“I'm not giving you the coordinates, Venko,” Dr. Klept insisted, taking a firm stance behind his desk. Venko stood on the other side, in a falsely diplomatic pose. Four guards stood behind him, waiting for an order. “Unlike most around here, I have a sense of morality. You should know that, we've worked together for twenty years.”
“I am aware of your noble code of honor, Ivan,” Venko repeated, “but these men are fugitives now. They disobeyed strict orders to return here to Neptune, and have shown blatant disregard for the authority of the GAM. And as for Vault and his ship, I'm awaiting word now from my armada that he's been neutralized or taken into custody. I know he will give me the location of the Death Squad, so I'm giving you an opportunity to do so in his stead and save yourself the trouble of being interrogated in the depths of IRO's basement.”
“And I am aware of your lack of honor,” Dr. Klept argued, squinting his eyes. Venko squinted in return, like a dog facing a challenge. “I'm beginning to regret not accepting that offer from IRO all those years ago. You may get the coordinates to the suits of armor, but you won't get them from me...I remember a man who used to believe in a better world when he joined the GAM. Where is he now?”
“You must understand that man died many years ago. He died when he realized what this world truly looks like.” Venko took a few steps toward the window and looked out across the city. “There are a lot of evils out there that didn't exist twenty years ago. It's a different world, Ivan. I have to do what I have to do, as Rank Alpha.”
Klept turned around to face him, in a more pleading stance. “But do you have to hold these people hostage? If you're honest with yourself, you'll likely find that the lines of your perception are blurred between power and peace. I know about the Umbragites. I know about the transmissions. I know about those executions eight years ago. I know each and every one of the skeletons in your closet, and it seems to me that you don't fully understand the gravity of what you're doing.” Venko snapped his finger quietly, and two guards approached Klept from behind, grabbing his arms.
“For the love of god, just give these men their families and let them go!” Klept shouted as he struggled and squirmed in an effort to scrape up as much time in the room as he could. He knew it was the only chance he could get his hands on to reason with Venko. “They don't want any more killing or trouble. I know, I trained them. Just let them be.”
Venko turned about slowly, pressing something on his datapad and switching it to Klept's computer screen. He flipped it about to face Klept. “You don't understand, though,” Venko argued with a false innocence. On the screen was a news broadcast, featuring military pictures of the seven men Venko sent to kill the Death Squad, with the following words underlined at the bottom: 'Marines Murdered by Traitorous Death Squad.' Venko concluded, “Those men are traitors.”
Clayton picked up a ragged old robe from a table with many others like it for sale. Around him wafted the smells of cigar smoke, vehicle exhaust, incense, and the general filth of the city. Discreetly covering his nose, he asked over the clamor of the bustling street market, “You mean to tell me you lived here contentedly?”
Traw grinned, looking at a similar cloth. They needed something inconspicuous. “I lived in the rural area. I mean, really rural. We're talkin', just desert for as far as the eye can see. I only came into the city when I had to. And even then...it wasn't something I looked forward to.”
“Another question, if you don't mind my asking: how did you get crops to grow here?” Clayton paid for a few cloths and slung them over his shoulder. Traw then paid for his, bundled it up, and they continued walking through the street.
“I inherited the land, and as fate would have it, it's the most fertile ground in the region. Granted, it needs a little extra water here and there, but it's good for farming. Considering my other options around here. I made a fair profit, too, when I wasn't getting robbed by those raiders.”
Clayton stopped in his tracks, craning his neck toward the windowed front of a shop. Traw noticed, coming up behind him as people bustled past in a hobbling mass of ragged cloaks and shirtless, sun-tanned men. Behind the filthy, dust-covered window of the shop was a pyramid of television screens, of different types and sizes, older and more modern. Each played a different channel, with varying levels of grainy static obscuring the footage. There was one screen in particular that both the men were staring at with interest.
On the screen was footage of the Death Squad on one of their many previous missions, running through the wreckage of a city, with smoke billowing from the various ruins of buildings. Captions at the bottom of the screen read, “This right here is footage from a few months ago we were given from the GAM record database. Now, John, what do you think happened with these guys? I mean, was it a psychological breakdown, were they drunk, was it a dare? I'd really like to get your opinion on this.”
The footage switched over to a live feed of two men sitting at a large desk, evidently on some sort of television show. One of them continued, “Yeah, Ted, y'know, I think what happened here is just thugs being thugs, you know? I mean, you gather five different murderers, rapists, and thieves and you, you throw them in a team together with plenty of guns and armor, they're probably gonna snap at some point and show their true colors.”
“Well, why didn't they go for each other?” Ted asked. Though he was only reading the captions and couldn't hear the inflections in the two men's voices, Traw could tell these were just average people: there was no intelligent or noble stature about them.
“I don't know, Ted, I really don't,” John shrugged, taking another sip from his coffee mug with their show's logo printed on the side. “Maybe there's some sorta conspiracy or something, but, I mean, one thing's for sure: these fellas are traitors. Plain and simple.”
