Traw stepped out of the pod and onto the familiar Sinoan dirt. He unbuttoned his uniform shirt and scanned the area. The sky thundered as dark clouds gathered overhead. “There's somethin' you don't see often 'round here,” he remarked, looking to the sky. The other four men poured out. Although a breeze rolled over the barren plain, it was still hot and dry. Traw reckoned the rain was sure to remedy that in due time.
“What do we do now?” Moore wondered, more out of despair than curiosity. “We can't stay with the pod, that's for sure. If anyone's huntin' us, the last thing we need is to stick by a big target. Traw, you know the landscape. Where's the best place around here to bunker down at?”
Traw looked around. There were hills to the east and west, and in the distance, he could see a city. Far south was a dusty mountain range, standing somewhere between the present and the distant.
“Probably up in those hills over there. No beasts, no soldiers. A lot of good shelter up there in rocks and shrubs and whatnot.” Traw placed his hands on his hips and pushed his uniform jacket back, as if he was surveying his own land.
Clayton snapped his finger from inside the pod. There was a pinging, chirping sound radiating near him. “We have a transmission from the ship,” he alerted, motioning for the rest of the men to reconvene in the pod. They quickly did, and Clayton pressed a certain spot on the viewscreen attached to the wall of the small cabin.
“Are you all safe?” Vault wondered, panting. He glanced behind him to the door, then turned back to the screen.
“Yessir, we're all fine,” Traw answered. “What's goin' on up there?”
Vault turned around again anxiously, and something was banging on the door. “Evidently a portion of my crew have a line for direct orders from Venko. That pompous bastard doesn't trust me enough to give me a fully loyal crew. Can't say I blame him. But, I've been trying to route a connection with the rest of the ship and get a call to arms. Venko's spies have severed almost all communications from this office.”
“Is there any way we can get back?” Aveer asked, setting his jaw.
“I'm afraid not. Those pods are a one-way trip. But the traitors are the least of my worries. Radar's showing three GAM battleships inbound, ETA 36 minutes. No doubt they've been sent by Venko himself as insurance. That's of no consequence to you, though. I need to explain my plan while there's still time. Inside the pod is eighty kilos of H-12 explosives, along with an ID card that'll get you access to any GAM secured area. Now, what you need to do is suit up and take a few ships here and there, just hitchhiking. Once you get a safe line of communication, tell General Derringer the situation, and the direness thereof. He'll assemble his men, and you five will lead the coup. Assassinate Venko. Do not let him escape. Only attempt to rescue the hostages after Venko is dead. And under no circumstances are you to return to the Indefatigable.” Vault turned around again, and there was a drilling noise coming from the door. With urgency, he concluded, “I can't help you any further, gentlemen. Good luck and godspeed.” The transmission cut out.
There was a long silence among the five abandoned men. The reality of the situation finally set in. They were no longer patriots: they were renegades. Their only hope of surviving was to evade the law and evade the grasp of Venko. Traw thought of his wife and daughter, wondering if they were being treated properly, and hoping there was still time to rescue them.
“Let's suit up,” Aveer muttered. In his tone was a grimness, yet a determination, like he was finishing a task he had already failed. He walked over to the datapad of the armor case.
“How is this gonna end well?” Moore argued. “Huh? Did nobody here actually stop to think about this plan? We've stuck up the middle finger to the most powerful man alive, and the plan is to march right into his base, potentially with a few conspirators by our side. From my experience with the GAM, information isn't the sturdiest thing being passed around."
“There is help in the stars,” Aveer mentioned, looking up as if the pod's ceiling didn't exist.
“Don't give us that sentimental bullshit, man,” Sanchez grumbled, slipping a knife out of its place on his belt and twirling it about. “We don't got time for that. Ain't nobody got time for that.”
“No,” Aveer dismissed. His tone was that of an elder to a child as he shook his head. “The Nektro are waiting to attack. Millions of them...in the stars, just waiting. If we give them an opportunity, Venko's defenses could soon be a field of ash, which would give us an open door to the man himself, and the hostages.”
“The capitol's defenses are strong, but I know my way around them. If you could get me to a relay station beyond the borders of the city, I could disable the shields,” Clayton mentioned, his voice brighter.
