Traw lie awake in his bunk aboard their small, dinged ship. It still sat in the middle of the hangar bay, along with their weapons. Evidently Duk trusted them enough at that point. Traw, who had politely declined from accepting the alien accommodations, laid with one hand behind his sweaty head and the other atop his hardened midriff. Long hours of idleness gave him plenty of time for exercise, so he was well built physically.
Listening to the sound of Aveer snoring, he thought only of Venko. He thought of what that man, if he even deserved to be called a man, was doing at that very moment. For a moment, Traw the thought occurred to Traw that Venko could do as he pleased with the captives, including Louise, or even Luella. He could feel his muscles clenching and becoming terse at the thought. “You think of him, no?” Clayton inquired. He was sitting at one of the tables, adjusting the knobs on the communication relay to try to make contact again with General Derringer.
“All the time,” Traw answered. “Every night, I think of ripping his limps off...grabbing a hold of his jaw and just tearing it from his skull. Taking a knife and digging it into his face.” Clayton looked at Traw as he never had before.
“Would you say he's a monster?” Clayton wondered, somewhat curious.
“Without a doubt,” Traw answered, staring up at the ceiling of his bunk. Clayton nodded pensively.
“You just described mutilating a man, and I could see the satisfaction in your face. I could hear it in your voice. I could sense it from your heart. Yet you claim you're better than him. Explain.”
Traw turned and sat on the side of the bed. He leaned toward Clayton with his elbows resting on his knees. With a voice like rolling thunder in the distance, he explained, “You've never felt it. If you had, you wouldn't be judging me now. You've never felt this burning, dark sensation...the rage...the distant feeling that no matter what your enemy does to those you care about, you will be forever stranded in the grim void of space, helpless to save them. The feeling that the ones you swore to protect could be in mortal danger, or worse yet, on the verge of being violated, and you cannot know, nor can you do anything to save them. You are isolated here. That is but a fraction of what my heart feels. Even if my wife and daughter are returned to me entirely unharmed and unviolated, I will still seek to break open the bones of my enemy. And if they are violated...the torment Venko endures will not cease. It will never cease. I will ensure that he stays alive, purely for the purpose of making him endure more pain. I'm no monster for caring about my family.”
Clayton rose from his seat and wiped the motor oil from his suit. “I don't know what you're using to justify that hate, but I would suggest cutting it out.” At that, Clayton stepped out the narrow door and left Traw with those last words.
Traw's thoughts drifted back to the Indefatigable, but more particularly, the picture he had in his quarters aboard the ship. It was such a small room, but he enjoyed having it nonetheless. He almost smirked as he realized what a far cry it was from the accommodations he had with his family, and those he had been promised during his service with the GAM. That was one of many lies he had been served by Venko's administration.
In a fit of boredom, Traw left the hangar bay and entered the curved, dark hallway. Here and there, Nektro footsoldiers scurried about, executing different tasks. Some carried crates, others pushed carts. Occasionally, Traw would encounter a ranked formation of marching soldiers, and quietly back himself against the wall. The last thing he wanted to do was disrupt the well-oiled machine which served as his host.
To his knowledge, he had permission from the dignitaries to wander about the cruiser as he pleased, so long as he caused no disturbance to any of the crew. Then, after no small deal of aimless meandering, he came across a broad-doored room, and stopped before it. Above the doors an inscription was written in the Nektro tongue. The characters had a curved, elegant look to them, with many dots and circles. Though he was by no means an expert linguist, he tried to decipher what the inscription meant, noting the basic characters and repeated figures. There seemed to be no method or specific stroke to any of what was written, so he walked toward the doors, which opened simply from his approaching movement.
The room behind was no doubt a library, from the rows of tall shelves and several desks. Traw came up between the shelves and examined the contents themselves. There were no tangible books to be found: only a dark surface, with diminutive blue lights flickering about at random points on the side. He touched his finger to the surface, and a slim disk smoothly protruded. He grabbed it from its place in the side of the shelf. A voice began speaking in the Nektro tongue, to which Traw replied by simply saying, “Human.”
The disk briefly recalibrated, then continued in a voice that was a bit choppy from the translation, “The earth is no doubt the beginning of human life, as there have been several points of evidence leading to early primitive civilizations there. It is estimated that human civilization on earth spanned for some eight thousand years, followed by a sudden exodus. On the surface of the planet itself are millions of human remains, which Nektro scientists speculate are the unfortunate ones who could not partake in the exodus, and attempted to revolt. Much like the Jakat rebellion of 12276 Charted Time, those revolting were many in number, but succumbed to the superior firepower and fortifications of those in power.
