Two Worlds – Chapter 58

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

<My life fucking sucks.> Coop thought as he stood in line.

Normally that wouldn’t be a bad thing but he was in armor, and even with just a light kit it was making his back and knees throb. Not being allowed the strap his M3 to his chest wasn’t helping either. The weight of the weapon was making his shoulders burn.

On top of all that it was hot as balls outside.

Coop looked around him. Eve was in front with the rest of the squad behind him. Using his eyes he activated TACCOM on his helmet’s HUD and toggled to the squad channel. The NCOs would probably be listening but he wouldn’t get in as much trouble if he stayed off the company net.

“Does anyone else feel like their balls are floating in Lake Erie in this thing.” He made it sound light-hearted and bitchy all at the same time.

The remark got him a few laughs and an affirmative ping from Mike. He at least got the Lake Erie bit.

Smartcloth was a great invention, and one of the best things Coop had seen since getting out of the PHA. It was comfortable, always fit, and normally breathable. In the Battle function, when the smart-fibers tightened to offer additional ballistic protection, the uniform lost a lot of those positive features Coop had come to know and love.

The result was the worst case of swamp ass Coop had ever experienced. He could literally feel pooled water sloshing around in his taint.

“Ladies,” Eve cut through the laughter. “Make sure to take extra care during personal hygiene tonight. I don’t want anyone coming down with an infection that’ll sideline them. Our weapons quals, armor quals, and tactics training are too important to miss.”

“Definitely.”

“I’m way ahead of you.” Olivia and Harper replied separately.

Coop was glad to hear Harper’s voice was upbeat. She’d improved significantly in her recovery efforts since she’d been given the armor and a weapon.

“One-thirty-second Battalion, Echo Company, second squad step up!” A voice announced over the company TACCOM network.

Third squad walked past them heading off the rifle range. Coop couldn’t see their expressions or hear what they were saying, but the excited gestures they were making with their hands were a good sign.

Coop had been waiting for this moment all day. He couldn’t wait to shoot his M3 for the first time.

In true infantry fashion they’d given them the weapons and then not allowed them to fire them for nearly a week. First they all had to memorize the serial number. <M32413B55N8039.> Coop could recite the damned thing in his sleep.

Then they’d learned what that number signified. <M3 equals model three. 2413 equals year of production. B stands for batch followed by the batch number, which in my case is 55. Finally N stands for the number my rifle was in that batch which was 8039.> They’d spent an hour discussing that.

After the serial number came the technical manuals, the classes, and tests. SSG Cunningham wanted them to know anything and everything about the fire: rounds capable of firing per minute, maximum effective distance, recommended engagement distance, ammunition variations, parts, the purpose of those parts, the important part numbers if you needed to fabricate a new part in the field, and a dozen other things.

After reading about it all, they got hands on experience. But not range time. They built a competition out of disassembling and reassembling the rifles. They also learned to clean it. Basically you just needed to pop the stock off and make sure all the circuitry was running at optimum efficiency, clean any dust or debris that might have got in and could fuck with things.

That was the easy part. The real cleaning had to do with the barrel. When you were firing one millimeter needles at such high velocity there was going to be shit left behind. And getting that shit out of the barrel was important. To reinforce the point the SSG and PO3 told war stories about stupid privates who didn’t clean out their barrels during lulls in the fighting. If that private was lucky their rifle would just jam at a bad time and the enemy would kill them. If that private was unlucky their weapon would explode, and they would die along with the soldiers to their left and right. They had pictures of the aftermath to drive home their point.

The batteries in the rifles could be pretty volatile if their core containment was breached.

“You will not buddy fuck ya unit by bein’ a dumbass!” PO3 Janney had literally screamed at them as they rammed cleaning instruments down their barrels for an hour. “That shit betta be clean as my momma’s pearls when I inspect it.”

He’d stick a white rag down the barrel to check it, and if it came out with any residue he would PT you until you threw up.

Despite the M3s being newly assigned they were surprisingly dirty. Coop was debating whether that was a training opportunity or because who ever had used them before were a bunch of lazy fucktards.

Either way, Coop had learned weapons discipline. He’d memorized his serial number, passed their written tests, read the TM like the Bible, could disassemble and reassemble the rifle in under the standard time of one minute, and his weapon had passed PO3 Janney’s tight-ass inspection.

He was finally ready to shoot something.

“Second squad, step up to the individual firing positions.” The voice over the company channel commanded.

Coop didn’t recognize the voice, but he did what it said. The heads up display (HUD) in his helmet informed him that the speaker was the designated Range Safety Officer (RSO). The key word in there being “officer”. God might as well be giving the order.

“Assume a prone firing position.”

Coop had read about the three firing positions in the TM: prone, kneeling, and standing. Prone offered the best stability since you were lying on the ground; preferably with your weapon resting on something. In this instance, Coop had two sandbags to support his M3.

“You can do this, squad. Slow and steady, remember your breathing, and we’ll blow the rest of the squads out of the water.” Eve encouraged everyone from the firing position right beside Coop.

“Right and left limits are being designated now.”

Coop watched through his HUD as the rest of the world vanished from view. The only thing he saw was his assigned fire lane and the first target sitting three hundred meters away.

<Three hundred meters is the standard contact range with the enemy.> Coop recited the TM on basic tactics he’d been reading. <Things start getting closer than that and you’d better hope you have a nano-blade.>

“Second squad, we are going to group and zero your IAWM3s before running through a basic qualification table.” The RSO announced. “You have been equipped with three magazines; one for grouping, one for zeroing, and another for qualification. At this time please grab you grouping magazine, insert it into your weapon, chamber a round, but keep your weapon on safe.”

Coop picked up the first magazine. His HUD declared it the grouping magazine. He slapped it into the open well at the bottom of the M3. His M3 menu was already open on his HUD so he selected the command for chambering a round. It happened silently, but Coop felt a slight click in the weapon. His HUD now indicated he had twelve available rounds in the magazine.

<I don’t know how soldiers used to do it?> Coop thought about old school soldiers who didn’t have their weapons integrated into their armor’s computer systems. <It must have been a pain in the ass having to manually do everything.>

Coop knew how to do those steps if required. The M3 had manual redundancies in case the electronics got knocked out somehow, but the standard for qualification was operating the weapons and armor through the HUD.

“Second squad, there are four targets set up in the shape of a square. You will fire three rounds at each of the three targets. Aim at the same place on each of the targets. The standard is to put all three rounds within a one centimeter space. When you are ready, take your weapon off safe and engage.”

The voice clicked off the company net and a booming voice announced through the tower loudspeaker behind them. “Range is hot!”

Coop focused on the targets three hundred meters downrange. They were holographic but seemed just as solid as a piece of paper or a block of duro-steel. The targets had four darkened silhouettes showing a humanoid figure from the waist up.

“Safety off.” He vocalized, not wanting to take his eye off the target.

A red dot appeared, indicated he was aiming at the target’s forehead. Coop lowered his aim so the dot was over the target’s chest.

<Headshots are for snipers on a stationary target.> Coop recited the SSG’s words during one of the weapon’s lectures. <Always aim for the center of mass, that way you’ll actually hit something.>

Coop controlled his breathing. The sound of a shot echoed to his right; which meant Eve had taken her first shot. His armor automatically filtered out the sound at his command. He needed to focus on this. He also zoomed in to get a better look at the target.

“Recruit Cooper!” A voice snapped over a private channel.

It was SSG Cunningham.

“Reengage your audio and zoom back out to normal. We train like we fight, recruit. You aren’t going to be able to shut everything out and zoom in during combat. You lose situational awareness when you do this. Someone is going to sneak up and stick a knife in your neck.”

Coop glared into his HUD at the disembodied voice of the woman who’d broken his jaw. He unknowingly flexed it as she spoke. Despite the medics saying he was good to go, and being able to eat regularly again, Coop felt like things weren’t quite right. It just felt off. Eve said it was because his bite was different, and that it was the least he deserved for being a moron and flashing his weapon around.

His complaint that they’d received no weapons safety training at the time fell on deaf ears. <Common sense.> Coop had scoffed at their reply, but everyone but him agreed.

“Yes, Staff Sergeant.” He replied and returned his settings to normal.

The space around him came alive with the sound of rounds being fired downrange. Coop ignored it, tried to block out the noise with his own mind, and focused on the target.

He controlled his breathing again, put the soft, upper part of his trigger finger on the trigger, and gently moved it back. It was important not to give it a jerky pull.

The one millimeter needle spit from Coop’s M3 and rocketed downrange a three thousand meters per second; which meant it reached the target in one tenth of a second. Firing and hitting the target seemed nearly simultaneous.

<Awesome!> Coop couldn’t stop himself from grinning.

The round had hit a little high and to the right; more the shoulder than center mass, but he didn’t change his aim. He kept aiming at the center of mass. He quickly put two more rounds down range. They also hit high and to the right, but pretty close to the first round.

A spinning wheel appeared on his HUD with the word “Calibrating” underneath it. It lasted only a few seconds as the computer on his back entered the data from his shot into its system and adjusted the placing of the red dot accordingly.

Coop moved through the next three targets always aiming at the center of mass. The next three hit low and to the left. The computer had over calibrated from his first shot. The third targets were on line vertically, but still a bit to the left. The final target saw Coop put all three rounds close together and in the center off mass.

“Put your weapons on safe and eject your magazine.”

Coop did both through the HUD and waited for more orders. The procedure was the same for the zeroing; one magazine, four targets, and three rounds per target. Coop put all of his rounds in a tight grouping in the center of mass, and was declared grouped and zeroed by the RSO.

Everyone in the squad grouped and zeroed on their first try.

“Second squad, you will now run through a normal qualification table. This will not be the only time you shoot for qualification, so do not be discouraged if you perform below standard. One hundred targets will appear at distances ranging from fifty to one thousand meters. The targets will be visible for three to five seconds. You have one hundred rounds. You may use them at your discretion. A passing score is seventy out of one hundred hits. Different badges of achievement are available: seventy-five to eighty-five hits is a Marksman, eighty-five to ninety-five hits is a Sharpshooter, and those select few to hit ninety-five to one hundred targets are awarded the Expert badge. Acknowledge when you are ready to begin.  Good luck, Recruits.”

Coop took another few deep breaths and moved his jaw again. He hoped it feeling off wouldn’t throw off his aim too much. The HUD started to highlight other members of second squad as they acknowledged their ready status. Coop was the second to last to acknowledge; followed a full thirty seconds later by Eve.

“Retrieve your last one hundred round magazine and insert it into your weapon, chamber a round, but keep your weapon on safe. . . right and left limits are now designated. . .take your weapon off safe and fire when ready.”

Coop didn’t even hear the “Range is Hot” from the tower. His eyes zeroed in on a target that popped up closer than the previous targets. He adjusted since the target was off to the right, aimed, and fired. He wasn’t sure if he got it before the target disappeared, but he didn’t let it worry him. There were ninety-nine more targets to go.

<Now this is what I’m talking about.>

He didn’t know if all the shit up to this point was worth it, but lying in the dust and shooting at holographic enemies just felt right.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 57

Staff Sergeant (P) Gwen Cunningham

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

 The soft ping and vibration of her PAD alerted her to the incoming message.

Gwen sighed and ran her hands through the half of her head with hair. The cool water felt good on her scalp and she splashed more on her face.

<I hate acting like God.> She bitched silently to herself in the confines of the latrine. <But that’s the job.>

She had to sit there in the awful Georgia heat and sweat it out with the rest of the recruits. And then she had to act like it didn’t bother her.

It did bother her. She fucking hated it.

<I’m from Ireland for fuck’s sake. We don’t tan, we burn.> The advances in medical technology made skin cancer a nonissue, but that didn’t mean getting a sunburn on your neck and having to endure it throughout the day wasn’t irritating as hell.

