Fortunately, finding Yuri’s team when it wanted to remain in hiding would not be an easy feat. Even using infrared sensors wouldn’t bring any results, as the suits concealed the body heat of their wearer from prying eyes – prying sensors.
After a few minutes of fruitless search, a man’s drawling voice cracked from a loudspeaker attached to the gunship, strident enough to drown out even the roar of the rotors. “Did that bitch Marian come here on her own or did she send her goons to do it? Whatever. I know you’re hiding in there, little snakes. Why don’t you show yourselves and make this easier on all of us?”
Oh, my. Insulting Mom like this. Looks like someone is tired of living.
However, through her scope, Nova could see both the pilot and copilot clearly enough to distinguish facial expressions. And neither of them were talking.
Her right hand released its grip on her rifle and typed her observations on her bracer, transmitting them to all the team’s members.
‘Speaker not in helicopter. Scanning forest for more threats.’
“Got it,” Yuri’s voice replied. “Thanks, Nova.”
Nova wondered for a moment on how her need for brevity and mechanical voice would probably make anyone tapping into their communication think she really was a robot, then let her helmet switch consecutively through a series of different imaging systems, from night vision to infrared to electromagnetic.
The others probably weren’t able to see them, lying prone amidst tall grass, but Nova had a good vantage point, and quickly, she found what she was looking for. Soldiers in military uniforms, carrying a variety of heavy weapons, advancing carefully from the forest toward the edge of the clearing. Every time she found one more, Nova let her helmet’s AI tag them, so that the rest of the team would be able to see their positions on their own helmet’s augmented-reality display, even through obstacles.
“27 of them? Well, fuck. And what kind of unit is only composed of heavy weapons specialists? Those guys definitely knew we were the ones who’d be coming for the downed satellite.”
Yuri seemed even more annoyed than before, but her voice was still just as calm, as if she’d been in this sort of situation a thousand times before – which she might have, for all Nova knew. She didn’t seem at all affected by the fact that they were outnumbered by enemies who carried weapons that would hurt them even through their combat suits.
Nova continued checking the forest as the voice from the loudspeaker demanded their surrender once more. She seemed to have gotten all of them already, though. By luck, they were all coming from the same direction as the chopper’s – that is, straight into Nova’s line of fire.
Still, just in case they’d tried to go for an encirclement and Nova had simply missed it…
‘Nella. Can’t find any more. Check rear, please.’
“Roger that,” Nella’s voice answered an instant later. “And don’t you worry, little Nova. I believe I speak for all of us here today when I say that, when you’re wearing that skintight combat suit, it’s a true pleasure to check out your rear. I confess I must have done so 4 or 5 times already, during the flight here. Well, rear and front, really. Scenery’s equally good on both sides.”
A slew of schoolgirl-like giggles flooded into Nova’s earbud from everyone else on the team. It was good that the helmets prevented their voices from leaking out to the outside, or they’d all have given away their position to the enemy.
But then another voice broke into the radio chatter and cut the giggles short. “Nella, did I just hear you make a pass at my daughter?”
A heavy silence instantly filled Viper Nest’s communications as those battle-hardened operatives felt death breathing down their necks, before Nella found her tongue again. “Oh, ah, um, no, not at all. Of course not. Scenery’s equally good on both sides. The valley to the north and those… trees… to the south. So vibrant and green and… woody. By the way, Boss, I didn’t know you were overseeing this mission?”
Muffled laughter could be heard from the team in the valley as they listened to Nella’s pathetic attempts at excuses. Everyone was ignoring the hovering, heavily armed combat helicopter still tirelessly shouting imprecations at them. It looked like the rude idiot on the other end of that loudspeaker was reluctant to sound the charge against Viper Nest, despite all his bluster. But even with the team’s jokes somewhat breaking the tension, a quick check through the video feeds from everyone’s helmets revealed that their weapons were steadily trained on the enemies Nova had tagged for them, never flagging in their attention.
“If it was just you guys, I wouldn’t care enough to stay up late at night and do this,” Marian said, “but if Nova is taking part, of course I would do it.”
“Boss, I protest at this blatantly unfair treatment. You’ll have my resignation on your desk by tomorrow!”
“I don’t have a desk, actually.”
“Foiled again! I guess I’ll need to keep working, then.”
The good humor was broken when the loudspeaker upped the level of the threats it was promising. “All right, that’s it! I give you motherfuckers 20 seconds to show yourselves, or I will blow your dirty, wrinkly, swampy asses sky-high!”
“That’d be a problem,” Yuri said on the team’s comms. “Hwarang, do you have a shot?” she asked the only member of the team carrying the sort of heavy weaponry susceptible to break through the gunship’s armor.
“…I kinda do, but it ain’t clean,” Hwarang replied after a small hesitation. “I’m in a bad spot, here. I’ll be shootin’ it right where its armor’s strongest. Not sure if that’ll bring it down in one hit.”
“Hmm. Anybody got a better idea?”
‘Clean shot on pilot. Take it?’
For a few seconds after Nova’s announcement, there was only a pregnant silence in her earbud. Even Yuri seemed hesitant to make a decision, now. Nova knew why, of course. Despite it being the most optimal solution at the moment, they – Viper Nest and Marian herself – didn’t want Nova to shoot someone. It was something they had always tried to avoid to the best of their ability, the very reason they always had her stay back and out of the fighting.
