Two Worlds – Chapter 66

Benjamin Gold

Location: New York City, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Are you sure I’m allowed to go to this?” Commander Wythe asked for the fifth time. Although, she preferred to be called Sarah on this occasion.

“Of course.” Ben smiled across the back of the luxurious air-limo at her. “Do not let the name of the event fool you.”

A week ago, Ben had invited his mentor, and the woman he had a slight crush on, to be his plus one at the Gold Family Veteran’s Day Celebration. She’d accepted without hesitation, which Ben took as a good sign.

Now, the battle-hardened commander was second guessing herself.

“It has nothing to do with family.” Ben explained. “It is an event that is part party, part meet and greet, part charity, and part excuse for my father to lord his wealth and reputation over everyone’s heads.”

That got a laugh out of his date.

“Ok.” She took a deep breath and smoothed the edges of her uniformed skirt. “I just haven’t celebrated a Veteran’s Day outside a veteran’s hall in a long time.”

Ben’s experience was the exact opposite.

He knew that veteran’s halls were gathering places for veterans partially subsidized by the Ministry of War and the rest by private donations. He had given generously since joining the navy to the halls in New York and London, but he’d never actually been in one before; especially on Veteran’s Day. When he celebrated at all he felt obligated to attend his family’s event.

Veteran’s Day post-expansion was very different from pre-expansion. Before the Last Terran War, Veteran’s Day had been celebrated on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in commemoration of the end of the First Great War. Sadly, World War I didn’t hold a candle to the Last Terran War.

When the dust cleared, the atmospheric scrubbers started to clear away the fallout, and the modern starfaring nations picked themselves back up the holiday was changed. Instead of occurring on November eleventh, Veteran’s Day now took place on June nineteenth. The eve of the most devastating war humanity had ever experienced. Even the various interstellar conflicts between the Commonwealth and Eastern Block didn’t compare.

Veteran’s Day was also a Commonwealth recognized holiday, which gave Ben and Sarah the day off, and led to them sitting in traffic above the Atlantic about fifty miles from New York’s Upper City. It was a good thing that the air-limo was stocked with a full bar. In typical military tradition, Sarah and Ben had started to drink the moment they felt the limo come to a hover, and Geoffrey began his apologetic litany for the unavoidable event.

It gave them a change to talk.

“You have spent most of your holidays in a hall?” Ben was intrigued.

“Yeah.” Sarah took a sip of her top-shelf whiskey and practically purred. “New Washington has the best. They’ve got food, enough booze to drown a battleship crew, and free VR entertainment.” She giggled at a memory.

Ben smiled too. It was nice to see a different side of the commander who constantly schooled him in VR scenarios and set near impossible standards.

“A lot of the people use it for porn, but most are smart enough to clear the cache before the next person comes in.” She laughed, and it sounded like spring church bells. “And that’s how I found out a retired captain had a particular fetish, which I was then able to leverage for a letter of recommendation that got me my first XO slot.”

“No, you did not.” Ben laughed along with her. “That sounds like a violation of our warrior ethos Commander Wythe.” He leaned back and sipped his own ridiculously expensive scotch.

“That’s the game.” Sarah replied, her eyes twinkling mischievously. “But I can’t lecture you about it. You’ve already got a command at your age and rank.” She motioned to the red stripe on his formal uniform. “I should probably be taking notes.”

Unlike the CMUs that soldiers and spacers routinely wore as their daily uniform, tonight’s events called for something a lot more formal. Most service members didn’t even bother purchasing the expensive and antiquated formal dress-blue uniform because unless you were flag rank or a very senior NCO the chances you’d ever wear one were slim to none. Dress CMUs usually cut it for everyone else.  Ben knew from previous parties that his father and the guests expected formal military dress. Luckily, Sarah had a set and had it up to standard.

The formal uniforms were a throwback to a long-lost age of military decorum. The modern uniform was smart and digitized. Service members didn’t need to spend hours making sure their uniform was perfect when they needed to be thinking about winning wars against a trained and determined enemy. Now, all you had to do was stick CMUs to your body and stand there. It was that simple.

The formal uniform was made of modern fabric, but it wasn’t smart. For males, it consisted of navy blue trousers with rank stripes, a white dress shirt, a bow tie, and a navy-blue jacket. For females, it was the same except the trousers were a knee length skirt. Both uniforms replaced the CMU boots with shiny black dress shoes.

All awards were actual medals which had to be spaced appropriately according to a regulation most didn’t even know existed. Name plates and unit designators were also present.

Sarah made the uniform look good. Not only because she was an attractive, fit woman, but also because she’d actually done things. She had a respectable row of medals over her left breast. The only thing Ben had that distinguished him as mildly important was the red command stripe. He only had a few medals, which looked insignificant next to the accomplished commanders.

Then again, they’d both be put to shame when they finally made it to the party.

The air-limo lurched and they began to accelerate enough that liquid almost sloshed out of Ben’s glass.

“They’ve opened up a VIP lane, Master Gold.” Geoffrey announced from the front.

“Thank you.”

<About time.> Ben thought as he looked out his window and saw the rear thrusters from a swarm of Spyder Assault Shuttles.

There were people far more important than a lowly lieutenant commander and commander attending the event.

The event itself was taking place at one of the large reception halls in the Upper City. Usually, these venues were used for stockholders’ meetings, corporate retreats, or any number of high priced gatherings. Tonight, the docking platform was draped in the blue and gold of the Commonwealth Armed Forces. Flags stood everywhere blowing in the wind, including several flags with the four or five golden stripes of admirals. Those flags went with those officers everywhere.

Sarah saw those flags, her eyes bugged out, and she quickly downed the last of her drink. “Don’t let me drink anymore for a little while.” She gripped his arm hard as they exited their limo.

Photographers from various news outlets snapped photos of everyone coming and going from the event. Ben wasn’t sure what they’d use the pictures for. It could be just another fluff piece or more likely an anti-elite indictment. Either way, a good picture would sell subscriptions.

“Are there always this many people?” Sarah’s eyes continued to bulge as they walked with a small crowd into a main hall that could fill thousands.

Expensive, hovering crystal chandeliers bounced light throughout the room. Rare and expensive artwork, donated by the wealthy attendees, adorned the gold-plated walls. The place was gaudy and lavished to the extreme. Ben didn’t like it, but he expected it.

“Benjamin!” A voice called out from nearby and a crowd parted to let the matriarch of the family through.

“Hello, mother.” Ben kissed Miranda Gold on her cheek.

“I’m so glad you could make it.” She held him at arm’s length and then turned to Sarah. “And who have you brought with you?” She smiled in a way that only a mother without grandchildren could.

“Mother, this is Commander Sarah Wythe. Sarah, this is my mother, Miranda Gold.”

Sarah had a solid fifteen centimeters on the shorter woman, but Miranda was clearly the dominant personality. You could see it in the body language. Sarah automatically deferred to Miranda. It was animalistic in nature.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Sarah.”

“No, I can’t believe I’m meeting you.” Sarah practically blabbered. “I’ve been following your career for years. The case you argued before Earth’s Supreme Court about employee benefits rights was incredible.”

Miranda’s smile brightened the room. “Thank you. I didn’t know anybody read or listened to those things.”

“I work in personnel, Ma’am.” Sarah regained control after her fan-girl gushing. “It’s always a good idea to keep up with what’s going on in the civilian world and how that might impact our talent management.”

“Very true.” Miranda gave Ben a sidelong look that said, <I approve.>

Which was something a young man didn’t want to see from his mother on something that wasn’t really a date.

“We’ll have to catch up and talk more. It was a pleasure to meet you, Sarah. Now I need to go make the rounds.”

“Nice to meet you too.” Sarah bounced up and down on her toes. Then she turned on Ben and looked like she was going to smack him in the arm. “You never told me that Miranda Gold was your mother.”

“You never asked.” Ben didn’t really know what to say. “And it’s all in my file.”

She ignored his excuse and continued to survey the hall.

“Shall we?” Ben extended his arm for her to take and started to expertly weave her through the crowd of social elites.

The trick to impressing these people was always remembering who they were and have a quick one-liner to say about them. PADs made it easy to do this, but making sure that person didn’t see you were looking at your PAD to remember them was the trick. Being in the military always helped with this. Since Ben was slated for deployment he’d been on the list to get upgraded to a sub-dermal PAD.

The upgrade, which didn’t interfere with the use of a standard polyplast PAD, turned Ben’s forearm into a biological screen. When wearing his CMUs the data would be transmitted through the smart fabric. In the formal dress uniform a quick watch-checking motion and Ben was able to get the approaching socialites information.

“Benny, made it!” The voice immediately grated on Ben’s nerves.

“Are we really going to do this here.” Another voice drawled.

“Just be nice, Dillion.” A third chimed in.

Suddenly, Ben found himself surrounded by the rest of the Gold children. Dillion stood there smirking like an idiot. Lillian looked bored and slightly drunk with her silver skin gleaming, and Hope looked defensive. She didn’t want the family gathering turning ugly right away.

“Always nice to see you, Dillion.” It took everything Ben had to take the high road.

“Lillian, Hope.” He gave his sister and half-sister kisses on the cheek, and pulled Hope in for a long hug. “Everyone, this is Commander Sarah Wythe. Sarah, this is my sister Hope, my half-sister Lillian, and my half-brother Dillion.”

“How did Benny get such a gorgeous date?” Dillion smirked, taking Sarah’s hand and brushing his lips against it.

Thankfully, Sarah didn’t seem the least bit interested in the guy kissing her hand.

“Lieutenant Commander Gold and I know each other from work,” she replied, turning her attention to Hope and Lillian. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Dillion got the clue quickly that he wasn’t going to get anywhere with Sarah, so he disappeared into the crowd to annoy someone else. Surprisingly, she hit it off quickly with Lillian and Hope. Apparently, Sarah had a deeper fashion knowledge than Ben thought possible from anyone who knew the specifications of a battlecruiser by memory. Sarah was also honestly interested in the new education initiative Hope was helping the family business with.

Both of his sisters gave him the same approving glance that their mother had.

“Benjamin.” His father seemed to appear out of thin air, which was an accomplishment since Curtis was his constant shadow and was even bigger than Ben.

“Father.” Their greeting was stiff. They hadn’t talked since their agreement was made several months ago.

“Please come with me. There is someone I’d like you to meet.”

Ben knew better than to make a scene, so he quickly excused himself and followed his father to a small gathering of men in navy-blue uniforms.

