Chapter 17 – Descent into the Deep

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Twenty hours passed as the two nations struggled to develop a viable mission plan and put it into action. Link sat in the dropship racing towards their destination. The water sparkled in its lovely blue shade far below. He watched it rocket past as he worked to calm himself. This wasn’t his idea of a good mission entry point. Saito seemed rather relaxed regarding the situation, as did Bruno. Clearly they’d done such drops before. The four person team the Major had selected conversed casually, no doubt trying to cut through their own tension. This was an unusual scenario after all.

Once the Chancellor arrived, Roslin became amazingly scarce. Link only heard from her once about two hours before they departed. Shad had finished work on his sword and delivered it personally. The Lieutenant ran a hand slowly over his left forearm, curious to see what it could do now. He would have to be at the top of his game. There was a lot riding on this. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying his best to keep his heart rate down.

“Alright ladies, we’re ten kilometers out. The pilot’s slowed our approach. We should be arriving at the drop zone in three minutes,” Saito said with an ease of mind that encouraged the Lieutenant, “Remember, our primary objective is to reach the platform, get to the control room, and if no ranking officers are present, assume command. As of this moment, all weapons are to be set to stun only. Lethal force has not been authorized. They may have turned savage but they’re still Zora citizens. There’s an artificial geothermal vent they’re sitting on top of down there. If that starts bleeding out, it will wipe out the surrounding ecosystem. I’m not gonna get into the long-lasting impact. We have less than six hours to reach the control room and bring the platform’s systems back online before the protection grid fails and we end up with an ecological disaster. Let’s just get in there and take care of business. We drop, a ten minute free fall to the approach point, then another ten minutes to get inside.”

One of the new members to the team raised his hand, which the Major nodded towards.

“Why are we dropping again? Why can’t we just use a submersible?”

“Because, deep sea rescue craft will be too slow and clunky not to mention easy to detect, and to top it off we don’t know if the airlocks are still functional. That section’s internal sensor grid is offline. After gathering intel from Director Ralin as well as partnering with Zora command, we’ve determined the best, fastest way into the facility and to the control room is to do an aerial drop and controlled decent.” Saito replied.

That seemed to satisfy the soldier and he fell silent. The Major paused for a moment, looking over the group to see if anyone else had any further questions before she continued.

When she was satisfied no one had anything else, she carried on.

“Once we make touchdown, we walk up to the southeast stanchion and gain access through one of the auxiliary pressure hatches. Once we’re in, it’s only one ladder up to deck one. We cross four sections and we’re at the control room. Director Ralin will be linked into our communications the minute we’re aboard provided they’re still functional. She can guide us if there are any detours we need to take. Now… if anyone has a problem with the plan, bring it to me.”

Everyone remained silent and Saito sat back down next to the Lieutenant. By this point, he was beginning to tremble. She frowned and gave him a nudge.

“Hey… Link… what’s got you so quiet?” she asked.

“Nothing. Don’t worry about it.” he replied.

Bruno caught the Major’s eyes and glanced to the younger man’s hands to show her. He had taken notice of Link’s nerves. When Saito saw, she found herself more than a little surprised.

“You scared?” she asked, not in a tone intended to make fun but in earnest.

“No, of course not.” Link replied quickly, trying his best to hide his discomfort.

“Then why ya shakin’ so bad? You look like a first year cadet about to go out on the front lines. If somethin’s buggin’ you, I need to know. Now.” the Major said.

The Lieutenant grumbled, looking back out over the water as the craft continued to slow.

“It’s the water.” he said.

“What… you can’t swim?” Saito asked, again with no malice behind her words.

“I can swim just fine. But that’s one thousand five hundred meters of ice cold ocean we’re gonna drop down through. You lose your field of vision fast. Only a few hundred meters and suddenly you’re in almost total darkness. No ground under you to stand on. No rope ready to pull you up or slow you down.” Link explained, still trying his best to mask the quake in his words.

Saito nodded, giving him a light nudge.

