Two Worlds – Chapter 40

Benjamin Gold

Location: London, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Ben thought his week-long cruise around the solar system would have been more productive. He hadn’t failed in what he’d set out to do, but he wasn’t as successful as he usually was. He’d qualified on the helm and in navigation, but it took a full two days.

Ben doubted he’d ever have to fly a gunboat. If he had to, that meant his computer systems were offline and just about everyone but him was dead. In that case doing a hard or soft dock with a five thousand ton gunboat was the least of his problems.

After finishing his qualification in the other section of navigation, which essentially revolved around the operation and maintenance of the holo-tank, he’d progressed to weapons. Like in navigation he’d passed the written test easily, but this time the practical examination was easy. The exam consisted of shooting a qualification table similar to what an infantry soldier would do with his rifle. But instead of lying prone in the dirt, Ben sat in front of a tactical console and manipulated the controls to aim the gunboat’s main energy cannon.

The gunboat dumped targets into the vast emptiness of space, and he proceeded to blast them to star dust. With the energy weapon table completed he moved onto the missiles. The missile table was more difficult. He had to analyze the situation, sequence the missiles with pre-programmed attack code, or write new code on the fly depending on what was coming his way. He had to do this with offensive and counter-missiles without getting the ship hypothetically destroyed.

It was a good thing he had great hand-eye coordination and a finesse learned from a decade and a half of fencing.

That took three days. Not because he was failing, but because it took a long time to set up the targets, and coordinating with First Fleet range control to designate the bubble of space around the Wisp as a live range. It was more frustrating than anything else.

With only two department qualifications complete Ben really had to buckle down to finish a third. Engineering was a no go because Ben had never been great at the subject, and there wasn’t enough time to do the operations portion. So Ben was forced to settle with communications.

As it turned out, Ben’s familiarization with the Commonwealth’s main communication’s systems was some of his most enjoyable time on the Wisp. It probably had something to do with the gunboat’s crew ostracizing him after the helm portion of his navigation qualification. Hearing other voices over the communication’s equipment made him feel like a human being again.

The Commonwealth used three primary networks for communication. The first was the basic military network, MILNET, which served as a database of non-classified information or documentation that is for official use only (FOUO) but not classified. Examples of this were general correspondence between spacers and certain technical and field manuals. This was also the system that held each individual soldier or spacer’s basic profile.  It was an easy to use, idiot-proof system; and Ben had been using it ever since he’d joined the Fleet. Qualifying on that with administrator access was simple.

The next two networks were more difficult.

The Tactical Communication Network, TACCOM, was the system used by the Fleet and Infantry for field communication. It used a combination of scrambling, burst, and tight-beamed signals to transmit vital information from ship to ship, between ground units, and from ground to ship and vice versa. It was nearly unhackable. Ben wouldn’t go as far to say that it was impenetrable, because time always proved that nothing was completely secure. Nevertheless, a Blockie warship would have to be in the exact right place at the exact right time and dialed to the exact right frequency to receive the communication; and even then it would be encrypted. The odds of that in a place as large as space were astronomically minute.

The third and final network was the Strategic Network, STRATNET, which was both the “on the ground” and “in the air” positioning network of the Commonwealth. It told friendly units where other friendly units were as well as identified and tracked enemy positions or ships. In an ideal world TACCOM and STRATNET would have been one system, but for security reasons they were separate. They could be linked together, but the link could be dissolved quickly in case of a breech.

Ben spent the last two days of his cruise sending, encrypting, decoding, and learning the systems and how they interacted with other aspects of the ship. Most importantly, Ben learned how STRATNET fed into the one minute light-bubble holo-tank, how to diagnose issues, and how to identify when things weren’t always as they seemed.

“That does not look right.” Ben was bent over the holo-tank while a nervous looking spacer stood beside him.

“What doesn’t look right, Sir.” The man, who was much closer in age to a boy, gulped.

“See this here.” Ben pointed as a disturbance that kept phasing in and out of focus on the tank at the edge of the one light minute bubble.

“Looks like a sensor ghost to me, Sir. We get a lot of them.”

Ben stood up straight and scratched his chin in thought.

The deck of the VR gunboat was no different than the one on the Wisp, but appearance wasn’t everything. Ben consciously knew that on the other side of the holographically projected hull was the London planetary headquarters of the Commonwealth and First Fleet, not the empty void of cold, dark space. It made him feel safer, but it also made him feel like he was playing spacer rather than being one. On the Wisp there had always been something going on. There was always some background noise of engineering banging away at something or a crew argument. In VR there was nothing but the beeps, buzzes, and light conversation of the pseudo-bridge. It just felt wrong.

“True, but I still do not like it.” Ben could feel it in his gut that something was wrong. “Communications, get me Two Actual.”

“Roger, Skipper.”

For this simulation Ben had a full bridge crew of spacers and petty officers who’d eagerly waited for their rotation in VR training. Getting saddled with an unknown officer, especially a lieutenant commander wasn’t part of their plan, but they were learning to deal with it.

“Two Actual.”

“Two Actual this is One Actual. Let me know what you’re seeing at…” Ben gave the coordinates of the sensor ghost he’d been watching for the last few minutes.

This VR simulation was different than previous exercises Ben had gone through. First, instead of being alone with a single gunboat, this was a team exercise. Three gunboats with three skippers and bridge crews were involved. Ben was One Actual, the skipper of the first gunboat and in overall command of the understrength squadron of warships. The other two gunboats were captained by Two Actual and Three Actual, who were two junior lieutenants who were getting some of their first training outside ROTC, officer candidate school (OCS), or one of the elite military academies.

Taking that into consideration Ben didn’t put too much credence in what the younger lieutenant was going to say about the sensor ghost, but another set of eyes were never a bad idea.

“One Actual, it looks like a sensor ghost to me. Do you want me to go check it out?” The other skipper sounded eager to do anything else than his current tasking.

The mission for this simulation was simple merchant protection. The three gunboats were escorting a freighter carrying one million tons of food and medical supplies to a Commonwealth colony that had suffered a recent plague. Without the material in that freighter three hundred thousand Commonwealth citizens could die.

Currently, the three gunboats were in a wedge position around the freighter. Ben’s ship was afore the much larger freighter, while the other two warships took up positions to its port and starboard while slightly aft to make sure no one snuck up behind them. The four ships were right on top of each other on the holo-tank, but in reality there was three hundred kilometers spaced between them as required by maritime regulation.

Two Actual was to the starboard side and closest to the sensor disturbance.

“Negative, Two,” Ben replied before the lieutenant could get riled up. “It might be nothing, and if it is something it is still a light-minute away. Stay in formation; One Actual, out.”

Ben cut the line and turned his attention back to the holo-tank. “Keep an eye on that, Spacer, and let me know if anything changes.”

<This is not just a sensor anomaly.> Ben thought as the minutes ticked by into an hour.

One thing few people considered before going into space was just how long it took to get from point A to point B. You could travel between solar systems with a ship’s Alcubierre Drive at roughly a light-year an hour, or you could use the Alcubierre Launchers stationed in a number of systems and travel ten times as fast. Sub-light travel within systems was a whole different story.  The four ship convoy was only cutting the corner of the roughly spherical star system, not traveling more than ten percent of the system’s diameter, and it was a six hour trip.

Ben found it incredibly ironic that in the time it took him to get from the entry point to the exit point in this system he could have traveled from the Core to the Mid-Worlds in FTL (Faster-Than-Light); but such was the nature of space travel.

<It could be worse.> He reminded himself. <It used to take years to get from Earth to Mars.>

“No change, Sir.” The Spacer automatically answered Ben’s unasked question, and it showed just how green he was.

“No change means there is a change.” Ben shot back, smacking the button for battle stations. “If it is still there in the same place then that means something is following us. Communications, get me Two and Three!”

<And this is exactly something that Commander Wythe would think up. >

“Two…”

“Three…” the two lieutenants responded over TACCOM.

“All units battle stations.” Ben announced. “Two, paint the area of that ghost with active sensors and get two drones into space; one to aft, and another in the ghost’s direction.”

Drones were nothing more the expensive sensors platforms that could be fired from a missile tube. They had their own generators for propulsion, but their range was limited. Launching two of a gunboat’s compliment of twelve was a big expense of resources, and the skipper of the second gunboat balked at the order.

“Sir, why two?”

“I do not trust the civilian grade equipment on that old freighter,” Ben snapped back a little harsher than he intended. “Do as you are ordered lieutenant.”

The last thing Ben wanted was something creeping up behind their vulnerable stern. The young lieutenant should have been able to come to the same conclusion; especially since his MILNET profile showed he was an Annapolis graduate.

“Yes, Sir.” The junior skipper shut up and did what he was told.

Louder beeps echoed through the bridge as Two’s sensors went from passive to active and scanned the area in the general vicinity of the ghost. Active sensors were both good and bad for a warship. They were great because they cut through a lot of interference that passive sensors couldn’t. On the down side, the ability to cut through that interference came at the price of broadcasting your position to anyone within earshot, and earshot in space was a long way.

More beeps echoed around Ben as the drone launched from one of the gunboat’s two missile tubes. It was represented by a blinking green icon on the holo-tank. STRATNET received that information and updated it simultaneously on all three gunboat’s tanks. It brought even more clarity to the situation.

“Get me the freighter captain,” Ben called.

“Captain…”

“Captain, plot a least-time course for the FTL line and go to maximum thrust.” Ben didn’t let the man even get his name out.

The FTL line was the agreed upon safe distance for a ship to activate it Alcubierre Drive. To activate the drive earlier increased the possibility that the gravitational forces of the system would throw off the navigation or worse. It could end in complete drive failure, or a ship coming out of warp somewhere other than its planned destination; like the middle of a star.

Sub-light travel might be slower, but it was infinitely less complicated than jumping between star systems in a bubble that warped space and time around you.

“Roger, Sir, making course corrections now and going to maximum.”

“Helm, make way for the freighter and put us on its starboard side.” Ben ordered.

Compared to the gunboat’s military-grade engines the freighter’s were pathetic, but after a few minutes it slowly started to pull away.

And those few minutes were all the time Ben needed to figure out that they were totally upstream without a paddle.

“Contact, ship identified, bearing seven-eight negative five-zero, designated Bogey One.” The navigation department identified as an orange icon appeared where the sensor ghost used to be.

It took Ben a few seconds to get the bearings down when contact with another ship was identified. Degrees didn’t have the same meaning as on Earth because there was no magnetic pole, but the same concept was still applied. If a three hundred and sixty point circle was draw around the ship then Bogey One being at point seventy-eight meant they were starboard and slightly afore of the midpoint of the gunboat. The negative fifty was the more difficult part of the bearing. Unlike on a planet, there is no single plane in space; up, down, left, and right are all relative. So not only does a navigator need to identify where the ship is, but they needed to identify if the ship was above or below the gunboat’s plane as well. Normally, the plane used by all interstellar traffic was the ellipse of the star system; which was the plane which all objects in a heliocentric orbit rotated around. Most ships travel along this plane because there is less gravitational resistance. Less resistance equaled less energy usage, shorter trips, and cost savings. All of which are a big deal to private transporters.

So, another three-hundred and sixty point circle is drawn, this time vertically instead of horizontally; with the ellipse at its center. Negative fifty meant that the Bogey One was at point fifty below them.

“Get me more information, Operations.” Ben needed more to go on than a single ship approaching from starboard and below them.

It took twenty more minutes for the drone to get closer, and the information to get consolidated.

“Sir.” Ben saw the petty officer at the operation’s section face go white. “Bogey One is confirmed hostile. Bogey One’s transponder registers as a known Eastern Block Severodvinsk Class destroyer.” The orange icon changed to red.

Ben kept his own face from palling with sheer willpower.

“Plot likely intercept course with the freighter as the target.” Three gunboats were nothing compared to a freighter with such precious cargo.

Ben watched as the courses populated, and his heart sunk. At this rate the destroyer would be in weapons range of the freighter for two minutes before it could make its jump to FTL.

Ben knew what to do, and it was an easy decision to make because this was VR and not real.

“Two and Three go to Blocking Formation Alpha.” Ben gave the order and watched the two gunboats shift formation.

Formation Alpha was a typical battle-wall. It could be done vertically, or horizontally, or both depending on the number of ships in a formation. Ben elected to go vertically. The three gunboats stacked up and increased their spacing from three hundred kilometers to a full thousand kilometers to give the freighter as much coverage as possible. The blocking portion of the formation was meant to position the wall at the most advantageous angle. Ben’s gunboat continued on the same ellipse as before, while two went above and three below. Then once they were in the wall formation, they adjusted course themselves so they were directly between the escaping freighter and enemy destroyer.

To get to the freighter the destroyer would have to go through them.

Which was exactly what that Blockie ship would do.

Between the three gunboats they had six missile tubes and three energy cannons. The single destroyer had twenty tubes and five cannons; more than twice the firepower. It also had the maneuverability advantage. Ben’s command had to protect the freighter; the destroyer had no such limitation.

<This is a suicide scenario meant to test our resolve.> Ben saw Commander Wythe’s intent as the Blockie destroyer closed the distance to eight million kilometers.

Soon missiles would start to fly.

<Is the message not to be overconfident? To remind us of our humanity? Or is she just being sadistic and giving us a no win situation to see who panics?> Knowing Commander Wythe it could be any or all of those reasons.

Either way Ben didn’t have to wait long. At five million kilometers a barrage of twenty missiles launched from the destroyer and tore through space towards him. At that distance, which was most missiles max-range, Ben hoped they’d survive. STRATNET linked the fire control of the three gunboats and coordinated their counter-fire. In the outer defensive envelope counter-missiles shot from the gunboats’ tubes. Electronic warfare systems battled and six of the twenty enemy missiles disappeared in explosions that weren’t more than pinpricks to the electronically aided human eye.

The fourteen remaining missiles roared into the middle defensive zone where blasts from the gunboats laser cannons leapt out to meet them. The scarlet energy traced angry lines across space and destroyed another three missiles.

Eleven missiles, more than half the original twenty, breeched the final defensive layer. Here more EW systems from the gunboats themselves and decoys sprang to life trying to spoof the incoming ordinance. That was followed by more laser blasts and hypervelocity rail-gun rounds that filled the space around them with duro-steel slugs.

Only one missile got through the defenses, and it detonated closer to the gunboat a thousand kilometers below Ben. The explosion still rocked Ben’s ship, pulling him tight against the harness of his command chair, but he survived.

“Damage report?” The lists streamed by on the side of the holo-tank, and it was mercilessly short.

But so was the number of gunboats on the display.

“Three is gone.” Ben didn’t need to say it out loud but he did. “Prepare to attack.”

Ben’s own attack was pitiful compared to the destroyer. Four measly missiles were fired and none even made it past the destroyer’s first launch of countermissiles. The skipper of the destroyer didn’t give them time to breath. Another twenty missiles came screaming toward Ben’s command and without the third gunboat there was a giant hole in their defensive network.

Ben didn’t even feel himself die. His ship just exploded and he was brought out of the VR simulation.

Everyone around him looked pretty upset.

“That’s it, ladies and gentlemen. Hit the showers and report for after action reports.” Ben recognized the voice of Commander Wythe, and he felt sorry for the other spacers and officers who’d been caught in her simulated web.

<But misery loves company.> Ben tried to keep his chin up as he went to wash off the sweat that had accumulated over the multi-hour exercise.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 39

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Stewart-Benning Training Center, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

It was a race to the finish line.

Second squad had dominated the beginning portion of the Grinder, which was living up to its nefarious name. Eve had led the squad through the first half-dozen obstacles and they’d executed flawlessly. For a moment Coop was even having fun. Then came the rope course.

Coop hadn’t seen rope like this before. He’d encountered rope before. They’d rigged up pulley systems out of hemp rope in the PHA tower whenever the power died in order to get supplies up and down without having to walk everywhere. Since that happened every couple of days Coop was well acquainted with the item.

The faded, tan material from his home was frayed and always looked like it was ready to snap. People’s grandparents talked about how the rope and pulley system had saved them during the great blackout of 2414, or the blizzard of 2376. The things were ancient, and you had to keep an eye out when you were walking underneath them or you could get squashed. When the pulleys were in use, people in the PHA tower spend most of their time looking up. It didn’t matter if it was raining human bodies or fruit from fifty stories. Both could kill you.

The rope used for the Grinder was different. First it was black instead of tan, and it didn’t have the twisted look Coop mentally associated with rope. But the moment Coop put his hands on it he could tell it was much stronger than the PHA’s fifth generation hand-me-downs. It was also sticky, not in the way someone’s hands were after eating jam, but in a way that his hands just seemed to adhere to them.

Then there was the fact that the whole course just sort of hovered in the air like a giant black spider web. Coop had never seen rope do that before.

The set of obstacles tripped up second squad and sent half of them face-first into the nano-bath. Coop mostly avoided that. He tried to save Emma from falling, and nearly got dragged in.

<Damn, that girl is just heavy.> Coop had grabbed her hand to pull her back up, but only succeeded in getting his arm pulled elbow deep into the black water.

What had been fun moments before had turned into a constantly irritating grind. Eve had been right, the bath was strong, and it itched like a motherfucker.

From then on, second squad limped along like the rest of the squads; itching, tired, and wanting to be anywhere else but here.

“There it is!” There was an archway marking the end of the Grinder, and Coop wanted nothing more than to sprint toward it. He even took a few steps forward.

“Coop, get your ass back here.” Eve was struggling to heft Emma up to the top of the warped wall they’d been forced to scale.

Coop hesitated, looking longingly at the end of their misery before turning back to help. Coop grabbed one hand, Eve grabbed the other, and they hoisted Emma up the last half meter.

“What the fuck have you been eating?” Coop grumbled too loudly.