“Good evening, gentlemen.” Thomas Gold called out.

The group turned and Ben recognized Rear Admiral Helms, now a Rear Admiral promotable. Ben’s father’s leverage was enough to get the man the votes he needed to get his fifth stripe. Helms gave Ben a brief nod.

The small group consisted of the senior staff of First Fleet and its commander, Admiral Duvall.

“Gentlemen, this is my son. Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Gold.”

Ben felt like his head was on the chopping block, and his father had purposefully put it there.

The Rear Admirals and Admiral scrutinized him like a piece of livestock before Helms finally saved him. “Offering up your youngest son as the sacrificial lamb for the sake of a conversation starter. I’d hate to ever negotiate against you, Thomas.” That got the group laughing, and took the attention away from Ben.

“Can’t a father want his son to meet the boss. I’m told a junior officer rarely gets to make an impression on a flag officer.”

“That’s true.” Admiral Duvall spoke up and silenced his staff. “It’s nice to meet you Lieutenant Commander. You’re dismissed.”

“Yes, Sir.” Ben had to remind himself not to salute and did a perfect about-face and marched away from the senior fleet brass in the Sol System.

<I am going to kill him.> Ben fumed as he made his way over to the bar.

Things could have been a lot worse if he wasn’t shipping out to a whole different fleet soon. Admiral Duvall was an old school hardass known for not liking the thing Ben’s father had just done. There was no question that Thomas Gold knew that, which meant he was making sure to cut any strings to the fleet Ben might have once their deal was complete. Thomas wanted his son with Gold Technologies when this was all over, and he was willing to piss off a full admiral to do it.

<I cannot wait to get out of here.> Ben accepted the scotch and whiskey he’d ordered and headed back to where he’d left Sarah.

She wasn’t there when he arrived.

“Hope, where is Sarah?”

“Out on the veranda,” she replied, pointing across the room.

Ben carved a path through the party’s attendees to get to the French double-doors. The veranda was still crowded, but it was cool and had clean air thanks to the scrubber and AC dedicated specifically to this space. It was as lavishly decorated as the rest of the hall, so they couldn’t have it smelling like a sewer.

He found Sarah leaning against a wrought-iron railing and looking out over the Upper City.

“Hey.” He handed her the whiskey and joined her. “It’s a great view.” He stated when the silence became awkward. “I always loved the view when…”

“Oh shut up.” She silenced him by grabbing the front of his jacket, pulling him in close, and kissing him.

Ben didn’t even think. He kissed her back.

Military standards, societal implications, their working relationship; he ignored them all because he’d wanted to do this for a very long time.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 65

Gunnery Sergeant Gwen Cunningham

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

 Gwen sat in the command booth of the company VR training center. She watched the screen with interest as Echo Company 132nd Training Battalion engaged in their last VR exercise of their basic training.

<Soon you’ll have to do it for real.>

One of her biggest personal missions, and a mission of the military in general, was to not send someone into combat who wasn’t ready. That’s why they weeded out anyone with potential substance abuse issues on day one. That’s why they put them in isolation for a week to see if they could cope with that type of environment. That’s why they evaluated the recruits’ aggressiveness during fight week. If they didn’t look like they could do what needed to be done then they got held back to develop that warrior mentality, or they got shown the door and were given a swift kick in the ass.

They also made sure the recruits had the mental chops to get the job done. They needed to know how to fix basic things, read a map, and survive in the wilderness without any tech to help them. Being able to do those things would help them get back in the fight. Obviously, they made sure the recruits could shoot straight and knew squad and company level tactics; but the other things were just as important.

After watching, teaching, and evaluating Echo Company through the last few months Gwen could honestly say that they were the best company she’d ever trained.

<And a lot of that has to do with her.>

Gwen watched as Eve Berg, who was serving as the Company Commander for this company level exercise, motivated her soldiers, led from the front, and provided sound tactical leadership under extreme pressure. Seeing the young woman succeeding brought a smile to Gwen’s face. She tried not to play favorites but she was only human.

The scenario the company was immersed in was a tough one. It was a full battle simulation, involving two brigade level units slugging it out on a sparsely populated ice world. The Commonwealth was the defenders in this situation so they had the shields of a Planetary Defense Center to fall back on, but the Blockies had a couple of battlecruisers in orbit to even the odds.

Echo Company was just one company holding the line along a mile-long front, and the scenario was designed to deal with that limited level of command and control. That could always be changed though.

Gwen toyed with the idea for a moment, but discarded it. <That would just be mean.> Killing off the virtual battalion commander and elevating Berg to that level of command probably wouldn’t end well. <Maybe later.> If she kept doing everything right Gwen would have to challenge her more.

The door behind her hissed open and Petty Officer Janney walked in with two coffees. “Just what the doctor ordered.” He placed the steaming cup in front of Gwen.

“Thanks, Chase.” She sipped tentatively at the brown water. It didn’t totally taste like shit.

“How they doin’?” He plopped into the chair next to her and pulled up a dashboard. “Only lost ten percent of the company so far, and they’re ten hours in. That has to be some sort of record.”

The first few hours of the simulation had been about hastily preparing fighting positions, and allocating resources based on orders from higher, but the last four hours had been an unending assault by the enemy.

“It might be.” Gwen pulled up a menu, selected a few options, and then initiated some changes. “Let’s see if this is luck or skill.”

Five minutes later Echo Company’s section of the line was hit by a Blockie charge. Megawatt portable repeater lasers pounded the shield until it nearly failed. Three full squads of light infantry charged the line, while grenades were lobbed to suppress Echo Company until the enemy was almost on top of them.

One of those grenades headed straight for Eve Berg.

<This could be it.> The grenades came out of its arc, got past the swatters and almost detonated right in the young leader’s face. Instead, another soldier tackled her out of the way and took the brunt of the grenades blast on the back of his armor.

Berg survived, rallied her company, and fought back the attempt to break through the Commonwealth lines. Gwen couldn’t help but be impressed.

“Fucking Cooper.” Chase laughed as he pointed to the bio-data of the soldier who’d shielded Berg.

He’d gone from green to yellow with his sacrifice, but he’d still helped fight back the Blockies and got another two confirmed kills. Not bad for a guy whose spleen had been punched full of shrapnel.

“I swear to god that boy would give his left nut if Berg agreed to suck on the right one.”

Gwen laughed at the crude humor; partially because it was funny and partially because she thought it was true. She had a feeling that the day basic was over Cooper and Berg would be fucking like bunnies until they went off to their secondary training.

<Which…> Her PAD pinged with an incoming email.

“That them?” Chase asked, trying to glance over and see what it was.

“Yep, service assignments are in.” Gwen opened up the email and scanned down the list.

“We doing it tonight or tomorrow?”

All the recruits knew the assignments were coming down any day now, and as a rule it wasn’t a good idea to keep them waiting. People tended to get ideas in their heads, and neither instructor wanted any of the recruits to do anything stupid. Every boy and girl in that VR simulation had proven they could be a soldier and had significant resources invested in them. Having them stick their heads in their asses at the last minute was going to be a loss for everyone.

<We’ve already had one fuck up this cycle.> She still had pleasant dreams of Davenport’s chewed up corpse. <We can’t afford another.>

Chase Janney was up for Petty Officer Second Class soon and he didn’t need anything else blemishing his record until then.

“We’ll do it tonight. Another two hours on the simulation, then have them shower, shit, shave and assemble on the first floor.”

“Roger that, Gunney.” Chase smiled.

It was always fun to find out who would be joining their respective branches of service, and the little traditions they’d have to pass on to the new soldiers before they reported to their new units as the Fucking New Guy (FNG).

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

<Why am I nervous?> Coop wondered as he stood shaking slightly.

The whole company had assembled downstairs in their bay. There was sixty-seven packed into a space designed to sleep fifty, but that still left a lot of open room.

<Maybe it’s because we aren’t in formation.>

PO3 Janney had ordered them to huddle up after they’d finished their personal hygiene. Coop had almost opened up his PAD to see if there was a formal definition for “huddle up”. The PO3 and GYSGT liked to test them like that.

His shaking hand reached for his PAD but stopped. <Fucking VR crash.>

The last exercise, which amounted to an epic battle, had gone on for twelve full hours. Coop had been injured multiple times, been shot up twice with medical nanites, and now his brain and body were having a bit of trouble getting back in synch. A warm shower had helped, and seeing Eve’s bouncing tits had helped even more, but he still wasn’t all the way there.

Instead of grabbing his PAD he grabbed his hand with his other hand to get it to stop. <At least we kicked ass.> They’d held out until reinforcements arrived and then led the charge to break through the Blockies’ lines. Eve had been the battalion commander at that point, and she’d put Coop in charge of the company.

He wasn’t sure why, but it might have had something to do with him saving her ass. <Pretty sure she would have kissed me if we hadn’t been wearing armor.> He’d convinced himself that was the case. <And the look she gave me in the shower was definitely not plutonic.> He congratulated himself for the use of the big word and turned his attention back to the front of their gaggle.

PO3 Janney was standing there being surprisingly cool with everyone. He was answering questions about his time in the fleet before getting assigned to the training camp.

“Best job I ever had was without a doubt the door gunner on a Spyder Assault Shuttle.” The PO3 smiled a facial expression that was usually followed by varying levels of pain on the part of the recruits. “Pilots think they’re hot shit sittin’ in their cockpit and launchin’ missiles by pressin’ buttons. But let me tell y’all there is no rush like standing behind a railgun and shootin’ the shit out of somethin’. It makes a SAW feel like a BB gun.”

Mike was taking it all in. As the SAW gunner for second squad, hearing that there was something bigger and badder he could be shooting had grabbed his attention.

“Quiet down everyone.” The GYSGT walked into the room and everyone snapped to parade rest. “At ease and relax, this is all informal tonight.”

“It has to be the branch of service assignments.” Eve appeared at Coop’s shoulder her hair still wet. “This is it.”

Coop was surprised to hear fear in her voice. <You just led hundreds of soldiers to victory. Sure it was a VR victory, but you still kicked ass. How could you not get what you want?>

At the end of fight week the GYSGT and PO3 had directed them to the selections page on their MILNET account. There they could request specific branches, specialties, and even fill out additional service obligations (ADSO) in exchange for getting what they wanted. The instructors had stressed that they were going to be assigned branches and specialties depending on their performance and needs of the service. An ADSO would only be applied if you got what you wanted, but they said to go for it if you really knew what you wanted to do.