She took another deep breath and blew out all of the irritation, exasperation, and frustration she was holding inside. When she looked back into the mirror her face was unreadable stone. She was back to being Staff Sergeant Promotable Cunningham: Drill Sergeant, Ranger-tabbed, and any man’s worst nightmare.

She grabbed the PAD from her pocket and read the quick message. She was to report to the LCDR’s office with “all due haste”; which was code for “get her tight ass there ten minutes ago”.

She walked out of the latrine her hair still dripping the last few drops from her therapeutic moment. She walked past the eighty struggling recruits of her company that looked like baby ducklings without a mommy to tell them what to do.

“You’re in charge, Petty Officer,” she yelled out to Janney.

<Maybe he’ll PT them into the ground so they won’t have enough brain function to do something moronic?> She hoped, fully realizing that hope had no purpose in her occupation.

Janney immediately started yelling at the recruits. His heavy southern twang followed her down the dusty road until she rounded a building and was out of ear-shot. From there she broke into a jog. She was in armor, just a light-kit, but it still felt good to get her legs pumping again. Running in CMUs was too easy to be a workout.

It wasn’t a long run to the headquarters, and she got there in a few minutes. She was sweating profusely now, and there was the recognizable stank of body armor BO, but the LCDR would be expecting nothing less.

She still fixed her hair in the window before entering the building.

The Staff duty NCO gave her a nod as she passed. Whoever the duty officer was, he or she wasn’t around.

She headed down the hallway and stopped at the NCOIC’s door. “Gunney?” She tapped the door politely.

“I don’t know.” The small GYSGT just shrugged as he put down his PAD. “The old man wouldn’t tell me anything.”

She nodded and made sure to keep her face unreadable. She waited to gulp until she was back out in the hallway and walking toward the LCDR’s office. Not having the Battalion NCOIC looped in on NCO business was never a good sign.

She wiped the last few beads of sweat from her forehead before knocking on the old man’s door.

“Enter.”

She pushed open the door, walked briskly, but professionally to his desk, and stood at the position of attention. “Staff Sergeant Cunningham reporting as ordered, Sir.”

The LCDR didn’t play any power games with her. He set down his PAD and looked her in the eye. “At ease, Gwen. Take a seat.”

She did as she was told.

As always the LCDR was tired-looking. Thomas Shepherd took his job very seriously. Training the next generation of soldiers took time and effort; which she also knew all too well. But with no family or attachment the LCDR’s life was his job. And it showed.

“What news do you want first?” He asked picking his PAD back up.

“Give me the fifty meter target, Sir.” She wanted the most immediate matter resolved first.

“Ok, let’s talk about the recruit you struck.”

The incident had happened less than twenty minutes ago, but that didn’t matter. Medics had to be called and the recruit had to be taken to the infirmary. All of which sent an automated report to the unit commander. It was up to the officer to collect the pertinent facts from there.

“Sir, the recruit was committing a blatant safety violation. I took appropriate corrective action.”

“By, and I quote,” the LCDR read off the PAD, “punching him so hard in the face his grandmamma felt it.”

She knew better than to show any emotion, even if she did see the LCDR’s lips twitch as he fought back a smile.

“Exaggeration on the part of the other recruits, Sir. I have footage of the incident if you’d prefer a factual account.” The LCDR nodded and with a swipe she sent over the data.

“Recruit Cooper again.” The officer watched the footage of the recruit pointing his weapon downrange, and then the SSG coming from his left side and punching him square in the jaw.

Even from her seat Gwen heard the pop of her fist making contact with his face.

“You could have dialed it down a notch, Gwen.” The LCDR sighed. “But I’ve got nothing against forceful enforcement of safety regulations. And neither does the Commonwealth Infantry. So I’ll file the report, but you’re going to have to deal with Cooper being on restricted duty for a day and make special requests for his chow since he’ll be eating through a straw until they repair his jaw.”

“That’ll be no more than a day, Sir. A small price for me to pay to ensure a lifetime of weapons discipline from Cooper.” It was a bit of a smartass answer, but he let it slide.

“Noted. Now the two hundred meter target.” The LCDR shifted gears into whatever long-range issues seemed to be bothering him. And it was clear from his body language whatever they were about to talk about was bothering him. “I’ve got good and bad news for you on this one.”

She didn’t request a preference. She knew the LCDR liked to give out good news first whenever he could.

“The good news is that your promotion to Gunnery Sergeant becomes effective a week from today. Congratulations, Gwen.”

Gwen didn’t get misty eyed, but she couldn’t stop the thousand-watt smile that spilt her face in two. The same smile her twin used to make billions of dollars a year just by getting her picture taken and walking down runways in various bits of fabric.

“Thank you, Sir.”

The promotion to Gunnery Sergeant was a big step for Gwen’s career, not to mention a large jump in responsibility within the Commonwealth Military Table of Organization and Equipment (MTOE). A staff sergeant was at best a squad leader. A gunnery sergeant was the NCOIC of a company, and had to deal with ten times the people and problems of a squad leader. The infantry selected their gunnery sergeants very carefully. Soldiers could do decades of service and not get above E6.

“No thanks needed. You are damn good at your job. It’s about time they gave you your second rocker.” The LCDR smiled at her like a proud father. “So that’s the good news. Now for the bad.”

Gwen tensed slightly, but aside from that kept her composure. She would focus on the promotion if nothing else.

“I’ve got your orders already.” The LCDR handed over his PAD for her to see. “Right after you finish here you will be meeting up with your company and heading straight off for a deployment.”

<Deployment.> The information didn’t surprise her. She was surprised she’d been stationed on her home planet for so long.

It was the nature of the deployment that was the bad news.

“I know you and Terri were getting close but. . .” The LCDR didn’t know what else to say.

Terri was Gwen’s girlfriend, and they’d been going steady for over a year now. There was even talk of Terri coming along to wherever Gwen headed next. A military life wasn’t for everyone, but Gwen knew her woman could handle it. She was a teacher, so she could get certified and teach in any system. That wasn’t a problem. The only problem was a shipboard billet or a hostile deployment where you couldn’t bring dependents.

“Rogue Island.” Gwen read the details of the orders and the big, red ‘Hostile Environment’ notice. “That’s a stupid fucking name for a planet.” She vented her frustration.

“Yes it is.” The LCDR gave a sad nod, still waiting for Gwen to react.

Gwen did her best to keep everything under control. <Fucking bullshit!> She screamed inside her head while keeping her composure.

What was eating at her was that she expected something like this to happen. Things had just been too good to be true.

Living a military life, especially in an era where humanity inhabited hundreds of worlds, was radically different from that of a civilian. Gwen had bounced around all of human explored space in her extended military career. She’d been on Army bases in the Core Worlds. She’d served aboard everything from a destroyer to a battleship. She’d even spent a miserable three months on an asteroid mining facility, or at least that was what the government was calling it. The rest was classified.

She had rarely spent more than a year or two at any posting before she was shipped off to the next. That was the Infantry way. Most people in her profession were single and ready to mingle, and for good reason. A military life wasn’t conducive to a family.

And now she was feeling that sting for the first time.

<I got complacent.> She felt just as angry at herself as with the situation. <I should have known it wasn’t going to work out in the long term. Earth has made me soft.>

All of this passed through her mind within a few seconds. She accepted the realization with a deep breath and a full exhale. There would be a time for tears later. Right now she needed to get more information.

“Am I at least going to be leading my Rangers?” It was wishful thinking.

The LCDR gave another shake of his head. “Rookie Company, freshly reorganized from what I hear. Hopefully the CO won’t be fresh out of an academy, but you never know.”

Usually, a Company CO had at least spent some time as an XO before assuming command. Both positions held the rank of lieutenant, the only difference was experience. Having a fresh shavetail in charge of a hundred soldiers was the worst nightmare of an NCOIC; especially if they were cobbling together soldiers from other units to put together a company. And then they were going to throw that unit into a hostile environment.

“This just keeps getting better and better.” She muttered, before realizing her error and zipping her lips.

Despite her breech of professionalism the LCDR didn’t reprimand her.

“So why the hostile environment rating?” Gwen continued perusing her orders. “Rogue Island is Commonwealth territory right?”

“It is, but it’s right along our Blockie boarder in the Mid-Worlds. The boarder has stabilized a lot in the last twenty years, but there have been reports of new tensions.”

“And Rogue Island is a possible target.” She finished his statement.

“Yes, and the Islanders don’t like us very much.” The LCDR’s face darkened with the statement.

“Thus the ‘Rogue’ portion,” Gwen couldn’t help but chuckle. “So are we talking Jesus-freaks or a bunch of Don’t Tread on Me wannabes?”

“The latter, but that’s all the information I have.” The LCDR gave her a hard look. “They’re attempting to keep this under the radar; but they’re reinforcing the planets along the border with at least an extra battalion.

“Good luck with that.” Gwen checked herself at the LCDR’s pointed glance. “Just my opinion, Sir. Soldiers talk, especially officers.”

The LCDR relaxed a bit and nodded. “This is why only you and I have the details.”

“That’s going to drive Gunney Wilson crazy.” Gwen smiled.

“Then it’s a good thing you two will be the same rank in a week.”

Gwen nodded, and read the rest of the orders. <At least I’ll still get my armor.> She read the last few lines that detailed her as the company’s Heavy Infantry soldier.

It wasn’t ideal having the company’s NCOIC being the big guns, but with how everything seemed to be playing out Gwen was happy to at least have her powered combat armor between her and whoever’d be shooting at them.

<Company duties and armor maintenance are going to be a bitch though.> She wasn’t looking forward to that.

“Thank you for this impromptu briefing, Sir.” Gwen stood and snapped to the position of attention.

“It’s the least you deserve, Gwen. And for what it is worth I put in my endorsement for the preferences you listed. But…”

“No need to apologize, Sir. I understand. The needs of the service come first.” Gwen kept her face professional despite how much she wanted the “service” to sit on it and rotate for once.

“Good. And one last thing Gwen,” the LCDR smiled. “I expect a top notch ceremony from you. You’ve got eighty-plus recruits to help out, so don’t slack on the details.”

“Never, Sir.” She smiled back.

“Dismissed. Get back to your company.” The LCDR returned his attention to his PAD while Gwen did an about-face and marched out of the office.

Previous

A Change of Pace – Chapter 86

Daisy strained against the weight. Sweat dripped from every part of her body making a dark stain on the mats around her. She growled her defiance as she thrust forward, locked out her arms and moved the weighted bar back to rack.

<Personal best.> She gave a tired smile.

Her vision wavered from the exertion, so she sat on the bench for a few moments. It felt good. Her whole body hurt from the workout, but pain was just weakness leaving her body, and she couldn’t have any weakness.

Images of silver fire and deep, evil voices haunted her dreams. Morocco had been a week ago, but that only meant the end was drawing nearer. And it would be the end. If Daisy had to face off against these monsters then only one of them would be leaving the battlefield alive.

Daisy watched the news every day for any signs. She wasn’t quite sure what she was looking for but she knew she’d notice it when she saw it. When she wasn’t watching that she was checking up on the status in Rabat. The capital of Morocco was in shambles. Some silver fires were still burning after a week. There were riots in the streets as people turned on one another. In one section of the city the plant life had even come alive and attacked the citizens. It was a disaster.

A UN peacekeeping force had been sent into stabilize the situation. International Heroes were attached to the effort, but even with them on the ground there were still daily casualties.

<And that’s only the aftereffects.> Daisy shuddered, thinking about what happened in Morocco happening in Orlando.

The only thing that stopped her from outright panicking was knowing that the DVA and ForceOps were all over the situation. If shit hit the fan here, there would be dozens of powerful Heroes taking action.