Moore lifted his head, a glimmer of hope and curiosity in his eye. “You're sayin', we get the capitol's shields disabled, then lead the Nektro fleet to Venko's front door? I mean, I like the sound of it, but there's two little thoughts buzzin' in my head right now. One, how're we gonna lead them there and have 'em ready to break down the walls? Two, after they've crippled the capitol and Venko's dead and the hostages are secure and all that...how do we deal with the fact that we've got an armada of Nektro battleships right above us?”
Another long pause set in as the five minds grinded to produce an answer. “Maybe we could reason with the Nektro's leaders, whoever they are,” Traw suggested. “If we could convince them it's an open door and not a trap, and explain our own situation with Venko, they might listen, and they might work with us. We'd be offering them an opportunity they wouldn't get for another hundred years, to end this war in one way or another."
“We'd also be settin' ourselves up for a trap,” Sanchez added.
“And storming the capitol would be better?” Aveer quipped. “Even if we die at the hands of the Nektro, that means our families get set free. There is no reason for Venko to hold hostages if there is no one he is trying to control.”
“Or they'd kill them,” Moore noted. Aveer hesitated. He knew Moore was right. Everyone in the room knew Moore was right.
“All in favor of going to the Nektro,” Clayton concluded, raising his hand. Traw raised his own. Moore and Sanchez were both decided against the idea. There stood Aveer, with his burly arms crossed. He pondered for a few moments as the other four men stared at him anxiously for a response. He raised his hand.
“Dammit,” Moore grumbled, looking down. He took a deep breath. “Alright, if we're goin' with this plan, I say we go all hands on deck. It's not my own choice. But it's do or die now. So...what is the exact plan? We gotta know that before we do anything.”
“I checked, and we have a couple million kaoris in the card Vault gave us. That should be enough to buy a small little shuttle and a bunch of fuel,” Traw mentioned, pulling out the card. He remarked to himself that such a small object could have so much financial power.
“Or we could just steal us a ship,” Sanchez suggested with an air of nonchalance. “I don't know, whatever. How are we gonna get to the Nektro? We got no idea where they are and how to get to 'em. I'm just thinkin', man. There ain't no point in goin' through with this if we ain't got a clue what we're doin'.”
“Are you on board or not?” Aveer asked in a domineering tone. “We're working on the details now. If you are doing this, you give it full effort.”
“Alright, get off my case,” Sanchez sneered, backing off a bit. “You gotta admit, though, how're we gonna do this?”
“He has a point,” Clayton conceded. “Even with the potential support of Vault's conspirator network, we still don't know where the Nektro are, or how to get to them.”
“I do,” Traw mentioned. All eyes were on him. “I started studyin' up on them, and apparently they've got some sorta giant mobile base. That's their only known home. Ships dock there, civilians live there. It's HQ for them. We don't know where it is, but they do. If we surrender to one of the battlecruisers, we might be able to convince the captain that we need to speak with the highest authority. We'd be givin' up weapons and suits probably, but it'd be worth it. We just gotta drift into Nektro territory with a small, unarmed craft, send out a distress beacon, and we should be set up to get on board a Nektro cruiser.”
“And if they ain't feelin' so kind?” Moore inquired.
“Then we're corpses in space,” Sanchez answered. “Worst case scenario.”
“Then I say we go with Traw's plan,” Moore added his piece. “Better than sittin' around.”
“Same,” Aveer replied with a tone that suggested everyone knew his answer already.
“I concur,” Clayton added. “Let's make camp up in the mountains. This pod is likely the number one target of unfriendly GAM staff.”
“Let's move, then. I don't wanna be fried,” Sanchez muttered, stepping outside to the sound of thundering clouds overhead. “Yo, Traw, is it gonna rain?”
Traw stepped outside alongside him and looked to the sky. “Yeah, real soon. Let's change into the armor, quick.”
The five armored men walked across the dusty plateau, each of them with a bag of supplies slung over their shoulder. The rain began to patter down on their footsteps that led a half mile back to the grounded pod in the middle of the desert range.
As he marched on like a true soldier, all Traw could think of was his wife and daughter. His actual line of vision became of no consequence to him: all he could see was his family being held hostage in the dark room. It impressed upon his mind like a searing iron. He would never forget it, even if he rescued them. That image, that imprinted burn of seeing his precious wife and daughter in such a threatening place, and that feeling of helplessness that washed over him when he saw them, would always remain in his mind.
