Chapter Twenty-Seven

Awareness of firefight dynamics were fast becoming obsolete as Link continued to return fire with his gunsword, his grim countenance a reflection of the fact that gunfire seemed to be directed in every which direction, and traditional concerns of cover were being made obsolete by the mere volume and fire and its corresponding ricochets. Made worse was how he and Jessica were clearly humans, and therefore clearly standing out of the crowd as ripe targets, for which he was fairly content to stay beneath something solid and let Veteran and Driver do the fighting, a sentiment likely inspired towards his lack of awe and trust towards his allies of convenience as the four shot their way out of chamber after chamber in an attempt to return to their IFV.

It was fortunate that Veteran and Driver clearly knew what they were doing. They made sense of the chaos, knew ally from enemy, and maneuvered in ways that gave them the maximum tactical advantage, presumably surrounding them with allies that neither Link nor Jessica could identify, an issue that caused the Hylian with no shortage of frustration as they charged out of another hallway, guns blazing while Link remained low and slid right behind an unoccupied pillar supporting a hallway that looked the size of a townhouse lobby. It appeared as if hostile targets were intermixed from allied or neutral entities, because as Veteran and Driver moved behind cover and fired with their KS-74 rifles, their shots were irregular in direction, indicating the constant picking of targets. The Joint Intelligence agent, on the other hand, was simply caught flatfooted, watching everyone shoot each other with no idea of which side to pick…if there was even a side to begin with.

At least until there was a slight shimmer of his sunglasses, and suddenly Link watched certain zorans begin to glow red through the polarized lenses. "Highlighting possible hostile zorans in red based on data collected from potential identifying markers, directions in gunfire dynamics," announced Durandara, having been surprisingly quiet over the last few minutes in what Link hoped was an increased focus on gathering data on what was effectively the unknown. "This should give you an easier time."

Thank goodness for that. It had taken weeks of studying and testing for Link to be able to memorize some of the tribes and ethnic groups of the Gerudo peoples, and then recognize their identifying markers on sight when it came to traditional clothing. With his accumulative experiences with the zorans still measuring in the hour, he did not want to labor under the assumption that he was somehow able to pick out who was hostile and who was – if not friendly – not inclined to shoot him on sight.

What the zorans lacked in tactical aptitude, they made up for what Link could only compare to fanaticism. Cover was disregarded for optimum shooting positions and timing, cover only being considered during inevitable reloads. Instead of waiting for the reloads, the Hylian instead simply waited for bullets to sound like they weren't headed in his direction before popping out of cover, firing off a few rounds, then ducking back under and maneuvering to a different position to join Veteran and Driver. It was a fairly successful formula, and Link managed to flank two zorans, swiftly turning their heads into bloody messes before disappearing into the maze of concrete that got him another step closer towards their exit strategy. His two zoran allies didn't seem to reprimand him or attempt in any way to correct him, so Link guessed that Durandara's friend-or-foe identification was working out for the better.

Or, alternatively, the two just didn't care whom the humans were shooting at. Link could never tell with these zorans.

Jessica benefitted from neither sunglasses upon which a HUD could be projected nor AI identification assistance; refraining from shooting in fear of potential friendly fire, her bewildered expression as she watched Link fire back was both obvious and understandable. "Do you know who to fire at?" she asked, looking a little incredulous, if not astounded.

Unheard by the MICO officer, Durandara clearly prioritized Link's survival over the well-being of their allies of convenience as she sarcastically muttered into Link's ear, "Do you think anyone cares?"

Curiously, there didn't seem to be many other groups that looked to be evacuating the area. The zorans the four had run into so far seemed more like guards or zorans in defensive positions getting in the way. Two possibilities occurred to Link even as they disengaged from enemy harassing fire and moved through the next corridor with efficient speed: That they were amongst the first zoran groups to make their way to where they had left their vehicles instead of being bogged down by firefights; and that part of this violence had been premeditated even without Valentine interference, and some zoran tribes had simply been waiting for the shooting to break out before degenerating into a full-on firefight.

Some validation was given to Link's theory when the four finally arrived at the large chamber where they had parked their APC; the underground room was largely empty, save a few zorans here and there that either didn't notice the arrival of the two humans and two zorans, or simply didn't care. In the absence of a crowd, the presence of several other military vehicles – likely commandeered by the zorans to get to this meeting point on time – also became obvious. Most of them were APCs like theirs, but there were also humvees and IFVs, as well as another vehicle than caught Veteran's eye even as Link and Driver quickly made for their original APC.

"Wait," he demanded, reaching out to grab Driver by the shoulder, stopping the younger zoran and then pointing at another vehicle parked not too far away, a Valentine light-armored vehicle that certainly looked faster and lighter than the APC they had been riding on previously. "Take the LAV."

Driver paused for a split-second, apparently to think it over, then nodded grimly, moving over to the vehicle they were planning to hijack. Its rear hatch was open; he seemed to be prepared to step through it, but the sound of shouts from within, combined with Driver instantly sidestepping to the side of the LAV's opening, seemed to indicate that there were zorans of the unfriendly sort inside…a dilemma Driver instantly alleviated by shoving his KS-74 around the corner and randomly spraying bullets on full automatic into the vehicle. Within such confines, accuracy didn't matter, and it didn't take long for the zoran to reload, step into the vehicle, and throw two bullet-riddled bodies out.

Link, in the meantime, had wasted no time in jumping into the old APC anyways for the single purpose of pulling Epona out in preparation to mount it into the LAV. He caught and ignored both a stare from Veteran and a sneer from Driver. In fact, this was preferable; it was better that the zorans did not know of or otherwise underestimated the reconnaissance motorcycle's capabilities. Moving Epona into the LAV, Link could see what Veteran saw this as a better choice for a getaway vehicle. It looked only a little less well-armored than the APC they had ridden in, and while it ran on four sets of wheels instead of treads, it was likely to achieve a top speed of somewhere along the lines of a hundred kilometers per hour. More importantly – at least from the front and bank – the LAV's profile was smaller than the APC, giving enemies chasing them a small target by which to hit.

Driver had already jumped into the driver's canopy by the time Link managed to pull Epona into the LAV; Jessica and Veteran provided covering fire as the vehicle's engines warmed up, and jumped inside the moment they were ready to go, closing the hatch behind them. Epona's weight shifted inside the LAV even as Driver took off immediately, the screeching of the vehicle's wheels audible even within the armored confines; it took Jessica jumping over and steadying the motorcycle for Epona to not tip and crash against the inner walls of the LAV. The acceleration was no joke for an armored vehicle: The LAV was fast and nimble.

But theirs were not the only tires screeching across sewer concrete and pavement. Other sets of wheels vying for friction could be heard echoing in the distance even within the confines of the LAV, a sound which was soon corroborated with the sudden and loud staccato clanking of bullets ricocheting off armor, and – despite being protected by metallic protection encasing their vehicle – Link and Jessica instinctively flinched as high-caliber machine gun bullets bounced off their LAV. It was not difficult to deduce that they now had pursuers…and, if Link had to guess, specifically those of a zoran disposition. Whatever their grievances they had towards Veteran and Driver's alliance with Link and Jessica were apparently strong enough for the enemy to give chase even in the chaos of a Valentine incursion.

"Someone get on the damn guns!" Driver snarled from the front as he made another emergency turn, the sudden bump and shifting of weight telling Link that they were going up a circular ramp. Almost immediately, Jessica was moving up to the interior control suite that manned the primary chain gun of the light armored vehicle, the weapon system's computer screen lighting up with a targeting system. Link made to stand up to climb up to where the coaxial machine gun was perched atop the LAV, but a strong hand kept him in his seat, Veteran already moving past him and climbing up to the turret, his unexpressed intent for Link to stay out of the line of fire obvious.

"Head north," Veteran said loudly to Driver – surprisingly, in Interlingua – over the sounds of battle as he ascended up to the LAV's weapon. "Jehtu's warbands will provide assistance." And, with that, his upper body disappeared as the zoran crewed the machine gun perched atop the LAV.