Coop didn’t put in an ADSO and didn’t really know what he wanted to do. He expected the military to just put him somewhere, so in lieu of having a plan he did what he normally did: follow Eve’s lead. He peeked at her selections and then copied them. He might have been thinking with his dick a bit at the time, but after what he’d seen today he knew he wanted to go into combat with Eve. He trusted very few people to have his back.

“By now the rumor mill has confirmed I’ve got the service assignments. Some of you have been assigned specialties beyond that, but most of you did not. You’ll get follow on schooling based upon your individual unit’s needs and their budgets.”

“Which means you won’t be able to do shit unless you deploy or you’ve got a few chevrons.” Eve finished the statement.

The GYSGT must have heard because she gave them a hard stare. Eve snapped her mouth shut and her cheeks flushed.

“There’s no need to build the suspense, so let’s get started.” She cleared her throat. “Congratulations, Bart Aaron. It seems you’ve shown the Commonwealth that you’re ready for increased responsibility. Your application to Officer Candidate’s School has been accepted. You’re going to be an officer.”

First squad went crazy as their squad leader got one of the best outcomes a recruit could hope for. The Sergeant’s words back at the Civil Administration Building had echoed through Coop’s head when he’d seen the option to apply to OCS.

<Your leadership abilities suck. In multiple scenarios you wasted resources, mostly to defend or enhance yourself, and ended up fucking everything else up. So you’re not going to be going down the officer track…ever.>

Coop liked to think he’d improved a bit since then, but he still didn’t even consider going for stripes.

The rest of first squad’s assignments weren’t nearly as exciting. They were basic fleet and infantry assignments with one lucky recruit going into an engineering specialty.

Then the GYSGT moved on to second squad.

“Eve Berg,” she announced.

Coop felt Eve grasp his hand and hold on tight. He fought and failed to conceal his grin. <If a woman seeks physical contact with you in times of stress than she’ll seek physical contact with you in other ways too.> It was sound logic in his mind.

“Hmm.” The GYSGT’s forehead crinkled. “Recruit Berg. You are reporting to Ranger School after the completion of Basic Training. Congratulations. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a recruit accepted to Ranger School before.”

“Did you ask for that?” Coop whispered as the GYSGT doubled checked the information.

“It wasn’t even an option.” Eve’s own forehead wrinkled in confusion. Then it slackened in realization. “It was my mother.”

“Mark Cooper.” The GYSGT moved on, and it was Coop’s turn to squeeze Eve’s hand. “Branch designation: Infantry. Specialization: Heavy Infantry. You’re joining my specialty, Cooper. Don’t fuck up.”

“Yes, Gunnery Sergeant!” Coop yelled reflexively.

“Congratulations, Coop.” Eve was smiling brightly, and the sight dazzled Coop.

“You too. Ranger School, that’s pretty kick ass,” he replied.

“Yeah. Remind me of that after I finish the first phase.”

They laughed and smiled at each other, and if they hadn’t been standing in the middle of a bunch of recruits, under the watchful eyes of GYSGT Cunningham and PO3 Janney, he would have kissed her. And he was pretty sure she would have returned the affection.

<Damn.> Coop felt the moment come and go. Then Harper got fleet with a medical specialty and Eve got dragged away by the practically crying girl.

<Well at least Mike got Heavy Infantry too.> Coop thought as the GYSGT rattled off the rest of second squad’s assignments.

<Life could be worse.>

Coop had no idea how terrible life could be until they entered Medical Week.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 90

Kyoshi stared at her textbook with blurry eyes. They were so dry that they were starting to bother her. She reached up to rub them, and was unable to stifle a yawn. The yawn led to a stretch that popped muscles that had been idle for far too long. She reached over her head and extended her arms as far as they would go. That action pulled up her t-shirt, bared her midriff, and showed off the slight bump.

She patted the bump appreciatively before pulling her t-shirt back down and looking back at her textbook.

The one bright point over the last twelve hours of her life was getting an extra-large pizza from Pesci’s Pizza and stuffing her face with it. The resulting food-baby was a reminder of that stress-less moment, but also a potential future that left her moving her studies to the bathroom for a little bit.

Kyoshi sighed and flipped the page to continue her studying. The last three weeks had been hell, and it had left everyone in Townhouse 117 exhausted. With the looming final set to begin anytime the instructors called, it was impossible not to cram for everything else in every spare moment they could find.

A normal college student knew their finals’ schedule and was able to plan accordingly. Maybe they studied the weekend before for their first two tests and then got to work on other classes after completing those original exams. Not having anything else on their plates allowed them to spread the wealth of knowledge intake.

None of the HCP students had that chance. They could get a call at any minute telling them to be somewhere and they might not get back from until right before the academic exam started. So Kyoshi had to cram right away. Her first final was tomorrow afternoon.

“You need to sleep, Kyoshi.” Mason was lying on his side on the bed and reading his own textbook. He looked better than she did but not by much. “You’re already going on 24 hours without sleep. Anymore and it won’t matter how much you’ve studied.”

<I know.> She answered him mentally so she didn’t have to turn away from her book and face him. <Just let me finish this chapter and I’ll come to bed, I swear.>

She heard the bed creak in the way it did when Mason nodded, so she plodded on through the bits of chemistry she was pretty sure she wasn’t going to remember no matter how rejuvenated her mind was.

A woman of her word, Kyoshi finished the chapter, closed her book, and went to jump in the shower. She still felt greasy from all the pizza.

Cleaned, hair dry, and dressed in comfortable pajamas she crawled into bed next to an already snoring Mason. The book was still open in front of him so she closed it, put it on his nightstand, and gave him a kiss on the forehead before turning off the lights and settling in for a well-deserved sleep.

She couldn’t have been asleep for more than forty-five minutes when the phone rang.

Both her and Mason had found the loudest and most jarring ringtone possible for finals week, and it did the trick. The problem was that they both had the same ringtone. They both snapped out of their REM cycles and bolted to where they last remember their phones. Mason got to his first and gave a sigh of relief, which didn’t do her a lot of good.

Her phone was shrieking, vibrating loudly, and flashing a blue light that made the room look like a club in the middle of a rave.

<You can do this.> She built herself up.

<I’ve got complete faith in you.> Mason added his support from across the room.

She picked it up before she chickened out. “Hello.”

“Good morning, Ms. Schultz.” Coach Meyers greeted her. It sounded like the alternative instructor had gotten a full night’s rest. “Please report to the combat cell viewing room in your uniform no later than 0130.”

The line went dead and Kyoshi looked at the clock. It was 0100 already, and she had a lot of ground to cover.

She started throwing off her pajamas and getting into something more practical for running across campus in the middle of the night. A normal guy would have sat back and enjoyed the show, but Mason chipped in, grabbing clothes from her drawer while she struggled into a sports bra.

“Thanks.” She stopped and gave him a quick kiss by the door.

“I know you’re gonna kick butt.” He smiled and gave her a hug before she sprinted out.

Sprinting was a good word for what she did. She took the stairs three at a time, which with her usual clumsiness was not a good idea. She practically ripped the door off its hinges as she ran out into the night and toward the student center. Since it was the start of finals week, the only place students were congregating at this time of night was at the library. She didn’t run into anyone as she passed through the polymorphic wall and repeatedly jabbed the button for the elevator. Thankfully, it arrived quickly, but once she was down in the HCP’s sci-fi looking corridors she still had a long way to go to get to the locker rooms. And it was much busier down here.

Kyoshi burst into the combat cell main viewing area at 0129 panting and with a stitch in her side.

<Pizza was a horrible idea.> She couldn’t believe she’d been stupid enough to pig out right before a final. She felt like she was going to puke.

“You made it.” Coach Meyers was standing next to the counter that usually held refreshments. “Let’s get started.” She handed Kyoshi an earbud and motioned for her to put it in her ear. “I’ll be acting as your Dispatch for this portion of your final examination. The device is on so just do a quick comms check.”

“Ah…yeah…testing one, two, three.” Kyoshi wasn’t sure what to say.

“Good Copy. Dispatch comms check.” She heard the alternative instructor say and then heard the echo in her ear.

“Good copy.” Kyoshi gave her a thumbs up.

“Ok.” The instructor gave her a brief smile. “Report to the room you took your last final in. I’ll brief you on the way.”

Kyoshi didn’t hesitate. She ran.

“Wait!” Coach Meyers’ yell stopped her in her tracks. “You’re going to need this.” She tossed Kyoshi a backpack, and Kyoshi resumed her sprint once it was in her hands.

“The situation is as follows.” The instructor’s voice came through loud and clear through the earbud. “At 0130 a noise complaint came into the local police department for the resident of 32 Mountainbrook Lane. A check of the residence showed the suspect as Mr. James Little. Mr. Little has a DVA file. He’s thirty-two, divorced, and his wife got custody of their daughter. His record is entirely from his teenage years; vandalism and destruction of property charges that he spent a year in juvenile detention for. Over the last fourteen years he’s gotten his life together. He’s a low-level strongman and uses his power to work construction. Nothing fancy, but he has made a good living, and by all accounts is a good father. The divorce seems to have hit him hard though. He’s still working but there has been one incident where he came to the worksite smelling like alcohol.”

“What’s the nature of the noise complaint?” Kyoshi asked, trying to get a better handle on the situation. “TV on too loud, shouting, he letting underage kids throw a kegger?” The last on got a chuckle from Coach Meyers.

“The reports from the officers on scene are that there was yelling, presumably because Mr. Little’s favorite team lost, and he proceeded to throw his TV through the front window.”

<That’s not good.> Kyoshi ran into the large lift that would take her down to the miniature city in the HCP’s basement.

Now that she was stopped she took the opportunity to open the backpack. On top, and clearly meant to be used, was a white domino mask. Kyoshi picked it up, pressed it to her face, and the special material adhered to her skin. The rest of the bag contained a belt. On the belt was a number of nonlethal items and restraints, so it was pretty clear what they wanted Kyoshi to do.

“Your mission, Ms. Schultz, is to contain the situation, calm down Mr. Little and bring him in for questioning.”

“Roger that.” The lift came to a stop and Kyoshi dashed into the waiting area.

The board was on but only one name was on it. <Schultz, A10.> Kyoshi read the board as she ran past it and down the A corridor. <Thank god we do so much cardio.> Kyoshi had been running since she left her room and she wasn’t even breathing hard. Even the pizza wasn’t bothering her so much anymore.

“How many officers are on scene?” She asked as she passed A5.