“Ahh, I getcha,” she said, “It’s not the landing that’s gettin’ to ya, it’s the fall. You never did get a chance to train for this kind of drop. Just stick close and switch on your lights once we’re under. We’ll be right next to you.”

Link glowered, hating himself for showing such weakness, especially around the new team.

“How pathetic is it that your ‘hero of men’ is scared of the dark?” he asked, thinking rather poorly of himself in that moment.

The Major leaned in after glancing back to make sure no one else was watching her.

“You wanna hear a little secret? I didn’t get the training for this either. My first time was on a mission, like you. If you can get past the first couple of minutes, it’ll get easier. I promise,” she said, “Besides, I’d be worried if you weren’t at least a little nervous on your first drop.”

It was strange that she wasn’t badgering him or belittling him for his fear. Maybe it was because she had been through it herself. Maybe she knew she needed him on her side for this and that meant she had to be on his side. Maybe she was still scared of it herself. The pilot leaned back to shout over the engines at the crew in the hold, visor still down, face almost completely obscured save for the nose and below. It was still bright and sunny enough above water to need to shield their eyes, something Link wouldn’t need to worry about in a moment. That got him to shaking all over again.

“We’re over the drop zone! You are clear for descent! Mission package will descend with you and provide comms topside! Good hunting!” the pilot shouted then swung back to face forward, engaging whatever stabilizers they would need to hold position.

“Alright kiddos! This is it! You go over that edge, you are on mission until we achieve our objective or you’re dead! If you don’t do your job, I’ll knock you out and send you topside myself!” Saito roared.

A shout of acknowledgement filled the cabin.

“We are the best Hyrule has to offer! We’re on the clock on this one so no heroics!” the Major shouted as she nudged Link knowingly, “Stay tight! Stay focused! Stay on mission! You ready!?”

Another shout filled the cabin, more energetic than the first.

“Then let’s do this!” Saito bellowed, ordering the soldiers under her command out of the craft and into the ocean below, “Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!”

With great enthusiasm, the team clambered to their feet, sealed their helmets, and one by one they leapt out of the hatches on either side of the dropship. Five splashes later, Saito was tugging on Link’s arm.

“You got this. Just take a breath, and go. I’ll be right behind you.” she said with a surprising gentleness.

The Lieutenant nodded, breathing slowly and deeply before inhaling hard and leaping. The water rushed up towards him and he squeezed his eyes shut. Noisy cavitation filled his ears. The splash was terrific.

Saito looked back to the pilot and co-pilot. Something didn’t feel right with them just sitting here the whole time. But that wasn’t part of her mission. Command would look after them. And the contingent of Zora already on route would join them at the bottom.

“Stay frosty, you two! I don’t wanna end up high and dry, so to speak!” the Major called out to them.

She received a thumbs-up, then tipped herself backwards towards the water. With that, she was over the edge of the ship, hurtling the ten or so meters to the waiting sea.

Below the surface, the water was pristine and blue all around. Link sank just as quickly as the rest of his team, a steady two and a half meters per second. They had adjusted their buoyancy to maintain that speed so their landing wouldn’t be rough. So long as the depth was correct, that would put them touching down right at ten minutes like they predicted. Ten minutes in the void of darkness. The light was already fading and Link was going over every technique he could think of to calm himself down.

With practiced maneuvers, the other five slowed their descent to meet up with one another. Seeing Bruno and the four newcomers eased Link’s nerves as they fell. They all had engaged the appropriate defensive screen for such a dive. Everyone had been tinged blue, protected from the intense pressure that would be crushing in on them. Link’s suit shifted from its jade hue to that of sapphire in kind. In only a few short minutes, Saito had joined them. She could hear the Lieutenant’s breathing, specifically how rapid and ragged it had become.

“Easy, hero,” she said with no disdain whatsoever in her words, only genuine interest in helping him, “Just take it easy. Slow, deep breaths. Turn on your lights. Eyes on me, nowhere else.”