“Scientists also speculate that at one point the earth was fertile, designed perfectly around human organisms and effectively catering to their biological needs with water, vegetation and breathable air. However, there apparently was some sort of devastating war among the different human nations, which had a ravaging effect on the landscape and environment. Most believe that this was the primary cause for the great exodus. Additionally, most historians agree that the great exodus served as a foundation for the State, which is now based in Neptune. The earth we now know is entirely habitable for Nektro life, both for Nektro individuals and wildlife. The dignitaries began to formulate a plan in 12384 CT that would involve the permanent colonization of earth, as it serves ideal both for civilian life and as a military vantage point.”
Traw put the disk back into the shelf wall. He smirked to himself as he continued walking. “Those boys got the wrong idea about us. Anybody with half a brain inside their skull knows that we started on Vaerius. Earth's always been dry.”
The doors opened behind him, interrupting his thoughts. He turned about, his mind in a place between relaxation and being on guard. In the curved doorway stood two Nektro high guards, accompanied by Duk. “Impressive, is it not?” Duk remarked, gracing is long, slender hand along the side of the shelf. “So much information and memory, in these concentrated blocks of files. Knowing this makes them so beautiful in my eyes. Have you been browsing a bit, hm?”
“Yes, I have. Your file on earth was...interesting,” Traw replied. “You believe humans had their origin there?”
“Perhaps, yes. I personally believe otherwise, but it seems most of the intellects hold a common theory. But I came for a different reason: the fleet has been assembled, and I would like you to accompany me on the command bridge, along with the rest of your team. We will enter hyperspace within the hour, and from there it will take us approximately six hours to reach Neptune. Please accompany me now.”
Traw accompanied Duk without a word of complaint. As he spent time with the tall, old dignitary, Traw felt more at ease with him. He had some sense in the back of his mind that there was something insidious about Duk, but he suspected that only came from his distrust of Venko. Though, somewhere, Traw felt that Duk was what Venko should have been.
“So, you dignitaries...you look nothing like the Nektro you lead. Why?” Traw inquired, more out of wanting to kill the silence than of curiosity.
“Ah, yes. It really is peculiar, when held in comparison to the other species we've studied. Myself and the other dignitaries, are called the Vol-Dius, when directly translated from our tongue to your own. The Nektro officers are known as Khado, the Nektro footsoldiers are the Tadair, and the drones are called Haen.”
“Drones?” wondered Traw. He had never heard the term in reference to the Nektro.
“Yes, aboard some of the lower class ships and the High Station, we have creatures known as Haen, or drones, as they are sometimes called. They're small creatures, assigned to the tasks of engineering and lifting. Their skill in mechanics is superb, and their small size makes them ideal for the work. They are at the lowest point of the hierarchy, just below the Tadair.”
“And the Tadair are the footsoldiers?” Traw recalled.
“Correct. By far, they are the most numerous of the different classes. They are assigned to nearly every combat task, whether it be piloting space fighters or charging into enemy artillery fire. They are extremely dispensable, yet without their help in the war, our armed forces would be near worthless. Now, the Khado are fundamentally similar to the Tadair, except the Khado have higher intellect, fighting skill, greater height, and independence on the battlefield. The Khado are hand-picked from the ranks of the Tadair, because a small percentage of the Tadair show the traits of potential for becoming an Khado, or in other terms, an officer. The Khado control their individual companies of footsoldiers, and report directly to us, the Vol-Dius. We dignitaries hold supreme command of the armed and domestic powers. There are no further positions within the caste system we've established. As you can see, it's relatively simple, contrary to many human organizations.”
Traw raised his eyebrows in surprise. It made perfect sense to him. “You seem awfully eager to share all that. Especially to a defected enemy,” remarked Traw.
“I know who to trust, Mr. Traw,” Duk assured. “And even if we could not trust you, this information is not vital. You could not possibly gain an advantage over us with what I have just told you.”
“Fair enough,” Traw grinned. He realized that evidently Duk was both intelligent and witty.
Duk approached the door to the command bridge and breathed into a small vent on the wall. A green light above the door awoke to life, and the door opened with a smooth sliding sound. “You two are dismissed,” Duk informed the guards, who bowed at his word and walked away.
The command bridge was dark, much like most of the other structures within the ship. A large, curved viewscreen covered the wall at the opposite end of the room, past a short row of chairs with a long desk. Four Nektro officers sat at the desk, each working rigorously at their own task with nimble fingers tapping precise points on the desk. Three majestic chairs sat toward the rear of the room, with the largest one in the center.