Nova herself understood their concerns. If she had truly been nothing more than a 15-year-old girl, she also would have worried about being traumatized by the experience. Taking another human’s life wasn’t exactly a casual matter, after all.
But she had, after all, almost 70 years of mental experience. And those 70 years of mental experience made Nova very much aware of the fact that, overall, she really wasn’t a very good person.
Rather, she was an intensely selfish person. She cared about herself and about the people she liked. But everyone else could die for all she cared. Anyone unrelated to her were only part of the faceless, nameless masses. And Nova was a firm believer that humans, deep down, were incapable of caring for those masses, for anyone standing outside of their little circle of acquaintances.
So she didn’t give to charity, and she felt very little sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden. She didn’t care about the poor or the oppressed. She didn’t care about distant wars or people starving to death in third-world countries.
At least, she didn’t for as long as she wasn’t there to see it personally. At which point the faceless, nameless masses would tend to gain faces and names, and her conscience would needle her to actually care about them, in spite of her will not to.
Still, what it all came down to, was that, while she had never killed anyone before, she felt sure that she could put a bullet in that helicopter pilot’s brain without flinching. If the choice was between his life, and the lives of her friends, to Nova, it wasn’t even a choice.
Indeed, right now, to her, taking that man’s life was truly only a matter of calculation. The mathematics of a bullet in flight. There were no moral considerations attached to it.
“Eleven! Ten! Nine!” the loudspeaker was shouting.
Keeping her eye on her scope, Nova adjusted the angle of her rifle a little downward – her father’s armor-piercing ammunition would likely have a flatter trajectory than her usual loadout – then her fingers flicked over her bracer’s keyboard. Marian and Yuri still seemed unable to give the word, so Nova gave it for them.
‘Taking the shot.’
It was a bit jarring, how fast the mood on the comm net had swung from happy and humorous to grim and shocked, but Nova didn’t let it bother her. She needed to be calm, right now. Precise. Surgical.
Her finger came to rest on the trigger, and she took a deep breath. Nova could hear the loudspeaker man count down, “Six… Five… Four…”, but her hands were steady and unhurried as she cut off the audio input of her helmet and was suddenly plunged into silence.
She slowly exhaled all the air in her lungs.
Marian’s voice came into her earbud, just a tad too late.
In the gap between her heartbeats, Nova gently squeezed the trigger.
She didn’t hear anything, but she felt the recoil hit her shoulder. The shockwave rocked her body as the propellant in Aaron’s custom bullet exploded and sent its projectile on its deadly course.
The next instant, Nova could see through her scope the cracked glass of the gunship’s canopy, and the bloody, messy ruin that had, a moment ago, been the pilot’s head.
Nova watched dispassionately as the man slumped in his seat, taking the joystick with him and sending the helicopter veering off to the side uncontrollably. The co-pilot behind him was panicking, warring against his equipment, but Nova’s bullet must have punched through the gunship’s electronics because he didn’t even manage to make the slightest of dents in the disaster waiting for him. Out of control, the helicopter tilted all the way onto its side, its blades perpendicular to the ground, and crashed through the line of trees bordering the clearing. It uprooted trees and flung soil through the sky as it bounced on the ground, parts of it flaking and falling off everywhere, gouging deep trenches into the earth, before finally sliding to a stop, dark smoke rising from several spots over its body.
In the meantime, Yuri’s team didn’t stay idle.
As soon as Nova had confirmed the completion of her task, Yuri and the others had opened fire on the targets they’d chosen. Quickly a dozen of them were down, but while Viper Nest knew where their enemies stood, thanks to Nova’s tags, the attacking mercenaries were still blind – all of Yuri’s team were still lying on the ground, relying only on their helmets’ cues to aim through the tall grass hiding them from view.
As the firefight below heated up, Nova switched back to anti-personnel rounds and centered her scope on a new target.
“Nova, stop!” Marian’s voice cut in. “That’s enough! Yuri and her team can handle the rest.”
This time, Nova didn’t push her luck and listened to orders. Her mother’s voice didn’t sound too steady, right now, so she felt it best not to go against her wishes again.
Instead, she reestablished the outside audio input of her helmet and gathered the spent shell casing of Aaron’s special bullet – snipers didn’t leave traces if they could help it, she’d been taught. Then, she screwed the silencer back onto her rifle’s barrel, the gloves of her suit preventing her from burning her fingers with the residual heat emanating from it.
With her helmet’s assistance, she still kept an eye on the process of the battle. From what she could catch, one member of Viper Nest had been hit, seemingly by pure chance, from wild and random return fire by his opponent. The soldier’s suit had held against the gunfire it had suffered, but impenetrability didn’t necessarily imply a dampening of the impact. As it was, heavy weapon fire had translated into a good number of broken bones. Healable, but the man would definitely be out of commission for a while. Still, if his head had been struck, he would probably have died on the spot, so he couldn’t be called unlucky.
Everything seemed to be going fine. Most of the enemies she’d tagged had already winked out of her helmet’s display. Nova shouldered her rifle and jumped off the outcropping where she’d taken position. She’d fired without using a silencer and feared a vindictive or vengeful idiot would try to circle around and take her out, if she stayed here too long. It was unlikely, but it was better to be careful.
‘Nella. Changing positions.’
“Roger that,” Nella replied with a more subdued and solemn voice than before. “I’m right behind you.”