“Two officers in a standard police cruiser. Both officers are armed, but their sidearm won’t do much to hurt Mr. Little. A SWAT team is being mobilized and a specialized transport designed to handle Supers is on the way, but they’ll be waiting for your word to move in.”

Kyoshi gulped as she flew passed A8. She’d never been in charge of so many human lives before. <So don’t mess it up.> She thought to herself as she finally reached A10.

It was a ground level door, and all she needed to do was push it open.

<Ok, here goes nothing.> She pushed open the thick metal door and stepped into a calm suburban night.

The moment she was clear the door clanged closed behind her.

 

***

 

Daisy watched as Schultz sprinted down the hall. She was sitting in a comfortable leather chair and sipping a cup of coffee in a room just off the improvised city’s waiting room. From here she could hear, see, and influence the scenario they were sending the freshman advanced mind into.

“How many officers are on scene?” Schultz asked steadily.

Daisy could tell she was in the zone.

<Good thinking. Assessing additional resources that she can leverage to get the job done.> Daisy approved.

“Two officers in a standard police cruiser. Both officers are armed, but their sidearm won’t do much to hurt Mr. Little. A SWAT team is being mobilized and a specialized transport designed to handle Supers is on the way, but they’ll be waiting for your word to move in.” She gave the young woman more information than she’d asked for, but since Schultz was their first guinea pig of the final she deserved a bit more than the others who might get second-hand accounts of the trials.

A memory pulled at the back of Daisy’s mind.

She was sitting in a classroom with other ForceOps operators and getting a class about situational analysis.

“A situation and how you decide to handle it is always MET-TC dependent.” A burly NCO marched back and forth in front of the small class. “MET-TC stands for: mission, enemy forces, terrain, time considerations, and civilians. Use these categories to further analyze situations in order to take the appropriate action.”

Daisy shook the memory from her head. <That had to be back in the eighties.>

She didn’t remember a lot of the eighties thanks to copious alcohol consumption, but that didn’t matter now. She needed to focus on proctoring this trial.

“Mike, you there?” She switched frequencies.

“Oh yeah.” The man’s deep voice made him sound like the Cool-Aid mascot.

“She’ll be there in a few minutes if she can read a street sign, so start getting into character and get your friends ready to play police officer.”

“Sure thing.” Mike replied, and Daisy heard him shouting to the other guys on the scene with him.

Mike, and the two guys playing cops, were DVA contractors that were hired by the HCP for the final exam every year. Daisy knew that other HCPs liked to do another combat tournament to assess where the students were at the end of the year, but she was glad John and West Private did it a bit differently. The freshman had been fighting all year long, and while that was important, there was a lot more to being a Hero than throwing a punch.

That’s why Daisy loved this first trial. Trying to peacefully disarm a drunk Super, who was otherwise a good person, was a solid test of the other aspects of being a Hero.

Mike, who was actually a mid-level strongman, was briefed on the various ways to go about handling the situation based on what the students did. He’d also been doing this for several years so he had experience to fall back on. He’d be able to take anything the freshmen could dish out, but was supposed to stick to his low-level classification, which meant four tons of lifting power maximum.

Unfortunately, for anyone who wasn’t Mason or Casey, the situation could get ugly fast if they handled it incorrectly.

<Which is the point,> Daisy mused as Schultz stepped though the armored door. <Now let’s see what she can do.>

 

***

 

<Was it Mountainbrook or Mountainside?> Kyoshi scratched her head at the suburban intersection.

Mountainside Road was a quiet row of cookie-cutter ranch houses, but there weren’t any police lights, yelling, or gunshots so she was pretty sure it was Mountainbrook. She picked up the pace running the next five blocks. She’d already been in the impromptu city for a few minutes and she was pretty sure that not being able to find the house would count against her.

<Here we are, Mountainbrook.> She rounded the corner and immediately saw the police cruiser with its flashing lights about a quarter of the way down the street.

“Dispatch, I’m on scene.” Kyoshi jogged up to the two police officers and tried to look like she knew what she was doing.

The truth was that her legs felt like Jell-O and that pizza was threatening to come back up.

“Good evening, officers.” She decided to start things off friendly. “Everything ok here?”

“If everything were ok we wouldn’t need you.” The shorter cop gave her a partial glare, and made her feel stupid for asking.

<Of course things aren’t ok, or else I wouldn’t be here.> She wanted to smack herself in the face, but stopped herself. <That wouldn’t look good.> So she took two calming breaths and tried to center herself.

“Ignore him.” The other cop came to her rescue with a glare toward his partner. “He’s fighting off caffeine deprivation. Everything is contained here. The subject is remaining confined to his house or front lawn and all of the neighbors have been checked on. No injuries aside from the poor plasma screen over there.”

Kyoshi looked to where the man was pointing. What had to be a sixty-inch plasma sat destroyed on the small patch of grass. It looked like it had traveled through the broken window in the front of the house and then was picked up again and twisted into as much of a helix shape as possible before it started to break apart.

“Mr. Little said anything to you yet?”

“Yeah.” The nice cop grimaced. “He said if we stepped foot on his property without a warrant we’d end up like the TV.”

Kyoshi thought that over with the information she already knew. <Drunk, defensive, probably hurting.> People just didn’t throw two thousand dollar TVs through windows for no reason.

“Dispatch, does this day have any significance to Mr. Little; his birthday, kid’s birthday…”

“According to public record today would be his marriage anniversary.”

<Bingo.>

“Thanks, Dispatch.” She turned to the two officers. “Pull back a few houses. He’s already pissed at you two so let’s not give him any other chance to get angry.”

The cops nodded, got in their car and drove down a few houses, parked at an angle across the street, but turned off their flashing lights.

<Ok, you can do this.> She’d cleared the scene of potential hazards. Now all she had to do was talk to him.

With another deep breath she walked right up to the door and knocked politely.

“I SWEAR if that’s you cops I’m gonna…!”

The door flung open and Mr. Little’s red-eyed, hard-jawed face glared out at her. Both of them seemed to give a doubletake and take a half-step back. Kyoshi took a step back because Mr. Little was not little. It had to be the universe’s sense of humor that a six foot four man weighing around two-fifty was named Mr. Little. His muscles bulged under a white t-shirt that had amber stains that matched the open beer bottle in his hand.

Mr. Little took his step back probably because he was used to being the biggest guy in the room. Suddenly finding himself face to face with an amazon woman, an obviously Super one, wasn’t what he’d expected.

<Damn she’s tall.> The thought didn’t have any of the slurring Mr. Little’s speaking voice did, which put her at ease. Whatever happened, this situation wasn’t going to turn ugly because someone was really wasted.

“What do you want?” Mr. Little stepped forward again to the edge of the door. He’d recovered from his original shock and was reasserting his dominance.

“Good evening, Mr. Little.” Kyoshi gave him a big smile. She wouldn’t be able to intimidate this man, so flattery was the way to go. “I’m just here to see if everything is ok.”

“Why wouldn’t everything be ok?” Mr. Little glared back.

Kyoshi kept her smile plastered on, but arched an eyebrow and inclined her head back toward the broken TV and pointed at the nearby shattered window.

“People don’t usually toss their TVs unless something is wrong, Mr. Little; especially a nice one like that. What was it 1080p?” She pulled on her virtually non-existent TV hardware knowledge to try and form a bond.

“4K Ultra HD.” He replied, giving a heavy sigh.

“Ouch.” She whistled her apology. “So are you ok?”

“Yeah.” Mr. Little seemed to deflate some more. “It’s just been a tough week, work was rough, you know how it is.”

She didn’t “know how it was” but she nodded sympathetically.

“Why don’t you come out and help me pick up the pieces. We don’t want someone’s puppy walking by and stepping in the glass. You look like you work out.” She put and extra little umph into her smile this time.

<Calmed him down, check. Brought up puppies. Everybody loves puppies, check. Inflated his masculine ego, check. That should just about wrap this thing up.>

“Yeah, you’re right.” Mr. Little was practically congratulating her handling of the situation in his mind as he stepped outside.

<It’s a bonus that she got me outside. You never know if someone is hiding a weapon.>

<Oh.> She hadn’t even thought about that and she really should have. She wasn’t bulletproof like Mason.

She was about to let her guard down when Mr. Little turned toward the police cruiser parked down the street. That in itself would have been fine, except for the fact that the ornery cop was standing at Mr. Little’s fence instead of with the cruiser. And to top it all off he had his weapon out of his holster.

“What?!”

Kyoshi felt the man playing the drunken Mr. Little’s mind go from acceptance of the situation’s inevitable, peaceful completion to immediate overreaction at the sight of the cop. The transition was seamless enough that she could tell this had all been planned. And it was because of that she was able to react.

“I told you I’d…” Mr. Little took a step toward the cop and Kyoshi sprang into action.

The air around her hands distorted as she activated her telekinesis. For her, it was easier to control, and she was able to get the most force out of her weakest advanced mind capability, when her telekinesis was tethered to her. She didn’t know why, but that was how it worked in her case.

<Capitalize on his own momentum.> She gave Mr. Little a downward push when he was off balance and taking his step forward.

The push caught him at exactly the right time. His arms flailed as he tried to catch himself from falling, but there wasn’t anything to grab onto, and Kyoshi putting her foot into the back of his knee didn’t help. He hit the ground hard, and she jumped onto his back.

“Stay calm, Mr. Little.” She kept one hand on the middle of his back and the other went to her belt to find what she was looking for.

“What the hell!” Mr. Little tried to get his hands under himself and push upward.

The cement beneath them gave an audible crack as she pushed back with her telekinetic force.

<Where is it?> Kyoshi frantically thought as her fingers searched through the belt’s pouches. <I really should have looked through it before I got here.>

In a contest of force, Mr. Little’s strength was going to beat Kyoshi’s telekinesis, so she needed to bring her other gifts to the table until she could find what she was looking for.

Calm down, Mr. Little.

Kyoshi exerted a hard trained-on aspect of her power.

Professor Livingston had been doing private training sessions once a week with Kyoshi, and once they started to develop aspects of her advanced mind she brought in some guest instructors. Kyoshi had only spent one session with Mr. Morningstar, and it had been enough to realize she couldn’t compel people like he did. That would have made the situation she was in now a whole lot easier. Instead, Kyoshi found she had a slightly different gift.

During the fall semester, she had noticed that she was getting emotional feedback from the people she was trying to read. Dr. Johnson, the school’s empath, had confirmed it with her, and given her exercises to understand the new aspect of her ability more. Taking that training and building upon it with what Mr. Morningstar taught her, Kyoshi was able to have a semblance of control over those emotions.