It deprived Link of a view outside as he realized he was forced to sit with a thumb up his ass, but that was likely irrelevant; for now, his entire world rattled with the sound of unending gunfire.

Computer screens aligned against the walls and the consoles displayed dozens of video feeds, graphs, readouts, numbers. Keeping track of all of them at once at real-time while commanding a military force taking part in a fast-moving operation required a level of skill refined to the point where it could be described as art.

Between the curtains of blond hair that framed her face, Juno's eyes skirted across the screens with habitual movements that spoke of a master possessing ample familiarity with command. Dim red lights reflected against irises, spoke of a priority command situation; the crimson hue that replaced pristine white brightness cut down on possible reflections on the screen, emphasized the glow of the monitors, and reminded everyone within the vehicle of the urgent strategic situation.

It was here from the nerve center of Valentine operations in the area that Juno quickly surveyed the situation from dozens of readouts. Infantry forces were making progress in the underground sewer system where the zorans were hiding. Resistance was fierce, but superior equipment and positioning allowed for the negation of most enemy advantages. The number of forces in the area wasn't quite sufficient to enforce a complete cordon of the area, but specific routes in and out of the city were locked down; in the event that an escape route could be detected, pursuit forces could instantly be dispatched to run them down. A utility helicopter was on station to provide aerial reconnaissance, permitting an overhead visual of the area of operations to be matched up with a digital map of the region.

Via headsets, Juno's command and control subordinates coordinated the grand strategy of the search-and-destroy operations with methodical grace, maneuvering fireteams and squads swiftly through the underground while reallocating forces to either reinforce the cordon or to cut off zoran stragglers. The major's ears selectively filtered through the radio chatter, picking out the most important bits.

"Dagger Three-Two Actual, Terminal. Be advised, confirmed hostiles to be in possession of AP ordinance, recommend you keep an eye out in close-quarters for…"

"Lion Two-One, Blaze Three-Two reports possible IEDs ahead of your position. Defend your intersection; we're sending a hotel-kilo team your way in…"

"Negative, Lion Four-Four Actual, use of explosive ordinance not cleared at this time. Hunker down, we're rerouting reinforcements…"

Beside Juno, Steven tried hard not to let his awe show too obviously. He, too, was a major alongside the rest of the 1st Special Investigative Unit, but his experiences had strictly been confined to the gathering, organization, and processing of classified information. The kind of command and control Juno was running was something he never would've thought would cross paths with his career, ever. He had undergone related training exercises as a commissioned officer, of course, and it was thanks to that training that he was barely able to keep up, but it was an overwhelming experience that threatened to leave him in the dust even as he struggled to follow. Juno couldn't have been many years older than he was; where did she accumulate this kind of experience?

"Umbra One-Three, be advised, reports of biological threats on levels three and four have been confirmed as false. Begin your sweep of the sector…"

"Longbow Six, Terminal. White Four has surplus AT ordinance enroute to your location. Check fire to your northwest and…"


"Contact with Blaze Two-Two lost, status unknown, last reported to be pinned by enemy fire. Gunslinger Two-Five, rerouting you and a hotel-kilo team to Blaze Two-Two's last known location…"


The familiar female voice snapped Steven out of his cocoon of concentration, and he tried not to look too embarrassed as his happed twitched in the direction of Major Juno out of surprise. She tried not to look too irritated as she pursed her lips, hands folded behind her back imposingly. "Sorry," he muttered.

Juno elected to ignore the apology. "Any ideas on what exit strategies our target has?"

Steven rubbed his chin in thought. "I was transported on-site via light armored vehicle," he recalled, his mind working both his short-term memory and his analytical skills. "I had visual contact with around a dozen more, I believe, but my guess is that there is at least one other 'garage' where the zorans stashed their vehicles. Evidence points to the possibility that the zorans have either been hijacking or salvaging both Hylian and Gerudo ground transport. I didn't see any Gerudo vehicles; they're probably too far away from regional zoran influence."

The blond major nodded. "Any chances they'll escape on foot?"

"Possible, but would the zorans gain any tactical advantage from doing so?"

"You're the one all buddy-buddy with the zorans. I'm asking you."

Deciding to chalk that remark up to the stress of command, Steven let it slide as he responded, "Then not that I can think of. Conventional tactics would suggest using vehicles to break the cordon, especially since there have been no signs of reinforcements outside the city. They're encircled, and the only way out is to break through. Light armor would make the most sense."

Before Steven was even finished with his explanation, Juno was already striding across the corridor formed between the consoles of the command center, leaning over one of her subordinates. "All units are to prioritize enemy vehicles as secondary targets," she ordered. "Commandeer them, destroy them, whatever they see fit. Do not permit the enemy any exit strategies. Make sure the cordon is prepared to intercept any vehicles with AT ordinance."

"Yes, ma'am," replied the officer, swiftly relaying the orders down the chain of command. And, for several seconds, that seemed to be the end of things, until the officer turned back around, reported, "Ma'am, several squads have reported in possible retreating vehicles already. We're still trying to get an update on approximate number."

Scowling, Juno configured her headset for a moment so she could speak personally to a specific unit on the field instead of relaying it through her subordinates. "Super Six-One, Terminal. Ground forces are reporting possible victors commandeered by enemy forces attempting to leave the area of operations. Can you see them from up there?"

Super Six-One was their utility helicopter that maintained aerial surveillance over the area. The forces at Astric didn't have much in the way of air support, and all other air assets were being prioritized for frontline defensive action, meaning the only air unit Juno had on hand was the same helicopter that had transported her to the area to begin with. Recently refueled, Super Six-One would likely have another hour, maybe an hour and a half of operational flight time. It wasn't Juno's first choice for air reconnaissance and support – an attack helicopter or helicopter gunship would've been much more preferable – but she conceded it was better than nothing.

A crackle in the headsets was the prelude to a reply. Steven shared the same command frequency, and received Super Six-One's reply alongside Juno. "Terminal, Super Six-One. We have visual of unidentified victors northbound. Moving to get a better angle."

The command vehicle did not have a "main screen", and both majors had to move further down the corridor to a sufficiently large screen that showed a map of the region in conjunction with Super Six-One's video feed. The screen was characteristically green for footage being captured by a camera on nightvision mode, the resolution low and the quality fuzzy. It took somewhere over two minutes, in fact, for Super Six-One to finally achieve an angle where its onboard camera could spot the targets in question, and Juno and Steven likely would've missed them entirely had high-caliber gunfire not lit up the abandoned streets below with great flashes of light made prominent through a light-sensitive device.

"There," Steven pointed, his finger trailing a procession of armored vehicles speeding across the screen. Or perhaps "procession" was not the best term for it, not when the guns of the vehicles – most of the lightly-armored, ranging from APCs to LAVs to IFVs to humvees – were blazing at each other in dueling bursts while their drivers haphazardly maneuvered past wrecked vehicles and weaved through angry hot lines of tracers on the streets. Through the green hue of the screen, the tracers were barely visible, especially with each burst at the muzzles of each gun momentarily turning the vicinity into blind white flashes. The computer synchronized with the camera was barely able to adjust for brightness and contrast while keeping the imagery viewable through the darkness.

"That's far more than I thought," Juno grimaced, counting a number of vehicles that threatened to hit the low twenties.

"There were at least three hundred zorans at council, likely much more," explained Steven, focusing on the screen, squinting his eyes in an attempt to make out details. "It would've been naïve to assume they did not acquire ground transport to congregate here."

Juno grunted, but was far more concerned by the unspoken insinuations. Valentine High Command had accepted a degree of lapses in security when it came to the offensive strategy; the prioritization of military presence across the main line of resistance was far more important than the occupation of conquered territories. Their presence behind the MLR would've simply been limited to supply depots, logistics waypoints, and convoys ferrying supplies to the front, and wounded and captured civilians to the rear. There was the understanding that only token patrols would be necessary to contain civilians and tiny elements of enemy resistance, with the priority being to prevent attacks that would create a break in the chain of logistics from the Valentine homeland. But this supposedly sound strategy was now being evaluated in Juno's mind as she considered the staggering fact: More than three hundred zorans were able to maneuver through Valentine-occupied territory into an abandoned city more than two hundred kilometers from the northern shores dividing Hyrule from the Aurora Ocean, many of them having done so with lightly armored military vehicles.