She had silenced her comms with the rest of the crew, conversing only with him. It was a kind gesture, ensuring that no one else had to know he was struggling. He would need to somehow thank her for this when they made it back topside.

Link did as he was told, reaching up to flick on his suit’s lights. The darkness was already becoming rather oppressive. It was clear there was some sort of less-than-mild phobia at work. As they descended further, the darkness became deeper and the void all around them was shrouded, making it all the more difficult to see what might approach. Link’s breath quickened. His eyes darted about trying to find some single point of reference to latch onto, hoping it might anchor his mind.

“Lieutenant! Eyes on me!” the Major shouted and shook him, trying to jostle him into obeying.

But it was too late. Link turned his gaze upward and saw the fading light above. He couldn’t even make out the dropship hovering over the surface. Instinctively, he tilted his head forward and gazed downward. The black abyss below loomed below. That had been a tremendous mistake. Link immediately closed his eyes tightly, breathing quite hard now.

“I can’t do it! I just can’t do it! I need to go back up!” he said, trying his hardest not to scream the words.

“Link! Link stop it! Listen to me! You have to slow your breathing!” Saito shouted as she continued to shake him, now getting the attention of the other soldiers.

They all shifted about trying to encircle the frantic Lieutenant. They had seen–or at the very least heard of–this kind of reaction. They followed procedure, checking his mixture, his suit’s integrity. Everything checked out. What he was suffering was in his mind. That required specific tactics to address.

Soon, it wasn’t just Saito trying to snap Link out of his panic. Six loud voices were screaming at him through his radio. But he couldn’t hear them. All he could hear was the blood rushing in his ears. He began to feel faint, as if he would lose consciousness. That terrified him even further. Not to only be trapped in this crushing blackness but to pass out so that who knows what could happen to him.

“Link!”

A singular voice sliced through the noise. It wasn’t on the radio.

“Link… listen to the sound of my voice.”

It was calm, soothing, comforting. He knew that voice.

“I know what you’re doing right now is terribly difficult. I know that it would be easy to just give into the fear. But I need you to stop and focus. Take one, big, slow breath for me.”

There was no static or telltale crackle and hiss. It wasn’t Saito. He struggled to regain his composure, focusing entirely on that one voice.

“Can you do that for me? A single, slow breath?”

The Lieutenant nodded and strained against his enraged lungs, burning and searing away from his hyperventilation. He opened his mouth and breathed in as deeply and as slowly as he could.

“Good. Now breathe out just as slowly and completely. Then take another breath just like that.”

Link obeyed the voice, gradually beginning to come to his senses. He switched off his transmitter, wanting to test his theory.

“Good. Keep that up. Nice and gentle. We’ll get you through this.”

“Potentate?” he asked.

His tablet was working, and working well.

“Yes, it’s me. It’s Zelda. Roslin told me she gave you one of the stones. I’ve been monitoring the mission’s progress. You started to worry me when I saw you panicking. How do you feel?”

Link was horribly out of breath, but at least he was recovering. His eyes were still shut. He wasn’t even aware of the team around him or that they were sinking. Somehow, she had taken away all of his fear and anxiety.

“Better.” he replied.

“Good. Now, turn your radio back on. I’m sure your team would like to know you’re okay. If you need anything, I’ll be right here listening in.”

He nodded and switched the transmitter back on, suddenly being flooded with all manner of concerned calls and swears. He had seriously worried them when he had turned his radio off. At least no one was shaking him anymore.

“I’m okay. I’m okay… I… I just kind of lost my head for a minute.” Link said, the tremor in his voice still present but decidedly less pronounced.

The tension faded between the seven other soldiers and sighs of relief passed all around. Saito gave the Lieutenant a good punch in the shoulder.

“Next time listen to me!” she shouted, then grumbled and calmed herself as she recalled what Roslin had told her upon being promoted, “You sure you’re okay?”

Link nodded, finally opening his eyes again, his breathing much more regular. Still, it was quite clear the environment had him rattled.

“I’m fine, I promise. It won’t happen again,” he said, “How far until we reach the bottom?”