Daisy took a few deep breaths to steady herself and went to grab some dumbbells. She hoisted them over her head and started to push up and down. Immediately, she felt the burn in her shoulders. She didn’t have much left in the tank.

Despite her heavy breathing and grunts of exertion she still heard the door to the weight room open up. She didn’t look. Instead she reached out with her power for their life-thread. A strong, pulsing thread of gold appeared through her sixth sense.

“Good evening, Doctor Sanderson.” Daisy didn’t turn to look, instead focusing on the weights.

“Coach Meyers.” The HCP healer replied.

Daisy and Sanderson weren’t on the best of terms, after all, she had killed his older brother decades ago. But they’d worked some shit out and were at least on speaking terms. Neither would be asking the other for a cup of sugar anytime soon, but they made the arrangement work.

“You hear about Morocco?” Sanderson settled into a nearby machine and started his own workout.

“It’s a shit-sandwich over there,” Daisy replied. Setting down her own set of weights and thinking about what to do for her cooldown.

“People are saying it’s going to happen here.”

As the HCP healer, Sanderson wasn’t always on the same page as the rest of the staff. He had sick and injured kids to worry about. If he wasn’t on the same page as the rest of the staff then he certainly wasn’t aware of the ForceOps-HCP joint taskforce that would spring into action if said shit started raining on the city.

The plan wasn’t exactly a secret, but it wasn’t common knowledge either. It seemed rumors were unavoidable, and it spoke volumes about what type of rumors they were if Sanderson was asking her about it.

“Maybe,” Daisy conceded. “But if it does then some son of a bitch is gonna be really sorry.” She turned and gave the healer a smile.

He didn’t smile back, but he did nod respectfully.

<It’s better than him calling me a crazy psycho bitch.> Daisy took the small win and decided to do some running to cooldown.

The workout had been upper-body so it wouldn’t be so hard to do a few miles before heading back to Topher’s. She’d started staying with him most nights. Partly because she liked being around him, and partly because she wanted to keep an eye on him. The last thing she needed in this world was her boyfriend getting killed.

Daisy got up and started to walk out when a golden mist passed over her. The aches disappeared, the soreness vanished, but the wedgie she’d been dealing with still remained.

“Thought I’d top you off.” Sanderson didn’t look over as he settled back onto the bench and lifted the bar.

Daisy couldn’t help but smile a little. <Sanderson’s not a total asshole after all.> She gave her own nod in his direction before walking out of the room and toward the main gym.

Now that she was feeling better she could do more than a few warm down laps.

<I guess Topher is just going to have to wait a bit longer for some T&A.> She smiled to herself.

Sometimes the anticipation was half the fun.

 

***

 

<It’s been nearly two weeks. What the fuck!> Liz grumbled to herself as she rolled over in bed.

Seth was already gone. He was off to a morning workout and then an early class. They were meeting for lunch at noon, and the day was all hers until then. So it really pissed her off when she woke up dizzy and nauseous. It was not a good way to start the day.

A quick, mildly-scalding shower and breakfast helped. Then it was off to her alleyway and a teleport across the Atlantic.

The flat was just as she’d left it, complete with the electrical cage in the middle. She walked out of it, closed and armed it just in case anyone was following her. Then she went to the closet.

Her costume had been cleaned by her father, and repairs made. The only indication that one of Seraphim’s barbs had nearly poisoned her to death was a slight dimple in the fabric caused by the repair.

Liz reached for the black fabric and stopped. A shudder went through her as she remembered the night. <So many mistakes. I was such a stupid arrogant ass.> There were a hundred things she could have done differently. One of which was not teleporting to Seth’s room instead of somewhere more secure.

<My father taught me better than that.> She felt stupid for her panicked reaction. It could have blown everything.

Another mistake was fighting in the first place. <Pride and ego.> She shook her head as she stepped away from the black costume fabric.

She knew she couldn’t kill Seraphim. She could only hurt her a little and wound the demon-Hero’s pride. The Hero had taken that and turned it around against Liz. She’d kept Liz fighting when she should have run. She let Liz run her mouth, flaunt what she’d done, and basically act like a corny villain. Seraphim had gotten into Liz’s head and then capitalized on it.

Liz knew how lucky she was to be alive, and if she wanted to stay that way she needed to be ready next time. <No more fighting for something stupid. I fight to win or to complete my mission. Nothing else.>

To be ready for the next time she needed to be better equipped, better armed, and able to get what she needed at a moment’s notice. So…she’d made another real estate investment.

With a deep breath Liz focused on the new place and disappeared.

She reappeared in another blast of darkness. There was no natural light here, only the LED motion-activated bulbs. They blinked once and then snapped on. The room was larger than an average room. It had concrete floors, concrete walls, and a concrete ceiling. Stack of MREs lined the back quarter of the room while only partially-filled weapons racks lined the walls.

Liz walked over to a number of crates, grabbed a crowbar, and jimmied open the lid. Inside and packed securely with Styrofoam were neatly organized grenades. She counted ten, and judging by the depth of the box there would be another five layers.

She smiled and closed the lid.

<Never again.> She took a deep breath and savored the slightly stale smell of her new weapons lair.

After her failure, it had become perfectly clear what she needed to do. Her father had a room like this somewhere. He wouldn’t tell her where it was or allow her to come with him when he rarely visited it. She didn’t think she needed one until she almost died, but lying paralyzed underneath a bed like a scared four-year-old girl acted as a pretty good wake-up call.

She wasn’t going to be unprepared to face a stronger opponent again.

She’d found the place through some of her less-reputable contacts. The former owner was a doomsday survivalist who’d been gathering up food and weapons for the coming zombie apocalypse. Then a much more menacing creature had reared its ugly head, the IRS. He needed to get the property out of his name quick and with no questions asked. Liz bought it cheap and with cash with one request: that it be sold as is.

Now she had her own private arsenal and a begrudging respect for the man who’d been able to get his hands on this military grade weaponry.

There had to be two dozen M4s, a half-dozen SAWs, and even an M-240B. The heavy machine gun would be a welcome addition to any operation she had planned; so she’d taken that weapon to Mika to get it digitized. A self-operating machine gun would be a wonderful distraction.

There were also hundreds of grenades, dozens of gas masks, and of course, enough MREs to constipate a small town for a year. Her father had always made her eat the military meals ready to eat when they did training outside the home; so she knew the constipation and bloating they caused all too well.

The property was a great investment, and it was in the middle of nowhere Wyoming. The only indication there was even anything there was a small concrete shack with a steel-reinforced door to serve as the above ground entrance. That shack was surrounded by an electric fence and barbed wire. Liz had added motion sensors and a few well-placed landmines when she’d bought the place. Any unwelcome visitors were going to have a very shitty day.

<It’s not like I have to worry about using the front door.> Liz chuckled to herself.

She cleared off a large table at the center of the room. This was going to be her operations table. Anything she might need for an operation would be placed on the table and memorized before the operations. That way, with a thought, she could bring more weapons to the party than her normal combat load.

That was her mission for today. She was picking up a new weapon. Something that might be able to punch a hole through Seraphim’s smug face.

With one last look to make sure everything was good Liz pulled on her black, grinning volto mask, gloves, and the special forces scarf she still thought looked bad ass. It was going to be fucking cold where she was going. A grunge jacket went over her cyberpunk t-shirt which helped conceal the Glocks in a shoulder holster, and a tiny pistol tucked into the small of her back. As an afterthought, she grabbed one of the grenades and stuck it in her pocket; just in case.

She teleported away. She made a few pit stops before appearing in the warehouse Mika owned.

Her hand went immediately for her gun. Not only was there the loud sounds of construction going on around her, there were people standing nearby with their backs turned toward her.

They all turned when the darkness washed over them. Liz clearly sensed that they were all armed. When the darkness cleared, she had one hand holding a gun pointed at the newcomers, and another in her pocket with the grenade.

“Wra…Shadow!” Mika popped his head out of the group of men. He was dressed in his full Nano costume with a few new additions.

Liz clearly noticed he’s added more ballistic layers to his outfit, and she wondered just what he’d been up to in the last few months.

“Take it easy, Shadow.” Mika held up his hand and made a lowering gesture. “These are my associates who were able to procure what you requested.”

“Procure?” Liz scowled behind her mask. “I thought you were making it.”

“Sorry, Shadow.” Mika drew closer and whispered. “I didn’t have time and my new partners already had the tech. They’re giving us a good price.”

“Nano.” A tall, heavyset man spoke up. “Why don’t you introduce us.”

“Sorry, Mr. Salvatore.” Mika bowed his head meekly. “Shadow, this is Mr. Salvatore. Mr. Salvatore, my other associate, Shadow.”

Shadow noticed the particular accent when Mika pronounced “associate” she wanted to shake her head and give Mika a good slap but decided against it.

“Mr. Salvatore.” She nodded to the immaculately tailored man across the warehouse. Then she turned to Mika. “Are you fucking serious, Nano. The fucking mob.”

“They’re helping me finish my warehouse project.” Mika said defensively. “This whole neighborhood is being gentrified.” He pronounced the last word with some difficulty.

“May I say it is a pleasure to meet you, Ms. Shadow. I would also like to offer my gratitude for dealing with a particular piece of scum earlier this year.”

“I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” She kept her voice polite. “But I’m sure all professionals approve of people who appreciate their hard work.”

Mr. Salvatore grinned at her verbal dodge. “I’m sure they do.”

Everyone stared at each other for several moments, long enough for Liz to see that a few of Mr. Salvatore’s bodyguards had their hands on their guns. None seemed to be Supers, but you couldn’t always tell by looking at a person.

“Should we get down to business?” The mob boss asked with a charming smile.

“Let’s.” Liz agreed, but kept her distance.

Since Mika had brought these guys along unannounced then he could act as the middleman.

“Ok.” Mika visibly brightened, thinking that everyone was getting along just fine now. “Shadow, you said that you wanted a weapon that could do some damage. Something that could knock down or take out someone with enhanced strength or in armor. Mr. Salvatore has this for you.”

One of the people standing with the mob boss hefted a long case up and onto a nearby table. He popped it open and turned it to face in Liz’s direction. The weapon inside was roughly rifle-shaped. The barrel was shorter than she expected but the stock of the weapon was larger and fatter than anything she’d ever seen. The optics on top looked pretty standard.

“This is an electro-magnetic rifle. Instead of chemical propellant it uses a superpowered battery to propel the bullet. The bullets themselves are depleted uranium. Anything weaker and they’d breakdown in the barrel or in flight. Either of those outcomes wouldn’t be good.” Mika grinned. “Basically, this rifle is going to hit with twice the force of an anti-armor tank round. That’s how cool it is.”

<Damn that is cool.> And it was exactly what she was looking for.

Now the only question was the price.

“This weapon is one of a small batch stolen from ForceOps. There are literally only a couple like it in the world.” Mr. Salvatore seemed to read her mind. “The price is half a million.”

Liz’s jaw dropped behind her mask. An M4 cost about five grand. She could get a hundred regular rifles for the price of this one.

“Three hundred.” Liz countered. “It might be half a mil to the Army, but anyone who uses this is going to paint a target on their back. Sorry, but it ain’t worth that much.”

“You already have a target on your back, Wraith. Being a target shouldn’t be anything new for you.”

Liz silently cursed. She didn’t want more people knowing who she was, what she was doing, or people she associated with.

“I’d pay three fifty.” Liz countered.

“Let’s call it four.” Salvatore smiled again.

He was cute in a silver fox kind of way, and Liz guessed he usually got what he wanted; whether that was women or money. That was something she could use against him in the future. Lose the battle now to win the war later.

“Four it is. I just need your account number.”