Of course, no one, apparently not even Major Steven, had expected the zorans to be able to provide – never mind actually trying to provide – the Hylians and the Gerudo with any form of actual assistance.

But the focus now had to be on the altercation between zoran-commandeered military vehicles, which was getting dangerously close to northern cordon. "Are you sure that's them?" Juno asked Steven, absentmindedly registering one of her officers alerting Mongoose Five to incoming enemy armor, and more-than-just-absentmindedly realizing with severe annoyance that – by chance or otherwise – Mongoose Five had not been supplied with enough anti-armor weapons.

Steven looked thoughtful as he cradled his chin in between cupped fingers, but seemed confident of his answer. "Intertribal rivalries have come to a head. A good number of the zorans do not support native elements trying to provide assistance to the Hylian-Gerudo alliance. In their shoes, if I chose to not flee and conserve my strength, I'd be pursuing the Hylian, devastate the plans of rival tribes."

A nod was sufficient to pass on acknowledgement of that statement from major to major as Juno's eyes turned towards the wall of screens instead, watched as one of the rear vehicles – a humvee that apparently caught too many rounds of high-caliber bullets – suddenly veered off the road and crashed into a lamppost, where it remained utterly still. Idly, the female Valentine military intelligence major wondered if it was supposed to be one of "theirs", if tentatively allied zorans could be considered "theirs" to begin with. "Inform cordon forces to peel off as many pursuit vehicles as they can to follow those vehicles," she said to one of her officers, apparently deciding for a fact that Mongoose Five was unlikely to be able to prevent the host of armored vehicles from breaking through their lines. "Our primary target is in one of the vehicles; it is imperative that the vehicle is taken down. Have nearby units reroute on an intercept course."

"But check fire," Steven added almost immediately afterwards. "Some of them are friendlies not carrying FOF tags. We don't want to cause any unnecessary friction with our allies."

The officer gave a quick, inquisitive look at Juno, as if to ensure this was in line with her wishes; the major merely gave a nod, and the subordinate began to relay information down the line. Her gaze returning to the screens, Juno watched the next half-minute unfold nearly exactly as she had expected it to: Four fireteams of Valentine infantry and four humvees fired down the street when the enemy vehicles came within adequate firing range for them to not have to worry too much about "friendly fire", but the vehicles by and large shot past them, the Valentine troops scattering from behind their firing positions on the street as vehicle after vehicle blew through their blockade in virtually every part of the street, knocking their own vehicles around. Gunfire blazed everywhere, at the roadblock, at each other, at nowhere in particular. Nearby vehicles were converging on their position, but they weren't fast enough to make the intercept.

Juno scowled again, wishing not every air support unit and UAV had been rerouted for the frontlines.

"Terminal, this is Mongoose Five. Ordinance had no effect, I say again, no effect on targets. Allied victors are now in pursuit."

"Copy, Mongoose Five," replied command and control, eyes peeled on the screen as Super Six-One caught sight of the fireteams piling into the surviving humvees and giving chase as they were joined by allied APCs, IFVs, and LAVs from neighboring streets. "Do not lose the targets. Stay on them."

The majors kept their eyes alternating between the strategic map and the video feed from Super Six-One, trying to discern more details beyond the fact that this was fast turning into a chase with anywhere from twenty to thirty vehicles, all of them running northbound as guns blazed at each other. Juno barely spotted a plume of smoke before a white contrail lanced in a hook across the video screen, missing a Valentine LAV and detonating behind their positions; someone amongst the zorans apparently had a TOW missile launcher on their IFV.

This was going to get messy if the battle was allowed to drag out. The faster they could identify which vehicle is receiving the most protection – and therefore which vehicle carried the primary target – the better.

Noting that there still wasn't any target acquisition or FOF identification on the vehicles appearing on the screen, Juno demanded, "Why are the vehicles not being tagged?"

"Visual recognition is still trying to catch up, ma'am," explained a lieutenant on the far end of the vehicle. Another explosion, combined with a brilliant flash of light; a TOW missile had found its target, and detonated a Valentine pursuit vehicle into pieces of scrap metal and plumes of ignited gasoline. They were leaving the city, moving into the cold hills that led north across cracked, uneven terrain. It would be difficult for the light vehicles to keep up, as their top speed would be hampered by less-stable centers of mass. "Resolution's low, computer's having a hard time trying to identify them, especially when they're blinking in and out."

The capacity for a computer to visually recognize and track certain entities from a video feed was deemed revolutionary digital technology when it was first introduced, but there were limits to its capabilities. Computers had not advanced to a point where it could logically actually recognize shapes for what they were; they were simply matching pieces of an imagery to models and their corresponding patterns as listed in databases. Specific conditions were needed before individual targets could be recognized and tracked throughout a video feed, allowing for the software to keep track of who was moving where even through the chaos of twenty-something vehicles in a messy chase. All of this, however, was useless if a clear picture was not given in the first place, and the software could barely recognize the spots on the screen that human eyes could tell were vehicles by making the logical connect computers were still incapable of.

There was only one good solution to that problem for the time being. "Super Six-One," Juno spoke into her headset, deeming this important enough for her to speak immediately instead of having her subordinates act as a proxy, "descend altitude but hold fire. We need a clearer picture, but don't draw enemy fire onto yourself."

"Super Six-One copies all." It took a moment, but the helicopter began to evidently descend while the camera adjusted for angle and distance, ensuring that the camera had a good picture of the entire chase – or close to it – in the frame the entire time. The first set of tracking icons indicating each vehicle began to appear on the screen, although they were strictly for allied armor; the computer was pairing the pursuing forces with the FOF tags on the vehicles. It did seem like trying to get their command suite to track enemy vehicles would still take a while.

Out of the confines of the city, the vehicles spread out a bit more, fought for more maneuvering room, navigating hills and trees and woodlands and natural obstacles, all while shooting at each other. The tracers being fired from guns from every which direction to every which direction divided the screen like a spiderweb as vehicles maneuvered left and right, pulling ahead or decreasing speed, barreling into a mess that made it difficult for Juno to make head from tails. All she knew for certain was that bullets and rockets were being exchanged from high-speed vehicles, one of which suddenly exploded – the screen hadn't tagged it as a friendly, so it was one of the APCs being commandeered by the zorans, either the "good" ones or the "bad" ones – the blast successful in throwing a humvee that had the misfortune of being too close onto its side.

The situation was apparently too hot for two of the untagged vehicles, which peeled off and turned right, moving outside the sphere of engagement. Juno had half a mind to detach three of their own vehicles in pursuit, but Steven – realizing Juno's intent or not – remarked aloud, "The other zoran vehicles aren't following. Those two were pursuers bugging out, not our target. We gain nothing but lose much by going after them. Let them go."

Juno had half a mind to argue, but decided against it. Steven was inexperienced, not an idiot. And while her usual policy was to leave no loose end, no stone left unturned, she reluctantly accepted the fact that she was short on assets currently chase-capable, meaning she had to make do with what she had; diverting three vehicles in pursuit of targets that – according to Steven – were not likely to have the Hylian infiltrator amongst its passengers was not something she could afford. And while the passengers in question were mere zorans…well, there would be a time where they'd be dealt with and brought upon a knee; until then, there was use in playing nice.

That didn't change the fact that the entire operation was taking too long, though, and Juno wasn't keen on a strategy that basically involved run-and-gun on a glorified scale. "We're just playing catch-up here," she muttered. "We need to keep one step ahead." A sidelong glance directed her question at Steven: "If you're the one trying to get the infiltrator out of here, what would you do?"

Juno was not certain if Steven's habitual contemplation before responding to a question indicated at an overly cautious nature or an insufficiently sharp mind. "I'd lose Valentine forces by jumping into the Evros," the latter responded after some thought. "We can't follow them in there. But I wouldn't do that until I lose my zoran pursuers first, because they can follow underwater. And I'd be slowed down by the non-zorans there, having to drag along two humans underwater who can't breathe and have to be protected."

