Two Worlds – Chapter 49

Benjamin Gold

Location: London, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 Ben spent several days doing the research necessary to get a feel for the Star Kingdom of Windsor. That didn’t just mean where they sat in the galactic picture. Ben had to take into consideration who they were; discover their societal and cultural norms, and the roles and responsibilities held by the people and the government. To assume that another civilization held the same values or worked the same way as your own was a common and sometimes fatal misstep. Humanity had learned that the hard way in the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries.

Surprisingly, Commander Wythe didn’t have any problem with Ben’s self-assigned project. With hindsight being twenty-twenty that should have been the first red flag on his radar. But he missed it. He was back in familiar territory; digging for information, putting together patterns, and developing a concept that he might be able to use if he ever came into contact with the Star Kingdom during his time in York Sector. It was a lot more fulfilling than digging through field and technical manuals on gunboats.

When Ben was finished, he presented his final product to the commander. She took it and they went about their business for the rest of that day, but when he returned to the office the following morning he found a stern-faced, slightly overweight Captain waiting for him. Ben’s report had caught his attention, so now Ben was scheduled to give the briefing to anyone heading to York Sector in the next six months.

“Don’t look so surprised, Lieutenant Commander.” Commander Wythe’s face was serene, but Ben knew her better than that. “You’ve done a great job.”

Which translated into, “You are a victim of your own success.”

So that was how, just a few short days after sitting through the initial brief on the York Sector, Ben found himself back in the room with stadium-seating, surrounded by dozens of fleet and infantry service members, but this time standing in the center of it all.

“Good morning, everyone,” Ben smiled. It was an eight a.m. briefing so not a lot of people smiled back. “My name is Lieutenant Commander Gold and I will be giving you a more detailed briefing on the socio-political climate in the York Sector; specifically, on the Star Kingdom of Windsor.”

The presentation Ben had created didn’t have as many holo-screens as the previous briefer, so the space around him was not cluttered with imagery.

“Our task today is to develop a better understanding of the neutral polities in the York Sector. The conditions are a simple holo-presentation and a group of highly motivated sailors and soldiers. The standard is to be able to identify specific socio-cultural aspects of the Star Kingdom that will enable you to interact with them successfully if you make contact deliberately or accidentally. This standard will be assessed through a check on learning.” A check on learning meant a test, and Ben was prepared for the series of groans that sprouted around the room.

“Let’s begin.” Ben hit a button on his PAD and a picture of a man appeared on the screen. “Can anyone tell me who this is?”

Ben was always a fan of interaction when teaching. He had to do a stint as a TA when he was getting his doctorate, and getting students involved with the class was the best way to keep them off of their PAD’s gaming function.

“Shit. . .that’s what’s his face,” an infantryman with PFC insignia sputtered. “He was in my high school history textbook. Dude was badass. That’s all I remember.”

“This is King George VII of England.” Ben gestured to the average looking man on the holo-screen. “He was the last king before the U.K. assimilated into the Commonwealth.”

“Bloody George the Singed.” A fleet officer with a platinum lieutenant stripe announced with a distinct English accent.

Ben frowned at the name, but that didn’t mean it was wrong. “That is the moniker he is commonly known by.” Ben gave a nod to the British Lieutenant. “Among a great deal of other important things done during his lifetime, King George VII is most well-known for the successful defense of London during the final stages of the Last Terran War.”

“Now I remember.” The PFC smacked himself in the head like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “He’s the guy that set the river on fire.”

Ben shot a quick glance over at the British Lieutenant who was not pleased with the oversimplification.

“Lieutenant, care to give us your take on the events.”

“Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir.” The lieutenant swiveled in his seat until he was facing the PFC. “That tactic you are eluding to, Private, is the burning of the Thames river. London was besieged by Eastern Block forces on all sides and outnumbered English forces two-to-one. King George, who despite his ill-fated nickname, was quite a brilliant tactician made the decision to set fire to the river that ran through the center of London. Looking back on it through the eyes of history we can see that it was a success that turned the tide of the battle and some say the war. However, at the time, it was a risky gambit. King George was splitting the enemy forces by creating a wall of fire through the AO. It gave his own army force parity with the enemy, but it also cut off any chance of retreat, since the chemically created fire ran all the way to the Channel.” The lieutenant’s voice remained steady out of professionalism, but Ben could tell the young officer didn’t appreciate the important moment in his nation’s history being reduced to such a simple explanation. “Personally, I like to think that King George took inspiration from Sun Tzu.  By taking away his army’s only chance to escape he forced them to fight harder, and they did. Unfortunately, we’ll never know his exact thoughts because he never told anyone.”

“Which brings me to my next point.” Ben gave a nod of gratitude to the lieutenant. “King George never told anyone his thoughts behind the battle because he and sixty-thousand other colonists left Earth soon after the war ended.”

Ben moved to the next screen which was a star map. The map had two points highlighted and a dotted line between them with dates above it. “The creation of the Commonwealth eliminated the English nobility, and abolished the monarchy. The Windsor family made a sizable sum off all of the land they owned, and historical treasures they possessed. Those funds, along with the funds of a large chunk of the nobility went into paying for the construction and outfitting of the colony ship Victoria. The colony ship departed from Earth orbit on this date.” Ben pointed at the first date above the line. “And based upon the level of technology of the time we can estimate that it traveled through space for a little over a century before arriving at the current home system of the Star Kingdom of Windsor.”

An infantrywoman with the insignia of a sergeant raised her hand. “Sir, are you saying that the Star Kingdom of Windsor is a bunch of misplaced nobles from hundreds of years ago?”

“Yes and no, Sergeant. While King George and a large number of the English nobility did make the century long journey, a large number of regular English citizens made the journey as well. We all take the Commonwealth for granted now, but at its formation, and the years during and after the Last Terran War, there were more than a few citizens who felt disenfranchised by its creation. The colony flight had no problem finding volunteers.” Ben waited for the Sergeant to nod her acceptance before continuing.

“The Commonwealth had no contact with the Star Kingdom until a decade ago when we first started to expand into the York Sector. So for hundreds of years the Star Kingdom has lived in solitude without any external galactic influence.  It is quite remarkable. As such, we need to be careful of any interaction with them. They could swing the balance of power in the Sector.”

Ben moved on to his next slide, which was a basic outline of the Star Kingdom. “The Star Kingdom primarily resides in a single habitable system. From our limited intelligence we know they have four habitable worlds within the Goldilocks Zone: Windsor, Buckingham, Holyroodhouse, and Hilsborough. Again, our intelligence is limited, but emission signatures show that the largest concentrations of population seem to be on Windsor and Buckingham, which are both roughly Earth-like worlds that required little terraforming, and seem to sustain several billion people a piece. Holyroodhouse is a moon around the system’s single gas giant, but is still fifty percent larger than Earth. Judging by the climate analysts suggest that this is primarily a harvest-world that provides most of the food for the Kingdom. Similarly, Hilsborough is a little too far in-system to sustain a large population. The planet is about the size of Mercury. We’re still estimating a few hundred million people living on the small planet, but intelligence is thinking more along the lines of military-industrial than regular civilian population centers. Cursory scans show a large heavy-metal concentration on the planet.” Ben zoomed out from the dimensions of the Star Kingdoms inhabited system to the light years surrounding it.

“Local task force scouts have identified numerous systems with ongoing industrial and military operations. There is infrastructure and forward operating anchorages all throughout this area along with regular military patrols. Any questions?”

The fleet and infantry personnel did have a lot of questions, almost all related to the military specifics of the Kingdom. Those were questions Ben didn’t have the answer too. He’d taken a purely socio-cultural approach to his analysis, and only had the limited information he’d already provided; so he reiterated the task and standard of today’s training was not military related.

“Moving on to the socio-cultural status of the Star Kingdom,” Ben stated after deflecting most of the audiences’ questions. “I have evaluated the Star Kingdom on six different dimensions commonly used to measure a society.”

Ben had used the old, simple, but still effective Hofstede Scale to assess the Star Kingdom. More specific theories had been tested since Hofstede’s, which had been around for nearly five hundred years, but this scale fit the purposes of his briefing and broke down the information into terms the audience would hopefully understand without a doctorate in Intergalactic Relations.

“The first dimension I used is power distance. This expresses the degree to which society accepts the distribution of power, and how the society handles any inequalities among people. The Star Kingdom has a very high score in this dimension. The society that King George and the displaced nobles built has a very ridged hierarchy.” A pyramid appeared on the holo-screen.

“At the top you have the Monarch, currently Queen Victoria IV, who rules with near absolute authority. Whether the Queen decided to use that authority is what the Commonwealth is still trying to figure out. Below the Queen is the High Nobility. This group is the descendants of the English nobility that helped finance the colony expedition. There are only a few hundred of this class and they all hold the rank of Duke or Duchess. These two tiers of the hierarchy are hereditary.” Ben could tell by the look on the audiences’ faces that the fact took them by surprise. There hadn’t been a hereditary form of government on Earth for a long time.

“Do not let this fool you,” Ben continued into a piece of research that had surprised him. “These sections of the hierarchy engage in a rigorous epigenetics program that ensures they remain both physically and mentally superior to the rest of the population. So if you are imagining medieval European child-kings and queens that is absolutely not the case. These are very smart and very dangerous people. If you ever encounter one I would suggest giving them the respect their status deserves but not engaging more than that. They will milk you for everything you are worth if you let them.” Ben really wanted to talk to one of these people, but he doubted the average Commonwealth service member would be as excited.

“Below the High Nobility is the Low Nobility. This level of nobility is awarded by the queen for accomplishment. It could be in any number of fields, but if someone distinguishes themselves they can be made a Lord of Baron. This keeps the competitive spirit alive in their society. If a member of the Common People, the lowest tier on the hierarchy, can make it into the Lower Nobility then they can ensure the survival and prominence of their family for generations.” Ben showed the numbers he’d been able to get for this level of the nobility, and they only made up the top ten percent of the populace.

“The commoners in the Kingdom live similarly to the majority of the Commonwealth’s citizens. They range from rich industrial tycoons, to beggars on the street, and they make up ninety percent of the population. This is why the Kingdom scores so high on the power distance dimension. A good chunk of the power is held by the top ten percent of the population, and supreme power can be held by a single person. This fact is accepted and embraced by the population.”

“The next dimension is individualism and it concerns the framework of society. The Commonwealth tends to lean toward the individualistic side of the scale where we put a lot of emphasis on personal responsibility and the individual taking care of themselves. The opposite side of the spectrum would be the Eastern Block, which is more of a collectivist society. This type of society is more tight-knit where the individual isn’t held to the same level of responsibility and can expect more assistance for others, namely the government.   The Star Kingdom falls in the middle of the spectrum, but puts a premium on loyalty to the crown. If you are loyal to the crown you can expect assistance from the government if you need it, but they do not just hand it out.”

“The third dimension is a view on the toughness of the culture, also referred to as masculinity vs. femininity. Both the Commonwealth and Eastern Block prefer societies of advancement, heroism, and assertiveness; even with the Eastern Block’s more socialist political ideology that highlights cooperation. The Star Kingdom scored high on the tough and masculine scales; the entire existence of the Lower Nobility is a good example of this virtue in their culture.”

“The fourth dimension deals with the degree a society feels uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. Since the Kingdom has a lot of power concentrated with very few people it tends to dislike uncertainty. If you ever encounter someone from the Kingdom it is better to speak in terms of concrete facts instead of hypotheticals or generalities.”

“The fifth, and second to last dimension, concerns a society’s links with its past while dealing with the challenges in the present and future. The Kingdom scores very low on this dimension. It is very strict about its time-honored traditions. It is a very formal society and places a lot of emphasis on imagery; especially when it involves the royal family. They are very protective of their queen.”

“The last dimension I researched deals with the degree the Kingdom allows itself to indulge. From my research I have seen that this differs depending on where you fall within their strict hierarchy. Those at the top tend to indulge more than those at the bottom. It all boils down to one’s level of success. If you have proven yourself you can indulge. If not, you are not able to and doing so will be frowned upon.”

Ben looked away from the final holo-screen he was explaining to see most of the audience either on their own PADs or staring off into space. It was fair to say he’d lost them all after talking about the dimension of power distance.

“Now it is time for our check on learning.” That snapped everyone’s attention back to Ben as the short test appeared on their PADs.

Immediately hands went up all over the room. That tended to happen when you suddenly had to prove you’d been listening when you hadn’t, and the results of the test went into your file for any superior officer to see.

<This wasn’t a good idea.> Ben sighed.

Academically, and for high level officers interested in possible interaction with the local polity, Ben’s presentation might have added value to the mission. Today, with no one higher than a Staff Sergeant or Lieutenant Commander sitting in the room, the class was a pointless waste of time.

“You all have twenty minutes to complete the examination.” Ben ignored the raised hands. “Begin.”

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 82

“What the fuck, Seraphim!” Debora screamed into the air as the shifter floated back down to the ground.

The DVA agent gave a loud cough to clear her lungs. All around her, and the rest of the police presence in the area, was a steadily growing cloud of dust. The red and blue lights of the police cruisers holding a nearby perimeter hit the expanding cloud and were thrown in every direction. They were basically a great blinking beacon to the media that someone had colossally fucked up.

