At that Arturo pushed him into the center of the laughing men, who all seemed to be glad to have something other than their dead teammates to think about. It only took all of them ten minutes to have their fun with him, at which point Arturo interrupted the jokes and laughing, which were of course all at Jack’s expense.
“I suppose some formal introductions would be good at this point.”
Jack seemed more than happy to get out of the spotlight for a moment as he went and sat down next to Arturo.
“Aww, he likes you,” remarked Sunshine with a grin, causing Arturo to turn and look at him.
“This strapping young fellow,” procuring the finger from Sunshine and laughter from the others, “is Sunshine. Before you he was probably the happiest bastard in the squad, hence his name, although with you around he might have some competition. I’d tell you not to underestimate his height, but seeing as how you’re not much taller I would just avoid him altogether.”
Several of the men broke out laughing before Jack scowled at Arturo.
“Next we have the guy with his cute little goatee. Most of us call him Ace—a name that he has certainly earned. He brought down six guardians with single shots on his first mission out, and since the Air Force bastards only needed five to become an ace, we made him ours.”
Ace stood up and gave an exaggerated bow, pending laughter from Fuse.
“The big guy with the giggles over there is what passes for our squad’s demolitionist, even though none of us truly have combat specializations. Fuse has been happily wedded to his explosives since he joined us—even though he just calls it a hobby.”
“We can see through that bullshit,” Ace chuckled before Fuse hit him over the head.
“Fuse has enhanced his traditional D-8 bombs slightly, and has been trying to convince the military to upgrade for weeks,” Arturo continued.
“Can’t get the fuckers interested in a stable alternative,” said Fuse, procuring laughter from Sunshine.
Fuse flicked him off before turning and looking back at Arturo.
“And that of course leaves only Shade, our squad’s commander,” muttered Arturo.
“How’d he get that gem of a name?” Jack questioned, speaking for the first time since the introductions started.
“Because we know almost nothing about him,” Sunshine responded. “He’s one helluva commander, but also has a pretty shady past.”
Several of the men nodded silently, as if all remembering their attempts at prying his past into the present, all of which had erupted into memorably unpleasant experiences. Arturo finally interrupted the silence as he stood.
“Well I should go and get Jack suited up.”
The happy mood had been efficiently drained from the small ring at this point, and so those who didn’t ignore the two of them said brief good byes, though no more jokes were cracked. Once they were a few steps away Jack spoke again.
“What happened with Shade?”
“It’s not something any of us need to relive and that includes me,” Arturo muttered
Silence floated between the two men for several minutes, before Arturo felt the need to lighten the mood.
“Anything new or interesting happening in the news lately?”
“Why? You don’t get news out here?”
“Nope,” Arturo answered. “The only information we get is by word of mouth, so we’re always on the lookout for more.
“Heard about Arcturus Mengsk’s death at his son’s hands?”
“Christ, of course,” said Arturo. “That happened what—eight months ago? I was still in the Icehouse when all that shit came out.
“A friend of mine got word to me that the son is being executed today,” Jack continued.
“Took them long enough.”
“I suspect they had to wade through the usual political bullshit first, considering the magnitude of the situation. And it’s all been under wraps of course, the Dominion hasn’t let the media have any coverage on any of it. Madison just released a statement today that the hearings were over.”
“Hey Joe,” Arturo suddenly interrupted as the two men stopped in front of a small building.
The man to whom he was speaking lifted the welding helmet from his face and turned away from the mechanical contraption that he had been working on.
“Arturo, Jesus,” the man muttered. “I thought you were dead!”
“I wish,” he responded with a chuckle.
“Seven months, wow,” continued Joe. “You’re a legend among reapers now.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ve been listening to that shit all morning. I need to get Jack suited up, think you’re up to the task?”
“I’ve probably got some spare armor around here somewhere,” Joe said. “By the way, let your team know that I fixed their suits.”
“What?” Arturo asked.
At his question Joe seemed to have a temporary lapse of thought. His face contorted briefly before he recovered, as if he’d caught himself from saying something.