Any reply that was to come was interrupted with flashes on a nearby monitor caught their attention, both majors shifting their glances to Super Six-One's video feed. The brilliant white seemed to be overwhelming the nightvision even more, the computer trying to adjust the brightness and contrast to actually make the entire thing viewable. It didn't take long for either intelligence officers to spot clues in between the sporadic flashes and realize why the feed was suddenly becoming overwhelmed with light: The tracers and bullets were being fired in the direction of the helicopter.

"Super Six-One is hit," the helicopter pilot reported on the channel, his voice calm despite the fact that his microphone was also picking up the very loud sounds of bullets striking against the aircraft, the sounds reminiscent of shaking rocks in a metal can. "Repeat, Six-One is taking enemy fire."

"Incoming TOW!" cried someone else, probably the co-pilot. Juno and Steven instantly tensed as they watched a plume expand from the ground, followed by an arc of smoke drawing across the screen with increasing alacrity, indicating the guided missile lancing in the direction of the camera. With a jerk, the video feed turned away, momentarily showing nothing by the night sky, indicating that Super Six-One was making emergency maneuvers, turning away, trying to dodge the missile…

The loud static caused by an explosion suddenly rattled against the majors' eardrums, their line with Super Six-One temporarily consumed by the sound of a TOW missile detonating somewhere uncomfortably close to the helicopter. The screen before them dissolved into static for several seconds, and for a moment that seemed to drop something cold deep into the stomachs of everyone present, it seemed like all contact with Super Six-One had been severed…until the video feed came back on. Unfortunately, what was seen and the words that came through the channel immediately afterwards were not worthy of encouragement.

"Six-One is going down," the pilot announced resignedly, his voice still tight and controlled despite the aircraft's rapidly approaching appointment with the ground. "Repeat, Super Six-One going down."

Steven watched with muted horror as the camera feed of Super Six-One began to spin, the forest beneath the helicopter twirling on screen, indicating the helicopter's loss of control. Juno, by contrast, paid the now-useless video no such attention, focusing instead on other maps and readouts instead of Super Six-One's futile attempts to soften their landing. A grimace crossed her otherwise fine features; experience told her she should not expect any survivors. The utility helicopter was a lost asset already, and they had more important objectives than recovery. And of greater concern was that they no longer had an overhead view of the battle; all Juno could rely on were readouts from allied units, mentally matching them with where on the map the fight was supposed to be. Almost a dozen other video feeds from vehicle-mounted cameras were on-screen, but they hardly provided the big picture as much as they just depicted the chaos of the fight up close, hardly anything the commander of this operation needed.

In the corner of her vision, one of the screens dissolved completely into static and was swiftly replaced with another graph. From another part of the command center, a command and control officer tensely announced, "Super Six-One is down."

"They're most likely dead." Juno's voice was cool and masterfully controlled. "Search and rescue is not a priority; focus all available manpower on the primary target. Hotel-kilos should still be clearing the sewers."

Steven looked mildly uncomfortable with the idea of depriving possible survivors of a speedy rescue effort, and it showed in the way he grimaced, shifted his weight. But he didn't object to Juno's orders, something she appreciated. Young he may be, but the male major was apparently familiar with the concept of cutting losses.

Good news, fortunately, came shortly afterwards. "Major, I've got a gunship RTB making a pass through our AO, callsign Archer Two-Four. They'll be on station in about three mikes."

Juno felt a smirk tug at the corner of her lips. Fixed-wing gunships were large, four-engine planes equipped with two twenty millimeter autocannons, one forty millimeter cannon, and a 105 millimeter howitzer, designed for the purpose of providing electronic and fire support, raining down unparalleled death from five kilometers above ground. If all failed, it was good to know that the option to bathe the infiltrator in fire was available to her, if only for a limited amount of time. The aircraft was returning to base and was only passing through the area of operations, meaning Juno would have to make judicious use of its limited time.

That pleasure, however, turned swiftly into confusion as her brow furrowed, looking at newly-identified entities on the battlefield – confirmed electronically, not visually – on the operational map. They hadn't been there before, a fact that Juno registered by noticing there seemed to be more tagged units on the map than there was before. "I'm looking at extra contacts on my screen," she announced her eyes darting for the screens displaying mediocre-quality camera feeds from ground vehicles in an attempt to try to identify the newcomers visually. "What's happening?"

Her team did not have an immediate answer, attempting to study the data before deliberating a conclusion. "They're not part of the task force, but…" a lieutenant murmured, trying to overview communications, encrypted orders, movement patterns, FOF codes, streamed video from ground vehicles, "…they're scout motorcycles, broadcasting legitimate Valentine tags, reporting under…"

"…Special forces," Juno finished for the officer, barely managing to utter the words out from teeth covertly grinding against each other, a slight frown creasing across her brow. Alexandria, you little bitch

Favors were the most valued currency in the international community of military operators trained in black operations and asymmetrical warfare.

Working in a trade where deniability was a norm and redacted information on their career service vitae was a badge of office, they trusted the "institution" about as far as they could throw them. It was understood that the strategy was a necessity, the capability of the government to disavow captured or deceased operators vital to their endgame. It didn't change the fact, however, that such men and women were well aware of just how quickly politicians and pen-pushers were willing to throw them to the wolves.

Therefore, with a lifestyle that constantly expected everything to fall apart and for "shit to hit the fan", the proud wolves of the military learned to trust the power of favors instead. Few of the deadliest men and women in the world cared to admit that they were once saved by someone else; all wanted the slate wiped clean as soon as possible. This, combined with a prevalent distaste for the overly strict and unnecessarily rigid protocols of the military that could generously be described as utter paranoia, ensured that unconventional warfare outfits across the continent could – if nothing else – trust each other for being competent, reliable, and relatively sane. Modern military commands begrudgingly learned to tolerate this; although the amount of intelligence leaks coming from such outfits were generally disproportionate to the number pertaining to their manpower, their under-the-table ties often came very much in handy when populist politicians managed to blow diplomacy out of the water, when all official channels of communications stonewalled.

So when Alexandria dropped the bait into the water by offering all Valentine special forces units in the area a chance to clean the slate with her – or, alternatively, to be owed a favor by the ex-special-forces-officer-turned-intelligence-major – Captain Samson bit immediately.

And he had not arrived unprepared.

Accompanied by a trio of special forces hunter-killers, Alexandria and her team managed to make the intercept on standard special forces scout motorcycles, and helped in giving chase. Although control of such a light vehicle across uneven terrain was a problem, the woodlands to the side and the hills scattered throughout provided plenty of cover and pockets they could disappear into, protecting the riders from harm. And if the army of trees in the forest were insufficient cover from the machine gun fire that blazed and crisscrossed across the woodlands, the vehicles of their allies made for excellent shields.

With expert control mastered from untold hours of experience at the handles of a reconnaissance motorcycle, Alexandria deftly wove between the kaleidoscope of trees, rocks, vehicles, gunfire, weaving left and right to throw off all attempts to track her while dodging the natural obstacles that would've put a disastrous halt to her pursuit, not needing to look back to know that the other three special forces operators were replicating the maneuvers on their own separate arcs. The major did not fire her fore-mounted machine guns, nor did her motorcycle-riding compatriots; at the rate they were disappearing and reappearing left and right amongst the trees, trying to line up a shot with their targets was near impossible, and the 7.62 millimeter rounds their machine guns spewed – even at nine hundred rounds a minute – was unlikely to even leave too many dents in even the LAVs. The humvees, maybe, but they weren't priority targets, and the muzzle flashes from their motorcycles would just make them more obvious targets. It was more practical to leave the military assets that could soak up the damage – the Valentine armored vehicles also in pursuit – to attract fire while special forces moved in for the kill.

It wasn't sociopathic apathy towards getting others killed; it was simply a pragmatic understanding of knowing what roles can be accomplished by what capabilities of what units.