The winged Hero landed in front of Debora and waved her hand in front of her face. Seraphim’s uniform had seen better days, there was cement in her hair, and her face was screwed up in anger. Debora was pretty sure it wasn’t directed at her, but that didn’t make the situation any better for Debora, the DVA, or Orlando.

For one terrible second Debora felt that the PR weenie that stopped by earlier might have had a point.

<No time to Monday morning quarterback this clusterfuck.> Debora focused all of her attention back on the Hero.

“Any explanation for what the hell went on inside there?” Debora gestured at the former three story parking garage that was a pile of mortal, brick, and cement now.

“You had your cameras, you saw the fight.” Seraphim snapped back.

The Hero’s wings shot out to either side of her and gave a small flap. The thin coating of dust that was settling on them was discarded, but only succeeded in blowing right into Debora’s face.

If Debora wouldn’t have broken her fist on the larger woman’s jaw she might have taken a swing at her. The thought itself was satisfying until the squeal of tires from the rapid approach of four news vans ruined what little good mood she had left.

“Keep them back.” She waved the patrol officers in the direction of the approaching media. “And get me the city engineer. We need to start picking this up.”

“Wraith is in there,” Seraphim stated confidently. “I hit her.”

“Hit her with what?” Debora glared at the Hero. “Your frown and a general sense of disapproval.”

The demeaning statement literally ruffled the winged Hero’s feathers.

“No, I hit her with paralytic barbs from my tail.” The appendage in question twitched with irritation.

“How fast acting is it because if it wasn’t like ‘that’ then Wraith isn’t in there.” Debora snapped her fingers.

“It is very fast acting,” Seraphim answered, but not as confidently as before.

“Very fast and instantaneous are two very different things.”

“If I hit her with my barb it did more than just paralyze. If it was a good hit then we’ll probably find her corpse crushed under the rubble with my barb sticking out of her gut.”

Debora took a good look at the barbs and saw they were half a foot long. <Ouch.>

“I can’t just assume she’s dead, Seraphim.” Debora got her temper under control. “I need to excavate this site and call in my subtlety assets to assess the situation. Why don’t you ask around and determine if you really got her.”

“I got her.” Seraphim seemed to be talking more to herself than Debora.

<Whatever helps you sleep at night.>

“We’ll see.” Debora turned her attention away from the Hero.

The gust of air told the DVA agent that Seraphim had sprung into the air and was off to do whatever it was that the Hero needed to do. That didn’t concern her though. Deborah knew her mission. Her mission was to find out what happened.

And she knew the perfect person to call.

Debora pulled out her cell phone and hit one of her speed dials.

“Officer Phillips,” answered a brusque voice.

“Baby Bro, it’s Big Sis.” She grinned as he sighed.

“What do you want Debora? I’m a little busy right now.”

“No shit. I’m not sitting around drinking a warm glass of milk before bed,” she snapped. Her nerves were still a little frayed from the amount of shit she was going to have to endure.

“Was there a reason you called?”

“Yeah. Can you get me Daisy’s number?”

There was a several moments of silence on the other end of the line. “Why?”

“I need her expertise.”

“Ok.” He finally relented. “But I don’t like you two talking so much. It’s weird.”

“You have no idea,” she replied, copying down the digits.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Don’t have time, call you later.” She hung up the phone ignoring his last question, and quickly dialed the other number.

There were a few clicks and beeps as the call got routed and screened by some DVA communication’s unit somewhere.

“Hello?” The legendary Hero’s voice was warry as she answered the call.

“Daisy, it’s Debora.”

“Debora.” Daisy’s voice audible brightened over the line. “What can I do for you?”

“You can get your ass to my location ASAP.” Debora read off the address.

“What should I wear?” Daisy replied nonchalantly. “I’ve got this sexy red number that your brother absolutely loves, but it’s at the dry cleaners.”

“You can show up buck-ass naked for all I care, but I need you down here now before I have to tell the whole media whether or not Seraphim bringing down a building in the middle of Orlando killed Wraith.”

The seriousness of the conversation finally got through to the former Hero. “I’ll be right there.”

By right there, Daisy meant right there. Less than ten minutes later the tall blonde woman was standing at the back of the group of gathered reporters. Her attention was focused on the rubble while all the other reporters were screaming questions at the police, DVA, or anyone that walked close to them.

“Agent Phillips, Agent Phillips!” A couple of reporters recognized her from the scene of the night club raid. “Can you tell us what happened here? Eyewitness reports say that Seraphim was involved. Can you confirm or deny if this is another assault by the police on the Fist?”

Debora walked over toward them because that was the only way she could get close enough to reliably communicate with Daisy. Based on the DVA’s file on Reaper, Debora knew that Daisy was more than close enough to get a read on what was going on underneath the rubble that was being cleared.

The bulldozers clearing away the chunks of concrete were loud and made it hard to have a conversation with the reporters, but that was partially a good thing.

“I cannot answer all of your questions at this time, but I can give you the basics.” She took a deep breath and put on her best briefing face. “The success of the joint Hero, DVA, and Orlando PD raid on Club Spark yielded numerous leads. All local and federal agencies have diligently been following those leads over the past twenty-four hours. One critical piece of information led us to the parking garage where a deal was being made. We observed the culprits exchanging money and ordered the Hero Seraphim to move in for the take down.”

Debora shot a quick glance at Daisy, but the woman’s eyes were still on the pile of rubble.

“Due to the nature of the suspects in the parking garage it was necessary to have a Hero of Seraphim’s aptitude conducting the takedown. During the assault the suspects fought back, critical structural aspects of the parking garage were impacted, and the structure collapsed on them. Seraphim escaped unharmed and continues to patrol the city. As for the suspects. . .”

Debora looked back at Daisy. <It’s now or never.>

The former Hero tore her eyes away from the rubble and gave a quick back and forth shake of her head.

“. . .we have no information about their status, but will update you once we clear the scene. Thank you for your time.”

“Agent Phillips, who are the suspects? What are their crimes? Was this excessive use of force by the Heroes?”

Questions came at Debora from all directions, but she ignored them. She smiled politely into the camera then turned and walked away. Only once she had a firetruck between her and the reporter did she let her scowl return.

“Commander Jenkins!” she yelled, summoning the large SWAT commander from about a hundred feet away. “We need to get all of our subtlety people in here now. They need to go over this place with a fine-tooth comb and gather every spec of evidence. Seraphim took a steaming dump on this operation and we’re left holding the business end of the shovel.”

“How do you know?” The SWAT commander eyed her suspiciously.

“I’ve got friends in high places so I called in a favor to get a read on the situation now rather than in a few hours when we start pulling out bodies. All you need to know is we didn’t get the target and now there is going to be hell to pay. We need something to show for all this.”

The dust cloud had started to waft toward the city. Hopefully by morning it would be gone.

“I’m on it.” Jenkins nodded and jogged away to make some calls.

Debora poked her head out from behind the truck and searched for the tall blonde, but she was already gone.

<Fuck!> Debora clenched and unclenched her fists. <We were so close.>

And now they were back to square one.




Seth pressed against the barbell that threatened to crush his windpipe if he let it. Inch by inch he pushed the weighted bar away from his chest, until with one final surge of herculean effort he locked out his arms.

“Good set.” Mason grabbed the bar with ease and moved it back onto the rack. “That’s two-seventy-five for six. Not too bad.”

If it had been anyone else who could bench press a hundred time that amount easily Seth would have thought the remark condescending, but this was Mason.

“You gonna puke again?”

Seth took a few deep breaths, and grinned. That one was a little condescending, but only because Mason had to break out the mop and bucket once already.

Seth knew that even a night of heavy drinking couldn’t hinder his training regimen. Even the ache in his empty balls couldn’t slow him down. If anything it was days like today that allowed him to become better, faster, and stronger. You didn’t make gains when you were feeling great. You made them when you felt like absolute shit and pushed through the pain. Today was one of those days.

“Nah I’m good.” Seth wiped the sweat from his brow and got back under the bench. “I’ve got to do a good warm down.” Mason removed the necessary weight with the ease of throwing a Frisbee and Seth knocked out a final set.

Then it was the strongman’s turn. They headed over to the heavy weight section, and all Seth could do was watch. He’d break every bone in his body and be reduced to mush if he tried to spot his huge roommate. And that was just the warm up set.

“I couldn’t help but overhear last night.” Seth turned the conversation in the direction he wanted to take it when he first invited Mason to do a workout with him. “But I was pretty drunk. Was Kyoshi talking about babies?”

In typical Mason fashion the big man sputtered and almost lost control of the multi-ton weight. “You remember that?”

“Kinda hard to forget.” Seth grinned as Mason raised the weight and sat up on the bench. “And from what I remember you handled it pretty well.”

“It didn’t feel that way.” Mason frowned. “I felt like I messed it up.”

“So you don’t want to have Mason juniors?” Seth replied.

“Of course I do…someday. But that day isn’t going to be anytime soon. I mean I’m only eighteen. She’s only eighteen. We’re both training to be Heroes. That isn’t exactly a great environment to raise a kid in at the moment.”

“We’re drifting a little off topic,” Seth said, waving away Mason’s statement. “Working out with you is great, but you might have noticed you’re a bit out of my league. Why I really asked you here was to ask about. . .um. . .relationships.” Seth struggled to get the last bit out.

“Ok,” Mason looked confused. “Are you and Liz having problems?”

“No!” Seth shook his head vigorously. “We’re great, beyond great. Things are fan-fucking-tastic, with emphasis on the fucking.” He winked, and got a small chuckle from Mason.

“It’s not that type of stuff that I need advice on. I just. . .” Seth took a seat on the bench next to Mason and sighed. “I mean I see you and Kyoshi and I’m like ‘I want that’. So I want to know how you do it. How are you two so perfect together? How do you get her to talk about having babies with you when you’re only eighteen?”

Mason’s brow creased in a frown and he seemed to look through Seth for several seconds before scratching his head. “You dropped the L-Bomb with her, right?”

“Yeah, months ago.” Seth nodded.

“Did you mean it?”

“Yes.” There was no hesitation in Seth’s response, a fact that seemed to surprise him as much as Mason.

“Well that’s a good start.” Mason’s smile was warm, and it reminded Seth that despite the strongman’s incredible strength he was a big teddy bear at heart.

“Ok, what else?” Seth asked impatiently.

“What do you mean what else?” Mason asked confused.

“Don’t give me the ‘All you need is Love’ line.” Seth shook his head. “There’s definitely more to it that than.”

“Not in my opinion,” Mason shrugged. “I love Kyoshi. I’d do anything for her. I’d go to clubs I don’t want to go to. I’d get between her and anything that was going to harm her. I’d probably even kill for her, although I hope that never happens.” Mason’s face darkened with the last revelation.

“Love is the foundation you need to build your relationship on. I can’t tell you what is going to work because everyone is a little different. Kyoshi and I have completely open and honest communication. Partly because of her power, and partly because I don’t want to keep anything from her. But that’s what works for us.” He smiled at Seth.

“Open and honest communication. Ok, I can do that.” Seth psyched himself up.

“Whoa, hold on there.” Mason held up his hands in a stopping motion. “Let’s be honest with ourselves. You and I are a little different.”

“Yeah, so?” Seth was still on the honesty train.

“Let me put it this way.” Mason approached the subject for a different angle. “Are you really going to tell Liz, the same Liz that stalked you to your fake-date with Emilia last night, that you’ve had hundreds of sexual partners over the past few years?”

“I wouldn’t say hundreds.” Seth’s tried to play it down, but couldn’t keep the smile off his face. “Ok, I get your point. She’d probably try and castrate me on the spot.”

“Yeah.” Mason shivered a little at the thought. “But on the other hand don’t think that I’m knocking honesty. I do think that you and Liz need to be honest with each other if you ever want to be really serious. Not everything can be drinking and sex.”

“But we like drinking and sex,” Seth replied defensively.

“Both of your bodies are going to age with time. You’re gonna gain weight, she’s gonna sag, and you’re both gonna wrinkle. That’s life, bro. What’s important is that the person beneath that surface is beautiful. Once you make that clear to each other I think you’ll be ok.” Mason’s big smile split his face in two. “But that’s just me. I could be totally wrong.”

“No.” Seth waved his finger back and forth, but his attention was somewhere else. “No, you’re right. In fact you might be a fucking genius.” Seth jumped up from the bench. “I’ve got to go. I’ve got to talk to her.”

“Ok, buddy.” Mason smiled. “Just don’t overshare all at once.”

“Yeah, sure.” Seth wasn’t listening, he was already running toward the weight room’s exit.

“Focus on the future and not the past!’ Mason yelled his last piece of advice at the broad spectrum elemental manipulator’s retreating back.

<I’m going to get her favorite food, a bottle of wine, some flowers, set up a nice dinner, and just talk.> Seth felt like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. He knew this could work.

He could feel his heart beating with excitement, and that didn’t stop as he ran all his errands. He practically burst into the house, threw Anika and Kyoshi out of the kitchen and started to get everything ready. Once the flowers were in a vase on the rickety table, he stuck the food in the oven to stay warm, and rushed to take a shower.