“The others were having some static issues with their COM units so I had them checked out. Was yours having a problem?”
Arturo stopped to think for a moment, and certainly not about whether or not he’d experienced static lately. He then looked at Joe, who looked nervous.
“No, it’s fine,” he muttered. “I’ll let them know.”
“What was that about?” Jack whispered.
“I don’t know; something just doesn’t feel right. Meet us back over there when you’re done.”
Jack nodded as Arturo walked away quickly. That was probably one of the most awkward conversations he’d ever took part in, and couldn’t get Joe’s expression out of his head. He likely would have continued down this avenue of thought had he not turned the corner and run into the other four reapers of his squad exiting the briefing tent.
“Where were you?” Shade asked hotly.
“What?” Arturo questioned. “I told the guys I was taking Jack over to get suited up!”
The looks on Sunshine’s, Fuse’s, and Ace’s faces were next to unreadable, and all of them avoided eye contact.
“Sorry, man, we didn’t think about that,” Sunshine muttered.
Confusion didn’t even come close to defining the state of mind that Arturo was currently in.
“That was our briefing, command is sending us on some dumb ass scouting mission,” said Ace, though his usual tone of voice was absent.
“We’re moving out in ten; we’ll fill you in on the way,” said Shade.
Fuse walked past Arturo silently before turning the corner toward the equipment shack. As Sunshine began moving past Arturo grabbed his arm.
“What the hell is going on?” asked Arturo.
“Nothing man. The guys are just pissed that command is wasting our time on scouting.”
Arturo wanted to say more, though Sunshine had clearly had enough. He pushed right on past, and kept walking. Arturo had been pissed over worthless mission detail before; this wasn’t the same thing. As he watched the unit stalking away he found himself unable to remove the look on Fuse’s face from his mind. Something was wrong,
- * *
“It was like someone had died,” Arturo whispered, before shifting the weight of his jet pack on his back. “I haven’t seen the four of them like that since they were fresh out of the Icehouse for Christ sake.”
Jack shook his head, before looking at each of the four reapers ahead of them as they walked.
“I don’t know man. I saw it too when they were getting their gear.”
“It makes me nervous for some reason and I can’t even figure out why,” Arturo continued.
“Hold,” Shade ordered from up front.
In front of the six reapers stood a quiet little Terran town. It was small, though Arturo had certainly seen smaller. The skyline was dominated by mostly three and four story buildings, though in the center of town stood a structure that seemed eerily out of place, standing at nearly twelve stories in height.
“Alright, since two of you missed the briefing,” Shade paused to glare at both Jack and Arturo, “I’ll give a quick refresher. Seven hours ago command received a jumbled transmission that suggested the town was under attack. That was the final message received before all contact was lost. Now, as we all know, there’s plenty of Zerg activity in the area, and so they are presently suspected. That means that there will likely be some hostiles, along with a lot of dead citizens. Our mission is to confirm what actually happened here, and if hostiles are encountered we evac and radio in for the cavalry.”
“Certainly is the first time I’ve ever had cavalry there to back me up,” Arturo muttered.
The silence that followed was the most disturbing sign he’d encountered yet. There were no wise cracks, not even nods of agreement. Reapers were never given backup, but regardless of the uniqueness of the situation not a single soldier made a comment. It was almost like he’d been placed with another unit.
“Sunshine, you’re with me,” Shade said. “Fuse go with Ace, and Arturo take Jack. Each pair takes a different sector of the town, and I want situation reports within the hour. If you discover anything substantial before then report it over the COM channel.”
As Arturo checked his weapons he noticed something strange.
“You brought D-8 on a scouting mission?”
Fuse ignored him for a moment, clearly not realizing who Arturo had been talking to. After another moment Ace and Sunshine both looked at him, and so he looked up at Arturo, and then down at his waist.
“Oh, yeah,” he replied with a static monotone before an unnaturally long pause. “I’d rather be over prepared than under prepared.”
As Arturo glanced at them again he realized that they were unusually high up, almost to the point where they were around his chest. At such a height Fuse’s armor almost completely concealed them.