“Another eleven hundred meters. We’ve got your back. Just keep cool.”

He nodded and continued to control his breathing. Covertly, he turned his radio back off and reached out to the woman who had rescued him without even being present.

“Your highness, forgive me. I’ll do better.” he said, desperate to project a better impression of himself, especially to the Potentate.

“I know you will.”

“Where is First Minister Roslin?” Link asked.

“I had need of her. She is taking care of a very important task for me. I will let her explain when next you see her again. Turn your radio back on. You shouldn’t stay out of contact with your team.”

“But how do I communicate through the stone without them hearing?”

A quiet sigh could be heard through their connection.

“Focus on a single image. Be it me, or Roslin, or whoever you need to reach out to. If they have a stone within arm’s reach, think your message and they will hear it. It will take practice to be able to form the message completely, but we will hear you no matter what.”

Link nodded again, switched his radio back on, and remained quiet as the team sank. There was not a single shred of light from topside. The Lieutenant thought it would make things worse, but instead, it seemed to help. Without any evidence of where they were, he could ignore the fact that they were so deep.

Link spent much of the time with his eyes closed, simply breathing slow and deep, and trying his best to ignore the mission clock and depth gauge, especially after they passed one kilometer down. Before too long, a new voice joined the chorus of status reports around him.

“This is Commander Exal, Zora Special Forces,” he said, “We have you on our sensors and we’re moving to intercept and escort.”

Lights loomed into view out of the darkness. They weren’t the clunky, harsh artificial lights the Hylian troops used. These were a beautiful mixture of pale blue, green, pink, and white. They created striking patterns in the black field, showing movement of a particular sort. Within moments, Link could see what created such marvelous sights.

Ten Zora warriors emerged from the darkness, circling around the group of seven, each one adorned with their own unique pattern of bioluminescence. Their armor and clothing had been designed specifically to either expose these instances of natural light or to cover but not conceal it. They truly were a remarkable people. The Commander had the most ornate appearance, the most complex patterns running along his fins and frills of the group. He offered a smile to the Hylians.

“Commander Exal of the Zora Special Forces,” the leader of the group said, introducing himself, his voice completely unhindered by the water, “Glad to see some friendly faces. Welcome to the Zora Dominion, soldiers. We’ll get you home in one piece. Not much further to go. Brace for landing.”

Not but a few moments after he spoke did the ground suddenly appear. The sound of metal striking rock, dampened by the water, rang out. All seven stumbled briefly before righting themselves. Saito composed herself from the sudden start and looked about, reaching out to command.

“This is Major Saito. We have touchdown at mission time plus oh-nine-forty-six. Our depth is one thousand three hundred eighty-seven meters. No sight of the platform yet. We’ve made contact with the Zora escort. We are moving to locate and board the platform.”

“Understood Major. We show comms are registering thirteen percent above expected fidelity. Equip your mission packages and move out.” replied a voice from the command center.

It was Nadia. For Link, it was good to hear another familiar voice. Immediately after, yet another familiar one joined in as well.

“This is Regent Yates,” said the second voice, “I’ll be assuming command in Roslin’s absence. The Minister apologizes but there is a task the Potentate herself required of her.”

Saito frowned, “Copy that. Stand by, extracting mission package.”

She wasn’t entirely thrilled at the prospect of Roslin being unavailable and Yates taking her place. But there was little to be done at the moment. The Major moved over to the crate that had landed just a few meters from the group. A few quick key presses and the code was entered, unlocking the container. The lid unlocked on all four sides and Saito lifted it off, sitting it aside. Inside were several medallion-like objects, each one roughly the size of a person’s hand. They were flat on one side and rose in a shallow dome on the other, appearing to be made of some sort of opalescent material. As Satio began passing them out to the Hylian members of the team, Nadia came through on the radio.

“These were brought in special from the Zora Dominion,” the operator explained, “They wanted us carrying them on the dropship so we’d have them in case their people couldn’t make it. We were under strict orders not to activate them until the team was on station. They only function in the water. When you get to the station airlock, or if you need to return to the surface, be sure to remove it before breaching. To activate, place on the center of your chest.”

