Two Worlds – Chapter 14

Benjamin Gold

Location: London, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

One Mississippi…two Mississippi…

<Breath in…breath out.> Ben took the calming breaths.

Three Mississippi…four Mississippi…

It was amazing how sitting at a door for less than five seconds could mess with a person’s nerves. Ben knew this tactic well. He’d sat next to his father while the man did this to visiting CEOs or planetary delegates. It was a simple power play. It told whoever was knocking on the door that they didn’t hold any authority here. From the little Ben knew about Fleet politics this was only the opening act.

“Come in.” The voice was muffled by the expensive wood, but Ben didn’t hesitate to obey.

The door slid open soundlessly and Ben found himself staring out into the sky. Despite being a Fleet officer who had been into space several times; suddenly being exposed to a direct view of two and a half kilometers up made his head swim. <Move,> Ben told his legs, knowing this was another power play. <Make them know who is in charge and then hit them with a display of power.>

                Ben tore his eyes away from the glass wall directly ahead of him and turned to his right. There was a short hallway with a small nook containing what looked like a chunk of metal before it opened up into the admiral’s office.

A Rear Admiral in the Commonwealth Armed Forces was the second highest rank attainable by an officer. In the Fleet, a rear admiral could hold a couple different positions. The first was a staff position leading a department for a fleet. This gave the officer the experienced needed to one day command a fleet of his or her own. Traditionally, fleet level staff positions went to senior rear admirals who were being evaluated for command. The second position available to the high ranking officers was a field position as a task force commander. Due to sheer size of the Commonwealth, very few systems or even sectors earned a full fleet presence. The next unit down in the organizational structure was a task force; which was normally a contingent of warships broken off from a fleet. This could be anywhere from a handful to dozens of ships; it just depended on the situation. Since task force command was a good progression from ship command, but not as taxing as being a department head for an entire fleet, this position went to newly minted rear admirals.

Ben didn’t know as much about the rank responsibilities of his infantry officer counterparts, but he did know that an infantry rear admiral typically was in charge of a planetary invasion force in the field, or a corps in garrison. An infantry corps is the highest unit structure in the Fleet’s military counterpart, numbering roughly a million soldiers. Needless to say, anyone with the four golden stripes of a rear admiral had more responsibility than a twenty-six-year-old lieutenant could possibly comprehend.

All of this went through Ben’s head in the second and a half it took him to traverse the small hallway and emerge into the office. The office was massive and just a luxuriously decorated as the area the hawkish commander reigned over. The carpet looked like spider silk from Arachna, one of the Corer Worlds with an indigenous population of horse-sized spiders. The silk was the planet’s primary export good, and was sought all over the Commonwealth. Gold, silver, and other precious metals and stones glinted in fixtures and from behind high density security polymer display cases. There had to be ten million dollars in conversation pieces throughout the office, and that didn’t even include the expensive art decorating the walls. Ben couldn’t be certain, but he swore there was an original Van Gogh hanging behind the admiral’s desk. Even coming from a blue-blooded, blue-eyed family this was extravagant.

Ben took it all in as he smartly marched toward the Admiral’s desk. He stopped three paces from it, snapped to the position of attention, and announced himself. “Lieutenant Gold, reporting as ordered, Sir.” If Ben had been in the infantry he would have added a salute to the reporting process, but the Fleet didn’t require that.

Rear Admiral Johnathan Helms sat behind his desk reading his PAD. He didn’t look up. He just continued to read the electronic document in front of him. It was another power play, so Ben sat there and took it. He was a lieutenant and this man was a rear admiral. Even with Ben’s pedigree this man was clearly the one holding all the cards.

When Ben first arrived at First Fleet’s Personnel Department he’d done his due diligence. He researched all of his bosses, including the man sitting before him right now. Ben knew that the admiral was one hundred and eighty centimeters tall, and his enhanced black skin and eyes were the result of genetic mutation from the first colonists to settle the sub-tropical planet of New Kingston. Ben knew that the admiral had come up through the tactical school, and had commanded everything from a frigate on freighter escort to a battleship in combat against the Eastern Block. It was due to those commands that the admiral could attribute much of his wealth.

Due to the sensitive nature of ship design and its impact on interstellar warfare, it was very hard to capture enemy ships; but the Commonwealth encouraged it whenever possible. It even offered an incentive of twenty percent remuneration to the captain and another ten percent to the crew who were able to pull it off. Rear Admiral Rear Johnathan Helms had a reputation for two things; winning battles and capturing enemy ships. When a captured battleship went for a few billion dollars it became a lucrative business.

Ben waited another twenty seconds before the admiral acknowledged him. “At ease, Lieutenant.” The older man put down his PAD and looked up at Ben.

From the admiral’s reputation, Ben expected cold calculation and ruthlessness in the man’s eyes; just like the commander in the lobby. What Ben saw were deep laugh lines on the man’s face, and calm, reassuring eyes. Instead of the brilliant strategist, Ben saw a loving uncle who would sit for hours playing with nieces and nephews. More than the wait at the door, the sudden look into the clouds, and the waiting at the position of attention; the admiral’s face threw Ben off the most.

The admiral saw this, and he smiled. The smile was more along the lines of something Ben expected. Like an eagle that would protect its young, but that didn’t stop it from being what it really was, and airborne predator.

“Lieutenant Gold, please have a seat.” The admiral’s voice had pleasant, accented rumble to it.

“Thank you, sir.” Ben lowered himself into the seat. The nano-fibers adjusted to the contours of his body and took all the pressure off his back and shoulder’s. He almost sighed in relief.

“I’ve been reading up on you, Lieutenant.” The admiral leaned back in his chair casually. “Top of your class out of Columbia’s Fleet Reserve Training Curriculum, an excellent rating on your Midshipman Evaluation Form, along with a glowing letter of recommendation from your detachment’s Commander.” The admiral didn’t need to read off his PAD to list Ben’s accomplishments. “After graduation you entered the Fleet Reserves and signed an active contract in exchange for assignment preference after your doctoral studies; a Ph.D. in Intergalactic Relations.” The admiral raised his eyebrows in respect.

“Yes, Sir.” Ben didn’t know what else to say when the senior officer paused.

“You’ve been with us in Personnel for the last few years and earned high marks in everything from annual evaluations to extracurricular,” the admiral chuckled. “Your boss managed to added that your one hell of a fencer to your fitness report in the last fifteen minutes.”

The admiral was putting Ben at ease, so Ben smiled back, but still remained professional. “Yes, Sir. She’s not too bad herself.”

That favorite Uncle look was back on the admiral’s face. “By all accounts you are an exemplary officer, Lieutenant Gold. Do you have anything to add?”

“I start my thesis presentation tomorrow, Sir.” It wasn’t an addition as much as a clarification.

“Good luck.” The sentiment was genuine. “And that’s the reason I’ve called you here today.”

Ben didn’t know why, but he tensed up. The smile vanished from his face and the admiral noticed. “Don’t worry, Lieutenant, you aren’t in trouble. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.”

“Sir?” Ben said before he could stop himself. He still wasn’t quite sure what he’d done to earn a meeting with a rear admiral.

“From your time with us I’m sure you are aware of promotion regulations, probably far more than I am.”

Ben didn’t know about that. “I’m proficient, Sir.”

“Good. Because this conversation is about your future.” A mixture of exhilaration and dread filled Ben’s gut.

The admiral retrieved his PAD and punched in a few commands. Ben’s PAD, which was in a secure pocket on his thigh, pinged softly. The admiral nodded, and Ben retrieved it. On the screen was a short bio Ben wrote back when he first started at the Personnel Department. It had the basics of who he was, what he’d done, and what he wanted to do. Clearly listed were his five and ten year goals. Ben had forgotten he’d written this, and that he was almost at that five-year mark.

“I’m more interested in what you have listened under your ten-year goal,” the admiral stated.

There were two things listed under the ten-year goal slot; making Lieutenant Commander, and being accepted into the Diplomatic Relations Corps. “Sir, I…” Ben didn’t know what to say.

“Here is what I have in mind.” The older officer was reclining in his chair again. “Thesis presentations take a few days, a few more for the committee to make a decision; so let’s call it a week total. It would be less anywhere else, but they’re a bit pretentious over at Oxford.” Ben was grinning despite himself, not at the joke but at what was happening. “Once you achieve your doctorate you’ll be eligible for promotion based on academic achievement.”

Ben’s grin morphed into a smile. Officer promotions were handled in zones based upon your commission date, time in service, and your evaluation reports. On average it took a lieutenant eight years to make the jump to lieutenant commander. Some people saw it in six, others in ten; but most of the officers Ben talked to said that eight was a good benchmark. Making the jump in four was unheard of; especially in the Fleet Reserve.

“Don’t look so surprised.” The admiral’s expression was warm, but his eyes were focused. “Diplomatic Relations is a critical needs specialty, and having a doctorate in intergalactic relations makes you an ideal candidate. However…” Ben’s momentary high ended in a sudden plummet back down to earth. “…I’m sure you’re aware of the Corps requirements.”

Ben was aware of the requirements, he’d memorize those years ago; and he felt stupid for getting his hopes up. The Diplomatic Relations Corps had two requirements. First, you needed to be an officer in the rank of lieutenant commander or higher, or a noncommissioned officer in the rank of chief petty officer of higher. If everything worked out like the admiral had planned, Ben would meet this requirement soon. It was the second requirement that was a problem. All officers of the Diplomatic Relations Corps needed to have command experience. Being a commander meant that you had exercised Commonwealth authority sometimes weeks out of the communications loop. Commanders had a lot of autonomy within the Fleet to make decisions. With the powers of command came some serious responsibility.

“I need command experience,” Ben answered the admiral’s unasked question. He couldn’t help the defeat that crept into his voice.

“Yes you do.” Unlike Ben, the admiral didn’t look discouraged at all. “So I’m prepared to give you that.”

“What!” Ben couldn’t help himself.

Getting a promotion ahead of his peers was one thing, but getting command was something entirely different. His doctorate made him eligible for promotion, but getting a command so soon would mean he was jumping a bunch of other officers who’d been waiting in line for god knew how long. Ben wasn’t sure how he felt about it.

“You’re not going to be getting a cruiser, destroyer, or even one of those rust-bucket frigates that they’re about to mothball.” The admiral’s face was serene as he explained it all. “What I can get you is a gunboat command at the ass end of nowhere. The boat I have in mind is finishing construction, and will be shipping out in the next few months. You’ll go with it, you’ll do a six month tour scouting asteroids and doing commerce inspections, you’ll get some experience under your belt, and then you’ll come back to Earth to start your diplomatic training.”

<This is too good to be true,> and Ben realized it had to be. Nothing in this world was free, even the rich had to pay; sometimes more than anyone else, and with currency more valuable than money.

“That is a dream come true, Sir; so you’ll understand if I’m a bit apprehensive.” To Ben’s surprise the admiral smiled.

“It’s good that you’re apprehensive.” The friendly uncle look was gone. The admiral’s face was more calculating now. “You’ll only get so far in the Fleet with good evaluations and a can do attitude.”

Ben knew that. In a perfect world that was all it would take, but in reality you needed more. You needed patronage, mentorship, or straight up cash to climb the ladder. Ben knew of commanders who’d served decades in a rank without making captain, and that was because they didn’t play the game. Ben hadn’t played the game before, but his family were grand masters of it, and it seemed like it was time for him to enter the fray.

Ben kept his expression respectful because his question wasn’t. “What do you want?”

The admiral was silent for a while, just like when Ben reported in. His black eyes scrutinized Ben, the flecks of blue dancing in his sclera. Finally, he gave a nod.

“The next Admiral’s Board is approaching,” the rear admiral explained. “If I set the path for you to achieve your dream, I’d like your family to back mine.”

<There it is. Quid pro quo, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.> The thing about it was that Ben got just as much out of it as the rear admiral did.

Ben got a bump in rank, the experience he needed to live his dream, and the patronage of a full admiral. As far as military contacts went, Rear Admiral Johnathan Helms was someone Ben could hitch himself to and ride to the top. The admiral might be playing the political game necessary to reach the top, but Ben knew the man was also competent. If he wasn’t, Ben’s answer might have been different.

“Yes, Sir. I’ll be happy to put in a good word for you to my father.”

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Two Worlds – Chapter 13

Benjamin Gold

Location: London, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

            Ben wiped the condensation from the mirror to get a good look at his appearance. A nice warm shower had done wonders to relieve his nerves and focus his mind; not to mention relaxing his muscles. The locker rooms were still pretty empty with a half hour left in the officers’ lunch break, so he’d been able to shower without feeling rushed. <Well, as not rushed as you can feel when you are meeting with your department head in half an hour, > he corrected himself.

He did a personal inventory to make sure he met the Fleet’s grooming standards. The first thing to consider was his hair. Hair had to be in a close-cut, professional fashion. On men it couldn’t touch the ears, and on women it couldn’t touch the collar of their CMUs. Women had the option of doing their hair up in tight buns; so as long as their hair wasn’t waist length they could have whatever style they wanted. Uniform sticklers would focus on hair color, but changes were allowed as long as they were natural. Anyone with blue or pink hair was going to get written up.

Ben had run into the problem when he first reported for duty. His hair wasn’t bubble gum pink or sky blue, it was gold; not blonde, gold. That was another part of the in vitro enhancements he’d undergone before birth. Since their family surname was Gold, and the company was on Fortune 100’s list of most successful enterprises, his father thought it would be impressive to recode all of their genes. Everyone in the Gold family had golden hair, but it wasn’t an issue to anyone but Ben.

The situation was easily remedied with a quick genome evaluation and a note on his record stating that gold was his natural hair color. Some people still questioned him, but telling those types of people that he came from that Gold family usually kept them off his back. When his hair was longer it was more of an issue, but Ben had it cut in a traditional fade style that officers preferred. It lost a lot of its shine when it was practically skin tight on the side and fairly short on top.

It had been about two weeks since he had it cut, but he was still well within regulations. Next he needed to shave. Just like the hair on top of his head his facial hair was gold; which would make his face shine like the precious metal if he ever decided to grow a beard. Fortunately, he found the itchiness of the growing hair irritating, so he shaved every morning. There was just the barest hint of a five o’clock sunrise, Ben’s version of a five o’clock shadow, but that was enough for him to quickly drag the razor across his face. The beam of light reduced the small, developing hair follicles to cinders that fell cleanly into the sink.

Confident he was within grooming standards, Ben turned his attention to his uniform. Like all officers at First Fleet Headquarters, Ben wore his gray CMUs on the Dress setting. As a Lieutenant, the lowest officer rank, with only four years in the Fleet Reserve, Ben’s uniform wasn’t as distinguished as most people in the building. His rank insignia was the most prevalent. A platinum stripe two and a half centimeters thick started at his neck, went over his shoulder, and all the way down his arm to the wrist. The same platinum stripe started just below his armpit and ran down the side of his torso and legs to his ankles. All officers had these stripes on their CMUs while the enlisted and non-commissioned officers did not.

Aside from the rank stripes he had two rows of ribbons above his left pectoral, but they were all standard service ribbons and unit ribbons everyone in First Fleet wore. He was proud of his Qualification badge, where he earned the highest level of marksmanship; and his achievement medal for his performance representing the fleet’s Personnel Department in last year’s fencing championship. In the past, officers wouldn’t have worn those medals, but the smartcloth uniforms of the modern military displayed everything on your official record; whether you wanted it or not.

There was no need to smooth out any wrinkles or shine any shoes. The smartcloth uniforms eliminated any upkeep requirements that past uniforms required. Ben suspected veterans from past Earth nation’s would argue about the merits of uniform maintenance and how it instilled a sense of duty and respect for the uniform. Anyone who had to spend hours on something to meet high standards was going to take care of that item. This was all a hypothetical in Ben’s mind, because anyone who fit that description had been dead for hundreds of years.

Ben stepped back from the mirror and took a deep breath. He was nervous about the upcoming meeting, and the things that lay beyond it. Today was Sunday, the last day of his weekend training for the month; but tomorrow was going to be one of the biggest days of his life.

Ben was only twenty-six, and he knew that was young; especially by modern standards. Every time he looked in his own eyes he was reminded of that. At twenty-five Ben was old enough to undergo his first round of cellular rejuvenation therapy. The procedure had been around for a century, and was in its third iteration. Despite how long it had been around it was still absurdly expensive. Fifty million Commonwealth dollars to perform, and that was on top of any coverage that health insurance offered.  It only got more expensive with the once a decade follow-on treatments. Only a fraction of the human population could afford it.

