It was the nameless pilot and his intrepid navigator who took the brunt of the burn. The aircraft had spun with such verve that its nose titled forward and was engulfed in flames in tandem of its shredding and blazing contact with the ground. The brilliance of the stars, like celestial orbs amongst the silvery radiance of the astral plane, nested in the velvety blackness of the sky and watched over the procession of six stony soldiers clumsily parachuting some fifty yards from the downed craft.
Vincent was the first to land and tumble forward, quickly regaining himself and then lifting his T-38 rifle, its action insulated and bolted securely for maximum accuracy, training the sights off in the distance. The view from his thermal scope lifted red-hot figures scampering in the opposite direction of him. He trained his sights on the largest one and fired one shot to his head. Brain matter flew in the air and he dropped as if gravity didn’t exist in a parallel universe. Vincent lowered his rifle and let the others go. Nothing was in the foreground just yet. If needed, the T-38 contained a shotgun barrel attachment for close quarters combat that could be used for deadly efficiency once they reached Hong Kong proper.
Francois was the next to land, except with a thud. He may have been graceful in speech, but the fluidity of airborne drops eluded him. His blue visor vibrated with static for a moment but then assumed its usual bold color. CO Lyle, Douglas, Hendricks, and Pierce filled out the frame almost in unison, barreling forward as they landed on the scorched earth, completing the infrastructure of the unit. Not that it ultimately may matter. The Southern Pacific Empire was on the verge of catastrophic collapse after a string of concerted, strategic air bombings and swift defeats, but they maintained a viable resistance and still had the potential to launch a thermonuclear weapon that could obliterate London, Paris, or New York City in seconds. Why they hadn’t chosen to use it yet was clear: win the war of attrition and stave off an ultimate defeat to live and fight another day, year, or decade.
“Everyone checks in ASAP. Now.”
Lyle’s gruff command rang through their MC’s; micro-communicators surgically embedded under the temples of their head, their fiber cables no more than a nanometer in diameter and hooked on either side of more than a billion synapses of neurons. Each of their brains registered the communication, and the MC’s had an auto-translation feature if one of them spoke another language. When switched on, anyone who spoke could be heard by all the others, ensuring a transparent communication that precluded the possibility of furtive discourses that may prove harmful to the unit’s constitution. Of course, any one of them could switch the MC’s off and talk freely, but there was nothing that could be done about that.
The haze of undulating smoke seeping upward from the burnt wreckage obscured their vision, but Vincent could make out the thermal outline of Francois, who had landed closer to him than the others. “Alive and well,” Vincent reported in.
“Mind intact,” Francois reported.
“All good,” Hendricks, Douglas, and Pierce said in agreement, all one after the other. “What’s your position?” Lyle asked.
Vincent checked an old, traditional compass and watch wrapped around his wrist over his black fatigues.
“Me and Francois are around seventy-five meters from the crash site, over.”
The putrid stench of fresh slaughter corrupted the air, its crisp chills undisguised even with the searing fires just around the bend of a small garden with artificial vegetation.
Lyle’s breathing, more reminiscent of an animal grunt than somebody taking a breath of smoky air, crowded Vincent’s ears. He realized the other four team members must be hearing the same thing. Lyle sounded sickly, as if his mask wasn’t filtering the poisonous particles in the air properly.
“We’ll meet you and Francois one thousand meters north of the crash site. If possible, do not fire your weapon or engage any hostiles unless they fire first. I repeat, do not engage willingly.”
“Over,” Francois and Vincent reported simultaneously. Vincent surveyed the land outstretched in front of them, looking back at Francois and balling his left hand in a fist. Francois did the same. They then both shut off their communications feed to the other four members.
“I will presume that our vainglorious captain responded to your chauvinistic brute force with disapproval, Vincent,” Francois said with frivolity, a wide smile under his mask, eyes bright with unfettered cynical humor, awaiting dispensation on whoever would entertain his arrogance.
