Sanchez tore up the armor of another Marine in a quick rip of bullets. Moore discharged a buckshot out the side of the truck's passenger seat, blasting away another Marine. “Protect the Trinity at all costs!” the captain shouted, before Aveer mowed down him and three more who attempted to arrest the truck in its path to the GAM tower. “Looks like that's it,” Moore remarked, glancing behind them. The truck's heavy-duty wheels rolled over the splintered shards of the checkpoint road barricade. The city lay before them, chaos and explosions beginning to spread their veiled wings.
Traw heard the low rumble of bombs dropping on the far side of the city. Abandoned cars lay strewn about in the city streets, around which Sanchez navigated with the height of his skill. “Where's everybody at?” Sanchez wondered, gritting his teeth as he swerved around a particularly tough arrangement of cars.
“Bomb shelters,” Traw answered. “You oughta see those city yuppies scurry when they hear the sirens. They'll drop it all and hustle toward the nearest shelter. There's one on each street corner, so you can fit a whole city underground in fifteen minutes.”
Aveer, arms jittering from the bumps as he gripped his mounted machine gun, watched in both terror and awe as the far side of the city became engulfed in the roaring flames of destruction, and buildings were blown apart from the sheer blasts. He could hear the shrill hum of bombers as they poured into the sky past the shattered defenses.
Sanchez screeched to a halt suddenly, jostling everyone inside the truck. “What the hell are you doing?” Moore barked, turning to Sanchez. He pointed down past the steering wheel, and Traw craned his neck to see what it was. Next to a flipped car stood a small boy, with eyes wide and hair ruffled.
Clayton lept out of his seat and approached the boy. He removed his helmet and crouched to the boy's level. As he looked into the eyes of the boy, whose face was half-lit by the truck's headlights, he saw that the boy was more damaged in mind than in body. Aveer looked at the boy in the same manner as Clayton did. He swallowed hard and drew a deep breath. “Where are your parents?” Clayton inquired. The boy was silent, looking at the rubble-covered ground and shivering.
“We ain't got time for this,” Moore grumbled. “Just shoot the little bastard and move on.”
“He's shell-shocked, don't you see? Give him a break, we'll get him out of the way,” Clayton urged.
Clayton rose, looking down at the child. He put his helmet back on, and fastened it tight. He knew Moore was right. The boy looked up at Clayton, who stood only a foot or two taller. Clayton took the boy's hand and led him into a secure-looking building nearby, and had him sit down somewhere relatively safe. Clayton put a hand on the boy's shoulder, and for the first time, the boy looked at him directly. “You stay in here, alright? Out there is not good, you stay in here until it's quiet. Okay?” Clayton made sure not to rush. The boy nodded. “Alright, I'm going to leave now.”
Clayton walked out of the building, sporadically checking back at the boy to make certain he was doing as he was instructed. Clayton clambered back into the truck, and it continued on its way. “Only one on this team who's still got a heart,” Moore snickered. “Maybe Aveer, too. When he isn't goin' berserk with that big gun.” He reached over and playfully slapped Aveer on the arm, to which there was no reply given.
Traw set his foot down in the city square, the truck crawling to a halt. Smoke drifted in from the far side of the city, clouding the air and making it thick with the stench of death. The bombers hadn't yet reached the center of the city, where the Trinity stood. Traw made certain his helmet was sealed tight, so none of the foul air seeped in. Moore looked up to the GAM tower looming overhead. The other two administrative towers stood like giants, but for one reason or another, Traw thought the IRO tower looked a bit more daunting.
“Let's get this through with,” Clayton grumbled, checking the charge on his rifle.
At the Trinity, there were numerous trucks parked, each with three white stripes painted on the hood. Sanchez pulled the stolen patrol truck to a screeching halt, and the squad exited. Suit-clad men, some of which were high-ranking generals, poured out of the GAM tower in single file, their hands behind their heads. Marines with white stripes on their helmets shoved them out, holding them at gunpoint.
"Stand down!" one of the white-striped sergeants barked, to a general who had pulled out his pistol. "Drop the weapon!"
"This is ridiculous! I outrank all of you!" the general snarled, gripping his pistol. "Rank Alpha will have you all face the firing squad! I won't be--" The general's rant was interrupted by a hard blow to the back of the head with the butt of a Marine's rifle. Limp and unconscious, he was dragged into the back of a truck and shackled to the floor.
