Sebastian stepped off the loading ramp and onto the platform where dock workers and manservants unloaded cargo. The Indefatigable sat majestically in its landing bay, loading ramps extended and landing gear in place. There were three other ships of the GAM navy parked in a row beside it, each of them with fueling vehicles hovering around them. Traw glanced back, and perspective with the other ships showed him how immense the Indefatigable truly was.
The vast city lying beyond bustled with life, commercial agents buzzing about through the streets, some carrying supplies, others driving trucks, and the elite few delegating from their high offices. Towers stretched high above urban life, almost reaching the top of the dome which provided light, heat and oxygen to the citizens. Of the galaxy, Neptune was the capitol, and of Neptune, this was the capitol. This city was the pinnacle of modern technological, architectural, and intellectual success.
At the center of the city was the Trinity: the OGS tower, the IRO base of operations, and the GAM headquarters. They stood like giants, watching the citizens with a mighty sword, powerful voice and vigilant eye.
Twelve approached Sebastian from behind, guiding Luella and Louise through the river of workers. “Master Traw,” he addressed, trying to keep his voice modest yet able to puncture the noise of the bustling crowd. Sebastian turned about, drawing closer so he could hear his servant. “Your wife and daughter will be picked up by a transport shortly to be taken to a resort on the city coast. This will be your final opportunity to be with them until your granted leave in eight months.”
Sebastian looked Luella and Louise in the eyes. Luella looked like she was on the verge of flowing over with emotion, her lip trembling and eyes watering. Louise's expression was similar, yet more subdued. Her brow was lowered, like someone realizing they have been betrayed by a best friend. Luella ran forward and clutched her father's waist, sobbing into him. She gripped him progressively tighter as the tears soaked into the edge of his ragged shirt. Sebastian and Louise looked each other in the eye, unsure of what to do or say. Finally, Louise drew into her husband's embrace and they held each other. She did not cry. Neither did he.
Then came the grim dirge that was the transport horn. “You'd better go,” Sebastian told them. Louise looked him in the eye and kissed him. It was not passionate, yet it was unlike one they had ever done. It was lifeless. They were being severed. Sebastian bent down and kissed Luella on the forehead. He couldn't bear to look her in the eyes. “Be good to your ma, okay?” he told her. She nodded.
Louise led Luella to the transport ship, the small bay door opening for them. Sebastian watched, Twelve standing at his side. Luella entered the darkness of the transport, but Louise paused. She looked back at Sebastian. He nodded with assurance at her, as if saying “You'll be alright.” She nodded in reply, looking down. Then she entered the vehicle. The door closed. They were away.
Sebastian looked at the pavement. He wiped a single tear from his eye. “Do you need a tissue, sir?” Twelve asked.
“Shut up,” Sebastian barked, raising his head. “Just take me to the headquarters.”
“As you wish.”
There was a GAM dropship parked twenty meters away. “That's ours,” Twelve told his master, pointing to it. They made their way to the ship, budging past citizens and dock workers. The artificial sun beat down on all of them at a controlled temperature of eighty-two degrees, and there was a ten-mile-per-hour gust of wind blowing east that was programmed to lull down at 1900 hours.
Captain Vault waited at the passenger bay of the ship, two guards at his side. By coincidence, they were Fred and Bill. “I have to file a report at headquarters of my itinerary,” Vault informed Traw. “I'll also be there to guide you through the security processes. We're twenty seconds away from being late, so I suggest we strap up and move out.”
Once all passengers were inside, the dropship hovered away and cruised a hundred meters in the air toward the GAM headquarters. Traw leaned back in his chair, looking out the circular window. Below him he could see the people rushing about, going from place to place in their daily routine and executing their assigned tasks. For a moment he pondered the futility of it all, until he heard murmurs in the other room. He waited a moment, trying to tune himself into the sound. Traw rose from his chair after unstrapping himself and advanced toward the doorway.
He cautiously crept along the wall, trying to reach a point at which he could hear better and distinguish words from the voices. “That's him, you dumbass!” a whispering voice barked. “You got maggots in your skull? Who else would be comin' on here with Traw?”
“What if it's another servant, though? They all look the same.”
“It's him. I'm tellin you. We gotta say somethin' to Vault. Heaven knows what that bastard servant could do to somebody else. He could kill every one of us!”
“And let him know that we got beat up? We're gonna have to go through that re-training program. I've heard what happens to boys in there. Not somethin' I wanna do.”
“Yeah, but I'd say it's worth it. Puttin' that bastard in a cell or a grave would let me sleep easier.”
Traw entered the room casually, spooking the two Marines engaged in conversation. They were Fred and Bill. “Excuse me, gentlemen,” Traw pardoned. The guards stood erect, as their orders stated. “Where's the bathroom on this thing?”
“Down the corridor, to the right,” Fred answered, avoiding eye contact. A bead of sweat collected on his temple.
Traw nodded silently in thanks and left for the bathroom, his mind stirring with the words he overheard.