His room smelled a little stale so he took the spray from his closet and sprayed down the surfaces giving everything a ‘smells like spring’ scent. Then he stripped, threw his clothes in the hamper, which he also sprayed, and then rushed through a shower.

<No sex tonight.> He convinced himself as the water poured over him. Even thinking about not having sex got him aroused, but he clamped down on the sensation. <Tonight is about communication and honesty.>

He toweled off and dressed in a casual pair of slacks and a button down. He rushed back downstairs and made sure everything was ready. All he had to do was pull the meal out of the oven and serve.

<Perfect. Now all I have to do is wait.>

Four hours and four phone calls that went straight to voicemail and Seth finally started to deflate. <Where are you Liz?> Honesty and open communication could wait a day, but for some reason Seth had a bad feeling in his gut.

He didn’t like it when he had a bad feeling and the woman he loved was missing.




There were a lot of things in life Lilly Thermopolis had become accustomed too. She had grown up with wealth, and everything she’d ever desired had been given to her. That could lead to two different types of people. The first was a spoiled, self-entitled asshat who though the world was their personal play-thing. Lilly wasn’t this, although she always liked to have a little bit of fun. The second was a person who took everything they were given and put it to good use. They went to the best schools so they became some of the brightest people. They had available to them the best equipment in their field so they used it to become elite in whatever they were endeavoring to accomplish.

Lilly considered herself a member of this second group, and the field she’d endeavored to strive in was that of a supervillain. Normally, being a criminal and general menace to society wasn’t something people ascribed too, but she had nature and nurture pushing her in that direction since she drew her first breath.

Lilly was also used to attention. Whether it was because of her rockin’ body or her keen whit, she always had women wanting to be her and guys wanting to be on her. She thrived with all the attention, but rarely did she return it. It took a special type of person to grab her attention. One was her father, one of the most notorious villains of all time. Another was her Uncle Curtis, more commonly known as Armsman, whose notoriety surpassed even her father’s. The list of people Lilly respected and admired was pretty short up until about six months ago. Now that list had a new name, Seth Abney. The man fascinated her, kept her guessing, and she never got tired of him. Hell, he even put up with all her bullshit, and that was all on top of being absolute dynamite in the sack.

Lilly was accustomed to all those things. She was also accustomed to things like pain, more physical than emotional. She had more mental barriers thrown up keeping her emotions sheltered from the world than a person her age ever should. Physically, she’d been beaten, shot, and tortured with everything in the book short of anything sexual. Her father had wanted to prepare her for the worst, but there were some things you couldn’t prepare for.

Fear was something Lilly was not accustomed to. The total feeling of helplessness as she lay underneath her and Seth’s bed, drooling into the carpet, with nothing other than her own thoughts to keep her company was utterly terrifying.  It occurred to her, roughly two minutes after she became fully paralyzed, that the one speck of light she could find in this horrible dark situation was that the Seraphim’s paralytic, whatever it was, didn’t affect her mind.

That was a good thing because if it had, Kyoshi would have picked something up, come to investigate, and found the infamous supervillain Wraith hiding under the bed like a child. Wraith being Liz Aretino was only the cherry on top of the cake.

Lilly really did like Kyoshi, but the tall woman’s ability to eavesdrop was a constant pain in the ass.

Another positive about the paralysis was that Lilly wasn’t able to feel the pain her body was undoubtedly in. Coming out of it would be a real bitch.

Another concern was the shallow gash that Seraphim’s barb had cut through her leg. Her high-tech armor hadn’t been able to stop the flying projectile, but it was doing a great job at collecting and clotting her blood. There was still a slow drip going, and she’d need to bleach the floor at some point, but as long as she regained the use of her limbs within the next day she’d wouldn’t die of blood loss.

<Always a good thing.> She mentally smirked as her internal clock tried to make sense of how much time had passed.

Then the door to the room flew open and feet pounded into the room.

If she’d had control of her functions she probably would have pissed herself. Lilly expected to hear the sounds of more boots on the floor, then the sound of the bed being thrown aside, rough hands grabbing her and hauling her to her feet, and then Seraphim appearing, putting her taloned hands around her throat and squeezing until the lights went out.

<Not the way I’d want to go.> Lilly had always envisioned a long-range sniper shot to the head. One moment she was there and the next she’d be gone.

It was the most likely way someone would kill her.

Seconds passed and nothing happened. No furniture was thrown or teenage supervillains strangled by pissed off angel-demons. She could still feel the vibrations of the footsteps moving around the room, and hear some rummaging through something. Then she heard a soft hiss, something she’d heard many times before.

Seth was a bit of a neat freak, and that included smell. He had this stupid little air freshener bottle he’d bust out all the time if he smelled something off. Considering that Lilly had been fighting a renowned Hero, nearly been crushed by a cement building, and had a slow drip of blood exiting her leg there was bound to be a little rankness to the room now.

Seth smelled something was off and was trying to fix it.

A fear so overwhelming it was almost debilitating passed over Lilly. The last thing in the world she wanted was for Seth to find her like this; weak and helpless. She didn’t want him to find out who she really was. She didn’t want to see the hate and loathing in his handsome green eyes. She didn’t want to have to watch his face distort in disgust as he put two and two together. She didn’t want to see the part of him that loved her wither and die. She’d do anything to keep that from happening. ANYTHING.

The footsteps continued to move around the room for a minute and then left. For the time being Lilly’s prayers had been answered. But that didn’t relieve the knot that had permanently formed in her gut. In her moment of utter helplessness, with everything on the line, a lightbulb had gone off in her head.

<I can’t keep living a lie like this with him. He doesn’t deserve that. Hell, I don’t deserve that. I can’t tell him the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but select truths might do it.> Her scheming was interrupted by the return of footsteps.

This time he was talking to himself. “Truth and honesty.” He breathed out heavily and she could imagine him looking into the mirror. “Connect with her on a deeper level. This isn’t about sex, booze, or rock n’ roll. This is about us getting to really know each other, sharing who we are and what we want. It’s not about the past it’s about the future. She won’t care about all the other women.”

Lilly’s heart felt like it was going to pound right out of her chest. She was sure Seth could hear it from his spot less than ten feet from the bed. <Truth and honesty.> She mentally tasted the words and found she agreed with them. <Not complete truth and honesty. I don’t want to scare him away.>

But judging by the motivational pep-talk even that might be difficult. Seth wanted something more, he was building himself up to confess that to her. If Lilly could smile she’d have a shit-eating grin plastered across her face.

<It’s about the future not the past.> Lilly felt those words would be their mantra as they went forward with their relationship.

Seth had other women in his past, Lilly had met one, and teleported her ass to the Serengeti. Lilly wouldn’t like it, but she couldn’t stop her man from being a stud. Obviously other women had wanted a piece of that, just like other men had wanted Lilly. Lilly’s transgressions were a bit more notable: grand theft, assaulting representatives of the US Government, attempted murder, murder, assassination, even a charge of public nudity that she wasn’t too proud of. That little wrongdoing was buried in some file on one of her fake identities in New Zealand.

<This can work.> Lilly didn’t know if it was wishful thinking and the paralysis talking, but she knew she could make it work. <Slow and steady wins the race of revealing you’re one of the DVA’s Most Wanted to the man of your dreams?> She wanted to laugh but her throat and mouth wouldn’t respond. <That would make a hell of a game show.>

During her self-reflection Seth had finished whatever he was doing and left the room. Then the waiting game started. She couldn’t really tell time, but when her phone started to vibrate in one of her vest pockets she could tell that it was probably an hour or more past the time they agreed to eat for dinner.

The smell of the spiced chicken was wafting through the townhouse, making Lilly’s situation even that more unbearable. It wasn’t as much the paralysis that was bothering her now, but the idea of him waiting alone downstairs for her. The disappointed looked she’d see on his face when she finally regained control of herself was going to break her heart.

<Hopefully this stuff actually wears off.> The thought that this might be a permanent situation was something she hadn’t considered before.

It reignited the primal fear in her gut, and took her two more calls to calm down. After four the calls stopped coming.

At some undetermined time the slow, trudging footstep of her boyfriend reentered the room. All the excitement and spring in his step she’d heard earlier was gone.

“Stupid,” he grumbled.

Lilly felt the bed sag above her as he sat down on it.

“Stupid, stupid.”

<No!> Lilly fought with everything she had just to move her little pinky. Anything, anything at all to show that she’d soon be able to get out from under this bed and talk to him. She needed to reassure him that everything was all right, and that she wanted to be honest with him, and she wanted him to be honest with her.

But her stupid finger wouldn’t budge, and she had to listen to Seth doubt himself until he fell asleep.

Without question this was the worst night of her life.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 48

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

“What the hell is that stuff?” Coop asked the medic as he struggled to his feet.

The bored looking guy had already asked for everyone to head over to the main collection of medics, but Coop was still getting his bearings.

“Smelling salts.” The medic waved the chemical stick in Coop’s direction, and Coop flinched back when a waft of the stuff hit his nostrils. “This stuff has been waking up dumbasses like you for hundreds of years. Now get over to the tables and get checked out, Recruit.”

Coop turned hoping the see Eve, but his squad leader was already gone. <Of course she is.> He grumbled and headed over to the medic table.

His checkup was quick. They made sure that everything in his neck was working correctly, scanned to make sure Eve hadn’t broken anything with her thighs of steel, and did some simple coordination tests to double check he hadn’t lost too many brain cells. Once the medics confirmed that he was good to go he had to go sit against a wall for the rest of the tournament.

If anything, that was the hardest part of the whole competition.

Coop’s father, Walter, had always said the world was made up of two people; doers and thinkers. The older Cooper didn’t diminish the value of either group in society; hell, he admired both. Walter had told Coop that the most successful people were both doers and thinkers depending on what the situation called for.

Most of the shit Walter said Coop didn’t pay attention to, because he had a different outlook on life at the time. In the PHA Coop also believed there were two types of people; those who sat on their ass and those who went and got some ass. It would take Coop several years, and being choked out by his super-hot squad leader, to learn that him and his father had been saying the same thing all along.

Coop was a doer, someone who was trying to get some ass, and not much of a thinker. Having to sit on his ass and watch the rest of the fighting tournament was hell on him. So, taking his father’s words to heart for the first time in years, Coop did a little thinking.

<Staff Sergeant Cunningham was right.> Coop watched as the fighters who made it into the later rounds stepped into the combat squares and started to dance. <I don’t know how to fight.> The thought pissed Coop off.

Those who made it into the later rounds of competition weren’t fighting any way Coop had ever seen. It was more of a dance than the fisticuff brawls that Coop had seen and participated in during his eighteen years in the PHA. Half the fighting happened on the ground with people trying to grab limbs and twist them at odd angles. From where Coop sat he could hear the screams of pain when someone won.

<I want to fight like that.> Coop knew exactly how he was going to spend the next week of his life.

Of all the people fighting, Coop paid special attention to Eve; not just because of her tight smartcloth CMUs clinging in all the right places, but because she was the one who beat him. Coop had learned long ago that studying the people who kicked your ass was always a good idea. The next time Eve had her legs wrapped around his head they wouldn’t be fighting.

“Everyone gather around!” The SSG barked as the eighty-one recruits in Echo Company were whittled down to two. “I want you to take a good look at these two people.” The SSG pointed at Eve and the squad leader from first squad. “These two have shown me that they aren’t completely worthless. They won’t get themselves killed on their first day. The rest of you have a week to convince me or you’re out. Administrative cuts will make sure that those who can’t tough it out through a fight don’t make it into our next phase. Understood?”

“Yes, Staff Sergeant!” In the yelling there was an undercurrent of fear.

No one wanted to get their asses kicked for a week just to get booted from Basic.

“The winner’s squad will get a special treat. So don’t let your people down.”

Coop had met first squad’s leader in passing. His name was Bart and he was older than anyone else in the entire company. He was also a few centimeters taller than Coop, with broader shoulders, and hands the size of Harper’s face. Bart could palm someone’s head like a basketball if he wanted, so he was the last person in the world Coop wanted Eve to be facing. It didn’t matter that Bart’s squad loved him, and that he was kind and courteous to everyone he met. None of that meant shit in a fight.

Eve and Bart gave each other a small bow before beginning, and then they went at it. It was by far the best fight Coop had ever seen. Eve was faster but Bart was stronger. Eve darted in like a viper, striking with fists and feet and then dodging Bart’s counters. By the end of the first minute both of the fighters were sweating profusely, Bart was limping slightly from a blow to the side of the leg Eve had landed, and Eve was a little unsteady from a blow to the head she’d only partially blocked. The second minute saw Bart’s strength begin to win out over Eve’s speed. She took a few more jarring hits, while only scoring a single blow on Bart. His counters and follow-ups were becoming more effective. The final third minute had Eve on the defensive and almost getting knocked out until the last ten seconds, where she threw a lightning fast combo that scored multiple hits.

“Time!” The SSG announced, and the two fighters immediately disengaged.

Bart sat down, grimacing at the pain in his leg. Medics rushed over to him, just like they rushed over to Eve. She was swaying dangerously on her feet, her face was starting to bruise, her lip was split, and she was cradling her arm protectively to her side.