Ben studied his eyes and saw the blue specks in his sclera, a side effect of the treatment. When the first iteration of the therapy was administered the original recipients had been horrified with the deformation. It wasn’t much, just a handful of tiny blue marks in the whites of their eyes, but it was noticeable. The second iteration quickly found a cure for the abnormality, but by then it had become a signifier of class and no one was willing to change it. As a result, no one said someone was “born with a silver spoon in their mouth”. The modern equivalent was “being born with blue in your eyes”.  Anyone who had blue in their eyes was automatically identified as wealthy, powerful, and influential; the best that humanity had to offer.

Ben ignored that thought. If this meeting didn’t go well he would probably never be the best at anything in the military. The man he was meeting with would undoubtedly have blue in his eyes, and half a century of military experience. Ben was inconsequential compared to the Admiral.

<Twenty minutes.> Ben stopped psyching himself out and exited the locker room. He was on the fiftieth story of the Commonwealth Planetary Government Headquarters, and had a long way to go.

The Commonwealth headquarters on Earth was massive, and a testament to architecture that had tried to combine the wonders of the ancient world with modern technology. In Ben’s opinion they had failed, but Ben’s opinion didn’t matter in this arena. The building was two and a half kilometers tall, the tallest building in London. The first kilometer of the building took up a large portion of the city’s central district. A flawless white pyramid dominated the London skyline, and rose into the clouds. The nanites on the building’s surface kept it pristine, and a constant symbol of the Commonwealth’s authority as the wealthiest and militarily strongest of the starfaring nations. After the first kilometer, where a normal pyramid would have ended, a blade of gleaming metal and glass burst from the pyramid’s tip to rise another kilometer and a half into the sky. The outside of the construction was pockmarked with anti-grav generators to keep the massive structure standing.

Ben literally needed to ride the grav-lifts into the clouds to get to his scheduled appointment over two kilometers away. Twenty minutes was barely enough time. He started his ride with four other people. They stopped four times within the pyramid portion of the buildings, which largely held the non-military governmental functions. Each stop picked up more passengers which caused the lift to stop even more times. Ten minutes past and Ben had gone less than two hundred floors. He could feel the sweat forming under his armpits as the seconds ticked by. If things didn’t slow down he’d have to commit to blocking the door with his considerable bulk and turning people away. There were dozens of lifts stationed all over the building, but it would still make a lot of important people angry.

Thankfully, once the lift broke out of the pyramid and into the smaller spire the people began to thin out. Now the only occupants were in CMUs and they were in just as big a hurry as Ben was. The last officer to leave gave Ben a confused look. The older man had the three golden stripes of a Captain. This was a man who’d probably commanded entire battleships, and he was getting off on a lower floor than Ben. All Ben could do was nod respectfully to the man who outranked his direct supervisor.

The lift door closed and Ben silently and swiftly ascended to the top dozen stories of the building. Ben had never been this high, and he doubted 99.9% of the people in this building had either. The top dozen floors of the spire were reserved for the top brass of the planetary government and Fleet. The planetary governor, Council representative, and First Fleet Commander would all be within two hundred meters of Ben. A moderately skilled marksman could make that shot hungover.

The ding of the lift opening made Ben jump. “Rear Admiral Johnathan Helms, Officer in Charge, First Fleet Personnel Department.” A soothing computerized voice announced.

The lift slid open to reveal a large open space. It was filled with luxury items, opulent furnishings, a state-of-the-art holo displaying the news, and a single individual. The professional, hawk-faced women in double gold Commander’s stripes looked over at Ben like a predator evaluating her prey. Ben easily had a hundred plus kilos, and seventy centimeters, on the woman, but that didn’t matter. Everything about the woman made Ben afraid of what was about to happen.

“Lieutenant Benjamin Gold.” Her voice had a short clip that was brisk and to the point.

“Yes, Ma’am,” Ben answered just as quickly. Everything about this woman screamed “time is money”.

She quickly glanced at her watch, but her face didn’t change. Ben couldn’t tell if she was angry at him for being nearly late, or pleased that he was still on time. “The Admiral will see you now.” Her eyes pointed to the only office on the entire floor.

Ben didn’t hesitate because doing so would have been a critical mistake. He’d been taken off guard, but Ben had seen these types of people before. He’d seen these attitudes when he’d gone with his father to board meetings. The commander was a predator, a human shark that would circle blood of any weakness she could exploit. The only different between her and members of Gold Technologies Board was that she gave law-abiding orders he had to follow.

<No time to think; only time to act.> Ben steeled himself as his long strides carried him across the richly carpeted room and to the door made of Martian Sandalwood.

He gave it three powerful knocks and waited.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 65

<When did I start getting so nervous?> Daisy wondered as she pulled into the hospital parking lot.

Subconsciously, she’d been wondering this for a while. Since her panic attack, decertification, and drunken three-year binge across the country she’d lost a lot of her edge. She’d reacquired a portion of that since starting at West, and getting one foot back into the Hero life. But she wasn’t her old self, and she wasn’t sure she’d ever be that way again.

That was good in some ways and bad in others.

The change was even more prevalent now that Daisy knew a little bit more about her past. She used to be a stone-cold killer; and that wasn’t a metaphor. She’d been illegally contracted by ForceOps, a branch of the United States government, to find and neutralize targets that the average ForceOps assets weren’t capable of handling. And the cherry on top was that she’d been doing it for decades, and doing so had scrambled her brains.

So far it had been one hell of winter break, and it was only about to get more interesting.

Daisy got out and moved around to the other side of the car to get the door. An orderly approached pushing a wheelchair with Topher in it.

“Wow,” were his only words.

Despite herself, Daisy blushed. It wasn’t every day she got dressed up to go meet her boyfriend’s family. The outfit wasn’t really anything special. It was a light-weight, black dress that went all the way down to her shins. Even with her generous curves, Daisy would have looked like she wasn’t wearing more than a sleeveless potato sack if she just went with that. She threw a belt around her waist, and the whole outfit came together. The proper proportions were emphasized enough to be classy, but she still had full coverage; and more importantly, full momentum.

“Do I look ok?” A little bit of uncertainty crept into Daisy’s voice.

“You look more than ok, you look beautiful.” Daisy took a close look at Topher, and saw that his pupils were dilated. He was on pain meds for his injuries, but that didn’t make what he said any less of a compliment.

“Thank you.” Daisy smiled at back at him. “You look like hammered shit.”

The orderly failed to stifle a laugh, so he quickly muttered something along the lines of, “you two can take it from here” before retreating back into the hospital.

“I do, don’t I?” Topher laughed.

“Lucky for you, I like my men a little rough around the edges.” Daisy leaned in and pressed her lips up against his.

She wasn’t sure if it was the pain killers he was on, or the awkward angle of her standing and him sitting in a wheel chair; but when he went to put his arms around her, he grabbed a handful of her ass.

Because he’d been shot in the chest, Daisy gave him this moment; but she didn’t want to set a bad precedent. After a few seconds, she calmly removed his hands from her ass, and pushed him the rest of the distance to the car. It turned out he was well enough to walk, because he got into the car under his own power. Daisy returned the wheelchair to the hospital lobby, got into the driver’s seat, and headed toward Topher’s house.

Originally, the plan had been to have Topher’s family over for their Christmas Eve shenanigans on Christmas Eve. The hospital wasn’t ok with that. They wanted to monitor him for a certain amount of time to make sure his injuries didn’t worsen, and there weren’t any secondary side effects. As far as gunshot injuries went, Topher had it pretty lucky; but you couldn’t rely solely on luck to get you by. Unless you were a luck manipulator, but Daisy had only met a few of them over the years.

“So,” Daisy broke the silence. “What should I be expecting?”

It was a simple question, but there wasn’t a simple answer. Although Daisy could have, she didn’t have any of her contacts dig into Topher’s family. All she knew about them was what her boyfriend had told her, and that was far less information than any sane Hero wanted to work with.

Mr. and Mrs. Phillips were retired and lived in Daytona Beach, he was a retired police Captain, and she had been an elementary school teacher. Now they sat on their porch, less than a mile from the beach, and did whatever it was that retired people did.

Daisy tried not to think about the fact that she was older than both of Topher’s parents. Topher knew a lot about her, and her struggles over the years, but he didn’t know quite how many years she’d been talking about. And he still didn’t have all the information on her Hero days. Unfortunately, unless they got married, the DVA mandated that it stayed that way. Things were going great with Topher, but Daisy wasn’t willing to take that step. She’d been down this road more than once before, and she wanted to make sure Topher was the man she wanted; along with making sure that he stayed alive long enough for them to grow old together.

That was Daisy’s ultimate test for a man. She could theoretically live forever, something no one else had the power to do as far as she knew. Finding a person she loved more than her own life was a clear indication of true love if there ever was one. Was Topher that guy?

<Maybe.>

                “I told you not to worry about it.” Topher was leaning back in the seat with his eyes closed. “My mom and dad are really laid back.”

“I have a hard time believing that a retired police captain is ‘really laid back’,” she added air quotes to the last part. “Especially, when he probably tried to look me up and couldn’t find anything beyond my basic information and the DVA cover story. I’m sure that went over really well when he told your mom about that, and she realized her baby boy was dating whatever the hell they think I am.”

By the time Daisy finished ranting; Topher had his hands up defensively and was gesturing for her to calm down.

“There might have been some questions asked early on, but I handled it.” He seemed confident.

<I’ll be the judge of that,> Daisy thought.

“Even if things are all copacetic with your parents, what about your sister?” Daisy didn’t know much about Topher’s older sister, but she knew enough about older siblings to know that they could be just as protective as parents.

<Especially, if that older sibling also happens to work for the DVA, and has access to all the details about me.> The last thing Daisy wanted to do was get into a pissing match with another DVA suit who also happened to be Topher’s sister. This whole night had the potential to go down in flames.

Topher saw the concern on her face, and reached over to gently pat her forearm. “Don’t worry so much about it. You’re awesome; I’ve told them you’re awesome. We love each other. The rest doesn’t matter.”

Daisy’s heart did a double thump in her chest. It might have been the pain meds loosening up his inhibitions, and his tongue, but Topher had said that he loved her. He hadn’t come right out and said it before. And judging by the looks of things, he didn’t even realize he’d said the L-word.

“Yes, yes we do.” Daisy knew she was grinning like a girl with a schoolyard crush, but it was hard to care.

Topher would come around one day and break the L-word to her, and knowing him, he’d make a special occasion out of it. But this was the moment that Daisy would always remember; the two of them driving from the hospital to his home, him a bit high on narcotics, and her stressing about meeting his family. That was the real life I love you situation, not some fairy tale romantic dinner setting.

Daisy couldn’t stop smiling the rest of the way to his house.

Topher lived in a cookie-cutter neighborhood in a decent section of Orlando. He wasn’t rich, and being a cop didn’t make him exorbitant amounts of money. Daisy knew he was a conservative spender who’d foregone eating out and buying new clothes every other week so he could save for a down payment.

Topher had bought the 1400 square foot Pueblo style home about a year ago. Daisy knew he didn’t get to spend nearly as much time in it as he wanted, but they’d had more than one date on his front porch with boxes of takeout in front of them. The interior had an open concept kitchen and living room space, along with two bedrooms and one and a half baths. He had a small backyard, and Daisy knew he wanted to get a covered patio built at some point in the future. It didn’t look like it was going to happen anytime soon, but after dropping the L-word Daisy thought it might be a good birthday present for her man.

After all, Daisy did have over seventy years of accumulated wealth. She was very well off, and all that money had been doing was sitting in investments and making more money. She’d been able to get in on some big name companies early on, and those investments were worth quite a bit of money now. Her merchandise sales were minimal, with the only people buying her limited merchandise being collectors or teens with a taste for the mildly-gothic eighties Hero grunge wear.

Economically, Daisy and Topher were a great match. They didn’t spend money carelessly, and their savings had allowed them to get the things that they really wanted in life. If things got more serious, money handling wouldn’t be a problem for them.

<But yeah, a covered patio does sound like a good gift.> Daisy’s mind was made up, all she need to do was wait for his birthday, get him out of the house, and get a Super contractor in there who could do the whole job in a few hours.

She knew a guy.

“Don’t be nervous.” Topher saw the look on her face and mistook it for nerves. “They’re going to love you.”

“Ok.” She put on a smile and helped him get out of the car.

Topher might not need a wheelchair, but his movements were still stiff and unnatural. He was on the mend, but it would still be several weeks before he was remotely close to normal.

Daisy put her arm around him. It was a loving girlfriend gesture as well as a move to keep him from face planting. Either way, they only made it halfway up the walkway before his front door flew open and the Phillips family descended on them.

“Oh my boy…” Mrs. Phillips was trying very hard to be strong, but her eyes were getting watery.

“You ok, son.” Topher’s father was a little better about it as he shook his son’s hand. “Looks like someone got the drop on you. Damn Supers.”

Topher had prepared Daisy for this, but it was still something else to hear it in person. Topher’s dad was a normal human cop. As a human cop who’d advanced all the way to Captain, he’d seen a lot of bad stuff happen. And a lot of that bad stuff had been done at the hands of criminal Supers. So he definitely had a biased view towards Supers, but Daisy didn’t blame him. After all the shit she’d seen, she didn’t like a lot of her own race any better than he did. Someday they’d probably be able to bond over that, but right now it just put them in an awkward position.

“Uh, Dad,” Topher coughed. “This is my girlfriend, Daisy. Daisy, this is my mom and dad, Christian and Penelope Phillips.”

“Hello, Mr. and Mrs. Phillips. It’s nice to finally meet you.” Daisy smiled and extended her hand.

They both had to look up at her, Penelope Phillips way more than her husband; but both discreetly judged her when they did, and for different reasons. Topher’s dad went right for the red eyes, but he didn’t look sorry about his former comment. Daisy got the impression he was reserving judgment on her for a later time when he knew more about her.

Topher’s mom was less circumspect about it. “I didn’t see you visit in the hospital.”

His parents had arrived when Daisy was up visiting Mastermind, and they purposefully hadn’t crossed paths until now. Topher had wanted it that way. He wanted to be there to run interference if it was needed, and it seemed it was.

“Mom,” Topher’s tone was stern, “Daisy was the first person to visit me after I got hurt, and she was there every day until she had to go on her important business trip. She’d been to visit me at the hospital more than anyone else.” The statement was clear. Daisy had been there for him more than his own parents.

Daisy wished Topher hadn’t said it like that, because now it put her and his mother in competing positions; and the look on her face confirmed it.

“Why don’t we head inside?” Daisy tried to undo the damage that had been done. “I’ve been waiting to see your decorations.”

Topher’s mother looked a little smug at the realization that Daisy hadn’t seen the holiday decorations yet, and that was exactly what Daisy wanted her to think. “Of course.” She moved in and grabbed Topher’s other arm. “Let’s get you inside and sitting down.”

Daisy let her take Topher without any complaint. A mother’s little boy was always going to be her little boy, even if he was now a man, and a cop kicking down doors and hunting criminals for a living.

“Daisy Lee Meyers.” Daisy had been so focused on Topher’s parents she’d lost track of his older sister. “I’m Debora Phillips, Chris’ older sister.”

Like her brother, Debora Phillips was tall and fit. She wasn’t as tall as Daisy, but much taller than the average woman at a solid six feet. She also held herself with confidence that was reinforced by the badge on her belt and the holstered weapon on her hip. Debora wasn’t some DVA paper-pusher, she was a field agent.

That could mean one of two things. She either admired Heroes and the work that they did, or they were a pain in the ass that she had to clean up after.

“Nice to meet you, Debora.” Daisy shook her hand.

Debora gripped her hand hard in a traditional masculine dominance tactic. Being in a field that was a least seventy-five percent male, Daisy considered that she might try this. After all, Topher was her baby brother.

Daisy just absorbed the trickle of energy that Debora put into the squeeze, and kept the smile on her face.

“I looked you up.” Debora didn’t dance around the elephant in the room.

Daisy just raised an eyebrow in response.

“Your file is marked classified above top secret.” Daisy couldn’t do anything but shrug. Debora was fishing, and Daisy couldn’t give her anything.

“That means you are either one of the greats, or you’re a fuck up.” Debora was scrutinizing Daisy’s face for anything, but Daisy gave her nothing.

Finally, Debora released Daisy’s hand. “Either way, if you hurt my little brother I will fuck you up. Understand?”

“Yes,” Daisy nodded.

If Daisy was anybody else she would have thought Debora Phillips was a total bitch, but Daisy knew where the other woman was coming from. She was a talented woman in a man’s field. She had to be direct, assertive, and have a take-charge attitude. That was what was needed to be a successful field agent. Some of her co-workers might call her a bitch behind her back; but Daisy saw another woman who got shit done.

Despite the threat to fuck her up, Daisy couldn’t help but like her boyfriend’s sister.