It wasn’t very strong, and it had almost no effect on a prepared mind, but the mind of someone who was drunk, or supposed to be drunk, or unaware of her ability was a different story.

Kyoshi couldn’t compel someone to feel a certain way. It was more like coaxing what was already there, and since there were still lingering emotions of wanting the whole exercise to go smoothly she was able to capitalize on that.

In her current situation, her emotional coaxing of Mr. Little’s desire for a calm resolution made him stop fighting for a few seconds. In that time, Mr. Little realized what was happening and was prepared to fight harder, but Kyoshi found what she needed in those few critical seconds.

The white, square patch looked like something a smoker would be wearing to try and quit. This wasn’t that patch. This patch had enough tranquilizers and muscles relaxants to take down a bull elephant.

Kyoshi ripped the patch off its plastic backing and slapped it onto Mr. Little’s neck. She felt his resistance slacked immediately, but she continued to hold him down with both hands until his body went limp, he started breathing heavy, and drool started to pool on the cracked cement.

“Dispatch, situation contained.” She radioed in as she pulled his hands behind his back and flex-cuffed them with the a regular set that would not be able to hold a strongman in real life. “SWAT isn’t necessary, but I’m going to need that specialized carrier to transport MR. Little to the nearest precinct. They can book him on drunk and disorderly, but probably nothing more than that.”

“Good job, Ms. Schultz. That’s the end of this trial.” There was one loud siren wail from the cruiser, and both police officers relaxed.

“Nice job, miss.” They both tipped their caps at her.

“Schultz, you’re done until your next trial. Go get some sleep. You look like you need it.”

Kyoshi didn’t know how that was going to work out. She was wired now. She’d just peacefully taken down a strongman with no additional casualties or property damage. If she didn’t get an A she didn’t know who would.

Kyoshi practically skipped out of the fake city under the erroneous impression that all the trials would be that easy.

 

***

 

Lilly stood at the docks sweating her metaphorical balls off. <Fucking Miami heat.> Even in late April it felt like a sauna.

Despite the discomfort, and steadily growing taint-swamp, Lilly kept her head on a swivel. If shit was going to go down, it as going to go down now; which was why she was hiding in the shadows and using NVGs to watch the container ship pull into the port.

Damascus and his merry band of henchmen were waiting in a Land Rover. The ship pulled into its docking slip, a ramp detached, and people started to walk off. Most looked like regular crew members, and they didn’t pay any attention to the Land Rover. Either they didn’t give a shit or they didn’t want to know who was behind the highly-tinted windows.

Finally, at some predetermined signal, Damascus got out of the driver’s seat and walked to the bottom of the ramp. His goons, armed with AKs, took up position around the car.

<Here we go.> Lilly stored the NVGs and slid behind the heavy-caliber sniper rifle. The rifle had its own night-vision, and she scanned the dock for any threats. <If the DVA and Heroes jump them now this is going to be one hell of a fight.> A fight where she’d take a couple of pot-shots and get the hell out of there.

A group of men approached the top of the ramp and started to descend. They didn’t look like terrorists. Their heads weren’t wrapped in black, and they weren’t wearing any of the traditional clothing a westerner would associate with the Middle East. In fact, they all wore pretty nice suits. Suits that almost hid the bulges of compacted machine-guns.

The guy in the center of the moving formation didn’t have a bulge. He was dressed smartly in a three-piece suit. For an older guy he was handsome. His dark hair was just starting to silver at the temples and his neatly trimmed beard had flecks of gray in it.  He was in shape, wore the suit like he owned the whole dock, and didn’t even look mildly concerned that someone might put a bullet through his brain if they knew he was here.

Seif al-Din walked off the container ship onto American soil without a care in the world.

“Welcome to America.” Lilly whispered to herself. Her trigger finger itching to put a bullet into his brain.

But the temptation passed. She didn’t need a reputation for killing Heroes and international supervillains jihadists. <I’ve got enough on my plate.>

She was on overwatch tonight, and her job was done the moment the entourage got in the Land Rover and the accompanying van that pulled up behind it. She disassembled her rifle, packed it up, and teleported it back to her armory.

<I’ve got to get back and get some sleep. I’ve got a final tomorrow.> She disappeared from Miami in a blast of darkness.

She still had a few days before all hell broke loose.         

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I’m on TDY from Hell – Before the Beginning

His rapid breaths in the cold morning air betrayed his fear. Despite the emotion he stood tall with his eyes forward. The confidence might be a veneer, but it was better than nothing at all. His fellow soldiers deserved that at least.

The thin blue line stood alone against the rolling sea of red. It was clear who would win this fight, but the line of blue held fast. To do anything else invited disaster.

“Steady men, steady.” The Colonel on horseback rode back and forth behind the three ranks of infantrymen. “Steady.”

The words seemed more for the senior officer’s sake, but it still projected confidence for the common men. Confidence was something they desperately needed. Anything less would send the new regiment of the Continental Army running for the hills. If they ran, the Redcoats would have a short march to the Army’s supply line. If that was cut then General Washington’s troops would starve and the war for independence would be over before it even began.

Gerald knew a sacrificial move when he saw one. He’d been playing chess with his father since he was a young boy, and the signs were the same. Their little regiment was no match for the main force of the British Army. They were here to buy time and were expected to die doing it.

At twenty-four Gerald had lived a good life compared to most. His father was a well-to-do merchant from Boston who defied the British during the occupation by smuggling goods to the militias in the countryside. He was captured, tried, and hung for his crimes.

Gerald was here today to fulfill his father’s dream of freedom. He helped dump the tea into the harbor in defiance of the Crown’s unfair tax. He’d also stood with his fellow patriots at Bunker Hill when the Redcoats charged their lines repeatedly to take the hill. But he’d never stood on an open field waiting for an army of British regulars to open fire at him. If he died today, he would die as a man of honor fighting for the righteous cause of independence. That was worth fighting and dying for.

He took a few deep breaths to try and get his anxiety under control, but it didn’t do any good. He would be a target for the men marching toward him. He doubted he’d survive the first volley.

Gerald was taller than the average man, standing an inch over six feet. People compared his stature to General Washington’s. Gerald was broad of chest and shoulder, with thick legs, a handsome face, and a powerful chin. His long blonde hair was tied behind his neck with a strip of leather, and his sharp green eyes watched the approaching force with resolve.

The sea of red’s march brought them nearer and nearer to Gerald’s position. The ground trembled from their stomping feet. Finally, when they were close enough for him to see the whites of their eyes, and smell the stench of their sweat, did the mass of enemies halt.

Gerald could throw a rock and hit the British Captain standing at the end of the rank of soldiers.

The two armies stood facing each other, hundreds of eyes darting back and forth. The British clearly outnumber the Colonists. They knew it, Gerald knew it, and the colonial regiment’s Colonel knew it. As far as Gerald could tell the British officer was being a gentleman about it. He was giving them the opportunity to step aside. The war was still young enough that the British wanted to give their rebelling colonies the chance to surrender.

Gerald saw the enemy’s demeanor change when nothing happened.

“Poise Firelock!” Gerald’s officer yelled the first command.

Gerald had been training for this day since he joined the Continental Army, and his instincts took over. With his left hand he turned the firelock brusquely bringing the lock to the front. Then he brought the firelock from his shoulder directly in front of his face.

“Cock Firelock!”

Gerald cocked the firelock by dropping down his elbow. He immediately placed his thumb on the breech-pin, and his finger on the guard.

“Take Aim!”

Gerald took a small step back with his right foot while bringing the butt of the musket against his right shoulder. He moved his left hand forward to the swell of the stock. He moved his right index finger from the guard to the trigger and looked down the barrel with his right eye.

Now that he was looking directly at the enemy he could see they weren’t so different from him. Cold puffs of air from their heavy breathing created a steam of fear that rose from their ranks. A few had their eyes screwed shut and were moving their mouths in prayer. Unlike Gerald’s regiment, they just stood there waiting, daring the colonists to fire.

“FIRE!”

Gerald focused his attention on the man directly opposite him and pulled the trigger.

The big musket bucked as fire and metal screamed from the end. Powder-smoke was thrown into the air, and breathed in by everyone along the thin blue line. Gerald choked on the smoke and lost sight of his target. He had no idea if the man was alive or dead on the other side of the haze of gray.

“Half Cock Firelock!”

Gerald didn’t even register the command, but muscle-memory drove his actions. He was too busy listening to the screams of the injured and the commands being yelled on the opposite side of the battlefield.

“Take Aim!” The voice was not Gerald’s commander’s. Gerald felt his balder empty down his leg in fear.

“Handle Cartridge!” That command was meant for him.

Gerald reached into his pouch, seized a cartridge, brought it to his mouth and ripped the top off. The taste of the powder was repulsive, so he turned his head to spit as he brought his thumb up and covered the opening.

“Prime!”

Gerald reached down to shake the powder into the pan.

“Fire!”

The world erupted into madness as the longer, thicker line of red fired into them.

Men screamed and fell all around Gerald. Some were dead, some were injured, and some cried for the end to come faster. Gerald screamed to. It was the natural thing to do.

“Shut Pan!” His Colonel’s voice roared above the screams.

Gerald moved his hand to shut the pan he’d just poured the powder into, but nothing happened. His fingers refused to move to that portion of his weapon. Instead they released the musket, allowing it to fall to the ground, and both of his hands flew to his gut.

“Charge with cartridge!” The Colonel was moving on without him.

<No! Keep fighting!> Gerald screamed to himself, but his body refused to cooperate.

His knees buckled and he collapsed to the ground. The ground was cold and hard, but slick with the blood of the men on either side of him. Both had been killed by the first volley, their bodies lay lifelessly in the dirt. Gerald looked from them, to the growing red stain on his white undercoat, to the opposite side of the battlefield. Down here below the haze of powder smoke he could see to the other side.

Men in red were screaming, twitching on the ground, or lying in the stillness of death. Gerald scanned them, even as his vision began to waver, and found one familiar face. He was lying face down, with his chin partially buried in the dirt, and looking straight ahead at Gerald. It was the man Gerald had aimed at.

He’d killed him.

The musket-ball fired by Gerald had blown apart the top portion of the man’s head. The face was still recognizable, but its similarity to a human being ended there.

“Take Aim!”

“FIRE!”