“I agree. I totally agree. They're killers, and they betrayed our properly enlisted soldiers. But more importantly, they betrayed all of us civilians, and the State.” John nodded with a forced graveness. “So, we were going to get an interview with Mrs. Louise Traw, but unfortunately, she's unavailable at this time. But we do have an older one we were able to snag a few weeks back with her, so we'll rebroadcast that for a few minutes. John and I'll be right back.” The two men got up from their seats, with crew and business agents coming up to them to fix their hair and suits, as well as to inform them of fresh information.
Clayton looked up to Traw, who was getting closer to the window. “Just play the clip already,” Traw muttered as the screen transitioned to the older interview footage. It was as if the whole world was centered at that one, scratched screen with a few black pixels toward the upper right corner.
The footage showed Louise sat in an old leather chair with brass buttons pinning the upholstery, in a warm-colored room. The interviewer sat in a similar chair opposite of her, with a flame-filled hearth between them. Traw watched his wife's face intently, oblivious to the world around him. Her expression was somewhere between profuse weeping and lifeless stone. “What part of your husband do you miss most, Mrs. Traw?” the interviewer inquired, with the same serious face interviewers always had during an emotional discussion with the guest.
Louise hesitated, looking into the fire. “He would come home, and there was always this sort of...presence, that came with him. Many of my, my friends would fear their husbands coming home, because he'd be drunk or in a bad mood. I've seen their bruises that resulted from their husbands' different fits of rage, and all that. But Sebastian...he was always kind, always calm, no matter what kind of a day he had. I never had to fear.”
The interviewer nodded with a deep expression. “GAM headquarters has been gracious enough to grant us access to some of the squad members' personal log entries. This...may come as a bit of a shock to you, what I'm about to read.” The interviewer brought up their datapad and began reading, “'I hate to say it, but I'm in love. There's a lovely gal here who got my attention, and we've been talking a lot lately in our spare time. Last night, it was just me and her alone in the dining hall, so she looked into my eyes and asked if I wanted to go somewhere more secluded. One thing led to another and we were in bed. It just happened. She satisfied me more than Louise ever did. I don't want to go home to my wife.'”
After her face had been escalating into a crumple and tears were rolling down her cheeks, Louise buried her face in her hands. Salty tears dripped between her slender fingers as her back shook from the weeping. The footage transferred over to Ted and John, who were settling back into their seats. “As you can see, Mr. Traw is not only a traitor, but a cheat. What do you think, John?” Ted continued.
“You lying pieces of shit!” Traw roared, smashing his fist through the glass. Clayton immediately grabbed Traw around the chest, trying to restrain him as best he could. “I'll kill every last one of you! I swear to god! I swear to god! I'm gonna beat your faces into the ground, I swear I will!” His spit sprayed across the screens as he thrashed at them in a feral manner.
“Look at me,” Clayton urged, trying to turn Traw away from the screens. Traw refused, continuing his wild, futile attack. “Look at me!” Clayton barked. Traw turned to face Clayton, breathing heavily. “We need to get out of here right now. This is the last thing we want, if our goal is to stay below the radar.”
Traw and Clayton shuffled through the crowds into an empty alleyway, where only old garbage cans and stray trash dwelt. Traw cradled his bloody fist, looking to the ground. He bit his lower lip, breathing deep through his nose. “Traw, you have to calm down. You'll get her back soon, and you can explain it to her then. You will be able to tell her what really happened. But for now, you have to focus on the mission. I can only imagine what my brother is going through right now, but I'm choosing to keep it in the back of my mind, until I can actually do something about it. You should do the same.”
Traw nodded, still looking at the dirt ground. He did so mainly to keep Clayton from talking any longer. “We have to rendezvous with the others now. It's time,” Clayton muttered, returning to a normal position from leaning against a sordid wall. “Are you going to be alright?”
“I'll manage,” Traw replied, wiping the remaining blood on his pants. He tore off a strip of the garment and wrapped it about the palm of his cut hand, tying it off at the knuckle row. “Just don't tell the others about what happened. We'll say this is from a drunk in the street who wanted a brawl.”
“Sure. That sounds...somewhat convincing,” Clayton commented dismissively. “Let's move.”
The five men met in the city square, which was also bustling with people. Inconspicuous among the crowds, they stood in a small circle, Clayton and Traw passing out the disguise cloths. “We got a good ship a few blocks that way. It's in our budget, and the dealer's offerin' fuel at a good price,” Moore informed, examining his own cloth. “You sure these'll be enough to conceal our armor?”
“Yeah, I reckon so,” Traw answered. “We get deep space pilots comin' through these cities all the time. With these robes and such, we'll look like 'em. Even with the helmets.”
“And my gun?” Aveer asked. Traw winced. He had not taken that into consideration. A firearm of that size was sure to attract attention, especially with a dealer asking questions. Traw knew Sinoan folk tended to look at outsiders through squinted eyes, and it wasn't on account of the sunlight.
“We're mercenaries,” Sanchez suggested. “We carry big guns to take down big targets. It's as simple as that.”
“That'll do, I suppose,” Traw agreed. “Let's grab our stuff from the shelter then.”