“Good.” Debora pointed for Daisy to lead the way. “Let’s go celebrate Christmas.”

 

***

 

“So that settles it. It’ll be held at Lander this year.” John nodded along with the other deans.

“We’d be honored as always.” Dean Blaine had a small smile on his face, but they all knew that smile wouldn’t be around for long.

Intermurals had a way of being both prestigious and a pain in the ass. John had coordinated only one in his tenure as dean, and he wanted to wait the maximum amount of time possible before doing it again. Security alone was a nightmare.

“Now that we have that resolved let’s move onto budgets for the upcoming semester.” Just like the freshman they taught in their introduction ethics classes, all the deans groaned loudly. When they all signed up to be Heroes decades ago, none of them though they’d be sitting around a table and discussing fiscal measures.

John was used to it. He’d been the leader of one of the most renowned teams in New York, and that made them a big deal throughout the country. Money was always a topic of discussion, just as much as catching the bad guys.

John reclined in his comfortable chair as the Secretary of the DVA turned to Blaine. As this year’s location for intermurals Lander would be getting the largest budget. All HCP’s had a standard amount approved by Congress, but as time wore on things got more expensive. They needed the latest and greatest equipment to train the next generations of Heroes.

There were three basic rules about funding that John had learned over the years: always ask for more than you need, always use all of the money, and if people threaten to cut your funding you decide to cut your most popular aspect first. You always needed to ask for more because you never got what you asked. You had to build compromise into the budget. You always needed to use all of the funds allotted to you. It was a cardinal sin not to. If you had left over money then you were never going to get that amount again. Lastly, you threatened to cut your most popular programs first to make the purse holders reconsider. It was tougher with the HCPs than a Hero team, but there was always a way.

“Dean Ditmar.” The Secretary interrupted John’s thoughts.

“Yes, sir.” John looked down at what he had prepared. “In addition to our previous allotted funds, we require additional funding to remodel our course.” John could already see people grimacing. Remodeling courses was always expensive and time consuming.

“Sir, I believe funding for this can be sought from another source. We were the pilot program for the project last semester, and funding might be able to be transferred from the Special Projects Department.

It was a solid plan in theory, but it still amounted to the HCP trying to steal funding from another part of the agency. John just hoped Special Projects had enough cash lying around.

“That should work.” The Secretary’s words were music to John’s ears.

“Good, sir.” John was barely able to hide his grin. “Aside from that it looks like we’re going to require a slight increase in our freshman trip budget. The class is larger than in previous semesters, and my instructors believe we won’t whittle them down to usual levels before then.”

“I’ve seen some of the stats those freshmen are putting up. They’re impressive.” Dean Jackson replied roughly. “I’d like to see what they’re capable of in four years.”

“We all are looking forward to that.” John smiled back. “But I’m particularly interested in your junior class, Blaine. The Class of Nightmares?”

“I didn’t coin the phrase.” Blaine rolled his eyes. “But it does fit. A few of them have frightening potential.”

“And then there is the DeSoto girl.” Sizemore’s dean jumped back in.

“Yes. That will make for an interesting intermural. If nothing else it will be entertaining.” Everyone could make out the competitive smile on Blaine’s face, and it was echoed on all the other deans, even John.

Intermurals might be a pain in the ass to host and coordinate, but that didn’t mean everyone didn’t want to win. John thought that Hannah Dixon had a good shot at doing well, but she wouldn’t win. She was a subtlety major, and subtlety majors preferred to not compete at a showcase of Supers’ powers.

“Let’s get back on track, please.” The Secretary corralled the old Heroes and restarted the budgeting conversation.

It took another two hours, but by then they had a framework to disperse extra money that the HCPs needed. “Thank you for your time. I’ll see you all next time.”

The portion of the screen that showed the Secretary’s face went dark. One after the other the other deans said their goodbyes and went back to do what needed to be done. Classes resumed on Monday, and that meant that everything was going to go from zero to a hundred in the blink of an eye. The seniors had something special headed their way, the sophomores and juniors needed to get back into their specialty work, and the freshman were just getting into the meat of their first year. It would be sink or swim time for a lot of those young Supers.

John thought about Anika Kemps, and what her upcoming semester would look like. They were still learning a lot about the young woman, and they were just scratching the surface. John had received an official note from the DVA at the end of December establishing Anika’s classification. Enough evidence had been collected to demand a new classification. They were calling it Omni, from the Latin meaning “of all things”. The classification was still considered a secret, so no one outside a few DVA employees and Heroes would actually know about it; but it was confirmation that they were dealing with something truly unique in Anika.

That knowledge made the whole situation with Daisy and the Anika’s father that much more serious.

“Come one in.” John only had to wait a moment before Colonel Ford stepped through the door.

The ForceOps officer was grim-faced and tired. He had dark circles under his eyes and was limping slightly.

“I’m fine,” he barked when John opened his mouth to ask what happened. “We were able to get some intel on al-Din and did a recon. It wasn’t him, but there were some other bad guys waiting there. It was an ambush, but we fought our way out. A few injuries and no deaths; at least on our side.”

“He’s playing games with us.” An iron ball of hatred formed in John’s gut just thinking about the terrorist. “He knows we can’t touch him now. We have to concentrate considerably more forces to take him down.”

Colonel Ford didn’t say anything. He didn’t like being reminded that the guy at the top of their most wanted list was extremely powerful and damn near unstoppable. The two Supers sat there for a moment contemplating how bad this situation could actually get.

“How did the meeting go?” John changed the subject.

“Surprisingly easy,” Ford replied. “In fact, I’m pretty sure she got to talk to him before she sat down with my team present.” John raised an eyebrow at the accusation. “It’s just a hunch.” Ford shrugged. “But knowing Reaper, I know she doesn’t do well with people telling her what to do. And me saying she had to wait for my team was basically an invitation.”

“You put a team on her?” It wasn’t a question as much as a statement.

“Of course, and they say she never left the hotel. But those were a bunch of junior ForceOps operatives with maybe fifteen years of service between all of them. Reaper was doing their jobs better than them when their parents were in diapers.”

John couldn’t stop from chuckling, because Ford had a point.

“Well I hope she got some closure.” John didn’t want to know the specifics of ForceOps illegal operations. “Because I need her back and focused for this semester. She has a lot of promising, young, potential Heroes who need her to guide them and discover new aspects of their abilities.”

Colonel Ford just nodded. This wasn’t his area of expertise, and he didn’t act like it was.

“Thank you for setting all of that up, Tom.” John extended his hand to his old friend. “I know it’s going to help her.”

“I sure hope so.” the Colonel gripped John’s hand firmly. “And she better keep her mouth shut,” he added, “because there are people way more important than me involved in this. If they get wind that there’s a broken link in the chain, al-Din is going to be the least of her worries.”

John didn’t like the sound of that; he didn’t like the sound of that one bit.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 12

Name: Benjamin Gold

Genetic Identification Code: NY0511240650671

Physical Health: Superior

Mental Health: [Authorized Personnel Only]

Education: Doctoral Candidate

Occupation: Lieutenant, United Commonwealth of Colonies Fleet Reserve

Criminal History: N/A

Citizen Status: Confirmed

 

Location: London, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

The ringing of metal against metal was a common sound in a city. The great cities of Earth used to be filled with those sounds. Men used to climb the meter-thick steel beams like their ancestral primates. They’d used welding torches, jackhammers, or a plain old mallet to secure the foundations of the skyscrapers. But that was the past. In the present, multi-limbed droids scurried up and down construction like spider monkeys on their anti-grav systems. Depending on the type of contract they fastened the duro-steel beams into place, or spit out the nanites that would literally grow the building from the ground up.

Benjamin Gold, Ben to anyone who knew him, thought a lot about the past. He’d minored in history for his undergraduate education, and that same history built the foundation of his doctoral program. Ben looked out at the city of London and wondered what those men who’d built the Empire State Building would think of the world today.

“Hey, you’re up.” A man in lightly armored smartcloth nudged Ben’s shoulder, pulling his attention away from the skyline of the United Commonwealth of Colonies planetary capitol.

Towers two kilometers high were quite a sight to behold, but Ben needed to focus. “Thank you,” Ben nodded to the man. He grabbed his helmet and his Nano-blade before stepping into the ring.

<You should have been paying attention to his last fight,> Ben chastised himself as he placed the protective headgear over his face. <You’re going into this blind.> It was never a good idea to go into a fencing match blind.

Ben had been fencing for fifteen years. His father put his first blade in his hand at eleven and paid the best coaches in New York to teach him. At the time, Ben had hated his father for it. Spending two hours a day learning forms and avoiding the deadly edge of a Nano-blade wasn’t something a preteen was fond of. It took years for Ben to see the wisdom of it.

Fencing was a gentleman’s sport. Not only did it condition Ben’s mind and body, but it welcomed him into society. As the heir to the Gold Technologies fortune, Ben had a prominent part to play in that society. He had responsibilities and his family name to uphold. One of the easiest ways to earn honor and prestige was in the fencing suites throughout the Commonwealth.

“Welcome gentlemen.” The proctor inclined his head to both competitors. “Standard rules apply if neither of you have any objections.”

Standard rules were the universal fencing statutes. Even someone new to the sport could figure them out. The most important part of standard rules was that it was to first blood. It usually made for quick matches. Such rules made sense; no one had time to waste.

Ben surveyed his opponent. The man was hidden behind his armor and helmet, was a medium height, and had a lithe frame. His reach wasn’t anything special, but with his helmet on Ben was unable to see his eyes; which he had to guess were just as calculating as his. Ben hadn’t been paying attention for the last few matches, but this man had won all of them. It took considerable skill to remain in the ring at a place like this.

Modern fencing, just like its predecessor, favored agility over brute force. They weren’t barbarians hacking it out with broadswords in medieval Europe. Ironically, Ben would have looked more at home on those ancient battlefields with the giant weaponry.

Ben stood considerably taller than his opponent at two hundred and twenty centimeters. His broad shoulders looked like he could carry a half dozen duro-steel support beams on them, and his legs were thicker than most tree trunks. Ben looked like a big, lumbering giant waiting to have his Achilles heel cut by a faster, lighter opponent.

That’s what Ben wanted his opponent to think.

Ben stature was the result of the best in vitro enhancement money could buy. His body was stronger, his mind was sharper, and he was much faster than someone his size should ever be. He’d been training his enhanced fast twitch muscles fibers for fifteen years to take down opponents like the one in front of him.

“Ready─” The proctor began the countdown.

Ben sent an electrical current through his Nano-blade, forming the metal into a meter-long rapier, and assumed an On Guard position with the blade in front of him at chest height. He balanced his body weight evenly over both feet; but instead of having his feet turned at right angles in the classical style, Ben favored having his back toe positioned so it was slightly forward.

Ben’s opponent took a different approach. Instead of forming a traditional sword, the shorter man’s Nano-blade uncurled into a loose whip. Ten meters separated the two combatants, so the man felt comfortable to plant his feet at shoulder width with his left slightly farther back than his right. He moved the whip in small circles next to his body.

<Confident, maybe overconfident,> Ben mused, as he evaluated the man with experienced eyes.

The invention of Nano-blades revolutionized the fencing world, and modern combat. The blades were capable of adjusting their shape; which meant a modern fencer needed to be proficient in multiple weapons’ disciplines to stand a chance. It was a sport where it took years to become proficient and a lifetime to master. In actual combat, the sharp blades could do incredible damage in the hands of the right person.

Of all the weapons in a fencer’s arsenal, the whip was the most complex. Ben needed to take this opponent very seriously. <He wants to control the engagement.> That much was clear from the man’s stance.

“─set─” The proctor raised his arm with the next step of the countdown.

Ben tried not to betray his intentions as he leaned his weight forward onto his toes and bent his knees.  <Speed is the key.> He just hoped his opponent was underestimating him.

Ben’s concentration settled. He entered a mental state of peace and control. The first lesson taught to any fencer was to fight without emotion. Emotions made you reckless, and recklessness led to mistakes. In a friendly contest it would only result in a scratch, but in real combat you could lose your head.

“─Begin!” both Ben and his opponent were moving the moment the proctor finished with “B”.

<Damn he’s fast.> Ben shot forward like an arrow, just as his opponent whipped his blade out in front of him. They’d both read what the other was going to do and it was only Ben’s enhanced muscles that saved him.

Ben slid left, missing the bladed edge of the whip by a centimeter.  Before his opponent could pull it back, Ben executed his own thrust. His Nano-blade went underneath the whip, and for a second it looked like Ben had miscalculated. With a quick, practiced motion of his fingers Ben’s rapier transformed itself into a hooked scythe.

Now Ben was in an advantageous position. With a quick twirl of his wrist Ben wove his scythe around the whip, and put its bulk between the whip and him. All this happened in a single step, and when you were 2.2 meters tall a single step covered a lot of space. As Ben took his second step his opponent reacted. Seeing that the whip was a poor choice his opponent reconfigured it into a curved saber, but it was already too late.

Ben’s scythe was still between him and the saber’s edge. His opponent would have to retreat and reorient the blade before he could begin to counterattack. There just wasn’t enough time. Ben was already inside his guard, and the next step in his plan of attack was unconventional enough that his opponent didn’t see it coming.

Standard rules stated that the match was to first blood, but a little known fact was that they didn’t specify what had to draw that blood. People just always assumed a match was won with a weapon. It was dangerous to assume anything in any activity that involved spilling blood.

Ben’s fist rocketed forward aiming for a space six inches behind his opponent’s face. A muscular-skeletal system five times stronger than the average human’s made contact with the light piece of headgear. Ben’s opponent’s head snapped back with a CRACK as the other man was picked up off his feet and thrown from the ring. He collapsed with an audible oomph as the wind was knocked from his lungs and his helmet fell from his head.

That was went Ben noticed three things. First, his opponent wasn’t a man at all. It was a distinguished looking woman with her short hair tied up in a tight bun. Second, Ben knew the woman; it was his boss. And third, he saw the scarlet liquid begin to drip from her nose onto her upper lip.

“Ma’am.” Ben’s mind blanked, but his body automatically snapped to attention. “Attention on deck!”

“For the love of…at ease, Gold.” The woman waved away the military protocol as she wiped the blood from her nose. “People have been telling me for months that you’re a demon with the blade. I just needed to see it for myself.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Ben relaxed his stance enough to technically obey her order, but he firmly clasped his hands behind his back and kept his eyes on the far wall. He had just punched a superior officer in the face, and wasn’t taking any chances.

Ben didn’t look around but he knew a lot of the other men and women in the room were adopting similar positions. This fencing suite was for junior officers, and Ben’s boss was a Commander, a full two pay grades higher and at least twelve years more experienced than anyone else.

“Go back to what you were doing; this is your lunch break.” The Commander waved off everyone with an irritated expression. She’d never been one for strict military drill and ceremony. “Gold, give me a hand.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Ben quickly sheathed his Nano-blade and offered the smaller woman a hand.

She got to her feet, rubbed her jaw, and moved it experimentally. “I’ll remember to put in your fitness report that you hit like a battleship at ramming speed.” Ben didn’t know if she was joking or not because of the wince. “Relax, Lieutenant, this was a sanctioned match. You aren’t in trouble. If anything, I’m impressed.”

“Thank you, Ma’am.”

She rolled her eyes at Ben’s continued strict adherence to protocol.

“Anyway…” She bent over to grab the helmet Ben had punched off her head. “The other reason I’m down here is to inform you that you have a scheduled meeting at 1300 with the Department OIC, so I’d hit the showers before you’re late.”

Ben’s eyes widened at the news, his black pupils almost completely overtaking his pale-blue irises. This was a big deal. Ben was only a Lieutenant in the United Commonwealth of Colonies Fleet Reserve. He only had to serve one weekend a month until he finished his doctorate, and then he would start his six-year service obligation; with an opportunity to move back into the Reserve after three years of active duty.

Most reservists hopped a shuttle into space once a month to complete qualifications with the fleet stationed in the Sol System, or more likely on one of the warships they were mothballing or refitting. Through his father’s connections, Ben had been able to swing an appointment to Fleet Headquarters in London. It was in the Personnel Department for the First Fleet. The fleet permanently stations to protect Commonwealth interests throughout the Sol System. On paper it seemed like a simple job, and more than one active duty spacer had talked down to him because he sat behind a desk all day long. But none of those people dealt with the promotions and career progression of several million spacers and infantry. Compared to the goliath that was the Commonwealth Armed Forces promotion system, Ben would take crawling around in the mud and firing a weapon any day.

<And that’s just my section.> Ben knew that the Personnel Department dealt with much more than just promotions.