While the SSG and PO3 gathered with the corporal trainers to decide the winner, Coop and the rest of second squad headed over the congratulate their leader.

“You kicked ass!” Harper cheered once they were all gathered around Eve.

“That was impressive,” Mike grinned. The large former Rat had made it one round farther than Coop, which was the farthest of anyone except Eve.

“Remind me to never get on your bad side.” Coop gave Eve a nod.

He wanted the nod to convey, “I’m not pissed at you for choking me out” while still being light-hearted and funny.

<Wait is she…> For a second Coop thought Eve was blushing.

“Eyes on me, Recruits!” Whatever Coop thought he’d seen vanished as everyone’s eyes immediately zeroed in on SSG Cunningham’s voice. “After due consideration the winner of our tournament is Recruit Bart Aaron. Congratulations, Recruit.” The SSG tossed two meter-long black sticks at the first squad leader.

“Thank you, Staff Sergeant.” Bart’s voice was surprisingly pleasant for someone his size who’d just won a fighting competition.

“Don’t thank me you earned it.” The SSG turned and started walking toward the doors. “I’m leaving you all in the capable hands of these instructors. I’ll be back at eighteen-hundred. Don’t disappoint me.” The door slid closed behind her, leaving Echo Company with the now much meaner looking corporals.

“Everyone pair up, NOW! Three…two…one…”

Coop looked to Eve. They always paired up together, but the squad leader had already grabbed Harper by the hand. Which left Coop with Mike. The two former Rats got next to each other just before the corporal hit zero, and everyone had to do pushups.

“Just like old times huh,” Mike chuckled as they knocked out the pushups.

The two hours between when SSG Cunningham left and returned were a lot like old times. A few of the corporals reminded Coop of that vindictive, half-crazy staff sergeant from the civil administration building. The same staff sergeant who’d booted Coop off the air-bus. Still, Coop did exactly what they said.

The first task of which was to do nothing and get punched in the face by your partner.

“Good.” The hulking monstrosity who was the lead corporal announced once everyone had punched everyone else in the face. “Now you all know what it feels like. We can build from that.”

Two hours of learning how to punch and dodge “correctly” wasn’t exactly Coop’s most enjoyable time at basic. The corporal’s constant yelling that they were building “muscle memory” didn’t make it any more exciting. So when the corporals left and the SSG and PO3 returned, Coop was ready to get some chow, hit the head, and get a few hours of shut-eye. In that order.

“So, is fight week just getting yelled at by the corporals and throwing punches?” Thankfully, Olivia was the one to ask the question not Coop.

“You don’t know?” Harper was cuddled up next to Mike. Being with the second-best fighter in the squad was definitely revving her engine. “What about your mystery boyfriend in the class ahead of us?”

“I haven’t heard anything from him.” Olivia didn’t look happy about that. “He’s always been able to shoot me a message through MILNET every few days, but the last week I haven’t gotten anything.”

“I’m sure everything is fine.” Harper went right into optimistic girlfriend mode.

“They do restrict communications during certain phases of training,” Eve added.

The squad leader had been uncharacteristically quiet. Coop assumed she was still analyzing her loss to Bart. Unlike him, Eve was a doer and a thinker depending on the situation, and right now she was thinking. Despite sitting right next to him Eve hadn’t even made eye contact.

“That would explain it.” The information seemed to put Olivia at ease.

“Yeah, I’m sure that’s it.” Harper jumped on the positivity bandwagon.

The rest of chow passed quickly without Eve even saying a word to Coop.

<Ok, there’s thinking and then there’s just ignoring me.>

“Hey.” Coop grabbed Eve by the elbow as they headed over to toss their trays into the auto-cleaner. “You want to tell me what’s going on?” Coop ignored the shock of touching her, and there was a definite electric shock involved with the contact, not some lovey-dovey romantic shock.

“What?” Eve still didn’t look at him as she pulled her arm free and dumped her tray into the machine.

“You’re not a good liar.” Coop dumped his own tray and followed her.

“I don’t have time for this,” Eve grumbled, trying to weave her way through the crowd and get away from Coop.

Unfortunately, Coop was thin enough to follow, and his legs were long enough to keep pace and overtake her. “Time for what? Time for the squad leader to tell her team leader what she shoved up her ass sometime today?”

Coop snapped his mouth shut, before he said anything else that would get him in trouble; or maybe get his ass kicked again.

Eve’s glare showed Coop he’d definitely stuck his foot in his mouth. “I don’t have time to talk about this.” Eve gestured to him and her. “Not right now. We’re about to be neck deep in shit and we sure as hell aren’t ready for it.”

“What?” Coop didn’t make it clear if he was talking about what Eve eluded to between them or the shit they were about to walk into. He definitely meant the former, but she answered to the latter.

“Fight week isn’t just about learning how to fight.” She was whispering now. “It’s also about fighting; pure, unadulterated battle. After what I saw today from our squad we’re not going to do well.”

“Well with what?” Coop didn’t know what Eve was talking about, and he desperately wanted to go back and talk about the two of them.

“You’ll see.” Was Eve’s only answer as they rounded the corner and found the rest of Echo Company and SSG Cunningham waiting.

“Two lines! Follow me!” The SSG started walking without waiting to see what happened.

The eighty-one recruits of Echo Company executed the SSG’s order, formed into two lines and followed their instructor through the corridors until they reached a large open room. There she stopped and turned to face them.

“Fall in!” The company quickly dispersed and reformed into the ten uneven squads. “At ease.” Everyone relaxed as the SSG put her hands behind her back.

“For the rest of this training iteration you will be following this schedule: Chow is at 0600, 1200, and 1800. Combative classes from 0630 to 1200 and 1230 to 1800. You will conduct personal hygiene before your first chow and after your last chow. You have thirty minutes for personal hygiene. Execute that now.”

Personal hygiene was all about the three S’s: shit, shower, and shave. Coop went straight for the shitter, because there was nothing like a good shit after a day of fighting. He sacrificed his time to see Eve naked, but with things up in the air and weird between them it was probably for the best. Thirty minutes later the entire company was formed up again where they started with an intense SSG looking over them.

“The last part of your schedule for fight week, Recruits, is the maze. You will execute the maze from 1830 to 0530.”

“1830 to 0530! When are we supposed to sleep Staff Sergeant?”

<Fucking Davenport!> Coop knew the entire company was mentally screaming the same thing.

“Not my problem, Recruit Davenport.” The look the SSG gave the squad jackass could have stripped paint from a bulkhead. That’s for all of you to figure out.” She looked down at her wrist. “You’re already two minutes late, and that puts you at enough of a disadvantage.” The NCOIC returned her gaze to the company. “Same rules apply in the maze as in the combat square. Don’t fuck around because we’ll be watching.”

SSG Cunningham called the company to attention and walked to the side of the formation, pointed to a door large enough to fit five people through abreast and said, “Go.”

“Second Squad on me!” Eve yelled over the sound of pounding feet running toward the door.

No one knew what was on the other side of it, but the SSG said to get through it, and that’s what everyone was going to do. Second squad was just doing it smarter than everyone else; except maybe first squad, which seemed to have a similar plan.

“Everyone stay together and watch each other’s backs. We’re going in finding a place to lay low and then we’ll sleep in shifts. Half on half off for two hour shifts.”

“Eve,” Coop didn’t want to step on her little briefing, but he did. “I think I speak for all of us when I ask, what the hell is going on?” Several heads in the squad nodded their agreement.

Eve gave Coop a hard look, but then it softened. “The tournament was the initial assessment. The time with the corporals is the training, and the maze is the practical exercise.” Second squad was walking through the door now, and they were the last ones through.

The door closed with an audible clang behind them, descending the whole space into twilight. But unlike the outside world, this space wasn’t filled with the annoying sounds of nature. It was filled with far off screams, grunts, and the sounds of flesh hitting flesh.

And not in a good way.

“The maze is a free-for-all.” Eve whispered, as she took the first hallway to the right, leading second squad away from the rest of the company. “Here the instructors get to see what we learned.”

“And see who’s the best.” A cruel voice announced from the darkness ahead of second squad.

Into Eve’s path stepped eight people in CMUs. Eight other recruits that none of second squad recognized. Eight other recruits that were spoiling for a fight.

The recruit at the front, the one with the cruel voice, wasn’t big or broad. He was actually on the small and skinny side, but Coop knew better than to judge a book by its cover. He’d seen plenty of small, ordinary looking books stomp the shit out of people.

“Look what we got here, fresh meat.” Another recruit actually cackled, and Coop couldn’t help but laugh at that. “Something funny?”

Coop thought the guy would have been angrier, but if he was it was a cold anger. Whoever this guy was he wasn’t bullheaded like Davenport.

“Nothing’s funny.” Eve replied. “Are we just going to sit here and talk or are we going to fight?”

<I think I’m in love.> Coop didn’t have time to delve into how hot Eve was at the moment because the eight unknown recruits charged second squad.

<Here goes nothing.> Coop readied himself for another brawl.

He couldn’t stop smiling.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 47

Benjamin Gold

Location: London, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Ben’s long, powerful legs allowed him to pass the other soldiers and civilians scattered around the floor in conversation or reading the latest memos on their PADs with little effort. Working in one of the largest and most important buildings on the planet had its perks. He got to rub elbows with some of the most important people in the system, with Rear Admiral Helms being right at the tops of that list. Security was also top notch. Nothing short of an invasion by the Blockies was going to threaten the Commonwealth headquarters on Earth.

But working in such a massive space also had its downsides, and the one Ben was currently contending with was how far meetings and briefings were from his office. At the moment Ben didn’t technically have an office, but he spent enough time pouring over manuals and reports in Commander Wythe’s office that he be could basically call it his own. He had the pile of paperwork to prove it.

<It takes half an hour to get anywhere in this building.> Ben mentally grumbled as people parted as they heard his heavy-footed stomps coming down the hall.

There weren’t a lot of people Ben’s size in the building, and the ones that were wore armor, were armed to the teeth, and stood guard over sensitive areas of the building. People probably mistook Ben for one of them, which he’d use to his advantage if it helped him get to the briefing room faster.

Ben rounded the ninety-degree corner and came face to face with an armed guard. The hallway came to an abrupt end, with only a single door in the wall with a small arch in front of it. That door had the number that was on the email that arrived on his PAD yesterday.

“Can I help you, Sir?” The sergeant guarding the door asked.

The sergeant was noticeably smaller than Ben and wasn’t decked out head to toe in armor. He was wearing reinforced smartcloth and had a pistol holstered on his hip. All of that told Ben that this room was secure enough that they wouldn’t just let anyone walk in, but it wasn’t a high security space. That seemed about right for what Ben was here for.

“Lieutenant Commander Gold,” Ben held out his GIC for the sergeant to scan. “I’m here for the eleven hundred briefing.”

The sergeant dutifully scanned Ben’s GIC to see if he was on the list, but Ben saw him take a quick glimpse at the clock on his guard terminal. It was 10:58, and be could practically see what the NCO was thinking.

<Cutting it a bit close aren’t you, Sir.>

The NCO might be thinking that, but he didn’t dare say it. The man had probably led a squad or a smaller fire team in battle against the Blockies, which based on his ribbons he definitely had; but this was Commonwealth headquarters. Protocol was a bigger deal here, and that included a junior NCO not speaking his mind to an officer unless asked for his opinion.

“You’re on the list, Sir. Please place your PAD in one of the lockers, and step through the scanner.”

Ben placed his PAD in one of the secure lockers on the wall next to the door, and sealed it with his GIC. Then he stepped through the scanner, which would check him for everything from weapons to radioactive materials, to anything electronic that could be used to record or transmit that data he was about to receive.

Ben stepped through the three meter high archway spaced only a meter in front of the security door. The scanner remained mercifully silent.

“Have a good day, Sir.” The NCO turned back to his guard duty, and Ben quickly pushed into the room just as the clock struck 11:00.

“Please take your seats ladies and gentlemen.” A commander called from below Ben.

The briefing room was set up in a circular, tiered fashion not that different from the room Ben had given his thesis presentation in back at Oxford. The setup allowed all of the room’s four or five dozen occupants to see directly down into the center where the commander stood on a raised dais surrounded by holo-screens.

Ben hustled down to the top row of attendees and was the last one to take a seat. If the commander noticed the man didn’t care. The expression on the senior officer face showed he clearly wasn’t happy to be here, and he was too busy bringing up more holo-screens and stacking them on top of each other. Soon the other officer was almost completely surrounded by a holographic mosaic of data.

“Everyone is here today because you are slated for deployment to the York Sector in the coming months. If you are not, then would you please leave the room.” To Ben’s surprise a half dozen soldiers and sailors did get up and left. They and the commander looked a bit put off from the poor scheduling.

“Ok then.”

Ben saw a CMU covered arm waved behind the holo-screens and most of them minimized themselves so one could be seen by anyone in the hall. The screen showed the gently spinning form of the Milky Way Galaxy.

“We will begin by orienting you to your new area of operations. The York Sector AO is between two-hundred and forty and two-hundred and thirty-nine point six degrees galactic longitude in the Local Arm approximately one thousand three hundred and twelve light years to one thousand five hundred and two light years from Earth.”