A ripple of lightning streaked across the sky, angry and electric. Vincent craned his neck up and trained his eyes on the low-lying clouds, floating across and behind ghostly wisps of elevating smoke, the air the stench of sickly bile.
“You admire the vagaries of nature,” Francois said as a matter of fact, as was his wont. Chatter crackled over the communications channel. Though their own conversation could not be heard by the others, they could hear what Lyle and the others would be saying either to each other or themselves.
Vincent remained quiet, eyes slightly wide beneath the violet optic slits. The coal black hue of his gas mask hummed lightly with each breath, each breath taken as if it would be his last. They had landed among the dead, which was even more confusing to him in the aftermath of a near fatal missile strike. Nothing was known of their mission or their presence outside of the most secretive cabals of black operations within the Alliance. In lieu of a retort to Francois, who stood kicking at the gravel underfoot impatiently and eager for some sort of voluble conversation, Vincent raised his rifle and advanced toward the rendezvous point. Francois saw Vincent’s movement and followed.
Thermal signatures relayed through their headgear’s display flared bright red all around their focal points. Everything was burning, yet everything was dead. It was an agglomeration of deep blue, purple, bright orange, yellow, and red. It was a dizzying sight, and after a minute of close scanning Vincent switched off the thermal monitoring system of his headgear. All the operative combat suits were manufactured by a Omega Defense Systems, a subsidiary of its parent company, Omega Energy. Vincent couldn’t appreciate the irony right now.
Ten minutes passed in slow procession, their movement the speed of a funeral cortege bearing a black casket to be laid six feet under, never to be in sight of human eyes for the remainder of time. Finally, they reached the others. Lyle was at the center and surrounded by the others who stood motionless, almost under a spell like fanciful pylons who could turn animate at the snap of Lyle’s fingers. It wasn’t far from the truth. Save Vincent.
The cadre convened, all on high alert. The six were like amnestied delinquents out on bail in a venomous land to be hunted for sport. But the sable sky was auspicious and gave them the aspect of a confident and insidious plague bent on hell driven reckoning. Lyle eyed each man intently, draping them with an intense hard and crusty as rusted iron. At nearly seven feet tall, Lyle stood out among them, monolithic, a muscled spire.
“I expect all of you to be in constant communication with me. And each other,” Lyle began, his voice glum but steady. “The downed drop ship was to be our means of extraction but that should not deter our purpose, for which we lot have been ordained to fulfill.”
The men, who had all upturned their luminous visors, nodded like cultist acolytes attired in black. Vincent kept his velvet visor over his eyes, refusing to bore his own bulbs through Lyle’s and kept his gas mask over his mouth. Breathed ponderously. Yet, they all had their gas masks still strapped around their mouths and jaws and bottom cheeks, for the air assumed lethal dangers, pooling it like unpredictable cataracts, the source of that perilous flow seeming to fall in the books of history some eons ago.
“Doesn’t look so bad,” Douglas proclaimed. “I’ve seen bad. This ain’t bad. Hell, I’ve trudged through muck mixed with blood. Stepped over bodies torched to charred meat. These people we’re up against? Just a bunch of loons. I’ll kill every one of them without batting an eye.” Douglas built up a ball of curdled saliva and spat into the inside of his mask, where the enzymatic liquid was sucked through the NBC filter, NBC standing for Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical.
Vincent avoided speaking up, for speaking against the unit and its commander would be akin to disintegrating a highly organized network; i.e., mission failure. NATO, since disbanded and its constituent countries now agglomerated into a vague framework lacking solution creativity, issued the black stone respirators as part of standard procedure, where soldiers are sent to areas deemed uninhabitable, i.e., Hong Kong.
They were due to head northwest and push down the snaky slopes into Yau Tong, where they would then traverse the broken asphalt roads and highways hugging Kowloon Bay around twelve kilometers into downtown Hong Kong. Infiltrating the nexus of the city could leave them marooned on all sides by something wholly unfamiliar and inimical, and dead cavalcade may be thrust upon them through strange agency by way of the open air next to the bay.