All of that meant that the Department OIC was a flag grade officer, an Admiral. A mere Lieutenant having a personal meeting with an Admiral was something that never happened. Ben tried to read the Commander’s expression for some clue of what was going to happen, but she revealed nothing.

“You better get to it, Lieutenant.” Ben didn’t need any more prompting. He ran toward the showers.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 11

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Toronto-Buffalo-Cleveland-Detroit Metropolis, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Coop laughing in Nathanial’s face got everyone’s attention, but Coop couldn’t help himself. After all the shit that had happened to him throughout the last few days it was great to have someone dragged down to his level. It only made Coop laugh harder. He bent over, wheezing from the laughs, and slapped his knee repeatedly. It was a little over the top, but Coop didn’t give a shit what anyone else thought.

“Holy shit.” He had to wipe the tears from his eyes when he was finally able to regain control of himself.

Once he did, he got his first look at Nathaniel’s face. The other recruit looked surprised, pissed off, and hurt. Coop didn’t know why the guy would be hurt. They’d known each other for all of five minutes, and misery loved company. Coop did his best to compose himself, and smiled back at Nathaniel.

“I’m going to give you a piece of advice, Nate.” Nathaniel just sounded too pretentious for Coop to continue calling him that. “This has served me well through the years, and I think it’ll do you some good.” Coop paused for dramatic effect, and Nate leaned in expectantly.

“Embrace the suck.” The look on Nate’s face was priceless.

“Embrace the suck?” The other recruit asked in confusion.

“It’s not rocket science. Life sucks, so learn to embrace it.” Coop sat back with a grin and closed his eyes. If Nate took a swing at him, Coop would feel totally justified in punching him in the face, stealing the expensive PAD, and probably get nothing more than a slap on the wrist.

The advice Coop had given wasn’t something of his own creation. In fact, it was something his father had told him every time he complained about anything since his mom died.

<Dad, I’m hungry.>

<Embrace the suck.>

<Dad, I got stabbed today.>

<Embrace the suck…and rub some dirt on it.>

<Dad, my dick’s on fire, I think that bitch gave me gonorrhea.>

<Embrace the suck…and don’t stick your dick in everything with a hole.>

The memories were only the tip of the iceberg of Coop’s lovely upbringing; which was another reason he didn’t give a flying fuck about Nate’s little problem. Things could be a lot worse for both of them.

With only fifteen recruits it didn’t take too long for the recruiters to finish talking with everyone, and it took even less time for Coop and the others to get on to the next phase of their military careers.

“Everyone up!” Another soldier, this one with a golden U underneath the three upside-down Vs on his shoulder yelled. “Lock your lips and move your dicks people.”

“What’s up, Sarge?” Coop didn’t know what to call the new man, but he didn’t have the same respect for him as the other sergeant who’d verbally schooled him.

“Shut the fuck up Recruit before I shove my foot so far up your ass you’ll be tasting leather for your whole first week of Basic.” You could have chiseled the soldier’s expression from ice, but all Coop did was laugh. Thankfully, there was too much noise and movement for the new soldier to hear.

“Everyone make a single file line in front of me NOW!” People rushed to obey the order, but not Coop. He meandered along until he was the last person in line.

“My name is Staff Sergeant.” The man walked up and down the short line. “You will call me Staff Sergeant. If you fail to address me as anything other than that, you will do twenty-five pushups. Am I understood?”

“Yes, Staff Sergeant.” Uncertain, frightened replies rang out from the recruits.

All except for Coop. “I didn’t think basic training started yet…Staff Sergeant,” Coop threw out the response at the end to avoid any push-ups.

“Basic hasn’t started,” the staff sergeant clarified. “But your ass became government property to moment you signed that paperwork. You’ve all been lucky enough to have a little vacation since then, but that stops NOW!”

<This guy really likes yelling “now”,> Coop thought as the man marched down to where Coop stood and got within an inch of his face.

“Do you have a problem with that, Recruit?”

“No, Staff Sergeant. Just wondering.” Coop smiled back, but the look in the man’s eyes wiped the expression right off his face.

Unlike the taller sergeant Coop had been dealing with this soldier was shorter; so Coop had to look down a dozen centimeters to see into his beady little eyes, but he recognized what he saw. Those were the eyes of someone who didn’t take shit from anyone, whose self-worth was built on respect, and who wouldn’t hesitate to stick a knife in someone’s gut if they got on their bad side. Coop found himself gulping involuntarily as the short man stared him down.

“If you fucktards are done yappin’ then we need to move.” The staff sergeant tore his gaze from Coop, knowing he’d gotten his point across. “You will proceed single file out the door. You will take your first right, stop at the window, and collect your orders. Put those orders in your left hand, walk down two more doors to the caged door, grab the bundle in your right hand, scan yourself, and proceed to the restrooms at the end of the hall. You have ten minutes to execute, starting NOW.”

People practically ran out the door before the staff sergeant barked at them to walk. Coop immediately saw his disadvantage of being in the back of the line, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it. He waited as patiently as he could while everyone stopped at the window and received a large manila envelope. Why they were receiving what looked like old fashioned paper copies of something seemed stupid to Coop, but he decided he was safer keeping his mouth shut. He wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but this new staff sergeant scared him.

Coop accepted the large manila envelope with his name and GIC in bold black letters across the top right corner of the envelope. Coop immediately transferred it to his left hand just like the staff sergeant said, and just in time.

“Left hand, Recruit!” The staff sergeant snapped, getting up close and personal with another recruit a few places ahead of Coop in line.

Coop watched the interaction with interest. The recruit the staff sergeant was verbally thrashing reminded Coop a lot of Jimmy, but with some glaring differences. Unlike Jimmy, who was a giant pussy, this guy looked like what Coop expected a soldier to look like. He was only a few centimeters taller that Coop, but he had to weigh over a hundred kilos; and it looked like it was all muscle. They guy’s tattoos made him look even more intimidating. “You Only Live Once” was emblazoned in intricate letters across the man’s chest, both of his forearms were completely covered, and Coop could make out tattoos on both of his legs where his pants came up short. Coop didn’t recognize any of the ink as gang tats, but the too short pants, and ripped shirt clearly said the other recruit was a fellow Rat. He was a different breed of Rat though; he was the kind of Rat that ate other Rats for breakfast. What the guy said next only confirmed it.

“Why?” The recruit replied to the staff sergeant with a rebellious tone Coop knew all too well.

“Why?” The soldier repeated the question in a baby voice. “Because I fucking told you to. Drop and give me twenty-five. NOW!”

The big recruit looked like he was going to say something else, but he must have seen the same thing in the staff sergeant’s eyes as Coop. He dropped to the ground and did his punishment without a word. Coop passed by him as all the recruits hurried to the caged door farther down the hall. A soft chorus of beeps every ten seconds announced the scans the staff sergeant told them to expect.

“Cooper, Mark.” Another soldier sat behind the caged door and read off Coop’s name from a PAD. He also thrust a block of smartcloth into his hands. “Scan.” Coop did what he was told, and was hustled along after the beep. The big Rat stepped up behind him, grumbling to himself.

“The ten minutes is now three minutes. Move, Recruits!” The staff sergeant pointed to a door at the end of the hallway.

Coop hustled to the door and pushed through it. All of the recruits were in the small bathroom, and they were all stripping out of their old smartcloth and struggling into the new uniforms the soldier in the cage had given them. There were no separate bathrooms, so the female recruits stripped next to the male recruits; unfortunately, Coop didn’t get a chance to admire the view. He tore off his old clothes, more comfortable in the nude then any of the rich kids seemed to be. Then he ran into a problem. He had no idea how to get the smartcloth on.

He grabbed the block and pulled. It stretched but returned back to its normal block shape when Coop relaxed. <What the hell.> The advanced type of clothing that was commonplace throughout the Commonwealth had completely stumped the welfare Rat.

“Stick it to your chest, and take the insoles and stick them to the bottom of your feet.” Nate came to the rescue, despite still looking sullen. “Trust me,” the other recruit said when Coop doubted him.

With not a lot of time to spare Coop did what Nate said. When he pressed the block of smartcloth to his chest the material stuck and started to slither over his skin. Coop shuddered as the fabric snaked its way across his body. It reminded him way too much of how the VR chair had assimilated him into its matrix.

The smartcloth spread up his chest and stopped at the nape of his neck. Then it spread around his back and headed south. It covered his entire body, except his feet, in a surprisingly comfortable and breathable layer of fabric. He did the same with the thin foot insoles and he got the same effect. The smartcloth spread across his foot to form a boot. The bottom hardened when the process was complete.

<This is fucking unreal.> Coop found himself smiling at the display of technology.

“Fuckin’ piece of shit.” Coop heard the big Rat from the hallway cursing as he tried to get his own smartcloth to work.

“Stick it to your chest,” Coop relayed the advice. “Shit will do all the work after that.” Coop watched with a grin as the big recruit’s eyes went wide as the smartcloth clothed him just like everyone else.

“Thanks.” The bigger man extended his hand to Coop. “I’m Mike.”

“Coop,” Coop replied, feeling much better about shaking Mike’s hand than Nate’s because Mike was a fellow Rat.

Coop wanted to say more, but there wasn’t any time. “Five…four…three…two…one…zero,” Coop and Mike barely got out of the bathroom and into line before the staff sergeant finished the countdown.

“Well tickle my balls you aren’t worthless after all.” There was no humor in the staff sergeant’s smile. “Here is your brief introduction to your uniforms,” he gestured to the gray Commonwealth smartcloth they were all wearing.

Each person had the names on the right breast and “Recruit” on the left. The uniforms didn’t hide who was a man and who was a woman, but they were unflattering; unlike some of the revealing white smartcloth Coop had seen the others wearing. The gray uniforms strictly conformed to a traditionalist society’s modesty standards. Coop didn’t care about the lack of fashion some of the rich kids were discovering. This was the coolest thing he’d ever owned.

“You are now wearing your Commonwealth Military Uniforms or CMUs for short. This will be your duty uniform ninety-nine point nine percent of the time. These uniforms have two settings: Dress and Field. Don’t worry about trying to switch them because you won’t be able to. Not until you get your PADs. What you are wearing now is your Field CMU.” The staff sergeant did something and his own uniform changed.

In the “Field” setting the only thing that showed on his uniform was his name, recruiter, and rank. When the staff sergeant switched to “Dress”, multicolored patches blossom on his left breast. The staff sergeant had enough stuff that it neared the top of the smartcloth.

“These are ribbons and medals,” he pointed at the large quantity of patches. “You get them by doing important shit. This is your business card, but you will only be in dress uniform unless you’re ordered to do so by your commanders. You won’t have anything on this setting for a while, so don’t switch to it and embarrass yourselves.” With that he returned to his field uniform.

“Now everyone drop and give me twenty-five.”

There was no use arguing, so Coop dropped with everyone else to do the pushups. He did them all without struggling, but he could tell he’d be hurting by the time he hit forty. Mike wasn’t even breathing hard by the time they got back to their feet.

When they all were back on their feet the staff sergeant’s uniform had changed again. While they’d done their pushups the soldier had walked back to the caged door and grabbed two things. The first was an armored chest piece. This was military grade armor, not the weak ass shit the PHA bailiff’s used. The second item was another one of those sleek pistols, just like the one the sergeant had waved in Coop’s face a few hours ago.

“A few of your fellow recruits are not here by choice.” The staff sergeant’s eyes focused on Coop. “So I get some toys while I transport you to your final destination.”

Coop didn’t have any time to ask about the destination, because the staff sergeant was already yelling for them to move. He followed the pack out the back entrance of the Civil Administration building and onto an air-bus. It looked exactly like the yellow school air-buses that were on the holos, but the seats were hard polyplast. Coop could tell his ass would be numb after an hour in one of these.

The staff sergeant was the last one on the vehicle, and he nodded to the driver; a short woman in CMUs. There was a small lurch and they were airborne. This was only the second time Coop had left the surface of the earth in a vehicle, and the first time was short-lived and ended up with him here.

Nate sat next to him, and Mike in the seat across the center aisle. Nate looked out the clear windows at the PHA. He looked fascinated as the towers continued to loom over them as they joined the flow of traffic. Mike looked like he didn’t care, but Coop noticed how his eyes twitched; like he was forcing himself not to look back at their home.

Coop spared the only place he’d known one last look.

<Good luck, Hailey. Don’t be a little bitch, Jimmy. You’re an asshole, Dad. Fuck this place I’m outta here.>

No one was saying anything, so Coop assumed it was the best time to ask a question.

“So, Staff Sergeant; where exactly is our final destination?”

The look the soldier gave Coop made the former Rat wish he hadn’t opened his big mouth. “You lucky recruits are headed to the taint of the Commonwealth. You’ll be part of Basic class 066-14 at Stewart-Benning Training Center.”

Coop had no idea what the hell that meant, but it clearly wasn’t good.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 64

The neighborhood looked like any one of the other hundred suburban enclaves around Orlando. The grass was green, even after the cold spell that just swept through the region. The palm trees were blowing in the breeze, and at least half the population was in retirement.  Somehow the scenery didn’t fit the impression that Daisy had about Laurie.

Daisy parked her car down the street. She would have parked closer but the driveway was already full, and the neighbors on either side had put cones in front of their driveways to keep people away. Daisy didn’t mind the walk. She was actually feeling a little nervous.

It was like she was back in high school all over again. Daisy had been awkward back then. She’d been kept at home a lot due to her eyes, and had never really socially developed until college. She’d also just started growing into her body, and was not as confident as she was today. She’d never been invited to the cool people’s parties; but if she had, she imaged she’d be feeling like this.

<Of all the stupid shit to be nervous about,> Daisy scoffed at her emotions. <You basically learned that you were a government assassin for forty years, routinely had your brains scrambled, and happen to have one of the most dangerous terrorist Supers in the world who wants to gut you like a Thanksgiving turkey. But sure let’s go and be nervous about spending an afternoon with Laurie’s family.> That thought brought her to the front door.

Beyond the door it sounded like a small herd of elephants was running back and forth. Daisy only waited a moment before knocking.

Laurie didn’t answer the door, but a clearly pubescent boy in his late teens did. Daisy could practically see the boy blush and his pulse go through the roof as he stared momentarily at Daisy’s chest before looking up into her eyes. “Um…” he stammered.

Instead of crushing the young man’s spirits, and possibly instilling an inferiority complex on him, Daisy smiled politely. “Hi, is Laurie here?”

“M…Mom!” The boy called, still looking at her with wide eyes.

“What’s your name?” Daisy asked calmly. It was like talking to a stray dog you didn’t want to scare it off.

“This is David, and please excuse him.” Laurie appeared behind her son with her hands on her hips. “Stop gawkin’ at the lady and go corral your nieces and nephews.” She rolled her eyes as David disappeared back into the house. “Sorry about that, but you know…boys.”

“It’s ok.” Daisy face brightened into a genuine smile. “Thanks for having me over Laurie, it really means a lot.”

“After you made that semester bearable it’s the least I can do.” She smiled back, and they exchanged a hug. “Now hurry in here and meet the family.”

It turned out that Laurie had a big family. Her husband looked to be a few years older and didn’t seem to move too well, but he had a kind smile and a bad joke always ready. Daisy always throught of an old, lovable family dog when she saw him.

Then there were the kids, and grandkids. Apparently, Laurie and her husband had not slacked off in the reproduction department. They had six all together, but only five were present. The third child was a Marine on deployment.

The oldest two were both married and had their own rugrats running around; which explained the stampeding sound that occurred every couple of minutes. Between the two of them they had five more kids added to the mix, one of which was less than a year old.

The left Laurie’s two youngest: David and his twin brother Paul. Despite being twins they couldn’t be more different. David looked like your stereotypical computer science major. He was a little on the hefty side with a persistent case of acne that only seemed to be clearing up now. He talked a lot about role playing games and first person shooters, but he was clearly very smart. Laurie said more than once how he had a 3.8 GPA from MIT and a full academic scholarship. His status as a tech genius Super didn’t hurt. David was a low level technopath. He wasn’t HCP worthy, but he’d make a good living in the technology business.

While David seemed to take after his lovable father from what Daisy had observed in their short time together; Paul seemed to have gotten Laurie’s genes. Paul was the athletic twin. He didn’t have the same baby fat that David was slowly losing, and he didn’t have the same attitude. Paul was blunt and straightforward like his mother. He also had the telltale signs of a just completing his first semester at an HCP.

“Paul and David are so…” Daisy didn’t know how to phrase it politely.

“Different,” Laurie finished for her. “They always have been. They’re my twin babies, but they’ve never agreed on anything in their life.” As she said this an argument broke out about their construction methods.