The rest of the Death Squad was already there, standing at the lefthand side of the room. Even in the dim green light, Traw could sense their nervousness. It was not so clear as when they first arrived aboard the ship, but it was no doubt present among them. For a reason beyond his explanation, Traw felt at ease. He reckoned it was Duk's serene demeanor he always carried with him.
With a commanding presence, Duk took his seat at the center, speaking to the officers in their native tongue. Traw walked up beside the rest of the squad and stood in an at-ease position. “Open viewscreen,” Duk ordered, and the viewscreen came to life in under a second. He resumed ordering the officers in their Nektro tongue, and all eyes were on the viewscreen. A live feed of Derringer in his command chair came online, and Duk greeted him with a basic salutation gesture.
"Y'all better start explaining things quickly now," Derringer began, pointing to the Death Squad standing in the corner. "First time I've ever chatted with a Nektro, and I'd like to know why."
"A diversion, sir. While we assassinate Venko, rescue the hostages and imprison the loyalists, they keep Venko's personal armada occupied in the sky and on the ground. Minimal civilian casualties, maximum loyalist deaths," Clayton explained concisely.
Derringer raised his brow in surprise and leaned back in his chair, soaking in the information. "Damn, son," he exclaimed with a half-chuckle. "Wasn't expecting that. Figured you were being held hostage. Well that's good enough for me. Worst case scenario, we all die in a blaze of hellfire and the Nektro come out on top, which might happen anyways. Plan's still to meet at the capitol in 47 hours?"
"If that works for you," Duk answered. "My fleet can be at Neptune in a quarter of that time to provide the diversion."
"You speak our language well. Extremely well. Man, this day just keeps getting more and more out of the ordinary. I'd love to be there sooner, but the point of my armada's arrival is to not arouse suspicion. Coming in that hot would put the defenses on high alert. And wait, what do you mean 'diversion'?"
"To engage Venko's loyal fleet in the atmosphere and keep the focus of the battle on them. In doing so we will both provide you cover to conduct your operations on the ground, and eliminate as many of the loyalists as possible."
Derringer paused, stroking his stubbled chin. "I'll tell my men to not engage your fleet. It's a solid plan, don't get me wrong on that account...I'm just trying to determine how your soldiers are going to differentiate my men from the loyalists."
Duk paused as well, realizing that had not been taken into consideration. "Three white stripes," Moore suggested. "On the hulls of the conspirators' ships, and the helmets of their soldiers. Duk, if you see three white stripes on a ship, hold your fire, and the rest of Death Squad, if you see three white stripes on a Marine's helmet, hold your fire. Derringer, you just gotta make sure every one of your ships and soldiers has those stripes."
"I like it. I like it a lot. Does that sound good to you, Duk?" Derringer asked.
"That sounds good. I'll make certain every one of my soldiers knows to only open fire on those without the stripes. I'll see you in 47 hours, then, General." Duk gave a vague salute, Derringer did the same, and the transmission ended. "Honorable man, he is. I hope he thought the same of me," Duk remarked to the Death Squad. The screen switched over to a full view of what lie ahead of the ship.
Several other battleships began to enter the wide line of sight, in rapid succession. They seemed to stream in endlessly, to the marveling attitude of Clayton.
“Their coordination is flawless,” he marveled in a whisper to Traw. “Look how they assemble in perfect formation, even returning from hyperspace. I have never seen a fleet assemble quite like this, let alone with such precise timing.”
“Only one thing I don't like about this ship,” Moore muttered.
“What's that?” Sanchez asked, sensing a witty response incoming.
“No girls,” grinned Moore, to the quiet chuckling of Sanchez. Even Aveer cracked a brief smile.
The fleet continued to pour in, taking their places in the formation without error. Certain ships were larger than others, and Traw guessed that some were designed for space combat, while others were designed to hold most of the space and aircraft. There was something beautiful about such a glorious array of war machines. Then Traw realized what their purpose was. All those beautiful ships and elegant cannons were made for one purpose: the destruction of humans. Traw prayed for a brief moment to whatever being stood above mankind that whatever happened, there would be few civilian casualties. Though for some reason, he reckoned no one above would be listening: not to a man like him.
“The fleet is all present?” Duk asked one of the officers, who replied with a silent nod of the head.
“Engage hyperspace on a course for Neptune,” Duk commanded. The ship began to rumble in a low tone. Duk rose from his chair and turned to the Death Squad. “So we plunge into the maws of death, in order to return peace. I cannot tell if this is heroism or folly.”