“Traw,” Moore called over the communicator. Traw snapped himself back to the present reality.
“What's up, Moore?”
“You know this planet. Do those speeders look friendly to you?” Moore was pointing west, where a small squadron of speeders approached. They were mere dots on the horizon to the five men who watched them advance.
“No, they sure don't,” Traw muttered as he drew his rifle and looked through the scope. He identified the markings on the speeders as raiders. The hulls of the vehicles themselves had a signature state of disunion and crumbling, which could not be rivaled by any other ship on Sino. It had always perplexed Traw how the vehicles still functioned. “Get ready, they're approachin' fast. Wait...they're in range. I'll just snipe them.”
One by one, he shot off the five pilots from a distance of seven hundred yards. There was a brief period of panic among the raiders as they realized they were under fire, but that did not hinder Traw's ability to eliminate them.
“Are you certain those were raiders?” Aveer asked as they walked toward the motionless speeders.
“Pretty sure. Unless some civil boys decided to mark up their speeders like raiders. But that wouldn't be smart,” Traw answered, slinging the rifle into its place on his back.
After ten minutes of walking, the squad came up to the speeders, and Moore grabbed the one with the least rust and missing plates. Sanchez, slightly frustrated, grabbed the second least filthy one. Traw walked toward the one far behind, with his first target lying dead alongside it. He knelt down beside the corpse.
It was a young man, perhaps twenty years old, with bruises on his lightly-stubbled cheeks. His rough clothes were tattered, and there were two blast marks on him: one above the heart that Traw himself put there, and another in the man's leg. “You get in a fight, boy?” Traw asked in a whisper. “You don't look like a raider.”
“Traw...these are just ordinary men,” Aveer called, crouching over one of the corpses. “They do not look like pirates of any sort.”
“That's because they ain't,” Traw replied with a grim undertone. Clayton stood on the other side of the speeder beside Traw, looking at the dead body in silence. “These're just boys. They probably got into a fight with some raiders and took off with their speeders.”
“Then there ain't no doubt there're a bunch of pissed off raiders on their tail,” Moore shouted. He frequently looked in the direction from whence the speeders came, checking for more on the horizon. Traw hesitated, looking into the man's shocked, empty eyes. Deserved it, Traw justified to himself.
Traw mounted onto his speeder without a last word, and Clayton rushed to his. The five speeders zipped away across the rocky sand, leaving in their wake five unidentified, unnamed men staring into the dark, rumbling sky.
Rain fell harder and thicker as the Death Squad climbed up the rocky mountain, their backs laden with tough supplies and their muscles aided by the power of their armor. Raindrops slid down the surface of the metal armor plates, eventually falling down to reach their destiny at the dusty rocks upon which the five men marched with a spirit of thunder.
After more walking than he would have preferred, Traw finally found a suitable place for him and his fellow soldiers to encamp themselves: there was a well-sized crevice beneath a slanted boulder, with a small bunch of reeds nearby. Tall rockfaces stretched on both sides overhead, making a safe gorge that prevented surveillance drones overhead from seeing into the shelter Traw selected. “Let's make camp here,” Traw called, pointing to the spot and making his way toward it.
Safe from the rain, the men began setting up a small encampment, with a durable lantern and their weapons readily at hand. Once everything was set up, Traw took off his helmet with a feeling of satisfaction, leaning against the edge of the boulder. Each of the other men took off theirs in unspoken reply. “This wasn't how I imagined my end,” Clayton remarked, staring at the sandy dirt floor of the squad's abode. “Fighting for months and then running to my death at the very hands of those who made me fight.”
“We ain't gonna die,” Traw reminded. The words came out of his mouth with a bit of difficulty. For a moment, he wondered if he truly believed what he said.
“Die here or there,” Moore began, “I'm goin' down in flames. Guns in both hands, a violated woman beneath me, and a cigar in my mouth. That's how I'm leavin' this existence. Got a cigar in my pack, got a gun, now I just need a bitch to rape.”
“Very noble of you,” Aveer muttered sarcastically.
