The Hypothetical War: Part 3 - A
Silent Stars Above The Mountain
"Hey Lt, the kid wants to ask you a question." Rhinehardt's deep, tenor was impossible to mistake.
Zerro's eyes shot open inside his helmet and he moved them to where he remembered the internal camera was situated; to the left, just above the his edge of his visor.
"Why doesn't he ask me himself?" He replied groggily, blinking his bloodshot eyes.
"Guess he's nervous. You've got a pretty big rep, you know."
"Don't we all?" Zerro groaned and moved to stretch out his stiff legs but was met with immediate and overbearing resistance.
Oh yeah, he thought to himself as his mind caught up to pace and he remembered that his entire body; head, arms, legs and all; was securely pinned between two large, metal harnesses within a tightly packed capsule not more than eight feet in height and fifteen feet in circumference. Alongside him, in a circular arrangement, were nine other souls, some of whom were also adorned in heavily-armored, powered exosuits and equally immobilized by identical heavy braces.
"What's your question, McNeil?" Zerro said as he stole a glance at the digital time readout in the upper right section of his visor's Heads-Up Display. 00:47; thirteen minutes til the drop. He mentally sighed in agitation. They'd be flooding the compartment soon with impact gel; a process he didn't normally enjoy witnessing first hand. He'd set his exosuit's alarm function for 00:55 but now he disabled it with facial gestures, which his suit's user interface recognized as commands.
"Um... Sorry that I woke you up, sir..." McNeil said, sheepishly.
"It's fine, what's on your mind?"
"Well sir, I don't mean to be rude but, I was wondering, you said you're human, right?"
Zerro saw where this was going in an instant, "You want to know about my ears and tail, right?"
"Well, it's pretty simple but, firstly, I should tell you: I'm not human. Not in the genetic sense, anyway."
"What do you mean, sir?" McNeil asked.
"Lieutenant Greer was altered as an embryo, kid," interjected Sergeant Rhinehardt, "He was part of The Alignment's Genome Splicing Initiative, back in the 80s,"
"But, that doesn't make any sense. The Alignment hadn't been traveling between dimensions back then, had they?"
"No," Zerro replied, "They only started about ten years ago, by the Prime calendar."
"So then, sir, you arehuman?"
"Oh, sorry. Confused you, didn't I? I was originally human but, the way I see it, once they toyed around with my genes, I became something other than Homo-Sapien."
"Ah, I get it now sir. So, you had your tail and ears from birth?"
"No, those grew as a result of me being exposed to Flux radiation."
"Flux radiation, sir?"
"Rhine', care to explain?" Zerro offered.
"Sure, Boss." The Sergeant cleared his throat and took a deep breath. "Alright kid, seeing as how you're here, right now, I'm going to assume you've traveled through a Rift."
"You mean a Gate, Sarge," McNeil countered.
"Gate, Rift, Portal, Doorway, whatever. You've traveled between worlds right?"
"Remember that thirty-minute wait you had before actually crossing through?"
"Oh yeah, it was kinda annoying because it was my first trip and I was really excited," McNeil explained.
"Well, that wait time was there to keep you from being exposed to, what we SF guys call, Flux Radiation."
"Oh, well I guess I'm glad they made us wait then. What IS Flux radiation anyway?"
"Well, how it was explained to me was: When you open a 'gate' between two dimensions, you're actually tearing a hole in reality. Time, Space, Energy; all get trapped and tangled together along the edges of this tear and from that unnatural concentration comes the phenomenon, Flux." Rhinehardt's rich voice and confidence made the explanation much easier to comprehend.
"Doctor Mohini and her colleagues have a much longer, more scientific name for it, but it's about thirty syllables, so we decided to shorten it out of common decency." Zerro interjected.
"Ah, okay." McNeil said and nodded.
"The Flux is a very weird and almost unpredictable occurrence," continued Rhinehardt, "Organic matter and even some non-organic equipment is susceptible to it."
