Clayton sat in the pilot's chair, gripping the handle tightly as flames plumed the stern of the ship. He gritted his teeth as the entire vessel rumbled. Finally, the vehicle broke through the atmosphere, and there was the cool serenity of space greeting them with open arms. Clayton sat back in his chair and swiveled about, facing the other four men, who sat clenching the arms of their own chairs. “If I went the rest of my life never doing that again, I would not complain,” remarked Clayton, running his hand along his thinning hair.
The five men unstrapped themselves from their chairs and stretched, feeling more loose and rattled, like their skeletons had been jostled. “It's in cruise control on a course for the edge of the State's borders. Full speed. We can relax for a bit until we get to the edge.”
“Or until that little pack of pow finally blows,” Sanchez muttered, shrugging. He was half joking. Traw again thought of the hostages. It had been two days since the transmission from Venko. For all Traw knew, his wife and daughter could be nothing but ash.
He slid down a rung ladder at the back of the cockpit and entered the living space. It looked oddly like the barracks back at the GAM headquarters. Aveer came down after him, looking about the quarters. The entire ship reeked of fuel and rotting food, which Traw reckoned to be the source of some leftover morsels hiding in the shadows. “What's your point in bein' here?” Traw wondered, casually rummaging through leftover material on the two tables at the center of the room. “Joinin' us. Life back in your village seemed okay. But you're a bit of a tomb when it comes to sharin' your reasons.”
“I keep it that way for a reason,” Aveer quipped. He almost seemed irritated by Traw's probing, but not enough to arrest him from doing so. “I came here to protect my family. We lived on the edge of occupation space. The Nektro would have soon been upon us, and I would not be able to stop them, no matter how many villagers I had by my side. Though now I fear I may have only sunk them into a deeper pit.”
Traw turned around, setting an empty can back onto the table. He put his hand on Aveer's shoulder. “We're gonna come out on top,” Traw assured him, with a dogged look in his eye. “We're gonna kick Venko's filthy ass and save our families. Don't think we won't.”
“I just want to flee. Take my family and leave, beyond the reach of the State,” Aveer wished.
“That makes two of us,” Traw agreed. “But we're here. Wishin' won't get us anywhere.”
“What is it you miss most?”
Traw paused, rubbing his gruff hand to his gruff chin. “Just...bein' home, I guess. Smellin' dinner. Hearin' my daughter. Kissin' my wife. Y'know, part of me wanted to leave last night. My homestead was probably less than a hundred miles out from where we camped, and I was tempted to just ditch y'all. But it wouldn't be the same. Not without my two ladies.”
Aveer nodded thoughtfully. Sanchez shouted below, “Yo, that distress beacon's up, so we could get Nektro any minute now. They're supposed to be parked close to here, so get ready.”
“Thanks, Sanchez,” Traw replied. He walked over and laid down on one of the beds. “I'm gonna get some shut-eye until that bug army picks us up. You might wanna do the same.”
“Not a terrible idea,” Aveer commented, laying down on one of the four bunks. It was cramped, leaving his large mass with little space.
Due to his lack of quality sleep the night before, Traw was soon unconscious, his uniform dress cap slumped over his face. After what he thought was twenty minutes, he heard Clayton's voice beside him. Traw blinked himself awake, groggily looking over to the direction of the voice. Clayton was on his hands and knees on the floor beside Traw, with a small toolbox opened. “Pardon me,” Clayton excused, lifting up one of the interior panels. “I just have a bit of work to do here. This ship has more than a few problems with the auxiliary systems, so I'm taking a bit of time to fix them.”
“You know we're just gonna be hitchhiking onto the Nektro ship, right? It doesn't matter if this one's got a few bugs here n' there,” Traw muttered, only half awake yet.
“I'm aware of the plan,” Clayton corrected, “but this gives me something to do. It certainly is more pleasant than sitting in the cockpit watching the dead space, waiting for either an alien cruiser to show up, or for part of this ship to explode and GAM ships to arrive and salvage us. So I'm making repairs.”
Traw shrugged, rolling back over onto his side. “Where're the other two?” he wondered in a mumble.
“Upstairs practicing fighting. I believe they're of my mindset. An idle mind is the devil's playground.”
“You're in a peppy mood for someone waitin' for a storm,” Traw grumbled beneath his breath. Suddenly, the ship shook, and the lights of the cabin went out. They flickered back to life, and Traw rolled out of his bunk, grabbing his helmet from the table. Aveer was soon on the ground, reaching for his helmet as well. When Traw looked and the cabin was visible again, Clayton was already climbing the ladder.
“That'd be the bomb,” Traw remarked, climbing up close after Clayton, with Aveer waiting behind him.