Ben watched at the focus began to tighten on the holo-screen. The bright yellow of the galactic core moved toward the top of the screen as the picture focused in on one of the smaller spiraling arms of the galaxy. The arm that contained the entirety of human controlled space was commonly called the Local Arm, with its full technical name being the Orion-Cygnus Arm.

Soon the collection of closely packed stars at the core of the galaxy disappeared off the top of the holo-screen and the Local Arm came more into focus. A bright red dot popped to life, denoting the location of the Sol System. The screen continued to focus and the red dot of Earth slid up and to the left until it to was outside the screen. Finally, the screen settled on the one hundred and ninety light years of space between two-hundred and forty and two-hundred and thirty-nine point six degrees galactic longitude.

Ben knew all of the measurements that went into classifying a position in the galaxy were relative. Every person who completed high school knew that. Galactic longitude only worked to fix locations in space if things were unmoving. Since everything was constantly in motion they’d developed a standardized picture for the galaxy and plotted everything off that standard. For all they knew humanity’s galactic picture could be upside down and turned around compared to its place in the greater universe.

Ben tried not to think too hard about it. Those types of ideas usually drove men mad. It was like asking “why are we here?”.

“Mapping of the York Sector is still underway,” the commander continued right over Ben’s existential dilemma. “So far the Commonwealth has mapped over three thousand star systems, and conservative estimates say that could increase by two-thirds before mapping is complete.”

As far as sectors of space went that was average, but more important to the people in this room was the fact that it was unclaimed space. And like the Nineteenth Century American manifest destiny craze everyone and their mother was scrambling to claim it.

“I don’t have to tell any of you that this is the outer rim of human explored space, so prepare for a hairy deployment.”

Ben involuntarily gulped, but didn’t let anyone see it. <You have been waiting for this opportunity for years.> He chided himself before turning back into the briefing.

“The main Commonwealth fleet anchorage is here at New Lancashire.” The commander pointed to one of a cluster of blue dots that illuminated on the holo-screen. “You will all be assigned to Task Force Thirty-Three Point Four under Rear Admiral Nelson or the Second Brigade, Second Division, Second Infantry Corps under Commander Patterson.” The commander made another swipe of his hand and the map of York Sector decreased by fifty percent to share the space with an MTOE chart. “Here is the current organization of the task force.”

The breakdown was listed so that even an average civilian could understand it, complete with pictures. Ben would just have to look up the class specs when he had some free time. Task Force thirty-three point four contained a single assault carrier, which made sense. It was a new section of space and the Commonwealth wasn’t going to throw too many resources at freshly terraformed worlds with small populations.

Since that assault carrier carried ten thousand Marines it would be enough to put boots on the ground for any small military campaign. Unless something drastic happened there would only be small military campaigns in the York Sector for the next few decades, but that didn’t mean they’d be any less bloody.

Providing close support for the assault carrier was a single squadron of five battleships. The giant metal behemoths’ sole job was to trade punches with enemy battleships, and they could take a hell of a lot of punishment. Battleships and the still heavily-armed and armored assault carriers tended to make up the main wall of battle for naval operations.

The rest of the task force units had other purposes. Two squadrons of battlecruisers lent significant mobile firepower. The class of warship just below the battleship could be added to the wall of battle in a pinch, but it could take up to three of the smaller ships to contend with a single battleship, and even that wasn’t a guarantee.  The battlecruisers were a good element to use in force projection, which would be critical in expanding the Commonwealth’s interests in the sector.

A pair of missile cruisers and three whole squadrons of destroyers rounded out the rest of the task force. Missile cruisers were nothing more than the maximum amount of missile tubes and fire control crammed into a military-grade duro-steel shell as possible. Only two being assigned to the task force meant that no one envisioned the task force would be engaging in any large scale naval actions anytime soon. Destroyers were used as a screening element in fleet combat, but would serve as a patrolling force or commerce protection in York Sector. With fifteen attached to the task force that probably meant that shipping was starting to pick up in the sector.

What wasn’t on the breakdown of Task Force thirty-three point four were the gunboats, and that was because each assault carrier was equipped with ten of the small scouting ships.

“That is the overall picture of the force strength in the sector. The individual colonized planets in compliance with Commonwealth law have trained and maintained a system militia of soldiers based proportionally on the size of their population.” The comment came out more like a snide remark that a statement of face. “In total they’ve got a handful of brigades worth of hobbyists stationed throughout the system with half of them being on New Lancashire. If push comes to shove don’t expect much.” That got a few laughs from the gathered soldiers and sailors. “They’re equipped with items pulled from surplus before the colony ship shipped out, so you’re talking about weapons over a century old and armor that can’t stand up to anything we have today.”

That didn’t paint a pretty picture if anything major happened, but no one though anything was going to happen anyway; so that whole section of the briefing was about thirty seconds long.

“The bottom line up front ladies and gentlemen is that you are a long way from home with a small-to-medium sized task force and will receive little to no support from the planets aside from issuing a system state of emergency and conscripting soldiers.”

<And it has been over a century and a half since that last happened.> Ben remembered.

“Moving on to threat assessment.” The commander’s fingers danced across his PAD and more dots filled in across the sector.

<Blue for Commonwealth, red for Blockies, green for Euros, yellow for Corpies, orange of hostile forces, and gray for…wait I have never seen gray before.> Ben blinked a few times but sure enough there were still gray dots and a small gray-shaded sphere of space around the dots. In fact, it took up the largest section of the York Sector.

“As you can see everyone is pretty spaced out.” The commander pointed at the tighter concentration of dots signifying colonized planets. “We’ve got four colonies in two systems within a twelve light year bubble around the sector capitol at New Lancashire. The Blockies have another four colonized planets on the opposite side of the sector, with an estimated fifth one in the works. As always outside of the Core Worlds our posture with the Blockies is Threat Condition Red. If they make a hostile move blow their asses into stardust.” That comment got more laughs, and few high fives from soldiers sitting around the room. “Force projections for the Blockies is unknown, but the official line is to expect force parity; so prepare for our friends to the East to put up a fight if it comes down to it.”

“The Euros propped up a single colony two years ago just eighteen light years from our borders.” The commander highlighted the blue sphere extending around the four blue dots. There was only a small section of black, unclaimed space before the much smaller green sphere. “Our posture with them is green and we will honor the mutual military defense agreement that has been in place between our nations for centuries. They’ve apprised us of their in-sector forces; which is only a weak-squadron of battleships, so if shit hits the fan we’re going to be running to their rescue.” A lot of the people in the room didn’t like that idea.

“Yeah…yeah I know. If you don’t like it write your Councilman. As for other hostile forces in the area,” the commander highlighted the dozen orange dots. “We’ve had multiple skirmishes with pirate forces all around the sector, and started a campaign to root them out of their little hideouts. So far we’ve pulverized quite a few, but it has had no noticeable effect on their raiding so there are definitely more where they came from.”

<And that is most likely what I will be doing.> Ben knew the traditional missions of gunboats, and anti-piracy operations were the most common.

“All of the Corpies in the sector are on good standing with us and don’t have anything bigger than a cruiser protecting their shipping, so don’t expect much trouble from them.” With a final swipe everything from the sector disappeared except for the blue and gray areas.

“The final credible force in the York Sector is here in gray.” The commander pointed at the sphere twice as large as the Commonwealth’s blue one. “This area is the space claimed by the Star Kingdom of Windsor.”

Despite Ben’s studies in intergalactic relations he’d only read about this particular polity in passing.

“Our threat posture with them is currently yellow. They aren’t friend and they aren’t foe, but orders from the top are to stay on their good side.”

Ben had a guess why, but he’d have to do more research.

“Force projections put the Star Kingdom with at least its own fleet. We don’t have any more intelligence on their tech, so we can’t tell if they’re on par with us; but if it comes down the sheer numbers then they’ll wipe you out.”

<That is always a good reason to stay on someone’s good side.>

Ben had always known that commanding a Commonwealth warship came with an element of danger, but he’d always imagined he’d be operating somewhere in the Core Worlds. This briefing had shattered that expectation. He was going to be spending at least six months in a hostile sector of space filled with Blockies, pirates, and a singular political entity that had the power to destroy a Commonwealth task force of over thirty warships if they wanted.

<I really need to read up on this Star Kingdom.> Ben moved that task to the top of his to-do list.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 81

Debora placed her elbows on the wooden conference table and shifted most of her weight onto them. She tried not to sigh, but it was difficult. She was looking over the plans to the parking garage where the meeting with Wraith was going to take place in a few hours. She did not like the tactical picture.

<This is a nightmare.> The blue and white blueprints stared back at her mockingly.

<Ingress and egress are shit. One way in and out. We’re going to have to stage SWAT way back and rush in…again. There are too many unknowns once we get inside, too many corners to cover, too much open space, and we still don’t have much actionable intel on the target.>

It was all shaping up to be another clusterfuck.

The soft squeak of the door’s hinges rubbing together brought the DVA agent out of her sour mood. Into the room walked the last person she wanted to see. The man was smartly dressed in a fitted, expensive suit, his teeth were too white, his hair was coiffed, and he seemed to have a permanent smile. She recognized the DVA PR director for the area, and he was the bane of her existence right now.

“Are those the blueprints?” he asked, pointing to the paper she was trying to set fire to with her eyes.

“Yes.” She deliberately didn’t look up at him to avoid showing her contempt.

The man could be absolutely no help in the planning of this operation. He probably hadn’t fired a weapon since the academy, and had probably never served in a field position. He was just another one of those spineless bureaucrats who were making her already difficult mission impossible.

“I just wanted to check something.” He pulled out his smart phone, hit some buttons, looked at the blueprint, and hit some more. “Ah…just what I thought. This just won’t do.”

“Excuse me?” Debora kept the growl out of her throat. “What do you mean this won’t do?”

“The location for the meeting.” The DVA pencil-pusher scoffed. “The parking garage is right in the center of Orlando. We can’t have another fiasco like last time. A heavy police presence two nights in a row is going to get the media talking. Plus, we’re still getting a lot of flak for the failed operation.

“Failed operation?” Debora breathed heavily and tried to keep her fist from shaking.

“What else would you call that circus that left a dozen clubbers dead and twice as many wounded?”

Debora tried very hard not to smack the self-righteous prick right in the face. What he had called a failed op had singlehandedly dismantled a large portion of the Fist’s leadership. They were keeping a lid on it until the current op was completed, but soon the damage would reverberate through the city. The gang would panic without its leaders, which would lead to mistakes, or they’d try and skip town. Either way the local PD and DVA would be able to clean up the streets.

Debora didn’t like the fact that a dozen people had died in the raid, but it could have been a hell of a lot more. She considered the drugs they found on site, along with the weapons, and women that were being trafficked as lives saved. It was an ugly mathematical equation, but it was one Debora had to believe in. Something good had to come from all the bad. If it didn’t then that was a failure.

All of this was beyond the desk-weenie who was trying to tell her how to do her job.

“Let’s move the operation here.” He pointed at the map. “Much more remote with less chances of collateral damage and hopefully no cameras.”

“We can’t.” Debora tried to keep her voice as pleasant as possible.

“Why not?” The man’s feathers were ruffled now, and she took a little bit of pleasure in that.

“The meet is already set for this location. The meetings between the target and the Fist have always been at this location. If the location were to change we would likely lose the target, and then the target would learn the scope of last night’s operation. The likelihood that we’d find the target again are almost zero. So we have to do it here and now.”

Debora ignored the strange noises coming from the man and concentrated on the blueprints.

He starting and stopping what he was going to say a few times before he finally spit it out. “I will not be responsible for this public relations nightmare.” He stated dramatically.

“Fine by me.”

<Don’t let the door hit you on the ass on the way out.> She kept that part to herself.

The man left muttering to himself and Debora got back to work. Ten minutes later, she still didn’t have a good plan to make this operation work.

The problem was that the meeting place was on the bottom level, underground. The Fist members would just walk right in, and she was confident Wraith would be getting their early. Everything she’d read about the young supervillain said that Wraith was competent.

Wraith could either walk in like the Fist, which was unlikely, or she could just teleport into the structure. Either way they needed eyes in that parking garage.

“Commander Jenkins,” she called, beckoning the big SWAT commander. “We need eyes and ears in there ASAP.”

“We’ve already got a team in route,” the commander grinned. If Debora didn’t know any better she’d think the man was flirting with her.

“ETA two minutes.”

“Good,” she nodded with a small smile.

<He is my type of guy.> She shook her head and pushed her love life to the back of her mind. There were more important things to deal with.

To get SWAT and DVA agents in there they’d either have to plant them in the garage beforehand, or run them down through the maze of concrete once positive identification was made. Either plan was risky. If they preplaced and then got ID’d, then that was game set match. Wraith would disappear and they wouldn’t see her again for years. Running in after ID wasn’t much better. The targets would hear them coming and be gone before the army of cops arrived. They’d might be able to snag the Fist members, but Wraith was too slippery to get caught that way.

<We really need a nullifier.> Problem was that there were no ranged nullifiers available on such short notice.

