|Function||Metaphysics Tech Upgrade 2|
|Brief||Units can enter/exit Astrojaunt stance: they non-instantaneously teleport rather than move to target destinations and drain morale while doing so|
"To infinity, and beyond."
- - Metanaut Rodolfo Echevarría, first person to walk on the surface of Mictlan.
It is an overcast moonless night when Marcial Castillo and his platoon are ordered to be part of the initial push into La Paz, and the Custodian is grateful for it. Though he'd been assigned to the detachment ordered with taking the northern end of Lake Titicaca (considered the less-defended route by far), the Federal forces holding La Paz were well dug in and well coordinated. They had their damn drones everywhere these days, in the air and under the ground, and at the first sign of an Technocratic advance they'd open up fire. Even a night assault under low light would only give troops a few precious minutes of freedom before the drone sensors picked them up and their freshly-linked soldiers would begin a new round of artillery and line-fire. Funny how the war changed things like that: a few years ago, and it would have been the Technocrats who held the lines...
The enemy base was two thousand meters distant, but Marcial's platoon still had to march part of the way there on foot. Far to his right a squadron of Adventure armoured cars purr violently as they race up the solitary roadway toward the town, and to his back are the rumbles of the armour columns. Red dirt clings to his boots as he jogs forward, checking his Manuelluxe for what feels like the hundredth time in between scanning the ground in front of him with the rebreather mask's inbuilt flashlight. An overcast, moonless night meant he couldn't see anything in front of him either without it of course - nothing except the twinkling glowing lights of Puerto Acosta in the distance, the slight gleam of waves off of Titicaca, and the faint purple haze of the Astrojaunt-harnesses worn by his fellow soldiers.
Every second they're out in the open is another second the Federales have to noticing them. But that's the point: for the plan to work, the Federal soldiers have to think they know where the Combine will be coming from.
The sound of distant air raid sirens fill the air, and in the distance lights open up all over Puerto Acosta. They dim again shortly after as drones and soldiers in Federal khaki take up positions. He can imagine them even from here: staggered figures in thick overalls and exosuit frames, hunched from the weight of their engineering supplies and drone control systems, eye sockets staring sightless out into the night while flocks of camera-drones give feedback through optic-connection wires. Rifles no longer held but slotted into place on the exosuit frames, drone-operated and freeing the Federales to focus their attention on the constant task of attending their larger weapon systems. The Federation had changed in the years since they'd first to come to power - but so had the Combine.
Marcial hears the call, "Activate harnesses!" and responds instantly, slipping his rebreather mask to his spidersilk hood and smashing a button on his harness with the other. Magnetic locks seal the mask into place and the harness to his uniform, before the Aleph generator powers up and a hum fills his ears. The air seems to shimmer, fracture, hurt - the experience of space-time distortion puts a slight ache in his bones. Marcial shrugs it off and leans forward, heart pounding in his ears and breath coming in sharper ragged gasps as he waits for the order to come. The harness beeps once, the sound of esoteric machinery activating.
A bullet whizzes less than four feet from his head and then slows in the air as the Aleph Field catches it, vibrating rapidly in place and then pinging out back in the direction it came from. A beam of LUMOS light almost strikes a fellow Custodian, but shudders and dissipates before it can reach them upon hitting the field. More follow, but the distortion fields are working: Marcial's vision swims and he swears his heartbeat is beating irregularly, but he feels like the American Superman now that bullets can't hit him. The harness beeps twice. The purple haze grows more vibrant as all around him fellow Soldiers of Humanity raise their weapons and fire. His Manuelluxe kicks a golden particle wave out into the dark, but at this distance it hitting anything would be pure luck. This battle hasn't begun yet. On his back, he feels the Astrojaunt-harness heat up and then beep three times, signifying it is fully primed. All through the murk and chaos, he hears beeping. Behind his gas mask, Marcial gives a short prayer in anticipation of what is to come.
Then comes the order, shouted over the sounds of incoming bullets and LUMOS beams. An order that just a few short months ago would have simply been "Advance!". An order to do the impossible. An order to make a breach in the space-time continuum, to venture forth into that wild eternity...