When Traw returned to his seat, he took a long glance at Twelve. Something certainly didn't settle right with him. He clicked his strap into place and stole another glance at Twelve. The clone's face was so plain and sterile, with frigid innocence. Twelve's expression rarely changed from its state of placid obedience. Yet Traw could see the soul of an assassin hiding behind it. There was something about Twelve that disturbed him, having overheard the conversation between the two guards, whose nameplates he had made a point to remember. Knowing now what he was capable of, Traw was uneasy around his servant: like something inside Twelve was only waiting to spring into action, and no sooner recluse inside the inconspicuous veil of the manservan'ts simple face.
“We will be docking at GAM headquarters in 45 seconds,” the pilot alerted over the speakers in the cabin. “Grab your luggage and prepare to depart to your respective locations upon docking.”
Suddenly, there was a great quake from the portside stern of the ship. Twelve and Traw gripped the arms of their seats. Red lights flashed overhead in the cabin. They both heard the muffled sounds of laser fire outside. The dropship boosted further and faster toward the landing pad at GAM headquarters, pressing the passengers to their seats.
Crushing the landing gear, the dropship skidded sideways on the extended pad on the side of the tower, its bay doors opening. Covering his face from smoke, Traw stumbled outside the cabin of the dropship and onto the landing pad, Twelve close behind. He looked behind him and saw two rust-chewed, cobbled-together fighter craft pelting the landed dropship with heavy laser fire. Traw dashed inside the hangar bay with the remaining passengers at his side. “Protect Traw!” the security captain yelled over the harsh sound of laser fire outside. No sooner had he finished the sentence than he took a laser bolt to the chest. Guards surrounded Traw and Twelve, urging them to safety.
Retaliating, ten mounted cannons on the face of the tower opened fire on the attacking ships, pounding them to shrapnel with superior firepower. The flaming, destroyed chunks of hull fell down to the city below. Like a well-oiled machine, a host of firefighting vehicles were there to catch the flaming remains in massive nets and prevent them from causing any more damage.
“What were those?” Traw wondered in terror, looking back to the landing pad where the dropship lay alight. He noticed several Marine corpses strewn on the landing pad.
“Insurgents,” Captain Vault answered, sitting on a nearby crate, clutching his leg. “They've probably been following us the whole time.”
“And this kinda thing...it happens frequently?”
“Not here. Not on Neptune, let alone the capitol. At least not that I know of.”
“Kripes. How's your leg?”
“Eh, I've suffered worse. In a couple hours, I'll be fine. You should head to Venko's office for the briefing. That, and it's the safest place around here.”
Twelve led his master through the hangar bay to the elevators, neither of them saying a word. “Would you like me to clean your clothing, sir?” Twelve asked, breaking the ice.
“As you wish, Master Traw.”
Gritting his teeth, Traw snapped, “Quit callin' me 'Master Traw', alright? I'm a farmer, not a lord. Get it straight.” Twelve said nothing in reply, bowing his head. Traw felt bad for a moment, then the elevator stopped. It was showtime.
The elevator doors opened to reveal a large, circular room with a slim hallway directly across from the elevator doors. A secretary sat at the desk, typing information onto a small, delicate keyboard that fit her body frame. Traw walked up to the desk, leaning over it. “Can I help you, sir?” she asked in a petite voice, adjusting her thin glasses.
“Yeah, I'm here to see Commander General Venko.”
“Well I'm sorry, but you'll need an appointment. He's a very busy man.” Her tone turned sour and dismissive.
“You don't seem to understand,” Twelve interrupted, reaching into his pocket. He pulled out a chrome identification card and placed it on the edge of her desk. “Venko has an appointment with this man. Not the other way around.”
She picked it up and peered at it closely. “Oh...my apologies,” she said, giving the card back to Twelve. The secretary rose from her seat and shook Traw's hand. He was delicate with her, afraid he would crush her thin hand. “I'll inform him of your arrival. And Mr. Traw...” She drew in closer, looking him in the eye and stopping him. “Are you single?”
Traw blinked rapidly. “No, ma'am, I'm not. I've got a wife and daughter. Just take me to the Commander General.” Her friendly demeanor dropped.
“Right this way,” she guided, walking down the hallway holding a datapad, her steps light and precise. “I'll try one of the others. At least one of them's bound to be single,” the secretary grumbled under her breath.
With fingers like needles she opened the tall steel doors at the end of the light hallway, revealing a large room before them. At the center of the room there was a large round table, four men seated around it and one man at the opposite end standing with his hands placed firmly on the surface. Behind him was a broad, crystal-clear window looking out over the cityscape. “Welcome, Mr. Traw,” the man at the end of the table greeted.
“Is this it?” Traw asked, looking around.
“It is indeed. Please, take a seat. There's one left for you.”
Traw moved slowly toward the seat, then sat down in it, shifting toward the table. “I'm Commander General Venko,” the standing man introduced. His voice was weathered, much like his face: he had three scars running down his left cheek, and the remaining hair on top of his head slimmed back crisply.