Moore approached the captain of the operation, who was surveying the scene with a communicator readily at hand. He stood behind a temporary barricade, between two spotlights hooked up to a generator that was humming beside one of the trucks. "How many of the loyalists have you got in custody?" Moore asked, removing his helmet.
"So far, 148 out of 392. There are three more mass arrests like this one being conducted across the capitol as we speak."
"How many get the firing squad?" Traw asked, coming up alongside Moore, with the other three standing behind them observing the scene.
"212 are going to face penalty of death at 0600 tomorrow, the rest get chained up in Rornik Penitentiary, in the Mining Division. Derringer told me you're here to finish off the man in the tower."
"That's correct," Moore affirmed. "Can't wait to get my hands on that bastard."
"That's the last of the loyalist officers right there," the captain informed, pointing to the last man in the line of prisoners exiting the building. "If you want to conduct the execution, be my guest. But it's not gonna be easy. Venko's got his personal bodyguards, plus quite a few Marines shored up in there waiting to open fire on anybody with a white stripe."
"We'll keep it in mind," Traw concluded, heading toward the spotlighted entrance to the tower. White-striped Marines backed away and began rounding up the loyalist officers into the trucks for departure.
Just as the Death Squad was about to enter, the captain wondered, "Did General Derringer mention anything about court martial? I mean, I served with some of these men. The least they deserve is fair trial." Many of the captured and striped officers alike looked back, eagerly awaiting a response from the Death Squad.
Traw turned around, looking at all of them. Some stood behind temporary barricades, white stripes on their helmets and grit in their expressions. Some sat in the backs of trucks, their hands and feet chained to the hard metal floors. A few stood with their hands folded behind them, and an imperious presence about them. But now all eyes were on Traw.
"You may be wondering why we're so cruel. All of you may be wondering that, actually," Traw began, his helmet in one hand and his pistol in the other. "We're not. It may look like it, but we're not. Every one standing in this courtyard is an individual person, but we're all grown up. We've all made decisions. These men decided to follow a monster, and that's how it's going to end for them. We're going up there to kill, so we can stop the killing. You think anyone aboard those ships wants war?" He pointed to the sky, where the battle between the loyalist armada and the Nektro fleet was taking place. "You all seem to think that the Nektro are the monsters here, when the only monster is the one we've been following blindly for years! So no, you will get no trial. We can't waste time hearing deceptions of innocence. And we certainly won't waste it with Venko." At that, Traw put on his helmet, Moore put on his, and they entered the tower.
The entire building was dark: even the strips of dim red backup lights were dead. The five men drew their close-range weapons, advancing toward the stairwell. A few dead officers laid about, each of them shot several times over. Traw glanced at them and assumed they tried to violently resist arrest. Shards of pebble glass, small chunks of rubble and spent shells were strewn across the floor as well.
Suddenly, two Marines burst out from the door of the stairwell, unsteadily aiming their guns at the Death Squad. “Drop your weapons, now!” one of them shouted in a shaky voice, assuming a weak combat stance as he advanced. Then, in the faded spotlight of the courtyard, the other Marine noticed who the intruders were.
“You're Death Squad,” he stammered in relief, lowering his weapon. “I'm glad to see you boys here. We could use the help.” The first Marine almost laughed of relief, lowering his weapon as well. The second Marine added, “We're all boarded up here like ants, waiting for the bombs to pass over. I really can't even express how glad we are you're here to help. Wait 'til the other boys here about this!”
“We didn't come for that,” Sanchez corrected in a dark, foreboding tone.
“Wait...” the first Marine began to remember about the Death Squad. He slipped his finger onto the trigger of his rifle. “You're the...the traitors. You got no white stripe, though.” A massive explosion shook the very ground of the city, and everyone lost their footing momentarily.
At that, Moore let loose a shocking blast from his shotgun, knocking the Marine several feet away with a buckshot to his chest. The second Marine dropped his weapon and backed away slowly, his arms shaking. “I'm not looking for trou--” he began to say in a rising panic, before he was shredded by a quick, effortless rip from one of Sanchez' pistols.