Mika walked over a slip of paper with all the information and within ten minutes the transaction was completed and untraceable.

“Pleasure doing business with you.” Liz nodded to the gangsters and approached the table only as they stepped away.

She wouldn’t take it directly to her new lair. She’d take it to a place she could run a full spectrographic analysis on it. She didn’t want the mob having any idea what places she frequented.

“The pleasure is all mine.” Salvatore just kept on smiling. “Perhaps we can enlist your services in the future.”

“My schedule is full right now,” Liz answered automatically, but checked herself. She didn’t want to piss off the biggest organized crime family in the Midwest. “But I’ll let Nano know when my current contracts are completed and we can talk.”

The mob boss nodded. That was good enough for him.

“Nano, I’ll call you later.” She let a bit of bite into her voice, so the teenage technopath knew she wasn’t too happy with him. “Gentleman.” She gave one last bow to the mob guys and vanished in a puff of shadow.

She reappeared in a lab at a minor university that she knew was going to be closed today. She threw the entire case and weapon into a large tube and hit a few buttons. Soon she’d know if the mob had anything up their sleeves.

An immediate beep and information scrolling along a screen told her they did.

<Fuck me sideways.> What had started out as a good day was turning into another clusterfuck.

 

***

 

“The way the cells react it’s just fascinating.” Alec’s eyes were looking off into the distance as he described his latest lab.

Angela smiled and nodded only half paying attention. After a few lunch dates with Alec she knew he could get like this. He was passionate about learning, he loved science, and all of that put together made him an adorable dork.

“Their cells are so different from ours.” He continued his eyes staring through her more than at her.

Angela just nodded while her own eyes swept the dining hall. She’d purposefully sat with her back to the wall so she had a good view of everything. Dr. Johnson said she was developing coping mechanisms to deal with her recent trauma, but Angela just thought she was being vigilant. When people had tried to kill you it was best to make sure no one could sneak up on you while you munched on a taco.

The hall was filled to the brim with college students. It was the normal chaos of the mid-day lunch rush. An almost endless line backed up at the door to have their meal card swiped, a traffic jam was forming from people trying to get out of the hall and onto their next class, and then there were the lines at the food stations.

There were no Taco Tuesday signs anywhere because there wasn’t a theme and it wasn’t Tuesday, but that was the longest line and people tended to show up more frequently when they learned tacos were on the menu.

Angela was still convinced they put a mild number of laxatives in everything they served but she couldn’t prove it yet.

Her eyes drifted across the crowd and she noticed a lot of HCP students from her class were present. It made sense. They had ethics in an hour and they’d be busy until dinner with physical training. Now was the last time to get any food down before severe physical exertion.

She spotted Kyoshi and Mason having a quiet conversation in a corner not too far away. They were the biggest people in the hall except for a few members of the basketball team at another table. Angela also saw Simon Skylar trying and failing to get attention from Kimberly Goodman. Even after a year of kicking ass and taking names the number four ranked Goodman was still the prettiest girl in class. But that didn’t fill Angela with jealousy anymore. If anything, Angela felt sorry for the other Super. She was clearly not welcoming Skylar’s attention, and attempting to hide behind her bubble-gum pink bangs wasn’t working.

Movement at the entrance caught her attention and she saw Liz walk in. Angela’s feeling of empathy evaporated. She’d never really liked Liz, and the constant disappearing act with Seth wasn’t winning her any bonus points. Angela didn’t like Seth moping around the townhouse when Liz disappeared suddenly.

Suspicious didn’t even begin to cover it. Angela was sure she was up to something. After all, somebody who looked like her had to have someone else on the side. Seth could be a jackass sometimes.

Angela studied the other woman’s face. Liz looked irritated. Like she’d bitten into something rotten. Seth was on the opposite side of the room from Angela and Alec, so she got to watch the entire approach. Liz took a deep breath, pulled herself together, and was a beaming beacon of positivity when she reached Seth. The couple embraced and Angela was pretty sure by Seth’s reaction that Liz had grabbed his ass.

<I don’t get it.> Angela shifted her attention back to the room at large. <She just up and leaves with no explanation and he forgives her like that.> She mentally snapped her fingers. <She must have him wrapped around her finger.> The was the only explanation for it.

“Ummm, Angela. What do you think?” Alec asked.

She’d clearly missed something. “Sorry.” Angela closed her eyes and shook her head. “I’m distracted by my next class. Ask me again?”

He smiled despite her not paying attention to anything he’d said.

“I was asking if you think Mason would mind if I studied him for my class project. I’ll keep it anonymous of course.”

“Why would you want to study Mason?” Angela asked, playing dumb.

“Because he’s a Super. And my biology class is doing comparative studies now.” Alec looked a little hurt that he had to explain his reasoning again.

Seemed like she’d missed it all the first time.

“Is he?” Angela kept her face politely interested in what Alec was saying. “I never asked.” But inside she was panicking.

It was a small leap from Mason being a Super to figuring out the whole house was Supers, and then from there that they were HCP.

“I’m not positive, but I’d say I’m about eighty percent sure. Someone his size and in as good of shape as he is, with no athletic scholarship or even on intermural sports teams, it’s a little hard to think he isn’t.” Alec shrugged. “Guys like that don’t just do nothing.”

There was a hint of insecurity in his tone that Angela could exploit. But she didn’t. She liked Alec, and digging into the point would not have helped the man’s confidence.

“Huh,” Angela played the ignorance card. “I never really thought it was any of my business.”

“Really?” Alec looked surprised at that.

“Yeah.” Angela hoped that would end the topic, but it didn’t.

“You’re really ok with not knowing anything about them?”

“Them?” Angela didn’t like where this was going.

<Please…please don’t let him be one of those Humanity First assholes.>

“Supers.” Alec looked animated again. “They’re utterly fascinating. A whole other species of humans among us. It’s the most exciting time in biology since discovering DNA. And with the help of some gifted Supers, the stuff science is capable of is mind-blowing.”

Angela exhaled slowly and relaxed a little. <Not Humanity First, just an uber-nerd.>

“I can ask him?” She answered his original question. “But he’s never brought the subject up to me before so he might not want to be labelled like that.”

“Totally understandable.” Alec held up his hands. “If he says no can you ask Kyoshi?”

Angela didn’t even want to get into that. Six foot seven, buxom, pale hair and golden eyes. Anyone who looked at the half-Japanese half-German woman could tell she was a Super. It was only her clumsiness charade that kept anyone from making a connection to the HCP.

<Speaking of which.>

“Alec, I’ve got to head out,” Angela said it apologetically. “I’ve got my next class soon and it is all the way across campus.”

“Sure, sure.” He looked down at his watch with surprise. “I’ve got some homework to start.” Then he looked up at Angela and smiled the dorky-smile she found so adorable on him. “Thanks for having lunch with me. Can we do it again another time?”

Angela felt her heart flutter and her lips pull back into a smile all on their own. “Sure. I’d like that.”

She gave him a hug and a quick kiss on the cheek before heading off to her ethics class.

 

***

 

John stood behind the podium organizing his notes for the upcoming lecture. An introduction of how some powers trumped other powers was critical to the student’s development, but today was just an overview with a few examples. They’d get more into that in their junior and senior years with practical exercises.

What was really on the Dean’s mind was the news out of Morocco, the meeting he had with Colonel Ford after this class, and the overall chaotic state of the city around his HCP. Orlando was messy and in flux. It was the perfect time for a powerful enemy to strike.

<And me and my staff are the only thing standing between it and our students.> John gave a tired sigh. He’d thought teaching at the HCP was going to be less stressful. But ever since Daisy showed up things had been more chaotic than ever before. <That’s Reaper for you.>

The door opened and Angela walked in.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Martin.”

“Good afternoon, Dean Ditmar.”

It was a dance they did every day they had class. Angela was always one of the first ones here. And today that was a good thing.

“May I have a moment of your time, Ms. Martin?” He interrupted her unpacking.

“Of course.” She gave him her undivided attention.

“Well, you must have heard from your pare…mother that the HCP sponsors a spring break trip every year.” John almost opened up emotional wounds by referencing her parents.

Dr. Johnson said Angela was doing better, but it took time to get to a place of acceptance and closure. The young woman probably wasn’t there yet and she didn’t need anyone carelessly reminding her about her loss.

“Yes, the Beach Week.” Angela used the unofficial title of the mid-semester holiday.

“Yes,” John smiled. He’d never liked the name. “It is customary for two members of the freshman class to act as monitors during that week. Professors will be chaperoning, but since it is a multi-class event, we like to have respected members of each class with minor positions of authority to keep things from getting out of hand. I’d be honored if you’d be one of those individuals.”

There was no hesitation in Angela’s response. “I would be happy to help.” She smiled, but he could see it was slightly forced.

“Thank you, Ms. Martin. Details of the resort will be sent to your email, and there will be a planning session with the other monitors next week. With only a few weeks until the trip we need to get moving on all the preparations.”

“And this trip is HCP only?” Angela asked.

“I’m afraid so.” John replied. “We want all the students to be in a safe atmosphere where they can express themselves. That doesn’t mean the use of powers is allowed with little to no thought of their consequences. But we want people to be able to let down their hair for the week.”

“Understood.” Angela nodded. “Thank you for considering me.”

“Continue to excel, Ms. Martin, and people will continue to notice.” John smiled.

The door opened and the rest of the students started to stream in. Angela went back to unpacking, and John studied his notes. The spring break activities would be his first topic, but they really needed to get through the rest of the material today. They’d need to include it on their midterm paper; which coincidentally, was due the Friday before the aforementioned Spring Break began.

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Gilmore Girls : A Year in the Life – Part 1

We’ll start this with a little backstory. I never watched the original Gilmore Girls when it played from 2000-2007. My wife watched the show with her parents and raved about it every time we flicked through Netflix.

Eventually I gave in.

One night over Thanksgiving when we were staying with family and didn’t have a TV in the room, I pulled out my laptop and said, “Hey why don’t we watch this.” My wife enthusiastically agreed, and binge watching commenced.

Surprisingly, my wife joined me. To date, she’s only binge watched three shows with me, and two of those were watching the Gilmore Girls.

As of now I’m giving it 4 out of 5 Stars, and here is why:

***SPOILERS***

The Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life goes through a year of the three Gilmore women’s lives. There are four episodes, each ninety minutes long, with each episode covering a season. Since this is part one of a two-part review it only covers Winter and Spring.

Winter starts and ends with Lorelai saying that she smells snow, which is a big throwback to the original show. It drew me in right off the bat, but then it lost me. Winter gets off to a really slow start. It struggles to find its footing. The tribute to Richard Gilmore (Edward Herrmann) was a heart-wrenching, and you could see he real emotion on all the actors’ faces, but his spirit is still present in the show (partially thanks to the 18 foot portrait that gazes sternly at you). In my opinion, the show starts to pick up when Paris Geller (Liza Weil) makes her entrance. She’s the same old Paris.

By the end of Spring the show has started to hit its familiar stride.

Emily predictably struggles with the loss of her husband of fifty years, and Lorelai suggest therapy. Predictably, this turns into mother-daughter therapy instead of grief therapy. The sessions are hit or miss. Her project at the end of Spring is getting Luke to franchise his dinner. Those scenes are a hit.

Lorelai struggles in her own way, as well as having achieved her goal of an Inn but then realizing she’s become stagnant. And maybe stagnant in her relationship with Luke too. The whole “do we want a kid” story line wasn’t played out too well in my opinion, but it did bring Paris back in the fold. You don’t see any resolution on the Luke-Lorelai potential issues at the end of Spring. But we did see Digger! Surprisingly, Michel is the person who kind of brings that all to the forefront in the first place. And hey, if anyone had lingering questions about his sexuality; he is confirmed gay and has been married for five years. But sadly, no sign of Sookie. Although, Rachel Ray makes a surprise cameo in Spring. At the end of Spring we see Lorelai on the cusp of starting this journey of finding herself.