"It's not your 'normal' type of radiation though," added Zerro. "Cancer might he one of the least of your worries if you get Flux'd."
"But it is radiation, right? So it affects your body like Gamma rays would, right?"
"Not really kid, we only call it radiation for lack of a better word," Rhinehardt reasoned.
"In truth, the Flux is actually semi-sentient. In other words, it chooses what it wishes to alter and deviate, in a sense," Zerro jumped in.
"...I'm lost, sir," McNeil admitted gingerly.
"Okay, here's a perfect example: Because of my altered DNA, the Flux 'sensed' the canine stock The Alignment added and 'decided' to replace even more of my human genes with it. Hence why I now have the ears and tail of a fox. For a regular human, you might have a different outcome.
Maybe you have more pigmentation markers in your genes, so you might develop green skin as a result of being exposed to the Flux. Or you might lose your skin all together. Even worse outcomes have happened to people with Variables. There isn't always a 'happy' ending when dealing with it." Zerro explained. "When I was pushed through Padlove's Gate, not only did I grow animal appendages, I also completely lost my identity for nearly two months."
"Lost our identity," McNeil asked, his face contorting with confusion.
”The Flux made me believe that I was born in the world that I had traveled to. It was like I became a different person all together. I had memories and could recall names and faces of relatives and loved ones that I never met and knew intricate details of places I had never even heard of."
"That's sounds... scary, sir."
"Shit if it wasn't. For a long time afterwards, even when I finally managed to return to Reality Prime, I still had trouble distinguishing my past. I mean, I had some really intimate memories of a childhood I couldn't possibly have had. Being the second of seven brothers, living on a farm and being drafted into a military academy, staying up late, talking with my fox-eared mother... The Flux is dangerous."
"Well, at least you came back with something cool to show for it, sir."
"'Something cool'?," Zerro replied and raised an eyebrow, "Try, 'Something annoying and more of a hassle than a help.' Let me tell you something: Man was not meant to have super hearing. It is one of the worst curses to ever have. If I don't have my E.A.R.S in, I can literally hear everything. Heartbeats, breathing, muscles stretching, blood flowing through veins. Kinda ironic actually.
"That sounds cool to me, sir," rebuttled McNeil.
"Oh, but you're so very wrong, McNeil. Try living with other people who don't have ultra-sensitive hearing and don't understand the concept. Hell, try living with people who do. When I'm on leave, I go home to my loving fiance and beautiful step-daughter and, though I love them with my every breath, they drive me up the wall sometimes. And the worst part? It's not even their fault. If they're whispering, I can hear them even from the backyard. If they're sleeping, I can hear them snoring from the basement; which isn't actually snoring but might as well be to me; oh, and when they go to the restroom... Ugh! Have you ever heard someone taking a shit, in high-definition, surround sound, McNeil?"
"Uh.... No... No sir, I haven't."
"I would not recommend it."
There were snickers on the comms line, indicating that the other members of Zerro's squad had awoken. As if waiting for that particular que, the interior vents of the capsule slammed shut and clicked into their air-tight, locked positions before the viscous impact gel began to flood in from ducts situated within the overhead.
Zerro didn't mind it when the gel was still liquid in nature, it was only when it had filled the small capsule completely and became a transparent solid mass that the anxiety began to build. Already immobile in his harnessed exosuit, if he gave the command to depolarize his heavily tinted visor, he would be met with a grey, gritty and unmoving wall of slime pressing firmly against the outside of his helmet. As a former Navy SEAL, this didn't bother him either. Only, the technicians in charge of filling the capsules didn't stop pumping until every last square inch of unoccupied space within was taken up by gel. As they continued to force the goo in, the pressure inside the cramped compartment skyrocketed.
For someone wearing one of the newer models of The Alignment's Hazardous Operations Exosuit, this fact might mean very little but, to Zerro; whom still wear the MK I variant; this might be a time of great psychological stress. Because of it's large, multi-layered plastic face-covering; which was, hands down, the weakest part of the unit; a certain amount of doubt tended to arise.