His senses are overwhelmed for a moment that feels like forever. An impossible bright light in a void between realities; humid warmth replaced in an instant by freezing chill; the sensation of thin, strange air filtering through his mask. The afterimage of blazing light fades to reveal a thick haze of rusted brown and swirling grey clouds: Mictlan air. Marcial tastes copper in his mouth but does not dare unlock his mask to spit: from training he knows the haze is corrosive and the dust is mildly radioactive. Every man, women, and Earthly-being in the platoon is slowly being eaten every second they remain in this world. His harness beeps once.
That same thick dust billows and cloaks their boots as the platoon marches forward, blood in their mouths and fire in their eyes. It clings to their uniforms and tries in vain to pass through their masks. Blooms of light herald Technocratic trucks and tanks, and even in the light of Mictlan's distant, sickly red sun Marcial can see the distant flash of aircraft making jaunts in the sky. They won't take the same route his platoon is taking: he knows the worlds his coordinates go to, and no plane of the Technocrats could survive there. But Mictlan is a staging ground, and right now it feels as if the whole army must be here. Safe from the guns and artillery of the Federales, safe from anything on Earth.
His harness beeps twice. Ripping apart space and time on a localized level requires extremely specific conditions: creating those conditions takes time. Marcial coughs, the faintest trace of blood spattering on the inside of his mask, and tries not to think about the delicate, fine-tuned reality-smashing engine he is carrying around on his back. He checks his Manuelluxe instead again, wiping off a grey coat of dust in the process and checks the battery level in his magazine. There's no wind, so all Marcial smells and hears is copper and his fellow soldiers. Here a Protector adjusts her skirt of grenades, there a Prosecutor caps the tip of his Espinola coilgun from the dust. Even through the adrenaline, the foreign air and a growing headache, Marcial feels pride and happiness. And there - over in the distance, next to a half-buried spar of greyish-red rock, - a shape unfolds itself. Green on gold, an armoured suit like a knight of old with a dome of glass etched with the Eye and an immense monstrous rifle slung in both hands: a Luminary. Marcial cannot help himself, and stares at the figure in pure fascination and mild nausea. All around the Luminary arise gaseous geometric shapes of light, rainbow pyramids and cylinders turning in and out and over as they flash and contort and bubble-
Suddenly, Marcial catches the eye of the Luminary. There is no way to tell behind the glassy, impenetrable helmet, but Marcial knows. The Luminary gently points an armoured fist to the distance: continue onwards, do not fall behind. Then, before they turn their attention back to the polychromatic shapes that caper and modulate around them, the Luminary gives one final gesture to the Custodian: the Technocratic salute.
The harness beeps three times, ready for activation, and Marcial quickly returns the salute before returning his gaze forward. The captains are yelling the distance to jaunt, coordinating to ensure everyone leaves the universe at the same time. The Adventures and tanks have already left, the airplanes in the skies gone. It is just the infantry again, taking their own route back to Earth. In between breaths, Marcial counts to five and then yanks his left harness side forward, exposing a panel of large buttons and destination coordinates. He punches them in with his right hand, one after another, barely thinking as his gloved fingers repeat the same series of movements that had been drilled into them over and over again. Get the coordinates wrong and you'd either fail to jaunt or end up at one of the other six universes safely accessible to the harness: damage your harnesses's safety protocols, and you could end up literally anywhere alive, dead, or worse.