And we saw Lanes Dad! And I totally called it!

Lastly, we have Rory who has hit it big in her writing career. She’s published with the New Yorker and has people after her. She’s working on a book deal with a crazy woman, has a website begging for her to come work for them, and even gets an offer from good-old Chilton.

Then it all falls apart. And that’s where Rory is at the end of Spring. The last scene finds her with all of her bags in the foyer of her childhood home, resorting to what has become normal with twenty-something’s around the country.

And then there’s the affair with Logan. You remember him don’t you. No sign of Jess or Dean yet, but I’m sure they’ll pop up sooner or later.

If you were a fan of the show originally the show would be off to an only OK start, but any dedicated fan is willing to stick with it to the end. Who doesn’t want to hear those last four words!

That’s part one. Stay tuned for part two after I get through the next three hours.

 

P.S. Buy my book The Harbinger Tales while it’s still on sale. I’m like Rory here and trying to make it as a writer 🙂

Two Worlds – Chapter 56

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

There were no questions. There was just stunned silence.

“Nothing?” The little SGT smiled slightly. “Very well, let’s move on.”

“I’ve got a question. Why the fuck did you just try and shoot me you miniature ass-face!” Coop roared.

Fortunately for the irate former Rat, he didn’t understand how the helmets audio systems worked yet, so no one heard his insult. That was probably a good thing, because at the very least he’d be cleaning the shitters for a week for such a disrespectful outburst.

Coop didn’t care though. <The little shit just tried to kill me.> Was all he was thinking.

Even with the comfortable smart-cloth CMUs clinging to him, Coop could feel the cold sweat running across his skin; and he was lucky there wasn’t something warmer running down his leg. If he thought he could get away with it he’d have charged the little SGT and smashed his armored shoulder into the guy’s head. . .repeatedly.

The armor’s weight and the adrenaline crash Coop was experiencing put an end to the vengeful plan. He wouldn’t be able to take two steps toward the little gremlin before the man knew he was coming.

“Staff Sergeant.” The SGT called politely when no one had anything else to say. “Please get your company fully suited up. In an hour we’ll continue.”

Staff Sergeant Cunningham just nodded. “You heard the man, break out your plates. Get them inserted and then spend the next hour reading the manual. If you feel like it you can start trying out some of the features. However,” she grinned at the company, “if I ask you a question you have better know the answer. No one wants to do burpees in their full kit.”

Coop stood and watched as the rest of the company grabbed their individual plates and teamed up to insert them. Eve walked over to him with a grimace on her face. Everyone was guaranteed to be sore after today.

“Do you know how to get that off?” she pointed at her head.

“No.” Coop replied, but just got a blank look for her, so he shook his head back and forth.

“There are shortcuts built into the system, and the computer will learn your preferences over time, but if you’re in a pinch it will respond to voice commands.”

“Hey, armor.” Coop didn’t know how to address the ninety kilos weighing him down. “Get this fucking helmet off.”

“Command not recognized, Recruit Mark Cooper, GIC TBCD0425241412631.” A robotic voice replied. “Please try again.”

“Try ‘remove helmet’, or ‘helmet disengage’,” Eve offered. She couldn’t hear what was going on inside, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out Coop didn’t have a clue what he was doing.

“Disengage helmet.” Coop tried again.

There was a soft pop, a hiss of air, and Coop felt the weird slithering sensation as the neck gaiter of carbon nanotubing detached. Coop reached up with arms that weighed at least twice as much as they normally did, and removed the helmet.

Surprisingly the air he had been breathing inside the suit smelled better than the air outside.

“The helmet has built in filters to process out any impurities or poisons,” Eve explained when she saw Coop’s nose crinkle in displeasure. “That way the armor can be worn in any environment.”

“Good to know.” Coop ran a hand through his sweat-dampened short hair and let out an exhausted sigh.

“You good?” Eve asked with a worried look on her face. “There’s a small bladder to drink from just below the computer on your back. Just ask for a drink next time.” She misinterpreted the source of Coop’s trouble.

“The little asshole Sergeant just shot me, Eve,” Coop growled. “He just pulled that gun out of nowhere and pulled the trigger.”

“You were never in any danger,” Eve said with a matter-of-factness that surprised him.

“Didn’t feel like that. Felt like the little shi. . .Sergeant was trying to put a bullet in my gut.” Coop stopped himself just short of open insubordination. Eve was giving him a little leeway, but her patience had its limits.

“No. . . well,” Eve paused. “He might have been a bit vindictive, but he wouldn’t put anyone in danger just like that.” She snapped her fingers. “Did you look at the gun?”

“It was about the only thing I did look at.” Coop deadpanned.

“Did you notice the puffs of smoke after he fired?”

That part caught Coop by surprise, but when he thought back on it he did notice that.

“Yeah.”

“Which means. . .?” Eve looked on expectantly, like a mother teaching her child to walk.

“It means he still fuckin’ shot me.” Coop spat back.

Eve sighed theatrically and shook her head. “It means he shot you with a chemically propelled bullet.”

Coop gave her a confused look. Which lead to another shake that tossed the beautiful squad leader’s blond hair back and forth.

“That bullet couldn’t have been going more than a thousand meters per second. Something with such a slow velocity doesn’t have a chance of penetrating armor even at point blank range. Don’t worry so much,” she finished with what sounded more like a command than reassurance.

“Berg, Cooper.” PO3 Janney stalked over. “Stop buttfuckin’ aroun’ and get  readin’. You’ve got five second ta tell me how thick the duro-steel on your scales is?”

“Three centimeters on the main armor and one on the body plates, Petty Officer,” Eve replied instantly.

The PO3 just glared at them. “Keep studyin’, I’ll be back.”

That’s exactly what they did. The PO3 kept his word, which led to Coop doing five burpees in full armor. It was the most miserable fucking thing he’d ever experienced.

But not all of the time was awful. Coop and Eve worked together to get a handle on the armor. Coop finally figured out how to get the audio system working, and Eve showed him how to open a link over TACCOM with him. How she knew how to do this he could only guess, but it was nice to have a private conversation with her; even if it was discussing the secondary repurposing abilities of the ballistic gel.

Apparently, all that sweat that Coop had running down his back would get collected, filtered, and fed back into the liquid bladder on his back.

So on top of the already shitty day he was having Coop realized if he was in armor for long enough he’d be drinking his own sweat.

<Fan-fucking-tastic.> All fantasies of him and Eve doing the no-pants dance vanished with that unpleasant realization.

Soon the hour was up, and SGT Tiny reappeared.

“Everyone gather around.” The SGT was holding something in his hand, but it was hard for Coop to see through the crowd of armored bodies.

Coop roughly pushed aside a few smaller recruits so he could get a better look.

<Now that’s what I’m fucking talking about.>

In the ornery little SGT’s hands was a rifle.

“This, ladies, is the Infantry Assault Rifle Model Three. The IARM3 is the primary weapon of the Commonwealth Infantry. You will learn to love this better than your own cock, or whatever you ladies choose to love. This will be your lifeline, your protector, your fucking everything. Understood?” There was no mean glint in the SGT’s eye this time. He was dead serious.

“Yes, Sergeant!” Their reply was equally as serious.

With a fluid motion the SGT ejected a block from the bottom of the weapon and held it up for everyone to see.

“This is the ammunition of the IARM3.” He moved his thumb and a silver object popped out.

The object was thin, nothing like the bullets Coop had seen in the western holos his father liked to watch. Judging by the size of it you could fit a whole shit ton of them into the metal block the SGT was holding.

“The IARM3 uses electromagnetics to fire these one millimeter needles. It has a muzzle velocity of three thousand meters per second and can fire two hundred rounds a minute on the five-round burst setting. Each magazine holds five hundred rounds and you carry six magazines in your basic load. That’s three thousand rounds for you dumbasses,” the SGT clarified. “This weapon is accurate out to two kilometers even if most of you recruits won’t ever be able to utilize its full potential.” The SGT’s sneer was back.

“You will most often hear this weapon referred to plainly as a M3 or sometimes, due to the nature of the ammunition, a “Needler” if people are being a little more informal.” The SGT held out the weapon in front of him for everyone to get a good look. “Now line up, recruits, to receive your weapon.”

Coop just about jizzed in his pants. The romantic nature of the armor was long gone, but the imagery of him gunning down the enemy to save the captured college co-eds, and receiving his due rewards, was still alive and well. Coop was the first person in line to get his weapon.

“Point the weapon down and check the chamber.” The Sergeant was glaring at him, but it was a business-like glare. “Always make sure the weapon is not loaded.” He pointed at the chamber. “Not loaded.” He pointed to a green light on the side of the weapon. “This is the safety readout. Green means it is on safe and will not fire. Yellow means a round is in the chamber but the weapon is still on safe, and red means you’re ready to kill. Repeat that to me.”

Coop repeated the color-coded safety and chamber specifics.

“Good, don’t screw up, and get the fuck out of my face. NEXT!” The SGT turned his attention to the recruit behind Coop, who just happened to be Eve.

Coop walked away from the line of recruits and examined the weapon. The butt of the weapon was bulkier than the rest. A look at the manual on his PAD explained that was because the battery was stored there. A battery that was good to fire fifty-thousand rounds before it needed to be swapped out. The rest of the weapon was a little smoother, with fewer angles to the design, except for the electronic sight on top. Overall it was about 1.25 meters long and weighed about seven kilograms.

<And this goes here.> Coop brought the weapon up to a crevice in the shoulder of his armor. If fit the spot perfectly.

Coop looked down the barrel through the electronic sight, which was off, and aimed at a building far in the distance.

He didn’t even see the fist fly out of nowhere and knock him the fuck out.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 55

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

Coop pulled himself off the ground and fell back into formation. It was more spread out this time thanks to the grav-sleds sitting in front of each recruit in a silent hover. SSG Cunningham’s eyes traced across them while PO3 Janney prowled around the edges. They were looking for something, but Coop couldn’t figure out what.

“A piece of advice.” The SSG’s voice carried but it wasn’t a yell. “Today’s lesson is very important. Pay close attention, take copious notes if you have to, but you will be laser focused. Understood?”

“Yes, Staff Sergeant!” They replied as they always did to one of her questions.

“Good. Right Face! Forward March!”

It was a little awkward marching with the grav-sleds, but it was infinitely better than the alternative. The sleds were an unspoken reminder of how fucking heavy all this shit was.

<This is going to fucking suck.> Coop knew he was going to deeply regret joining the Commonwealth armed forces the moment he put on that armor.

Even if it got him some poontang later.

They marched slowly through the morning heat for several more kilometers. They marched past areas Coop didn’t know, but they still looked identical to the rest of the training center; and then they marched into a section he did recognize.

<This can’t be good.> The company rounded a corner and Coop recognized the battalion headquarters just up ahead.

He’d just been there and the experience hadn’t been pleasant.

Thankfully, they passed by the two-story building, but they didn’t go far. They stopped in front of a squat, single-story building that was a completely different style than everything else around it. Instead of the slightly washout white of the rest of the training center this building was a metallic gray.

<What is this place?> By this time Coop knew the military liked uniformity, so this place being different was significant.

“Staff Sergeant Cunningham?” A gravelly voice called out as the door to the building clanged open.

Now Coop knew why the building was different. It was a solid square of metal with a door cut into it. Not the cheap painted polyplast of the rest of the base.

“Yes.” The SSG brought the company to a halt and went to talk to the soldier exiting the building.