Absence was in town, but she had to touch her target to null their powers. Absence and Wraith had already faced off before, and the Hero hadn’t come away unscathed. Deborah didn’t like sending the Hero in without backup. It was too risky

Daisy was the best option, and Debora lobbied for the famed Hero’s inclusion in this op, but that had been shot down immediately. ForceOps was already pissed that she’d been heavily involved in the club raid. Now, they weren’t asking for cooperation anymore. They were telling the DVA what to do with Reaper.

Those conversations were way above her paygrade though, so she focused on the mission. Unfortunately, that left only one option.

She made a call.

Twenty minutes later, she was watching the camera’s being set up in the parking garage and Seraphim walked in.

Despite being a well-known and accomplished Hero, the woman was slightly terrifying. Her wings and poison barbed tail twitched with agitation as she walked into the Protectorate’s HQ with a lethal grace. Her eyes scanned the room through the slits in her tech genius designed armored helmet, and she smiled at the gathered people. Despite the wings and name, Seraphim was more demon than angel.

“Agent Phillips,” Seraphim’s voice was seductively feminine, which did not match her appearance. “You have information for me?”

“Yes. Thank you for coming. Please sit.”

“I prefer to stand.” Seraphim crossed her arms in front of her expectantly.

“Ok then.” Debora pointed at the blueprints. “We’ve got reliable intelligence that Wraith will be meeting with members of the Fist in a few hours. The meeting will be on the bottom level of an underground parking garage.”

Debora looked back and had to force herself not to recoil. Seraphim’s face had split into a sneer that fully barred her longer-than-they-looked fangs. Her talon-like fingernails were digging into the wood as she leaned over and intently inspected the plans.

“We’ve ruled out preplacing SWAT and rushing in once positive identification is made.” Debora continued to explain. “We’re out of ideas, and wanted some advice from a veteran Hero.”

<Stroking their ego is always a good tactic.> Debora kept her face neutral as she watched Seraphim look over the plans.

The shifter’s twitching wings and tail had gone utterly still.

“I’ll go in here.” It was an order not a statement from the Hero.

Debora looked where the shifter was pointing. It was the roof.

“Um. . .”

“Have a structural engineer take a look. Once we get positive confirmation that Wraith is there I’ll hit this spot like a Hellfire missile. I’ll be able to break through the concrete layers with minimal damage to myself or the structure. I’ll engage Wraith, take her down, and hopefully bring her in.” Debora knew Seraphim’s reputation, so she hoped “bringing her in” didn’t involve a body bag.”

“Have Absence standing by to take custody, I hear she’s in town.” The plan didn’t do much to alleviate the DVA agent’s suspicions.

“What if she runs?” Debora played devil’s advocate. “She is a teleporter.”

“She won’t,” Seraphim sounded supremely confident. “Our intel states she is a young woman, late teens, early twenties, and a woman like that is going to have something to prove. I’ve been going around the city for a while now, kicking down doors and disrupting the order of things. If Wraith is half the person I think she is, she’ll stand and fight. She won’t be able to resist the idea of taking down two Heroes.”

“Can you take her?” Debora wouldn’t be doing her job if she didn’t ask the question.

“I can if I can get in close, am quick enough, and have luck on my side. Fighting teleporters is like trying the catch air in your bare hands, and Wraith has some additional abilities on top of that. I’ve trained to fight a teleporter, but not one like her.”

If Debora didn’t know better she could have sworn she heard a hint of doubt in the Hero’s voice.

“Reports also say she travels heavily armed, so the potential for collateral damage will be high. I’d advise that you keep your people back until I give the all clear.”

Somehow in the last half-hour there had been a role swap. Debora was now the DVA weenie in the way and Seraphim was the field operative that was going to get the job done. The difference was that Debora realized this and knew what to do.

“We’ll give you all the support we can.” Debora gave the Hero a nod. “I’ll let you prep. We’ll get our people into position to secure the perimeter, and radio you when we have a positive ID on Wraith.”

“Very well, Agent Phillips.” For a moment Seraphim looked grateful and relieved, but then it was gone, and the shifter was stalking out of the room.

Debora headed straight for the surveillance equipment.

Things moved quickly after Seraphim left. Commander Jenkins had to get his team together to be ready to go when Seraphim gave the all clear. He wasn’t happy about playing second string to the Hero, but Debora was able to calm him down. She might have even agreed to a date when things settled down.

Next, she put in the request to get Absence on scene to handle Wraith once she’d been neutralized. After that, she established communications. She got in touch with Dispatch and relayed all the information so the communication’s Hero could relay it through the proper channels. When that was all completed she was still nervous, but she’d done everything she could.

Despite the DVA PR moron’s idiotic suggestions, the man had one valid point. Press had been bad for the DVA in Orlando. The nightclub raid made national news, and the DVA brass were playing defense with the media. Thankfully, a few of the guys at the top had spent more than enough time in the field. They knew that even the best laid plans ended with casualties. So they had Debora’s back.

“Anything yet?” Debora was pacing in the back of a large utility truck filled with equipment and analysts.

It was time to get the party started. The area had been discretely blocked off, Seraphim was circling far overhead, and the Fist members were approaching the garage.

<She has to be there.> Debora knew enough about the supervillain to feel uneasy about things so far.

They’d been watching the garage for hours and nobody had come or gone since then. Either Wraith had been in there all day and had watched them install the small cameras, she wasn’t showing, or she was there and they couldn’t see her.

“Run through the different views again.” Debora was agitated, and she knew it was rubbing the tech the wrong way, but the guy knew his job and followed orders.

“Nothing on regular,” several cameras started panning left and right. “Nothing on IR.” That was the most concerning. “Night vision isn’t showing anything either.”

“Here come the Fist guys.” Debora pointed as a small contingent of gang members walked into sight.

They milled about in the center of the space looking just as confused as Debora. The man’s mouth started to move on the screen, but the audio was barely audible.

“Clean that up. I want to hear what he’s saying.”

The tech went to work hitting switches, fiddling knobs, and doing things beyond Debora’s comprehension to get the audio. While he did that she continued to watch the video closely. There was still no sign of Wraith.

“Wait what was that?” Something seemed to come loose from the ceiling and fall on the Fist member’s head. “Rewind and zoom.”

The tech was probably irritated, but he was a professional. He could multitask. “And I’ve got sound.” He completed it all and hit play.

“…for our money.” The gang member was saying while posturing.

There was a short pause and then what was clearly a stack of money dropped from the ceiling onto his head.

“That’s her,” Debora pointed uselessly at the screen. “She’s there we just aren’t seeing her for some reason.” She pressed her ear to activate the Hero communications device. “Seraphim we’ve got a tentative ID. Proceed at your discretion.”

Debora hadn’t see Wraith with her own two eyes, so this could only be classified as “tentative”. But both Debora and Seraphim knew that Debora wouldn’t waste the Hero’s time by calling in false alarms.

“Roger that.”

Debora could hear the anger in the Hero’s voice. And then she watched the exterior cameras as Seraphim did one last circle, climbed high into the air, and shot down toward the garage like a rogue tomahawk. The impact echoed through the concrete and killed the audio, but Debora had a front row seat to a chunk of the roof crushing the Fist member like a piece of rotten fruit.





A few rapid teleports around the room and Wraith had a full rundown of what was happening. The detail offered from her darkness feedback was much more precise than the normal mark-one eyeball.

The infamous Hero was still standing where she had landed, on top of the jagged concrete block that had turned the Fist leader into puree. She had two daggers clutched in each hand, and was spinning them agitatedly. Those Wraith needed to stay away from.

The battle plan was a simple one in theory but difficult to execute. The bottom line was that Wraith couldn’t win this fight. Seraphim was too tough to be killed by a teleporter, even a teleporter with exploding ammunition and grenades. Wraith knew it and so did Seraphim, so that wasn’t what this was all about. This was all about ego and perception. Seraphim was there to say that Wraith couldn’t hang with the big girls, that she wasn’t supervillain enough to stand up to a first-class Hero when they were ready for her.

<If you knew what was good for you, you’d get the hell out of here.> The more rational side of Wraith, the Liz side that had friends, a boyfriend, and a dinner to get back to argued.

But that rational side didn’t hold much weight at the moment. Liz was gone for the time being. This was Wraith’s show.

“Yeah, I’m here.” Wraith replied nonchalantly, but while still keeping a thick concrete pillar between her and Seraphim.

Good thing she did because one of the daggers came zipping through the air and buried itself handle deep in the concrete.

“Wooo! That’s some hot shit right there.” Wraith couldn’t help but laugh.

Seraphim didn’t throw the second dagger, but she kept spinning it in her hand agitatedly.

“Why don’t we talk and get to know each other a little bit. After all we have a lot in common.”

Wraith stuck her head out from behind the pillar for just a moment before teleporting away. The second dagger didn’t miss her by much.

“Use your words, big gal. I wouldn’t want to think you were being impolite. I’d hate to start doing some serious damage to this place.” Wraith laughed as the darkness cleared.

“We don’t have anything in common, little girl,” Seraphim used the inverse of the insult Wraith had just lobbed her way.

And if Wraith was being honest with herself it pissed her off a little. After all she had killed this demon-looking motherfucker’s husband. A piece of ammunition she would keep for later use to really throw the Hero off balance.

“Maybe…maybe not, but I’ve got to respect your body count. I am big enough to admit that I’m small time compared to you.”

Seraphim might have used her throwing daggers already, but she could still move like a bat out of hell when she wanted to.

Black exploded outward when the Hero was only a few feet from where Wraith had been. Wraith saw through the dissipating darkness the Hero turn and reorient herself back toward where Wraith might be, so she didn’t see the little present Wraith had left behind.

The grenade went off with a loud BOOM and a brilliant flash. Seraphim was flung forward by the concussive blast and landed on her face. The Hero wasn’t down for long. She rolled to the side and sprang to her feet like a gymnast without even flapping her wings.

As far as scoring any damage went, it was a failure. But it was embarrassing for the Hero to be caught off guard like that. That was what made Wraith laugh.

“You’ve got to learn to take a compliment.” She teleported after the statement, but before Seraphim crashed through the pillar she was hiding behind. “Or does that make you angry? A person like me wanting to be just like you. That must irk you?”

A wing slashed up into the rafters she was hiding in. The metal beam didn’t offer much resistance as the wing sliced through it easily.

“That must be an awesome party trick.” Wraith came out of her teleport all the way across the room.

The Hero was moving at amazing speeds, and despite the bravado Wraith was barely keeping ahead of her. That was what this entire fight was about, reaction time.

“You should try that on a bottle of champagne.” Wraith teleported again, but changed it up this time. Instead of just teleporting around she used her perception in the darkness to aim and fire an explosive round directly into Seraphim’s head.

Since all senses were drowned out by the overwhelming darkness, the Hero didn’t even see it coming. One second she was turning to reacquire Wraith’s location, and the next she was staggering sideways as a small fireball bloomed around her ear.

“Tsk…tsk…tsk… you need to play better with others.”

Seraphim responded with a predatory growl that made the reptilian portions of Wraith’s brain quiver in fear.

“I’m going to rip you in half little girl.”

Wraith gulped, and teleported again for good measure. “That’s not very nice. And we were having such a good talk.”

Wraith pulled the pin on two of her grenades and teleported them into the shadow of the rafters. The plan was to have them blow up right around Seraphim’s head, causing the Hero more pain and embarrassment. Several parts of the Hero’s costume were already singed, so there was no question that there had been a good fight. That was all Wraith could hope for.

Instead of the tactic going as planned, it backfired. Instead of falling and exploding next to the Hero’s head, Seraphim spun in anticipation. Her tail whipped out and struck the grenades dead on. A hollow whack, like a baseball player hitting a home run, echoed through the parking garage as the grenades went flying back in the direction of Wraith.

<Oh fucknuggets.> Wraith was able to teleport away, but not before she felt the heat of the explosion on her face. <That was too close.>

But it was just the beginning of the tides turning.

Wraith was off balance from the near miss and Seraphim took full advantage of it. She came charging after the blooms of darkness that signaled Wraith’s teleportations. Wraith dropped more grenades, but she either batted them aside or shrugged them off. Seraphim was pressing her advantage, and sooner or later she was going to catch Wraith.

<Stupid bitch! Why won’t you at least stumble when I shoot you in the fucking head.> The Glock bucked in Wraith’s hand before she teleported, but the darkness feedback showed it hadn’t done much more than smack Seraphim’s head to the side. <I can’t keep this up for much longer.>

“Come out come out wherever you are.” The verbal banter had also taken a serious turn for the worse.

Seraphim was now the one mocking as she ran through the parking garage stalking the defenseless teleporter.

“Fuck you lady.” Wraith growled as Seraphim’s claws missed by inches.

“No thank you.” Came the dignified response. “This is much more fun.”

“I bet so,” Wraith teleported twice, once to either side of her for long enough to put a round into each of her temples.

“You’re more of a challenge than your husband. He died way too quick to have any fun with.”

Instead of going into a rage like Wraith expected, Seraphim stopped and just stood there. She was pissed as hell, one look into the Hero’s eyes showed the supervillain that, but this was a cold fury. Wraith realized that goading her about her dead husband wasn’t the way to throw the Hero off balance.

“I’m going to make you eat those words. Preferably through a straw because I’ve knocked all of your teeth out.” Seraphim was still standing oddly still.