Emma, who was already on the brink of tears from the nano-bath, started to cry. And Eve shot him a glare that would make a battleship turn tail and flee.

“We’re almost there, Emma.” Eve nudged the girl to the ladder down from the top of the wall. “Just a closed door, a hundred meter dash, and we’re done.”

Emma nodded as she wiped the tears from her eyes, which only made the pain worse. Coop had figured that out the hard way.

Coop moved toward the ladder to follow Emma down, but Eve’s outstretched hand caught him in the chest and held him back. “You wait.” She pushed him back and grabbed the ladder to slide down.

Right now a handjob from Harper was sounding a hell of a lot better than chasing the elusive, mythical creature that Eve was turning out to be.

<My dick would probably fall off.> He laughed to himself. Thinking about the nano-bath induced itching made his arm itch worse. He felt really bad for the guys who’d fallen all the way in.

“Let’s go second squad, finish strong!” The door splintered under Eve’s boot and she waved for everyone to move their asses.

Coop pumped his legs and sprinted across the open field. There were a dozen other people streaming through kicked open doors, and each of them was sprinting toward the end as well. Coop picked one person, a tall broad-shouldered tan guy, and tried to catch him. He didn’t succeed, but he got close.

Passing through the archway felt like running through an artic waterfall. “What the shit!” Coop yelled, as he crashed through the invisible barrier.

Thankfully, the sensation of bone-chilling cold passed within a few seconds, and even better, the constant irritation from the nano-bath vanished.

“Don’t look so surprised, Cooper. They weren’t going to make everyone walk around itchy and miserable for the rest of training. They’ve got other ways to make our lives hell.” Eve’s tone was frosty, and she stood protectively next to Emma.

“Sure thing, boss-lady. Wouldn’t want life to get too easy now would we?” Coop replied.

Eve just gave him a level stare before turning her attention back to the rest of the squad.

Harper and Mike crossed the finish line a few minutes later, and second squad was officially declared the victors of the Grinder. Not that Coop felt especially happy about the victory.

“Fall in!” The last person had just crossed the finish line when SSG Cunningham started barking orders.

Coop fell in, purposefully not looking at Eve. <And things started off so well.>

“You’ve completed your first iteration of the Grinder.” There was no pride on the SSG’s face, just mild irritation. “It will not be your last.” That elicited a groan from the company.

“Shut ya cock suckin’ mouths, Recruits!” PO3 Janney jumped on them like an angry wolverine into a deer carcass.

“No that’s fine.” The SSG at the front of the formation was smiling now. “If they’ve got enough oxygen to complain they’ve got enough oxygen to run. Right face…forward march…double-time MARCH!”

Coop spent the five kilometer run back to the barracks staring at the back of Eve’s head wondering how he could get jerked off by Harper and not have Eve find out. He needed the release, but he didn’t want to kill any remote chance that might remain of scoring with the squad leader. It would be a tricky arrangement, but he was confident he could pull it off.

“On the command of fall out, squad leaders on me. They rest of you have thirty mikes to shit, shower, shave and be ready for inspection. FALL OUT!” The SSG ordered, and everyone ran for the door.

“Coop,” Eve grabbed his shoulder before he could take a step. “Wait for me to finish with the staff sergeant. I need to talk to you.”

<Shit.> Not only would he have less time to take the shit he’d been holding for the last hour, but she wanted to “talk”. There was no way this could go well.

“Sure,” he replied sullenly.

He watched from a distance as the SSG and PO3 consulted their PAD’s and spoke to the ten squad leaders. Whatever they were saying the recruits didn’t look like they enjoyed hearing it. Ten of Coop’s very valuable thirty minutes passed before the small meeting broke up and Eve waved for him to follow. They walked a few meters away from everyone else before she rounded on him.

“You know you’re my number two, right?” Eve had her hands on her hips, looked righteously pissed off, and incredibly hot.

“No I didn’t know that.” Coop deadpanned.

“Then this is me informing you of that fact.” She steamrolled any argument he might have had. “On top of that everyone in the squad sees you as my number two.”

“Um…ok.” Coop was confused where this was going.

“So, it hurts the effectiveness and morale of my squad when my number two calls a girl in the squad fat.”

“Hey,” Coop shook his head. “I did not call Emma fat. I wondered out loud why she weighs a ton. She’s got to have thirty kilos on me. She’s got some meat on those bones, but I did not call her fat. I’m sorry if Emma can’t handle the truth.”

He thought he did a pretty good job defending himself.

“You have as much sensitivity as a worm, Mark Cooper.” Eve shook her head, and for a second Coop thought she was going to punch him in the jaw. “For your information, Emma has more mass than us because she’s not from Earth.”

“What?” Coop couldn’t help but sound ignorant.

“Emma comes from one of the Commonwealth’s other colonized planets. A planet that has heavier gravity. Her ancestors received genetic modification so they could survive. That’s why Emma weighs more than you or I.”

“Oh.” Now Coop felt like an idiot.

“And on top of that.” Eve wasn’t done. “Emma is hundreds of light-years from home, on a foreign world, and she’s homesick. You should know that, Coop. She’s in your team.” Eve emphasized the point by poking him in the chest with her finger.

“Crap,” Coop sighed. Now he felt like a jackass.

“What I want you to take away from this talk is simple. Stop being a douchebag, get to know your team, and start being a leader. If you don’t then I’m going to kick you down the line so you have to stand next to Davenport. Do I make myself clear?” There was fire in her eyes, and it reignited Coop’s passion to tap that ass.

“Yes.” He nodded, his face determined.

“Good. Now get inside and conduct personal hygiene. We’ve got fifteen minutes to get ready.” She was already heading toward the door.”

“Ready for what?” Coop fell in a half-step behind her.

“Ready to move out.” Eve didn’t slow down as the door hissed open. She headed down into the bathroom where people were quickly showering.

“Move out where?” Coop followed her example and stripped down while trying to control his excitement.

<Damn just one grab of that ass and I’ll have wank-bank material for the next week.>

“We’ve completed the conditioning week, Coop.” Eve slipped into an open stall and started to rinse. “We’ve got a field week full of rudimentary wilderness training ahead of us.”

“Ok,” Coop soaped up, hitting the dark, damp places on his body that would cause problems if left uncleaned for too long. “So why are we moving out. It’s almost dark out. Why don’t they just wait for tomorrow?”

Eve looked over the small divider, stared at him for a moment, and then laughed. Coop would have taken more offensive if her tits hadn’t jiggled so much during the process.

“We need to work on your situational awareness, Coop.” Eve shook her head and turned away. “It’s called a field week for a reason. We don’t stay in the barracks you idiot.”

Coop didn’t like the sound of that. He didn’t like the sound of that one bit.

“I hope you did a proper diagnostic on your fart sack, Coop; because if you didn’t the next week of your life is going to be a living hell.”

Coop couldn’t do anything but smile and nod.

<What the hell is a fart sack?>

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 77

Mason pulled his beat-up old truck into the parking spot. It coughed loudly before shutting down. Mason grabbed his keys out of the ignition and put the little paystub up on the dashboard.

<Fifteen dollars! Fifteen dollars to park in a lot this far away.>

Up until an hour ago the night had been going great. He’d had a good weekend workout, he’d gotten ahead on his homework so he wouldn’t have to worry so much next week, and he’d planned a nice relaxing evening alone. His girlfriend was going out with his other roommates, and Seth had something else going on, so Mason had the townhouse all to himself. That was a rare occurrence, and he planned to take full advantage of it.

He’d splurged a little bit on the take out and was halfway through his favorite cop action/drama when the phone rang. The caller ID said it was Kyoshi so he had to pick up. If he ignored it and it turned out she was in trouble and something bad happened he’d never forgive himself.

“Hey. How’s girls’ night?”

“It’s fine, weird but fine. What are you up to?”

There was a tone in Kyoshi’s voice. A tone he knew well enough after dating her for six months. It was the “I’m sorry but I need you to do something for me” tone.

He’d paused the movie mid Bruce Willis fight scene, when the phone rang, and after hearing that tone he stopped it and turned off the TV.

“Just watching TV, nothing important.” He gave her the opening she needed.

“Ok. If you want to…and you totally don’t have to…only if you’re interested…we’re all going to a club downtown. Do you want to come?”

Mason wasn’t a big fan of clubs. When he went out it was usually to bars. Bars had bartenders with stories, dartboards, and sometimes pool tables. They could be loud but the volume was bearable. Clubs on the other hand were just loud noise boxes full of sweaty people one shot or pill away from stripping right on the dancefloor and doing it with the nearest willing candidate.

Of course, Kyoshi felt the same way; which was why she was asking. If there was one truth in this world it was that his girlfriend was a beautiful woman, which could make an experience like clubbing uncomfortable unless seriously intoxicated.

“Sure, I’ll be right there.” Which was why forty-five minutes later and fifteen dollars poorer, Mason was stepping out of his truck in a parking lot three blocks away from the club.

Mason walked through the dark lot with the confidence of a man who could handle himself. Just acting like you knew how to handle yourself was sometimes enough to discourage predators, and if it came down to it he could more than handle himself.

“I’m sorry, Sir.” Mason bumped the sleeping rent-a-cop that was supposed to be guarding the lot on his way out the front gate.

“Watch it buddy or I’ll…” the guy stopped when he had to crane his neck to look up at Mason’s massive form. “Um…no problem, just watch where you’re going next time.”

Mason gave a friendly smile and then started walking toward club.

Club Spark was in central downtown Orlando, putting it right at the intersection of all the colleges in the area and the tourist traps. On the weekdays it did good business, and on the weekends it was impossible to get in without waiting a few hours.

<Where are they?> Mason got in line behind a group of three women in short mini-skirts who were already a little tipsy and were not so discrete in checking him out.

Judging by how long it took a person to get in he guessed he’d be waiting at least an hour to see his girlfriend. <Great way to spend my free night.>

Mason took a deep breath and wiped away the negative emotions. He didn’t want Kyoshi to think he was upset with her, because he wasn’t. He just hated clubs.

“Mason! Hey, Mason!” A voice called out from ahead of him in line.

It was about the last person Mason expected to see.

“Angela?” Mason could clearly see over everyone else in line to his roommate, but he wasn’t sure he believed his eyes.

“Yeah, come on up here. I’ve been saving you a place.”

Mason felt bad about moving forward in the line, and the looks he was getting said his emotions were well placed. When he finally got up to Angela he was surprised again. The usually conservative shifter was wearing the closest thing to party outfit he’d ever seen her in. It wasn’t the tight miniskirts of the threesome of girls who’d been standing behind him before, but it was a short sundress that showed off half her thigh. With the breeze it seemed constantly on the verge of blowing up too far.

Angela clearly looked a little uncomfortable wearing it, so Mason didn’t point out her deviation from the norm. There were more interesting things to talk about. The first being the guy that was holding her hand and staring open-mouthed up at Mason.

“Mason this is Alec. Alec this is one of the guys who lives in my townhouse, Mason.”

“Nice to meet you.” Alec held out his hand to shake.

“Good to meet you too,” Mason couldn’t keep the confusion out of his voice as he examined the guy.

He had no idea that Angela was seeing anybody. He was pretty sure the CIA would have no idea she was seeing anybody. If he had to guess someone she’d be seeing, Alec wouldn’t be his first guess.

If Mason had been a mean guy he would have called Alec a geek, but Mason wasn’t a bad guy. That still didn’t stop Alec from being a few inches shorter than Angela, thin, with glasses, and looking a little pale in the strobing lights of the club.

Despite all of that, Mason first impression of Alec was that he was a good guy, and Angela needed a guy like that in her life right now.

“So when did you two meet?” Mason completed their awkward handshake. It was hard to do a proper one when Mason’s hand engulfed Alec’s hand and a quarter of his forearm.

“We had some classes together last semester. We did some studying sessions, got a cup of coffee, and then she invited me out tonight.” Alec’s face lit up on the last part.

“We have not defined our relationship,” Angela moved in and killed the mood. “But I enjoy his company.”

<Typical Angela.> Mason mentally shook his head.

“Um…ok.” He didn’t know what else to say, and Alec clearly didn’t want to push his luck with his date; so they stood in silence for a few minutes.

<Sorry, I’ll be there in a second.> A familiar and comforting voice popped into Mason’s head a few minutes later.

<Thank you.> Mason couldn’t keep the exasperation out of his mind.

A minute later the door at the front of the line opened up and out walked the most beautiful woman in the world. Mason wasn’t the only one who thought that as nearly every male head in the line snapped in her direction.

“Come on.” Mason held up the rope so Angela and Alec could get under and then crouched as low as he could go to follow them.

A few angry shouts followed them as they walked to the front of the line. Mason felt bad about cutting, but he also didn’t want to sit outside all night.

“They’re with me.” Kyoshi slipped what looked like a hundred dollar bill into the bouncer’s jacket pocket.

Mason had about five inches and fifty pounds on the bouncer, and he saw the older man eyeing him up as he approached. Judging by the other man’s stature Mason would either guess he was a really in shape human, maybe former military or police, or he was a low-end strongman. Due to Club Spark’s success and reputation he was leaning toward low-end strongman.

“Ok, you three are in.” The bouncer unclipped the stereotypical rope in front of the door. Not that the rope would do anything to stop anyone trying to get in, but it gave the place a classy look.

Before they were even inside the door, Kyoshi pulled Mason in close and gave him a big kiss. It was the kind of kiss where Mason tasted the champagne on his girlfriend’s tongue.

“Having fun tonight?” Mason couldn’t help but grin when they pulled their lips apart.

“I’m am now.” She smiled as she dragged him into the club with Angela and Alec in tow.

 

***

 

“Cheers! To the best friends a girl could ask for.” Liz poured more champagne in everyone’s glass, sloshing a good amount of the expensive liquid onto the glass tabletop.

This was only Kyoshi’s third glass, but she was already starting to feel the alcohol’s effects. <Where is Mason?> She’d called him forty-five minutes ago.

She did a mental scan and finally felt him driving into her range.

Between the alcohol, the loud pulsing music of Club Sparks, and the mildly inappropriate touching going back and forth between Seth and Liz it was hard to concentrate.

“No seriously,” Liz slurred her S’s a bit. She was a few glasses ahead of Kyoshi. “I needed you guys and you came to my rescue like knights in white shining armor.” Liz was combining references in her drunkenness, but Kyoshi got the gist.

All the girls had gone out to dinner with her to stalk Seth. They’d failed miserably, and apparently that was Kyoshi’s fault, but everything had turned out great. So great that Seth was spending a small fortune on drinks.

“Shots!” The elemental manipulator exclaimed when a busty waitress arrived with a tray full of liquids whose tops were on fire. “Now that’s the shit I’m talkin’ about.”

Kyoshi gave the flaming shots a doubtful glance as Anika picked one up. The pretty stoic Super was reclining on the plush couch with her girlfriend cuddling close to her. Becca would have to drink a ton of booze in a short amount of time to overcome her Super metabolism, and that was what she was attempting to do.

“Fuck yeah,” Anika’s toast took Kyoshi by surprise, but not as much as the blue-haired speedster throwing back three in quick succession.

“I wanna dance. I feel like dancin’.” Becca was on her feet a little quicker than was natural, and was dragging Anika toward the chaotic dancefloor before she’d even finished swallowing her flaming shot.

“Excuse us, but if my lady wants a dance she’s getting a dance.” Anika half-followed and was half-pulled onto the floor by Becca. Both women’s hips started to move rhythmically to the beat before they disappearing into the throng of gyrating bodies.

That left Kyoshi alone with Liz, Seth, and Emilia. In an attempt not to be rude, Seth had invited the cryokinetic SUB out with them and she’d accepted. She’d then started to throw back drinks like a professional. She was half a dozen drinks deep and hardly seemed phased, even as Liz and Seth started making out hardcore next to her. The private booth offered some privacy, but not the type of privacy the two teenagers would need in the next five minutes.

“Mason is here.” Kyoshi yelled over the music “I’m going to go get him.”

Without breaking his stride, Seth reached into his blazer and pulled out a wad of cash and flicked some bills onto the table. Kyoshi snatched them up before they could get soaked through in booze.

“I’ll come with you,” Emilia regally announced as she picked up another shot. She blew out the flame and ice crystalized on the side of the glass as she threw it back. “I need to go find some…attention.”

Kyoshi didn’t want to know what that meant, but she got up and started heading toward the entrance.

The club was set up with a ring of private booths around a circular dancefloor. A railing separated the two areas with two person tables set around the railings for people to recuperate at and to order drinks from. On one side of the dancefloor and at a break in the booths was the entrance, and at the same place on the opposite side of the building was another exit, leading to more VIP rooms and the employees only section. Kyoshi was not fooled by the VIP label over the exit. Those rooms were for some dude to waste an absurd amount of money on when he found a girl who was ready to do him then and there. Technically, Kyoshi guessed it could also be the other way around. Emilia’s cryptic statement might make her an example, but for the most part girls didn’t come to these types of places just to do some random stranger.

Or at least that was just her opinion.

People parted out of her way as she passed. Her height and figure tended to have that impact on people. With Mason at her side they could make their way through a crowded area without bumping a single person.

The thought of her large boyfriend put a spring in her step. <Thank god I wore flats.>

Despite being Orlando the air outside was much cooler than the oppressive air inside the club. Kyoshi stopped to take a deep breath and savor it. She’d been in there long enough that she’d become immune to the scent of mixed BO and booze.

When she opened her eyes she could already see her man moving toward her with Angela and her plus one by his side. Her heart did a little flutter as he approached. Even after six months together he could still make her feel like they did after their first kiss.

It made her love him even more when she felt his ambient emotions. Mason was clearly a little annoyed at this whole club idea, even if he was doing his best to hide it. But he’d still come without any complaint when Kyoshi asked because he knew she needed him by her side tonight. Kyoshi knew she could always count on Mason to do what was right for her.