One of Laurie’s family traditions was for everyone to get together on Christmas Eve and compete in a gingerbread house competition. It was more for the grandchildren, but the older children had been doing it for so long it was hard to give up. Even the mother of the newborn baby was sitting in a rocking chair and giving her husband directions. Judging by the interaction, Daisy could deduce that it was normal for that household.

“Aren’t you concerned?” Daisy pointed at the twins who’d started shoving each other.

“Nah,” she shot them a glance. “If one throws a punch let me know. They’re probably just trying to impress the pretty new girl.”

Daisy blushed, and caught both of the now wrestling boys glancing in her direction. “They know they don’t have a chance right. They’re way too young for me.”

“I’ve crushed their dreams enough in the last eighteen years. This one’s on you,” Laurie grinned, and walked away to hand the grandkids a bag of marshmallows.

Daisy wasn’t really sure what to do until David finally threw a punch at Paul. Paul dodged it easily, but that was where Laurie said to cut it off; and it gave Daisy the opening she needed.

“You two knock it off,” she called over at them. They let go of each other instantly. “Can I talk with you a second Paul?” She ignored the triumphant grin the athletic boy gave his brother before following her like a love-struck puppy.

Daisy led the way into the backyard, and shut the door behind them.

“Hey,” Paul leaned up against the side of the house with cocky grin. “I’m Paul.”

“I know numbnuts, I called you by name to come out here.” Her comment threw him off the nonexistent game he had.

“Oh…yeah…uh…”

Daisy quickly put an end to his pathetic attempts at a pickup. “I’m not interested in you Paul. You’re eighteen, you’re a baby to me just as much as your nieces and nephews are a baby to you.” She could see his shoulders sagging with every statement. “I didn’t bring you out here to talk about me; I brought you out here to talk about your HCP.”

Paul actually covered remarkably well for an eighteen year old, but the way his eyes widened and his slow movement into a defensive stance gave him away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Sure you do.” Daisy studied him closely.

David’s power probably had something to do with Laurie’s since there was no evidence her husband was a Super. Laurie’s power was her hands lighting up, so if she took that as a baseline and extrapolated it to HCP levels. “I’m guessing you’re some sort of light manipulator, maybe a blaster. I know you don’t go to West. Lander has a pretty good senior with what could be described as light manipulation abilities; but I don’t think you’re good enough for Lander.” She mused, ignoring Paul’s shocked expressions. “Judging by your tan, I’m going to rule out Korman and Sizemore. I guess you’re going to Overton. Is Rachd still there?”

At the mention of the Overton Close Combat instructor’s name, Paul’s jaw dropped. “How…?”

“The HCP community is pretty close knit,” Daisy shrugged. “So…are you going to show me what you got or what?”

Paul got over his shock quicker than Daisy suspected he would. “Ok, stand back.” Daisy took a few steps back.

Paul took a deep breath and then suddenly both of his arms were glowing white. He turned around and grinned at Daisy, but she returned his gaze with a bored one of her own.

“Watch this.” Paul pointed a finger at the grass and a small beam of white light shot from his finger and into the ground; immediately setting the grass on fire. “Oh shit!” Paul’s arm returned to their normal tan color as he ran to stomp out the small flames.

Daisy just shook her head. She had so many questions as the alternative instructor in her ate up the details of his power. <Can you do lethal and nonlethal? What’s your movement like? Does anyone who fights you hand to hand get a second degree burn when they make contact? Can you vary the size of your blasts?> She realized Paul was staring at her and cut the mental assessment short.

“Cool.” It was sweet, simple, and would probably make the kid work twice as hard next semester. Of course, if he was only in the HCP to get girls he wouldn’t last long.

Daisy walked back into the house and looked over the see David watching the door. He pretended that he hadn’t been watching when Daisy entered, and he failed miserably. She felt bad for the kid, so she gave him a harmless wink. The way he brightened up you’d have thought she gave him a million bucks.

“Great job.” Laurie found her ten minutes later. “David’s convinced you’ve got a secret thing for him, and Paul thinks you’re playing hard to get.”

Daisy just smiled and enjoyed the gingerbread competition. They had four hours to build their graham cracker masterpiece. Daisy helped out Laurie and her husband, and they took third place overall. Surprisingly the win went to Paul and David, and she was convinced they were still trying to impress her.

After the last few days, hanging out with Laurie’s family was a welcomed change. She could put all the other shit in her mind on the backburner and just enjoy the time with her old classmate’s awesome family. Fortunately, it wasn’t the only stop she had to make today. Topher was set to be discharged this evening. Just in time for him to introduce Daisy to his family.

If Daisy had been nervous going in to meet Laurie’s family, she was downright petrified to meet Topher’s. She could face down a murderous psychopath any day of the week, but meeting your boyfriend’s family was a whole other ballgame.

 

***

 

Church on Christmas Eve was something Mason was used to. In fact, church every Sunday was what he was used to. His grandmother was a devout Baptist, but even though he attended church a lot; Mason wouldn’t really consider himself religious.

When you lost your parents at a young age you tended to go one of two ways concerning God. The first was that you drew closer to him. That was what his grandmother did when she lost her child. Mason did the opposite, he pulled away. Telling a young boy that the death of his parents was due to some big guy in the sky’s master plan didn’t fly well with him. Mason still had to attend church with his grandmother. To not do so was a cardinal sin that would earn him a whoopin’. While Mason would admit a Baptist mass could be pretty entertaining, he never really contemplated the message beneath it all.

Church on Christmas Eve with Kyoshi’s family was a whole different scenario. They attended a late afternoon mass at a Lutheran church. Mason guessed that made sense. Kyoshi’s dad was German and Martin Luther was German. Mason gave himself a mental high five for remembering that little historical tidbit. That was the only high five he gave himself for the next hour.

<I’ve got nothing against these people, but this is boooooring.> Mason sent the thought Kyoshi’s way; which only got him a sly smile in return.

Compared to the Baptist masses he’d attended over the years this was a snooze fest. Everyone just sat quietly in the pews, responding robotically to something the priest said, and standing, kneeling, or sitting at the appropriate times. Mason spent most of the mass looking at the stained glass windows and studying the church itself rather than paying attention.

Once mass was over, and they exited the church into the slight chill of the late December air, Mason thought they were finished.

Wrong.

They hopped in the car and drove clear across town to a building that looked a lot like an ancient temple he’d seen on the history channel. They all unloaded from the car and passed under a distinctive arch and into the small temple.

There were no lights inside, but hundreds of candles made it easy to see. Mason looked around the room in fascination. <Take your shoes off.> Mason looked back and saw Kyoshi and her family removing their shoes.

Mason quickly did the same and followed Kyoshi and her mother into the building.

“We will sit and watch.” Wilhelm pointed to a bench at the back of the room.

Mason didn’t ask any questions, but he was dying to know where they were and what they were doing.

<This is a Shinto shrine,> Kyoshi clarified through their mental link. <When my mother left Japan she brought her religion with her, and she’s passed it on to me.>

                All Mason knew about Shinto was that it was a religion. Other than that he had no clue what was going on or what he was supposed to be doing.

<It’s a beautiful religion,> Kyoshi and Sakura had gathered with a few other people and were starting some sort of ritual. <The way my mother has always described it to me is that it is all about building a connection to our past.>

                <So there is no god in this religion?> Mason found it fascinating to have a religion without a god.

<Not quite.> As Kyoshi and her mother did the ritual, the thoughts she was projecting became laced with peace. Mason could feel it as she talked with him. Calm just seemed to radiate through her every word. <We have Kami, but they aren’t really a God. I guess the closest thing to what you believe would be the Holy Spirit. Kami is the divineness, the sacred essence of the world that can be found in all things. The shrines help us connect more deeply with Kami and get closer to our ancestors.>

The more Mason thought about it the more he saw the similarities. He’d always been taught by his grandmother that God was in everything, just like Kami; and was getting in touch with your ancestors that much different than praying for those who’d died and gone to heaven?

It didn’t take long for Mason to get lost in the calmness of this place. He watched the ritual with much more curiosity than the previous mass. He even got the impression that Kyoshi was leading them.

“I was,” she answered the question after the ceremony had finished. “Supers in Japan hold a sacred place in Shinto. The more superstitious believers think that Supers and Powereds are beings filled with Kami. The Kami allows them to do incredible things. Specifically, they place particular value on shifters.

“Why?”

“There are a lot of stories about Kami taking different forms in Shinto, so people believe that a shifter’s shifted form is a Kami’s true form.” She smiled up at him.

They were both thinking the same thing. If followers of the Shinto religion ever met Angela they’d have a lot of questions; specifically, why does a Kami look like a western interpretation of religion.

“I wonder what Angela is up to?” They both hadn’t heard a peep from her all break.

“Knowing her she’s probably training.” They both hoped she’d at least be taking a little bit of time to relax.

 

***

 

Angela stalked through the underbrush. She watched every step she took, making sure she didn’t rustle any leaves or step on any twigs. Even the slightest sound would give away her position, but at the same time her ears were looking for just the same signs of movement. Honestly, she didn’t know if she was the predator or the prey.

Angela didn’t know how long she’d been in this god-forsaken rainforest, but it must have been at least been a week. She’d gotten so dehydrated she’d started to hallucinate at some points. The training exercise her mother had devised hadn’t stopped when she reached her first objective. She got there late so she had to do it all over again. She didn’t make the rendezvous the second time either, and it took her the entire third trip to figure out why.

She couldn’t make the trip in the allotted timeframe, not if Seraphim pumped her full of that venom that stopped her from shifting. Once she’d reached the end of the third trip, again late, she didn’t shift back. She had a brief fight with the Hero, one that she lost, and then they went home.

Angela had one day off, one day to sleep in a real bed, before she woke up in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Her mother must have gotten her in her sleep, and her father transported her here.

There was a single piece of paper lying on the table. Prepare yourself was all it said, so that was all Angela did.

There wasn’t any food, so Angela had to hunt. In her shifted form that was easy, but leaving the cabin always made her feel vulnerable. If she was preparing herself, then what was she preparing herself for? There was no answer for days, so she ate, trained, and mentally prepared herself.

The answer came on Christmas Eve.

Angela was sitting in front of the fire pulling the last bit of meat off a rabbit when a whining sound made her shift and jump to her feet. She wasn’t even halfway to the door when the cabin exploded.

One second Angela was walking toward the door, and the next she was waking up half-buried in the snow about twenty feet from the flaming wreck that she’d called home for the last few days. She shook the cobwebs from her mind and quickly assessed the situation.

It didn’t take long to find them; three people, wearing black, standing on the opposite side of the burning wreckage. They stared at each other for a few seconds before everyone sprang into action.

<The woods.> Angela knew them like the back of her hand now, and it would give her cover and concealment from her enemy.

The enemy knew she was heading that way, and they tried to cut her off. One black-clad attacker raised his hand and fired an orange beam at Angela. Angela jumped up, flapped her wings, and narrowly avoided the blast.

She looked over her shoulder as she barrel-rolled in the air to avoid any other follow-on attacks, but only saw one of the three attackers.

<Where the hell?> Her question got answered quickly.

The second black-clad attackers appeared out of thin air below her with a big rifle pointed at her.

<Dad…> She’d barely thought it when the weapon went off with a deafening roar.

If Angela’s shifted form wasn’t armor she’d probably be in trouble, but her armor saved her from the slug smashing through her body. But stopping the bullet didn’t get her off the hook. It felt like Mason had sucker-punched her in the chest. That was how hard her father’s tech genius enhanced rifle hit. It knocked the wind out of her, probably broke or at least bruised some internal organs, and it knocked her off course. She collided with a tree and fell into the forest.

The last thing she saw before falling into the sea of pines was the third attacker rise up on a set of wings and fly after her. It had been a game of cat and mouse ever since.

Carefully, Angela took a step and peered around a tree. She’d come to a clearing that she frequently set traps in. Now she had the feeling she was being trapped. Her senses had been honed by the HCP and sharpened by a break full of not-so-simulated attacks; and they served her well. She spotted the dark shape skulking in the trees, and launched an energy spear at it.

Her mother easily dodged the attack, cartwheeling into the air, and dive bombed her. Angela could have retreated back into the forest, but that was something a coward would do. She needed to stand, fight, and end this test. Instead, she summoned a shield and charged into the clearing.

If her mother was surprised by her tactic she didn’t show it. Seraphim twisted in the air, and hit Angela’s shield feet first. The resounding gong sent pine needles flying everywhere, and Angela stumbling backwards; even braced she had trouble standing up to her mother’s stronger blows.

There wasn’t time to think about it though, because Seraphim was already renewing her attack. Angela banished the shield and side-stepped one punch, batted aside another, and rolled out of the way of a high-kick that would have broken her neck.

Instinctually, she jumped into the air after she finished her roll. She knew from experience that her mother liked to poison people when they on the ground and vulnerable. While in the air, Angela summoned a sword, and swiped randomly below her.

The hiss of pain that escaped her mother’s mouth was sweet music to Angela’s ears. As she landed she saw the barbed end of Seraphim’s detached tail twitching on the ground. It was the first meaningful blow Angela had been able to land on her mother all break.

She looked up at her mother’s shifted form, at the bleeding, agitated tail sweeping back and forth behind the Hero, and couldn’t help but smile. Angela squared her stance and raised her sword for another attack…and then everything went black.

Angela woke up around noon on Christmas day. She way lying on the couch in her parent’s DVA assigned house. Her mother and father were sitting in chairs opposite her, sipping on coffee. They turned their eyes on her when she awoke.

“You forgot to check behind you.” Her father said like it was the simplest explanation in the world; which it was. “Now open your presents. You did well. ”

Getting a compliment from her dad, and then a smile from her mom, was a Christmas miracle. Angela couldn’t help but wonder if she was still unconscious from her blow to the head. Was this a good dream that would end abruptly? She expected to wake up in that clearing, her mother standing over her, and demanding she continue her training.

 

***

 

The beach was empty except for one candlelit table. Seth smiled as they neared it, and saw Liz’s face light up. “Merry Christmas Eve,” he grinned.

“This is awesome!” she ran to the table and plopped down in her seat.

Immediately, servers appeared form the kitchen area about a hundred yards away. They arrived with champagne and a choice of hors d’oeuvres. Seth watched Liz take it all in. She was absolutely stunning tonight in a long dress with a deep V-neck cut. She wasn’t wearing any shoes though, because who wore shoes for a private dinner on the beach?

<I don’t want this to be over.> Seth didn’t let the thought kill the positive vibe.

Originally, they’d planned to fly back on the twenty-third. That way they could attend a few family obligations. Of course, after a vacation filled of absolute bliss; neither of them wanted to go home. They extended the trip another few days. They had today and tomorrow to enjoy each other’s carefree company before they flew home on the twenty-sixth.

Seth was going to make the most of it.

The main course came out and they devoured it. They’d definitely worked up an appetite, and it wasn’t all because of the sex. They’d gone scuba diving earlier in the day to a coral reef not far from the resort. The sheer beauty of nature really put things into perspective. They’d even run into a shark. Not one of those wimpy little ones either. They’d found themselves less than a hundred feet from a Great Hammerhead. Their guide might have shit hit pants, but Liz and Seth just pointed and went to investigate. You didn’t really have anything to fear when one of you was a top tier elemental manipulator who’d been working on his control in an HCP environment for the last few months.

Seth trapped the predator in a bubble of water large enough for him to swim around in, but small enough that they could get a good look. The creature lived up to its name and rammed the solid barrier a few times before Seth let it go. He made sure to forcefully guide it in the opposite direction just in case it was thinking about revenge.

“Oh my god this is delicious!” Liz interrupted the memory as she bit into the steak.

Liz wasn’t one of those girls who only ate soups and salads. She could be a hell of a carnivore at times, and a twelve ounce filet was hard to pass up.

“I’m glad you like it.” He gulped down the rest of his glass of champagne, pulled the box from his pocket, and slid it across the table. “This is for you.”

It was an expensive looking velvet jewelry box. He saw Liz’s eyes double in size as she looked at the box, and for a second he thought about how this looked. They’d just spent a romantic getaway together, after having expressed their love for one another…

<Shit.> He quickly reached out and opened the box to reveal a necklace.

He visibly saw Liz exhale, and her eyes shrank back down to their normal, lovely, chocolate selves. She gave him a quick look, and they shared an identical thought. It was one thing to be in love, but it was a whole other ballgame to take that step. Neither of them was sober enough after a week of drinking their faces off to make that type of decision.

“It’s beautiful, Seth.” She reached for the box and took out the necklace.

The piece was expensive, but it would have been much more expensive if he’d bought it back in the States. It consisted of two hearts; one was plain white gold, and the other was diamond encrusted white gold. It didn’t take much to figure out which heart represented who; and to top it all off, they were linked together.