The situation was messy enough as is, with radio transmissions indicating the firefight dynamics of this pursuit was some kind of compromise between an alliance of convenience and a battle royal. The safe thing, of course, was to blow up every vehicle in the engagement to tie off all loose ends. It was, in Alexandria's opinion, also the stupid thing to do, so she relied on glimpses of the battlefield, the study of firefight dynamics, watching in which directions the bullets were flying. When each special forces operator was convinced that a vehicle carrying zorans was definitely an enemy – generally identified by watching the gunner of the vehicle fire consistently on other vehicles crewed by Valentine infantry – the vehicle was shot with a very different sort of ordinance: Paintballs. It was two minutes since they entered the chase, and already six zoran vehicles were confirmed hostile, their rear sporting a splash of paint colored a brilliant orange.

Deftly navigating the environment and passing through moving vehicles, the four motorcycles dodged incoming fire while methodically moving in between friendly armor, ever vigilant of incoming ordinance and potential cover. The leapfrog maneuvers helped the operators evade enemy fire, eluding them from the enemy's sights, while other motorcycles blindsided them. The vehicles tagged with an orange splash of paint were quickly identified, the special forces operators pulling up to enemy armor before they even realized it. Adhesive-coated plastic explosives materialized into the gloved hands of these deadly warriors before kilograms of powerful explosives were attached to the side of the enemy vehicles, the triggering mechanisms activated, the motorcycles peeling away back to the safety of the foliage and allied armor.

And to Alexandria's satisfaction, as the timers swiftly and inexorably counted down to zero, the explosions detonated in synchronized clouds of brilliant fire and dust, the fuel in the vehicles igniting, combusting, and illuminating the landscape with balls of fire that the Valentine convoy swiftly navigated around amidst raining bits of charred steel; score one for the inheritors of Duchess Sieglinde.

"Four possible enemy victors destroyed by explosives."

The report came as Juno watched the video feeds impassively, her reflexes picking up on the explosions that seemed to appear in front of several of the pursuing Valentine vehicles before they navigated around them in an instant. Although not thrilled by the development, the major conceded Alexandria was – as usual – effective in procuring results.

Unfortunately, even special forces couldn't trump the limits of reality, and the fact that the zorans were getting inexorably closer to their escape route loomed above their heads. As if to punctuate this fact, a female controller tersely announced, "Vehicles four kilometers from Evros River."

Progress was impossibly good, but still not enough. Even with the amount of vehicles peeling away from the chase, Steven writing them off the list of suspects one at a time by their tactical behavior, there were still too many vehicles and too little time to do anything about it. Even if Steven had not arrived and Juno retained the right to bomb everything to kingdom come just to make sure, it still didn't skirt around the fact that they didn't have enough firepower to destroy so many fleeing vehicles across this kind of terrain.

"Archer Two-Four now in AO," came the announcement from one of the coordinators without warning. "Patching through main line."

Or maybe we do, Juno amended herself, the corner of her lips twitching upwards to resemble the ghost of a smirk.

"Archer Two-Four on station." The voice of the gunship controller flying somewhere in the darkened skies filtered cleanly through Juno and Steven's headsets. "We're at bingo fuel and have all of five mikes in your airspace. Make them count."

Juno made a slicing motion with her hand to one of the officers, indicating a desire to speak to the gunship crew directly, speaking into her headset with all the confidence of command, "Archer Two-Four, Terminal. Do you have a visual on convoy of fifteen-plus vehicles, headed northbound along the river?"

"Affirmative, Terminal, fifteen-plus victors headed north along the river. Do we have clearance to engage those targets?"

"Do not fire directly on the victors. Engage in suppressing fire on the lead vehicles of the convoy. Limit their field of movement and slow them down, but do not fire directly on the vehicles." And, with any luck, that'd slow them down, impede their progress, give the Valentine pursuers time to catch up.

"Copy, Terminal. Switching to the twenty millimeter." The twenty-millimeter chain gun was an extremely rapid-firing, six-barrel weapon that served one particular purpose: To deliver six thousand battery-sized bullets from the sky within a minute. That kind of firepower could destroy a battle tank within seconds; to a handful of APCs, IFVs, and humvees on the ground, it would likely seem all the more terrifying.

Except Steven didn't seem to think it was enough. "We're going to have to do better than that," he stated plainly.

Juno actually raised an eyebrow at the thought that a hail of twenty millimeter rounds from the sky would be an insufficient distraction. "Excuse me?"

"The zorans are fanatical towards whatever cause they choose to devote themselves to," explained the male major grimly. "Harassing fire won't cut it. Advise Archer Two-Four to switch to the forty millimeter, give them a little more to think about than just autocannon fire."

Juno hesitated; the forty millimeter was a massive jump up from the twenty, akin to throwing two flashlight-sized blocks of steel at the ground every second at speeds sufficient to cause controlled but potent explosions that would tear anything near it apart. This was not precisely the kind of munitions she intended to use as what basically amounted to a bluff. But, again, Juno decided she would trust Steven on this matter, and spoke into her microphone once more, "Archer Two-Four, Terminal. Advise switching to forty millimeter cannon, give them some bangs to worry about."

The reply took a split-second longer than usual to arrive at command and control. "Terminal, Archer Two-Four. Confirm: You are requesting danger close suppression fire with explosive ordinance. We cannot guarantee we will not hit the convoy."

Juno shot Steven an inquisitive look; he was the one more familiar with the zorans, and the one who implored Valentine forces not to shoot indiscriminately in fear of upsetting the wrong factions. When he chose not to respond, however, Juno confirmed, "Confirm danger close suppression fire. Do what you can from the air."

"Archer Two-Four copies all. Engaging enemy with the forty."

It took almost half a minute for the gunship to start firing away at the convoy, but once it started, the show as viewed from the command center was brilliant; Juno and Steven silently watched as the video feed from the gunship's targeting camera displayed the show of fireworks, explosions suddenly rattling the ground around the vehicles, sending them scattering in uncoordinated, ungainly attempts to somehow weave or stagger through the shots. It was as if the heavens themselves accidentally spilled a large crate of grenades over the vehicles, the zoran drivers desperately swinging left and right in a silly attempt to try to shake off targeting.

"Two more peeling away," came the update, indicating that the intimidation effects were, to some extent, working.

"The rest aren't following." Steven's voice was hard and solid with concentration as his eyes remained riveted on the screen. "Let them go."

"Get our own off their tails and back with the chase," muttered Juno absentmindedly to the relevant subordinate.

Slowly, Steven allowed a finger to rise up to the screen, taking a moment as if to mentally make sure, before murmuring, "I'm narrowing primary target vehicle down to…" again, a moment of thought, some mental double-checking, and then he pointed at two vehicles on the screen, illuminated as white boxes by the gunship camera's thermal imaging systems, "…these two LAVs."

Juno couldn't help but feel a strange mixture of skepticism and amazement at the fact that Steven somehow seemed confident at being able to identify, track, and narrow down two LAVs despite the image recognition software itself having a hard time trying to make any sense out of the video feed. "Are you sure?" she asked, but her attention was diverted before the other major could provide an answer, the peripheral of her vision catching something on a key monitor…or, more specifically, what wasn't on the monitor. "They've stopped shooting at each other."

Gone was the angry crisscross of tracer fire weaving to and fro; although the escapees were still firing away at their pursuers, there was no coherent answer, not when Valentine ground units were discouraged from firing in fear of what could technically classify as friendly fire, if Steven's zoran "allies" could actually be counter as allies. Now, however, the shooting seemed to be minimal amongst a messy procession of what seemed to amount to only less than ten vehicles.

Steven picked up on the insinuation immediately and grimaced, looking tense and anxious. "That's bad. It means they've shook off the pursuers from the other tribes."

"You mean our own assets are the only ones pursuing them now," hissed Juno.

And then the vehicles suddenly disappeared.