Dusk fell with the dying of the light and the crimson recapture of the sky. The five cloaked men walked down the main road, which was accented with the last of the merchants packing up their materials for the evening. Although the cloaks wrapped about his armor made him appear to be an ordinary pilot, he was still uneasy about wandering through a GAM-occupied city, seeing as he was public enemy number one. The idea didn't settle too well with him, and he suspected it made the others a bit apprehensive as well.
“Surprised there ain't any Marines crawlin' around,” Sanchez muttered, glancing behind him.
“Yeah, I'm gettin' a bit jumpy. I'd rather have ten of 'em around in the open than one in the shadows,” Moore added. “First one that pops up, I shoot his skull and we sprint it to the dealers' lot.”
Traw glanced up at the city's capitol tower. It was eerily quiet. He told himself the local Marines were likely on leave, or there had been little conflict as of late. Yet he had difficulty believing his own lies.
They approached the shipyard, trying to conceal their weapons as best they could, with the obvious exception of Aveer, who slung his machine gun round his shoulder without shame. A wire fence ten feet tall surrounded the small shipyard, old hull pieces welded to the argyle pattern of the fence. Rusted parts lay about on the ground, as well as a few broken tools, making it clear the importance of cleanliness to the manager. Disgruntled, sweaty workers worked about the ships, and there was the occasional group of two or three enjoying a hard-earned break. At the opposite end of the yard was a small building, with the word 'MANAGER' painted onto a sign above the door.
The manager himself, a man well past the middle of his life, moseyed out of the door, making a few feeble attempts to straighten up his appearance as he approached the Death Squad. “Evening, gents,” he greeted, shaking Moore's hand that wasn't holding his helmet. “I see you've brought a couple friends, and your attire is...different.”
“Yeah, we had to grab what we could. I'm from a much hotter planet, so this place is like an ice cave to me,” Moore replied, grinning. The manager chuckled.
“Well, your ship is in prime condition for space travel,” he informed them, guiding them to the ship they had previously selected. Traw noticed the manager's stride was that of a wealthy mogul, and his gestures were elegant and fluid. “I filled its tank with my finest fuel, because you're giving me a very fine price for the ship. Far more than I would ever receive from anyone in this region. Consider it a gesture of good business.”
The manager stepped aside and gestured to the ship, allowing the men a moment to examine it. It had a bulky, blocky hull with thick engines that looked like they could propel an entire cruiser. There were four small turrets: two mounted on each side. The cockpit had a thick metal frame with two-inch-thick windows in square shapes. “If I may ask,” the manager began with a bit of hesitation in his voice, “where did you acquire those Marine uniforms? They belong to men of high class, most certainly.”
A frigid pause struck the five men. “Out in the market today,” Traw answered. “Some junker was sellin' these for a cheap price, told me he found 'em on some corpses in the outskirts. Hey, maybe I'll sell this and make a profit somewhere else.” The manager forced a faint, polite smile, as if that was his substitute for laughter. Traw could tell the manager was hiding something.
“Enjoy your new ship, gentlemen. I hope it serves you well,” the manager dismissed. Clayton meandered around the hull of the ship, gliding his hand along the warm hull. Then he felt a strange apparatus attached to the stern. It looked rashly manufactured, with wires protruding and pieces loosely welded together. Clayton motioned for Traw to join him.
As soon as Traw was close enough, Clayton muttered, “This is a remote detonation bomb attached to the ship. Don't make a point of showing it. Be subtle.”
“I knew somethin' wasn't right with this fella,” Traw grumbled, glancing back to the manager, who was strolling back to the main building with the kaori card in hand. “How much damage can this thing do?”
“Hard to tell,” Clayton replied, looking it over again, making sure he wasn't seen by any of the mechanics. “At most, I would say this could cripple our ship's engines, perhaps the life support as well. There's no way to detach this, and frankly...whoever has the detonator could set it off any time they choose. My guess is they know we're here, but don't want to make a scene of apprehending us. So they'll do it in space after we leave the atmosphere.”
“You're probably right,” Moore agreed. “Let's play it cool, and when it detonates, it detonates. We deal with it. Just, hopefully, we can get that distress beacon out to the Nektro soon enough.”
“I'm afraid that's our only option,” Clayton conceded. “Let's board it and lift off.”
Once boarded, the small vessel lifted off the dry, dusty ground and left the shipyard. From his dingy office window, the manager watched the ship leave. “It's definitely them,” he muttered into a communicator, closing the door to his office. He reclined in his desk chair, holding the communicator close to his mouth.
“And the bomb?” a static-laced voice asked through the garbled speaker of the communicator.
“Attached successfully. I suspect they're aware of it, judging by the way they lingered prior to their departure. However, there's no method of detaching the bomb. It's sealed permanently.”
“See to it that it only cripples them,” the voice ordered. “I want hostages, not corpses.”
“Of course, sir.”
“I have three ships waiting in the mountains: two to apprehend the Death Squad and one to pay you. I'll be aboard the third. Be ready.”