Commander Exal took one of the devices from the Major, looking back at the rest of the group.

“They’re a little tricky. You must apply considerable pressure in order to make it work.” he said.

The Zora Commander placed the half oval object against Saito’s chest and reached around to her back, holding her still as he pushed forward with his other hand. A soft popping sound filled the water and the attachment adhered itself. Immediately, it began to glow, sending a wave across the Major’s armor, reconfiguring it. The plating shifted and creaked as it slimmed and smoothed, appearing almost like cetacean skin, not unlike Zora skin. It was a marine adaptation. Lights began to appear across the suit, mimicking those of the aquatic soldiers they were accompanied by. The sleek, finned and frilled design ensured greater speed moving through the water. The others began applying their own adaptors as well, going through similar changes.

Link’s was slightly different however. There was a belt about his waist with a handful of gadgets the others didn’t posses. He didn’t make any noise about the matter, especially as he read over the updated suit manifest when it scrolled by. Saito nodded as she looked over the team, seeing all of them blending in a bit better with the other half of their team as well as their environment. So far, everything had gone fairly smoothly.

“That’s something new. Command, mission package accepted. We’re moving to target now.” Saito reported.

Yates responded, sounding only somewhat at home in his new position, “Acknowledged. Tracking your progress now. Bear left ten degrees and follow the slope downward two hundred meters. You should fall in sight of the platform as you go.”

Exal reached into the container as they all turned to leave, retrieving the last device inside, swimming back over to Saito. He offered a silent nod as he stowed the gear. She returned the nod, opting to keep the matter quiet for the time being. There was a silent understanding between Commanders to inform home base only if absolutely necessary on certain details.

“Understood, we’re on our way.” Saito replied.

The newly equipped crew each tapped one of the glowing circles on their chest, forcing it to change color. Immediately, the bulkiness of their boots vanished and they felt themselves become neutrally buoyant. Swimming would be faster than walking. As they progressed, their sensor arrays reached out and scanned, finding all manner of interesting marine life. The whole experience would have been rather pleasant, like a tourist dive, were it not for the mission they were preoccupied with.

Their scans continued until the outskirts of their range reached the edge of what looked like a massive pit, relatively shallow, but incredibly wide. In the center stood something that registered as metallic, and offered a simple ping, identifying it as the platform. As they followed the beacon, light began to filter through the water, dull at first, but building quickly as they approached. Soon, the ledge of the pit stopped them. They weren’t afraid of falling, but the sight of what lay at the heart of it captured their attention.

It was a round structure, flat and disc like. The widest portion was a single level, likely the observation deck for those who were long-term workers. There were at least five decks above, not extending outward as far, and many more beneath, like the engineering and command sections. Several short towers rose out of the top, giving it a somewhat delicate appearance. Four large stanchions supported the platform at what would have been its corners. A central shaft extended down from the main body into a deeper pit. The opening was a good fifty meters wide, occupied almost entirely by the drilling shaft.

The shimmer of a protection barrier surrounded the shaft and the rest of the opening, preventing excess heat and toxic compounds from escaping into the ecosystem. With the platform running on emergency backup power, it wouldn’t last too much longer. They would have to get the mains back online fast. The light of geothermal heat cast a red tinge across the underside of the whole platform, giving it a slightly sinister look. Whatever they were doing down there, it was incredibly hot.

“Command, we’ve sighted the platform. We’re moving to approach the target stanchion.” Saito called out.

“Hold on Major,” Bruno said as he reached out and gripped the woman’s shoulder, stopping her moving, “I’m picking up something on sonar. It’s a cluster of signals moving together.”

“What, like a school of fish or something?” Saito asked.

The larger soldier shook his head, “No, these are bigger, each one is roughly the size of a man-” Bruno said as he trailed off, slowing his words as it began to dawn on him.