The man looked like a child compared to the giant SSG, but just about everyone did. Then the man approached them. Coop had to strangle the laughter in his throat. The man with the three chevrons of a sergeant was short. And that was short with a capitol S.

As he approached, the SGT seemed to be growing smaller. Everyone in the company was taller than this guy. Coop would be surprised if the NCO topped one hundred and fifty centimeters. Even Harper had half a head on this guy.

But what the SGT lacked in height he made up for in sheer bulk. Coop had thought PO3 Janney was short and bulky. The PO3 didn’t have anything on this guy. The man looked literally as wide as he was tall. Logically, Coop knew that was impossible, but that didn’t stop his eyes from playing tricks on him. On top of that, Coop could see thick muscles through the NCO’s CMUs. The uniform seemed to strain against him.

<Heavy grav world?> Coop thought.

But then Coop caught the SGT’s eye.

“What are you looking at, Recruit?”

“Nothing, Sergeant!” Coop yelled back, making sure he kept his eyes looking straight ahead.

“Don’t bullshit me you long-necked motherfucker. You got a something against short people.” The small SGT got right up in Coop’s face. . .It was more like Coop’s chest.”

“Sergeant.” SSG Cunningham gave an exasperated sigh, but the SGT ignored her.

“You listen here and you listen good shitface. You might not know it now, but being short is a tactical advantage when you’re knee deep in the shit. I’ve seen a lot of you big motherfuckers walk around all high and mighty here at the training camp, but then you fucktards forget to duck or can’t get down as far as us with this naturally bestowed combat gift. So you laugh to yourself and make your jokes, but when you get your head blown off then I’ll have the last laugh.”

Coop couldn’t see the SGT’s expression because he was looking straight ahead, but he could feel the shorter man’s victorious sneer.

Coop thought about kneeing the man in the face, his knee wouldn’t have that far to go. But that would have hurt the squad. And the only thing he wanted less than being berated by the midget was to face Eve’s wrath. So he kept his mouth shut.

“That’s enough, Sergeant.” SSG Cunningham walked over. “We’re here to do some training. So get started.”

“Yes, Staff Sergeant.” The diminutive SGT gave Coop one final look and then stomped back to the front of the formation.

“Everyone eyes on me!” The SGT yelled, grabbing everyone’s complete attention. “You will all do exactly what I say exactly when I say it. If you fail to follow this simple rule we are gonna have problems. And trust me, you don’t want to have beef with me.” His eyes swept the formation for anyone else that might find humor in his size. “Ok, everyone get all your shit off the grav-sled. You had a freebee getting it here. From now on you hump all your shit everywhere like everyone else. MOVE!”

The company scrambled to obey.

Coop hefted the heavy sealed container with his armor off the sled. It fell to the ground with a loud THUMP. Followed by the smaller THUMPs of the rest of his equipment.

“You just had to open your big mouth didn’t you, Coop.” Eve grumbled from beside him. Unlike him, she was separating and placing her equipment with precision instead of just dumping it into a pile on the ground.

“I didn’t say anything.” Coop replied through gritted teeth. “Sergeant midget-man over there just started to harass the tall guy. Not my problem he has a Napoleon complex.”

“I don’t know if I should be impressed that you know what a Napoleon complex is, or kick your ass for disrespecting an NCO; especially since that NCO just happens to be the battalion armorer.”

Coop didn’t know what that meant, but it was clear from the expression on Eve’s face that it was a big deal.

<Damn she looks hot when she’s mad.> Coop kept that part to himself.

“Don’t fuck over the squad’s training. Understood?”

“Yes, Boss-lady.” Coop replied before starting to organize his own gear after Eve’s example.

“Everybody shut it!” The SGT yelled as he pulled out his PAD. A few clicks later and the grav-sleds were lining up on the side of the metal building of their own accord. “Ok, let’s get started.”

A holo display appeared behind the sergeant, occupying the space between him and the wall. On it was a picture of the armor Coop assumed was still sealed in the bag at his feet.

“Our mission today is to orient you to the Dragonscale Individual Battle Armor. You will hear some of the senior NCOs and officers refer to this equipment as your IBA. But I doubt you’ll hear that from anyone below master sergeant or captain. More likely you are going to hear people refer to this piece of equipment as “scales”. So if someone yelled at you to ‘get your scales on’ then they’re talking about this.” The 3D holo-image rotated three hundred and sixty degrees as the SGT spoke.

“Now everyone open up their sealed container. If for some reason the container is not sealed, please tell me know.”

No one had that problem.

Coop scanned the contained with his GIC and then had to rip the seal once it was open. Inside was a real-life representation of what was rotating next to the wall of the gray building. Coop went to pull it out. . .

“Did I tell you to touch your scales, Recruit!” The SGT was on Coop like flies on shit. “I don’t need you to think, Recruit. Just do what I tell you!” The NCO backed away with a scowl. A scowl that matched the one Eve was giving him.

<Geez.> Coop held up his arms defensively and didn’t make any more attempts to do anything.

“This is the main part of your scales.” The SGT walked to the side of the building and grabbed a used-looking set of armor. “The main portion protects the torso and back down to the waist. It also comes up over the shoulders here.” The SGT effortlessly threw the armor over his head.

<He has to be from a heavy grav world.> Coop watched as the man barely grunted as the heavy gear fell into place.

“Once the armor is on it will conform to your body shape, and seal itself. Now you can all touch your scales and put them on.”

Coop let other people go first before he reached into the container and pulled out the armor. It kind of reminded him of bulky football pads that offered a lot more protection. <How do I get it on?> Coop had come a long way from being that skinny Rat back in the PHA, but throwing around seventy kilo pieces of armor wasn’t something he could do without hurting himself.

So he did what he always did in these types of situations. He watched Eve.

Without any hesitation Eve grabbed one side of the armor and pulled it forward over her head. She moved her head so it went into the open hole at the top. She bent her knees as she did it to take the increased weight. She shifted it around a few times until she got it as comfortable as possible and then stood up. The open sides of the armor slid together, sealing her up.

Coop heard the slight hiss of air, like someone nearby was farting, as the armor sealed against her body.

“Make sure to get it as comfortable as you can before letting it seal you in. It’ll wait until you stop moving around.” She stated when she saw Coop watching. “Pay special attention to the armpit areas. You’re going to get some chaffage until you break it in, but it’s better than rubbing you raw.”

“Thanks.” Coop took a deep breath and tried to execute the same maneuver.

He almost fell over from pulling the heavy weight over his head like that. He barely kept his feet, and then he banged his head painfully on the inside of the armor as it came down over his head. He did remember to bend his knees, so he didn’t hurt himself under the increased weight. But that didn’t stop the stab of pain running through his back and shoulders.

<How the fuck do they expect us to fight in this?>

Coop didn’t let the armor sit and seal itself. He moved it around as much as he could just like Eve said. He paid attention to the armpits, but no matter how much he adjusted it still sat uncomfortably.

<Fuck it.> Coop got it as best he could and then stopped moving. After a moment he felt pressure, and heard the hiss of air, as the armor sealed itself.

Coop handled the donning of the armor better than most. Several members of the company, Nate, Emma, and John all ended up on their asses. Coop thought it sucked walking around in the armor, but it sucked even more having to help someone up who was also wearing the armor. More than a few other people ended up face first in the dirt during that scenario.

“Eyes front! Stop waddling around like a bunch of penguins.” The SGT snapped. “Time for the armor specs, so I suggest you set your PADs to record.” He didn’t allow anyone time to get it out before he started.

“The Dragonscale Individual Battle Armor is comprised of a thin layer of ballistic gel under 3 cms of military grade duro-steel. That ballistic gel will monitor your vitals and relay any information through STRATNET to the commander of your unit. Between the duro-steel and the outer layer of the armor is a mess of circuitry that none of you will be qualified to fix. That’s an armor’s job, so don’t go fucking around with it or you will get yourself killed. The outer layer of armor, as you can see, is made of hundreds of one centimeter by one centimeter scales. These are why people call this armor scales for short.”

Coop looked down and saw the outlines of these portions, which did look a lot like reptilian scales. <Cool.>

“These scales are made of carbon nanotubing and are linked through the circuitry underneath it to the tactical computer on your back. These computers are infinitely faster and smarter than you will ever be, recruits. These computers will analyze incoming fire and direct the scales the best way to deflect those rounds.” He looked around the company obviously waiting for someone to ask a question.

“I believe a demonstration is in order.” The SGT smiled wickedly before looking right at Coop. “Recruit Longneck, thank you for volunteering.”

Coop gulped, but stepped out of formation when beckoned by the SGT. He didn’t want to look like a pussy.

“In addition to the main armor piece are these additional smaller sections.” The NCO instructed Eve to collect the rest of Coop’s armor and come to the front. “You’ve got a carbon nanotubing neck gaiter in the same scale style to protect your long, vulnerable neck.” The SGT couldn’t reach, so Coop had to pull the material over his head and down into place.

It felt rough going on, and then just plain weird as it shifted on its own and integrated itself into the top of the main armor piece at the breastbone. It reminded Coop of the VR simulation’s artificial nerves slithering around his body.

“Lastly, we’ve got these nifty little plates that go into your CMUs.”

<Where?> Coop didn’t ask the question out loud because he didn’t want to get bitched at, but he didn’t know where the plates could go.

“First you need to set you CMUs to their Battle setting.” The sergeant grinned at the company. “They didn’t tell you about that so you wouldn’t go fucking around with it and hurt yourself.” The SGT hit some commands on his PAD and Coop felt the fabric of his uniform tighten and grow heavy.

“How you feeling, Recruit?” The SGT asked innocently as Coop grunted against the additional ten kilos of weight.

“It’s heavy.” Coop growled through gritted teeth.

“And the fun ain’t over yet.” The sergeant grinned. “As you can all see, once in the Battle setting there are these nifty slits that open up. Those slits are for these plates; which are a thin layer of ballistic gel underneath 1 cm of duro-steel. Recruit, if you could help me please.” The SGT gestured for Eve to assist in sticking the plates in Coop’s CMUs.

The fun of being groped by Eve so close to his groin was lost on Coop as more and more weight was added to his body.

The plates went onto the fronts and backs of the major limbs not protected by the main armor. They covered the front and back of his lower leg, his quads, hamstrings, biceps, triceps, and forearms. His joints were left free to move, and despite the tightening of his CMUs it didn’t affect its flexibility.”

“This is what we call a full load.” The SGT grinned once they’d put all the new plates into the CMUs. “A light load would just be the main armor piece and the CMUs in a Battle setting. Your command will determine if you are going full or light into a combat situation.”

Coop tried to act like nothing was bothering him, but it felt like he was wearing and extra ninety kilos over his entire body. The armor effectively doubled his weight.

“Last but not least we have the helmet.” The SGT held up the piece which looked like solid duro-steel, with the scaled nanotubing on top without any visor for him to look out of.

“Don’t worry about seeing anything. The armors external sensors will display your surroundings. Having a visor or slit in the armor only compromises its integrity and gives the enemy something to aim for.”

“This is so cool.” Eve did the honors and lowered the helmet over Coops head, which just like the neck gaiter, slithered and sealed itself to the rest of the armor.

“Yeah, this is just fucking awesome.” Coop replied into the black silence of the armor. “I don’t think I can walk in all this shit.”

Suddenly, everything went from total, silent blackness to normal as a three hundred and sixty-degree heads-up display (HUD) activated. No, it was better than normal. Coop could see details through the HUD that he’d missed before. He also saw numbers, letters, and icons flashing by in his peripherals.

“Stay still, Recruit.” The SGT commanded. “Your armor is booting up. It shouldn’t take more than a minute, and then we can start the demonstration.