Soon all five men were assembled in the cockpit, and Clayton was at the control panel, switching buttons and turning knobs, none of which made any sense to anyone else in the room. “Everything here is damaged,” Clayton alerted, “engines are dead, life support is severely damaged, lights are on a bit of backup power, sensors are basically all dead, communications is down, with the exception of the distress beacon, but thankfully radar's still somewhat functional. How, I have no idea. But we can still see ships coming and...oh, god...”
“What?” Moore asked urgently, coming up alongside Clayton.
“Two GAM ships, inbound. They just broke through the atmosphere. No doubt the explosion is only prefacing their arrival.”
“Make sure we don't have any weapons on us,” Traw mentioned, unholstering his pistol and tossing it down the ladder shaft. Moore and Sanchez both unclipped ammunition, pistols and knives from their armor. Moore unstrapped his shotgun shell belt, and reluctantly looked at it. He kissed it and dropped it down the shaft.
“Thus the waiting game begins,” Clayton muttered, placing his hands firmly onto the control panel. A dense, black smoke began to seep into the room through the vents. Traw was grateful his helmet had an air filter.
There was a solemn silence among the five men. “Ships at six thousand meters,” Clayton notified. He spoke it in a tone suggesting his conceded attitude. “Their guns are armed.”
Then, like a bolt of lightning, three immense battleships appeared from out of hyperspace. There was no mistaking them for ships built by humans. Their hulls were sleek, with a purple sheen to the massive armor plating. Rows of slim, curved cannons lined their hulls, some larger than others. Clayton frantically checked the radar. He turned around to face the others and grinned, “The Marines have stopped.”
“Marine ships, halt your advance on this vessel,” came a voice over the speaker on the control panel. The voice was deep and inhuman, yet had an obvious understanding of the language, which impressed Clayton especially.
“This is apparently an open transmission,” he remarked, “but I've never heard Nektro talk in our language before. This is...astounding.”
“Don't get too impressed, they're still the enemy,” Moore muttered, looking out the window.
“Nektro ships, we are simply coming to aid this damaged vessel. As I'm sure you're aware, they put out a distress beacon.”
“Your weapons are engaged. That is no measure of peace.”
There was only static from the Marine line for a long five seconds. “Either way, this is private GAM business. Leave now, and we'll forget you ever crossed State borders.”
“We will be taking this ship. If you want to fight us, you may. There will be no Nektro blood spilled into the stars here, though.”
Again, there was static from the Marines' ships. This time, there was no indication of their reply. “They're leaving,” Clayton told the others, staring down at the cracked radar display. The middle Nektro vessel, which appeared more ornate and slightly larger than the other two, advanced toward the Death Squad's ship. “They seem awful hellbent on takin' us,” Traw remarked, watching the gargantuan vessel approach them.
“Let's hope it's for a good reason,” Moore added.
Sweat beaded on Traw's helmet-cushioned face as their small ship sat idle in the growing shadow of the approaching Nektro vessel. Clayton watched intently as the massive hull of the Nektro flagship blocked out the light of the distant star. Moore clenched his hands into fists, swallowing hard. Sanchez noticed, and nudged Moore on the shoulder. Sanchez made a relaxed gesture, and Moore unclenched his fists. Aveer breathed deep, trying to calm himself. His chest rose and sank. Traw tapped his fingers to the side of his leg, trying not to think of what might happen to them aboard the cruiser. They were entirely at the mercy of the Nektro.
There was a great clamping sound coming from both sides of the ship, and the men could feel it rising. Faint sounds of mechanics penetrated the hull of the little ship for the men to hear. Clayton looked about through the cockpit window. They were being elevated toward the cruiser by some sort of attaching clamp. Bay doors opened, and the ship slowly entered what appeared to be the hangar bay of the Nektro flagship. It was dark, with only a few purple lights toward the ceiling illuminating the area. Then all the noise stopped. The bay doors closed.
The men looked at each other. The tipping point of the situation was imminent, and each of them knew it. Then they heard the sound of the ship's door opening in the lower cabin. There were feet shuffling and rummaging for some thirty seconds. A few Nektro voices talked to one another in their guttural, squawking speech. Like ants scittering up a wall, the Nektro ascended the ladder and took a loose formation at the bow side of the cockpit. Footsoldiers continued to pour into the dark cabin, until the five men were backed against the dashboard with no small amount of discomfort. None of them spoke a word, or so much as a whisper. The Nektro were more erect than they usually seemed, like they were standing at attention.
Up from the ladder shaft came another Nektro. This one was different from the rest, not only in attire, but in the way he walked. He had a slim silver helmet with protruding cheek plates, and a purple cape that glimmered even in the dark. Hanging from his waist was an oddly curved cutlass that tapped against his leg with each slightly hobbling step he took. He approached the Death Squad, looking at each of them directly. It was as if he was conducting an observation for an experiment.
“Welcome aboard the Dak' Jahud,” the leader greeted in impeccable English, an elegance coming from his reptilian throat.