The months spent among the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants passed quickly. There was always something to do and people to do it with – most of it training of one kind or another.
It passed so quickly, in fact, that the 3 months Nova had been supposed to spend there for training had come and gone and transformed into 2 years. Of course, Nova hadn’t stayed at the airfield for all this time. She’d gone back to visit her family many times, and she’d also accompanied the PMC in some of their missions, a few taking place overseas. Her assignments had always been pretty peaceful, though, since Marian took great care to place her in the safest positions at all times.
Nova had inquired about what she perceived to be her mother being overprotective, but Marian had claimed that she just couldn’t risk anybody learning that Viper Nest was using an underage girl in a combat position, or the world would see them as outlaws employing child soldiers, and then nobody would ever hire them again. Nova was pretty sure this was nothing more than an excuse. But still, it was a pretty good excuse, so she hadn’t insisted.
Like Nova, the soldiers stationed in the airfield didn’t stay there 24-7. They rotated regularly as they went on and returned from leave in groups of ten, leaving around 30 of them on-site at any one time. As for Marian, she came around perhaps a week out of 3 to take part in the soldiers’ practice and generally see how things were going. The rest of the time, the training Viper Nest’s members went through was self-inflicted. Squad leaders would decide between themselves what today’s menu would consist of, then everyone would be forced to eat it, so to speak.
Of course, Nova herself wasn’t a squad leader, but she was still an integral part of the team, and she was already used to daily life here.
I didn’t think I’d ever enjoy living as a soldier. My life is really going to unexpected places. Sometimes literally. Like, right now…
At this particular point on the great cosmic course of the space-time continuum, Nova was sitting in a plane, heading toward the designated drop point. 10 of Viper Nest’s soldiers were sitting inside the hold, waiting for the jump. Nova was not among them. Instead, she was in the pilot’s seat, her hands on the yoke, her eyes roaming over the various gauges and buttons that made up the plane’s flight instruments. She wasn’t alone in the cockpit. A copilot was ready to intervene in case she made a mistake – which was unlikely – and more importantly, to land the plane once Nova wasn’t there to do it.
‘Drop zone in 90 seconds.’
Her usual robotic voice rang out in the earbuds of everyone within the plane. Her bracer had long ago been enhanced with the ability to tap into Viper Nest’s comm net. More than that, Aaron had gone beyond what had been requested of him – as always – and had turned the bracer into the same sort of portable command center the squad leaders carried with them. Now, the thing could give her the position of each team member, along with a rundown of their current health status, and even a video feed of what their helmet cams were seeing.
After making her announcement, Nova turned to the copilot, Melrik, a bald old man with very dark skin, one of the most experienced soldiers in Viper Nest. They nodded to each other as she released the yoke and he took over control of the airplane. Nova unbuckled the belts holding her in her seat and slipped out of the cockpit, joining the troops in the hold. Silently, she headed for the end of the left row, in the seat left free for her. She picked the weapon and gear she’d left there and secured them to the combat suit she was wearing.
“Drop zone in 60 seconds,” announced Merik’s voice in her earbud.
Nova was just shouldering the parachute and buckling the straps looping around her chest when all the other soldiers stood up in unison and turned toward the back of the plane and the cargo door opening there.
“Get ready, people,” Yuri’s voice rang out in the team’s comms. “We’ll be dropping 1.3 kilometers south of the target, so expect a short jog before we reach it. Command didn’t give any warning of danger anywhere near the drop zone, but stay alert nonetheless.”
The mission this time was to retrieve the black box of one of Aaron’s orbital satellites that had mysteriously come crashing down for reasons unknown – Aaron himself suspected aliens were involved, because there was no other reason for a machine he’d built to experience such a sudden mechanical failure. The satellite had ended up falling in the midst of the mountain range marking the border between Altera and Amidonia, which was well within range for a rapid deployment by Viper Nest.
Flying Dad’s stealth plane to pick up Dad’s satellite wearing Dad’s bodysuits. He and his little scientist friends are just way too prolific…
The plane was a wonder of technology, able to remain hidden from radar or pretty much any other mean of detection at will, while still flying almost as fast as a fighter jet and being large enough to transport several squads of troops.