Would the visor stand up to the ever-increasing pressure? Of course there had been plenty of tests and maintenance done to assure that it would indeed do so, but Zerro knew that, every so often, things don't follow the test results. He, himself, was an example of such circumstance.
What IF the face piece didn't hold this time? There'd be absolutely nothing he could do about it, trapped as he was in his anchored H.O.E. If even a minute fracture occurred, his armored suit would suddenly become his inescapable tomb as the impact gel flooded in and the pressure persisted until it squeezed the air out of his lungs and crushed his body under its weight. Quite the ironic way to die and not the most peaceful by any stretch of the imagination.
He once toyed with the idea of secretly loosening one of the harness struts before a drop but immediately threw it aside. For one, the anchoring device was completely automated which meant he'd have to tamper with mechanisms that were put in place to save his life, something he wasn't about to do. Secondly, if he HAD managed to loosen a part of the harness, even one of the clamps around his wrists, he most assuredly would be at fault when the force of the capsule's eventual impact with the ground, after falling a few thousand feet, turned every bone in his hand to a fine powder.
As unnerving as the process was, he'd rather be stuck in place, in a flooding compartment, than reduced to paste. But did it have to take so long?
Glancing at his clock again, he noted the time and sighed as he closed his eyes. 00:50.
"Hey Lt," Rhinehardt called out, "While we're in the middle of it, I have question too."
"Wha'cha got, Rhine'?"
"Well, I'd heard that it was because of your arguments that the Commander decided to attack Tengu this time. Is that true?"
"Yeah," Zerro sighed forlornly, "it's true."
"Judging by that sigh, Boss, I can tell that the rumors are were right: you didn't want to wage war against Tengu at all."
Zerro considered his squad of nine for a moment then nodded what little he could, "That's true too. To be completely honest, I didn't want to go to war with any of Bird Island. I have friends all over this place. Or, rather, had friends. Especially in Tengu."
"Then why were you so adamant about targeting Tengu after we took Inu Village?"
"You sure you want to know the truth? Not just Rhinehardt, that question goes for the rest of you guys too."
"Shit, I know I was curious," replied Sergeant Brunson, the squad's medic.
"Doubt it'll change anything, so go ahead sir," Private Fitzgerald, heavy support.
"I love hearing someone else's philosophy on war," said Private Davidson, demolitions technician.
"I'm all ears, sir," replied McNeil.
Zerro waited a moment for any of the four Zibnobi soldiers to respond but, as he had assumed, they had their comms circuits segregated from those of the rest of the squad, most likely preforming pre-battle prayers or reciting some symbolic poetry to build up their collective nerve, as was their custom. He didn't mind their absence in this conversation. In fact, it allowed him to be completely honest with his fellow human squadmates.
"The reasons we need to secure Tengu now are; One: we, The Alignment, need to control the territory. As we all know, our partnership with the Zibnobi during this conflict comes at a huge price: Every battle won, when the Zibs outnumber our people, they get the land. It's not a secret and they know we don't particularly like that idea. However, the Commander agreed to the terms so we have to honor them.
Since the majority of the Zibs are still crossing over in Inu, OUR people are still doing the bulk of the fighting. That means any victories we achieve go down in the books as Alignment and, thus, we get the spoils.
If you look on the map of Bird Island, there are really only two highly-defended areas: Tengu and Hebi. Now, sure, Hebi's a big city and it got its amazing walls, but it doesn't hold a candle to the defensive positioning of Tengu.
With our tech and experience, even if the whole island revolts against us at some point; which is a huge possibility, teetering on an inevitability; we could hold the mountain for a good, long time. Also, taking it's elevation into consideration, Tengu is the best option in terms of launching air-based offensives; which we WILL need to take down Hebi.
All in all, out of the two strongholds of this island, Tengu would be best to hold earlier on in the game."
"Tengu's a prize, we get it Boss. What's the second reason why we had to attack Tengu second?" Rhinehardt tried to hurry the conversation along.