It happened suddenly. The white blocks that highlighted each of the vehicle's heat signatures had been weaving across the screen throughout the chase, traveling against the fuzzy gray background that revealed the relatively "cold" surroundings that was hills and woodlands. Occasionally, the white outlines of the vehicles would "blink" as they passed under trees and other natural landscape features, but would otherwise reappearing once again. This time, however, they suddenly winked out of existence from the video feed and refused to return.

Juno's heart practically skipped a beat as she stared, her eyes madly traveling from one screen to another in an attempt to search for something that would indicate the ten-or-so vehicles didn't suddenly disappear into thin air. "Archer Two-Four," she demanded, "we've lost visual from here. What happened?"

"Targets have entered a high-density woodland area. Foliage is interfering with visual contact."

"High-density woodland area" was an understatement. Consulting the digital map and changing it to a topographical setting, Juno scowled as she realized precisely what was north: Kilometers and kilometers of dense forestry that extended along the river. Even with thermal imaging, Archer Two-Four would likely not so much as spot the zorans jump into the Evros River, given how close the trees edges to the banks. And ground forces seemed no closer to ending the pursuit than they were a minute ago.

"Keep up the pressure," Juno hissed, gesturing for her staff to relay the same message to Valentine soldiers on the ground as well, an order that was promptly obeyed. "You must stop them from getting to the Evros at any cost. Stay on top of them and maintain fire."

And as if the mounting pressure that threatened to boil over wasn't enough, in came an unwelcome update. "Ma'am, zorans are one kilometer away from the Evros. If we've got no other zorans pursuing them, they're home free the moment they dive."

Fighting down a grimace and resorting instead to quietly grinding her teeth without even realizing it, Juno threw a sidelong glance, looked at Steven in hopes the male major – inexperienced as he was – might have something for her, but the desperate way his eyes were glued to the monitors indicated he was at wit's end as well. And the target is right bloody there, Juno's inner thoughts howled in rage, contained by her near-perfect control over her physical appearances, fixating a glare on the screens as she slowly but resolutely keyed her headset's microphone to transmit her orders, having come to a monumental decision.

"Archer Two-Four, targets must not be allowed to reach the Evros River. You are to drop all possible ordinance on all suspected enemy positions. That includes the 105 millimeter. Level the entire area."

Steven was so tensely focused on the regional map in front of him, so focused on trying to think of ways he could prevent a zoran-Hylian escape, that he did not completely register the full import of Juno's words yet, even when the gunship operator responded, "Uh, we don't have a clear line of sight through the foliage, and are unable to distinguish friendlies from targets. Friendlies may be caught in blast radius."

The hesitation on Juno's part this time was shorter than her first, and she ruthless squelched her misgivings even as she ignored Steven slowly turning in disbelief towards Juno, beginning to work out in his head precisely what the major was trying to say to Archer Two-Four, but still being held back by disbelief from arriving at the obvious conclusion. "Negative, there are no friendlies in the target area." She moved over to a computer, brushed one of her subordinates' hands aside, began keying in commands for a data transfer to the gunship. "Intel reports hostiles having commandeered our transports and engaged in inter-tribal battle. They have not disengaged transponders; we are giving you tracking data now. Pursuing vehicles are not friendlies. Repeat, no friendlies in the target area. Stay on them and fire everything you've got. The enemy must absolutely not reach the Evros. Destroy everything."

"Archer Two-Four copies all. Firing all guns."

Exhaling deeply, Juno calmly turned to Steven with a damningly level visage, a stark contrast to his gaping expression of disbelief and horror, demanding answers. Juno gave him only one: "Their service will be honored."

Another moment of silence, lack of movement, hesitation. Then, suddenly, a blur of rapid motion, Steven backpedaling, his hand coming up to his headset to trigger the microphone; Juno stepping forward, a fist raised to deliver to his face in hopes of disorientating him and dislodging the headset; officers left and right, standing up in alarm at the sudden movement, the bursting of accumulated stress and anxiety.

"No! No!" Steven was screaming even as the Valentine officers tried to break up the scuffle, tried to hold back Juno and Steven, pulling them apart from each other, but this had the inadvertent effect of keeping the latter's hands from the headset, preventing him from activating his microphone, even as he futilely tried to will his message to Archer Two-Four. "Abort fire mission! Friendly forces in vicinity; do not fire! Do not fire!"

But he was too late. The camera on the gunship shook once, the shell delivered, and even as Steven watched, slack with horror, he realized that he couldn't pull massive slugs of metal back. The seconds it required for the shell to travel the kilometers necessary to strike the ground passed as several eternities, the Valentine officers watching the tranquil image of the Hylian forests below that hid a fierce firefight amongst light armored vehicles under its foliage…

…Then, a massive plume of destruction. An explosion that looked like it could utterly decimate a city square sent a pillar of fire and dust into the sky, courtesy of a 105 millimeter round launched at supersonic speeds. The toppling of the majestic trees was barely visible even as the other guns fired in tandem: The rapid bursts and explosions from the forty millimeter cannon, the spraying of twenty millimeter rounds across the area of operations at a hundred rounds per second. Relentlessly, the gunship looked as if it was unloading every single piece of ordinance from its weapons as it literally bathed the forest with fire, explosive rounds creating a miniature hell in the forest.

Again and again, even as Steven's blank eyes widened to the size of soup plates, each 108 millimeter round struck the ground with great finality, each shot guaranteeing that nothing would survive down there, the gaps between those gigantic explosions filled with forty and twenty millimeter shots that rained upon them with a ferocity no less powerful than even the most fierce of rainshowers.

By the time it was done, the digital maps were completely blank, none of the allied vehicles providing anymore transponder signals. Fires burned in the forest below, whitening much of the gunship's camera feed. But the work was finished, complete, the damage done. "Terminal, Archer Two-Four. We don't see any more movement down there."

Absentmindedly watching Steven sink into a nearby chair, Juno merely commanded, "Fire another salvo into the target area. Nothing survives down there." The sacrifice has been made, she told herself silently, definitively, so I may as well make sure. My hands are stained with blood; I see no reason to stay them now.

The orange glow illuminated a soft sphere of light against the night sky, a phenomenon that would turn into a dark pillar of smoke rising into the pale blue dawn that was beginning to grace this part of Hyrule. A small patch of the forest burned from the smoldering ashes of the impact area that was the strip of land where the Valentine gunship had laid down a great amount of explosive ordinance, tearing through trees and blasting through the convoy of pursuing vehicles, transforming them into burning wreck, fuel for the black pillar.

That he was allowed to watch the spectacle – even from three kilometers away, some minutes after the fact – was probably as good a sign to any for Link that they were, for the most part, safe.

Valentine commanders in the area had not been incorrect about the vehicles that peeled away from the choice. Every APC, IFV, and LAV they chose not to pursue were indeed vehicles that belonged to rival zoran tribes, vehicles that did not carry Link, Jessica, Veteran, or Driver. Veteran had been correct in his conclusion that the Valentine military intelligence major would be able to slowly identify which vehicles were safe to ignore, if not which vehicles must be pursued at all costs.

Which was precisely why their LAV had never been part of that chase to begin with. Veteran and Driver's tribesmen had sacrificed themselves to act as a decoy, to pretend one of their vehicles indeed carried the Hylian infiltrator. In reality, Link's LAV had not left the sewers until two minutes after the military chase had broken through the Valentine cordon, giving Driver the opportunity to quietly guide their LAV out of the city, unnoticed.

It was a deceptive, ruthless strategy. And the zorans stuck to it nonetheless.

"The gunship is leaving the area," Veteran observed, standing within the other of the LAV's two hatches beside Link, his gaze fixed skyward as his sharp eyes spotted the fixed wing aircraft as a tiny black speck against the barely-lit skies. Given that this was possibly the only remaining Valentine air asset within the enemy's arsenal that could be called upon on short notice, it meant their exfiltration was very likely to be unnoticed if they left now, if they didn't dally for Valentine patrols to find them. Ducking back into the LAV, Link could barely hear Veteran tell the younger zoran at the driver's seat of the LAV, "Drive north. Avoid the rivers." With a rumble, the LAV's engines started once more, and the vehicle continued their journey towards Hyrule's northern coastline.