“They’re with me.” Kyoshi grabbed one of the damp bills Seth had tossed her and stuffed it into the bouncer’s jacket pocket.

Kyoshi didn’t see what type of bill it was, but she felt the spike of surprise from the man. He was a low-end strongman who worked this line for six hours a night and typically didn’t make more than a hundred bucks in tips, although they were really bribes. On top of his slightly above minimum wage salary, he would be lucky to walk away with a hundred and sixty bucks a shift. Apparently, Kyoshi had almost nearly doubled that amount; and the bouncer greatly appreciated that.

“Ok, you three are in.”

Kyoshi didn’t wait any longer to grab her boyfriend and pull him inside. Once they were inside she didn’t waste a moment before pressing her lips to his. She felt surprise, affection, and curiosity as they made out for a couple of seconds right inside the entryway.

“Having fun tonight,” Mason smiled his big innocent smile.

“I am now,” she planted another peck on his lips before turning to Angela and her date.

“You must be Alec, nice to meet you. Angela has told me so much about you.”

“She has!” Alec felt and sounded like Kyoshi had just given him the biggest compliment in the world.

Kyoshi didn’t need to use her telepath to see that the small guy had a huge crush on Angela. <Good, she deserves a good guy.>

“Follow me. I’ll take you up to the booth and then you can decide what you want to do.” Everyone followed, and Mason never let go of her hand.

<Suddenly I feel like dancing.> Kyoshi looked out into the mass of human bodies on the dance floor. <Yep, I’m definitely going to pull Mason out there.>

 

***

 

Squid looked around and took a deep breath. Everything he could see was his, and what he saw was good.

<Bitches, cash, bling, booze, and more bitches.> He thought with a smile.

One such woman was laying across his lap. Her name was Christy…Carla…Cathy…something starting with a C, he didn’t really pay attention when she opened her mouth. What he was paying attention to was her barely clothed ass, which had to take hours a week to keep so tight.

The ass was nice, but Squid could get any ass he wanted. What he was really interested in was what was on her ass. Squid leaned over, pressing his nose to her warm flesh and snorted the long line of white powder.

<Fuck yeah! That’s what I’m talkin’ about!> The rush was immediate.

Everything around him seemed to sway in beat with the music. He was in the owner’s suite, and through a one-way window he could see the dance floor and the private booth of his club. A club that was going to make him a lot of money.

“Yo, Boss, you might want to take it easy.” The comment came from the only woman present who wasn’t some whore or college bimbo.

“Relax,” he gave the ass a slap to get the woman off of him. “This is a party enjoy yourself.”

“Hard to with Dragon gone.” She mumbled loud enough for him to hear.

Squid knew she and Dragon had an on again off again thing; which was hard to believe since Dragon would stick it into just about anything.

“We do need to talk about Dragon.” Another man, one of squids trusted lieutenants, walked over and took a seat on the recently vacated couch.

“Don’t tell me to chill, Big Mike, bitch has already tried.”

Big Mike was the Fist member that Squid appointed to run the Club after they took if from the Columbians following the power outage. Shadow might have been a pain in the ass calling in her orders, but her idea to consolidate the Fist’s power had been a good one.

Big Mike was one of those ironic names. The guy was actually just a hair over five feet tall, and about as thin as a board. A light breeze looked like it would have knocked the guy over. His power was what made him big. Big Mike’s power allowed him to stretch his limbs up to ten feet, and while being stretched they also strengthened. The longer the limb the stronger he was. At his max height his limbs were stronger than concrete, and he could toss them around like wrecking balls. He was a good guy to have at your back in a fight and he was loyal.

“Fuck chillin’,” Big Mike replied. “This is your party; snort, smoke, or fuck whatever you want. You the boss.”

“Damn right!” Squid grabbed a full shot glass from in front of him. “You hear that. I’m the boss.” He directed the question at Dragon’s on-again off-again girlfriend, and got an eye roll in return.

Squid threw back the shot and sighed as the smooth liquid worked its way down his throat. They were drinking the expensive shit because tonight was a night to celebrate.

A regular human entered the room on the far side, right in Squid’s line of sight. He wore a pair of cargo pants and a light jacket that poorly concealed the body armor and pistol on his hip. His eyes scanned the room and found Squid.

Squid waved him over. “Are my guests here.”

“Da.” The man said in a thick Russian accent. “They here.”

“Well then send them up.” Squid clapped the guy on the arm.

The mercenary didn’t give any response other than a nod before walking away.

“Big Mike, get all the bitches out!” Squid yelled, much to those bitches’ disappointment.

“Ok ladies, we’re gonna take a short break. Here take this and this.” Big Mike handed out bottles of champagne to the leaving ladies. “Don’t go too far now.” He smiled at a particularly tall woman. “Especially you.”

Big Mike had a thing for tall women.  “Mmm, gotta love volleyball players.”

Squid gave a good hard laugh before composing himself. The night was turning from pleasure to business, and he needed to be ready. His abuella had always said that an animal was at its most dangerous when you had it cornered.

“Nobody fuck around, comprende.”

Everyone acknowledged and waited.

A few minutes later the Russian mercenary returned with two men in business suits. The two men looked, tense, pissed off, and generally unhappy to be here. One of them held a briefcase and the other a chain, which dragged behind him to the shackles of half a dozen women.

“Gentlemen,” Squid smiled as the two men came to stand across the table from him. “Please take a seat. You want something to drink or some blow?”

“No thank you.” The man’s English was heavily influenced with his native Columbian accent.

“Come on boys, you gotta want something to take the edge off. This used to be your office didn’t it?”

The two Columbian cartel officers’ jaws tightened at the reminder of their failure. It wasn’t the best way to start a negotiation, but Squid needed to remind them who the boss was.

“We are fine,” the man Squid pegged as the leader spoke up. “We would like to get down to business.”

“The business part is simple.” Squid leaned forward. “This is my town now. I took it fair and square. Everything that goes on in it goes through me now. You want to deal I get a percentage, you want to fuck I get a percentage, you want to sell pussy I get a percentage. Ya feel me?”

The Columbian’s face grew angrier and angrier with each passing sentence.

“You listen here, puta. You’re small time, just a little prick compared to my organization. Don’t fuck with us…”

“Or what?” Squid leaned back with a confident smirk. “This place is hot as fuck right now. American Heroes are out looking for blood. Sure, your organization might have Supers stronger than me or my boys, but are you really going to risk them against me and the Heroes. Against her?”

“El Diablo,” the other man crossed himself. His face had gone from anger to fear at the mention of Seraphim.

The other guy’s mouth snapped shut.

“That’s what I thought, so here’s the deal. You’ll give me a monthly tribute payment fifty thousand, I’ll get first pick of the new girls, and we’ll split all your other endeavors fifty-fifty.”

Squid could practically here the man’s teeth grinding, but after a minute the Columbian nodded his agreement. Squid knew he’d have to keep an eye on the cartel guys because they would fuck him the first chance that they got, but that was the price of doing business.

“Excelente!” Squid clapped at the agreement and waved for the case and girls. “Now let’s check out the merchandise.

Squid popped the case just to make sure the money was in there and then handed it off to Big Mike. The lieutenant had money counters in a back room that he could use to count it, but Squid didn’t think the Columbians would try and stiff him just yet. Doing so before they left was a certain death sentence.

Then came the girls. They ranged from fourteen to thirty and looked like they’d either been picked off the street in South America or had paid the wrong coyote to get across the boarder. Either way they were Squid’s now.

He stripped them down to nothing. Checked tit and ass for firmness and bounce, checked their teeth, because there was nothing worse than a hooker giving a BJ with bad teeth, and lastly determined which of them were still virgins. He might be able to get a more exclusive clientele for those lucky two. After a few minutes he was satisfied with the payment.

“Pleasure doing business with you.” Squid shook the two men’s hands. “Feel free to stay around. There are a bunch of loose American college girls down there.”

“No thank you,” the Columbian shook his head. “Goodbye.”

The two cartel officers exited the room just as Big Mike reentered it.

“The money’s good, clean, and it’s all there.”

“Fuck yeah!” Squid grabbed an open bottle of Dom Perignon and took a big swig. He was fifty grand richer and had some fresh ass to make even more money. “Let’s get this party started again. Bring the girls back in.”

The night was turning out to be one of Squid’s most profitable ones yet.

Previous

 

 

 

 

 

My Fall Line Up…So Far

I’m not sure if I’ve said this before, but i’m a pretty big TV fan. As such, in honor of the start of the fall season I’m going to give everyone my rundown on my TV habits. I’ll do my old favorite and new releases. I won’t go into too much detail just the initial impressions and where I think, or like to think they’re going.

***SPOILERS**

Monday

Gotham: Of course I watch Gotham I do write superhero fiction. Honestly i wasn’t the biggest fan of the second half of last season. I did love the first few episodes where they looked like they were doing the young Joker, but then they killed him…bummer. Anyway, the “monster” angle is playing ok for now but i’d like to see them get back to some of the more notable batman villains in their younger days. I heard the rumor that they were going to bring Harley Quinn in this season. After the success of Suicide Squad I deem that a solid decision. I will continue to watch it at its regular time or at least DVR it.

Kevin Can Wait: Kevin James’ new show was one I was looking forward to this fall. My wife and I watch King of Queens reruns late at night as we fall asleep so I’m a fan. So far the shows gets a so-so from me. I know sometimes pilots aren’t the strongest and it’ll take time for it to hit it’s stride, but i’ll stick around.It’ll probably be a DVR’d show though because of Gotham.

Lucifer: I was a big fan of the show’s first season. This stuff is right up my alley, and i’ll admit that I modeled the Protectorate’s team leader Mr. Morningstar a bit after a “good” version of Lucifer. Thus the name. The season started off strong in my mind. Tom Ellis makes the show in my opinion. I find the personal struggle of Lucifer, the supernatural element, and the comedy to be a wonderful mix. This I will watch at its regular scheduled time.

Tuesday

This is Us: I never really watched Parenthood, but I’ve heard this is its successor. That being said it is a powerful show. It really draws you in and keeps you hooked. You laugh you cry and you keep on wanting more. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about this shows and the great performances by its cast. I do DVR this show though because I’m an old man at heart and go to sleep at 10.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.: Again superhero fan here,so naturally I’m a fan. That being said, I’m not the biggest fan of the Ghostrider deal. I hope it’s only a small arc and doesn’t consume the whole season. I do like that Daisy/Quake is not on the run. I like the grunge/rogue personality they’ve given her now. I also DVR this for reasons listed above.

Wednesday

The Goldbergs: I love the Goldberg because the 80s was awesome and I love how they hit all of the big moments. The premiere dealt with The Breakfast Club. Enough said.

Modern Family: This is the old classic of my lineup, and the staple of the comedy lineup of all the networks. I actually haven’t seen the premiere yet because I was busy catching up on the DVR’d Tuesdays shows. But I can’t believe it’ll be anything but a knee-slapper.

Blindspot: I find the premise of this show fundamentally flawed. No way the FBI or any federal agency, I work for one, would ever let someone do this without knowing who they were. Background checks by the OPM take months for jobs with no clearances beyond the trust of the public. Still, I can differentiate the difference between Hollywood reality and real reality. Looking past the impossibility of the situation I find it very entertaining. I’m a Jamie Alexander fan ever since Sif in Thor. I either watch and DVR depending on my mood.

Designated Survivor: I was really looking forward to this one, and it didn’t disappoint. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a West Wing or 24 style show, and I’m  still not quite sure. My only hope is that the bad guy in the end isn’t the military-industrial complex. That was tried in White House Down and I personally don’t think it worked. I do think its a good look so far on what would happen in a catastrophe and I’m looking forward to more. It’s another DVR show though because it is past my bedtime.

Thursday

The Good Place: I saw the previews leading up to this and I was intrigued. I’ve always been a Kristen Bell fan all the way back to Veronica Mars. The show has aired 3 episodes so far and I’m still interested but it hasn’t quite reeled me in yet. I hope the next few episodes pick it up a bit or i don’t think it’s going to make it which would be a shame because I definitely see potential.

The Blacklist: This is one of my favorite shows on TV right now, and it is coming off a great third season. I liked the fugitive Liz and Red part better than the pregnancy part but it is still good. This is a definite watch for anyone, and James Spader is just awesome, period. Its still a DVR one though because sleep is just as awesome.

Friday

Last Man Standing: This is another show that has been a staple in my TV watching over the past few years, and one of the ones my wife likes to watch with me. I feel a lot like Mike Baxter in real life. I’m the only male in the house, but thankfully 2/3rds of the females are on four legs. As always the show didn’t disappoint, and I can watch it live.

Blue Bloods: You can’t beat Tom Selleck, and I’ve been watching him as the patriarch on this police action/drama for years. Based on the tone of the previous season I thought it was going to be the last, but I’m glad it’s back. It is the last show of the week for me and one i might even stay up to watch.

Haven’t started yet but I’m excited for

Timeless: A time travel show with potential

Fresh Off the Boat: An old favorite that I can’t wait to return too

The Great Indoors: I’ve been a Joel McHale fan ever since Community and The Soup. Interested to see his next project.

Life in Pieces: I have high expectation as this comedy comes off its freshman season

Madam Secretary: I started and then stopped watching this show. Then it was on Netflix and I watched everything I’d missed in a few days. Excited to see what Elizabeth McCord it up to next.

 

These are only the TV network shows I’ve been watching. There are other shows like Luke Cage on Netflix that i’m also looking forward to. If anyone reading has any suggestions that aren’t listed please let me know. I’m always up to try a good show.

 

 

Two Worlds – Chapter 38

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Stewart-Benning Training Center, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies 

Chow was followed by a run, a run that Coop had to lead because Eve wasn’t back yet. The run wasn’t slow or fast, it was the same methodical pace they’d been training at for the last week. Coop and the rest of second squad easily fell into the rhythm. Their feet slapped the pavement in unison, and they shouted out their cadences like a well-rehearsed choir.  They ran five kilometers, and thanks to the metabolic enhancers and nanites they did it easily.

The only difference today was the direction that they ran. Usually, runs during PT were in a loop out and back to the barracks. Other runs were to and from the chow hall. Today they ran away from both of those, and away from the long line of identical white buildings of the main training center. Today they ran towards a small mountain in the distance.

<That can’t be good.> It was the only thought Coop had as they trotted closer and closer to the natural landmark.

“Company halt. You have three minutes to relieve yourselves. Execute.” SSG Cunningham completed the five kilometer run at an odd looking contraption.

Coop would have spent a few more seconds looking it over, but they only had three minutes and he needed to take a shit. He thought that Army food would have stuffed him up, but he was wrong. He was pretty sure they mixed mild laxatives in with the metabolic enhancers and nanites. <I’ll have to ask Eve about it.>

Coop very much missed having their knowledgeable squad leader around, because whatever they were about to do he didn’t want the responsibility if they failed.

“Ten…nine…eight…” the SSG started to call just as Coop’s smartcloth was reknitting. “Fall in.”

Everyone was in formation when she hit zero, even Davenport. Even the squad dipshit wasn’t stupid enough to be late.

“Recruits,” the SSG smiled at them all. “Welcome to the Grinder.”

<Shit.> Coop’s apprehension was confirmed.

The Grinder was Stewart-Benning Training Center’s version of an obstacle course. A two kilometer long run-obstacle hybrid training device that looked just as bad as it sounded. The SSG brought up a holo-display that outlined the dozens of obstacles they were going to have to master to get through the Grinder.

<What are we fucking ninjas?> Coop’s jaw dropped more than once as the obstacles were explained.

“The Grinder is meant to cover situations that you might encounter on real-life battlefields.” The SSG pointed at the first obstacle in front of them.

It was a series two dozen angled, covered pads hovering over a small pond of black liquid. “For instance,” the SSG jogged over to the obstacle, “you might find yourselves on a planet where you need to move from one area to another without touching the ground. It might be a volcanic world, or their local equivalent of liquid is more acid than water. Either way you and your squad need to move from point A to point B.” Despite getting farther away the instructor’s voice sounded like she was still standing in front of the company.

With a slight running start SSG Cunningham demonstrated the obstacle. She easily hopped to the first pad, where she landed on it with one foot. She didn’t stay their long. She took the force of the jump on that leg, bending to absorb the blow, and then pushed off. She landed on the second pad, which was slightly ahead and to the right of the first pad, with the opposite leg and repeated the process.

“That doesn’t look too hard,” Coop muttered to Nate who was standing next to him.

The SSG seemed to effortlessly hop between the pads until she reached the other side. “Just make sure you don’t fall.” She pointed at the black water below. “I guarantee you won’t enjoy it. Now move around the side and jog to the next obstacle.”

The next hour was spent going over all the obstacles. They had to climb up normal and warped walls, walls that were much taller than even the giant SSG. They had to swing from traditional monkey bars, and navigate their way across upside down, slanted sections of polyplast where their only grips looked like small rocks bolted to the durable plastic. There were sections, some as long as a few hundred meters, where they had to crawl below a laser grid. They had to climb and swing from ropes, run on top of spinning logs, and all while avoiding the black water that seemed to be everywhere.

“How you complete this course is up to you.” The SSG addressed them from the end of the course, where the last obstacle was a series of doors that had to be kicked down to reach the finish line. “I’ll leave the decision up to your squad leaders. But be advised that you will be evaluated as a squad. Everyone in a squad might finish in the top ten, but if one of you finishes in last your squad finishes last. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Staff Sergeant?”

“Good,” she scanned their faces like she was looking for something. Coop wasn’t sure if she found it or not.

They ran back to the start of the course where the SSG didn’t give them much time to rest.

“You have twenty minutes to plan. You may ask questions or consult the holo-display to remember aspects of the obstacles. Your time starts now.”