Gerald missed the rest of the commands leading up to the second volley. The whole world seemed to be shrinking around him as the stain in his gut grew. He remained on his knees though, and despite the pain and approach of death he reached for his musket. His fingers touched the cold metal of the butt and he tried to pull it toward him.

It was too heavy, and the weakness spreading through him wouldn’t even allow him to pull it across the frosted grass.

He looked up just in time to see the Redcoats raising their rifles to their shoulders and taking aim for their second volley. His attention was drawn to a man, who couldn’t have been much older than a boy. The boy was shivering in fear, and his rifle was angled away from the man directly across the battlefield from him, and pointed directly at Gerald.

His barely functioning mind screamed at him to do anything to get out of the way. But his fight or flight instincts were locked away beyond his reach. His body no longer responded to its commands.

He couldn’t feel much of anything anymore. The total helplessness was overwhelming.

Gerald didn’t even see the second volley fired. He just felt the punch of a second musket-ball going through his chest. He didn’t even know it had hit his heart until he fell over backward, looked up for the last time into the pale blue morning sky, and died.

 

***

 

Gerald jerked awake. One hand reaching reflexively for the weapon that never left his side.

<It’s here. I’m safe. Or as safe as anyone could be in Hell.> He used the hand not gripping his weapon to rub the sleep from his eyes.  

The ground was hard where he’d slept.  Rocks jutted out at angles and were sharp enough to cut if you weren’t careful. It was a stark contrast to the open field he’d died on all those years ago.

Of course, he couldn’t be sure how long ago that actually was. Time worked different down here in the lower-realm.

He rolled his neck back and forth feeling the vertebrae pop and the pressure being released. It felt good, and it helped wipe away the memory of his death. It was the only dream he was allowed to have in this place.

Part of his punishment for his actions that day; actions with consequences he didn’t expect or understand.

No one had been more surprised than Gerald Fuller to wake up in Hell, and he couldn’t have been more surprised by how different Hell was from the description given during Sunday sermons.

The Priest decreed from his pulpit that Hell was a place of fire and brimstone, a place where the sinful were banished for all eternity. There they were punished for their crimes against Almighty God. That was what Gerald had been taught, and that had influenced his decisions throughout his entire life. It determined how he interacted in society, how he handled his relationships with women, and ultimately, why he decided to take up arms against unjust oppression.

So when he awoke in the arms of a beautiful woman descending into a golden hall he’d been more than a little confused. The woman had smiled at him with fanged teeth as her metallic wings beat against the air to slow their descent.

Everything in the hall had a subtle glow to it. A glow that filled him with warmth he’d never known had been missing. The glow infused him with pride, courage, and hope.

He wasn’t alone.

The seemingly endless hall was filled with hundreds of men and women of all ages and colors.

Gerald considered himself an educated man, he’d gone to a university at his father’s request and learned about the world. But there were people here in garments and fashions unlike anything he’d ever seen. Even the traders from Europe hadn’t been dressed so strangely. Some might be from the Orient, and some he just couldn’t tell what they were.

The beautiful winged woman gently deposited him among the crowd of people and jumped back into the air. She didn’t even spare him a backward glance.

While in the crowd Gerald learned the truth.

He was dead. He’d sinned grievously. And he was in Hell. A Hell very different from the Preacher’s version.

The lower-realm was made of many kingdoms, ruled by different Lords of Hell, who divided the souls of the damned and brought them into an afterlife that Lord controlled and influenced.

Due to the life Gerald lived, and the manner of his death, his soul belonged to the realm of Seere. Seere ruled over a kingdom of fallen warriors; men who had fought nobly, but because they had sinfully taken life, were cast into Hell.

It was under the command of Prince Seere, and within his twenty-six demonic legions, that Gerald started his new life.

His eternal life.

Next

Two Worlds – Chapter 64

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

“Wake ya ass up, Jimenez!” PO3 Janney caught the recruit from fourth squad sitting upright in his chair but asleep.

Many recruits in Echo Company 132nd Training Battalion had learned to sneakily sleep during classroom training. The instructors, with their god-like wisdom, knew all the signs of a sleeping recruit and implemented remedial training immediately for anyone they caught.

In this case, “remedial” meant the PO3 smacking the young man hard on the back of the head. Jimenez twitched hard, like a fish out of water, before face planting into the top of the polyplast desk he was supposed to be taking notes on.

“Son of a…” Blood squirted from the recruit’s nose and stained the clear surface of the desk, and the cracked surface of his PAD.

“Stop whining like a little bitch. If ya didn’t wanna get hit ya shouldn’t have fallen asleep.” The PO3 turned his evil attention on the rest of the sixty-seven member company. “That goes for all of ya.”

Echo Company had lost another recruit after the constant mental whiplash of VR squad training exercises they’d undergone over the last week. Thankfully, it hadn’t been second squad. They were still eight strong, which was doing a lot better than some of the other squads. Seventh squad, the poor bastards, were down to four people.

“If I catch anyone sleeping I’m going to kick your ass halfway to Mars. This shit is important so listen up.” Eve turned around and hissed at the squad.

Today they were discussing tactics on a larger level. As always, the week’s instruction began with the theoretical before engaging in more hands on training exercises. They did the same when reviewing squad level tactics.

The squad lectures had started with the basic movement formations: fire-team wedges, staggered columns, lines, and how they rated among movement characteristics like control, flexibility, fire capability/restriction, and march rate. It was boring as hell in a classroom to watch holographic images demonstrate the formations, but it turned out to be invaluable when the squad got into VR.

Having ten meter separation between soldiers in any of the formations was no joke. In the first exercise Mike and Harper had been too close and a grenade lobbed in had killed them both.

A person tended to learn from the mistakes they made in VR. The crash made sure of that.

<Damn right.> Coop thought, shivering at the memory of being shot to pieces and then waking up in the VR training room with his nerves and emotions going haywire.

Only slightly more interesting than formations were the classes on the types of movements. Coop hadn’t believed the infantry had to go through telling its soldiers such basic fundamentals like: using terrain for protection, avoiding possible kill zones, the value of dispersion, the need for observations, and the significance of moving during limited visibility. But then again, some people were stupid, and he saw squad members die in VR when they didn’t follow the basics.

<But if the enemy has high resolution sensors, which unless you’re in a third world system you do, then there is no such thing as limited visibility.> Coop had started to lose his patience at that point of the hour long briefing on basic shit.

Coop had only enjoyed the next lesson on countermeasures slightly more. Suppressive fire was a no-brainer. Shoot back to keep the enemies head down so you could move, or better yet kill the asshole. Going over the traditional smoke and more valuable EW countermeasures turned out to be very valuable since Coop had to use it during one of their STXs.

<The shit would have worked too if I hadn’t been facing off against half a squad that was fighting from a fortified position with a light machinegun.> Coop didn’t care that GYSGT Cunningham had praised his effort. <I still died.>

The best part about the countermeasures training was going over the camouflage portion. The polymorphic netting was so good you couldn’t tell it was hiding something until you were right on top of it. The GYSGT even briefed on specialized armor that could manipulate the surrounding light to make its wearer seem invisible.

“Regular grunts like you won’t get to play with the big boy toys though.” Her caveat at the end of training had kind of ruined it for Coop.

They’d also gone over the movement techniques: traveling, traveling overwatch, bounding overwatch, and the difference between alternating and successive bounding. All of that had been very useful once they started to get shot at in VR. After a few exercises, Coop had realized that just traveling toward their objective resulted in the enemy finding you faster and usually unprepared. If the squad started out in a traveling overwatch movement, or even bounding, it was more likely the enemy wouldn’t come out to find them.

Coop had mentioned the observation to Eve before one of their lanes, and she’d given him a genuine smile.

“You finally pulled your head out of your ass and have seen the light, Coop.”

It was the best insulting compliment she’d given him so far. <I’ll take it.> He’d smiled through an entire STX after that.

Training had kicked up a notch after going over what both seasoned instructors called the basics. Then they moved onto the battle drills: enter/clear a trench, enter/clear a room, knock out a bunker, reacting to an ambush, react to contact, and breaking contact. The GYSGT and PO3 said these were the basic squad level drills they needed to know. Everything else they’d learn would build on them.

Echo Company learned them from watching the holo. They rehearsed them pretending they had armor and weapons. They rehearsed them with armor and weapons. They got woken up in the middle of the night and rehearsed them half asleep. Only when the instructors were confident they knew the battle drills backwards and forwards were the squads allowed into VR to train in a semi-real environment.

<And it had all been worth it.> Coop sat up a little straighter and paid attention to today’s lesson.

“Clearly, I must be boring you.” GYSGT Cunningham scowled from the front of the classroom. “Since my voice seems to be putting people to sleep I think a check on learning is appropriate right about now.”

Coop stopped his groan halfway through so it sounded like a weird choking sound. Eve shot him a glare and mentally commanded him to focus on his PAD. At least that was what Coop took from the “you better stop fucking around, Coop” expression on her face.

Knowing what was good for him, Coop focused on his PAD and the ten question check on learning that popped onto it. These checks on learning were important, not only to show that you were paying attention, but to decide whether or not you got recycled to another company. The standard for passing the tests was seventy percent. The GYSGT and PO3 gave the company a little leeway with failures, but if you failed too many during a week of training then you were gone. You’d join up with Foxtrot Company when they started the iteration a week after Echo Company.

<What formation is used when the unit wants to maintain security or observation on one flank and enemy contact is unlikely?> Coop read the question and immediately knew the answer.

This class on larger unit tactics had gone into more detail on additional movement formations, and this was one of them.

<That’s B, the echelon.> It was the first formation they’d reviewed.

Coop could almost imagine seeing the holo image of a company echelon. He also knew the formation added security to the headquarters formation in the direction of the echelon, allowed for quick deployment, but was difficult to control in restrictive terrain.

<If your echelon isn’t in the right direction then you’re screwed.> Coop thought as he moved on.

The next eight questions were easy. They asked about V’s, coil and herringbone formations. They wanted to know the basic military table of organization and equipment information for a company; which was a squad times ten with the addition of one heavy infantry, a sniper if you were lucky, and the officers. It was all information that Coop remembered, and by the time he got to question number ten he was sure he’d passed.

That was a good thing, because number ten was a tough one.

<Describe in a short answer the basic tactical difference between squad, company, and battalion level tactics versus brigade, division, and corps level tactics?>

Coop thought long and hard about the answer before starting to write it down, and even then he wasn’t sure he got everything.