Coop couldn’t see or feel what was happening, but he could hear the rest of the company oohing and aweing as the armor did whatever it was doing when it first activated.

That might have been interesting, but what Coop could see was better. Just by looking and focusing on members of the company Coop could bring up their MILNET profiles. Most of the information was barebones, but it was a god-like power to a Rat who hadn’t even owned a PAD until a few weeks ago.

“Ok, it looks like you’re good to go, Recruit.” The SGT stepped in front of Coop and pulled out a pistol. “Time for the demonstration.”

Coop flinched as he saw the SGT pull the trigger. He expected to feel the bullets cutting through his flesh, puncturing critical internal organs and killing him. Coop wouldn’t put it past the pissed off little man to make an example out of him.

He felt the rounds hit his armor like a soft punch, but nothing more. What he didn’t see was how the armor reacted.

The rest of the company saw Coop’s armor react seemingly before the shots were fired. The scales rippled across his entire chest. With one section creating a pathway for the bullet to be deflected away from Coop.

The armor deflected each of the rounds fired by the tiny SGT, sending it careening off to the side or down into the dirt. Nothing got through to Coop, and the armor continued to move even after the SGT was finished firing. Like the armor itself was suspicious the SGT would try and do something else to hurt its user.

“And there you have it, Recruits.” The SGT put the pistol back in a holster hidden in the small of his back. “The Dragonscale Individual Battle Armor. I will now take your questions.”

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 85

“So can anyone tell me what the lessons learned from the Brewster event were?” Dean Ditmar stood at his podium addressing a class of freshmen that were less attentive than usual.

Of course, Angela wasn’t one of them.

She raised her hand high, but not high enough to say “pick me, pick me”. She was in college now and she had to give other kids a chance to answer.

The Dean called on Casey who looked practically asleep, but was still able to deliver a decent answer.

“Ok.” The Dean looked down at his watch and then back out at the students. “That’s enough of the progress toward artificial intelligence for today.” The class brightened up at that. “But I do need to remind you that your midterm papers are due next Monday.”

Groans rippled through the class like a wave, and the Dean made a calm down gesture with his hands. “I know what you’re all thinking. You’re all sitting there wondering ‘why oh why does the paper need to be twenty pages long’? The answer to that is simple. It needs to be twenty pages long because that is the minimum length necessary to answer the question. Since you are comparing and contrasting a Hero and a villain you should have plenty of material to work with.”

Angela wasn’t worried about the paper. She already had twenty-two pages written and still had the conclusion to go. The only thing she had minor worries about was one of the subjects.

After her father’s death, which Angela was just starting to be able to think about without drowning in guilt, shame, or anger, she dove into the DVA’s systems to find everything they had on Wraith. Now that the villain was becoming more notorious, new information was becoming available as cyber specialist dug through twenty years of footage looking for any sign of her. The mission was to find out who she was, and Angela was determined to help any way she could.

If that meant her second semester freshmen midterm project at the West Private University HCP just happened to line up with that goal, then she was fine with that. She just hoped Dean Ditmar was too.

“Any questions before I release you to your tormenters?” The brief moment of levity got a few laughs, but no takers. “Very well.” The Dean nodded and everyone got up and ready to leave.

Angela packed her bags and would have been the first one to the door if the Dean hadn’t called her name. “Please wait up a moment, Ms. Martin.”

Angela waited as the rest of the class passed her by, some giving her side-glances, while Becca just smiled and told her she’d wait for her outside. The blue-haired speedster was nothing if not a great friend.

“Ms. Martin,” the Dean started once the door had shut behind the last leaving student. “First off I wanted to check in and see how you were doing?”

Angela had heard this several times from several people since her father’s death. Truthfully, she found it irritating that everyone was treating her with kid gloves, even if most of the people were asking out of genuine concern.

“I’m coping, Sir.” The response was so quick it sounded rehearsed, so she added more for the nice Dean’s sake. “Dr. Johnson has taught me some good techniques and my friends have been there for me.”

The response served the dual purpose of answering his question and subtly reminding him that there were people waiting for her.

“Yes, that’s good.” It was clear he got the dual meaning and smiled. “Have you seen your mother recently?”

“Um. . .” She didn’t see that one coming.

Angela had only seen her mother on a few occasions. She’d come to the hospital, she’d been at the funeral, and she’d stopped by not too long ago. That last visit had been weird because she’d obviously been drinking, and all she talked about was her failure. Since the implacable Sophia Martin only ever talked about determination and victory at all costs, the conversation had been more than a little unsettling.

“Not for a few days.” Angela replied truthfully. The look in the Dean’s eyes showed that he knew all the pertinent information about the situation.

“If you do see her, or if you can get a hold of her, could you please have her check in at the Protectorate headquarters. There have been a number of. . .unsettling. . .reports coming in. Most are from some of the last remaining members of the Fist, but nevertheless the DVA needs to ensure that everyone’s rights and due process are being respected.”

Angela read between the lines. Her mom, a famous Hero, had gone slightly off the reservation in her quest for vengeance and people were starting to get nervous. Angela didn’t know what she could do to help, but she could at least make a phone call.

“I’ll do what I can.” She nodded.

“Thank you,” the Dean sighed. “Now hurry to the gym. I’ve held you up for. . .five minutes. If you are more than five minutes late then I cannot protect you from Coach Meyers.”

Angela didn’t waste any time. She jumped up from her seat and started to run. She burst through the door and almost ran straight into Becca.

“Geez Louise.” Becca moved back quicker than Angela could follow. “Where’s the stampede?”

“We’re going to be late. Sorry if I kept you waiting.”

“No worries.” Becca smiled her big, innocent smile. “Just wanted to make sure everything was ok.”

“Yeah everything is just fine. Just some family business.”

“Alright then.” Becca paused a second to see if Angela wanted to elaborate. “Well we better hurry up,” Becca replied when Angela didn’t say anything. “I’ll see you there.”

Becca disappeared in a blue blur leaving Angela to run the last few corridors alone. Not that the angelic shifter minded. She had enough to think about.

 

***

 

Daisy glanced at the clock and silently cursed. <I’m going to be late.>

She knew that, and she still didn’t give a shit.

After a lot of poking and prodding by the other HCP professors, Daisy finally relented and started to make her office more livable. It was a necessity for the job. Despite everyone having homes to go home to at the end of the day, some days never ended. Daisy had pulled more than a few all-nighters in this job, and each time Craig found her sleeping on her desk he bugged her to update.

So now Daisy had a pullout couch stuffed into one corner and a small TV sitting on the top of one of her shelves.

That small box set, which was terribly out of date if Craig was right, was the reason she was going to be tardy. Being in the secure HCP meant that she didn’t have all the normal channels a person would have in their above-ground home. But it did have some perks, including the ability to watch some of the DVA’s in-depth footage of past and present events.

Which was what had her so worried.

The destabilizing situation in Morocco was all over the news. Outlets from several different countries were covering the madness, and it wasn’t pretty. A quarter of the capital city, Rabat, was on fire; and it wasn’t normal fire.

The fire didn’t move like normal. It was spreading across the section of the city, but while some buildings were burning bright others were not. The fire was choosing its targets. In some cases, a house was being consumed by flame and its neighbor would be completely unscathed. It was weird, confusing, and clearly Super-created.

The last part was obvious since the flames themselves were a bright silver color.

<Damascus.> A memory tugged at the back of her mind and she let it sweep over her.

***

It was hotter than Hell, the shouts of the city were giving her a skull-numbing headache, and everything smelled like half-rotted asshole.

“So this is what my life has boiled down to.” Daisy, dressed head to toe in a black garment, took stock of her life.

“Cheers, love.” The man walking beside her whispered his response.

The man was tall, distinguished, and dashingly handsome. Something he never let her forget. He was professional though, SAS commandoes tended to be like that, but the second the mission was completed he’d start hounding her again for a pint.

She’d be able to drink his finely-sculpted ass under the table any day of the week. But that wasn’t something she advertised. She preferred to have those fools figure that out for themselves.

“Any sign of the target?” The voice in their ears asked.

“Negative, Leftenant.” Her charming British compatriot responded. “This is our third pass. Requesting new location to conduct overwatch. They’ll identify us if we make another pass.”

The joint ForceOps-SAS mission to track down a renowned terrorist in Syria was not going well. Intelligence stated he was supposed to be making an arms deal with members of a local group today, but so far he’d been a no-show.

People were starting to get antsy, Daisy could feel it. There was chatter about an attack on the UK; which was why she was here. In the spirit of international cooperation the US was sending its best to help out.

Not that any of that mattered as they passed by the foul-smelling café for the third time.

<Were just sitting out here with our dicks out pissing in the wind.> Daisy thought.

She might be covered up, but there weren’t any other women over six feet around. They had to have drawn attention by now.

“The building across the street has a good line of sight into the café and all avenues of approach.” A familiar American voice chimed in their ears.

Daisy recognized Kevin’s voice, and knew he was within a mile of their location with a quick reaction force of conventional, but still quite deadly, ForceOps soldiers.

“Moving now.” The SAS operative, acting as Daisy’s male escort, detoured across the street and into the open shop.

He closed the dirt-stained door behind him, and flipped around a piece of cardboard with Arabic writing on it. Daisy assumed the side facing out now said closed.

The man sitting behind a counter took offense to that, but before he could shout Daisy dropped him. Her partner caught him before he hit the ground and dragged him behind the counter to conceal his unconscious body.

“Bloody hell, that’s a handy trick, love.” He flashed Daisy his dimpled smile.

<Ok,> Daisy thought to herself as they climbed the back stairwell up to the roof. <Maybe I’ll fool around with him once this mission is over.>

The strapping commando might not look it, but he was an impressive strongman. Daisy just hoped she knew how to use what God gave him.

Those pleasant thoughts were baked from Daisy’s mind over the next two hours of watching and waiting in the punishing Middle-Eastern sun. Even the SAS man’s thinly-veiled sexual banter dried up after a while. They were both miserable sitting on top of the rooftop.

“Leftenant, are were supposed to sit up here and shrivel into raisins?” The commando asked after they’d just about had enough.

The other end of the line was silent.

“M?” Daisy tried her own comms with Mastermind and the QRF. “You still reading us?”

Nothing.

Daisy immediately went on high alert. She scanned with her specialized power but didn’t feel any unknown Supers or Powered in the half-mile around them. Just normal humans going about their day.

“We’re being jammed.” The SAS strongman looked over their equipment. “I suspect we’ll be more entertained shortly.”

Daisy just nodded as her eyes kept scanning. She kept her head on a swivel, sweeping back and forth across the crowded street, and continued to search with her power.

A man stepped around the corner with a large box cradled in his arms. His face was only visible for a second as he negotiated the corner, but that was their man.

“Target acquired.” Daisy stated, even though she knew the transmission wouldn’t get through.

She focused on the box. The box didn’t have the same feel as a Super or Powered person, but she could feel something else there. It was like walking into a room where somebody had smoked recently. You could still smell the tobacco and knew someone had been smoking, but they weren’t there anymore.

Something about the box suggested lingering powers.

“There’s something up with that box.” Daisy informed the SAS commando.

“Well then we had better check it out.” The man said as the target disappeared into the café across the street.

“Ladies first.” He gestured to the edge of the roof.

They’d gamed out a few scenarios while walking around the block and sitting on the rooftop, but no matter what they hypothesized a hard, quick entry was still the way to go. They were both very durable in their own way and were fairly confident they could resist any surprises.

“Screw that.” Daisy laughed off his attempt at chivalry. “You’re the big, strong man. You go first.”

He nodded with another dimpled smile, stood up and jumped off the second story roof. Daisy gave him a two Mississippi count and then followed.

