"You heard him," Claire had stopped, arms at her waist and all. "Let's go."
"What? I thought you wanted revenge. This is the way."
"Why did you hold his cheek like that? I have to know."
"He was in pain and dying." Claire turned away. "It was the humane thing to do."
Kael had nothing to say to that.
All she understood from the guilty rebuke is that there was only survival in her world now, and that if any piece of her former self would remain, she would soon have to find a way to keep her humanity just as Claire did, in the inhumanity of the battlefield.
"Now," Claire continued sternly, "Let's go. Please."
Kael breathed out, then flatly agreed: "okay."
They all regrouped and continued to follow Murdoch farther into the dusk and well after sunset, and a shallow cavern was their warren for the night. They sat with no fire, ate in the dark their food rations from Murdoch's rucksack and slept, then continued the hike in the morning.
The mercenaries moved in the twilight forest dawn, roughly ten meters apart in a wide chevron formation, smooth and silent as their suits articulated their motions to a fine degree and dampened their footfalls.
Over the next two hours, they occasionally kicked Kael off the squad's TAC/COM radio while they quarreled over how they'd split the reward for bringing her in alive. It had to be a quarrel, from the way Murdoch and Claire deviated from their usual mannerisms.
Kael amused herself by pretending she heard the silent conversation.
From the way Claire abandoned a careful gait and stomped her way through the forest, Kael could almost imagine her say you fuckers bailed and left me alone to capture the vicious little cunt--who, by the way, damn near killed me, so I deserve more.
On the opposite end, Murdoch would occasionally pause to stop and glare down at Claire and the rest of them with his head cocked to the side, arms crossed to his chest as if to say this is my outfit and I'm the leader of the operation, so I get the lion's share.
Somewhere in the middle, Kael imagined, Mark would act as the aloof mediator and casually toss in a save it for the honeymoon and will you morons please shut-the-fuck-up as he cautiously scanned the surroundings and kept a gun at her back.
Kael still found it hard to believe that mercenaries would bicker like normal human beings, although over a topic normal people wouldn't argue about. She keyed on the safety of her rifle and casually twirled it in the air.
Maybe that's why I can't take them seriously, she thought. They act like teenagers.
She heard Mark over the radio: "put the gun away, please."
Kael considered remaining silent as she put away the rifle, but she was growing increasingly bored at every step. They all certainly know what they're doing and could kill me if I do anything stupid, but still, how hard could it possibly be?
"You seem a little too smart for this lot," she answered. "Are they selling you too?"
"Oh, I'm pretty sure they thought about it more than once," Mark replied, "but they wouldn't know how much to ask for, or how to launder the money without setting off dozens of red flags, or even how to get there without being caught."
"I wondered who played the secretary."
"Private banker, travel agent," he gave a short laugh, "on permanent loan to these jackasses."
"And what do Murdoch and Claire do?"
"He's a knuckle-dragging sour old chimp, and she's a lunatic harpy of a woman--both greedy with it."
Kael chuckled, but said nothing as she followed. Deep down, she found comfort in knowing that there was at least one person she could talk to in all this madness who wasn't completely deranged beneath the appearance of a functioning human being.
After a short break, Murdoch handed out the food rations for lunch. They continued hiking with the suns, and emerged from the dwindling woodlands in the high-head orange sunset. Upon a rocky prominence, their lead pointed their destination just farther ahead.
The rusty dome of shattered glass erected over an ancient impact crater stood from the planet like a ruptured boil, and around it swirled a haze of dirty paper bags, cardboard and dust. Their heads-up displays marked the settlement as ROCKFORD STATION (ABANDONED).
"Come on," Murdoch said. "Checkpoint is up ahead."
The mercenaries followed a gravel road with freshly made tracks, which struck Kael as unusual, then walked past dilapidated vacuum-seal gates that sat wide open like broken teeth just as the settlement prepared for the long night. The few men posted at the shack of a guard station appeared both on edge and confused about their presence. One carefully approached to inquire their business, but kept his distance the moment he saw Murdoch proudly shoulder the spent ATLAS-I missile launcher.
"Please, just leave us alone," the man nearly stammered. "Haven't you taken enough?"
"Sorry mate," Murdoch brushed him aside, strutted in like he owned the place. "Think you have my crew confused with Coalition. We only take people if the credits are right."