“Alright, let’s move,” Shade ordered.
There were several weak acknowledgements of the order, before the men began moving in separate directions. As Arturo and Jack peeled off from them he caught Fuse glaring at him, almost with a look of disappointment in his eyes.
“Hey,” Jack muttered beside him. “Get your mind on the mission; God knows what’s out here.”
Arturo forced his eyes back toward the sector that they were walking toward.
“Come on, the faster we get this done the better,” he said before he ignited the boosters on his jet pack.
Jack followed suit beside him, and the two reapers moved quickly over the remaining elevation in the terrain until they encountered a road that originated up in the hills, and went directly into town. It was fairly apparent that something wasn’t right from the moment that they passed the first buildings. The streets were absolutely deserted, and all of the windows were dark. If the sun wasn’t setting Arturo wouldn’t have found that so odd, though considering the obvious lack of light in the sky he did.
“Where are all of the cars?” Jack questioned as both men stopped and shut off their jet packs.
It wasn’t until he had mentioned it that Arturo really took a good look down the four lane street that appeared to go from one end of the town to the other. There wasn’t a vehicle in sight—not even a bicycle. After a moment of examining the pavement beneath him he once again turned his attention to the structures on either side of the road. They weren’t really free standing structures as was customary in a non-urban environment. Many of the buildings were connected, seemingly forming blocks, which were separated every so often by a small narrow alley.
“We should check some of the buildings,” Jack stated as he turned to look at the front door of a three story building in between two store windows, both of which were dark.
Arturo nodded and the two men walked over to the teak door. The wood was stained a rich brown, and made an echoing noise as his hand rapped on it. They waited for a moment, neither of them expecting anyone to answer, before Arturo tried the door knob.
“It’s locked,” he muttered, somewhat shocked.
Arturo bent down slightly and inspected the door, not finding any marks or signs that something had tried to get in. He banged on the door several more times.
“This is a Dominion scouting party! If anyone is alive in there open the door!”
Silence was all that responded to Arturo’s announcement. He glanced over at Jack, who subsequently nodded. Arturo switched the safety off of his left gauss pistol, before aiming it at the door and firing several rounds into the lock. He then raised his boot and slammed it into the wood, cracking parts of it and ultimately causing it to give way. The sudden opening revealed an empty stairway, which went up a flight and then disappeared around the corner.
“I’ll take point,” Arturo whispered as he switched on his suit’s lights and flicked the safety off of his second pistol.
He stepped clumsily over the door—making certain that his jet pack would fit through the opening—and began moving up the stairs one step at a time.
“Hello?” he asked.
Arturo glanced down to make certain that Jack was still behind him before emerging up on the top landing. It was a simple hallway, which wrapped around the staircase and ended on the other side. Several doors lined the walkway, each with different numbers. He turned to the first one, and hit the door several times.
“Is anyone in there?”
Now getting slightly annoyed, Arturo kicked the door in, revealing an apartment. The first room was evidently a living area, being dominated by a small couch facing a dusty, empty stand.
“Well isn’t this cozy,” Jack remarked from behind him.
Arturo ignored him and moved quickly into the bedroom adjacent to the living room. To his surprise, the bed was unmade. It almost appeared as though someone had just gotten out of it, though there was a large piece of conflicting evidence.
“Look at the dust,” he said, pointing at the bed.
Arturo moved into the room to allow Jack a better view.
“There’s at least three weeks of dust on these sheets,” Arturo stated as he swept his gloved hand through the thick layer of it. “Shade said the transmission came through seven hours ago. And look at the drawers!”
He moved past Jack around to the other side of the bed where there was a desk full of opened drawers. Closer examination of them showed them to all be empty.
“Someone took the time to pull out everything and take it with them. If you were under attack, would you do that?”
“No,” Jack muttered as he shook his head. “So what are you saying?”
Arturo paused for a minute, looking back and forth at the bed and the desk as he realized what was happening.
“This town was evacuated weeks ago,” he whispered, more to himself than to Jack, before his eyes widened.