Exal gazed off into the water in the direction the Hylians’ sensors all indicated. He had picked up on the presence as well, though he didn’t need technological assistance to sense them.

“They’re our people,” the Commander said, “But we don’t usually swim in groups like that. We haven’t done that since…”

Link frowned, “Since back before the founding of the Kingdom of Hyrule. They’ve been infected.”

He was careful to use that word rather than mention what had actually triggered the sudden change. Roslin advised him of that when last they spoke. Mention of the shards and their effects was intended to be kept as quiet as possible. No need to cause another international incident.

“Whatever the case, they might detect us. We need to hide, now. Get down into the quarry and find cover.” Exal said.

The Commander gestured for his men to help the surface dwellers, motioning for them to head down. The group hurried along, moving briskly but not so much as to draw unwanted attention. Saito landed first and searched the area, finding nothing considerable to conceal the group with.

“You got any suggestions on how we can hide? There’s not just a whole lotta cover here.” the Major called out.

“Get in close to the rocks if you can,” Exal replied, “We’ll try to make them think we’re part of the ocean floor. If they don’t get too close, we should be able to fool them until they pass.”

Immediately the team separated and huddled down against whatever boulders they could press themselves against. Hopefully it would do the trick. Exal and Saito hunkered down behind their own rock, peering out carefully to watch the surrounding waters. Tension started to mount as everyone took their positions.

The cluster of red dots on the sonar readout pinged closer and closer, as if they were moving methodically, perhaps on patrol. There were about thirty of them, too many for the group to take on. They had to evade detection, otherwise it might mean end of mission then and there.

“I’m ordering radio silence. Don’t move, don’t even talk. We are the rocks. Kill the lights.” Exal said in what amounted to a whisper.

The Zora were able to conceal their bioluminescence at will, while the Hylians had to disable it manually. Saito took a quiet breath to relax herself, watching the readout intently. Closer the cluster drew, swinging back and forth across the quarry until they could be seen without the aid of any devices.

The group was indeed thirty strong, each one lacking the usual clothing the Zora were known to wear on deep dives. They were only tattered scraps if anything. Their mouths hung open, showing jagged, razor-like teeth as if they were sharks. That wasn’t normal. Unsettling was perhaps too kind a term to describe it. Had the radiation mutated them as well?

As the school approached, they turned as if following an invisible path around the platform, angling away from the group but still dangerously close. Seeing them turning to head the other direction eased the tension of the entire group. Exal himself however remained tense. He had been more deeply disturbed by the sight of his people in such a state. He stared hard, his eyes squinting as though he were in pain. Saito reached out and gripped his shoulder.

“Hey, you alright?” the Major asked.

Exal gave his head a quick shake as if he had been lost in thought and was coming back from it before speaking, “I’m fine… just a headache. It’s been a while since I’ve been deeper than two hundred meters. It’ll go away.”

Saito frowned again, not liking the sound of that when she replied, “Keep me updated. If anything changes, no matter how insignificant, let me know. What’s got them buggy could potentially affect any of us. I don’t need anyone on the team turning on us at a critical moment.”

As if she invoked such a change, one of Exal’s men hissed loudly and threw itself at the nearest Hylian, Link. The Lieutenant cried out in surprise, trying to fend off his attacker as he clawed and flailed. He didn’t remember the Zora being so ungodly strong! Without hesitation, the others were on top of the two in seconds, pulling the deranged warrior away and restraining him. He growled and snapped as if he had gone feral. Exal sneered angrily, his upper lip curling. Not knowing the cause of this was beginning to infuriate him.

“Whatever is doing this to my people… we have to find it and destroy it.” he said.

“We’re here to put a stop to it, you have my word,” Saito said, “That’s why the Lieutenant is on my team. He specializes in this kind of thing. We’ll save your people, I promise.”

“Major, I think our little skirmish just blew our cover.” Bruno said.

The ping of the school returned, stronger than ever. The soldiers all turned to look, all having forgotten about the other feral Zora. A loud collective hiss sounded through the water as the patrol descended upon them.

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