He did know that smaller unit tactics relied around maneuverability and proper application of resources. The standard infantryman wasn’t too different across the armies of the major starfaring nations. So small unit tactics boiled down to the four F’s: find, fix, flank, and finish. If a unit could do that then they’d win. Things got more complicated when you started to throw in heavy infantry and snipers. Snipers and their special munitions loads could be deadly, and heavy infantry was a walking tank-artillery hybrid.  Speed and proper countermeasures were key when dealing with them, but the bottom line was if an infantry squad stumbled into the path of a single heavy infantryman he’d tear them to pieces.

<Shoot, move, and communicate.> That was a good way to think about it. <Don’t let them find out where you are or they’ll blow you the fuck up.>

Coop jotted all of that down without the expletives.

The brigade, division, and corps level engagements were another beast entirely. And it really wasn’t something a lowly recruit needed to think or know about outside of the theoretical realm. The basics was that when you started dealing with tens of thousands of troops you started to think more in terms of fixed positions and defensive lines because if a full brigade was together in one place it was usually protecting something.

Armaments and equipment were also a lot more complicated at these higher echelons. Heavy infantryman served as the heavy weaponry in smaller units, but actual self-propelled tanks and artillery were incorporated in higher unit MTOEs. These mechanical behemoths made pre-expansion tanks and artillery look like old-fashioned Hot Wheels. These things were only trotted out to fire on warships occupying the orbitals, to repel invasion forces, or to fight other enemy heavy weapons.

And that only covered offensive weaponry.

Defensively, you had hypervelocity SAMs; although similar missiles could also be used offensively. Air defense grids had megawatt lasers and anti-incursion railguns that would try and chew up anything unauthorized entering the atmosphere. Then there were the battlefield shields.

Shield technology was complex and the GYSGT had admitted to not knowing that much about it other than it was calibrated to protect people from projectiles fired over a certain rate of speed. Anything under that speed could penetrate the shield, which meant enemy troops and lobbed grenades were an issue. Countermeasures like fixed positions and swatters helped counter that, but you could never be truly safe when tens of thousands of heavily armed and armored soldiers were trying to kill each other.

The one thing that the GYSGT did know was that shield technology required an enormous amount of power, which required an enormous amount of space for the giant generators that powered them. Planetary Defense Centers (PDC) and cities had their own shield generators buried underneath them, and those were usually many square kilometers in size; but it allowed them to survive orbital bombardment. Portable generators that were in brigade, division, and corps MTOEs were smaller, and less powerful, but you could move them which gave a unit tactical options. The downside of the large city and PDC shields was they had to end a minimum of fifty meters off the ground or the power distributed through them could cause geological disturbances that were just as deadly as getting pounded by a battleship in orbit. The weaker portable shields didn’t have the same drawback.

But that’s where the infantry came in. They filled the gaps, built and manned the trenches, and stopped enemy soldiers from breaching into those cities and PDCs to rape and pillage Commonwealth planets.

Coop wrote all that down and hit “complete”.

100% the screen flashed back at him. Coop smiled, and then that smile faded.

<What are the VR simulations going to be like for this?> He gulped, not caring how well he’d done on the check on learning. <This is going to be a total clusterfuck of epic proportions.>

The look that Eve gave him when he looked up said they were thinking the same thing.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 63

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

“I’m telling you it’s that way.”

“Are you sure? I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to be heading in that direction.”

“You’re both wrong,” Eve finally chimed in. “You’re pointing North, you’re pointing South, and we need to be heading West. Orient your map and let’s continue with the mission.”

Eve, Coop and Harper were huddled underneath a colorful polyplast advertising-canopy that was promoting something using cartoons of ponies and excited schoolgirls. Blockie symbols flashed all around it to complete the illusion that this was a small Blockie city on a newly terraformed world that second squad was tasked with seizing.

The rest of second squad was spread around a four-way intersection in three hundred and sixty degree security. There was at least one M3 pointed down each of the avenues of approach, and two down the most likely vector based upon intelligence and the squad leader’s sense of direction. For this particular squad training exercise, more commonly known as a STX, pronounced “Stick”, the squad leader was Harper.

The still-recovering woman had chosen Eve and Coop as her team leaders, and now they were arguing where they should be going.

“Why the hell did we have to lose visuals?” Harper groaned.

About ten minutes into the STX STRATNET had gone down. TACCOM was still up and running but it was spotty, so second squad all had their helmets off and was communicating the old-fashioned way.

“We need to move.” Eve subtly urged. “We’re supposed to take the objective in less than an hour.”

“Yeah, ok.” Harper nodded. “Everyone let’s move out.” She hissed as quietly as possible and motioned in the direction Eve had stated was West.

To call their target a city was a vast overstatement. The small settlement was an orderly six city blocks of identical polyplast homes with the occasional small business. GYSGT Cunningham and PO3 Janney insisted that most Blockies settlements look like this. They weren’t big on public individuality.

Their target was the administration building at the center of the town. Intelligence stated that another understrength squad guarded the three-story building; which was all the small town needed. A few military personnel, a handful of civilian law enforcement officers, and the anti-crime technology in just about every city in the galaxy led to very little opportunity for crime to get a foothold in the new colony.

But that didn’t matter at the moment. Any civilians there might be were hiding in a collective underground shelter beneath the administration center. Sensors had seen second squad coming and the evacuation was already completed when the town’s automated defenses failed to take down second squad’s ride. Seeing the fireball of bombed out anti-air defenses from the back of a Spyder Assault Shuttle still gave Coop a hard on.

Since they’d hit the ground things had been much less exciting. In fact they were a royal pain in the ass. They’d spent the last two weeks training on the armor and the weapons, getting used to their eccentricities, meeting all the necessary qualifications, and developing the strength needed to operate in them.  If there was one good thing Coop could think about from those last few weeks was that they were getting double-orders of chow to replenish their bodies after working in the suits.

<Fucking things still weighs a ton.> Coop grumbled as he got to his feet and got his team ready.

Second squad started to move out on the road heading West. Eve’s three man team took the left side of the street and Coop’s took the right. Each team’s members were spaced at least ten meters apart and staggered with the other team across the street. Each team member also held areas of responsibility. The front two were responsible for what was directly ahead of them down the street. The middle two were responsible for the opposite rooftops, and the rear two were responsible for the space behind them. More than once during an STX the enemy had snuck up and shot them in the ass.

Eve was the point woman on her team covering the front and Coop was the rear middle man on his team covering the rooftop. Walking in the middle of the teams were Harper and Mike. Harper was in the middle to exercise greater command and control of her squad, and an aspect of that was to deploy the squad’s sole heavy-weapon’s soldier where she needed him.

As the biggest and strongest guy in the squad, Mike had the responsibility to carry the MG300 Squad Automatic Weapon, or just SAW for short. The SAW was a tri-barrel machinegun that fired three millimeter plasma-tipped rounds at five-thousand meters per second, with a maximum effective range of thirty-five hundred meters, at a maximum firing rate of five hundred rounds a minute. The added explosion of the plasma on top of the sheer kinetic punch of the electromagnetically thrown rounds was the biggest weapon the squad could bring to bear, and the next best thing to having heavy infantry on the battlefield. Although the military table of organization and equipment designated one machine gunner per squad, the drill instructors had driven home the point that it didn’t always work that way. And as such, this was the first STX in three iterations that they had a SAW.

So naturally Mike was loving life right now. Even if the thing was a bitch to carry around everywhere.

“Two more blocks up and one block over.” The information was passed back to Coop.

Since they weren’t going to just walk down the colony town’s main street and get shot to shit they were coming in on a parallel street.

They covered the two blocks quickly, and then took a knee for a quick break. They needed all the strength they could summon to assault the objective, and after half an hour running around in the armor they were exhausted.

<They never looked exhausted when they’re driving forward to take a hill or kicking down doors and kicking ass on the holos.> Coop was starting to suspect that the entertainment industry was full of shit.

“Ok here’s the plan.” Harper gathered Coop and Eve after they all hydrated and grabbed a quick snack. “Eve and I are going to take her team and assault down the street here.” She indicated the street just around the corner from where she currently sat. “You’re going to provide cover fire while we get close. Then Mike will take over. When he starts to light the building up, Coop, you’ll take your team another block up then over to the rear of the building. Clean up anyone trying to run for it and then kick down the back door. We’ll meet in the middle and sweep the rest of the building.”

It was a pretty simple plan, and Coop had found out it was best to keep things simple. When things got complicated people got killed, and nothing should be complicated in an eight-man STX.

“Helmets on.” Harper ordered.

She’d ordered them off to avoid giving away their position to the enemy, and also because the garbled chatter was annoying as hell. The garble was still there when it came back on, which was weird. As a rule people didn’t usually broadcast on all channels unless it was an emergency of critical intelligence.

“Eve.” Coop opened up a private channel on the squad net. “Do you know what any of that chatter is?”

There was a moment of silence before the reply. “No, it’s being jammed. That can’t be good.”

“Harper,” Eve’s voice called over the squad net. “We’re getting chatter on all nets. Let’s hold a few minutes and try to clean it up before we assault.”

“We can’t wait,” Harper replied. “We only have five minutes to take the objective.”

“Ok, you’re call,” Eve replied.

And Coop got a sinking feeling in his stomach.

“We go on three: one…two…three!” Harper, Eve and the rest of the team charged out onto the street.

They made it about four steps before the enemy saw them and returned fire. Coop popped out and returned fire. Most of the fire was coming from the windows of the building. He put three rounds into one, but it only cracked. Then he was forced to duck back behind the building as return fire began the chew up the ground he’d been standing on a moment before.

“The windows are armorplast!” Coop yelled.

The armored plastic was strong and would stand up to several direct hits before giving.

Coop changed his stance, so he was kneeling this time, and popped back out to put another three rounds in the window. A chunk, about two-thirds of the total cracked off, and fell to the ground.

Coop withdrew once he saw it falling, but not before he took a round to the side. The Dragonscale armor saw the round coming, angled itself, and successfully deflected the needle-like bullet. But it still knocked Coop right on his ass.

<Motherfuckers!> Adrenaline surged through him as he pulled himself back to his feet.

“Mike, I opened a window for you. Light that fucker up. If anyone can get a grenade in there be my guest!”

“On it!” Olivia, whose M3 had a 40mm grenade launcher attached to the bottom, popped a self-guiding high explosive munition into it, stuck the weapon around the corner and fired.