“Let’s go,” Coop called out, rushing towards the holo-display. He sure as hell didn’t remember everything they’d talked about over the last hour, and there was only so much space around the electronic terminal.

<Where the hell are you, Eve?> He had just enough time to wonder.

The one thing he did know was that it would severally dampen his chances of getting that sweet ass if he lost this challenge. She tried to hide it, but Coop knew Eve was a sore loser.

“We should do it individually,” Davenport spoke up before anyone else. “I can get up those walls no problem. We’ll be faster this way.”

“You might be able to get up those walls, but Harper might not be able to.” Mike cut him off.

“Mike’s right,” Coop seconded the other team leader’s opinion. “We could all finish in the top eight, but if Harper finishes last then we’re all last.”

“Fuck you guys, I can do this.” Harper shot back with a glare.

“Gladly.” Davenport smiled creepily.

“Shut the fuck up and focus.” Coop cut them both off. “Let’s figure this out. We’ve only got twelve more minutes.”

Eleven minutes later they had a plan. They’d already covered running the course individually, and that wasn’t an option. The shorter people couldn’t get up the walls without help. On the opposite side of the spectrum, they couldn’t run as a group either. They would slow everyone down to the pace of the slowest person, who as much as she denied it was Harper.

After a lot of bitching and moaning they settled on running it as battle buddies. The two-person teams would navigate the course together, so Coop did his best to break them up into strong pairs. Harper went with Mike, the strongest guy in the squad. He’d be able to throw her over the wall if he wanted.

The decision was practical and personal. Harper and Mike kind of had a thing going. He was one of her frequent “clients”, but she never charged him like she did everyone else. It was a beneficial relationship, and for one brief second it reminded Coop of Hailey. <Focus.> He pushed the idea to the back of his mind.

It didn’t help that the last time he’d gotten any female attention was weeks ago.

After pairing the weakest and strongest together, Coop had to sort through the middle. He put Nate, who was reliable, with Olivia. She talked regularly with her boyfriend in the company ahead of them, so she knew some tricks with the course. Coop hoped those tricks would give them an advantage because she was the second slowest next to Harper.

That left Coop, Emma, Davenport, and John.

“I’ll go with Davenport,” John stated after a long awkward moment.

Coop saw John as a calming force in the squad. He was smart, levelheaded, and practical. He was smaller and thinner than the rest of the guys, and didn’t seem to have done much physical activity before enlisting. And he had enlisted of his own free will, unlike Coop.

“Thanks, John.” Coop meant it. John was probably the third weakest link in the squad, and he was sure to get shit from Davenport through the entire course.

“That leaves you and me, Emma.”

Of all the people in second squad Coop knew the least about Emma. She only stood two places down from Coop in formation, but if he was talking to anyone it was usually Eve or Nate. He thought she was close with Olivia, he saw them talking a lot together, but they stood next to each other so it could mean nothing.

“Yeah.” Her voice sounded small and fearful, which was surprising.

Emma was a powerfully built woman. She was only eight to ten centimeters shorter than Coop. She had thick, strong limbs, was fast enough to stay in the middle of the pack during runs, and hadn’t done anything to get in trouble. Since Coop had nearly killed himself with Harper’s help during isolation week, that made Emma smarter in his mind.

None of that explained why she was so timid around Coop.

“One minute!” the SSG announced.

Coop pushed his questions about Emma to the rear of his mind and focused on the course ahead of them.

“Coop!” They had about thirty seconds left before starting when Eve sprinted up to him, shouldering other people out of the way. “Get me up to date.”

<Where the fuck have you been?> Flashed through his mind, but there wasn’t enough time to get an answer and explain things to her.

“Obstacle course,” he pointed. “Two kilometers with dozens of obstacles. We’ve reviewed them and are doing the course in two-man teams.” He pointed at the three teams behind him and Emma. “We’re starting soon.”

As if on cue the newly arrived PO3 Janney started to count down from ten.

“Good work,” she gave John a sympathetic wince before turning back to the course. “I’ll run with you and Emma. I’m a quick study.”

“Execute!” The PO3 yelled, and eighty-three recruits surged forward.

They bottlenecked instantly.

The first obstacle of pads you had to jump between could only be done one person at a time, maybe two if the jumps were extremely well-coordinated. Second squad was near the front of the mass of bodies, but they had to watch as the first few people on the obstacle failed and tumbled into the black water.

They came out cursing and crying.

“It’s a nano-bath,” Eve explained as she shoved someone back who tried to cut in line. “They use it to clean weapons. You just stick a rifle in it and it cleans it up in a few seconds.”

“What’s with them then?” Coop watched as the first few recruits returned to the line.

You couldn’t advance to the next obstacle before completing the previous ones.

“The baths are meant to clean out the residue from electro-magnetic rifles.” Eve said it like it was the most obvious thing in the galaxy. “That shit really gets caked in there, so the baths are pretty strong.”

A female recruit walked by, crying and trying to scratch her whole body at once.

“It’s irritating as a motherfucker.” Eve grinned, hopping up onto the first pad easily.

She didn’t take the pads one foot at a time like the SSG had. Instead, she leapt from pad to pad, landing on both feet, and used her hands to grab the edges. It was a solid strategy, until she had to leap to a pad where another squad’s recruit was holding everything up.

Coop was on the pads now, imitating her. Instead of waiting for the other squad’s member to get moving, Eve jumped. She aimed for the section of the pad not occupied by the guy, which wasn’t much. She was able to get a foot down and a hand on the edge.

“What the…!” The guy yelped as Eve put her free foot into his lower back.

“Shit or get off the can!”

Coop laughed as the guy pitched face first into the black nano-bath.

“Let’s move second squad!” Eve leapt nimbly from pad to pad.

<God it’s good to have you back…and the view.> Coop almost missed his grip once; more interested in looking at her ass than where he should be jumping.

The entire second squad made it through the first obstacle together and then set off at a run for the second. A three meter wall stood two hundred meters away.

“First person in the group brace at the bottom of the wall. Second person use the first person’s height to get up and secure yourself on top,” Eve didn’t bother to wait for Coop to explain.

Coop braced himself against the wall, legs bent and hands interlocked to make a foothold.

“You first, Emma.” Coop saw the wide-eyed look on the big girl’s face, and knew she’d be the weak link in the chain.

Emma hesitated and Eve ripped her a new one. “Get your ass up that wall, Recruit!”

<Why the hell did that turn me on?> Coop shook his head and focused, ignoring the half-chub he’d gotten.

Eve’s shout did the trick. Like a startled deer, Emma ran forward, put her foot in Coop’s hands, and pushed down while he hauled up.

<Fuck!> Coop’s back screamed in protest as Emma jumped to the top of the wall. She was heavier than she looked, at least a hundred and twenty kilos.

“Up and over Emma,” Eve ordered, going next.

Coop braced himself harder, but it wasn’t necessary. Eve weighed a normal amount for someone her size.

With the rest of his group up and over the wall that left Coop in a pickle. He couldn’t jump up and reach the top of the wall, but they’d planned for this, and Eve was calling out orders.

“Person on the wall, reach down and grab the person below you.” Eve reached over and grabbed Coop’s outstretched hand when he jumped up.

Eve was stronger than she looked, and she easily got Coop’s hand up to the edge. He did a pull-up, put his chest on the top of the wall, threw his foot over, shimmied up and over, then lowered himself down on the other side until finally dropping the last meter to the ground.

The whole process took less than thirty seconds, and the whole squad got it done on the first or second try.

“Let’s go people, we don’t have all day!” Eve yelled sprinting the hundred meters to their next obstacle.

They navigated half the course like this. Even though they were running as battle buddies and one group of three, they were never too far apart. The farthest Mike and Harper fell behind was a single obstacle. Coop’s planning had been decent, but Eve took one look at the obstacle and knew how to tackle them. Like always she knew exactly what to do, and how to motivate her group to do it.

Emma needed that motivation, especially when they got to the laser grids.

“We’ve got to low crawl if we don’t want to get our asses barbequed.” Eve assessed the situation and dropped flat on the ground. “Get low, put one side of your face in the dirt, move alternate knees and elbows forward to pull and push yourself. Don’t rush it.” She looked at the fifty meter long obstacle. “If you get impatient and try to move fast you’re gonna get your ass sliced up.”

<We can’t have that. No one gets to punish that ass but me.>

The three of them got down low, and started to move forward just as Eve explained. It was slow going, but the screams of people doing it wrong reinforced Eve’s correct method. Coop’s face was raw from scraping against the ground, but other than that he was good…until something whipped past his head.

The SNAP of the hypersonic round whizzing past Coop’s head nearly made him shit himself.

Instinctually he knew he was getting shot at, but that didn’t stop him from asking. “What the hell was that?”

“Keep your head down!” Eve yelled back, not bothering to explain.

“Listen to your squad leader.” SSG Cunningham’s voice sounded like god calling down from the mountaintop. “I can put a round up a fly’s ass at two hundred meters, but if one of you picks your head up above that grid you’re taking your life in your own hands.”

More rounds whizzed by, causing Coop to push his face further into the ground.

<Bitch is crazy!>

Just when he thought things were bad they got worse. The snaps and hisses of the fired round abruptly ceased, only to be followed a moment later by loud, repetitive booms.

Coop jumped at the loud noises and singed his ass on the grid.

“For fuck’s sake, Cooper, stay down.” Eve was a few meters ahead now. She’d never stopped crawling.

In between them was Emma, and she had stopped. She was curled up in a fetal position with her hands over her ears. She was screaming and crying nearly as loudly as the BOOM of whatever weapon the instructors were firing over their heads.

“Eve, we’ve got a problem!”

Eve stopped and looked around. “She’s freaking out.” She reversed her motion and slowly crawled the few meters back to Emma. “We need to snap her out of it.”

“Emma! Emma!” Coop crawled up to the girl and poked her in the hamstring. “You need to move!”

He might as well be poking a duro-steel wall for all the good it did.

“Fuck!” The booms stopped and more hisses passed overhead, but each close shot brought with it a singe of heat, like Coop was pressing his ass against the laser grid all over again.

“Emma, move your ass!” Coop gave up any pretense of playing nice.

He punched her hard in the hamstring.

He knew from experience that hurt like hell, and it succeeded in pushing Emma out of her freak out mode. Unfortunately, as all animals do when they’re in a corner, she lashed out. Coop took a boot to the face.

“Motherfucker!” Coop heard and felt his nose break. “Stupid bitch!”

“Quit your whining, Coop.” Eve was half coaxing, half pulling Emma forward now.

“She broke my fucking nose.” He felt justified in his complaining.

“Rub some dirt on it, Recruit.”

Coop couldn’t see, but he knew Eve had a big smile on her face.

“We’ve got a long way to go, and I don’t want to carry you if you pass out from blood loss. Fix yourself and move.”

“Fine.” Coop didn’t have anything else to do, so he followed her orders.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 37

Benjamin Gold

Location: Sol System, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 Ben was in a unique position. He was still in the holding company, and would remain in it until his gunboat’s maiden voyage. Holding companies were larger than the regular hundred-person companies in the military’s table of organization and equipment (MTOE).  These companies served no operational purpose. Their only job was to maintain accountability of personnel, ship them off when their orders arrived, and allow officers to get command experience.

Anyone below the rank of E-6 had to physically report to the company every day for accountability formations. Ben, other officers, and senior NCOs just had to call in. For most soldiers and spacers this meant an abundance of free time that was unheard of anywhere else in the military.

Ben didn’t have that luxury. He had to condense years of knowledge into a few months before he took command. Commander Wythe was merciless in her pursuit of that mission. With every resource available at her disposal, thanks to Rear Admiral Helms, she was becoming increasingly creative with her assignments.

“Pack your bags, Lieutenant Commander.” She proclaimed when she strode into her office one morning.

Ben had his head buried in a field manual, and it took him a moment to catch up. “Ma’am?”

“Pack your bags,” she repeated. “You’ve spent enough hours in VR. It’s time for the real thing.”

And that was how Ben found himself on a week-long cruise around the solar system on the Commonwealth Warship (CWS) Wisp.

CWS Wisp was a gunboat assigned to First Fleet. It was an older model, first commissioned forty years ago, but it got the job done. Wisp’s mission was patrolling humanity’s home system. It was about as glamorous as it sounded, but these were actual spacers doing actual gunboat operations. The experience Ben would gather from this one week was invaluable.

He arrived onboard with the objective of qualifying in as many of the ship’s departments as possible. It was a herculean task, and Ben expected to be fully sleep-deprived by the time his feet touched back down on Earth.

<You can’t be an effective commander if you don’t even know what your own crew is doing.> Ben thought practically.

Ben needed to know what he was doing, more-so than other ships’ commanders. He was going to be fighting an uphill battle from the moment he stepped onboard his ship. Any service member could look at another service member’s public information, and one look at that would show anyone Ben was nothing more than a very junior lieutenant commander who should not be the skipper of a warship; even a small gunboat. He would have to show his crew that he was capable of being their leader. A golden stripe on his uniform might earn him salutes and “good morning, Sir” from the spacers, but that was it.

To make matters more difficult, the skipper of the Wisp wasn’t ecstatic to have someone tagging along on her patrol, but she’d been in First Fleet long enough to read between the lines of Ben’s assignment orders.

“If you want my advice start with navigation,” she said when Ben met with her in her cabin. “If you can’t fly the ship then nothing else matters.”

Ben saw from the female lieutenant commander’s basic profile that she had five years in her current rank, and two of those years captaining the Wisp. So he felt she knew what she was talking about.

“Yes, Commander.” They might be the same rank, but she was the commander of this vessel and Ben needed to respect that.

Ben didn’t see her again until he was allowed behind the proverbial wheel of the gunboat twelve hours later. There were no wheels on spaceships. There were stations with panels and instruments. Those machines did the flying. A person just entered commands, and if absolutely necessary, there was a joystick for certain operations.

Qualifying for a position on a ship was a process. First the spacer, NCO, or officer needed to study up on the material. Usually, they had days or even weeks to do this. Ben had hours. After the service member thought they’d studied enough they took a written examination. Sometimes there were verbal aspects from a subject matter expert, usually a chief petty officer, but the point of the examination was for the person seeking qualification to show the theoretical knowledge of the position they were qualifying for.

Ben passed his examination with flying colors. His in vitro enhancements allowed for well above average cognitive processing.  In some pre-Expansion militaries, the written test would be the end of the qualification requirements; but not in the Commonwealth Fleet. It was all well and good to talk through a docking procedure, but it was something entirely different to do it.

“Easy does it, nice and slow, don’t force it, Sir.”

Ben sat in the helmsman’s seat, while the skipper sat behind him in the command chair, and the helmsman hovered next to him. The helmsman, a low-ranking spacer’s apprentice, sounded condescending; like he was talking to a child.

Ben could have taken it the wrong way. A lot of people would have, but he didn’t. He was a guest on someone else’s ship, and if he screwed up then he was going to do a lot of damage to that ship. The helmsman was naturally protective. It was his job to make sure the ship never crashed.

“Ease off a bit, reverse thrusters a quarter pulse.”

Normally, no one would be talking to the person taking the hands-on exam, but Ben wasn’t going to argue if someone gave him pointers. Ben kept his one eye on the range-finder while he pulled back gently with the joystick.

In order to make this qualification possible, the Wisp had stopped a Commonwealth flagged freighter. While the marines and a few spacers were busy doing a routine commerce inspection the freighter’s captain had agreed to allow them to do training against his hull. He just didn’t want them to scratch his new paint job.

There were two docking procedures that Ben had to complete to finish his qualification in navigation. He could already fly the ship, initiate manual evasive maneuvers, and calculate jumps with the Alcubierre Drive. The warp jumps were only theoretical though, they wouldn’t be able to initiate an actual jump this close to Jupiter’s gravity well. The Wisp’s commander checked his math and then marked the section complete on the electronic evaluation form.

The first docking procedure was a “soft” docking. This required Ben to pull up alongside the freighter, match their speed and course, and then extend a tether from the gunboat to the freighter. The tether would attach to an external hatch, pressurize, and then people and supplies could move between the two ships. It was the least favorable docking procedure militarily speaking because the tethers were vulnerable, but it was the easiest to complete.

Ben did it on his first attempt.

The second procedure was the more difficult “hard” docking. This required Ben to link the two ships together without the use of a tether. A ship-to-ship hard dock was the standard in the military, but it was also the hardest to do. Normally, computers handled everything flawlessly, but there was always a chance computers could fail; especially after a battle where a ship had taken damage. So every qualified helmsman needed to be able to do a manual hard and soft dock.

Ben failed his first attempt. He approached too fast, and the freighter had to break away. Both skippers had not been happy. Ben could feel the other lieutenant commander’s eyes burning a hole through the back of his skull, so he approached his second run more cautiously; gently easing the joystick forward and closing the space meter by meter.

<I feel bad for pilots a few hundred years ago.> He paid special attention to his instruments as he slowly approached the freighter again.

A few hundred years ago, pilots not only had to manually dock all of the time, but they also had to do it while ships rotated. Before mankind mastered gravitics, spacecraft spun around a central axis to generate limited artificial gravity. Past hard docks required pilots to match course, speed, and rotation. There was more than one video in the study material about what could go wrong during a hard dock.

Ben was glad he was being given the opportunity to qualify, but rushing it like this wasn’t the best idea. Flying a warship was like driving an air-car for the first time. Your brain needed to get used to how the craft handled and its dimensions. Rushing the process didn’t allow those mental pathways and memory to form. Stuff like this led to those grainy old images of spacecraft missing a lock, colliding, or only getting a partial lock and being torn apart by decompression.

Ben carefully thumbed the joystick while gently nudging the engines to make sure that didn’t happen with the Wisp.