And as for the combat one-piece suits everyone was wearing, they were even more of a marvel, if that was possible. They were bullet-proof, knife-proof, radiation-reflective, temperature-controlled, and environmentally sealed. They even absorbed and recycled bodily waste to power and fix themselves automatically – one could live wearing them for weeks at a time, if necessary. They served just as nicely to wade through a jungle as to trek across an ice plain as to float through outer space as to dive deep underwater. Yet, they were much thinner and more comfortable than all those nifty features might have presaged. Apparently, Aaron had accomplished all this by weaving hollow fibers through the suit’s fabric that contained microscopic capsules of compressed air and water under something like 20,000 atmospheres, along with a healthy dosage of molecular circuitry that had blown Nova’s mind when he’d shown her the blueprints. The helmet that came along with the suit looked like a rigid, full-face gas mask – at least, from the outside. The inside offered the wearer augmented reality and helpful, informative contextual data on everything around them.
Also, the suits were expensive. Very, very expensive. If Nova tried to convert their price in Earth money, one suit would cost upward of 1.5 billion dollars. It was only after Aaron revealed that fact and Nova saw each member of Viper Nest wearing one like it was nothing that she realized so starkly that her family weren’t just mildly successful commoners.
No, they might not be aristocracy, but they were so obscenely rich that they possessed a non-negligible fraction of all wealth on the planet.
And nobody in the world seemed to even notice that fact. The Storm family still lived like normal people in little Saltwell, when Nova would have expected them to suffer dozens of assassination or kidnapping attempts every day, and journalists and paparazzi to hound their steps, looking for any dirt on them they could use to populate their tabloids or blackmail them.
Maybe that’s the scariest thing about my family. No one knows just how powerful they really are…
“Drop zone in 30 seconds.”
The cargo door opened completely. The ground was faintly visible past the cloud cover, far, far below. The vibrations that shook the plane intensified and spread into Nova’s legs from the metal floor under her feet.
Soon, the red light in front of the soldiers turned green and a buzzer rang out.
Without a word, the soldiers started running down the ramp one after another and all jumped off the plane. Nova followed without hesitation; it wasn’t her first time doing such a thing.
They cut through the air, faces down and arms along their sides to reduce air resistance and dive faster. Nova’s helmet quickly recognized her situation and gave her a countdown of her altitude and an estimate of the time remaining before she became a gory stain on the mountains below. The figures of the other team members were highlighted against the darkness in her vision, with their names printed out next to each of them.
They fell for around 2 minutes before Yuri gave the call to open their parachutes. They’d trained together many times already – even Nova – and landed on the ground in a tight group, without anyone entangling their lines or shattering their legs or impaling themselves on a tree branch, which would all have been equally embarrassing outcomes.
When the parachutes had all been recovered and safely stashed away, Yuri turned to face her teammates and started giving the orders. “All right, we’ll proceed north from here. The target fell into a small valley. Too small for the plane to land, so we’ll have to regroup with it later for extraction. Well, you’ve all read the briefing. Nova, you’ll circle around and find a good hide site with a view down the valley. Provide covering fire in case it’s needed. Nella, you’ll be her flanker.”
“Good. The rest of you, with me to the crash site.”
The two different groups separated and went their own way, Yuri’s directly north, while Nova and Nella headed northeast, following a diagonal up the mountain slope.
Nova figured the order to provide covering fire was a way to keep her out of the fray, in case something unexpected did happen down there, but it also made perfect sense, considering Nova’s skills and the kind of weapon she was carrying.
Nova jogged through the forest. Running at night through heavy woods like these would have been reckless but for her helmet’s night-vision capabilities; Nova could see around herself as if in broad daylight. She also kept an eye on the position and progress of the other team, to match their timing. As she progressed deeper into the forest, her bodysuit’s color quickly turned from jet-black to a mix of dark greens and browns as her environment changed and she configured its camouflage to reflect it. Nella followed after her but kept back a little, staying out of sight and hovering around Nova’s surroundings to protect her from any threat she failed to noticed on her own.