The twelve digits are punched in, and Marcial slams the panel back into place. He picks up the Manuelluxe from where it'd been slung by his side and moves with the rest of his company. Toxic dust swirls around them as all around figures of light and colour whorl and dance, but even in this maelstrom the order rings loud and clear:
In the blink of an eye, he strides from corrosive dust plains to bio-luminescent cyan fogland. The hazy chill of Mictlan is replaced with the warm static of Tlalocan, and a bead of sweat rolls down Marcial's face at the sudden change in temperature. The ground here is slick and moist, the entire region covered with an eternal knee-high fog of glowing cyan gas, and as the platoon sloshes forward towards their next destination the dust of Mictlan peels off and mixes with the gas, turning the ground into a foaming mess of sickly, vibrant teal froth. Their boots leave deep marks in the mud, and a particularly deep step would result in the land slipping apart, sloughing off to reveal a more liquid-like fog below. It is like walking across a temporarily non-euclidean ocean - and even in the distance, the platoon can see the lights of distant Technocratic ships sailing their way through the muck, deep enough to float upon the fog. Every so often a mound of earth can be seen rising from the fogfloor, going from slick blue mud to blackened, charred areas of glass and sand. Though they are dry land, the platoon avoids them.
Marcial shakes off the afterimage from the jaunt and moves forth, wading through the froth of gas and dust left in the wake of the other soldiers with Manuelluxe held high, feeling the tang of ozone filter through his mask and mix with the blood to create a foul taste in his mouth. Tiny sparks of electricity dance up and over his suit and gun, leaving a faint tingling sensation even through the fabric. His harness beeps once.
It is much lighter here than it is on Mictlan: the ground is luminescent and illuminates the figures of his platoon in odd and monstrous ways, reflecting the gold and green of their uniforms and making them seem almost like coral-clad statues, moving in a lighting-cast night. For the night is lit by lightning as well: lightning that first appears as seeds of light in the sky before exploding into radial spirals of electric mayhem. The first time Marcial had seen them, he had thought of the Soviet's Tesla Towers: white-blue white-hot globes of death. Occasionally one blooms into existence and send wild bolts down to strike at a patch of land with an earsplitting roar, sending soldiers nerves on end.
It is much easier to see on Tlalocan than it is on Mictlan, though the constant reverberation of thunder makes it harder to hear. Easier to see at night certainly, even though so far as Marcial could tell there were no stars in this universe.
His harness beeps twice. The captains and officers are already calling out the coordinates for the next jaunt. They can't stay long here, no more than they could stay long in the last one. The Luminaries might be able to, and they might be able to were they safe behind the walls of an armoured vehicle or inside a base, but alone and exposed no individual soldier could hope to last long in a foreign universe without repercussions. Already Marcial's headache is getting worse, pounding in time to the flashes of lighting and ringing with the thunder. The foul taste in his mouth only grows stronger, and rivulets of sweat run down his face and arms under his uniform. He does not dare take the suit off still.
Instead he continues forward, half marching and half stumbling in the fog and leaving churning froth in his wake. With a fumbling hand he pulls the control panel out, punches in the coordinates for the next jaunt. He and several nearby soldiers flinch as above their heads a lightning sphere crackles into existence, wild lightning crashing around them as if drawn to the blackened spurs of glass and dirt. The smell of ozone is overpowering, the boom of thunder deafening. The fog churns and coats them with luminescent residue, makes the Soldiers of Humanity glowing unearthly beacons in a starless world. Lighting strikes the prow of a distant ship. Around the platoon mounds of earth seem to rise and crack,oozing black things rising and writhing from within...
He can dimly hear the harness beeping, three times. Even with the thunder, even with the sparks running up and down his suit, even with the weight of the gun in his arms and the taste of blood and lightning in his mouth, Marcial is lucid enough to respond to the shouted order that comes, as inevitable as the rest.
There is no space over the world of Xibalba. No stars, no suns. There may even be no atmosphere - perhaps they are all in space at present, and in this reality that space is still full enough to breathe by human lungs. Xibalba may not even be a world by Earth's universal definition - Technocratic metaphysist Benoit Mandelbrot had once tried to describe it to them in training, saying something about 'fractal geometries' and 'realized chaotic orders'. All Marcial knows as he steps from teal fog to violet-green sand is that the world they are moving across is not solid: as he runs over purple-green ridges and trods on sandy valleys, the ground under his feet puffs and expands violently. Wherever he steps, streams of sand float upwards and out, rising eternally into the air before they are caught by unknown winds and spun outwards. Other winds carry sand into whirling vortices, where they grind and smash together to create cyclones of scintillant light. Even as Marcial and the rest of the platoon struggle onwards, ribbons of shimmering purple spool out from the planet around them, endless swirling sands that stretched out to impossibly distant lengths. In the far distance some impossible force makes several form complex intertwined shapes that could be sister images of Xibalba, while around them elongated cyclones of light provide illumination and warmth: an entire system of Mandelplanets.