Wraith was thirty feet away with half a destroyed concrete pillar between her and the Hero. “Could we not hit the face?” Wraith knew the statement was defensive, but she felt a sudden need to protect the beauty beneath the mask.

<Would Seth still love me if I had all my teeth knocked out and was eating through a straw?> It was a horrible time to have that thought as Seraphim charged again.

Wraith got out of the way in time, but left behind a little surprise. A surprise that wasn’t meant for Seraphim. Wraith had a new plan. <Time for the final act.>

Wraith started to teleport all over the room; none of them close to the vengeful Hero, and sometimes not even facing her. But there was a pattern to them. Each time Wraith teleported she appeared next to one of the support pillars. She’d done this before which was why it took a few teleports for Seraphim to catch onto the plan.

Because each time Wraith appeared and disappeared she left behind a grenade.

<If you can’t beat them then blow some shit up.>

As Wraith reached the last few pillars on the floor the first grenades started to go off. The whole structure started to groan like a drunken hobo as all of the weight started to shift to other supports; which quickly disappeared in explosions of fire and concrete shrapnel.

After those first explosions Seraphim figured out the plan. Wraith was vulnerable now. The Hero’s speed carried her across the floor in a blur just as Wraith appeared and dropped the last grenade.

As fast as the Hero was she still wasn’t able to get to Wraith in time to stop her, but the seasoned veteran still had a trick up her sleeve.

Wraith dropped her last grenade, turned to see the destruction, and instead saw Seraphim whipping her barbed tail in her direction. It happened so fast Wraith didn’t even see it.

Three of the barbs snapped off of Seraphim’s tail and tore through the air toward the supervillain. They were barely a blur they were traveling so fast. One of those barbs would have gone through Wraith like a cruise missile through a cardboard box. Even her fancy armor wouldn’t have been able to save her against something with that velocity.

Wraith thought of this all after the fact, but at the moment she about shit her pants in fear. Luckily, whatever mystical forces ruled the universe decided to give her a pass. Two of the barbs completely missed. They hit the concrete wall behind Wraith like machine gun rounds, showering her with bits of concrete. But she wasn’t so lucky with the third barb.

The last barb didn’t really hit her. It just grazed her leg enough to cut through the armor, tactical pants, and the top layer of skin.

But that was enough.

Wraith felt the cold tingling sensation immediately start to work its way up her leg. She’d done enough research on Seraphim to guess what was happening. Even though nothing she read ever said she could do this.

It was a good thing that in situations like this Wraith was a doer more than a thinker. Because the near instantaneous teleportation saved her life. A second later the grenade blew, the last pillar fell, and the whole parking garage collapsed under its own weight.

Even Seraphim hadn’t stuck around to see if she’d scored a deathblow. The Hero completed her attack, unfurled her wings, and rocketed through the collapsing ceiling and into the night air; which was starting to fill with a slowly expanding cloud of dust and debris.

Liz appeared in Seth’s room as the cold continued to spread through her body faster than any poison she’d ever heard of. She was Liz now. The fire that was her Wraith persona had been extinguished by the toxin Seraphim had pumped into her body. Of course, she was still wearing the costume, which at the moment was a big problem.

<I’ve gotta get out of here.> Wraith focused on her room in the underground mansion but when she tried to teleport nothing happened. <What the shit?> She tried again, but nothing happened, and the poison finished working its way down her legs.

Liz collapsed into a heap on the floor.

“Motherfucker,” Liz grumbled. Starting to feel her tongue go numb. Soon she wouldn’t be able to speak, and she was in a very compromising position if anyone walked into the room.

Her legs didn’t respond as she tried to move them, so she used her arms to crawl to the nearest cover she could find. Her and Seth’s large bed was only a few feet away. That was her best chance.

<I feel like a fucking four-year-old.> Liz complained as she started to pull herself under the cover of the bed.

It was a tight squeeze, especially when she got to her ass. She’d always thought having a bodacious ass was a good thing; that was until she had to cram it under the bed when she was partially paralyzed and starting to lose feeling in her arms.

<Suck it in.> She commanded herself, and with a final push of effort forces her ass under the bed.

She had a few more seconds of feeling in her limbs which she used to get the rest of herself under cover. She wasn’t sure if she was totally concealed when her arms finally gave out. She’d tried to angle herself so her feet weren’t poking out, but that was hard to do when you couldn’t feel where your feet were.

<Well this is just fan-fucking-tastic.> Liz thought as she lay face down underneath the bed. <But look on the brightside; I’m still breathing and not buried in the fucking parking garage.>

Those were the only positives she could think of because right now she was still dressed in her full Wraith costume, completely paralyzed, and hiding underneath the bed in a room she shared with possibly the only person she really loved in this world. The dressing on top of that shit sandwich was that she didn’t know if the poison was going to kill her much less how long she’d be paralyzed if it didn’t.

<All I can do is wait and hope Seth forgives me if he finds me like this.>

Those were Liz’s last thoughts before the toxins reached her brain and knocked her out.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 46

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

Coop couldn’t keep the grin off his face. He’d won his first fight, which automatically put him in the top half of the class when it came to kicking ass.

<I’ll show you.> Despite the win, Coop’s ego was still a little raw after the SSG Cunningham’s assertion that none of them knew how to fight.

<Just look at Davenport’s face.>

While everyone else was able to move to the medics under their own power, Davenport was not. A team of four medics jogged over to him with a stretcher, stuck him with a few needles, and then carried him off the floor. Coop passed by the barely conscious jackass as he walked across the mats toward his next match.

Winning this next match would put him in the top quarter of the class. <Eve would have to notice me then…right?> Coop knew it was sappy shit, but he really wanted to impress his squad leader. He’d been with her long enough to know she only wanted to deal with the best.

The holographic number 12 was bobbing up and down at the corner of the combat-square. Coop entered the square and closed his eyes. Despite the ass kicking he’d given Davenport the fight had been too close for comfort. Coop had been careless and let Davenport get in and score a nearly crippling blow. Coop couldn’t have that happen again. If he was facing a bigger, stronger opponent he needed to approach the situation more rationally.

“Shit, Coop, you look like you walked through a slaughterhouse.”

Coop opened his eyes and saw Eve Berg grinning at him from across the combat-square.

<She must be here to wish me luck,> Coop thought, which would have been a great sign of their growing relationship.

But then he looked at where she was standing. Eve was inside the combat-square, and there was only one reason she’d be standing there.

<You’ve got to be shitting me.>

“You’ve got to be shitting me.” Coop couldn’t help but voice his thought.

The grin Eve had been wearing a second ago transformed into a glare. Coop had gone and stuck his foot in his mouth again.

“No. . .sorry. . .that’s not how I meant it.” Coop scrambled. “I just hoped I wouldn’t have to fight you.”

“Why? Because I’m a girl. You don’t think I can hold my own in a fight?”

Eve had her hands on her hips with one hip cocked out to the side. Despite her being pissed, Coop’s eyes couldn’t help but linger on those curves for a second too long.

“No.” Coop knew that Eve had seen him staring, and that only made things worse. “It’s because you’re my squad leader.”

“Sure,” Eve scoffed, glaring daggers into him. “As your squad leader, don’t think I won’t knock your ass out.”

Coop knew what he shouldn’t do. He knew it in his bones, but he couldn’t help himself.

He couldn’t stop the chuckle from escaping his lips.

If Eve had been glaring at him before she was straight up murdering him with her eyes now.

“Eve, come on.” Coop tried to salvage the situation. “It’s not about being a girl or a guy. It’s about me having fifteen kilos on you and almost ten centimeters. You’ve got to see that right?”

“Oh I see it.” Eve might have been nodding yes, but her eyes were not agreeing with Coop’s assessment of her disadvantages. “But you’re also pretty fucking blind.”

Coop took a second and thought about Eve’s statement. Then he really looked at her. There were always telltale signs of how someone had done in a fight, even if they won. Coop looked at Eve’s face for any swelling or the beginnings of a shiner. It was tough to look past her fierce beauty, even if she looked like she wanted to punch him in the dick. She didn’t have a mark.

Next he checked out her hands. He checked for signs of swelling from punching someone wrong. Again nothing. He checked for split knuckles, or anything to show how she’d beaten her last opponent.

She was spotless.

Lastly he looked at her body, but only in a mildly voyeuristic way. It was tough to ignore her curves, but he was more interested in any areas that might be injured. She was shifting from foot to foot, cocking opposite hips in frustration, but she didn’t seem to be favoring anything. For all Coop knew, it looked like Eve hadn’t even been in a fight.

<The nanites.> Coop remembered. <They must have healed her up.>

“Thirty seconds!” the SSG yelled, as she circled the floor.

“Ok, fine.” Coop tried for a second time to salvage the train wreck that was their pre-fight conversation. “You won your first fight so you deserve to be here, but don’t think I’m going to go easy on you. You might be my squad leader but I’m going to win this thing.”

Coop expected at least grudging respect for his determination. He didn’t expect Eve to just laugh in his face.

“You think you’re going to beat me?” She rolled her eyes like it was the funniest thing she’d ever heard.

It almost threw him off his game.

“You couldn’t beat me if you tried.”

“Wanna bet?” Coop didn’t plan on saying it, it just slipped out.

It surprised him even more when she nodded.

“I get my pick of your MRE snacks when we’re out in the field next.” Coop thought of the best thing he could. Those MRE snacks could be the difference between a good and bad day.

“HA,” Eve barked a single laugh. “That’s small time, Coop, and I don’t want to take your lunch like some schoolyard bully.” She started to shake out her limbs in preparation for the start of the fight.

“I tell you what, Coop.” She was grinning mischievously now. “If by some miracle you can beat me then I’ll fuck you.”

“Ready. . .set. . .begin!” The SSG counted down the last three seconds, but Coop didn’t even move.

It was like he’d just won the fucking lottery.

<She’d fuck me just like that.> Coop had trouble concentrating as images of her naked body writhing rhythmically beneath him as he thrusted into her kept popping into his mind.

“Hey! Commonwealth to Coop, we got a deal?” Eve was waiting with her hands on her hips, and her foot impatiently tapping the mat.

Coop couldn’t keep the grin off his face. “Deal.” He said, then charged her.

The tactic might not have worked out so well against Davenport, but Coop was bigger and stronger than Eve. Even if she was able to land a hit it probably wasn’t going to do much good, and she’d given him enough motivation to do just about anything.

Eve tried to dodge to the side and circle around him, but he got a hand on her. Her jab hit him square in the chin, but it didn’t do anything to stop his momentum. They fell twisting to the side, and rolled over a few times; both trying to use their body’s momentum to end up on top.

Coop won the battle, and found himself in the exact position he envisioned himself in less than ten seconds ago. The only difference was the clothing.

Coop tried to rise up so he could punch down at Eve and knock her unconscious, but she had her legs wrapped tightly around his midsection and her hands clasped firmly behind his neck and pulling him down. She was hanging onto him like a clingy spider-monkey.

Coop would be lying if he said he didn’t like the feel of her body pressed against his, but being in this position wasn’t getting him any closer to boning her.

Coop braced his arms at his side against the mat, brought both him and her off the mat, and then slammed back down. He knew the blow hurt, because Eve let out a painful grunt; so he did it again. The second time he felt her grip slacken. The third time he braced to lift them both she let go before he slammed her back down. She went to grab one of his arms that was braced against the mat, but he was too quick. Coop pulled himself up as high as he could go, so that Eve couldn’t get her hold back.

He was now clear to punch down at her and win the fight. In preparation for the strikes she knew were coming Eve was already covering up to protect her head.

<I don’t want to mess up your face.> Despite being in a similar situation less than ten minutes ago, Coop did not feel the overwhelming urge to turn a human face into mashed up hamburger meat.

Even though he didn’t want to repeatedly punch Eve in the face he knew he had to. If he didn’t Eve would be pissed at him for treating her like a dainty, helpless woman; although they both knew that wasn’t true. Also, he would like to see her in this position again, without pants, and panting like a dog in heat as he fucked her silly.

Coop first punch hit her forearms. It wasn’t as strong as the ones he’d throw against Davenport, and her successful block told him he would have to hit harder. His second punch was more forceful. It landed, and he heard Eve’s muffled curse. His third battered through her defenses too, and he felt her face give way under his fist.

<Come on, just tap out.> Coop mentally pleaded with her. This wasn’t nearly as much fun as it had been with Davenport.

On his fourth strike things changed. Just when his fist was about to smash into her defenses again Eve shifted to the side, grabbed his arm as it hit nothing but air and trapped it. The move caught Coop completely by surprise, but it wasn’t as surprising as when Eve thrust her hips upward around his neck.

<What the fuck?> Coop thought as he felt the pressure building.

Somehow Eve had snaked both legs around his neck. One leg was pressed against the side of his throat and curled around the back of his neck at a ninety degree angle. Her other leg had trapped the arm he’d used to punch her with. It was squeezing that arm against the other side of his throat and had locked down the other leg by securing it in the crook behind her knee.

It took Coop a second to realize he’d gone from being in total control, and punching Eve in the face to Eve choking him with his own arm.