The fall was short, but it gave a boost to her kinetic energy battery when she hit the ground. She didn’t store it though, instead choosing to release all of it in a burst of speed that broke the already cracked road as she barreled forward into the café; whose wall the SAS commando had already made a convenient hole in.

She skidded to a halt in the center of the establishment. The completely empty establishment. Empty of everything except the big box sitting on the center table.

“Check the back, love. I’ll look at the box.” It was the right move. The SAS operative was much more likely to have training for something like this. “Just like getting into a woman’s knickers; slow, steady, but you had better be able to move when the moment is right.”

Daisy couldn’t stop the snort of laughter as she headed for the back door.

She never made it.

The heat and concussive force of the explosion knocked her forward, and only her extensive HCP training and Hero work saved her. In fact, she used the same technique her father used when Armsman and Hellgate attempted to assassinate the President back in 1971.

She focused and engaged her kinetic absorption abilities enough that she took in the kinetic energy of the blast and impact of the shrapnel, but still surfed the overall wave of energy out of the kill zone.

The course of that wave did take her through the back wall and into the rear alley.

She collapsed into a spread-eagled wreck in the back of the store. She was bruised and her arm wasn’t working quite right. She hadn’t executed the maneuver as good as her father had.

<I need to work on that.>

And then she smelled the burning.

“Fuck. . .fuck. . .FUCK!” She yelled, tearing the flaming black garment off herself. “Stupid fucking pillow sack!” She screamed as heat scorched her hands, blistering her skin, and making her awful day even worse.

“Easy now.” The SAS commando appeared in the hole she’d made in the back wall.

His clothes were gone, leaving him as naked as the day he was born, but otherwise unharmed. Silver flames still licked at his body, but failed to do any damage.

<Silver?>

“Am I in so much pain that I’m tripping balls or is that fire silver?” Daisy clutched her scorched hand to her chest as the strongman stomped out the rest of the flames.

“No, you’re quite sane, and the silver flames confirms our intelligence. This was Damascus, he just knew we’d be here.”

Daisy grimaced at the unknown terrorist Super and silently vowed to put her foot up his ass at some point for payback.

“We need to get going.” The SAS strongman looked around, jogged a short way down the alley, and jumped up three stories to grab clothing off a line hanging outside a window. “Here we go.”

The clothes weren’t big enough, but it was better than walking around naked.

“Up we go. Let’s get to the rendezvous point.”

Daisy agreed, but her body didn’t. She took a step and her knee gave out.

“Son of a cocksuckin’ bitch.” She growled, leaning on the strongman for support.

“I thought you HCP birds were supposed to be tough?” The commando grinned, using the insult to motivate.

“Easy for you to say Mr. I-Can’t-Get-Hurt.” Daisy spat back. “You must not have been pushed hard enough.” She returned his insult with one of her own.

“I will have you know that I was challenged significantly at Brashmoore, but decided that Hero-work just was not my style.” He spoke of an institution Daisy knew nothing about.

“Whatever.” She waved away his excuse. “Help me so we can get the fuck out of here.”

***

Daisy snapped back to reality as the TV showed a palm tree-lined boulevard consumed by the silver flames that had injured her so long ago.

<He’s coming.> She thought, forgetting all about the physical training class she was already five minutes late to.

Now, not one but two demons from her past were coming back to haunt her. And it would be her new town, friends, and students that took the hit for it.

<And Topher.> A shiver ran down her spine. <And Debora.> There wasn’t a shiver this time, but she didn’t want anything bad to happen to the DVA agent either. The woman was a kindred spirit.

She spent no more than a minute engaging in her own little pity-party before she pulled herself together.

“Woman the fuck up.” She said out loud. “They can fucking hurt them over my cold, dead body.”

She was dead serious.

And if it came to that, there would be a hell of a lot of other dead bodies around her when she drew her last breath.

<Time to get to work.>

 

***

 

Sophia Martin rested her head on the cold metallic surface of the table and savored the chill as it spread through her body. She exhaled heavily, took a deep breath in through her nose and let it out through her mouth. She did this a few times before looking back up at the blacked-out computer monitor.

She saw her reflection in the dark screen and it made her wince.

Sophia looked like hammered shit. Her hair was a mess, she had no makeup on, her eyes were bugging out but still had dark circles under them. It gave her a first-glance appearance of some kind of addict. She hadn’t changed in god only knew how long, and she smelled ripe. If someone walked into the professor portion of the HCP library server area they’d probably think that some hobo had found her way in and made herself at home.

<Focus.> She let out another deep breath and hit the spacebar to bring the computer back to life.

She had to go through the extensive log on process again. After a few minutes the plain blue homepage popped back to life. She looked at the bottom right side of the screen with surprise.

<I must have passed out.> She thought as she noticed the time difference.

It was probably for the best. She hadn’t slept in what felt like days and she had probably started to hallucinate near the end.

She hadn’t slept since Wraith’s escape.

<There has to be something here.> All the fervor and madness came crashing back like a tsunami. <I hit her I know I did. She should be a puking, powerless mess right now if it was a glancing blow. If I really got her then she should be dead.>

Sophia didn’t shoot her poisonous barbs at just anyone, and when she did she was playing to win. <I’ve got the advantage now. I need to capitalize.>

She opened up Hunter’s old searches, she couldn’t think of him as Henry right now, and went through them for the two-hundredth time. The searches, filters, and cross-references hadn’t changed since the first time she looked at them, and despite all the willpower in the world they weren’t revealing any new information.

Still, she went through them meticulously until she came to the last entry.

<Who the hell are you!> She started at the picture of the pretty woman who put on puppet shows with her powers.

Her fist slammed down on the tabletop, rattling the desktop computer. Pain lanced through her wrist and up to her elbow. She silently cursed her outburst and clutched her wrist with her opposite hand.

“What was that?” A voice asked from outside the secure room.

Without hesitation Sophia shifted from an athletically lean human woman to a winged creature somewhere between and angel and a demon.

Sophia did not shift the same way her daughter did. Angela was lucky. There was simply a blast of light and she was changed. Sophia had used video equipment once to cut through the light and see the change, but there wasn’t much to see. Angela’s human body simply disintegrated as her own angelic shape burst forth. It looked like it should be horribly painful, but Sophia knew better than to think that. Her own shifting was far less appealing.

Sophia’s flesh seemed to melt in the heartbeat it took her to become Seraphim. It gave the impression of the winged creature rising out of Sophia’s melted humanity. She’d learned long ago that it was unsettling to people, and made sure to always shift before going out in public.

There was another reason she always shifted in private. Unlike her daughter, Sophia shifted form appeared completely naked.

She had no time to get into the clothes she’d packed in her bag so she wrapped her wing protectively around herself to cover her modesty.

A second later the door clicked open and a woman peered in. Sophia recognized her as Force Field, the perpetually sad looking HCP Control instructor.

“Oh, hello, Seraphim.” She nodded her head. Not at all surprised to see a large winged creature sitting in a chair that was too small for it.

“Please do not disturb me.” Sophia hissed back, not taking her eyes from the computer screen.

She was starting the search again from the beginning. She noticed that other people had started to look at Hunter’s old research. The DVA, other Heroes, and basically anyone who had access to these servers was starting to pour over this intelligence. Which meant Sophia would soon have competition in killing the bitch who had killed her husband.

“I’ll leave you alone,” Robin Kirk nodded. “But you should know the Dean is looking for you. Something about cracking too many skulls.” The statement teased a smile on the woman’s lips. “Just thought you should know.”

“Thank you,” Sophia replied, giving a thumbs up in the direction of the door. “I’ll try to keep people more intact next time.”

There was no reply, and when Sophia finally turned around to look the other Hero was gone.

So she went back to work.

An hour later nothing had changed. The information wasn’t going to magically change and reveal its hidden secrets. <So I need to figure out a different way to look at it.>

Unfortunately, Henry had always been better at that sort of thing. But she had picked up a few tricks along the way. What she needed was another pair of eyes, but since that wasn’t possible she did the next best thing.

The system archived the views and users who had looked at the pages. It was meant to be a tool for interaction between people who might be working on adjoining cases, but it had never really worked out that way. People like to be in control of what they thought was theirs, which meant they didn’t like to share. Then the DVA threw allocation budgets in there and what you got was a decisive lack of cooperation.

Still, the information was there, and there was one page that was getting slightly more hits than the others.

<Why are you so interesting, Amelie Noel?>

 

***

 

Lilly took a deep breath and raised her hand toward the door. She wasn’t one hundred percent yet, but she was a hell of a lot better than the drooling mess she’d been the last time she was in this house, and she’d take that over her father’s overprotectiveness any day of the week.

Normally, she would just walk on in, but after everything that happened this just felt better. She gave the door three good knocks and then stepped back to wait.

Barely half a second passed before the door popped open to reveal blue braids on top of an adorable face.

“Liz!” Becca practically screeched.

Liz smiled and grimaced all in one facial expression. “Hey, Becca.” It was a good thing she’d stepped back because the smaller woman threw open the screen door and pulled her into a hug.

“I heard about your uncle. I’m so sorry. Where were you? How are you? Are you caught up on your homework? Did you lose weight? Everything ok?” Rapid fire questions erupted from the girl like she was a human machine gun.

“Thanks.” Liz smiled and took a deep breath as Becca released her. “I was at home. I’m good. I didn’t know him that well. I’m good on homework.” That last part was thanks to Mika. “I did lose a bit of weight. I caught the flu at the funeral which was why I’ve been away a bit longer than I would have liked. Aside from that everything is good.” She answered all the blue-haired woman’s questions quickly to get them out of the way and get to the reason she was really here. “Is Seth upstairs?”

Becca’s smile grew a little mischievous before she could reign herself in. “Yeah, he’s in your room.” Becca had started referring to everybody’s room in the plural since multiple people tended to stay in them on a continuous basis.

“Ok thanks.” Liz grabbed her luggage and headed down the well-worn path to her room.

She stopped momentarily at the door to gather herself. She didn’t know how Seth was going to react. This was the second time she’d just disappeared on him in as many months. Even if she had a good excuse this time she’d still bailed.

She let out a deep breath, put a smile on her face, and pushed open the door. “Honey, I’m ho. . .” She abruptly stopped the cliché greeting, and dropped her bags.

“I knew you were sick so I did the best I could.”

Seth was smiling back at her. He was standing beside the bed with a white linen covered tray. On top of the tray were sick-person foods. Liz smelled the aroma of soup, but despite being sick of eating nothing but soup over the past week she was suddenly famished.

“We never got our dinner so I had to improvise.”

Liz opened her mouth to speak but no words came out. Instead tears started to leak down her face.

“Liz?” Seth’s smile was replaced by concern. “Is everything ok?”

“Yeah.” She swiped at the tears and coughed to clear her throat. “I just don’t deserve you.”

It was the truth.

“I think you’ve got that mixed up.” Seth carefully set the tray down and wrapped her up in a warm hug. “I’m pretty sure I’m the undeserving one.”

“If you knew what I’d done you wouldn’t say that.” The words slipped out before she could stop herself. She froze as panic nearly overwhelmed her.

“We’ve all done bad things,” Seth shrugged it off, not knowing how big a bullet he’d just allowed her to dodge. “Once I stole a red firetruck.”

“A firetruck, really,” she laughed with feigned intrigue. “Was it at least an expensive firetruck?”

“A whopping ten bucks, which seems like a fortune to a two-year-old starting his shoplifting career at Macy’s.”

She laughed at his successful attempt to calm her down, and she allowed him to steer her into bed. Unpacking the bags could wait until later.

“Dinner is served.” He set the tray over her legs once she was settled. “And I’ll have you know I’ve got a surprise in store for desert.”

<How’d I ever get so lucky?> Liz smiled, and made sure anyone who might be listening heard that thought.

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