“Ok you’re lined up, quarter pulse forward…and,” there was a loud thump and a brief screech before the green light of a good lock flashed across the helm station.

“Helm?” The Wisp’s skipper’s facial expression betrayed her irritation.

“It’s a good lock, Ma’am, but we might have scratched that paint job.”

“Very well.” The skipper took the news remarkably well. “Let’s get our boarding party back and continue our patrol. Send a voucher to the captain and thank him for his time.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Scratching the freighter’s paint, even if it was only a half meter scar, didn’t endear Ben to the freighter’s captain, the Wisp’s commander, or the gunboat’s crew. No one was outright disrespectful to him because no one talked to him at all from that day forward. Not even a nod in the hallways. He was only spoken to if he initiated conversation, and even then they were short, to-the-point responses. The message was loud and clear; Ben was not welcome.

<Good thing I am getting this over with now.> Ben thought to himself as he sat alone in his cabin pouring through the system specifics of the gunboat’s weapons systems.

Ben might have passed, but he’d failed in the eyes of everyone on the bridge. That only made it worse when paired with what people could find out about him from a casual search. It didn’t go unnoticed he was a member of that Gold family.

<Rich kid’s daddy is getting him a command.>

<Blue in your eye equals officer’s privilege…typical.> Ben could practically see the thoughts in the other spacer’s eyes.

If he’d done this while in command of his own ship it would have devastated crew morale. Morale was important over a six month mission. Ben could deal with being ostracized for a week, but getting the cold shoulder for months would drive anyone insane and critically affect operational readiness.

<I need to get this over with.> Ben pushed the negative thoughts aside. He was almost done with navigation, but he still had weapons, engineering, operations, and communications to complete.

Being the smallest ship in the fleet meant that a gunboat had fewer departments listed on their MTOE than a larger warship. Destroyers, cruisers, battleships, and assault carriers could have over two dozen departments from administration to carrier air wing intelligence.

That didn’t mean all the same work didn’t need to be done. It just meant that officers and senior NCOs got assigned additional duties to cover the holes. Ben didn’t know all of the specifics, but he was pretty sure he’d get to it before this week-long cruise was over.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 76

The soft tick tock of the clock was getting on Angela’s last nerve. She’d been in sitting in this office for the last twenty minutes without saying a word. She’d willingly admit that this therapy session hadn’t gotten off to the best start, but weren’t therapists supposed to at least make an effort.

<People think I have problems. The real problem is whoever gave this guy his medical license.>

While Angela was sitting there fuming, Dr. Johnson was sitting behind his desk reading his tablet. She’d assumed he was reading her file, but then he started smiling, and a then a small chuckle escaped his lips. Angela craned her neck for a better view.

<Is he reading comics!> She could practically feel the steam pouring out of her ears.

“Are you kidding me!” She finally burst, jumping to her feet. “Aren’t you supposed to be doing something productive with this time? Sitting there reading X-Men isn’t doing anyone any good.”

“Maybe, maybe not.” Dr. Johnson calmly put down his tablet and picked up a notepad and pen. “But I can’t listen if you don’t talk.”

“This is stupid.”

“That’s the third time you’ve said it since we started,” he informed. “In fact the only three statements you’ve said since you arrived are: ‘I don’t want to be here’, ‘This is stupid’, and ‘I’m fine’.” His face turned serious for a moment. “I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, Angela, but you are not fine.”

Angela felt the anger build in her gut and start to boil over. She opened her mouth to scream at the doctor, but he beat her to it.

“It’s good not to be fine. If you were ok with everything that has happened then I’d have some serious concerns about you.” His statement made her snap her mouth shut.

“What do you mean?” The rage began to subside, but it was still bubbling just beneath the surface.

“Angela,” he leaned forward placing his arms on the paper-strewn desk. “You just suffered a terrible loss. You need to acknowledge it, own it, and start to heal from it. It’s just like any other injury. You can’t break your leg, ignore it, and keep trying to kick people. That’s not how the human body works. The mind is the same way. Pain and emotions are there for a reason.”

Angela sat down heavily on the chair. Suddenly she felt very tired. “I’m…I’m just tired.” She told him what she was feeling.

“You’ve been feeling a lot of conflicting emotions lately I bet.” He continued.

Angela nodded. She cried on the way over here. Being put on probation was not a good step towards becoming a Hero. Then she’d been willing to rip the tablet out of the doctor’s hand and smash it over his head.

“Swinging back and forth from sadness to anger.” It was like he was reading his mind.

It immediately put her on the defensive.

“Are you…?”

“Not a telepath, he held up his hands in front of him. I’m an empath, so I can get a pretty good sense of what you are feeling. Just twenty minutes with you has shown me you’ve got a lot of emotions battling inside of you.”

“Ok,” she still felt defensive. “So am I just supposed to sit here and cry in front of you. Do you have a stress ball I can squeeze?”

It was a joke, but Dr. Johnson pulled a ball from his drawer and tossed it to her. “You’d be surprised how much it helps.”

Angela caught it and squeezed it on reflex. It was stiffer than she thought, and didn’t give much. She squeezed harder trying to crush the ball. She didn’t even realize she was silent for half a minute and concentrating solely on the ball.

“I told you.” He waited patiently until she looked up. “I’ve got a whole storage room full of them. Just tell me what you want. I’ve got baseballs, tennis balls, even little Hero figurines. Titan’s merchandise sales might have dropped in the last decade, but this stress figurine is a hit in my opinion. He’s going right back to the top of the charts.”

Despite herself Angela couldn’t help but laugh. She traded the ball he’d originally given her for a miniature representation of the strongest man on earth. The stress-figure was in a classic hands on hips power pose, and surprisingly whatever material it was made out of was even stronger than the ball she’d been squeezing. It barely budged.

“I was the last person he spoke to.” The words slipped out as Angela’s knuckles turned white with the effort of squeezing the tiny Titan.

“What did he say?” Dr. Johnson’s tone was still light and encouraging.

“He said it was nice that we got to have dinner,” Angela ignored the tear trickling down her cheek, and concentrated on the stress-figurine.

“It’s always nice to get to spend time with our parents, especially once we’ve gone off to college and don’t see them as much.” Dr. Johnson scribbled a few things onto his notepad, and was surprised when Angela gave a harsh laugh.

“I never got to see my parents a lot. They were always busy. Off saving the world,” she wiped the tear from her cheek. “I think I was more of an inconvenience to them.”

“Your parents love you Angela,” the response was automatic from the doctor.

Angela looked up from the tiny Titan and rolled her eyes. “You’ve obviously never met my parents.”

“I’ve actually met both of them before.” Dr. Johnson countered, but stopped when Angela shook her head.

“No, you’ve met Hunter and Seraphim. You’ve met the world class Hero team. You haven’t met my parents.”

“Well, then why don’t you tell me about them.”

Angela surprised the doctor again by laughing. “Where do I start.”

Forty-five minutes later, already five minutes late for his next appointment, Dr. Johnson flexed his hand painfully. He’d been writing nonstop for nearly the entire time, and with each page he filled he felt more and more sorry for Angela Martin.

He tried to hide it, but Angela saw it on his face. The good doctor might be an empath, but Angela knew how to read people’s faces. Every crinkle of the brow, tightening of the lips, and narrowing of the eyes showed her that she’d hit a topic he’d want to talk about more in length at some point.

<Take your pick.> She finally sat back in her seat, mentally exhausted. <The missed birthdays, the constant coldness, the training…the endless never-ending training. Then there’s the loneliness and basically having to fend for myself. I’m sure we’ll never run out of things to talk about.>

The doctor must have sensed something because he put down his pen. “How do you feel now?”

“I’m still tired…and angry…and sad.” Angela didn’t bother sugar-coating it anymore. “And I still don’t like being here.”

“Surprising…” Dr. Johnson rubbed his chin.

“Surprising?” Angela repeated. It was the last thing she expected him to say.

“On one level I understand why you feel that way. Your harsh upbringing, the constant bombardment of a ‘feelings equals weakness’ culture. You’ve been forced to hide your emotions your whole life; so I get why you wouldn’t want to share them. But on the other hand you’ve been practically alone most of your life. You’ve told me multiple times that your parents weren’t there for you; which is why your father’s death is hitting you so hard. You were just starting to become worthy in your own eyes. But these sessions are a place I want you to feel comfortable doing anything you want. They’re confidential, no one will ever know what happens in them. This is your chance to say what you want, what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling. This is a safe space, so let it rip.” He ended his little speech with a smile.

On one level, Angela always knew that was the case. But on another it was a weight off her shoulders to hear to doctor say it. “Thanks, but I think I’ve unloaded on you enough for one day.” She pointed at the notepad.

“This old thing.” He waved off her excuse. “The only thing I have more of than stress balls is yellow legal pads.” He proved the point by pulling a fresh one out of his drawer. “But I understand your point.”

They both stood, and Dr. Johnson extended his hand. “Thank you for coming in today, Angela. Same time next week?”

It was the last thing Angela wanted to be doing on a Saturday night, but she knew she couldn’t swing it during the week. Between the HCP and her over-full class load it just wasn’t feasible.

“Sure,” she replied. “Have a good night Dr. Johnson.”

She left his office, passed the healer on duty and exited into the main portion of the HCP. Truthfully, it was the last place she wanted to be; so she found the first lift and made her way back up to the surface. She emerged on the far side of campus, so she spent her time walking back to the townhouse thinking about everything the therapist had said.

She passed house party after house party. A few guys from a balcony cat called her, which was both empowering and disgusting at the same time.

After the fifth party the kernel of an idea started to form in her mind. It solidified after another block and another party. At the start of the second block she pulled out her phone and dialed one of her few contacts.

“Hello.” The line on the other end was noisy, like Becca was in a crowded space.

“Hey, it’s Angela.”

“Hiya, Angela. How’re you doin’.” The concern in the speedster’s voice was noticeable.

“I’m fine.” It was only a half lie. “I was thinking about going out tonight. Do you want to come?”

It was the first time Angela had ever instigated an outing, and Becca’s pause made the already difficult request even more awkward.

“Um…yeah sure. A bunch of us are actually at dinner downtown right now. I think we’re going to a club or something after we finish. You want to meet us there?”

“Yeah,” Angela’s enthusiasm clearly surprised Becca.

“Ok cool.”

Angela could practically see her friend’s uncertainty transforming into a beaming smile. “Text me the address.” She paused for a moment as another thought occurred to her. “Is it ok if I bring a friend?”

***

Daisy was on her way to the police station again. Last time she’d been singing to the radio and salivating over some burgers. That was before she learned Hunter had been killed along with dozens of civilians, and a good chunk of real-estate had been turned into rubble. This time her journey to the police HQ was different, she could feel it in her bones.

The first obvious change was that someone had come and picked her up. She wasn’t in one of the HCP vehicles. A DVA agent, a different one than the man who’d taken her to her inquiry results, had met her down in the HCP.

“If you could come with me please, Ma’am.” He didn’t give her more information than that, and if she hadn’t felt her Spidey-senses tingling she would have told him to shove it where the sun don’t shine.

She tried to make a call to Topher on the drive, but the DVA agent politely asked her to put the phone away. They’d also supplied her with a mask, which meant that whatever was going down was something she needed to hide her identity for. It was a standard face-obscuring gray mask, and when she put it on she found herself yearning for her old Reaper costume.

But beggars couldn’t be choosers, and if she was going to get in on anything Hero-related with her current suspended status then she was certainly a beggar.

The driver didn’t stop in the front or even pull around back. He drove the car into the underground parking garage and descended into the secure area that had the elevator straight to the Protectorate’s HQ. It was exactly how Daisy remembered it; except for all the extra vehicles. Instead of the traditional SUVs and a few unmarked cars the garage was now filled with vans, a couple with business logos on them, and half a dozen armored vehicles.

The armored vehicles stood out against the rest of the DVA motor vehicles. These were new; new enough that Daisy hadn’t ridden in one before. She’d seen the previous generations though; in fact, she’d ridden in one before.

The memory pulled at her consciousness and she let it take her.

It was fucking HOT, and the AC was busted; which made her and the four man ForceOps team miserable. She had a pretty steady stream of sweat running from her shoulder blades down to her ass crack. They’d been driving for an hour in the middle of nowhere.

“Freedom, this is Rhino One, crossing phase-line Irish now.” The driver, a burly man in black body armor related back to the FOB’s Ops Center.”

“Roger that, Rhino One. SIGINT and HUMINT confirm target is on site. I say again, intelligence confirms the target is on site. Happy hunting.”

“Good copy, Freedom. You’re buying when we get back. Rhino One, out.” The driver cut the communication and held up his hand. “Five minutes boys and girls.”

Daisy picked up the assault rifle that she’d been issued. She didn’t usually use guns, but today’s mission was supposed to be covert. No powers could be used that would trace back to the US government. If so, their mole would be captured, tortured for information, and then most likely beheaded. They were operating in a place they weren’t supposed to be, and in a country that was supposed to be friendly. So Daisy would use the old soviet era weapon.

“Here,” the ForceOps soldier next to her handed over a thirty round magazine that vaguely resembled a banana. “You remember how to use that thing?”

Daisy slapped the magazine in, chambered a round, but kept the weapon on safe. “I think I’ve got it covered.” She smiled back, her face obscured by her black balaclava.

“Good,” the soldier smiled back. He had a nice smile. “Because this weapon is idiot proof. You can drop in it the water, mud, or even this godforsaken sand and it’ll still fire.”

As if on cue loud pings started to ricochet off the exterior hull of the armored transport.

“Party time!” The driver floored it, while flipping a switch.

Heavy metal music started to blast in and outside the vehicle. Daisy cringed at the music. All she could make out was incoherent yelling and chaotic guitaring. That didn’t seem to bother the driver, because he was singing right along to it. The music almost drowned out the sound of the automatic heavy machine gun on the roof hammering the enemy position and softening them up for the ForceOps team.

The vehicle swerved back and forth randomly, and Daisy finally figured out why when an explosion rocked the vehicle with a near miss. “Don’t worry!” The driver was laughing like a deranged lunatic. “They’ve just got a few bottle rockets. Nothing ol’ Bessy can’t handle.

“And by bottle rockets he means RPGs!” The soldier next to Daisy had to yell what would have normally been a whispered remark.

Either way the driver didn’t hear. The vehicle’s roof-mounted machine gun continued to blast downrange in beat with the bass, and at one point Daisy could have sworn she saw the driver violently banging his head up and down.

“Here’s your stop!” The music suddenly cut out and the back ramp of the vehicle dropped. “Go!”

The vehicle rocked again as a RPG slammed into the ground less than ten meters away. Daisy felt the heat of the explosion through the back of the vehicle, but its walls still protected them from the shrapnel.

She let the four ForceOps guys go first, and then followed them into a blistering version of what hell must look like. She didn’t get more than a few seconds to look around but she saw contrails of more RPG rounds streaking their way along with the tracers of light machineguns. She picked out the enemy position less than fifty meters away, and noticed they had a lot more people than the small ForceOps team.

“Down!” She dove for cover behind a boulder just as an RPG smashed into the side of their ride.

Kinetic energy wasn’t a problem for her, but fire was. And an RPG explosion had a lot of fire in it.

The vehicle bucked violently, lifting up into the air and nearly rolling onto its side. It didn’t go high enough, so it fell back on its wheels with a loud crunch. Daisy was sure the guy inside had to be dead, but then the music started blaring again and the vehicle peeled out; spitting sand and rocks everywhere. As it drove away, leaving the team all alone, it strafed the enemy line with its machine gun. Daisy clearly saw a few people blown in half before the vehicle cleared the battlefield.

“Moving!”

“Got you covered!”

Two of the ForceOps guys stood up under the hail of gunfire and started to run forward while the other two, and Daisy, covered them. Daisy hit the selector switch, aimed, and fired the weapon. She fired a short burst. The first two rounds struck her intended target in the groin area and the chest while the third went high.

That was one reason she didn’t like these weapons. They weren’t as reliable or accurate as Daisy was with her power.

“Set!”

“Moving!”

“Got you covered!” Now it was Daisy’s team’s turn to run forward.

You weren’t supposed to run for more than three to five seconds. Any longer than that and the enemy would target and take you down. That was what the ForceOps guys did, but she didn’t have the same constraints. Bullets impacted her black armor and fell uselessly to the ground as she completed a fifty meter dash to the enemy lines.

They were using a small berm as cover, but that wasn’t going to save them from Reaper.

Daisy drifted back into the present, preferring not to remember how she tore through a platoon of terrorists, captured the HVT, and left nothing left alive.

“Ma’am?” The DVA agent was standing with the door open. “Follow me please.” The frown on his face told her that she’d probably been asked more than once.

“Lead the way.” she hopped out and followed him to the elevator, but he didn’t get on.

<Someone else will handle me once I get to the top.> she knew how this worked. The guy didn’t need to say anything.

She rode in silence and then emerged onto a crowded floor. The security from the garage elevator into the heart of DVA and Hero power in Orlando was still terrible. But there were a lot more guys with guns walking around than last time she’d been here. Including the man in tactical clothing and an MP5 slung across his chest on a friction strap.

“Ma’am, follow me.” He wasn’t as polite as the DVA driver, but Daisy didn’t really care. This guy was a shooter, not a babysitter.

He led her across the room, where she got more than a few confused glances, and into a conference room; or at least Daisy thought it was a conference room. It was too packed with people to see a table.

<I’m late.> A PowerPoint was up on the wall with the blueprints of a building, and a man with silver hair and the same tactical gear was gesturing at it.

“Team one will breech here, two here, and three here. Each team will be accompanied by a member of the Protectorate. I’ll leave it to each team member to figure out their own setup.” The man was undoubtedly the local SWAT commander because he made it sound like he’d done this thing a thousand times.

<Easy confidence.> Daisy had seen it a lot in her Hero days. Personally, she’d preferred cool intimidation; but that was the old her.

