Chapter 19: Escalation

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"Tell me the truth about why you joined up," Drake said suddenly.

He and Stacker had been walking in relative silence for about five minutes now and the thought that had been nagging his brain for the past couple hours finally found its way out of the lockbox of his head and through his vocal cords.

"What?" Stacker sounded startled.

"You made a vague reference to money when I asked you why you signed up. But you also acknowledged the insane risks. Dead men don't spend good money."

Stacker looked over at him, his face pale and a little harrowed and gaunt behind the flat pane of glass that was his faceplate. He returned his gaze back to the room they were making their way slowly through, a long warehouse like area with stacks of crates and shelves full of haphazardly strewn equipment and hardware lining the peripheral of the huge area. He sighed quietly and seemed to be considering his answer, measuring it perhaps.

"If you don't want to tell me, I'll accept 'fuck off and mind your own business' as an answer," Drake said.

Stacker let out a loud laugh that seemed to surprise him. "No, it's fair enough. And I haven't really had anyone to talk to for awhile...I actually have a great career. A lot of people called my career stunning. During my decade in the Marines, I was actually loaned out to Search and Rescue for a couple of tours and ended up pulling off some pretty spectacular rescues. We got to an asteroid mine where their reactor was going critical. We found that out and had a decision. Either start trying to get people out right then and there, and probably lose half of them, or send someone into the reactor itself to sever a few key connections to kill the power, because the emergency shutoff was broken. I volunteered to do so while they started the evacuation. I went in there and just barely managed to do it. Got my arm blown off in the process, but I made it out and we didn't lose a single person. And that was my first mission.

"I kept seeming to run into situations like that. When I was a Sergeant, my first mission out I was to lead a squad to help reinforce a colony that was being attacked by a huge group of slavers. My ship got shot down. I was the only survivor, deep in enemy territory. I played guerrilla warfare with them, managed to personally kill a hundred troopers and keep them occupied long enough for reinforcements to arrive. Though I'd say about sixty of those I killed was because I got lucky. Right place, right time with a bomb. Then I was in the Spec Ops when the Systems Wars hit, did a lot of crazy shit there, too. That was my career."

"So this was the next logical step?" Drake asked.

Stacker shook his head. "No. Well...yes, actually. But I didn't want to take the next logical step, not back then. I wanted to fucking quit. I wanted to live with my family. Yeah, I had a family. A wife and two kids. We'd met about eight years into my Marine career, feel deeply in love. We agreed: two more years in the Marines, then I'd quit. And I did...for a year. By then we were married with one kid. During that year, I had enough money not to work for awhile and we had another kid. And I...couldn't do it. I couldn't do the family life thing. I ended up getting a job with Security-Investigations, but it wasn't enough and through it all my superiors had been requesting I make a transfer to Spec Ops. Eventually...I gave in."

"Your wife didn't take it well," Drake murmured.

"No. But she knew I was miserable. To our credit, we made it work...for about five more years. But at that point she was basically a single parent. Don't get me wrong, every R and R, every leave, every bit of spare time I got I went to be with them, I provided for my family. Spec Ops pays well. But in the end, it wasn't the same as actually being there. We got a divorce. I still came to see the kids whenever I could, but...she remarried two years later and the kids...liked their new father more than they liked me. And one time she asked me to stop coming, and I...saw that she had a point. Nobody was getting anything out of my visits but pain, so I said my goodbyes, told her and the kids that I still loved them, and I haven't seen them since. That was about nine years ago."

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