Seth got out of his chair, picked up the necklace and went to put it on her. Liz pulled her blonde hair away from her neck so he could see. It might make some guys time to get that little clasp open and locked into place, but not Seth. He had plenty of practice.

“Merry Christmas, Liz.” Seth returned to his seat and raised his glass.

“Merry Christmas, Seth.”

It was perfect.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 10

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Toronto-Buffalo-Cleveland-Detroit Metropolis, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Mindfucked; that was a good way to describe the sensation permeating Coop’s skull. The average time for the stupid test he took might have been a little over three hours, but it took him a full four. He was pretty sure he bombed it. The question about the Expansion was by far the easiest one. The VR simulations didn’t get any easier, and the complex mathematical equations and scientific theorems made Coop wonder if he should have stayed in school past junior year.

<If I knew I was gonna get pinched boosting an air-car and forced to join the military then maybe.> He rolled his eyes behind his closed lids as he massaged his temples.

After the test was finished, soldiers in the Commonwealth gray smartcloth escorted the fifteen recruits to a waiting room. One by one they were called away to review their performance. While Coop waited he looked over the crowd of future soldiers. He wasn’t impressed. Despite being in a PHA Civil Administration building most of the other recruits were clearly not from around here. Most wore smartcloth patterned in professional or business casual styles, and they typed away on their PADs while they waited. Coop had neither of those luxuries, and he didn’t want to be associated with anyone who did. Honestly, the only thing he wanted to do was put his fist through one of the little rich-kid’s faces and take his PAD from him.

<Welcome to the PHA.> He imagined himself standing over the guy’s broken face. The thought helped with the headache a little.

“Hello.” The greeting came from the space right next to Coop.

Coop didn’t jump in surprise. He’d heard the sound of the person approaching, and hoped that him sitting there alone and with his eyes closed was enough of a nonverbal signal to get the person to go the fuck away. Apparently, it wasn’t.

“Hello.” The boy who seated himself next to Coop repeated when Coop opened his eyes.

<What the fuck are they feeding people out there?> Coop couldn’t help but grimace.

The guy had to be five centimeters taller and ten kilos heavier than Coop. The PHA Rat was beginning to think he wasn’t that big of a guy at all. The new guy’s face was thin and angular, making him look harsher than he actually was. Coop noticed his soft hands and innocent eyes right away. The guy had a permanent grave expression on his face, even when he smiled and extended his hand toward Coop.

Coop raised an eyebrow at the other man, but shook the offered hand. “Hi.”

“Nathaniel Cruise.” The other recruit introduced himself with an ease that said he did this all the time.

Coop passed his eyes over the guy’s outfit. It was clearly an expensive white smartcloth in a professional cut. It was the type of outfit you saw bankers and stockbrokers wear on the holo. If that wasn’t evidence that this guy was wealthy, then his PAD was. Instead of the block of polyplast Coop associated with the communications devices, Nathaniel had a thin circular PAD that was securely attached to his forearm. Right now it had the time and some type of chart playing across its screen.

“It’s a good piece of tech.” Nathaniel saw Coop looking. “I got it last month for my birthday. My father said I wouldn’t need it once I joined up, but I was impatient.” He laughed at the self-deprecating humor, but Coop didn’t think it was funny.

Nathaniel noticed the cold stare Coop was giving him and quickly shifted topics. “You are?”

“Call me Coop.” Coop turned his attention away from the rich kid and closed his eyes again. Any relief he’d gotten from the academic skull fucking had returned during the conversation.

“Nice to meet you, Coop.” Nathaniel kept talking despite Coop not paying any attention. “Are you excited to see your career options?”

“Don’t really give a shit.” If Nathaniel didn’t get the hint soon Coop was going to make good on the daydream of punching someone in the face and taking their PAD.

<I could get a good price for that in my tower.> The thought sent a pang of homesickness through his gut.

“How can you not be excited?” Nathan laughed like Coop was making a joke. “This test determines the next few years of your life. I’m going the officer track myself. A few months of leadership training and I’ll be a Lieutenant; hopefully on a Commonwealth warship.”

“I guess you’ve got it all figured out.” Coop closed his eyes.

“That’s the plan.” Coop could feel Nathaniel’s surgically perfected smile beaming. “I’d really like to be on a battleship, but I’d take a cruiser.”

“Nathaniel Cruise!” A stern looking soldier called from one of the doors.

“That’s me, time to go start my career. Good luck, Coop.” Coop didn’t even respond as Nathaniel walked away.

<Asshole.> Coop was just glad for the return of peace and quiet.

“Mark Cooper!” The smooth voice of the sergeant Coop talked to earlier cut through the momentary peace Coop had achieved. “I see you over there, move your ass.”

Coop muttered several profanities under his breath, many involving the irritating sergeant’s mother, as he followed the taller man to an empty room not far from where the rest of the recruits were waiting. It was a simple room with two chairs, a desk between them, and a clear polyplast monitor to display information. Coop saw his name up on the screen as he sat down, but he didn’t have any idea what the rest of the data said.

The sergeant looked at the data for a solid thirty seconds without saying a word. Coop didn’t rush the soldier; he’d already verbally sparred with the man and lost. That earned the soldier respectful silence from him.

“Do you want the long or short version?” The sergeant asked, turning his attention to Coop.

“Keep it short and sweet, Sarge,” Coop grinned.

“Sergeant,” the soldier corrected with an iron gaze.

“Keep it short and sweet, Sergeant,” Coop kept the grin.

“Your leadership abilities suck,” the sergeant deadpanned. “In multiple scenarios you wasted resources, mostly to defend or enhance yourself, and ended up fucking everything else up.”

Coop remembered the first VR simulation, and how the big armored guy never came out of the river. “So you’re not going to be going down the officer track…ever.” The sergeant’s words didn’t surprise Coop. He didn’t even know there was an officer track until Nathaniel mentioned it.

“Ok,” Coop shrugged, showing how little he cared.

The sergeant didn’t care either because he moved on without batting an eyelash. “The rest of the results show that you’re smart and stupid, it just depends on the situation.”

“That really clears things up.” Coop would have said more but the soldier talked right over him.

“You’re quick on your feet, but you’re rash, and impulsive. In all the simulations you were killed more than half the time. But your instincts are to do something, which is good.” Coop couldn’t stop the grin from forming. “Psychological metrics have you scoring high in a lot of negative emotions: rage, apathy…” the sergeant listed off a few more.

“The functional category you scored highest in was the technical category. You’ve got a firm grasp on tech, which is a bit of a surprise considering your background,” the sergeant frowned. “Or not that surprising considering why you’re here; either way you have a possible future as some technical specialist; maybe communications.”

“If I wanted to talk on a phone to people I’d get a job at a call center,” Coop spat at the idea.

The sergeant just shook his head before he entered a few commands on his PAD. “Tough shit. You’re good at it so it’s going in your file.” Coop couldn’t argue.

The sergeant spent the next half hour going over the rest of the metrics on the screen between them. They briefly dissected his verbal answers and Coop had to answer some more questions about the reasons behind decisions he made in the VR simulations. It just made him feel even more mindfucked.

“For fuck’s sake, I don’t care where you put me. Just get me out of this fucking office.” Coop vented when he couldn’t take it anymore.

The sergeant gave him a long look before entering another note in his file, and shutting down the system. “You’ve got balls.” The sergeant said simply. “You’ve got a sack fully of moxy, a hard on for pissing people off, and a “fuck the world” attitude.” Coop was surprised to see the bigger man smile. “Basic is going to suck ass for you, but if you make it through I think you’ll end up a Heavy. And then the real fun begins.”

Coop wanted to ask what a Heavy was, but he didn’t want to indulge the sergeant‘s smile. So instead he got up, farted in the soldier’s general direction, and walked back to the waiting room. The soldier’s laugh followed him all the way back.

Nathaniel was already back, sitting next to the seat Coop had vacated earlier; so Coop found a chair on the opposite side of the room. <Take a fucking hint,> Coop growled when the rich kid got up and moved to the chair next to him.

The charming smile was gone, leaving a worn expression on the fellow recruit’s face. His eyes were red and puffy. Coop was about to ask if the guy was crying like a little baby but he got beat to it.

“I didn’t get it.” Nathaniel had a far off look in his eyes when he made the statement. “I didn’t get high enough scores to make the officer track.” Coop could tell the guy’s eyes were getting wet, and he wanted to slap some sense into him. “I’m going to spend my enlistment contract as some grunt in the dirt getting shot at.”

Coop couldn’t help himself; he looked the other recruit straight in the eyes and laughed.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 9

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Toronto-Buffalo-Cleveland-Detroit Metropolis, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

“Holy shit!” Coop’s exclamation mirrored his emotions. “This is unreal.” He pinched himself and felt pain.

Coop had never been in virtual reality before. The tech had been around for over a century, but Rats in the PHA didn’t have access to something that expensive. VR suites were common among the middle and upper class, and they were even built into homes as a luxury item. They probably weren’t as good as the military tech he was currently experiencing, but as far as entertainment went you could do a lot worse.

Coop felt the arid wind whip across his face. He could feel his eyes getting dry, and he had to blink constantly to get his tear ducts working; he could even smell the blandness in the air. <I bet this is what Mars used to look like.>

The Commonwealth’s first colony no longer had anything but a tinge of red to it. In fact, it looked like a second earth with only ten billion inhabitants. It was a paradise Coop would love to visit one day.

“Sensors indicate you have not moved.” The feminine, robotic voice was back. “You have fourteen minutes remaining, Mark Cooper.”

<Oh shit!> Mark turned his attention away from a scene that felt more real than virtual, and paid more attention to the small group of people around him.

Everyone in the small group was wearing the dusty gray smartcloth that the sergeant at the front desk wore. Most had a frightened look on their face, and a few had bloody scratches or other minor injuries. They didn’t carry any practical weapons, just a fifteen centimeter knife in a sheath on their hips. The only exception was a guy in the back.

<Now that’s what I’m talking about,> Coop grinned.

The guy was huge; easily 2.2 meters tall and completely covered in a thick dusty gray armor. In his hands was a rifle half the size of Coop. It looked like it could do some serious damage.

“Hey big guy.” The armored man turned when Coop yelled at him. “Give me your gun and get your ass across the river.”

Coop tried to sound like the sergeant who’d thoroughly schooled him earlier. He didn’t want the armored man to argue with his orders, and surprisingly he didn’t. The man walked right up to Coop, handed him the giant weapon; which had to weigh at least twenty kilos, and waded into the river.

The river wasn’t the pale blue of the Martian seas, or the dull brown of Lake Erie; but a sickly looking black. It looked like liquid tar. The armored man didn’t hesitate as he continued to walk deeper and deeper into the river. His helmeted head dipped between the waves when he was a quarter of the way across, and he disappeared from view. Coop waited for one…three…then five minutes for the man to surface, but he never did.

“What the fuck?” Coop frantically looked around at the other people in the small group. None of their expressions had changed, and none of them had moved.

Coop had already wasted eight minutes waiting on the biggest, baddest looking motherfucker in his group to get across the river. He wasted another five trying to find anything else they could use to get across. One of the guys had a hundred meters of rope, which was just enough to get across the river.

“Fucking idiot, why didn’t you say something?” Coop got in the guy’s face, but the holographic avatar just continued to look anxious and frightened.

“Can anyone swim?”

Growing up in the PHA, Coop hadn’t bothered to learn to swim The sole purpose of water was to be heavily filtered and drunk, there was no other use for a liquid that was more valuable than gold. So naturally he wasn’t the best choice to take the rope across the river.

The plan was pretty simple after that. Two people on either end would anchor the rope while everyone else swam across using the rope to avoid drowning. Once everyone was on the other side they’d use the rope to pull the last person across.

It took three minutes for the guy who could swim to make it to the other side, and by then it was too late. Small dark dots that had appeared in the distance at the ten-minute mark were now perfectly clear. They were more armored men, not in the dusty gray color of Coop’s missing man. Their armor was patterned with red, green, and brown hues. It was much better camouflage on a red planet than the Commonwealth gray.

Coop never heard them fire, but he felt the blood splatter as the head of the man beside him exploded. It reminded Coop of when he and Jimmy had dropped rotten fruit they’d stolen into the core of the PHA tower. Fifty stories and SPLAT, you couldn’t even tell what it used to be. As the dead body of the man slumped beside him, Coop couldn’t take his eyes off the man’s neck which ended in a gory stump.

The rest of the small group was quickly torn to shreds by the armored enemy. More heads exploded, whole limbs were blown off, and in one case a men’s chest cavity shattered leaving detached arms and legs lying all over the ground.

“Motherfuckers!” Coop lifted the massive rifle to his shoulder like he’d seen in the holos, aimed at a target, and fired.

One thing you never saw on the holo was the recoil, but Coop sure as hell felt it. The massive rifle slammed backward into Coop’s shoulder. He screamed as he felt bones break from the jarring force. The weapon, which was already heavier than anything Coop had shot, fell from his grip onto the red soil. Coop clutched his ruined limb to his torso, and looked back at the enemy. A zipping noise ripped past his head, and he knew that they’d taken out the guy who’d made it to the opposite shore.

The last thing Coop saw of the barren, red world was an armored enemy standing less than twenty meters from him. Coop took a small amount of comfort seeing one of the other armored men limping, but it didn’t mean that much when the guy’s rifle went off and blew a basketball sized hole where Coop’s heart used to be.

“AHHHH!” Coop yelled. He’d felt the bullet rip into him before there was another flash of light and he opened his eyes to the semi-darkness of the testing cube.

“Scenario complete.” The computerized voice announced. “Score compiled and logged in your official file. Are you ready to continue?”

Coop took deep breaths. He wanted to feel his chest and make sure there wasn’t a gaping hole in it, but his arms were still restrained by the chair. “That shit was too real,” he mumbled to himself.

“Are you ready to continue?” Coop wasn’t sure if he was. “Do you require medical attention?” The fact that the response was coded into the system was an indicator that the phantom pain he was feeling had happened before.

<Don’t be a pussy.> Coop took another deep breath. He could see his chest, and everything looked fine. The sooner he got this test over the quicker he could be out of this claustrophobic cube.

“Ready,” he answered.

“Vocalize your answer to the following question.” Coop was glad he wouldn’t be heading back into VR just yet. “In your own words describe the Expansion.”

<The Expansion?> Coop knew exactly what the question was asking; he was just waiting for clarification.

The Expansion was the all-encompassing term used to detail mankind’s expansion into space. It occurred in three waves spread over a few hundred years. The first wave started at the end of the twenty-first century, and was the most controversial. Earth was overpopulated. Twenty billion people crammed on a planet made for a fourth of that population. Resources were running low, and people were getting anxious. Things like not being able to feed your family were becoming more and more common. It was because of this unrest and lack of resources that the Commonwealth was formed; although, it wasn’t the United Commonwealth of Colonies back then.

What the consolidation of formerly independent nations did allow was the pooling of assets to build the structures and workforce needed for extra-planetary colonization. Over several decades the Commonwealth, its main rival the Eastern Block, and the European Union launched missions into the solar system. The first wave covered the colonization of what would eventually be renamed the Sol System. The birthplace of humanity.

All three nations had long standing bases on the moon; later renamed Luna, and quickly established mining operations throughout the asteroid belt. The Commonwealth took Mars and the majority of the moons around Jupiter and Saturn. The goals of the first wave were simple: ease the population of Earth; and it was successful. By the middle of the twenty second century colony flights were taking people to the partially terraformed worlds where they could make a better life than what they’d left on Earth.

It also allowed them to escape the wars. There were minor skirmishes between the three largest nations, others states, and even wealthy individuals fighting for control of the homeworld and the wealth that was filtering back to it from the new colonies. The theory in every government’s mind was if they conquered someone on Earth then you got their holdings throughout the solar system. That assumption was wrong.  It took the Last Terran War, and half a billion casualties, to convince everyone that war on Earth was just going to kill off the bulk of humanity. So a compact was reacted to ensure no one would fight on the homeworld ever again, and the lull of peace spread as everyone expanded.

The fruits of the first wave became the fuel of the second. Mankind mastered faster than light travel and launched itself into the cosmos. Everyone with enough money to buy, man, and equip ships loaded them up and launched them up to the max range of their FTL drives; five hundred light years from Earth. Over a hundred worlds were terraformed and colonized, but that didn’t mean peace.

Mankind ran into the same problems it had when the Americas were discovered by Europeans. The oceans were vast and hard to travel, piracy ran rampant, and there was no shortage of wars between the European powers. The same was true of the second wave. The largest nations might have agreed to not fight on Earth, but that didn’t apply to the fledgling colonies. Like vultures, fleets of warships battled across the five hundred light year buddle of human space. It was much cheaper to come in and take a colony than to terraform one. That cost estimate didn’t include human lives.

