Chapter 56

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Once the turbulence of the initial launch had settled down, Zoe leaned out from her heavily barred and secured seat to hazard a glance out the tiny window of the rocket ship. It was beautiful. With no clouds or even air to obstruct light, Zoe could see the entirety of the Mainland continent. The Angleyan Home Island jutted out from the sea nearby. It was hundreds of kilometers away from the Mainland, yet from so far out in space the distance looked laughably trivial. Everything did.

Re-entry proved much more violent than the initial launch. Zoe could see a glowing red outline form around the ship as the atmosphere burned against the fast moving craft. She looked around to the thirty soldiers under her command. Sergeant Emma Wagner, the oldest and most experienced of the bunch, somehow had the peace of mind to sleep through the violent voyage with her greying black hair draped over her face like a blindfold. Behind the Sergeant, Corporals Max Braun and Eva Lang were far less docile, fidgeting in their seats while fixated on the glowing red aura surrounding the rapidly falling ship.

"You keep squirming like that, you two might get flung out of the ship before we land," Zoe yelled over the turbulence. The two Corporals stalled for a moment and nodded. "I thought the two of you were proficient with vertical grappling gear. A little turbulence here shouldn't bother you."

"It's a bit different when you have no control over your descent ma'am," Braun replied.

"So you've never been flung or fallen once during your grappling training?" Zoe asked with raised eyebrows.

"Not from outer space," Lang said.

Zoe laughed. "Fair enough."

Once the dots lining the island loomed close enough to appear as treetops, Zoe signalled the pilot sitting in front of her to open the ship's parachute. No one inside could see it, but the jerk of the rocket ship slowing into a gentle glide was enough to reassure them that the parachute was working.

Zoe was the first to unfasten the numerous belts and buckles securing her to her seat. The rest of the soldiers soon followed suit. "Get ready," she said. Though the ship was still swaying somewhat, it was now still enough for her to push open the door without immediately getting sucked out. A harsh blast of wind nearly pushed Zoe off her feet but she planted herself at the last second. Directly in front of her, the towering mountain covering the Heliofont loomed, its summit now towering above the descending ship. What she saw below her, though, was far less majestic.

Where she expected to see lines of Angleyan soldiers guarding the pass into the mountain, Zoe only saw a smoldering pile of corpses and ruined artillery batteries. Time was even scanter than she had initially feared. She jumped out of the ship, swinging one arm back and launching a grappling hook to anchor herself to the slow descending rocketship. When she was low enough, she detached herself and shot another cable into a nearby treetop.

The first thing that hit Zoe upon setting her feet upon the ground was the stench. It was bad enough seeing the gruesome mess from the sky. Smelling the acrid and bitter stench of blackened flesh mixing with burnt gunpowder sent a jolt of rage and desperation through her body. "Bauer beat us here. We need to get to him now!"

Zoe hurled a flash grenade into the massive cave before ducking behind the mountainside. The deafening explosion, along with the dazzling burst of light, was sure to have disoriented any attackers lying in ambush. Zoe rushed in and, as she expected, saw six soldiers in Dannic uniforms stumbling around. She drew her pistol and put a bullet in each of their heads before they could recover and sprinted on.

More enemies ran forward, guns blazing. The intricate, uneven surface of the crevices in the cavern proved literally life saving. Zoe ducked behind one wall while remembering where the four women had been standing. The gunfire subsided slightly as the enemy soldiers' guns went empty. Zoe leaped out and shot two in the head while reaching for a submachine gun with her empty left hand. The two survivors rushed forward with their guns blasting on automatic fire. Zoe simply ducked into an army crawl and blasted their legs into useless shards of flesh and bone with her submachine gun. She rolled onto her feet and tore the empty clip off the gun before reloading.

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