From within, Jessica gave Link an inquisitive look. Catching it, Link merely shook his head. Jessica, in turn, merely remained silent and averted her gaze, lost in thought. With little else to do, the Joint Intelligence agent withdrew back into the confines of the LAV, closing the top hatch above him as he did so.

So many zorans dead, many more to die as Valentine hunt-and-kill teams empty the city sewers of threats. All for one Hylian infiltrator. The Hylian could barely understand it.

Link wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but what was it about him that the zorans were ready to risk – and lose – so much for?

The streets were emptied of other military units by the time Steven stepped out of the mobile command vehicle with strange calm. Dawn was beginning in earnest now, the dark skies seen from the streets between the edges of ruined high-rises lighting up with a pale hue that spoke of the sun's ascent. With that same damning calmness, the major pulled his gloves into his hands, fitting them around his fingers even as he navigated the short flight of stairs that linked the entrance of the vehicle to the street outside.

The streets were empty, as they well should be. All the soldiers available were either continuing with hunt-and-kill operations beneath the streets, or detached in an attempt to catch their Hylian.

Were detached, Steven told himself quietly with great bitterness as he began to walk away from the mobile command center in search for an aircraft that would bring him home.

"You know it had to be done."

Juno had allowed Steven to get a slight head's start instead of cornering him within the command vehicle. Part of it might have been to not cause even more of a scene in front of their subordinates, part of it might have been the hope that the some fresh air would do some good for the young major. Still, that didn't impede her from trying to stop Steven as she stood at the top of the steps, right at the entrance of the vehicle, her arms crossed, her arms crossed, her silhouette framed against the lit interior of the command vehicle.

Steven, however, was not in a particularly agreeable mood. "So you believe," he said with a surprising lack of anything remotely approaching bitterness.

That by itself was a dangerous sign, the symptoms of a man who had already settled on an unchangeable decision. Juno had to make sure it was the right one. "I chose to prioritize our objective over lesser concerns."

The younger intelligence officer favored Juno with a half-turn, just enough for him to settle a single eye on Juno. She didn't like the look. "And just what do you think these 'lesser concerns' are?" he questioned.

"Jormungand." The next footfall descended on a metallic step with each of her priorities named, her boots making the distinctive sound of rubber and leather against thin planks of metal. "The war effort. The defensive lines, faltering because our offensive strategy against both Hyrule and Gerudo never would've worked if we didn't have our weapons. Anything and everything that can be sacrificed for the aforementioned is a 'lesser concern' to me."

The single eye narrowed dangerously. "And friendly fire is worth that price?"

"You yourself were willing to risk friendly fire when advising that Archer Two-Four use the forty millimeter, danger close."

"And I didn't decide to drop a one-oh-five howitzer rounds directly on a friendly position," Steven came close to seething before suddenly regaining his calm and repeating, "Was that worth the price?"

The older major kept her composure level, despite alarmed at where this conversation was going. Dozens of "what if" scenarios swarmed her mind, chastising Juno for not having done this or that at certain points since Steven entered her command center. With a great deal of mental discipline, she silenced her runaway mind. "The armed forces are a results-orientated institution," she tried to force coldness and finality into her voice, as if this was not a subject worth further discussion. "So long as we complete our objectives, we have no other concerns."

Apparently, Steven also agreed that this was no longer a subject worth further discussion…but not in the way Juno had hoped for. "A pleasant thought," he murmured, already beginning to turn back where he had been headed and walking away. "You keep believing in that, then."

Somewhere deep inside, Juno felt abstractly proud that she managed to sound calm despite her elevating sense of alarm upon seeing Steven's back turned once more as he continued to walk away. "Where are you going?" There was a sense that this was a premonition to something potentially horrible.

"I'm returning to Velvet," came the indifferent answer. "You got your Hylian, so it's not like you need me anymore."

"I haven't gotten anyone until I've gotten a body."

"I'll be sure to reflect your prudence in my report."

Juno grimaced; this situation was developing in a direction that Juno – even through the subtleties of their barbed conversation – recognized as downhill, fast. "Steven," she spoke, adding weight to her words, trying futilely to make the other major stop in his tracks without actually demanding that he stop. "So long as we can deliver the results, the National Defense Committee doesn't need to know about the details."

The reply was no more encouraging than the previous ones. "I'm sure."

Almost as an afterthought, Juno suddenly realized that she was now walking after Steven instead of standing where she had been at the foot of the stairs of the mobile command center. "Are you sure I can't convince you to stay?" she insisted, vaguely aware that there would be some things that would become almost certainly irreparable once Steven made it back to the capital. Alarm bells were screaming in her head; Juno could barely hear her own words. Instinct told her that she was seconds away from making a fateful decision…or not making one, either possibility potentially locking the future into place depending on how she chose to act or not act, either possibility promising something she might not be able to deal with.

Steven almost scoffed at that. "And overstay my welcome? No. I shall see you in Velvet."

Her options narrowing, her barely-subdued sense of panic growing exponentially since her last adrenaline rush when she commanded a Valentine gunship to bury friend and foe alike in a storm of fire, Juno's gloved hand moved to her handgun even as she nodded into the shadows, trying to sound placating even as she started, "Steven…"

Despite his relatively youth, the inexperienced male major had excellent instincts. Instantly, he spun around, a pistol in his hand pointed at his fellow major faster than Juno could bring hers to bear. His expression was tightly controlled, betraying a sense of fear but also of determination. "Stay right where you…"

His instincts weren't excellent enough.

With surgical precision not expected from a blade of such size, a large boomerang-kukri materialized from the darkness, swiftly cutting across his arm and severing the tendons across the forearm that allowed him to move his index finger, preventing him from pulling the trigger of his handgun single-handedly. A split-second later, before Steven could draw breath to scream, or even register the pain to scream, the metallic flash of the blade moved the kukri to his throat, and Steven suddenly felt a sharp, wet pain across his neck.

He tried to say something, to scream, to make sense out of anything, but he was only peripherally aware that he was suddenly on the ground, that he was fast losing unconsciousness, that his throat had been severed, that he was bleeding out, that he was choking on his own blood, that he was looking up at a lithe, Southern Gerudo girl holding a massive boomerang-kukri in her hand.

And, from the side, Juno would've watched Steven die with solemn conviction, except – in the presence of the dying major and the Southern Gerudo mercenaries who had done the dirty work for her – she had buried her face in her hands, coming close to a panic as she rapidly ventilated. "Shit!" she hissed, barely containing and stopping herself from kicking something hard in frustration at her own mismanagement of the situation. "Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!"

That was stupid. That was incredibly, irredeemably stupid. A decision born out of panic, a nod into the shadows before she even realized the fact, a desperate move to salvage everything she had worked for…and two Southern Gerudo mercenaries standing over the corpse of a Valentine major – his last breath escaped his throat, and he moved no more – to show for it. What were you thinking, Juno?

But scenario after scenario ran over in her mind, envisioning all the possibilities that could have occurred had Steven brought his report before the National Defense Committee, even if Juno came home basked in honor and pride for having ended the threat to Valent's war effort. None of them were pleasant, and there was no point in imagining the what-if's and what-could-have-been's anymore, not when Steven lay in a small pool of blood and only three shady characters to bear witness to his death.

Juno cursed in High Valentine under her breath. She could still salvage this. She could still hide the fact, salvage the entire situation.

It didn't help the bitter taste in her mouth.

Giving a wary look to the two Southern Gerudo mercenaries who stood unmoving and unflinching at Juno's momentary display of panic – both of them were impassive, as if chiseled out of stone – the major finally knelt beside Steven's body, fished through his pockets. There were few articles of consequence, much of it simply survival supplies, a small cookie in a plastic bag, additional ammunition for his handgun. Most importantly, however, his handheld computer was still on him, and – after a moment of hesitation – Juno slipped it out of his pockets and into her own. She had no intention of anyone finding the dead major by accident through the triangulation of his wireless device, and whatever data he had on the device could possibly be useful.