“Kid's gonna need stitches,” he snickered with a smug grin, and continued onward to the stairwell. Traw bade the two dead Marines not so much as a glance as he walked past their corpses. Clayton took a moment to stoop over the two bodies, covering their eyelids. Aveer stopped with him, uttering a brief prayer to the dead beneath his breath. It was his tradition for people he knew did not deserve death's herald so soon.
Led by the end of Moore's shotgun barrel, the Death Squad ascended the stairwell, shuffling up the stairs three at a time. The elevators were to be of no use. Moore busted down a door, immediately scanning the area. It was clear. Traw stepped out of the stairwell doorframe and checked the number on the side. “Seventeen,” he reported. “Venko's on the twenty-third floor.”
“Alright, let's keep movin',” Moore urged, walking back into the stairwell and drawing a deep breath. The suits helped with strenuous exercise, but he was tired nonetheless.
“My god,” Traw exclaimed, after he had stepped into the room. A large glass panel substituted one of the walls, offering a broad view of the entire city. He was the last one left in the room, as the rest of his team was already on their way upward.
“What? What is it?” Sanchez asked, a bit annoyed. He thought he might have heard soldiers' boots shuffling a few flights up.
“All of this,” he muttered, staring out at the burning city. Sanchez sighed with an air of irritation and hustled down the stairs to meet Traw in the desolate room. Moore was close behind, and joined Sanchez standing beside Traw. They were all breathless. Gradually Aveer and Clayton joined them, realizing the reason for such silence. What lay beyond the thick window was a display of sheer destruction. Buzzing swarms of Nektro bombers soared over the city, dropping charges which looked like only specks to those watching from such a distance.
Flames and ash had overtaken the streets, casting it all into a state of malevolent chaos. In the distance, beyond the dark veil of storm clouds and smoke, Traw could see the outline of battlecruisers firing explosive rounds at one other, shredding each other to pieces and sending chunks of fiery hull careening through the stratosphere. Occasionally, a rogue medical cruiser or firefighting frigate would zip past the streets, few of which would survive more than twenty seconds in the air before being pummeled to the ground, either by falling metal jetsam or careening bombs recently let loose.
Buildings crumbled under the blasts of the explosions, and in doing so often take down two or three of their kind with them. Rubble piled, cement dust clouded, girders collapsed. “I can only pray that those underground are safe,” Aveer remarked with an ominous chill down his hard spine.
“I don't know,” Clayton mentioned. “I'm familiar with those structures, I helped design a few types. They aren't meant to withstand such destruction, in all honesty. They're strong, but this magnitude of an attack...I just don't know.”
“And we did this. We organized this,” Aveer gritted his teeth.
“Get over it, soft heart,” Moore grumbled, returning to the stairwell. “We gotta move, let's go. I dunno why you're all goin' sightseein' all of a sudden.”
Traw turned around. He knew Moore was right. “You heard him, let's move,” Traw agreed, shuffling the men along. Sanchez said nothing but agreed with the eagerness of his movement toward the stairwell. After another brief moment, Aveer joined them in dark silence. Then Clayton was standing there alone, gazing out at the crumbling capitol.
“I am alone,” he muttered to himself with a depressed finality. He realized that though Aveer still had some sense of nobility about him, Traw was so far gone. He could not recall the man he once was, and Clayton knew it. He could see it in the lack of hesitation in Traw's trigger finger. He heard it in Traw's tone of voice during missions. He could sense it in the very air Traw brought with him when he entered the room. Traw had become a darker side of his former self, and Clayton had the daunting feeling that he was the only one who recognized it. “Onward then,” he sighed, and rushed up the stairs to join his team.
“Twenty-third flight!” he heard Sanchez holler from several flights upward, and rushed harder to regroup with the Death Squad. Finally, they were all gathered at the door to the highest story. Traw reckoned the steel door was the only thing keeping them from Venko. There was no window, nor was there a functioning security camera. What vexed him most was that they had encountered no Marines, save the two they had killed in the lobby.
“You ready?” Moore asked, his armored hand on the door handle, resting his shotgun in his elbow.
Traw nodded. Sanchez knocked the side of his helmet. He looked back at Aveer and Clayton. “On board?” Moore asked.
“Let's finish this,” Aveer muttered, and Clayton nodded in affirmation.