<Shit!> Coop’s vision was beginning to blur from the lack of oxygen, and to add insult to injury Eve was using her free hand to pull down on the back of Coop’s head, further tightening her unusual choking technique. <How do I get her off?>

His one arm was trapped and wasn’t going anywhere. He tried to reach up and dislodge one of her legs with his free arm, but it had a vice-grip on his neck. It wasn’t going anywhere.

<Shit…shit…shit!> Coop acted out of desperation and went for the Hail Mary.

With his last bit of strength Coop got his feet underneath himself and started to lift Eve off the ground. The only solution he had was to pick her up and slam her back into the ground. He just didn’t know if he had the strength to get her high enough to break her iron grip on his throat.

Coop only had Eve a few inches off the ground when she reacted. As he focused on lifting her, Eve snaked an arm around one of his ankles and pulled. The awkward angle of the lift, and Coop’s rapidly degrading mental capacity resulted in him falling backward.

Eve road the fall like a surfer riding a wave.

<How the hell did that happen?> One second Coop was on top of Eve ready to smash her into the ground, and now she was on top of him.

Coop was on his back now with his arms only weakly responding to his mental commands, while Eve still had her choke securely locked in.

“Nice try, Coop.” She turned her head to the side and spit out a glob of blood. “You might be bigger and stronger, but you’re forgetting one very important variable…skill.”

Coop didn’t have enough oxygen in his lungs or flowing to his brain to respond.

“Shhh go to sleep. I’ll tell you where you messed up when you wake up.” She patted him on the head.

<Shit.> Coop’s chance to bone his super-hot squad leader was slipping through his fingers just like his consciousness. <Oh well.>Coop’s body went slack as he blacked out.  

There were worse ways to go than being choked out by a woman sitting on your face.




Eve Berg


The moment Coop’s body went limp Eve released her triangle choke. Her number two had lasted a lot longer than most people who fell into the ju-jitsu technique, but he didn’t have the knowledge to get out of it. Trying to pick her up and smash her had been a lucky guess, but she was ready to counter that type of attack.

“Medic,” she called over, waving a soldier over to Coop’s motionless body.

Looking down at him, Eve couldn’t help but blush. The fight had been a rush, in more ways than one. Her first fight had been boring. She’d landed a simple one-two-three combo and knocked a girl from fifth squad out in the first five seconds.

Coop had at least lasted longer and put up a fight. She massaged her jaw gently. But it wasn’t only the fight that had her excited. Sure, fighting always got Eve riled up, but never like this.

<When he was on top of me…> Eve shivered and had to shut down the memory.

Hot and bothered did not even begin to cover it.

The real question was what to do now. If she just went and fucked Coop she’d get on the SSG’s bad side, and maybe even get booted out of basic. She couldn’t have that, not after her talk with her brother. On the other hand, if she just ignored it, there was bound to be awkwardness on her part, and a degradation of her unit’s cohesion.

A medic showed up in the middle of her quandary. He pulled out a stick of something from a polyplast tube and waved it under Coop’s nose. Coop’s whole body jerked as the odorous chemicals shocked him back to consciousness.

“Head over to the tables, Recruits, and get checked out.”

Eve didn’t wait for Coop to get up and join her. She needed time to think, and having him in her immediate vicinity made her think of only one thing.

<Damnit.> Despite everything, Eve couldn’t get the image of her straddling a naked Coop out of her head.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 45

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

Coop ran across the mats to his preassigned square. It was an awkward sensation. The mats were firm, firm enough that he didn’t roll an ankle while running across them; but they also conformed to his foot with every step. It was like running in really shallow sand. Coop had done that once on one of Lake Erie’s beaches before his mother died. Beach being a term used very loosely. Most people would have called it an ecological disaster, or at best a dump.

<7.> Coop reached the holographic number that was bobbing slightly in the air and waited.

Less than five seconds later his opponent appeared.

<I’m going to knock you the fuck out you stupid motherfucker.> Coop could feel adrenaline pumping through his veins as he locked eyes with Andrew Davenport.

Everyone in second squad would have sold their left nut, or ovary, for the chance to whoop Davenport’s ass. Hell, everyone in the company probably wanted to take a swing at the jackass. Ever since his comment back on the first day people had seen him for what he truly was.

Davenport tried to play himself off as a knowledgeable, competent, even superior recruit to everyone, but he didn’t fool anyone. In reality, he was a lazy sack of shit. He always complained, even if it was the simplest task, and he only did just enough to get by. Sometimes he didn’t do it at all and the rest of the squad had to cover down on his workload.

Coop was the first to admit that he also complained, sometimes a lot, but he always got the job done; and he personally thought some of his complaints were warranted.

<If one fails then you all fail.> SSG Cunningham had driven that point home early on, so second squad not only had to accomplish their tasks, but they had to clean up after Davenport on top of that.

It resulted in an atmosphere where Davenport did a lot of walking around and talking while everyone else was working. Since the squad needed a healthy way to vent their frustrations they constantly belittled him, made jokes at his expense, and did their best to not include him in anything they were doing. Because if they did, he would just walk around and give orders like he was the squad leader. Eve had given up on rehabilitating him. Now she just did damage control with anything he got involved in.

All of this meant that there was no greater gift in this world than being given the opportunity to kick Davenport’s ass.

“Andrew,” Coop said calmly, but he couldn’t keep the vicious smile off his face.

“I’m going to wipe that smirk off your face, Cooper.” Davenport cocked his head to either side, his neck cracking audibly. “You’re just another little Rat shit that needs to be put in his place.”

Coop tried really hard not to laugh. “Bring it.”

While Coop might have been daydreaming about this moment for weeks, actually getting the job done wasn’t going to be a walk in the park.

Davenport was big, not as big as Mike, but still bigger than Coop. Being a former Rat, Coop had been thin when he arrived at the training center. Since then, regular physical exercise, good air, and three square meals a day had put a good ten kilos of muscle onto his frame. Normally that wouldn’t have been possible, but the wonders of technology could do a lot a normal person couldn’t.

Still, Davenport had joined the military already fit and with a fifteen kilo advantage. The only thing Davenport didn’t slack in was the physical challenges, so while Coop had put some meat on his bones so had Davenport.

While the squad jackass might have had the weight advantage, Coop had the reach. Davenport was about five centimeters shorter, and on top of that Coop’s arms were just naturally longer.

If this was a professional fight between two trained combatants both of them would have been able to make use of their advantages. But Coop and Davenport weren’t trained fighters. This would be a down and dirty brawl, there was no way around that; and Davenport’s physical prowess was going to be a problem for Coop.

Not that Coop was thinking about that at the moment.

“As Petty Officer Janney already stated you may not kill your opponent.” SSG Cunningham’s magnified voice echoed throughout the room. “If you step out of your square you will cease fighting, reenter the square, and then continue. If any of these trainers see you not following that rule you will learn a very painful lesson. Understood?”

“Yes, Staff Sergeant!” The company yelled as a side door opened and another dozen soldiers with corporal chevrons walked into the room.

“Good, because this is your one and only warning.” The SSG waited for the trainers to space themselves around the room. “Each match will last for three minutes. After that, if both of you are still conscious, a winner will be decided. If you win you will have a five minute rest where you are free to see the medics.” Another door opened and half a dozen people with red crosses on their CMUs entered and took a seat at some tables along the wall. “After the rest period is up you will move to the next assigned square to continue.”

“Lastly, and most importantly.” The SSG’s hard eyes passed over the company. “You may surrender to your opponent at any time. If you feel a tap on your body, see or hear a tap on the mat, or are told by a trainer that your opponent is tapping then you will immediately break contact. If you do not, you will answer to me.”

No one needed to be asked if they understood. Facing off against the fearsome woman was the last thing on anyone’s mind.

“Round one begins in thirty seconds. Prepare yourselves.”

Coop didn’t need to prepare, he was already pumped. He danced from foot to foot, cracking his knuckles and shaking out his arms.

“You can’t dance away from me you little bitch.” Davenport wasn’t doing anything but standing there.

Coop didn’t respond to the taunts, he just smiled.

Coop was able to put together enough about Davenport’s past to guess that he’d probably thought he was hot shit in high school. He was from somewhere in the ‘burbs with a rich mommy and daddy who probably got him a fancy PAD or an air-car for his sixteenth birthday. While Coop was sure the bigger recruit had been in fights in the halls, and been challenged in whatever sport he’d played, that wasn’t the same thing as a fight in the PHA. Davenport had fought some other jocks in the halls over whoever was going to tap the piece of ass of the week. Coop had fought people half-mad with hunger, or who were out scavenging to provide something their family desperately needed.

That was what was going to make all the difference between Coop and Davenport. Both might be able to fight, but Coop was going to do what he had to in order to survive.

“Ready. . .set. . .begin.” The SSG counted down the last three seconds.

Neither Davenport nor Coop hesitated closing the gap between them. They didn’t want to test each other, they didn’t want to dance around, they just wanted to get in there and knock each other’s heads off.

The level of aggression was noticed by the nearby trainers, SSG Cunningham, and PO3 Janney through the multitude of high-resolution cameras and the bio-feedback they were getting from all the recruits’ uniforms.

The squares weren’t big, only about five meters by five meters, so it only took a few steps to bring the two recruits within hand-to-hand range. Both recruits were in a general boxer’s stance, although even someone with a week of training would have shaken their heads at the poor footwork.

Coop was the first to attack.

Although he didn’t know his attack had a name, he essentially threw a one-two combo. Davenport dodged both punches by moving his head slightly out of the way. It was clear he’d seen that type of attack before, and he capitalized on Coop’s mistake.

Instead of keeping his distance, Coop’s momentum carried him forward into Davenport’s shorter range. While Coop was able to dodge Davenport’s own jab, he was not able to get out of the way of the body blow that caught him right in the gut.

Whether by luck or skill, Coop would have guessed the former; Davenport’s blow knocked all the air out of Coop’s lungs. It was like Coop was being kicked out of the air-bus on the first day all over again. And he was too preoccupied with trying to draw air into his lungs to even try and dodge the follow-up blow.

Davenport’s fist made contact with the side of Coop’s head. Coop felt his body fall to the side as his vision exploded in a series of tiny supernovas. By the time he’d cleared the fog out of his head enough to see, Davenport was laughing and walking towards him with a confident smirk.

“You little Rat shit. I told you I was going to fuck you up.” Davenport got into position to rain down punches onto Coop.

Instinct took over as Coop saw an opening. He rolled from his side to his back, ignoring the nausea of the sudden movement, and the lashed out with his foot.

Davenport was caught mid-laugh as Coop’s foot crashed into the side of his knee. There was a sickening crunch, and then a scream as Davenport fell to the ground like a toppled tree.

The screaming was so bad that several nearby fights stopped to see what had happened. But Coop ignored all of that. His head still swimming, he crawled over to Davenport and got up onto his knees. He straddled the now crying recruit and proceeded to rain down punches onto Davenport’s unprotected head.

Davenport feebly tried to protect himself, but Coop was basically sitting on top of him now, and had blocked Davenport’s arms with his legs.

<One…three…four…six…> Coop counted the blows he landed, and ignored the growing amount of blood that was splashing up onto him. <They said don’t stop until he taps, and I’m pretty sure this won’t kill him.>

Coop didn’t even care that he was enjoy this. Seeing Davenport’s face smashed until it was unrecognizable made Coop a very happy man.

“Time!” The SSG’s voice rang out, and a trainer immediately grabbed Coop.

“What? I didn’t do nothin’.” Coop protested, but he couldn’t keep the smile off his blood-stained face.

“Get over to the medic, Recruit.” Despite Coop’s struggling, the smaller corporal had an iron grip on him. “Get your head checked out.”

“Fine.” Coop held up his hands in surrender, and the corporal let him go.

With one last satisfying look back at Davenport’s beaten and broken body, Coop strolled over to the team of medics who were being swarmed by recruits.

Coop swayed a little bit in line as he waited. The room seemed to be rotating a little.

“It’s just a bloody lip, stop being a pussy, NEXT!”

“Yeah, your hand is broken. Didn’t you know punching someone in the face is going to hurt you as much as it hurts them. Step over here, NEXT!”

Coop stepped forward and a medic held up a long polyplast rectangle and ran it down his body.

“This blood yours?” The focused man asked.

“Nope.” Coop grinned.

“Good.” He didn’t say anything else until he finished running the device over Coop’s whole body. “Mild concussion. Step over here and duck next time. NEXT!”

Coop stepped over the where the medic instructed him, and swayed right into the business end of a needle.

“What the shit!” Coop jumped at the sudden sting.

“Quit being a baby, Recruit. You’ll feel better in a minute. Sit over there and wait for your next match assignment.”

Coop did what he was told. The medic didn’t lie. Within a minute the fuzziness in his brain dissipated, and he didn’t sway anymore. Even the pain in his head was gone.

<Talk about a fucking miracle drug.> Coop breathed in a deep sigh of relief. <One down a few more to go.>

Coop wanted to win. He wanted to kick ass, take names, get numbers, and get some fine ass out of this whole deal. If he fought well enough Eve might even notice.

“One minute!” SSG Cunningham yelled. “Get to your next assigned square.”

Coop got to his feet and rolled his shoulders. He felt great.

<12.> He saw his combat-square assignment on the wall and headed for his next fight.

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