“The man you're sitting next to is Bruce Moore.” Traw looked over to Bruce, who had sharp, black hair that spiked up an inch like a jungle on his scalp. On the side of his neck was a prison numeral tattoo.
“Going leftward is Khamisi Aveer.” He was a broad-chested, dark-skinned man with coarse dreadlocks that ran down to the middle of his back. Aveer stared at the center of the table, somewhat out of touch with the current situation.
“After him is Theodore Clayton.” Clayton sat hunched over in his chair, his hands folded together. Wiry spectacles sat on the bridge of his nose in front of his beady eyes, which seemed to examine one's inner soul. His frame was small, standing hardly five feet tall, with limbs like sticks. Hardly a fighter, Traw thought after scanning Clayton.
“Finally, we come to Michael Sanchez.” Sanchez sat hunched over the table, his jaw locked in a forward position. His tan skin was easy to see through his dark, short hair and the stubble around his chin. A tattoo of a dragon curled around his eye and down his cheek. He wore urban clothes, easily recognizable by the boisterous colors and gold-embossed lines.
“These are your new partners, gentlemen,” Venko concluded. “I suggest you learn to work together. You'll need to.”
“Who are our orders coming from?” Clayton inquired, leaning forward.
“Me, personally. I'll be orchestrating everything, including the execution. Your task is simply to carry out my orders and ask no questions. My head trainer, Ivan Klept, will be preparing you for the missions ahead. Your training will begin in the morning at 0700. The time is currently 1510, so I suggest you retreat to your compound for the evening.”
“Will we get to see our families again before deployment?” Aveer asked, his accent thick and difficult to understand. It became evident to Traw that he was not raised speaking this language.
“Unfortunately no,” Venko replied in a terse voice, trying to sound accomodating. “The schedule does not leave space for frequent visits to family. It will be another eight months of service, then you will have a three-day leave to see your families, followed by another eight months of service, then another leave, and finally, another eight months. Finally, you will all rest in luxury with your families safe.”
“I ain't got a family, I'm just doin' this for the cash, man,” Moore smirked, kicking back his seat. “If I can rape some bitches along the way and pop a few more heads, that's fine by me.”
“How'd you even get here?” Traw asked, the disgust plain on his face.
“Mr. Bruce Moore was the one who led the prison break in City 12 on Sino. Your home planet, as a matter of fact, Mr. Traw. On record he killed six guards with his bare hands, nine with a shotgun, and another eighteen Nektro troopers while he was unarmed.”
“Why didn't you kill the Nektro with the shotgun?” Aveer wondered.
“You never quite get that same thrill as hearing a neck crunch or a spine snap,” he grinned, remembering fondly the battle. “It's got that special somethin' that just can't be replaced. It's funny, really. Those Nektro bastards...their armor's like paper. I went right through it. But switchin' gears: what I really wanna know is how little Clayton over there even got considered to be on this squad.”
Clayton made no sign of response, save staring at Moore in reply. “Since it's evident you aren't aware, Clayton launched an EMP from his facility that knocked out all enemy technology when they arrived. Guns, dropships, fighter craft...all powerless. Within twelve hours, all Nektro platoons were eliminated by our ground forces, and the armada in orbit was obliterated. He saved the planet.”
Moore looked into his lap, setting his jaw and saying nothing. Clayton bade his mocker no triumphant gaze or witty remark. “You're all dismissed to Compound 9. Wake up at 0600 tomorrow, gentlemen. You've got a long five weeks ahead of you.”
Inside their barracks, the five squad members unpacked their belongings, settling into their bunks for the night. “Hey, Sanchez,” Moore called, propping himself up on the bottom bunk, his elbow resting on the two-inch padding.
“What?” Sanchez snapped in reply.
“We never got to hear how you got here with us. Do tell.”
“Me and my boys gunned down at least a hundred of them little bastards in the streets of my city. A few cops, too, while we were at it. I was the one who really led the charge, though, you know what I mean? Those aliens are dead 'cause of me.”
“That's some grade A merit right there,” Moore remarked half to himself, looking down at his fingernails. “How 'bout you, Avery? What's up with you?”
“Sorry, Aveer. Kripes, I can't get all your names right. How'd you get here?”
“Defended my village.”
“Ah, c'mon! More than that, negro! I want more detail! More grit!” Moore hollered playfully.
“That's enough,” Traw scolded from the bunk above in a voice of stone.
Moore paused. “I just need a bedtime story,” he said in mock innocence. “Tell me yours and I'll shut up.”
Traw ground his teeth and answered, “Fine. I shot down a few squads of Nektro footsoldiers in the street and helped save some refugees. You happy? Now shut up and go to sleep.”
“Yes sir,” Moore concluded, sneering. “Welcome to the sweet life, boys. Killin' fools and rapin' native bitches, while gettin' paid to do it with unlimited ammo. This is what I dreamed as a kid, and I'm finally livin' it. Sleep well. This is the first day of the rest of our lives.”