neptune, and the other nine are either at the helm of flagships like this one, or controlling key systems across the reach of the State."
"Point being..?" Moore wondered, tilting his head back and cocking it slightly to the left.
"Each of the aforementioned officers, myself included, holds a pivotal position across the State, and would undoubtedly be able to muster more troops if the opportunity presented itself. If I say the word, we'll assemble at Neptune, assassinate Venko and imprison any loyalists. We can change the entire State overnight with a swift coup. And Death Squad will be the vanguards of this dethroning. What do you think?"
Moore stood up and cracked his knuckles. "I think we need to get the rest of the squad in here."