Fear and human greed propelled mankind from the second to third wave of the Expansion. People wanted to get away from the dangers of the Core Worlds, and science allowed them to do just that. By the time Coop was born in 2414, humans had expanded to just over fifteen-hundred light years from Earth. There was still debate whether or not the third wave was over. The big nations were now a heavy presence in the Mid-Worlds, the space five hundred to a thousand light years from Earth; but private corporations, religious and individual colonization missions dominate the sparsely populated space beyond the thousand light year mark. The Rim, as it was affectionately called, was the wild west of modern civilization. The Commonwealth and its rivals were trickling in, but it was hard to colonize the territory when the possibility of pirate invasion deterred potential colonists.

Coop told all of this to the cube in a five-minute explanation. Everyone knew the barebones of the Expansion. It was taught in every school in the Commonwealth, and probably throughout the other big nations, with everyone putting emphasis on their own accomplishments. Coop made sure to wrap it up quick. He doubted that the Commonwealth military really cared that much about a history lesson.

“Thank you.” The computerized voice responded when Coop went silent. “Score compiled and logged in your official file. Are you ready to continue?”

“How long is this test?” Coop already felt irritated after fifteen minutes in VR and five rattling off his answer to an open ended question.

“On average the Commonwealth Armed Forces Standardized Aptitude Examination is completed in three hours fourteen minutes and thirty-nine seconds. Are you ready to continue?” The cube ignored Coop’s groan and continued with the test.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 63

Daisy felt like she was having an out of body experience as she left Kevin’s house. She’d talked with the old Hero until the sun started to peek over the horizon. She needed to get back to her hotel quickly before the ForceOps surveillance team noticed she was gone. But her heart wasn’t totally in it. What she had learned from Mastermind had shattered her self-identity. If she was caught she wouldn’t really care.

<I’ve killed people.> That particular thought stuck with Daisy.

Daisy had killed lots of people over her half-century Hero career. That was the nature of the job. Not everyone could be saved, and some people had to be put down. But this was different. She’d taken orders from her government to assassinate people. These weren’t criminal Supers who were causing too much damage to take in alive; these were rival heads of state, communists that democratic nations needed gone, and important military members throughout the world. Mastermind even told her of how they’d broken into a North Korean testing facility back in the 90s and set their nuclear program back a decade.

<Not only that, but I’ve broken a shit ton of laws. Am I any better than the criminals I arrested? Did Mastermind and I help shape the course of human history from behind the scenes by spilling the blood of our enemies.> She felt her head start to hurt just at the thought. <Nope…not going to go there. That’s too big, way too fucking big. Focus on the small stuff and breath.>

Daisy took deep breaths in through her nose, held them, and let them out slowly through her mouth. Dr. Johnson’s techniques worked in a variety of situations, but she doubted her shrink would have imagined that “I used to do wet work for ForceOps” was one of the reasons he was teaching her to calm down from.

Getting back into the hotel was more difficult than getting out due to the growing light in the sky. She ended up getting in the same way that she got out. She had to create a distraction; all that cost was twenty bucks and a bum willing to wash a windshield. All she did was jump back up into her second hotel room. Thankfully, she got it on the first try; which was a miracle in itself. Repeatedly trying to jump into a third floor window was bound to draw attention.

<Maybe I’ve had a lot of practice.> Daisy’s memories were more open now. Mastermind had filled in some of the gaps, but she still wasn’t whole.

“Maybe one day.” Kevin answered when she asked if she’d ever get all her memories back. “But we need to ease into it. It’s like when you’ve been in freezing cold water for too long. <Because for some reason they’d both been in that situation at some point.> You can’t go jump right into hot water to get warm. If you warm up to quickly the blood will rush back to your heart and overwhelm it. You’ve got to do it gradually. It’s never what anyone wants to do, but it’s what you need to do to survive. This is just like that. I don’t want to overwhelm your mind and turn you into a vegetable.”

Daisy exited her secondary room and quickly proceeded to her original room. She didn’t know how long she had before the colonel sent his men to take her to see Mastermind. She was exhausted, despite spending a few hours unconscious and being telepathically worked on. That amounted to shitty sleep. She didn’t even bother to slip out of her clothes before she flopped down onto the bed. She was out a few seconds after her head hit the pillow.

She didn’t get much sleep.

After what felt like a couple of minutes, but was actually a couple of hours, rapid knocking woke her up. It was one of those wakeups where you either strangled the person who was waking you up or you smashed your alarm clock into little pieces. Since Daisy couldn’t do either, she had to get up and answer the door.

“Ma’am.” A young soldier wearing creased jeans and a button-down shirt stood with a ridged posture at the door.

<Looks like you drew the short straw, kid,> Daisy groggily thought.

“We’re ready for you.”

“And I’m not ready for you,” she shot back. “I’ll be down in thirty. I’ve got to shower, shave, and shit. Why don’t you and your friends grab some coffee and I’ll see you soon.”

The young soldier looked too shocked to respond when Daisy slammed the door in his face. She doubted he was used to hearing that a girl needed to take a shit before she was ready to go. <You learn something new every day,> she smiled as she stripped, cranked up the hot water, and jumped into the shower.

She was distinctly aware that she was literally going to learn new things about herself as Mastermind slowly restored her memory.

Thirty minutes later, maybe thirty-five if you were being stingy; which the looks on the ForceOps team said that they were, Daisy entered the lobby. There was no coffee, just a general sense of urgency in getting from the hotel to Mastermind’s house. The soldiers watched her the whole way. They didn’t show any emotions, which made her wonder if they knew she’d snuck out last night.

<Or they’re trying to trick me into revealing I snuck out last night?> Colonel Ford wasn’t dumb, and he’d probably anticipated something like that.

Whatever their true motivations were, it was best for Daisy if she acted like this was all a new experience. Of course, that was easier said than done. She’d never been a great actor, and she was playing for high stakes.

They pulled up in front of Mastermind’s house, which she’d never seen. “Is this it?” she asked genuinely.

“Let us secure the perimeter,” a large soldier, most likely a strongman, ordered. If Daisy had to put money on it this was the guy in charge.

Still, looking around the neighborhood, Daisy didn’t see any villains or foreign military operatives looking to get the jump on them. “After you, Captain America,” she shrugged, trying to play off her nervousness as irritation.

“I’m a Major,” the man replied, but that only got an eye roll from Daisy.

<The more pissed off I can make them the less likely they’ll notice that I’ve been here before.> It was a solid plan, and looked like it might even be fun.

The ForceOps team consisted of four men, including the major. One headed into the backyard, and two more took up positions in the front. The young soldier must have been a weak advanced mind, because he closed his eyes for a minute. When he opened them he gave a thumbs up to the major, and that was there cue to go.

“The Sergeant can sense hostile intent,” the major informed, as he watched Daisy give the sergeant the once over. “He’s handy to have in a negotiation, so if you plan on getting hostile we’ll know and I’ll stop you.”

Daisy couldn’t stop herself from laughing in the big major’s face. “Good luck with that big guy.” She gave his thick bicep a pat before walking ahead of him and straight into Mastermind’s house.

“Good morning, Major.” Kevin was sitting at the kitchen table sipping a cup of coffee.

Daisy had only briefly been in the room when she charged into the house and hid behind the granite countertop; so she let the major lead the way.

“Hello, Sir.” The response was professional but with an undertone of “don’t step over the line or else”. They’d been here yesterday and made it clear what Kevin could and couldn’t talk about.

They all sat down at the kitchen table, and Kevin started the conversation. “Hello, Daisy. You don’t remember me but my name is Kevin. We’ve been friends for a very long time and I have some things I want to tell you…”

Having a conversation you’ve already had, and pretending it was the first time you’ve had it was hard. Thankfully, Kevin didn’t go into nearly as much detail as before. He told Daisy that they had worked together for ForceOps a few times over the years, and that the majority of their relationship had been as Heroes in the U.S. The reason she didn’t remember a lot of those interactions was because all of her memories had to be erased to keep the covert foreign operations a secret. He didn’t go into any detail at all on how those memory wipes had monumentally fucked her up.

Daisy kept her mental shields up during the entire talk because there was no guarantee that the major had told her the full range of the sergeant’s mental abilities. Still, when Kevin was forced to skip the part about her mental degradation she couldn’t quite keep her thoughts to herself.

<Way to cover your ass ForceOps!> Kevin took that moment to tell a bad joke, which was good, or else his smile would have tipped off the observant soldiers that something was up.

The ForceOps approved conversation with Mastermind was a lot shorter than the one she’d had with him the previous night. But the one thing that did stick out was when they started discussing Saif al-Din. Instead of keeping the information a secret, the major did the exact opposite. He pulled out a thick file on the Super and dropped it right in front of Daisy.

“Saif al-Din,” the major started to explain. “Is one of the most wanted men in the world. He’s on the FBI, CIA, Interpol, every European police agency, and Mossad’s lists of people to kill on sight.”

It was an extreme statement, but Daisy didn’t want to think too much about it. In quite a few cases she’d been the person doing the killing.

“He’s the monster we dealt with in that initial flashback you had,” Kevin stated. Her flashback to that night in the desert had been fair game as far as ForceOps was concerned. Primarily, because she already knew about it, and secondly because it involved al-Din.

“His real name is unknown, and our only photo of him is nearly a decade old.” The major turned the page and showed Daisy a grainy black and white photo taken from a distance.

Even though the photo had poor resolution Daisy could tell the man was handsome. He had a carefully maintained beard and mustache in his culture’s fashion. He wore tan body armor and a slung AK-47 with a confidence that showed he knew how to use it. He looked like a leader and a dangerous man.

“The reason you were on the desert mission was because we suspected al-Din’s involvement. As far as we know you’re the only Super who has a chance at stopping him.”

“Saif al-Din is a shifter with an adaptive healing capability,” the major informed. “His shifted form will heal the damage done to him, but the newly healed part of the creature’s body will be resistant to that type of attack. It’s a formidable power, and one that has caused us and our allies headaches over the last two decades.”

“So basically anyone who goes up against this guy only has one chance to take him down.” Daisy saw the problem. “But he’s got to be a top tier healer, which would be tough for me.”

“Our current doctrine would be to have you attack him with your signature power from a distance while other Heroes and ForceOps soldiers engage in close combat. We know it will take time to wear him down, but we’re confident that we can succeed.”

“This sounds more like a recruiting pitch than a rundown on the guy.” Daisy shot a sideways glance at the major.

“It’s both,” the man stated matter-of-factly. “We have it on good authority that al-Din has recently been sighted in the U.S., and he has a particular grudge against you.”

<I’ll stop by, kill you, kill everything you’ve ever loved, and then I’ll take back what you have stolen from me.> The monster’s words from the desert echoed in Daisy’s mind.

Everything clicked into place.

<Anika…New York…John…the Patriots…> If she wasn’t surrounded by the ForceOps guys she would have crawled into a corner and cried herself dry.

Kevin knew she’d connected all the dots, and he did his best to give her a comforting look.

It didn’t help too much.

<Get it together, Daisy.> She battled with a tsunami of depression that threatened to overwhelm her.

“I have a lot to think about.” Despite her best efforts, her voice cracked a little bit. “I’m just gonna grab some fresh air.”

Kevin held up a hand to stop the major from following her out the front door.

As she stepped onto the front lawn the sergeant’s head whiped around, and his eyes widened at the sight of her. “Ma’am, are you ok?” His hand slowly drifted toward the sidearm strapped to his thigh.

His power had triggered when he saw her.

Daisy was so caught up in the sadness that she almost missed the rage bubbling just beneath it. She didn’t bother trying to take deep breaths or deal with her issues in a constructive way. She just wanted to feel the wrath. She wanted to be the old Reaper for just a few seconds. She wanted to be the woman who’d been feared by everyone. The woman who’d kicked ass across the globe, and the only woman who could stand up to that monster al-Din.

“I’m fine.” Her demonic eyes bored into the sergeant’s soul like the gates of Hell. “I just realized that someone needs to die, and I’m going to be the one to do it.”

 

***

 

The air had a crispness to it you just couldn’t get in Orlando. Even in the winter, Florida air had a mugginess in it. You couldn’t escape it; but Iowa was different. It reminded Anika a lot of Montana.

<It’s the peacefulness,> she concluded, as she rounded the curve of the track at a light jog. It needed to be a light jog so it looked like she was moving at normal human speeds.

Anika’s adoptive family had called the other day to wish her a Merry Christmas; which was probably why she was feeling a little homesick. It was hard to be homesick when you’d moved over fifteen times in eighteen years, but Anika still felt a little pang of sadness every once and a while. She loved her new family dearly. They’d taken in a half-barbaric little girl from the other side of the world and turned her into a lady; or something approximating that. Anika had never been the dresses, tea party, and playing with dolls type of girl; but that worked well for her family’s current cover story as ranchers.

<How ya doin’ over there?> Becca’s question cut across her mind just as she stepped across the finish line.

Anika’s petite blue-haired girlfriend had already done around two dozen miles in the time it took Anika to do three. She could show off her power here because it was her hometown, and as Anika had learned, everybody knew everything about everybody in this town.

It hadn’t been more than a few days and already Becca and Anika’s confrontation with Ben had spread through the entire town. Nobody was saying anything, but you could see it in the way they stared.

<It’s probably the biggest thing to happen to this town since sliced bread.> Becca had brushed off the new curiosity the town had in her, but Anika could tell it was gradually getting under her skin.

When word had reached Becca’s parents they’d drawn away slightly at first, but then firmly stood beside their daughter. It warmed Anika’s heart to see the Whitfield’s standing behind their daughter because she deserved their support.

“We should head back and change.” Anika didn’t miss the trepidation in Becca’s voice. “We don’t want to be late.”

It was the annual Christmas pageant being performed at the town’s one and only school. Everyone from kindergarten to seniors in high school took part in it. The whole town would be there.

As Anika and Becca left the track behind the school they could already see people setting up. The sets were getting a final coat of paint out front, moms and teachers were running around with robes in their arms to be distributed, and a truck full of food was getting unloaded for the after party. Even a few kids were milling around.

A lot of them stopped and stared as Anika and Becca walked by, and there was more than one unhappy look in the crowd.

<It’s going to be fine.> Anika shot a reassuring thought to her girlfriend. <You’re the smartest, bravest, coolest, and not to mention fastest girl I know. Sticks and stones may break your bones but words can never hurt you. On the other hand, my fist will crush their bones into a fine power that I’ll force-feed them if they insist on being a bunch of douchebags.>

That got a laugh from Becca. She slipped her hand into Anika’s and gave her the thousand watt smile that made Anika’s heart skip a beat. <Thanks.> The speedster didn’t need to say anything more than that.

They hurried back to Becca’s house, showered, and changed for the pageant. Becca emerged from the bathroom in the most conservative dress Anika had ever seen. It had a high collar that completely obscured any cleavage, it was long-sleeved and went all the way down to her wrists, and was long enough that it even touched the floor. It was something you’d see on a nineteenth century Victorian aristocrat, not a twenty-first century teenager.

                “Ok.” Anika wasn’t sure what to say. “How about you just throw on jeans and a blouse and we’ll go like normal people.” It was a little blunter than intended, and Anika immediately regretted her words.

“Ugh…” Becca let out an exasperated sigh. “No, you’re right. I’m over-thinking this.” She gave Anika’s outfit an appraising look and smiled. “You look cute, that blouse makes your eyes pop.” Anika had picked it for just that reason.

Twenty minutes later they were ready to go. Becca’s parents had gone ahead with the younger kids to get them into costume and help them set up; so the two college freshmen had to fend for themselves. They could have run to the school, but they took Becca’s car instead.

If Anika was being truthful she would have rather run. She was feeling a little restless lately. It was quite a change of pace to go from the constant stress and vigorous activity of the HCP to a small quiet Midwest town. She kept expecting Coach Meyers to emerge from the shadows to test their constant vigilance.

<That’s stupid. She’s got better things to do with her winter break.> Anika had told herself the first time she eyed a particularly large show. She knew she was being paranoid, but she still kept a close eye on those shadows. <Seems like something rubbed off on me after all.>

                The school’s parking lot was full, which meant that the entire town was present. Becca was just able to snatch the last spot at the back of the lot. It left them with a decent walk to the doors, and plenty of time to see what was ahead of them.

“I’ve got dumb, dumber, and dumbest waiting at the door.” Anika saw them first with her height advantage. “This could be trouble.”

“Ben’s all talk and no action.” Becca tried to defend the high school football star, but it fell flat. “I’m sure everything will be fine.”