"The other reason is more morbid but, honestly, it makes obvious sense: We'd want to attack Tengu now; while the majority of are forces are still... alive."
There was a moment of silence.
"Hell, yeah, that does make sense," Sergeant Brunson spoke up, "I mean, this is war after all."
Zerro grunted in affirmation, "People are going to get hurt and some are going to die. That's the way it goes. Might as well try for the biggest prize earlier on, while you still have the element of surprise and the most power to your punches."
"Interesting perspective, sir," commented Davidson, "but, now I have a question too: Why are we hard-dropping into Tengu instead of regular air insert or, my personal favorite, blowing a hole through their huge, overcompensating-for-something walls?"
"Somebody wasn't paying attention during my brief earlier. McNeil, can you explain to Private Davidson why I suggested this method of approach?"
"Yes sir! While Lieutenant Greer was in Tengu earlier, on a diplomatic mission, the village leader, Stephan Lustmorde, displayed the ability to create a defensive barrier over the entire village."
"He did so in under twenty seconds," Zerro added, "In fact, it was almost instantaneous. Now, our Reflex Craft are some of the fastest flying objects in any existence, but even with their speed, Stephan's spy network of birds would spot them a mile away. What we need to attack Tengu is an ultra-fast delivery system that is also hard to spot until it's too late. With the addition of the liquid nitrogen reservoirs along the exterior, our drop capsules won't give off a flaming tail, making us invisible against the night sky. So now we insert with Shock and Awe.
Most of Tengu are in their beds right now, sleeping the night away. When we make landfall, the quakes and sound should disorient them long enough for us to get, at the very least, five capsules in before Stephan decides to raise his barrier. That's five teams of ten; thirty highly-trained operatives and twenty battle-hardened Zibnobic veterans. From there, we only have one objective-"
"Neutralize Stephan Lustmorde, his family and any other opposition," Rhinehardt finished.
"I want to remind you all that 'neutralize' does not mean kill. I want them alive and, if at all feasible, unharmed. I can't say what the other Squad Captains will order their people to do, but I sincerely hope you all will show as much restraint as you can while still remaining efficient in combat.
One important caveat: No one is to harm the children of the Lustmorde family. I mean it; not a single hair on their heads. That's for their safety too but, primarily, for ours. I only met her for a moment, but Rioshi Lustmorde seems like the type of woman who would sink all of Bird Island to Davy Jones' locker if someone hurt her babies."
"Jeez, anything else you want Boss? Maybe hand em' a bouquet of roses before the fight?" Rhinehardt groaned.
Zerro half laughed, "Sorry, I know I'm asking a lot, especially since we can be damn sure they aren't going to be pulling any punches for us. But, before this war even started, We were given a choice. We could either stay and try to minimize the damage done to Bird Island and its people or we could have just ran away from this whole big mess. I guess I-"
An alarm prompt suddenly appeared within the HUDs of everyone's helmets. Using facial gestures, Zerro quickly muted his before glancing at his clock. 01:00. The carrier aircraft were in position, 5,000 feet above Tengu; it was time to drop. Using more facial gestures, Zerro opened the comms way to everyone in the capsule.
"Okay everybody, this is it: game time. Focus only on steadying your breathing on the way down and don't try to hold your breath or you'll get the Bends. When we're on the ground, get out of this thing immediately and find some solid cover. Rally-"
A large, metallic sound reverberated through the impact gel inside the capsule as its secondary latch mechanism was released, leaving the primary as the only thing keeping it attached to the large, hovering aircraft that had hefted up this far.
"Rally with Team Eagle and Team Ostrich at the base of Tengu Castle as planned, no matter happens."
"Anything else Boss?" Rhinehardt yelled as a second alarm went off in everyone's helmet, accompanied by a ten-second countdown.
"Above all else, stay alive and get the job done. The rest of our people are counting on us to get that barrier down so the main assault can begin. Good luck!"
As the last words left his lips, there was sudden a feeling of weightlessness as the capsule was released from the aircraft and began the long fall down towards Tengu.