The Death Squad stood beside their shuttle, facing twelve ranks of Nektro guards in formation. Their weapons were being hauled away in a large crate by two other Nektro. The Nektro's caped commander, whose name was still a mystery, stood by the main door of the hangar bay, apparently waiting for someone or something.
Traw's eyes darted around the room in an attempt to absorb any information of his environment. The more he knew, the better chance he had for survival, should matters take a turn for the worse. To both his relief and terror, the daunting doors slid open, and the caped Nektro stood a bit more rigid and erect. The lights gradually became a bit brighter, and Traw could make out a group of figures approaching.
In response to the arrival of the new figures, the filed Nektro shouted something in unison and pressed their fists to their chests. Traw reckoned it was a salute of some kind. He himself stood a bit straighter, though he couldn't explain why he felt the urge to do so. From what he could discern, the incoming figures were taller and slimmer than most Nektro. They stood taller, with longer, slower strides by long, sleek limbs. Their garb was ornate, though Traw couldn't note any of the details.
The newcomers stood before the Death Squad, examining them in a similar manner to that of the caped Nektro who first greeted them. “Human,” one uttered in a creaky, archaic voice, lifting off Traw's helmet. Traw's heart beat so hard he thought it would burst through his ribcage. He tried to control his breathing and composure before his daunting host. “Kneel,” the tall being commanded, dropping Traw's helmet to the ground.
Without a second thought, Traw knelt down to the cold metal floor, placing his hands behind his head. The other four men did the same, removing their helmets. Traw considered glancing at Aveer, who was kneeling to his right. He wanted to be assured he was not the only one fearing those beings, to the point where his bones felt stiff. Traw did not look up, though he was so tempted to do so. He heard the beings conversing in low voices, using some tongue unknown to him.
“Rise, humans,” the one at the center commanded. Traw suspected he was the leader. All five men rose to their feet, keeping their hands clasped together behind their heads. Traw still looked to the ground, trying to make certain he would not appear confrontational. “I am Duk Revi'ktas. These are the dignitaries assigned to this armada, and I am their chief. State your business.”
Traw swallowed hard, struggling to form words. He had practiced during the journey, but forgot everything. “We hail as defectors from the GAM, seeking revenge against he who betrayed us,” Aveer blurted, looking Duk in the eye. Duk seemed a bit taken aback. Then he was calm, nodding with a solemn, sage understanding.
“Death Squad. Moore. Sanchez. Clayton. Aveer. Traw. This is your identity?”
Traw's eyes widened, and he too looked Duk head-on. “That is correct, your excellence,” he answered.
Duk paused, scanning each of the men in a slow, sweeping motion of his leathery neck. “We must speak in the elite chamber. Follow us now,” Duk beckoned with a graceful gesture of his long, spindly hand.
They entered a large room, with doors that rotated open in smooth succession. It was large and had an appearance of vacancy, even when someone was inside. The roof had several metal beams stretching across, connected by a translucent blue forcefield. The dignitaries took their large, majestic seats, and the Death Squad took their far smaller, more modest ones at the other end of the table.
“You were on the verge of death by your own kin,” Duk recalled. “Explain.”
“Those soldiers were sent by the man who betrayed us: Venko. He threatened our families to make us stay and fight longer. We didn't want that. So he's sent our fellow soldiers to kill us.” Moore felt somewhat relieved to have finally explained himself.
“You fight for honor. Venko has none,” Duk agreed.
“You've had dealings with him?” Traw inquired. He was excited to hear contempt in Duk's voice.
“Personally, yes. He is foul and traitorous. There is not a bone of honor in his entire body. He is a traitor to all, including himself. His end will be brought about by his own deception; we are simply interested in delivering his demise.”
“So we have a common enemy,” Clayton inferred, leaning in.
“You could say that,” Duk granted with what almost looked like a grin.
“We have a way to make Venko suffer, but we'll need your help,” Sanchez told Duk, now engaged in the conversation.
Clayton chimed in, “Even among the tightest ranks of the Galactic Armored Marines, there are many who see Venko as a threat to our collective welfare. He's launched several attacks in the past two months alone that reveal nothing less than a belligerent agenda. We've contacted one of the leaders of the fleet, and he's guaranteed his support in less than three days' time. That's where you would come in."
"How so?" Duk wondered. He was becoming more concerned with the direction of the proposal.
"A diversion," Traw replied. "The five of us intend to assassinate Venko, but we'll need to do so under cover. We have a way to temporarily disable the capitol's shields, which would allow us to get in undetected, but we'll need your fleet to occupy Venko's loyal forces outside the capitol and draw their attention. Meanwhile, us and a few platoons of allied Marines will lead a strike mission, rescue the hostages, and imprison any of Venko's loyalists still alive in the capitol."