“When we finish here we’re going to our staging area. We’ve got a mockup of the building and we’re going to rehearse for the entry. After that we’re going to rehearse some more, and then when you’re all tired and bitchin’ to go home, were going to rehearse again. You will all be able to do this with your eyes closed.”

It was a good “get your ass in gear” speech, but judging by how she’d been pulled from her HCP office she guessed there was a time limit they were operating under. And since it was already late they couldn’t be stepping off more than a few hours from now.

“Thank you, Commander Jenkins.” A familiar voice took charge, and a familiar face stepped up to take the SWAT officer’s place. “Lastly, if everything goes to shit I’ve called in a specialist.” Debora Phillips pointed to the back of the room, and every eye turned to Daisy. “Codename Broke Arrow, she will step in if we feel the mission is failing.” A few people nodded, but Daisy could tell a lot of them who wondering who the hell she was.

“People, we’ve got a lot of work to do and not a lot of time. Get to it.”

The meeting broke up and people started to stream out of the room. Daisy stepped to the side to let them pass, but it wasn’t necessary. Like most of her life, new people were giving her a wide berth. Even though she’d been working on her interpersonal skills; a six foot three blonde bombshell with demon eyes and a clearly Hero physique tended to instinctually drive normal people away.

“Over here.” The room was cleared enough that Daisy saw Debora pointing at her, so the older Hero walked over to her. “Thanks for coming on such short notice.”

“I didn’t really think I had a choice.” Daisy responded, keeping her face neutral. “But if something interesting is going down then I’d prefer to be here than reading about it in the paper tomorrow.”

“Good,” Debora grinned. “So here’s the situation.”

Daisy hadn’t known that the Protectorate had captured one of the Fist’s high level lieutenants, and after a few weeks Mr. Morningstar had gotten his hooks in deep enough to get actionable intel.

“Here’s the target.” Debora pointed at a building in the middle of downtown Orlando. “It’s a legit club on paper.” She explained. “But our source has confirmed it’s a front for the Fist, and a frequent hangout. They run drugs, guns, and women through the place nightly. So even if it’s slow we should have enough charges to bring whoever we catch down for good.”

“Sounds air-tight, but everything does at first.” Daisy looked at the details and saw it was in fact a tactical nightmare with the biggest point being there would be hundreds of innocent civilians in the club tonight.

“I know, and that why I have you.” Debora pointed at Daisy. “If we determine shit is going sideways then I need you to step in and drop everyone.”

“Why don’t I just drop everyone to start and your guys can sweep in and pick up the pieces?” It was a much more rational plan.

“Two reasons,” Debora held up two fingers. “First, you’re not an active Hero. The liability issues are enough to rule that out from the DVA’s point of view. We can authorize your use in the event of an emergency, so we’re going with that. Second, I’ve gotten a few calls from some important ForceOps officers who have told me it’s better to not advertise your abilities and location. They didn’t explain anymore, classified and all that shit, but I can take a hint.”

<So politics and insurance are keeping them from making the logical tactical decision…typical.> If Daisy hadn’t been a Hero for a half-century this would have upset her, but she knew the business and was desensitized to all the bullshit.

“Don’t worry, I’m going to use you sooner rather than later. I’m not going to let a bunch of college students get mowed down because some ForceOps brass has a stick up their ass.”

<I now officially love the Phillips family.> Daisy couldn’t help but smile at cooler heads prevailing, but there was one question she still had.

“Why not use Seraphim?”

“Ahhh.” Debora pushed a few stray hairs out of her eyes. “She’s too emotionally close to the case. This Op could net us more details on the Fist, who we have confirmation are being hired by Wraith to do unknown taskings. If we get high enough up their chain of command then we might be able to flush Wraith out. We don’t want Seraphim in the mix quite yet. She’s already kicking over anthills all over town and upsetting everyone and their mother.”

“Understood,” Daisy could see where things could go even more wrong if Seraphim was involved. “She’s going to want to be involved in the final takedown though.”

“Typical Hero. You want the DVA to do all the legwork while you sweep in at the end and grab all the glory.” The statement would have been insulting if Debora hadn’t said it with a smile.”

“I’ll make you a deal,” Daisy smiled back. “I won’t suck face with your baby bro right in front of you.”

“Ugh,” Debora’s face contorted in disgust. “Deal.”

They shook on it.

“Good.” With that handled Daisy turned her attention back to the maps of Orlando. “So where do you want me?”

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Two Worlds – Chapter 36

Name: Eve Berg

Genetic Identification Code: L0303241477211

Physical Health: Good

Mental Health: [Authorized Personnel Only]

Education: High School Graduate

Occupation: Recruit, United Commonwealth of Colonies Armed Forces

Criminal History: N/A

Citizen Status: Confirmed

Location: Stewart-Benning Training Center, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Recruit Berg, front and center.” Eve had a bad feeling the second the chow hall corporal called the entire room to attention.

The soldiers that ran the facility didn’t call the room to attention every time an officer walked through the door. If they did, recruits would be on their feet throughout their entire meal. There was an unspoken rule in place. Spending even five minutes going through formalities in the middle of a day in basic training pushed everyone off schedule. Throwing whole companies off their training plan was going to lead to headaches that worked their way up the chain to people with multiple gold stripes on their CMUs. Basic training was a highly tuned machine that people shouldn’t fuck with.

All of this told Eve that whoever was doing this didn’t belong here.

“Fuck.” Her eyes scanned her squad quickly. Their reactions varied.

Coop was sitting across from her with a mix of surprise, suspicion, and what she thought was respect. <He would like me being in trouble.> She held back a smile.

Coop might not know it, but she had a pretty good read on him. He was the classic bad boy, at least in his own mind. He wanted the world to go blow itself, and he pretended he didn’t give a rat’s ass about it.

She knew that was a load of horseshit.

She’d seen the look in his eyes when he won that relay race for the squad. She saw the determination to get shit done right, even if he pissed people off in the process. Coop wasn’t a blind lemming that was going to walk over the edge of a cliff because someone with NCO chevrons or officer stripes told him to. That made him dangerous, but it also made him an asset. You just needed to know how to lead him.

<He’s not that bad looking either.>

The first time she saw him, Eve thought he was a scrawny weakling with his clothes wearing him rather than the other way around. Now, after a few weeks of military life, he was filling out his CMUs quite nicely.

The rest of the squad just looked confused. Harper had that look she had when a particularly juicy piece of gossip reached her ears, and Davenport looked like the self-indulged perv that he was. Everyone else was just trying to figure out what their squad leader could have done to get called out in front of an entire chow hall.

“Moving, Corporal!” Eve screamed back. If this was what she thought it was then she was going to act like a soldier.

Without a second glance she ran to the front of the room and stopped in front of the officer who was screwing everything up.

“Recruit Berg, reporting as ordered.” She saluted a few feet away from the stern-faced officer, a face that was so much like her own.

“As you were, Recruit.” The word came out like the officer had eaten a rotten lemon.

“Is there anything else we can do for you, Commander?” The chow hall corporal looked uneasy. This was throwing things off, he knew it, but there was nothing he could do about it.

“That will be all, Corporal.” The commander didn’t even look at the younger soldier. “Outside, Recruit Berg, I’d like to have a word with you.”

“Yes, Sir.” Eve snapped back to the position of attention and followed the commander out of the chow hall.

Loud conversations reached her ears before the door finished hissing shut; conversations that were undoubtedly about her.

The commander didn’t speak at first. He paced back and forth in front of her, his eyes darting in her direction every once and a while. The blue specks in those eyes made him looked crazy when coupled with the throbbing purple vein in his forehead.

He was pissed.

Eve just stood at the position of attention, eyes straight ahead.

“What the fuck are you doing here, Eve?” The officer finally spoke.

“Permission to speak freely, Sir?”

<If you want it you’ll get it.> Eve could practically feel her fingers losing circulation in her trembling fists.

“Yeah.” The commander stopped in front of her and put his hands on his hips like an angry parent.

“What the fuck are you doing here, Derrick?”

Eve’s older brother, Derrick Berg’s glare cut into her like a hot knife.

“What the fuck am I doing here? Are you seriously asking me that question?” His own fists were trembling now. “I’m here because a friend of mine in Personnel… you remember Jeremy…called me yesterday.” Derrick was pacing again. “He said there was an Eve Berg on the roster for Basic class 066-14 at Stewart-Benning Training Center. He didn’t think it could possibly be my baby sister Eve. Then he checked the GIC.”

<Damnit.> Eve cursed. She thought she’d covered her tracks fairly well. She’d accounted for as many contingencies as she could, but a random officer in Personnel looking out for her brother wasn’t something she could plan around.

“Yeah, so?” Her response was anticlimactic, and that made her brother even angrier.

“So?…So!” He wasn’t able to keep his anger in check. “You were supposed to go to Sandhurst or West Point. God dammit, Eve, even RMCC would have been fine.” He seethed. Eve could practically see steam coming out of his ears.

“No, I’m not supposed to do anything. That was your plan for me; your’s and Mom’s.” She shot back.

“We only want what is best for you!” The conversation had long ago lost any sense of civility. It was just a screaming match now.

“No! You just want me to do what you want. I don’t want to go to Sandhurst, West Point, or RMCC. I want to be here.” Eve stomped her foot for emphasis.

“Here.” Derrick laughed in her face. “At basic training with the Rats and suburban rejects. You want to be here with those who couldn’t make it as an officer. You want to be a lowly spacer, crawling around in the bowels of ships fixing loose gaskets for the first four years of your career.”

“Hell no. ” Eve gave him a malevolent smile. “I plan to keep my feet on the ground.”

It took a second for that to sink in, but when it did Derrick Berg took a step back; like she’d slapped him. “You can’t be serious.”

“As serious as a case of hemorrhoids, big bro.”

“You’re insane.” He started pacing back and forth. “That’s the only way to explain it. I’m going to get the base doctor to give you psych eval. Then we can get you out of here.”

“Why is it insane?” Eve was surprised how level her voice was when she asked the question. “I want to learn how to fight like every other soldier in the world. I want to challenge myself. I need to know what the men and women underneath me do so if I choose to be an officer one day I’ll understand my soldiers better. That’s not insanity, that’s being practical.”

“You want to be a grunt, a ground pounder, cannon fodder? No one sane joins the infantry.” Derrick wheeled on her.

“Dad was infantry.” The comeback was quiet, barely above a whisper; but it unleashed a firestorm.

“DAD’S DEAD because he was in the infantry!” The vein in Derrick’s head looked like it was about to burst.

“Dad’s dead because the Blockies decided they wanted something that wasn’t theirs. Dad’s dead because he sacrificed himself to save millions of civilian lives. Dad died a hero.” Eve matched her brother’s anger with righteous fury.

“Dad died in a trench with half his head blown off. A Cross of Honor doesn’t change that. “Derrick’s eyes blazed. “Look what it did to mom. Look what it did to me, and now look what it’s doing to you.”

It was Eve’s turn to laugh.

“Oh yeah, the great Admiral Sonya Berg. How is good old mom doing? Last time I saw her she was hip deep in antidepressants.” Eve shot back.

“Don’t fucking talk about her like that.” Derrick took a threatening step forward; threatening enough that Eve dropped into a combat stance. “You know what she’s seen; you know what she’s lost.” He paused. “Hearing you did this is going to kill her.”

“Don’t put that on me.” Eve relaxed her stance, but her eyes stabbed into him. “She made her decisions, you made yours and I’m making mine.”

Derrick took a deep breath and let it out. Then he changed tactics.

“Why the infantry?” The anger was still present, but it was restrained now.

“I want control of my life?” Eve barely got the statement out before Derrick was laughing at her.

“You want control.” He was bent over, slapping his knee. “You’re in the wrong profession little sister. You have no control in this line of work.”

“Not that type of control, jackass. I want control when shit goes down. I want to hold a rifle in my hand, rely on my training, and make my own way through a fight. I don’t want to sit in a tin can and pray that a stray missile doesn’t get past the ship’s defenses. I’d rather get my head blown off then die suffocating out in the void. I’ll live and die on my own terms.”

“You could still end up on a ship somewhere,” Derrick countered. “You might end up a Marine on damage control duty, no rifle in your hand, and no say in how the battle plays out. You’ll be even more helpless, and you’ll still be crawling around fixing shit.”

“That’s a risk I’m willing to take.” It was actually Eve’s biggest fear, but she wasn’t going to let her brother know that.

Eve felt drained, and when Derrick failed to respond, she expected he was too. He even leaned on the side of the chow hall.

“You’re incorrigible you know that right?” His voice was back to normal now.

“I’ve been called worse,” she replied, keeping her own voice neutral.

They sat in an awkward silence for a few moments before he replied. “You know mom isn’t going to let this go.”

It was a warning.

“I’ll handle mom.” Eve sounded more confident than she felt.

“Good luck with that.” Derrick took a deep breath, before slowly approaching her.

She let him, and they shared a brief hug. “Don’t let it be two years before I see you again.”

Despite the screaming match, which she was sure half the base heard, Eve still loved her brother. <He’s just an overprotective, overbearing, asshat sometimes.>

“I wish I could, but a Battlecruiser doesn’t run itself.” He gave her a brief smile.

They both heard the soft whine of the air-car before they saw it loop around the side of the chow hall and come to a hover beside them.

“Skipper.” A Petty Officer with a few more stripes than PO3 Janney rolled down the window and nodded to Derrick. “Recruit.” Eve was on the receiving end of a much less friendly expression.

“I’ve got to get back into orbit, but I’ll try to make it back for your graduation.”

“Thanks.” She meant it. “Please don’t tell mom.” It was a desperate plea, and she wasn’t sure it would work after their vocal conversation.

“I won’t, but I’d bet my ship she already knows.”

<Great.> They shared another brief hug before Derrick hopped into the back of the air-car and flew off.

With her brother gone that left Eve alone outside the chow hall, something a recruit was never supposed to be. They were always supposed to have a battle buddy; another soldier who went and did everything with them. Usually that was Coop.

Eve didn’t wait for some NCO to find her, she sprinted for the assembly area. When she arrived the company was already gone, but PO3 Janney was standing there like an angry god ready to rain down fire on unworthy mortals.

“Do ya pull-ups, Recruit!” He hollered when she passed the bars. “Ya don’t get special treatment ‘cause ya got ta talk ta an officer. Ya little chat fucked everthin’ up. Ya late for the course now.”

Pull-ups didn’t bother Eve, but this mysterious course did. If her squad was going to go through an evaluation then she needed to be leading it. <If I don’t make it there then Coop’s in charge.>

She finished her pull-ups and sprinted after the PO3. She needed to get back to her squad, and fast.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 35

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Stewart-Benning Training Center, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies 

The moment Coop felt the barracks begin to shift in an upward motion was a turning point.

It turned out that light duty wasn’t anything different than normal duty while they were all stuck in an underground barracks for isolation week. The only difference that Coop experienced was a large yellow sash across his CMUs that told everyone who looked at him that he wasn’t one hundred percent good to go. He still had to crawl into small access hatches to fix things, and jump with everyone else when an alarm blared at the start of a hull-breach drill.

SSG Cunningham and PO3 Janney seemed to think the best time to do them was at 0200 hours, when they were all dead asleep. A few of those drills in a row, and everyone learned to be a light sleeper.

The end of isolation week was a turning point for Coop because it showed that this wasn’t a shit-ton of sadistic madness brought on by two hell spawn in human meat-suits. It showed Coop there was a method to the madness. If there was a method then that meant there was a system. If there was a system then that meant there was a way to rig it. Coop just had to figure it all out.

The subtle shift in the barracks happened at 0400, and it was by sheer luck that Coop heard it. He wasn’t the only one.

“Second squad, get up.” Eve hopped off the top bunk, landed softly on her feet, and began to shake everyone awake. “On your feet, let’s go. Get dressed and line up. We’re about to have company.”

Eve kept her voice at a whisper in order to not alert the other sleeping squads. Coop had learned early on that Eve always seemed to know when something was going to happen, and she always wanted her squad to be prepared. But there was a difference between her squad and everyone else. She didn’t give two shits about the other squads, even if the whole company got punished for something. She made sure the instructors always saw second squad ready to go.

Coop slipped into his CMUs, barely noticing the tingling sensation of the fabric spreading across his body. The yellow sash was gone now. It automatically vanished twenty-four hours after he left the hospital.

“Davenport, move your fat ass.” Eve’s hiss was closely followed by the thump of her fist hitting a woobie.

“God damnit you stupid bitch.” The squad’s laziest recruit growled, swinging his arms wildly to fend her off.

“Davenport, get your ass out of bed or…” Eve never got a chance to finish.

The barracks lurched to a halt that jerked everyone and everything inside of it. If anyone didn’t wake up from that, then they sure as hell did when the lights flashed on, and the SSG and PO3 kicked down the door and started screaming.

“Everyone up!  Line Up! Move people! Ten…nine…eight…”

Now Davenport was moving, falling, and stumbling to get his CMUs on while the rest of second squad stood ready and alert. Every time he looked up, a member of the squad made sure to stare him down.

“…seven…six…five…”

Even with Davenport sucking ass, second squad was light-years ahead of the rest of the squads on their floor. Half of the other recruits had jumped for their lockers and grabbed their helmets thinking this was another drill instead of a rude wake-up call and the beginning of their next phase of training. They were now scrambling to get ready and line up.

“…four…three…two…”

Davenport jumped into line. Eve gave the squad a one-second once over before falling in next to Coop. She was smiling, and it was infectious. There was something about winning that set off a primal satisfaction in Coop, and Eve consistently made sure that second squad won.

“Zero…FREEZE!”

Everyone froze as still as a statue as SSG Cunningham walked down the center isle of the barracks. It was the first time they’d seen her in a week, and if it was possible, she looked even more intimidating than she had on day one.