The platoon slows to a crawl. Xibalba is the last leg of this jaunt, but it is always the hardest. The land under their feet slips away and then refills itself, boots slipping on trails of departing sand only to be heaved upwards by new growth. It is like walking across a constantly gelatinous desert, and the barely-existent air makes it hurt to breathe in. Compounded with the strain of running across Mictlan and Tlalocan, and the run across Xibalba is hell.
He coughs again, and more blood comes out this time. The air inside his rebreather is taken from three different realities, and burns his throat slightly. His head pulses and throbs as he slips over ever-expanding hills of sand, and the Manuelluxe is heavy in his hands. His harness beeps once, and Marcial barely pays attention. The rest of the platoon is in no better shape.
After this, they will be back on Earth. They will have covered almost two thousand five hundred meters in fourteen minutes. They will be tired, nauseous, and under near-immediate enemy fire. Once they have taken out the initial resistance, Marcial has been told, they will have a resting period on Mictlan while the naval forces jaunt in via Tlalocan. The base-builders are already stationed, ready to create improvised shelter that the platoon may rest after their victory.
They need only achieve victory, first.
The air hurts to breathe. No matter how effective the rebreather and the locks, sand always seems to slip through. It leaves a strangely sweet taste in his mouth, one that mixes with the blood and the saliva to cause the taste of rotting meat. The sound of rustling sand and wind blows desolately over the colourful mandelplanet, mixing with the buzzing chimes of distant light cyclones and the ever-present pop and rustle of expanding fractal surfaces to create an omnipresent orchestra of foreign noise. His harness beeps twice, and Marcial thinks about Earth. He thinks about the dark moonless night over Puerto Acosta, and the night breeze that would be blowing through it right about now, and of the waters lapping against Lake Titicaca, and of the numerous drones and Federal soldiers that even now must be searching fractically, trying to find the Technocratic soldiers that had charged them before popping out of existence...
As the officers shout the coordinates for Earth, in voices no less assured but a touch more wear, Marcial gives rise to his own thoughts, "Let's give them hell!" Even as his harness beeps three times in confirmation and his stomach turns over, his spirits lift and he gives his rifle a thrust upwards into the air. The Protector near him raises her anti-material rifle and shouts, even through her garbled words and her own mask, "Give them hell!" A Personnel takes up the cry next, and then a Prosecuter, and all along the line Soldiers of Humanity raise their weapons of the future high and charge forward with renewed vigor.
They're all tired, and all sick, and all about to charge into a warzone. But damn it, they didn't train for months on foreign realities, having their minds expanded and their bodies inured through corrosive atmospheres and frozen rocks, lighting seas and self-replicating sands for nothing. They were Soldiers of Humanity, and they walked through realities unknown to the rest of mankind, and they would give the Federales hell.
There was just one thing left to do first.
They came back to Earth four hundred meters behind the enemy lines and almost twenty five hundred meters from where they'd first jaunted out. In the lights and newly-made rubble of Puerto Acosta, they could see the Federation's defenders turn frantically and awkwardly to respond. They'd been so intent on responding to the Technocratic advance (and finding them when they'd appeared to have dropped off the detection systems) that they'd forgotten to check behind them. And now they would pay the price.
But first, there is something Marcial must do. He scrambles for his mask, undoing the magnetic locks that seal it into place, and then grasps his Manuelluxe with one hand while removing his gas mask with the other. Immediately, he leans forward and vomits a mixture of blood and phlegm onto the ground (many of his fellow Soldiers of Humanity do so as well: the multiverse is rough on human bodies). In the next moment his head snaps up, and in the moment after that his rifle does too. Right as one of the Federal troops is angling his targeting drone's joystick to mark Marcial for a mini-mortar strike, a golden particle wave burns a hole straight through his torso.