Expelling her breath shakily, Juno stood up, regarded the corpse lying motionless beneath her feet, a dead man whom she had just been working with minutes earlier. Despite her best efforts, a chill went down her spine. The intelligence business was black and dirty, no one denied that. It was subterfuge and backstabbing, and all officers involved were given an unspoken degree of leeway to prosecute their missions in any way they saw fit…so long as they didn't screw up. The command and control crew inside the mobile command center knew this, which was why they didn't bat an eye when Valentine men and women were sacrificed so they could kill their priority target. But actually outright killing a fellow intelligence officer without orders or approval? Juno couldn't but wonder if some unspoken line had just been crossed.

You could've understood, she thought resentfully, speaking to whatever might've passed for Steven's soul. You could've seen the big picture, you tremendous ass. But you just had to let your misguided sense of self-righteousness get in the bloody way.

There was no response. Dead men did not answer questions.

And when Juno could not bear to stare at the body any longer, she turned around, her mind already spinning in an attempt to figure out how she was going to contain and sort out the situation amongst her intelligence subordinates, to make sure they were all on the same page, to make sure there were no loose ends. "Dispose of the body," she snapped at the mercenaries, realizing that she was angry – even thought it had been her decision, a fact she was painfully aware of – that the two Gerudo had executed the kill. "Make it look like he was killed by zoran stragglers, just in case. Then I want you on the next helicopter ferrying troops to take control of the area." She scowled bitterly as she ascended the steps back to the mobile command center. "As far as I'm concerned, the investigation isn't over until we find a Hylian corpse."

Exoria File #028
Economic Impacts of the Second Continental War

Officially, there was no clear victor of the Second Continental War, which ended without surrender or fanfare; the most devastating conflict in modern history came to a close with the quiet signing of the Truce of Newberg in 1455 a.s.r. following seven months of a three-way stalemate, and military forces across the continent packed up and returned home just as quietly. Most agree, however, that the unofficial victor of the Second Continental War was Hyrule, which had managed to claim custody practically half of the Death Mountains that all three countries had been fighting over. Gerudo, which had been in the process of industrializing, found its investment shares plummeting as the prospects of their ability to procure the resources necessary for industrialization faltered. Furthermore, further funds were required to suppress the Second Southern Gerudo Civil War, as Southern Gerudo declared the outcome of the Second Continental War as "a failure of rampant, uncoordinated liberalism and decadence"; this not only shifted a disproportional percentage of the national budget to defense and national security, but also tore apart an already shaky market. Valent, however, suffered the most due to the vast losses of mining infrastructure to the war, as well as the destabilization of resource distribution across its infrastructural setup, which had previously been held in place by a consistent supply of resources from the Death Mountains. An ambitious banking and economic program was put into place in 1454 a.s.r., which led to what was considered to be a post-war economic miracle. However, the program, too, required a sustainable source of funds and resources, to which Valent had no answer. The economy began to show signs of weakening before a collapse of the economic bubble in 1469 a.s.r., causing a significant decrease in the value of Valentine markets and assets, and a significant drop in standard of living. Hyrule, by contrast, benefited the most from the war, having secured a financial and industrial basis to implement significant economic, industrial, and social programs after the Second Continent War, which flourished under the leadership of King Spencer VI, great-grandfather to Crown Princess Zelda.

Author's Note: Oh, snap, an update in a month, and not more than half a year? What is this I don't even.

An update on the length of the Jormungand arc: With this update of Chapter Twenty-Seven, the current anticipated chapter on which the Jormungand arc will formally end is projected to be either Chapter Thirty-One or Chapter Thirty-Two (but likely the former). So I hope this alleviates some anxiety of when this storyarc will ever end. Things will come to a climax soon.

It bears mention that most of the firearms mentioned in Exoria are, in fact, weapons in real life – save, of course, the iconic gunswords – except with altered names. The S80A1, used as a common standard infantry assault rifle by Valentine infantrymen, is the SA80 (specifically, the L85A1 variant used by the British armed forces). Some liberties were taken with the MSG10EBR; it is, in fact, the PSG1 sniper (specifically, its shorter and lighter MSG90 variant). Strictly speaking, however, the PSG1 is a fairly sophisticated sniper rifle for its time and best used in controlled urban environments, so a fictional variant (for a weapon with a fictional name) was created for the purposes of this story, giving the military variant of this sniper rifle the "enhanced battle rifle" designation. The KS-74 is, most likely to nobody's surprise, the AK-74 (not the AK-47, as I deemed that assault rifle to perhaps be a little too old).

And, yes, the gunship in this chapter was the pre-2000 AC-130H.

Nyveni: This is easily one of the best fanfictions I have ever read. Your writing is very good, although you trend more on the unwieldy and verbose side. One thing I learned from a Theater class I took is that if you leave the unimportant details out, you can A: let the audience imagine things the way they want, B: fill in the details as needed. It's the corollary to Chekov's Gun.

Has anybody managed spaceflight, or at least worked out the principles of it? Are there any satellites in use, or do they use high-altitude surveillance drones for that purpose? And how is Exoria on aerodynamics compared to the real world? That is, if you've even decided any of this?

About the updates- I personally stop paying attention to update schedule deviation after a week or so. In this case it's been so long that I forgot a few plot details (and who the heck Steven was), but it was easy enough to remember them once I began reading.

My sincerest apologies for taking so long. I seriously doubt I could ever manage a chapter a week, but I suppose it's an admirable goal to aim for, even if I shall always fall short.

Spaceflight and nuclear physics are still sciences that are in the theoretical stages for the world of Exoria. In Chapter One, Morgan insinuates that the energy spikes in Valentine prior to their invasion could only be capable to "theoretical" nuclear power; the theory and the research exists, but hasn't been put into application due to certain technical limitations. The development of technology of Exoria is fairly different from our world. Satellites don't exist, although high-altitude surveillance aircraft have been around for a while. The 1477 Krasa Incident, in fact, involved an (illegal) Hylian high-altitude stealth reconnaissance aircraft being shot down over Valentine airspace, requiring a highly successful extraction mission for the pilot conducted by the Hylian air force's TSAR 15 unit, which would shortly afterwards become the Hylian Special Security Group, or the SSG.

Spudcommando: My god an update! I can see the all the key characters are converging on Jormugand, very interested to see how things play out from now on. The fact that neither of the three nations have limited to non existent intel on the Zorans seems borderline incompetence. If a huge disaffected minority population lived within, I would surely keep tabs on them.

The immediate issue wasn't that there was a "huge disaffected minority population" that "lived within". First off, it was historically accepted that the Zoran Accords had stripped the zorans of their teeth, and that limits placed upon their rights had severely hampered any ability for them to make any kind of retaliation. Slavery of zorans ended only 144 years ago. Formal segregation ended just under forty years ago (but guaranteed zorans only abridged rights afforded to human citizens). And no real active effort has been made to bridge the gap in the following four decades.

If we were to use the American Civil Rights Movement as an analogy, imagine if African-Americans still don't get the right to vote, don't have the right to possess firearms (although enforcement on this is very light), and generally live their entire lives in a cheap, rickety underwater facility with no means by which to create any kind of modern weapons (but otherwise remaining undisturbed by people on the surface). And then imagine – less than twenty years ago – a revolution that lasted less than a week hit the European Union, replacing it with a regime that completely locks down Europe into an isolationist government.

Intelligence efforts were kept on the zorans, but it was generally considered that the security measures enforced upon them ensure that the chances of them every doing anything positively disastrous would be as low as Ethiopia doing anything positively disastrous to the United States today. And for almost two decades, Hyrule and Gerudo focused an intense amount of intelligence efforts – both domestic and military – on issues that were far more important to them: The isolationist, military government that had suddenly turned a third of the continent into North Korea, continued unrest in Southern Gerudo, Hylian domestic terrorism. The general apathy towards zorans, combined with the events over the last two decades, has given them only a little more space to maneuver, but the zorans made the most of that. Intelligence agencies are not omnipotent, omniscient organizations. They can only do so much with so much manpower and so much funding. Their attention span can only be so wide.