“Dead…dead…dead…dead…” She pointed at recruits who weren’t lined up in front of their bunks.

She paused in front of second squad for a half-second longer, and Coop could have sworn a smile was tugging at her lips. “Dead,” she pointed at Davenport and then kept walking.

“Congratulations, Recruits” She returned to the head of the room and placed her hands behind her back. “You have completed isolation week while only losing six recruits. That is a personal best for a training company under my command. However,” she hastily added before any recruits could revel in their accomplishment, “the speed at which you assembled makes my paraplegic grandmother look like an Olympic sprinter. Since you have all utterly failed to get your sleepy little asses out of bed in the morning, we will now proceed to wake you all up with extreme prejudice.” The NCO’s smile was predatory. “If I proclaimed you dead as I inspected your squads, then you will immediately lie down on the floor.”

Coop watched as a good chunk of the five downstairs squads lay down on the ground. Davenport was among them, and he gave a satisfied yawn while placing his hands behind his head. If Coop had been close enough he would have kicked the asshole in the face.

“On the command of fallout, you will grab you fallen comrades and proceed outside. If I have proclaimed you dead, then you are dead. Do not help your squad mates with your lifeless corpse; they are paying for your mistake. Fallout!”

“Coop, Mike, grab Davenport and do a two man carry,” Eve ordered as she ushered the rest of the squad out the door.

Normally, Coop would have argued, but he’d come to realize that Eve always had a plan. He also kept his mouth shut because it was her foresight that left their squad with only one “dead” person to deal with. Coop saw a few squads where fifty percent of them were dead, and every remaining member was fireman carrying people out the door.

If Coop constantly second guessed Eve there was little to no chance he’d be able to coax her out of her panties and into his bed. So there was that to consider.

So Coop didn’t argue. He grabbed Davenport’s feet, while Mike grabbed him under the armpits.

“Sorry boys, I didn’t take my morning shit so I’ve got a few extra kilos in me.” Davenport laughed.

Coop followed Eve, but it would be a cold day in hell before he took shit from Davenport. Unluckily, Mike beat him to the punch. As they reached the stairs leading out of the barracks, Mike’s grip “slipped” and Davenport dropped to the ground where his head bounced off each of the stairs as Coop continued to run forward.

“Fuck,” Davenport groaned, as Coop dragged him another few meters before stopping.

“Oh, sorry about that, buddy.” Mike roughly grabbed Davenport by the shoulders and hoisted him up again. “I guess it was those few extra kilos.”

Coop tried to hide his grin, and failed. It was hard to not laugh at the cross-eyed expression on their probably-concussed squad member’s face.

“Stop fartin’ around and fall in,” PO3 Janney snapped. “Y’all won’t be grinnin’ in a minute.” The PO3’s grin soured Coop’s mood.

The following ten kilometer run soured it for the rest of the company.

That was how the next week of basic training went. They’d wake up early and do PT, then they’d get chow, and then they’d have a class. Coop expected the class topic would involve something to do with being a soldier; fighting, killing the enemy, how to shoot, anything along those lines. Instead they learned about the history of the Commonwealth Armed Forces.

By the end of the first class Coop had to memorize the original individual member countries of the Commonwealth, and their contributions to the defense of the newly formed super-nation. He learned about how the Americans and the British dominated the early age of the Commonwealth, especially among the military elite, and how it took the near destruction of England during the Last  Terran War to more fully integrate the Mexican and Canadian command structures.

He learned about pivotal battles, important figures, and why they were so great. Then, when Coop could barely keep his eyes open, SSG Cunningham conducted a check on learning; which was nothing more than a test. Coop hated tests. So he did his best, and that was good enough to pass.

Three people didn’t. Those recruits were asked to get up, leave the room, and report to the next company in the training cycle. They’d have to do isolation week all over again.

Coop made sure he stayed awake from then on, even if he had to slap himself in the face.

The afternoon was the same; more PT after the first class, chow, another class with another test, more PT, and then the third chow of the day. Their schedule after that said “personal time” until reveille the next morning, but the SSG and PO3 always had some task or detail to do. So the “personal time” was condensed to five hours. In that time you had to find time to shave, shower, maintain your gear, and if you were lucky, sleep.

Classes changed from day to day; land navigation using an old-fashioned map, basic leadership skills, tying knots with ropes, and learning basic survival skills. Coop found the ability to start a fire with sticks and friction interesting, but he learned nothing that would help him stay alive if a Blockie or Corpie decided they wanted to kill him.

As the SSG and PO3 continued to shove more and more useless information into his brain, Coop found more and more solace in their three or four daily two-hour PT sessions. The four-count push-up, pull-ups, overhead arm claps, flutter kicks, running, running, and more running became as natural to him as breathing. Soon the pull-ups before and after chow became easy.

“Stop showboating, Coop,” Eve smacked him across the ass when he knocked out five more pull-ups one day. “We need every second we can to eat.”

For some reason Eve usually ended up behind him in line for pull-ups, and if she wasn’t, then it was because he was behind her. He did it because he liked the view. He hoped she did it for the same reason.

The pull-ups weren’t the only thing. Push-ups were simpler. His muscles fell into a rhythm and he was able to pump out forty-fifty-sixty at a time before he started to get tired. He seemed to be getting stronger with each passing day. Which helped when they moved on to new exercises.

“The next exercise is the burpee.”

“The burpee!” The company yelled, even though less than half of them understood what the hell they were about to do.

“Demonstrator!” The SSG yelled. PO3 Janney took a position in front of the class.

They were all dripping sweat and breathing hard, while the instructor just looked bored.

“You begin in the upright position. On the one-count you drop into the front leaning rest position.”

Coop watched as the PO3 kicked his feet back and effortlessly transitioned into the beginning of a push-up.

“Two-count you go down, three-count you come up, and last-count you finish by bringing your feet forward and jumping as high as you can into the air. Demonstrator.”

PO3 Janney ran through the motions as the SSG called out the counts. “One…two…three…One. One…two…three…Two.

Coop thought they were easy enough, and he only had to do one push-up instead of two; so that wasn’t so bad.

Then he started to do them.

<Why?> Coop thought as he struggled to breathe. Fifty burpees later and he was dead.

Things got better though. Just like with the other exercises a day of doing hundreds of burpees engrained the motions into his muscle memory. Soon he was knocking out fifty of them without feeling the aches and pains he usually was.

During that second week Coop’s body changed. He’d always been lean and wiry, but a week of physical training had put an additional five kilos on his bones, and those kilos were all muscle. The little excess body fat he possessed had been absorbed to keep up with their rigorous training program.

At chow the squad sat relatively silent as they shoveled food into their mouth. When time was almost up they stuffed bread or cookies into their pockets to eat later. They’d all learned that not having anything to eat between PT sessions would lead to a world of hurt later.

“No shit.” Eve stated between scoops of food, when Coop brought up his bodily changes at the chow table on Friday.

Or at least Coop thought it was Friday. There were no weekend breaks during the training. Everything seemed to blur together into a single, solid mass of physical and mental exhaustion.

“You see all this.” She held up a spoonful of what passed for mashed potatoes. “This isn’t just food. There are enough metabolic enhancers and nanites in our meals to build a starship.”

“Ugh.” Harper dropped her spoon dramatically, allowing it to clatter onto the floor, and earned the table a glare from one of the corporals that patrolled the chow hall.

“They’re the reason we aren’t a weak, sore, useless wreck right now.” Eve took a bite to prove her point. “This is conditioning week. They’re job is to PT us into the ground, tear up our muscles, and regrow them at each meal. That’s why we’re all losing fat, putting on muscles, and look like we could be on the cover of some fitness magazine.” She addressed Coop. “We’ve got another few days of this and then we’ll really start training.”

“No more military history and land navigation?” Coop hoped.

“Oh we’ll still do land nav.” Eve shook her head. “But we’ll do it out there. We’ll plot points and then have to find them instead of just sitting in a classroom.” She looked ready to get off her ass and get out there and do it.

“Why the hell are we doing this crap?” Davenport spoke up in a rare moment of socialization where he didn’t talk about himself. “It’s pointless.”

Privately, Coop thought Davenport had a point; but no had a chance to rip into Davenport.

“Room,” a voice boomed all around them. “Atten-hut!”

Coop didn’t know what was going on, but after two weeks of basic he knew what being called to attention was.

Chairs fell over as hundreds of recruits jumped to their feet, glued their arms to their sides, puffed out their chests, kept their chins up, and looked straight ahead. For Coop, that meant he had a great view of the door where a big, hulking man with the two golden stripes of a Commander was talking to one of the corporals.

“Recruit Berg!” The corporal yelled. “Front and center.”

Coop couldn’t retain his military bearing. He turned his head to look at Eve.

“Fuck.” She muttered under her breath. Her eyes darting left and right like she was looking for an escape. “Moving, Corporal!” She screamed back half a second later before running toward the stern-faced commander.

<What the hell?>

Eve stopped in front of the officer, a few words were exchanged, and then they both headed outside.

“Looks like your intrepid squad leader is in trouble.” Davenport smirked.

“Shut the fuck up,” Mike glared.

“Yeah,” Coop added lamely. “Finish eating, we’ve only got two more minutes left.”

The officer’s arrival cut into their chow time, but SSG Cunningham wouldn’t care. Coop quickly shoveled the rest of his pseudo-food into his mouth, grabbed his tray, and headed to the auto-cleaner. He dropped his tray in and made sure that the rest of second squad left before him. Eve’s sudden departure left him in a bit of a situation.

To make things easier, Eve had assigned two team leaders in their squad’s informal chain of command. They helped her with things and kept track of everyone, just like the recruit squad leaders did for the instructors. Coop was the first team leader in charge of Nate, Emma, and Olivia. Mike was the second team leader in charge of John, Harper, and Davenport.

Why Eve had made him a team leader, Coop would never know. But with Eve gone that meant he was in charge.

Being in charge of seven other people was not what Coop signed up for.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 75

Sophia gently dragged her fingertips along the metallic walls of the West Private University HCP, savoring the coolness that danced up her fingers and into her palm. She sighed as the wall ended and her hand fell back to her side.

She didn’t get to have enough of these moments as the Hero Seraphim. She always had a million and one things to do, and savoring the moment was not one of those things. There were always bad guys to catch, paperwork to fill out, training to do, and a family to foster. Ever since Angela had come into her powers Sophia had found her the best teachers, the best supplies, and taken her own valuable time to study her daughter and map out her path to becoming a Hero.

Henry had played a large part in all of that.

A stab of pain lanced into her heart at the thought of her husband, partner, and best friend. <We should be walking this hallway together.>

The best things in Sophia’s life hadn’t happened out on the streets fighting supervillains, they happened in the hallways of this institution. She spent four years with some of the best friends and people she’d ever met, she met Henry here, she’d become a Hero here. Sophia’s daughter didn’t know but she’d been conceived on an alumni visit here.

<Not too far from here actually.> Sophia smiled but it was fleeting.

It was just another fond memory of this place that would be forever tainted. Because despite all the good that had happened here the most terrible thing imaginable had also happened.

Sophia passed the entrance to the library and another stab of pain radiated outward from her heart. She’d have to go in there eventually, but not yet. She wasn’t ready yet. And the Dean was waiting for her.

This wasn’t the first time Sophia had been called to the Dean’s office. She wasn’t always perfect. She’d gotten into trouble before, ironically with Henry in one of the broom closets. Of course, that trip had ended with an awkward talk on safe sex and the Dean giving Henry a handful of condoms and telling them, “Not in the HCP.”

<That’s what you get when you spend most of your Hero career in the sixties.> Sophia had liked the former Dean a lot more than the current one.

She couldn’t fault the DVA’s choice. Iron Giant was a legend. He had every right to be the Dean of an HCP. Sophia just didn’t think the man had what it took. Iron Giant had always been soft in her opinion, despite his name. She’d always found him too by the books, lacking improvisation, and he’d ended up fighting to a draw in his biggest career fight.

<And New York City paid for it.> Sophia wouldn’t bring that up though.

Seraphim might be strong, but she wasn’t in Iron Giants weight class.

The Dean’s office was exactly where she remembered it. Not much had changed in the twenty plus years since her graduation. Even the instructor offices looked pretty much the same. She caught the eye of a sad looking woman who was talking with a man wildly gesturing his arms.

When the other woman noticed Sophia a barrier sprung up in the doorway cutting off the man’s ranting. <Robin Kirk, Force Field.> She remembered. <Usually I left the names and faces to Henry. He was so good at that.>

Sophia had to stop at the Dean’s door for a moment to collect herself. But only for a moment.

“Come in.” A voice called out after a few brisk knocks.

She opened the door and walked in with her chin held high. She wasn’t some bereaved lover who needed to be pitied. She was the Hero Seraphim. She wasn’t weak, and she made sure everyone knew that.

“Sophia, thank you for coming on such short notice.” Dean Ditmar stood as she entered. “Please have a seat.”

<I forgot how tiny he was.> Sophia looked down on the Dean before nodding.

But he wasn’t alone.

A tall woman sat on the edge of his desk, her arms folded, and her red eyes clearly not attempting to hide her dislike.

“Reaper.” She shot the famous Hero a greeting.

“Seraphim.” Her greeting was equally as chilly.

In Sophia’s opinion, Reaper was the opposite of Iron Giant; so it amazed her that the two had been on a team before. Where Iron Giant was too soft, Reaper was too hard. She was too careless, and took risks that put other people in danger; and that didn’t even get into the substance abuse problems. Sophia knew people called her a bitch behind her back, but in her opinion Reaper was the queen bitch.

Even right now the instructor was sitting there with resting bitch face, her eyes hard and fixed on Sophia.

The Dean seemed to notice the frosty atmosphere between the two women and quickly took over the conversation.

“I would first like to offer my heartfelt condolences. Your husband was a fine man. We got to know him a little while he was in town, and the students in our program are better for it.”

The comment was meant to be caring, but it only made Sophia angrier. It was a reminder that instead of spending his last days with her Henry had spent them talking to a bunch of kids. The majority of which would never make it as a Hero.

“Thank you.” She couldn’t take all of the sting out of her reply, but she knew they’d just assume the rest of it was Seraphim being a bitch.

“If you don’t mind getting to the point of this meeting, Dean Ditmar. I am very busy finding my husband’s murderer.” She deadpanned.

The remark flustered the Dean, and even Reaper looked a little put off. “Of course,” he cleared his throat. “We called you here because of Angela.”

Despite how hard she tried to stop it Sophia couldn’t hide the sudden flash of fear from crossing her face. “Is she ok? Did something happen?”

“Angela is fine.” The Dean put his hands out in a calming gesture, which only succeeded in bringing on a new wave of anger. “We’re here to discuss her actions.”

“Actions?”

“Angela had a ranking match this morning with the number one ranked freshman, Jason Cook.” Reaper stepped in and took over the conversation.

“I’m aware of the student rankings and my daughter’s competition,” she shot back, trying to cut to the point of this meeting quicker.

“There was an incident.” The Dean tried to put it delicately.

“Angela nearly killed him.” Reaper bluntly laid it all out on the table.

“Nearly…” Sophia waited to hear more, but no one said anything.

“Has the HCP really gotten that soft that they have to bring in parents every time something bad happens.” Sophia chuckled and waved her hand dismissively. “You both know that we live in an unsafe world, and as Heroes we put ourselves between that danger and the weaker humans.”

Her response got an eye roll from Reaper and a stern glare from the Dean.

“This isn’t the real world yet, Sophia. We are still in training, Freshman year training on top of that. Every student knows the rules and they know lethal force isn’t authorized.”

“And it appears lethal force was not used,” Sophia replied.

“Because I stepped in,” Reaper interjected. “If I didn’t she might have killed that boy and ended up being prosecuted.”

“Jason Cook is a good kid, a strong advanced mind, and has the potential to be a great Hero. Angela put that and her own future on the line when she stepped into that combat cell this morning.” The Dean was inferring something, but Sophia didn’t want to hear it.

So of course Reaper stepped in.

“Your daughter is not taking the loss of her father well.”

“Of course she isn’t,” Sophia snapped back, her eyes blazing with rage. “What teenager wants to lose her father like that, right in front of their eyes. What are you a moron?”

“Ladies, settle down please.”

Sophia didn’t even notice she was on her feet squaring off against the taller woman.

“We are here to discuss Angela’s future.” The Dean gestured for them to sit back down.

Sophia waited for Reaper to move before she did. Which got her another eye roll from the legendary woman.

“The problem we are facing is that Angela is suffering from the loss of her father, and we aren’t sure if the continued rigors of the HCP are mentally healthy for her. That’s what we’ve brought you in to discuss.” The Dean said it all calmly and seriously, but all Sophia heard was that her daughter might get held back.

All she heard was that her daughter might get robbed of her chance to become a Hero.

“This sounds like a conversation you should be having with Angela.” Sophia jumped back to her feet.

“We are going to talk with her about it, but we’d also like to discuss it with you, her mother.” The Dean’s tone was pleading as he gestured for her to sit back down.

<I’ve had enough of this.> Sophia did not take a seat.

“Angela is an adult, a grown woman,” the hint of a snarl crept into her voice. “She might have been a little overzealous and emotional from a recent tragedy, but she will overcome. She is a Martin; she was born to be a Hero. She’s been training for this since before your other students even knew what HCP stood for.” Sophia’s voice was just short of a yell now.

“Angela will make her own decisions about continuing in the program. She has my full faith and confidence that she will continue to excel. I take it from your earlier information that she won her match and is now your number one ranked freshman; so think carefully before you start considering she take a ‘leave of absence’.” The last three words came out with a bitter expression. Like she’d just bitten into a sour lemon.

The two HCP faculty sat their silently for a moment before the Dean nodded.