They didn’t have to wait long to find out.

Anika and Becca started to walk up the steps but Ben and his posse stepped in front of them.

It was more than just the two other guys he’d had with him at the family-run supermarket. There were a dozen people this time. A few were kids their age, some looked like parents, and there was even an elderly couple. All of them stared Becca down like she was some sort of thing rather than a person. Anika instinctually took a step in front of her girlfriend.

“Nobody wants you here Becca, so don’t make this difficult. Just go home and stay away from the school. We don’t need you corruptin’ the youth.” The last sentence was from the elderly woman who had something just below a sneer on her face.

Anika’s link with Becca was deeper than her mental link with other people when using her telepathy. It might have been all the time they spent together, or the deep emotional bond they’d developed; but either way Anika knew that the people in front of Becca had just stepped on her heart and mushed it into the ground like rotten fruit.

<Ah hell no!> Anika’s temper flared, and it took a lot of restraint to keep her from knocking that bigoted asshole straight into next week.

<Ani, no…> Becca must have seen the look on her face, but Anika promptly shut her out.

Anika held up a hand for Becca to stay as she stepped towards Ben. <Develop a plan and execute it with the fewest amount of casualties.> Anika remembered the words of wisdom spoken by her coaches over the last semester. <Sometimes the best fights don’t need to be fought at all. Sometimes all it takes is a Hero’s reputation to end a fight.>

                Anika rolled up the sleeves of her jacket to reveal the intricate, feminine, tattoos that had been a part of her for as long as she could remember. With her emotional state elevated to “pissed off” they glowed and pulsed with silver light.

The intimidation tactic worked. Ben and his group of assholes took a step back, but they didn’t flee. Anika stopped when she was inches from Ben’s face, and even though he was several inches taller, he seemed to shrink before her eyes.

“So you go to Iowa State, right?” she asked conversationally, taking the group by surprise. “Football scholarship?”

“Yeah, I’m a quarterback.” Ben’s chest puffed out the way that men’s do when they’re proud of something trivial.

“I bet you need a good arm for that?”

“Yeah.” Ben wasn’t sure where Anika was going with this.

“Let’s make a deal, Ben.” Anika relaxed her posture and crossed her arms. “You and your group of fucknuggets get out of our way, or I rip off your precious arm and slap the shit out of everyone here. That sound good?” Anika’s smile widened at the dumbfound look on the dozen faces surrounding her.

The old man reached into his belt and Anika saw a flash of metal. She just laughed in his wrinkled face. “That won’t do you any good, Sir.” She still remained respectful. “You pull that gun and this whole situation escalates, and I am justified in doing more than slapping the shit out of you. In fact, this is a school zone, and I doubt the authorities will take kindly to someone firing off a gun around kids. Hell, they might even call me a hero for stopping you.”

“What is going on here?” Anika breathed a sigh of relief as the authoritative mind she’d felt approaching finally arrived.

Anika didn’t know who he was, but judging by the look on Becca’s face this was the guy that would make everything better.

“People better start talking.” His eyes widened when he saw the old man’s hand on his pistol. “What the hell are you doing Arthur? Put that away right now or I’m going inside to get the Sherriff.” The old guy still looked like he wanted nothing more than to shoot Anika, but he took his hand off his pistol and covered it with his coat.

“Thank you, Sir,” Anika addressed the new man. “We were just coming to see the pageant, and these people were stopping us from entering.”

“Ben?” The new arrival turned to the small group’s leader.

“Principal Swartz, we mean no disrespect but…” He pointed at Anika and Becca. “We can’t let the kids see this. Morals are the pillar of our community.”

“Yeah.” The old guy sounded like he’d smoked a pack a day for the last thirty years. “We can’t have their kind gettin’ their ways in the heads of our young’ins.” Anika was waiting for him to spit out a wad of tobacco, but it never came.

“That’s enough!” The principal’s tone cut everyone off. “Everyone inside now. This is a season of joy and giving, not of hate.” There was grumbling, but everyone did what the man said.

Anika and Becca were the last to pass him, and he put out a hand to stop them. “I’m not going to stop you,” he stated clearly when he saw the look on Anika’s face. “But you need to know something Becca. Your…this…” the situation clearly wasn’t something the principal was used to dealing with. “Is a shock to the community? A chunk of people have already gone to the bank and demanded that it release the money they put into a scholarship for you.”

Becca looked like she’d been punched in the gut. Anika reached out and steadied her.

“It’s not everyone.” The principal tempered the bad news with the good. “People might not be comfortable with it, but three quarters of the town still supports you becoming a Hero.”

“There’s educational loans from the government and you could apply for aide from the university. “Anika ticked down the list of things she’d had to consider when applying to West. “If you only need a quarter of everything then you’ll be just fine. You’ll be a lot better than most of us when it comes to school debt,” Anika smiled, and gave her girlfriend a reassuring squeeze.

Becca smiled back, but Anika could tell this whole situation had hit her hard. “If you want to go home we can.” It was the last thing Anika wanted to do, but she’d do what Becca wanted.

“No.” The answer came quickly.

There was determination in Becca’s voice now. Anika wanted to kiss her. This was the girl she’d fallen in love with; but that might be a little too much for the principal to handle. He was doing better than most, but he needed to be eased into it.

“We’re gonna stay, but we’ll sit in the back.” It was a good compromise.

Even in the back of the room they got plenty of stares. The thoughts Anika picked up indicated that there were just as many people watching them as there were watching the pageant. The stares ran the gambit. Ben and his group stared daggers at them through the entire performance, but they were the minority. Some people just stared back with a confused look. They all remembered little Rebecca Whitfield and they’d never even suspected she might be gay; but if anything their thoughts were neutral. They didn’t know what to make of the situation.

The part that warmed Anika’s heart was the majority of stares they got. A lot of people looked back at her and Becca and smiled. Despite all of Becca’s fears about her conservative town rejecting her, Anika could hear the people’s support for her. Principal Swartz was right. About three quarters of the town still stood behind Becca and her dream to become a Hero. A Hero was a Hero, it didn’t matter what their sexuality was.

The whole situation helped Anika too. She was slow to trust and quick to anger, especially when someone threatened innocent Becca. Going home with the speedster for Christmas had been a good idea. Their training was going to suffer, but she guessed they wouldn’t be alone there. What Anika gained was far more valuable…trust. Trust in Becca, trust in strangers, and trust in herself to make the right decisions; even if she was a little dramatic in the decision making process.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 8

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Toronto-Buffalo-Cleveland-Detroit Metropolis, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Coop was walked through the halls of the Civil Administration building like a criminal. The officer of the court’s hand never left Coop’s arm, and the other hand kept a firm grip on a stun baton. Despite the sight, no one cared. To all of them he was just another Rat getting dragged around for doing something wrong. It was business as usual in the PHA.

“Any advice?” Coop asked the man hauling him around the building like a sack of flour.

“For being in the military?” The man said it in a mocking tone. “Fuck if I know…don’t drop the soap.”

Coop didn’t get the joke, and he didn’t have time to think about it. Instead of taking the elevator downstairs they’d opted for the stairs. The stairs were there purely as a safety precaution. No one would willingly take the time to physically exert themselves when the magnetic lifts could carry you anywhere in the building in a few seconds. It was a sharp contrast to the PHA towers where most of the inhabitants were forced to take the stairs; sometimes all the way up to the fiftieth floor. Coop and his tower were lucky.

The stairs also kept the officer in control, and kept Coop away from anybody who might try to free him. Until they reached the recruitment office, Coop was still in the custody of the court; which meant the court would have to foot the bill for tracking his ass down if he escaped. It took a lot of money and man hours to find a Rat in the PHA. Rats knew the best damp, dark hiding places.

Coop didn’t have any plans of escape, but the officer couldn’t know or rely on that. So he kept a solid hold of Coop and kept him away from everyone. It only took five minutes to reach the recruitment office. It said a lot about the Commonwealth’s view of their military that the recruitment “office” took up an entire floor of the building.

“Prisoner transfer.” The officer pulled out his PAD and extended it to a man sitting behind a desk blazoned with crest of the Commonwealth Armed Forces.

The man sitting at the desk looked funny. Coop thought that because he didn’t understand anything about the military uniform, and secondly because one of the man’s arms was about two thirds the size of the other one. Unlike the blue smartcloth of the PHA employees, this soldier’s smartcloth uniform was a dusty gray color.

The intelligent clothing displayed his last name and first initial in blocky white letters over his left pectoral, and “Recruiter” was in the same font over his right. Both of his shoulders had three upside down V’s on them, and a bunch of different colored squares were lined up above his name. Coop didn’t know what any of this meant, but the sheer quantity of them looked impressive.

Coop decided he liked this guy even more when he held up a finger in the PHA goon’s face, clearly telling him to wait. Coop liked the situation even more when the PHA officer shut up and waited for the soldier to finish what he was doing.

“Can I help you?” Coop expected a gravelly voice like the old men in his tower who’d smoked cigarettes since they could get it up. Instead, the man’s voice was smooth; like a news anchor on the holo.

“Prisoner transfer.” The officer repeated, handing over the PAD to the soldier.

The soldier tapped the officer’s block of polyplast to his own, linking the devices for verification. With a swipe he opened another screen and verified the enlistment contract Coop had signed less than ten minutes ago. Verified might have been a bit much, since the soldier just made sure Coop and the judge had signed it.

“It looks good, I’ll take it from here.” The soldier handed the PAD back to the PHA officer. “Have a nice day.”

The PHA guy just looked at the soldier in surprise. “Don’t you want me to bring him into the office or something? You’ve got custody of him now.”

“I know numbnuts, and I already dismissed you. If this shitstain makes a run for it then he’s a deserter. The penalty for desertion is death. I’m sure our newest recruit can put two and two together.” The soldier punctuated the point by removing a deadly looking pistol from a holster on his leg.

One look at the gun told Coop there was no stun setting on it.

“It’s your job.” The PHA officer sneered, before quickly walking toward the elevators. Coop didn’t watch him go, his eyes never left the weapon.

The soldier didn’t watch the PHA officer go either, he kept his eye on Coop. “Everyone who works here has a stick up their ass.” The soldier waved the pistol lazily back and forth. “They act like you’re going to try and gut someone the first chance you get. Are you going to try and gut me Mark Cooper?” The soldier didn’t even have to look at the PAD to remember Coop’s name.

“No,” Coop gulped. “And call me Coop.”

“I’ll call you whatever the fuck I want to call you, and you will refer to me as Sergeant. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Sergeant.” The unfamiliar word caught on Coop’s tongue.

“Good.” The man pointed toward the door to Coop’s right. “Get your ass in here.”

Despite a gun being in the hands of a trained killer, and that killer having every intention of shooting Coop if he tried to do anything, Coop still didn’t like being told what to do. So naturally his mouth got the best of him.

“I’m guessing your right hand is the one you jerk off with. You don’t look like you get much done with your left.” Coop motioned at the disproportionate limbs with a cocky smile.

He was surprised when the sergeant just smiled back. “No. Your mom and girlfriend like to double-team me so I don’t have to do anything but sit back and relax. I lost my arm during a skirmish with the Blockies in York Sector. Takes a few months for it to regrow and get back to full strength; which is why I’m sitting here talking with a dipshit like you instead of out their killing people who need killing.”

Coop’s mouth hung open at the comeback. He had to say something, so he said the first thing that popped into his head. “My mom’s dead.”

The sergeant didn’t even hesitate. “If you want to go cry a river then get it over with before coming through that door. If you’d like to join her then start running; otherwise get the fuck in here.”

Now it was Coop’s turn to not hesitate. He grabbed the door to his right and entered the recruitment office. The sergeant met him on the other side of the door, and Coop felt his jaw dropping again. Seated behind the clear polyplast window, the sergeant didn’t look that much different from any other person in the building. He had more meat on his bones than a Rat, but that was a given. Now that the man was standing right next to him, Coop knew for sure the man didn’t need a pistol to kill him.

Coop was used to being one of the tallest people in the room. At 184 centimeters he was about as big as they came in the PHA. He was still rail thin, but his height and the long reach of his arms were an intimidation factor he heavily relied on. People didn’t like to get into fights with a man who could hit them when they couldn’t hit back. The roles were reversed when the sergeant stood next to Coop and pointed down the hallway.

“Let’s go.” Coop walked in front of the sergeant, literally in his shadow.

The soldier had to be at least two meters tall, which put him as one of the tallest people Coop had ever seen. He also found the sergeant’s lithe frame more intimidating than the excessive muscle mass that was the stereotypical soldier on the holo. The man walking behind Coop felt like a coiled viper who could dangerously strike at any time.

<I don’t want to meet the person who took his arm.> For the first time Coop felt fearful of the choice he’d made. It was beyond the abstract fear of knowing the armed forces were dangerous. This was seeing that fear and danger up close and personified in the man behind him.

Coop was thankful the soldier was walking behind him as the dread raced through his brain and across his face. He didn’t want the first impression the military had of him to be of a scared kid. The sergeant walked Coop through two doors before they entered a large room in the back of the recruitment office. There were another dozen recruits in the room, and each was standing beside their two meter by two meter black cube.

“Follow the instructions.” It was the only direction the sergeant gave before turning on his heel and walking back out of the room.

Coop stood next to his assigned black cube just like everyone else for five minutes before his anxiety got the best of him. “Pssst,” he hissed at a boy one cube over. The guy was chubby and his face was pockmarked by acne. “Pssst. What the hell are we supposed to do?”

“Shhhh.” The boy shushed Coop with wide eyes. “We’re supposed to follow the instructions.”

“What fucking instructions?” Coop replied, but the boy didn’t talk to him again.

Everyone stood beside their cube for a good twenty minutes. A few more people came through the door, led by another soldier, but they left without saying another word to anyone. Coop was about to lie down when a feminine, computerized voice addressed them.

“Welcome, Recruits, to the United Commonwealth of Colonies Armed Forces Standardized Aptitude Examination.” Coop matched the voice with the mental image of a smiling, attractive woman; which was something he’d never seen in a PHA employee. “Please follow all instructions until the completion of your exam. Step inside the cube, and good luck.”

Coop looked around and saw everyone else stepping into the black cube. It made a slurping sound as it parted and closed behind the entrants. Coop took a deep breath and stepped through the black material. He felt it slither open and shut while emitting the slurping sound. It felt like an army of ants crawled over him, and then there was nothing but darkness and silence.

<What the hell?> Coop pushed against the edge of the cube, but it refused to yield.

Coop didn’t know if he was claustrophobic, but he panicked slightly, and smashed his closed fist against the dark wall. He might as well have been hitting steel. His hand throbbed with pain. <What did I sign up for?>

                “Welcome.” The computerized voice was back, and light cut through the darkness in the shape of the Commonwealth Armed Forces crest. A diving eagle, talons spread wide, with the dagger-like shape of a starship protectively above it. “Please take a seat.”

Coop studied his surroundings and saw a chair in the center of the cube. He circled it once to make sure he wasn’t missing anything else in the small space before sitting down.

“Thank you for complying.” Coop yelped as a helmet descended over his head. He also felt something begin to crawl all over his body. It felt like slimy worms stretching from his hands and feet, up his arms, legs, and all over his chest and back. “Sensors indicate an increase in heartrate and respiratory function.” The voice stated in the same soothing tone. “Please remain calm. Integration with your proctor will be completed momentarily.”

“Fuck this,” Coop spat, but the moment he struggled; arm, neck, and leg restraints snapped down into place.

“Please remain calm.” The voice infuriated Coop, but he couldn’t even budge with the restraints. “Integration complete.” The voice announced when Coop felt the worm-like creatures all over his body stop. “Mark Cooper, you will be tested with a series of questions, problems, and situations to determine your aptitude. Answer to the fullest of your ability as this examination will determine career possibilities with the United Commonwealth of Colonies Armed Forces. Do you understand?”

“Fuck…” Coop breathed out, his heart was pounding in his chest. He liked when Hailey had tied him up, but this was different.

“That is not an acceptable answer. Do you understand?” The voice repeated.

“Yeah,” Coop huffed, and the world changed.

The inside of the black cube, which displayed nothing more than the crest, disappeared in a flash of light. Coop’s head swam, and he felt like puking as his senses violently resisted the sudden change. One second Coop was alone in the darkness, and the next he was standing with ten other people in a place with red dirt, red sky, and a black river running in front of him.

“Mark Cooper,” the voice was back, but it sounded like God talking down from heaven. “The situation is as follows: your ten man squad has been on the run from enemy troops. You have reached an obstacle that you need to cross. You only have fifteen minutes before the enemy forces catch up with you. Your mission is to cross the river with as many member of your squad as possible in the next fifteen minutes. Execute.”

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