It was like choosing between death by drowning or conflagration. A din of superstition had filtered through from thrifty after-action reports by the Infinity Unit sent in six months earlier. Some of them seemed to sketch their mission like a pastiche, for every member of Infinity would suffer random paroxysms and wax philosophic fragments logically devoid. They were highly intelligent operatives with skill-sets in several scientific disciplines, of choice psychology, intransigent mentally against all variants of delirium or fragility. And yet they had been reduced to brainless diarrhea by the time of their mission’s terminus. Weeks and months went by. Their sanity was eventually regained, yet they remained plagued by bouts of some sightless, obscure, incurable malignity. Intangible impairments and hallucinatory divinations fashioned from ragged gray matter.
“Rules of engagement?” Hendricks asked, amused. Douglas and Chou both laughed in unison and Hendricks joined in on the frivolity. Lyle remained stone faced, his visage piercing and intractable. Vincent smiled but none of them could see. Francois slapped him hard on the shoulder.
“Monsieur Vincent, you look like you have seen the future. Is there something you aren’t telling us? Are we to end up like Infinity?”
At this remark the unit was silenced. Lyle cleared his throat and flipped his verdant visor back over his eyes, shielding them behind a frosty sibylline gaze.
“I don’t find that funny, Francois. Another crack of that insipid nature and I will crack your skull wide open. None of us will end up like Infinity. Do I make myself clear?”
Francois momentarily recoiled but then took a step toward Lyle and closed his fingers in a tight fist, pressing down upon an incorporated control embedded in the mechanism of his combat gloves. Wisps of translucent lightning flared around the palm as Francois extended his fingers back outward as if he were the sole possessor of the frenzied irrational wonders of the Earth. Crackling shards of electrical discharge hovered and vibrated above the glove’s Kevlar meshed plating. Lyle cocked his head to the side in apparent disbelief. His weapon began to glow a hue of hot amber, primed.
Chou stepped between Lyle and Francois, hands outstretched in either’s direction. “Hey! Guys! Holy shit, relax! We ain’t here to kill each other for fuck’s sake.” Vincent and the other three remained stoic at the threshold of death.
“We are not specifically here to kill anybody but if our CO talks to me like that again I will fry him to ashes and claim in my after-action report that he was beset by the same madness that infected Infinity,” Francois said between clenched teeth.
Chou’s eyes widened and now he too went to confront Francois, but Lyle stopped him with a prudent clutch of his broad shoulder. “It’s fine, Pierce. Let me reason with the Francophile.”
Lyle stepped forward and around Chou, both forms bulky like ossified vestiges caked under a mile of bedrock before reanimation into this erupted world surging with sour intoxicants at the seams. All six in the unit were like combatants against the wild vitality of the earth.
“I seem to have misunderstood you, Francois. Accept my apologies.” Lyle removed his finger from his weapon’s trigger guard. The hot amber hue faded. The others were standing in a statuesque semicircle behind him. Lyle lifted his visor to face them.
“We are all a team here. Do you understand me? Our innate predilection for violence, that same inclination that enmeshes itself in the marrow of the human condition, has precluded much of humanity from engaging in viable commerce or healthy conference over millennia.”
Francois pressed down with his thumb upon the control of his glove and the electric antagonism reared back into the void. He shook his head and trained his eyes in the direction of downtown Hong Kong.
“But remember who we are and what we are here to do,” Lyle continued with a dexterous flourish of his hands, spindly like mutant appendages each containing a mind of its own. “We are at the forefront of a dying conflict that has left substantial portions of this planet to assume the pathetic attitudes of indigents in desolation. We will proceed discreetly and with tact. The rules of engagement are to be followed. Do not fire unless fired upon. We must be silence personified.”
“Or they’ll chew us to bits,” Hendricks muttered sardonically.
“Whoever they are,” Douglas added.
Vincent had a hunch of what they were to find but withheld those opaque findings of his intuition. Lyle ended his theatrical gesticulations and slid his visor back over his inflexible visage. Francois began to trudge on their preordained path due west. The others followed.