“Very well,” he turned to Reaper with an unreadable expression.

“Since your daughter did not use lethal force she cannot be expelled, but her brutality has drawn the attention of the staff. She is being ordered to see the school psychologist for the rest of the semester while also being placed on probation. If another incident like this occurs, then she will be expelled. Am I clear Mrs. Martin?”

The Mrs. Stung, but Sophia didn’t let anyone see it. “Crystal clear, Dean Ditmar. If that is all I have work to do.”

“That is all. Thank you for coming in on such short notice.” Judging by the Dean’s tone there wasn’t a lot of thanks going around at the moment.

“You’re welcome,” Sophia exchanged her own shallow pleasantry before heading for the door.

“Dean Ditmar,” she stopped with her hand on the doorknob. “As part of my investigation I am going to need to get into your HCP server room in the library. A review of my late husband’s research indicates that he spent some time there before the school’s winter break. You’ll find the proper DVA authorization paperwork in your inbox. If you could please get an administrator over there I’d like to begin immediately. Thank you.” Sophia didn’t turn to see their reaction, but she could practically feel the residual heat of Reaper’s anger.

<Tough.> Sophia thought as she shut the door behind her.

She didn’t care if the HCP staff, especially Reaper was inconvenienced by her investigation. They were her to train the next generation of Heroes. She was fine with that. But she was here to find the son of a bitch who killed her husband. She wasn’t her for justice, she was here for revenge plain and simple. She’d find who did this, deal with them personally, and then she’d likely leave Orlando forever and never return. This had once been a safe place for her, but it wasn’t anymore.

Before she knew it she found herself standing in front of the library doors again. Slowly she approached them and pulled. They opened on well-oiled hinges, not squeaking in the slightest.

The library was just as she remembered. The central row with other rows branching off on either side. The fascinating show pieces in nooks and crannies here and there. There was some new stuff since the last time she’d visited, and some old stuff had been moved to storage, but she didn’t pay attention to most of it.

She moved slowly toward the aisle, their aisle. She walked down it to the place where Henry had first kissed her so long ago, and where years later they’d made Angela. She reached under the wooden shelf, and totally lost her composure when she felt the carving in the wood.

She could tell the latest iteration had been done recently, not long before his death.

Slowly, Sophia slid to the ground, pulled her knees up to her chest and cried. Alone in the library where they’d kissed and made love, Sophia Martin said goodbye to Henry Martin.

There would still be a funeral later for friends and family, but it was a small closed casket affair. When you died in an explosion there wasn’t much left of you to bury. All the forensic teams found was a gallon of blood, shreds of his costume, and some bone fragments. Not even enough to be cremated.

Sophia let the tears flow freely. She let the sadness and anger overwhelm her. She pounded her fists repeatedly on the cold floor, and cursed everything from God to the man she loved for being so stupid.

Once her tear ducts were dry and got back to her feet, which perfectly coincided with the sound of footsteps approaching. She turned and pretended to check out some books. Her makeup was running and she looked like she’d been crying. She looked weak now, and she didn’t want anyone to see her like this.

“Mrs. Martin?” A soft voice asked.

“It’s Ms. Martin.” Sophia was glad her voice was strong and assertive again.

“Ms. Martin,” The voice corrected with confusion. “Ok…I’ve been assigned to set you up with an account on our server.

“Thank you, I’ll be with you in a moment.”

Sophia waited for the sounds of the footsteps to lessen with distance before she ran her hand under the carved wood one last time. “Goodbye, Henry.”

She gave the wood one last look, turned on her heel, and followed the footsteps toward the back of the room.

She had work to do.

 

***

 

“So what are we doing tonight?”

It was Saturday night and the women of townhouse 117 were sitting around the living room. Anika sat on one side of the couch while Becca lay across it with her head in the other woman’s lap. Kyoshi was on the floor, her back against the same couch Becca and Anika occupied, and Liz was seated on the other chair. She had her legs tucked under her butt, and was the one who had posed the question to the other women.

The only reply was the sound of crickets.

“Come on ladies,” Liz threw her hands in the air in exasperation. “We’re all strong, powerful, capable women. We’re not single but we can still mingle. We gotta show that we can have a night of fun together without the men around.”

“We aren’t having a pillow fight in lingerie.” Anika put her foot down.

“Of course we aren’t,” Liz waved the complaint aside. “That only happens in B movies and cheap pornos.”

“And with us someone would likely get hurt.” Kyoshi added.

The advanced mind had a point. Four Supers, one of which had super strength, and another super speed, intent on beating each other up with pillows was going to get bloody fast.

“What makes you think I was going to suggest a lingerie pillow fight?” Liz sighed, slightly less exasperated than before.

“Because we know you, Liz,” Kyoshi stated bluntly, but with a warm smile that dulled the blow.

“Fine,” Liz huffed. “No skimpy outfits. “How about we just all go out to dinner, my treat.”

That caught the other women by surprise.

Kyoshi, Becca, and Anika were typical college students aside from their super powers; and college students didn’t tend to have a lot of money. Sure they had enough to go out on the town every once and a while, but to take three other people to dinner was usually out of their budgets. Even Kyoshi, who was the most well off of the group, didn’t have that kind of cash lying around. The tall advanced mind didn’t have to worry about student loans, but that didn’t mean her parents were just forking over hundreds of dollars a month.

“Are you sure?” Anika looked more suspicious than worried about Liz’s financial status.

Anika had been working hard on her telepathy since getting back from Winter Break and it irritated her that she wasn’t able to get more than the occasional stray thought from Liz.

“Yeah sure,” Liz was already up and moving. “Get dressed up for a night on the town ladies. Let’s try to class it up a bit. I’ve got first dibs on shower.”

That led to a lot of groaning in protest, but eventually they all came to the same conclusion. A night out, away from all the recent madness, would be good for all of them.

A night out means something different in college than when you are a kid or an adult. When you’re a kid “night” begins when the sun goes down and usually only lasts a couple of hours until bedtime. When you’re an adult, especially if you have kids, night consists of the time period where night time activities take place. When you’re in college night time is controlled by the hours of the bars, and can last until well after midnight.

So when Liz and the rest of the Townhouse 117 women didn’t get out the door until nine o’clock it was just the beginning of a college night out.

Some had tried harder than others. Becca and Anika were both in jean, t-shirt, sweater combos. They’d gone for comfort. Kyoshi was aiming for the same thing but threw on a blouse and a nice jacket at the last second when she’d noticed what Liz was wearing. Liz had gone for a tight black mini-skirt and a matching black blouse with a deep V-neck that showed a good amount of cleavage. One wrong move and she’d probably fall right out of the shirt.

Kyoshi half expected Liz to pull out six inch stilettoes to go with the outfit, but breathed a sigh of relief when she came down the stairs in shiny, reflective black flats.

“What’s with all the black?” Becca, who tended to dress in a lot of color asked.

“We’re in mourning aren’t we,” Liz shrugged. “But that doesn’t mean I can’t look hot.”

On top of offering to pay for dinner Liz also drove. They all piled into Liz’s car, a black Jeep, and peeled out on their way to downtown.

No one knew where they were going but Liz.

“Here we are.” Liz skidded to a stop at a valet stand outside a nice restaurant.

“Thank god,” Kyoshi practically jumped out of the passenger seat. “How the hell did you pass your driving test?”

They could still smell burned rubber in the air.

“You wear the right outfit,” Liz replied with an impish grin while she handed over a ten to the valet.

The restaurant was just as nice as the one Mason had taken Kyoshi to on their first date, so everyone but Liz felt immediately underdressed. Liz didn’t seem to notice their discomfort.

“I want the table in the back corner over there,” Liz pointed with on hand while slipping the host a twenty.

The man discretely took the bill with a cough and led them to the table Liz had bribed out of him.

“What’s with all the demands?” Anika asked. Her suspicions had grown when she’d seen the restaurant.

There was no way this was normal.

“I just wanted to be in the right place at the right time.” Liz replied, distracted, as she looked behind Anika.

“What are you…oh,” Kyoshi followed Liz’s eyes to a table on the far side of the restaurant. “I get it now.”

At a couple’s table, paying little attention to each other were Seth and Emilia Scarborough.

“What?” Becca turned around to look where Kyoshi was.

“Shhh, don’t give us away.” Liz grabbed a large menu and opened it to conceal her face. “You’re going to blow the whole thing.”

Everyone around the table relaxed, except for Liz. This wasn’t a spur of the moment night on the town. This was Liz looking for back up while spying on her man.

“Is there a reason Seth is having dinner with one of the SUBs?” Anika raised a questioning eyebrow.

“SUBs?” Liz only lifted her head enough so her eyes could peer over the top of the menu.

“Stuck up bitches,” Kyoshi explained. “We know Emilia from school and she is a grade A stuck up bitch.”

“Oh…I like that.” Liz grinned, but never took her eyes off Seth.

“Liz, what’s goin’ on?” Becca asked tentatively. “You know you can tell us, right?”

So Liz told them. She told them about her time in North Carolina with Seth’s family; which SUB also applied very well too.  She told them how they didn’t think Liz was good enough for him, and how they’d set him up with Emilia. Apparently, she was of respectable breeding. She told them how Seth had to go on a date with her and sell it to his parents or they’d never leave him or Liz alone.

“So what’s your plan?” Anika’s demeanor had softened over the course of the story. “You going to walk right down there and whip out your knockers.” She pointed at Liz’s chest straining against her blouse.

“Are you worried about your two week…break?” Becca didn’t really know how to describe the awkward two weeks when Liz and Seth and been apart.

“Do you want me to read their minds?” Kyoshi offered.

“Don’t really have a plan. I am a little worried about our little hiatus, and you don’t have to read their minds.” Liz answered all of their questions.

“Ok, I won’t read their minds.” Kyoshi picked up the menu. “But I can tell you just from the feel around them that neither are enjoying themselves.”

“Good.” Liz hid her smile with the menu.

She never expected Seth and Emilia to fall in love or even have a relationship that caused Seth to break up with her. It was all just simple jealousy. Liz knew she was being a little possessive of her boyfriend, but taking into account her father’s disapproval of their relationship it was better to follow them around then having to live with herself if something bad happened.

“Good evening, my name is Timothy, and I’ll be your waiter today.”

Timothy looked like a grad school student who was working for some extra spending money. He also had a big smile on his face. It wasn’t everyday a guy got to wait on girls like them, or girls dressed like Liz.

“We’ll take four shots of vodka, Timothy.” Liz ordered. “Do you want anything?” She looked at the rest of the girls without any hint that this was a joke.

“Um…water for me thanks.”

“I’ll have an iced tea.”

“A beer please, something imported.” Anika shrugged when Becca gave her a hard look. “She said she’s buying.”

“Please,” Liz gestured at the table in general. “Eat, drink, and be merry. This is a thank you for entertaining my stalker behavior.”

“You can stalk anyone as much as you want.” Anika sighed after taking a sip of the German microbrew that Timothy had returned with.

After the cheap beer offered at college house parties it was like drinking liquid gold.

The girls couldn’t decide on anything so they ordered a bunch of appetizers and shared them to the point they were stuffed. Liz alternated her attention between her friends and Seth. For the most part he and Emilia just talked. There was the occasional laugh, which felt like a sword getting rammed in Liz’s gut, but other than that nothing of significance.

“I’m going to call him.” Liz suddenly declared.

“Oh no.”

“Bad idea.”

“Don’t do it, Liz.”

Everyone agreed it was a bad idea, but a bad idea had never stopped someone before.

“I’ll be right back.” Liz got up and left despite more protests.

She wound her way to the back of the restaurant and found the restroom. It seemed empty when she arrived, but she opened all the stalls to make sure. She sat down on the couch, got out her phone and dialed the first number on her speed dial.

She tried not to chew her nails while it rung. <If he doesn’t pick up I swear I’ll…>

“Hello.”

“Hey,” Liz released a breath she hadn’t realized she’s holding. “How’s it going?”

“It’s going fine.” Seth sounded amused. “Are you calling to check up on me.”

“Am I calling to…” Liz did her best to feign astonishment. “I completely and absolutely trust you Seth Abney. A relationship has to be built on trust.”

“Ok good, because I could have sworn…”

The door to the restroom pushed open and Seth stepped inside.

“…I saw you.” He hung up the phone and shook his head.

“Ah poppycock.” Liz groaned.

“Poppycock?” Seth raised and eyebrow and smiled.

“I’ve been thrown out of places like this before because of inappropriate use of the English language. So I have alternative ways to express myself.”

“And you went with poppycock?”

“It’s a perfectly good word.” Liz rambled, trying to regain her mental footing. She wasn’t used to being caught red handed. “It’s of dutch origin and actually means nonsense, but I think it works for this type of situation.”

Seth took two quick steps and grabbed her by the arm. “Just shut up and kiss me.”

The tongue tango that ensued would have progressed to the ripping off of clothing if another woman hadn’t walked in just then.

“Good heavens…” she beat a hasty retreat, and Seth and Liz had to come up for air.

Liz also had to tuck her boobs back into her blouse.

“Well they aren’t going to let me back in here again,” Liz frowned, but really couldn’t care less.

“Oh well?” Seth shrugged as he got himself to calm down.

“Hey, Seth,” Liz put her arms around him and held on tight.

“Yeah?”

“Can we go away again soon. It doesn’t have to be to the Caribbean again, or anywhere fancy. I just want to go away, just the two of us.” Liz didn’t like how it came out pleadingly, but it was her begging. “I just want to get away from all of this.”

Seth just smiled. He bent down kissed her passionately, and gave her ass a firm squeeze; eliciting a giggle on her part.

“Sure thing. Anything for my special lady.”

“Good.” She stared up into his magnificent green eyes for a second before shaking herself free of love’s spell. “Now get back out there. You’re neglecting the other woman. If she’s open for a ménage then we can talk about it, but other than that I want you home by midnight.”

“Of course,” he said it like it was the most natural thing in the world. “Tell the girls hi from me.”

With that Seth left the ladies room.

Liz spent another couple of minutes getting herself presentable again. She had to readjust all of her clothing. To hit that perfect line between looking hot and looking like a whore was something you couldn’t rush.

A man poked his head in, probably to see if any hanky-panky was going on in the bathroom. Liz paid the part of the upset female customer perfectly and got her bill comped, so she returned to the table with a smile.

“You were gone for awhile.” Kyoshi frowned and then looked her over. It didn’t take long for the advanced mind to put two and two together. “We really suck at stalking don’t we.”

“You’re a six foot seven half Japanese half German with platinum blond hair and curves to make any man weak in the knees. If you didn’t suck at stalking you’d have to be invisible.”

Kyoshi took the backhanded compliment as it was meant to be, with a smile.

“Let’s order another round of drinks. Timothy!” She called.

The waiter appeared looking a little nervous. Having their bill comped might affect his tips.

“Another round please,” she lifted an empty shot glass. “And send one to that dashing looking man right there.” She pointed across the room at Seth.

“And the lady?” Timothy asked nervously. Stuff like this could cause a commotion.

“Bring that stuck up bitch a refill of water.”

Timothy nodded and quickly walked away.

Liz eased back in her chair and smiled a truly happy smile. “This has been fun. What are we doing next?”

 

***

 

The computer logs were difficult to read. Sophia had never been the genius with this part of Hero work. When she interned the DVA did all the work, and when she teamed up with Hunter he did. Her job was to pound the enemy to a pulp.

<Hunter.> Sophia ignored the pang of sadness as she compartmentalized her thoughts.

She needed to focus on her work now, and that required her to think of things in a different light. She hadn’t just lost Henry. The Hero community had lost Hunter, a renowned Hero and one half of her team. That was what was hurting her now. Loosing Hunter would make her job more difficult, but she would persevere.

Sophia scrolled down through the log of every keystroke and mouse click that Hunter had made on the HCP computer. It was late on a Saturday. Usually she’d be at a marketing event, a fundraiser for various charities, or on a mission. Today was the latter. She was on a mission, maybe the biggest one of her career.

She knew that if she didn’t solve this case it would define her career.

<Woman can’t bring husband’s killer to justice. Hero lets partner’s murderer run free.> Despite her attempt to keep her thoughts under control she slipped up as the imaginary headlines ran through her mind.

<Focus, Sophia.>

It was difficult, and Angela acting out had only made it more so.

<How could she be so careless, so immature, so reckless?> Sophia continued to rant as she sat silently in front of the monitor.

It was trouble to piece together what the logs meant without the reports Hunter had filed. She’d finally received them and a picture was starting to form.

His prime suspect had obviously been Wraith, and he’d been obsessing over the young Supervillain ever since the Nevada armored car robbery.

Sophia saw why.

As a Hero with over twenty years of experience she’d stopped believing in coincidences long ago, and there was a chain of them here. The attack on Sprout, which Reaper reported was led by Hellgate. Since the notorious supervillain was presumed dead that report hadn’t gained a lot of traction in Washington.

Then there was the Nevada crime which happened to contain a WITSEC list that had Anika Kemps name on it. Since Kemps was almost abducted at Sprout that was something Sophia couldn’t overlook.

There was more information since then; the power outage and the interrogation of the Fist member all seemed to point to the same shadow woman who was tentatively ID’d as Wraith.

<Who are you?> That was the million-dollar question, and the answer everyone was looking for.

Sophia scrolled to the next page and clicked on the attached links.

Hunter had been looking for any connections to registered Supers with Wraith’s known abilities. He’d been trying to trace her to a possible relative or parent, but without any luck. The only person he’d searched was a Amelie Noel, and she’d died over eighteen years ago.

<And she did puppet shows at hospitals, not exactly a criminal act. What does that have to do with anything?> She clicked the jpeg and wished she hadn’t.

The poor woman looked like a carved pumpkin, and not in a good way.

<What the hell were you looking for, Henry?>          

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