“Alright, that's enough talk of death and rapin' and guns and all that,” Traw tried to wrap the conversation back to the grounded plan. “We ain't got no time to waste, though. Tomorrow, I say Clayton and I go into the town and pick up some garbs, cloaks and whatnot, while you three look for a ship that's in a price range. We rendezvous back here at 1300, armor up and throw them cloaks over ourselves so as to not draw attention, get the ship and haul outta here. Sound good?”
“Aye, cap'n,” Sanchez answered, half out of cynicism and half out of weariness.
After two hours of lying in bed silent but awake, Traw stepped outside into the warm night air. Clayton had salvaged part of the pod's communication relay and was tinkering with it in an attempt to make a functioning device. Turning knobs and holding a pair of headphones up to his ear, he repeated, "Death Squad to GAM Indomitable, come in General Derringer. Emergency, please respond." Between each attempt he would periodically smack the side of the device, hoping to yield better results in doing so.
The rain had stopped recently, leaving a certain smell to the air that could not be replicated by anything else. The soft dirt squished beneath his feet as he took slow steps nearby. Stars glimmered overhead, with their companion moon gleaming close at hand. Traw still wore his armor from the waist down, mainly because he wanted to be prepared, should a night attack take place.
“I take it you have enjoyed many nights like this,” Aveer noted with his usual presence of natural intimidation and honest kindness. Traw clenched up from the surprise, then turned around to see Aveer close behind him to the left, sitting on a rock.
“Yeah, I have,” Traw replied, taking a deep breath of Sinoan air. “Y'know, I used to hate this planet. It's always so rocky and dusty, and the crops can't make do without a lot of imported water and tech...but I like it now. Never quite appreciate somethin' 'till you go without it.”
Aveer grinned warmly, but something else seemed to be troubling him. Traw continued gazing to the sky like a prospector gazes at open land, but he could sense Aveer did not come out for small talk. “Anything else on your mind?” Traw asked, realizing he would sound odd if nothing was.
Aveer paused, gathering his thoughts. “We have seen terrible things in war,” he began, “I have seen children explode, you have seen two ships full of civilians crash by your own hand, and none of us ever speak of it. You just shot down five innocent men, and never cried a tear. I remember a man who wept when he realized he killed civilians of another race. Where did he go?”
A heavy load set over Traw. Nothing had ever beat him so hard than to realize that impending fact. He swallowed hard and released a deep breath. “He's...he's become this,” Traw answered, motioning down his torso. “My job's to kill. We're Death Squad. You're in it, too. You just gotta deal with it. It's what we all signed on for. I guess there's a struggle between man and machine in all of us. I just got comfortable with the gears.”
“I did not sign onto this team to be ordered into watching children explode and into slaughtering people in a hotel suite and into seeing a dead man in the back room of a ship who killed himself, and into...all this. My mind is still pure. This all disgusts me. But you...you have no issue with it now. You are like Moore.”
“I am not Moore!” Traw snarled, turning about to face Aveer with intense eyes and a sneer. “I'm doin' this for my family, that bastard's doin' it for his own pleasure! We are not the same man, Aveer, don't you get that mixed up. Don't ever get that mixed up.”
Oblivious to the argument, Clayton chimed in, "I have something! I've feedback, come quickly!" Aveer and Traw glanced at one another, then both hurried toward Clayton and leaned in, their faces illuminated by the soft yellow glow of the device's screen.
"Death Squad, received contact. Please report orders," Clayton replied urgently into the makeshift microphone, holding the headphones up at full volume so his comrades could hear.
"Loud and clear, Death Squad," Derringer's voice replied confidently. His voice reminded Traw of when he had accidentally picked a fight with one of the other boys when he was 10 years old, and his own father had come to the rescue. "I received an emergency transmission from Captain Vault as well, and I understand the situation is dire, and we may not have much time to talk. Explain what's happening as concisely as possible."
The three men looked at one another, unsure of what to say. Suddenly, Moore shoved between them, grabbed the microphone, and reported bluntly, "Venko wants us dead, Indefatigable's been compromised from within, Vault told us to tell you that it's time to overthrow Venko. Savvy?" Aveer, Clayton and Traw all looked at Moore in surprise. "Just sayin' what we were all gonna say anyways," he shrugged, giving the microphone back to Clayton. At this point, Sanchez was stretching and ruffling his slightly unkempt short hair.
Everyone awaited a reply from Derringer. "Meet me at the capitol in three days. Bring full armor and weapons. Let's kill a king."