I watched from the trees as the Vipers rounded up the surviving townsfolk and herded them towards the ship. Despite the destruction, it seemed that few had been killed. But the Vipers had taken their casualties as well. Four injured, but Vin was still the only fatality. The four Viper ships sat surrounding the town, turrets threatening anyone who would resist. The Banu vessel came down shortly afterwards, the large hulk landed on the platform beside the rubble that had been the AA turret. It opened and out stepped the fat slaver. His mouth moved constantly as he walked along the rows of captives. Even though there was no way I could hear what he was saying from five hundred meters away, his meaning was clear. He was selecting the stock.
"How's he doing?" I asked Ajax, who was only a few meters away treating Porter’s chest wound.
"Unconscious, but he's stable," he answered. "Should be safe to move him onboard now. How thing's looking down there?"
"According to plan," I said. I couldn't exactly say things were going well, not while I was helping mercenaries abduct people. It was all wrong. There was no conceivable way to see it as anything else.
A small commotion caught my eye. A man was struggling against two Viper mercenaries. He had taken a bullet in the leg, but that didn't stop him from putting up a strong fight trying to reach the slaver. The fat man had grabbed the kid I had shot in the knee and was dragging him towards the ship along with a crowd of others.
The kid was heading for a life of slavery on a Banu world far from home. I didn't know what the Banu enterprise would be like, but I couldn't imagine it would be any better than the dangerous mining or factory work of human-owned slaves.
What did you expect? the cynical voice inside me said. There was a laugh in the tone, at least as much as is possible in an imagined voice. You knew exactly what was going to happen.
Yes, but I didn't know it would be so... Words failed, only the feeling of repulsion and a need to vomit.
The kid fought bravely, said a pleading, hopeful voice. Perhaps the captain will save him. It was a weak hope, but I tried to cling to it. He'll save him like he saved me!
Saved me. The thought opened up a pit in my stomach, and my heart fell through. He didn't save me. He used me and twisted me, turned me into a killer. Violence bringing more violence. Better for everyone if he had sent me off to some pit to be worked to death rather than here helping them to continue the cycle. I’d done my share to bring us there.
I never had a choice. I still don't have any choice.
Yes, I do. I know exactly what I have to do.
But... I'll die.
It was a final, desperate, feeble plea. Death no longer mattered. "I can't let this happen," I said. I pulled back from the scope and turned to Ajax. His face was invisible beneath the helmet. But he see seemed shrunken, shoulders drooping as he watched the town below.
"I know," he said.
"Then you know what I have to do?"
"Are you going to try to stop me?"
Don't look to him to provide a way out. Don't hide behind the hope of Ajax stopping you. Don't say you have no choice.
My hands shook as I turned back to my rifle with deadly purpose. Once again I reached for the autoinjector full of the chems that never let me miss.
The scene through my scope was much the same. The kid had been thrown roughly among the chosen, falling to the ground and grabbing at his ruined knee. The man broke free from the mercs holding him and dashed towards his son. Jax drew his sidearm and pointed it at the desperate father.
My world shrunk into a cold point of calculations. My fear dropped away. There was nothing in the world but my rifle and my target. And the calm certainty of what had to be done. I pulled the trigger.
Jax had been born in a brothel on a remote terraforming station to a prostitute. She had refused to abort him despite the demands of the brothel’s owner. As he grew, he saw his mother beaten and abused by the man. She tried to protect her son, but couldn't always succeed. Then, when the boy was twelve, after the drunken owner had given his mother a particularly savage beating before falling into a stupor, he slit the man's throat.
He was arrested and spent the next several years being shuffled from one detention facility to the next. He became hard and mean, learning the ferociousness needed just to survive. Eventually he was let out, but what little child had been in him was gone. The cruel man that remained became strong, never helpless or weak again. As a Viper he was strong, fearless, and relentless.
That's what I knew of Jax and his history. His hopes, his dreams, his struggle for life, his tragic story; they ended in the pre-dawn light of a distant world with my bullet in his brain.
Jax fell, and I turned the rifle on the merc standing next to him. I couldn't be sure so far away, but I thought it was Samson. He was an older, seasoned veteran of the Vipers, one of Brannigan's longest companions. He had lived long in the Empire, had seen friends and family die. A fierce friend and terrible enemy. I shot him in the chest.
The mercenaries were in chaos. They dove for cover, scrambling out of the open. "Where's it coming from?!" shouted Grimes. They ran for the safety of the town and ship, but some not fast enough. I shot Hansen, who had originally joined to pay off a gambling debt and was still always up for a game. And I shot his younger brother, James, when he stopped to try to help him. He would follow his older brother anywhere. They had grown up in the alleys of ArcCorp with nothing but each other.
The captives who could run were making a break for it, running from the ship and town as their attackers cowered behind buildings. Others were already bound or drugged, lying helpless by the ship. I glanced at my mobiglas. Forty-two minutes until militia was due to show up.
"Pup, we're under fire from locals," Brannigan's voice said in my ear. "Can't get a fix on 'em, you see 'em?" I didn't respond, kept the mic on mute and scanned the buildings for another target. "Pup, you out there? Ajax, you with Pup? Goddamn answer!"
"You remember eight years ago, the first job I did with you?" Ajax's voice was calm and cold, strangely peaceful on the battlefield.
"What the fuck is going--"
"We saved a town from a Vanduul raid. It was a long, bloody fight, and at the end we were heroes." There was a long silence, the only movement the father trying to get his wounded son to safety.
"I remember," Brannigan replied.
"It was this planet. This town."
"I know." Brannigan understood, knew what was happening.
"It would have been better for us to die back then," Ajax said. "Died doing something good, rather than live to become this. My first mission with the Vipers was to defend this town, as is my last."
"If that's what you want, then you have your wish." Flares and smoke grenades went out from the line of buildings, and soon the whole area was covered in haze. I switched to infrared on my scope and continued to scan the smoke. The combat suits made it tough to see the outlines of the mercenaries that began moving out from the cover of the buildings, but not entirely invisible.
I shot again and again, but couldn’t see much. I hit one man, I thought it was Cameron. Ajax lifted his rifle and fired into the smoke. But soon there were figures moving into the treeline at the bottom of the hill. It was impossible to keep them from advancing ever closer. We fell back up the hill as their gunfire threatened to pin us down, then turned south to keep the higher ground. The engines of the Cutlass roared over the treetops, and we dove into the underbrush.
"We just have to keep them busy until the militia shows up," Ajax said after the Cutlass passed and we got moving again. "About an hour."
"You think we can stay alive that long?"
"Should be easy enough to stay clear of them," he said. "Hard part will be avoiding the ships." He stepped out on front of me into a small clearing, the town visible to the north.
I didn't even hear the gunshot. Just a smack, and Ajax fell backwards, a large caliber bullet wound ripping apart his chest. He was dead before he hit the ground, before I realized anything had happened.
The sound came several seconds later, a distant crack echoing off the hills as I stood in shock. I dove to the ground just before another round tore into the trees. I lay behind a trunk, staring at the body of the man who had just a few seconds ago been alive. The once marine medic who had wanted to help people. He died fighting against his friends. He died a hero.
I ran. Sprinted through the shadows underneath the canopy of leaves. Branches whipped past my face. I slid down a steep embankment to a small creek, splashed across, and scrambled up the other side. Ship engines roared overhead, sweeping over the treetops. A spotlight shone down through the darkness, and I turned to stay out of the circle of light. If I could keep going for long enough, perhaps there was hope. My lungs burned and my legs ached, but I had to keep running. They were coming.