Both men turned their heads as something heavy dropped on the wooden door downstairs, and Arturo pushed past Jack into the small hallway. He reached the banister and looked down to where the door was before seeing the red numbers ticking on the detonator of a D-8 bomb.
Arturo’s mind had barely registered what it was and certainly not what it meant before he’d twisted his bulky frame around and ignited his jet pack’s boosters. Time seemed to slow as he saw Jack’s eyes widen in front of him at the sight of his squad mate accelerating dangerously fast right at him. A period of a second passed between the lighting of Arturo’s thrusters and his collision with Jack, after which time both men flew into the bedroom. They had hardly even touched the back wall when light erupted behind them and a deafening roar blasted past them as the bomb detonated, ripping through the small stairway and blasting into the open apartment door.
Arturo felt immense heat on his back moments before the floor gave way beneath them, sending them plummeting into a store below. Jack hit the floor first, with Arturo hitting him shortly thereafter. A large portion of the roof that had once been above them—along with pieces of the bed—came down on top of Arturo as small balls of flame rained down from above.
“What the FUCK was that!?” Jack cried from beneath him.
“D-8 bomb,” Arturo coughed before rolling off of his teammate.
He cringed as he did so, knowing full well that his back had been badly burned. The poor armor that reapers wore was finally catching up with him. It appeared that they were sitting in what had been a supply closet ten seconds earlier, though now all that remained of its walls were shattered stumps barely two feet in height. Several fires were now burning around them on the edge of an enormous spherical hole in the middle of the apartment building. Arturo realized with dread as he looked at the destruction that only enhanced deuterium bombs could have caused it.
“Jesus,” Jack groaned as he stood up allowing the rubble to separate from his armor.
Gunfire suddenly lanced the wall behind Arturo, causing him to drop down on top of Jack again. Dust showered them as more slugs flew through what remained of the glass storefront.
“Who the hell is that!?”
“It’s our own fucking squad!” Arturo yelled as he lifted onto his hands and knees and started crawling farther back into the store. “Come on!”
Jack was muttering inaudible things behind him as he was dragged along with wall fragments raining down over them. Arturo moved around a corner and saw what he had been praying for—a back door.
Whatever understanding he thought he’d had previously had been obliterated with the bomb. His own damn squad was now trying to kill him for God knows what reasons. He put his thoughts on hold as he reached the door and kicked it open. Glancing behind him briefly to make certain that Jack was still breathing he started out into the alley on the other side. Gunfire forced him back inside almost immediately as he felt a slug whistle past his ear. He attempted to ignore his heart pounding in his throat as he slid his visor back up, only to realize it had been cracked in the fall.
“Jack!” Arturo cried. “I need you lucid!”
“We’ve got a reaper at the end of the alley! I’m going to give us some covering fire to get us into that door across from us!”
Jack acknowledged the order as Arturo pulled out both gauss pistols and hooked the jet pack’s controls up to his right one.
Before Jack could even respond Arturo watched as another D-8 rolled to the floor behind them. He subsequently grabbed Jack’s arm, twisted to face the door across from them, and slammed his finger down on the button. Both men rocketed across the alleyway as the charge ignited behind them and something stung Arturo’s side. His brain had hardly been able to register pain when his body slammed into the door going fifteen miles per hour. The explosion in the previous store augmented their speed as the door’s hinges gave way easily and the two reapers went flying into a counter.
“Holy fuck!” Jack cried breathlessly as Arturo scaled the counter and dropped down on the other side.
The new building was most identifiably a bar judging by the large numbers of bottles containing liquor behind the counter. Arturo glanced down at his side, which was bleeding.
“Get your ass back here!”
Jack obeyed as Arturo found a rag behind the bar and stuffed it between his armor. From what he could see the bullet appeared to have passed right through his side, though with the stimpack already at work he couldn’t be certain.
“Are you hurt?” Arturo asked.
“How the fuck should I know!? I have so much adrenaline pumping through me I can hardly think!”