“A coup, then...as you call it. We will discuss your proposal. But, you spoke of your families? What of them?” Duk wondered.
Traw realized he had forgotten about Luella and Louise. All he thought of was Venko, and how much he wanted to see that man's name on a gravestone. “They're being held hostage in the capitol. Part of the plan is to rescue them,” Aveer explained.
Duk paused, nodding contemplatively. The other dignitaries murmured to one another in hushed voices. Traw glanced over at Moore, who seemed equally tense. Yet there was a thoughtfulness to him Traw had never seen before.
“There are two possible outcomes,” Duk replied. “The first is that you have orchestrated a trap. Perhaps this betrayal is but a lie, and you are truly spies from Venko's organization. Perhaps you intend to lure us into a vice of some sort, with the purpose of annihilating our fleet. It would not be the first time Venko has attempted to make fools of us.”
“Even if you do bring your fleet and it is a trap,” Clayton retorted, “the Marines have no force which can stop you, even with the element of surprise. One armada of Nektro cruisers is enough to devastate an entire fleet of GAM vessels. Your hulls are stronger, your cannons deadlier. There is no force we humans possess that could rival your full force. Surely you have conducted enough reconnaissance to know this.”
“You make a compelling argument, and what you say is true. We are far more advanced and numerous than the humans. But this still poses my second scenario: if we do conquer the capitol and Venko is but another corpse, what follows? Surely you do not wish harm and death upon all your fellow soldiers, and even the civilians of your race. I will not lead us to such a battle unless we first have a plan: I am certain you understand.”
“Of course,” Sanchez replied. “But, y'know, we were thinking, we got one of the top brass guys lined up to lead in Venko's place. The name's Claudius Vault, except...dammit...”
“What vexes you?” Duk wondered, leaning in curiously. For a fleeting moment, Traw realized that the alien dignitary spoke more eloquently than the man who spoke natively.
“The...the guy I just mentioned. I don't know if he's still alive. He saved us and jettisoned us from the ship, but we don't know what happened to him. He could be another body floatin' in space.”
“Are there any others fit to lead, among the candidates?”
“Probably, I would say,” Aveer guessed. “Vault was...or possibly still is, a good man. Wise, as well. Very wise. He would do good by our people, and by yours.” Aveer looked down at the table. “Do you want war?”
Duk rose from his chair and looked up to the forcefield ceiling, folding his hands behind him. “The probe bomb that sparked the war between our races was not meant to inflict any damage. It was meant to seek out new life, and perhaps new civilizations. Yet...there was another at the helm of our fleet's command at that time: Kar-vadas the Belligerent. Our dignitaries, myself included, attempted to keep his violent will at bay, but he was in supreme command of the armed forces, and our legal acts could do little against him. After that incident, he was expelled from our order by grand jury, and we sought to repair the damage. However, as you are aware, our efforts were unsuccessful, and war was unleashed. It soon became apparent to me that the one who controlled the power of mankind was not quick to hold back its wrath.
“We have lost so many in this war, both in civilian casualties and of those who fell on the battlefield. No doubt you five account for many of them.” Traw felt a lump in his throat, though Duk's words were not said in malice, but in grief. “I believe I speak for the rest of the dignitary class when I say that I want this war to end more than anything else. It has been a long, trying battle, not against humans, but against hatred. I have tried to keep my mind in a state of serenity, and yet, my opponent has nearly pushed me into a pit of rage. As a leader, I cannot allow such a thing to happen. You have given us an opportunity to finally end this long, dragging struggle. We will take it.”
“A-aren't there any superiors you have to go through?” Clayton wondered, being knowledgeable in the concept of chain of command.
“We are them. As fate would have it, we were embarking for the home base when we received your distress beacon. These dignitaries you see before you are the chiefs of the Nektro order, there is no higher rank among our kin. Fortune has favored you this day, it would seem.”
The other dignitaries rose from their seats, and there was a heavy presence that rose with them as they stood with Duk. The men were unsure what to do. “We will have the fleet mustered and ready to attack within 30 spatial hours,” Duk told the men, gently gesturing for them to rise. He informed them without hesitation, “Thirty-seven war cruisers, eighteen hundred fighter jets, twelve hundred bombers, eight hundred heavy ground vehicles, and eight hundred thousand footsoldiers. Venko will fall.”
Traw extended his hand to Duk to shake it. Duk stared down at the open hand for a moment, then shook it with surprising elegance. “To peace,” Traw agreed with confidence in his voice.
“Through war,” Duk added in the voice of a tomb.