Battle is joined.
The Federal soldiers are plugged into their drone networks and SYNCOnized with each other, but omnipresent camera surveillance of the area only helps when your targets are actually there - and when reality performs as expected. With their Aleph field generators and their Astrojaunt-harnesses, the Technocrats are nearly impossible to target and even harder to hit: automatic fire scatters and collapses almost at random, while LUMOS hard-light beams refract into uselessness. Marcial breaks open his right harness panel and dials down to its lowest setting briefly: his suit goes into its lowest power state, and with every beep he jaunts around a spacetime curve to a new firing location fifteen feet distant. He is here, then there, then here again: and so with him, so too the platoon. One by one, the defenders of Puerto Acosta are driven back.
At one point Marcial jaunts to the ruined remnants of what was once an office building, and then hears the whine of a heavy machine gun turning. The Custodian's eyes widen as they take in the form of a partly-damaged Federal Repatriot, head replaced with an integrated six-camera system and body manning a EstaFed 12.7mm HMG. Even as he raises the Manuelluxe, Marcial recognizes the clicking sound of the former criminal trying to fire the unloaded gun and slithering sound of the Repatriot's mechanical third arm entering a new ammo belt. He fires instinctively, only to see a fading glow of light from the tip of the particle rifle and feel an intense heat in his hands: the battery is too hot to fire again. It will not cool down before the Repatriot has reloaded, and his harness has not finished recharging yet, and he still has a pounding headache, and-
There is only the faintest sound of spacetime being imploded before the window to the right of the Repatriot, the Repatriot itself, and everything in a meter vicinity around it stretches wildly and spastically in and out of two, five, eight dimensions. Marcial scrambles back, hearing the Repatriot's buzz distort and fracture as parts of it flail wildly, before he raises his Manuelluxe and pulls the trigger as fast as possible. The gun burns to the touch, but the battery cools down just long enough to send one last golden stream of particles out towards the destabilized prisoner-drone. It thrashes even more violently in its death throws, and then reforms back into normal existence with a melted machinegun and minus seventy percent of its body.
Marcial takes the opportunity to vomit again for good measure, and then turns to what used to be a window. On the rooftop opposite, the Luminary waves briefly, before turning their attention back to the battle in the streets below. They holster their destabilizer rifle and raise their arms high, as if preparing to conduct some unseen orchestra. The air shimmers. Marcial waves back softly, and then sets his Astrojaunt-harness back to its full setting and takes up a new position inside the former office building - shoving aside the smoking remnants of what had once been a man in the process.
The naval ships have jaunted in, and faint blasts from their guns can be felt rocking the town. The lights of aircraft, more Technocratic than Federal, fill the night skies: in the moonless night, the ponderous bulk of distant zeppelins are nearly invisible. To the south, artillery blasts rattle and roar and radioactive beams of light from enormous humanoid walkers light up the night. Marcial's platoon has driven the first wave of Federal defenders out of Puerto Acosta, and those few that are left face a steady stream of in-jaunting soldiers as well as the phantasmic, geometric, polychromatic inhabitants of Mictlan.
Eventually, the last of them flees or falls. Marcial takes one last shot at a rampaging Cherufe Battlesuit, and the damaged cyborg gives a last scream of frustration as it collapses and activates its auto-detonators. There is more noise from further distant, but for now the street is silent.
The survivors of the platoon - and there are those that have fallen, few as they are in number - regroup outside Puerto Acosta while fresh soldiers are trucked in. They wait in weary silence for the squad captains to give them the order to move out once again. The order to go to Mictlan, where fresh base facilities will have been set up in conjunction with Puerto Acosta, a fresh staging ground for the 1975 Liberation of Bolivia. Marcial waits, along with the others, for the order to once more move beyond this reality and into others, move and march across unknown fields under unknown skies, for the order to do the impossible.
He, and they, are not disappointed.