The last several words of his reply were lost as the glass in the front window shattered and more rounds began slamming into the wall behind the bar. Arturo swore as he started moving again whilst the liquor bottles on the bar began exploding. As the two men moved around the edge of the bar another back door came into sight, along with a staircase. Assuming a similar situation would be awaiting them in the alley again, Arturo opted for height.
“Take the stairs!” he shouted as he stood briefly and dove onto them.
He felt bullets narrowly miss him yet again and he quickly moved to provide Jack with some room. He followed suit shortly thereafter and they scrambled upward until they reached a door. It led into another hallway, which was eerily familiar to the first apartment building they’d entered. It was lined with doors, which Arturo then proceeded to attempt to open one after another. The third one was unlocked, and so both men quickly moved in.
After shutting and locking the door, Arturo had a moment to think. The room that they had walked into was a one room studio, dominated by a bed in one corner and a desk in the other. A window overlooking the street was placed over the desk, and another peering into the alley was above the bed.
“Why the hell are they trying to kill us?” whispered Jack.
“Do you want me to go down there and ask them!?” Arturo shot back angrily.
That silenced Jack, though it revived Arturo’s memory. He quickly turned on his COM unit to the reapers’ only channel and started talking.
“Shade!” he said furiously. “What the fuck are you doing? We’re on the same side!”
“No, we’re not,” he replied. “You made certain of that.”
“What?” Arturo asked in complete confusion.
“I don’t have anything more to say to you.”
Jack gave a quizzical look to Arturo as Shade finished.
Only silence followed, until holes erupted in the door. Jack was able to drop down to the floor seconds before slugs filled the air where he had been. For the first time Arturo actually opened fire, peppering the door in return and then moving onto the wall beside it. Silence followed for a moment once Arturo’s clip was empty, and then there was a thud outside the door.
Breathing heavily, he reloaded his right pistol and then allowed it to rejoin his left in the air, prepared to fire. Several more seconds yielded nothing new, and so he took a step toward the door. Every few seconds he would take another step, until he finally reached the door and pried it open. On the right side of it was Sunshine, bleeding badly.
Jack and Arturo both frantically hauled the reaper into the room, before the former shut the door, regardless of its present shape.
“Sunshine!” Arturo muttered.
The soldier convulsed momentarily before coughing up blood. He’d been hit four times, though his armor appeared to have taken six more.
“Get awa-away from me you s-son of a bitch!” he choked.
“What the hell are you doing Sunshine!?” Arturo questioned.
“Killing a-a traitor you mother fucker!”
“What?” asked Arturo in shock.
“We know w-what you d-did,” he stammered as more blood began flowing from his lips. “That y-you gave us the g-go ahead ev-ven though the scouts said to c-call it off. And th-that you rigged F-Flush’s fuel tank to blow, and how you d-did the s-same to Trigger!”
As Sunshine choked out his final dying breaths Arturo stood slowly, before reactivating his COM.
“So that’s what it’s all about? That’s why we’re trying to kill each other?” Arturo said as anger began mounting inside him again. “Someone fed you all a load of complete fucking bullshit and you ate it up!? Why the fuck would I intentionally try to get myself killed!? Or kill Flush, or even Trigger!? Christ Fuse, you said you saw him die; you know what happened! He blew his own D-8s to take as many Zerg with him as he could! Why the fuck are you believing any of this!?”
Silence was all that could be heard in the room after Arturo ceased speaking. Just as he was about to add something else, however, there was a voice below them. Both men looked down at Sunshine, and then at the COM link attached to his helmet.
“He’s trying to lie his way out now,” said Shade angrily. “Move around the back of the building, see if we can flush them out!”
Confusion once again gripped Arturo as he touched his own COM unit and then looked back at Sunshine’s. The reapers’ suits only had the capacity for a single channel, and yet Sunshine had two. Revelation struck him all at once, and he was almost forced to sit back as he made a small connection.
“Joe was adding a second COM channel to their devices,” Arturo whispered. “That’s why he had their suits.”
Jack’s eyes widened as he heard this, also understanding. Arturo then bent down and carefully removed Sunshine’s COM unit and disconnected the cables.
“What are you doing?” Jack asked.