In a few minutes, Nova had found a good vantage point on the valley. A rock outcropping covered in leafy bushes jutted out of the mountain, here. The crown of the trees downslope stretched right up to the edge of the outcropping and hid it – and her – from view rather effectively, while still affording her a clear lane of fire. Satisfied, Nova checked that her weapon’s silencer was still properly screwed on, deployed the bipod below the barrel, then laid prone on the rock, quickly settling her breathing and heartbeat from the exertion of her short run.
She didn’t bother looking through the rifle’s scope, yet; her helmet could zoom in on the scene below perfectly adequately on its own. A little less than a kilometer away, Yuri’s team was already making their approach on the crash site. The falling satellite had punched a crater into the earth, knocking over the rare few trees that had been standing too close to ground zero.
Nova watched as the team spread out and one of them started riffling through the remains of the destroyed satellite.
The wait was brought to an unexpected stop when a new voice cut into the team’s comms. “Command, here. Yuri, we have a visual on a combat helicopter heading fast in your direction. ETA, 30 seconds.”
There was short silence before Yuri’s voice came through in response, clearly irritated but without any hint of flurry. “What the fuck? Command, didn’t you say there were no threats anywhere near the drop zone? Where did that fucking chopper come from?”
“Sorry, Yuri. It must have been camouflaged. We’re rewinding through our recordings to try and find out how and where it was hidden.”
“Haaa… Shit. Preston, how much longer until you get that black box?”
“Apologies, ma’am. I didn’t find it in the case where it was supposed to be. I’m looking through the wreckage, now, but no success so far.”
“Command, did you catch that? Could you have missed someone sneaking here and stealing the target ahead of us?”
“Possible. Our satellites don’t have the resolution required to catch one person crawling in the dirt down on the surface. At least not in that kind of dense forestry. Yuri, no time to talk! Chopper in 10 seconds! Prepare to deal with it.”
“Fine. Everyone on the ground. Don’t forget to fix your camouflage. And safeties off your guns. Get ready.”
A series of acknowledgments followed as Nova watched all the soldiers lie down and disappear from view among the tall grass and bushes that covered the valley. The team below likely couldn’t see it, yet – though they could definitely hear it, by now – but Nova already had a perfect angle on the gunship and on the lines of weapons arrayed beneath its stub wings and the underside of its nose. It looked similar to a Hind D from her old world, though Nova didn’t know its designation in this one.
Better switch to armor-piercing rounds…
The gunship’s fuselage looked thick enough that fire from small arms wouldn’t do much damage to it. In fact, even her own sniper rifle wasn’t an anti-materiel weapon and normally wouldn’t be enough to pierce through it. Fortunately enough, Aaron liked to be ready for any eventuality and had seen to it that Nova followed his philosophy.
As the helicopter appeared over the clearing where the satellite had crashed and Yuri’s team was hiding, Nova quickly unscrewed the silencer from the barrel – Aaron had warned that it might melt when using it in conjunction with his modified ammunition – flicked open the protective cover on the end of her scope, then removed the chambered round and replaced it with another she produced out of one of the pouches at her waist. This particular bullet had a red tip to differentiate it from the others.
Only got 3 of those. Let’s not miss. If I even do get to fire at all…
Lying prone once more and evening out her breathing, Nova thumbed down the safety and looked through her scope, aligning it on the gunship’s cockpit – more specifically, on the head of the pilot sitting inside. Immediately, the display of her helmet changed to give real-time readouts of wind direction and velocity, distance to target, ambient temperature, and relative elevation between her and the gunship’s pilot.
Nova had already zeroed her rifle, yesterday, before leaving for this mission, so the only thing left to do now was to calculate. Once all other factors had been removed, shooting things from long range was only a question of mathematics.
A field in which Nova was uniquely gifted.
With her perfect memory and her brain’s fast processing speed, it took barely a second before she knew how much she needed to angle and tilt her rifle to perfectly reach her target.
Then, she waited for the go-ahead, if it ever came.
The helicopter was hovering above the clearing, a bright searchlight lighting up beneath its bulk and sweeping over the ground, looking for the intruders it clearly knew were here.
Hmm… They were waiting for us. Was this mission a trap from the start?