"Take people," Kael whispered to Mark. "What does he mean take people? The Coalition doesn't take people."
Mark paused to courteously nod at the man, certain to measure his words as he turned to Kael. "We've seen different out here on the frontier colonies. The Coalition isn't quite so noble once they figure there's little oversight this far from Earth. "
"Why would the Coalition kidnap populations?" she said to Claire, pleading. "Are they behind all of this?"
The woman just shrugged and kept on walking, as if none of this was a big deal. "Never met them in person, though since the Coalition already had you conscripted, I seriously doubt they're the ones who put your people against ours. They had to know you'd all be killed."
"How many were you?"
Claire shrugged and kept on walking.
With a furious step Kael reached forward and grabbed the woman by the wrist, forced it up towards the shoulder blades, then sternly continued: "I said how many."
"Come on now, can't seriously expect to take me down with a cheap imitation of my own trick," Claire broke free from the hold--counter twisted and folded Kael into submission, then just shoved her away with an amused laugh.
"Anyway, were each assigned a squad, some who we knew personally, along with equipment and the prison ship. I don't know what twisted gods of war favored you that day, but there were twenty-seven PMC soldiers up against a bunch of kids. I even had an Armorclad on my team who never reported back, yet only three of us lived to tell about it."
Kael had nothing to say to that. Much like herself, she couldn't imagine what anyone would want to do with the Ghost, but as she slowly paid attention to a sight she'd only heard of, she began to tuly understand a little of the Intifada rebellion.
Inside the dome shaped settlement, dusty cracked apartment buildings littered the scene beyond, their once-white fast-drying concrete now yellow with age. Here and there, young boys ran barefoot across roads riddled with potholes and in general disrepair.
Young girls and their mothers, also barefoot, gawked with terror and awe in their eyes; many balanced pails of fresh water on their heads, while some held bread, scones, and various deep fried local delicacies in wide baskets weaved from dry grass.
The grizzled ancients sternly watched from closing shops, restaurants and what she assumed passed for homes along the long street: the privileged few erected from concrete, and the rest erected from corrugated sheet metal and nailed together against wooden frames.
The loudest sounds came from a sheet metal workshop, where half a dozen workers used hand held plasma-cutting torches at low power to weld together pieces of scrap metal into one larger sheet.
They peeled the goggles from soot covered faces and look up, lumbering with the motion as the unwieldy backpack fuel canisters for their torches weighed them down. The stinging scent of ozone was almost too much to bear--even behind the JAW 180 suit's air filters.
One grandfather marched out from his house onto a weathered porch on a creaky rusty prosthetic foot, stooped with age. He marked her with a stern gaze, leaned against a wooden crutch as she and the others passed.
She'd seen the Red Cross and other charity organizations ask for donations for these disenfranchised people who didn't legally exist, even briefly discussed it in school back home, but part of her found it hard to believe that such crushing poverty could exist in the day and age when the human race had dozens of frontier interstellar mining colonies.
The dome's air ran foul in Kael's nose, heavy with the smog from ancient diesel generators. Every so often, salvaged or stolen air-reclamation units spread throughout the settlement swirled a new batch of recycled air into the sky and made it look like a storm brewed overhead.
My god. Is this what they're fighting to escape? She thought. The basic right to be recognized and treated as living beings? No, it must be more than that, but still, corner and frustrate a population for long enough and they will attack.
For Kael, it was like walking into a live museum or a diorama. The impoverished settlement was a far cry from the white sanitary floors, manicured lawns and largely pristine sights from her comfortable daily life on planet Chorus.
"What do you think, Claire?" Murdoch broke the silence. "Home sweet home? Hahah--"
Claire employed a sharp elbow to his ribs, silenced his laughter.
"Aagh, take a joke you fucking whore," Murdoch said as he nursed his side.
Behind them, Kael and Mark exchanged a glance and shook their heads to silently say: idiots.
In a particularly unremarkable part of the dome, they took an alley and emerged behind the buildings, then into what appeared like rundown garage. Inside, what seemed as a rather short thin man with his hat turned down to hide his features waited impatiently, with his rifle slung over the shoulder; he glanced over them, pinned his gaze on Kael.