Through her helmets uplink she could control the grenade’s trajectory. Coop waited for the bang, but all he heard was a momentary high-pitched whine.

“Fuck they’ve got swatters!” Eve’s voice was labored.

<Shit!> The intel they’d received said nothing about the automatic railguns that were designed to swat anything coming into its sphere of influence out of the sky; thus the name swatters.

Coop checked her info under the squad net and saw that it was yellow. She was injured, but still combat capable. Coop’s heart thundered in his chest. He wanted to go grab her and patch her up, but he knew he couldn’t. He was more likely to get his ass shot off than make it to her. His armor’s computer had done some analysis since the shooting started, and it was blatantly obvious that there was a lot more than an undersized squad guarding the administration building.

“Mike, cover fire.” Coop said as calmly as he could. “Bravo team, get ready to haul ass.”

Coop blasted off at a sprint the moment he heard the crash of the plasma rounds exploding against the building.

Rounds sparked all around him as he made the mad dash, but he made it unscathed. Olivia wasn’t as lucky. Her icon on his screen went from green to black in an instant. And she wasn’t the only one. Mike’s went from green to yellow, and then to red, and finally black.

Coop shuddered at the thought of how that happened. Mike went from healthy to injured, but combat capable. Then he went to injured, not combat capable, and finally to dead. If Coop had to guess, Mike got hit, fell, and the enemy punched holes in him until he was dead.

Coop shook his head and pushed on. He didn’t have time to think about it. With Olivia down it was just him and John, and both of them were armed with standard M3s.

“Let’s go.” Coop didn’t stop once they’d made it to cover. He ran the block up, halted briefly to check around the corner, and then started to sprint again to the back of the target.

They were about two hundred yards from the building when the enemy saw them coming. Coop getting knocked on his ass by the first couple rounds saved his life. The rapid fire raked across the front of his armor spinning him to the ground. John wasn’t so lucky. Dozens of rounds focused on him when Coop went down. His armor handled the first few, but him staying on his feet and running for an alley gave them a constant target.

They pounded him until rounds finally got through. Which left Coop all alone, face down in the hard-packed dirt road, and facing down a lot more firepower than he was capable of handling.

<Fuck…fuck…fuck me.> Coop’s mind scrambled for a way out of this. But it didn’t take much brainpower to figure out he was shit out of luck. <I need to get to the alley.> That was his best and only hope.

<Five-round burst, chaff grenade, and run like hell.> That was the plan.

The instructors discouraged using the five-round burst function on the M3 because it was less accurate, but Coop didn’t really care right now. He needed fire superiority. A chaff grenade was what would happen if a smoke, EW, and white phosphorous grenade got together and had a baby. Its job was to hide soldiers from electronic and visual detection while stopping the more explosive types of ordinance. The chaff grenade would explode and block the entire street with its scatter. It would leave the assholes up the street firing blind.

Chaff grenades weren’t commonly distributed to anyone below squad leader, but Coop had been able to con one for this STX. Truthfully, the PO3 would probably yell at him to die instead of use the expensive grenade. But Coop wasn’t going down without a fight.

The armor handled the grenade. A person could throw it too, but that was superfluous. No one wants to stop shooting at someone who is shooting at them to grab a heavy metal sphere off their armor to throw. It was practical to build a launching mechanism into the suit.

“Go!” Coop gave the verbal command and felt a slight jolt as the suit launched the grenade.

He immediately rolled and got to his feet while firing blindly from the hip at the enemy positions. It was a desperate move. The enemy opened up on him even as the chaff grenade went off and hid him from view. Coop’s tactical computer counted fifteen different firing points before a round cut through the ballistic plate protecting his thigh. He crumpled like a sack of bricks. Blood squirted from the arterial wound before his smartcloth tightened forming a tourniquet.

<Yeah, I’m dead.> A medic would be able to fix him with medical nanites, but he didn’t have any, and a quick check at the squad’s vitals showed everyone in a black or red status. Coop was in yellow but not for long.

The enemy continued to fire where they last saw Coop, while Coop crawled toward the alley.

He didn’t make it. Just like John before him the enemy was able to score enough hits that it finally defeated his armor.

***

Coop’s nerves were still on fire as he jolted out of the VR simulation. The rest of second squad was sitting in the machines next to him. Everyone was awake and trying to get over the VR crash.

“Second squad.” The GYSGT walked into the room with a scowl. “It’s time for the after-action review.”

Commonly referred to as an AAR, an after-action review was done after every STX. They went over the mission in its entirety, and then offered positive ‘sustains’ about the leadership’s handling of the mission and negative ‘improves’.

“Harper.” The GYSGT turned her attention on the mission’s leader. “After the AAR we’re going to do corrective training and discuss why it is not a good idea to remove your helmets in a combat zone because someone might be trying to tell you vital information. Like, for instance, that your objective had been reinforced by another two squads of infantry.”

Harper blushed deep red and suddenly found her feet very interesting.

Everyone knew “corrective training” meant that Harper would be running laps in that armor. Anyone present would take a VR crash over that any day of the week.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 89

“Come on, Kemps. I needed you to be faster and hit harder. Again!”

Anika wiped the sweat from her brow and focused on the gloves Coach Meyers was wearing. She’d been hitting those gloves for the last half an hour with everything she had, and it still didn’t impress the alternative instructor.

Personally, Anika was wondering why the female freshman coach was working with her in the first place, but she knew better than to ask stupid questions. The old adage when a person teaching or presenting something said ‘there were no stupid questions’ meant that person was an idiot. There were always stupid questions, and in the HCP physical training class anything that wasted time fell under that category.

<It’s like they’re trying to beat the joy of spring break right out of us.>

A gloved hand swept around and smacked Anika in the face. It wasn’t hard, but it was enough to make the unique Super stumble.

“Get your head in the game, Kemps.” Coach Meyers scowled before holding up the two gloves in front of her. “Come on! Hit it!”

Anika launched into the complex combination of punches and kicks that she’d been drilling into her muscle memory for the last half an hour. More sweat dripped down her face as she pressed the attack. She threw the punches as hard as she could, which sent echoes through the large gym; but each time she made contact with Coach Meyer’s practice gloves her fists were stopped cold.

<I really don’t ever want to have to fight any kinetic absorbers…ever.> Anika ended the combination with a kick designed to hit the person in the head and put them on their ass.

Coach Meyers brought up the glove professionally and the final hit sent a soft BOOM across the empty space. None of the other training students even looked up.

“Good.” Coach Meyers’ single word of acceptance brought on a surprising amount of satisfaction. “Are you tired?”

“Yes, Coach.” Anika put her hands on her knees and took a couple of deep breaths.

“It’s times like these were you really see the gains of your training.” The alternative coach placed her hand on Anika’s shoulder.

Anika’s grin at the Coach’s encouraging words vanished as the larger woman’s hand went from resting to gripping her shoulder.

“Defend yourself, Kemps!”

Coach Meyers used her leverage to push down on Anika while bringing her knee up toward the younger Super’s face. Anika was barely able to get her forearm up in time to take the hit.

<Son of a bitch!> The stinger she got from the hit made her entire arm numb.

“I said defend yourself, Kemps!” Coach Meyers pushed her back and lashed out with her foot.

If Anika was fresh she might have been able to dodge, but her mind was still trying to catch up, and the Coach’s kick caught her in the chest and sent her rocketing backwards.

She hit the far wall butt first, which had the unfortunate side effect of snapping her head back into the reinforced structure. Her vision blacked out for a second and then slowly returned as flashing stars of light. It only cleared when Coach Meyers was back in her face.

“This is pathetic, Kemps.” The instructor’s fists lashed out and connected for solid body blows.

All the wind was knocked from Anika’s lungs, and she wheezed painfully as she took her first swing. It was clumsy and desperate but it got the instructor to stop hitting her. Instead, Coach Meyers trapped her arms and judo threw her across the room. Even though she was flying through the air, the time not getting beaten was a needed breather for Anika. She altered her body in flight and rolled into the landing. It wasn’t graceful by any means, but it got her up and in a defensive position before Coach Meyers was on top of her again.

<That’s better, Kemps. Get your composure back, watch your footing, and fight back.> Coach Meyers instructed, so Anika’s could pick it up telepathically.

Anika lunged at the instructor as she closed. She went into a simple combination to stop the older woman’s forward momentum and create a little more space. Really, Anika wanted to move from punching range to kicking range. If Anika could get a kick in there she’d be able to do some real damage. Personally, she thought her kicks were a lot better than her punches, probably from the kickboxing workouts she’d done through her teenage years to stay in shape.

Anika threw a simple one-two, but she put her super speed behind it. Coach Meyers still dodged the first one by bobbing to the side, and deflected the second with a well-timed deflection with her hand. The instructor hopped back a half-step to reevaluate and that’s when Anika struck. She whirled around in a blur putting all her remaining strength and speed into what she hoped was a finishing blow.

The kick was perfect. It flew right for the point where the head met the neck. It didn’t matter that Coach Meyers got her arm up to block in time, Anika just wanted to get one good hit in.

And it was a good hit. Anika’s roundhouse kick met Coach Meyer’s block with a loud SMACK, and to Anika’s surprise. It actually moved the instructor a few inches.

Coach Meyers held up her hand to signal the fight was over. Anika lowered her leg and shook it out. She also blinked rapidly and rotated her neck. Her head was still throbbing from smacking into the wall.

“Not bad, Kemps.” The alternative instructor smiled. “You’re definitely stronger than you were at the beginning of the year.”

“I guess so.” Anika shrugged.

The fact was that she really had no idea how her power worked. She didn’t know how she “learned” from other Supers, and she didn’t know what her limits were. She didn’t even know if there was an upper limit to the amount of powers she could learn, or what her body would do if she tried to adapt to contrasting abilities. She routinely had a reoccurring nightmare where she morphed into some monstrous creature as a result of her adaption.

The professors had been keeping an eye on her and routinely testing her, which was part of the reason she was being taught separately from everyone else today. So far, despite all of the Supers she was around on a daily basis she was still limited to super strength, speed, and a growing control of her telepathy.

She’d heard the theories being batted around by Coach Meyers and McMillian. They were thinking that her adaption required mastery of the new power to a certain point before it started to learn a new one, which made sense. The speed and strength back in her home town hadn’t come at the same time. She’d gotten stronger to a certain point and then started to get faster.

Anika wondered what she would get next after her telepathy reached whatever magical point her body said, “Ok, time to switch it up.”

<Based on who I hang around with I could get Seth’s elemental manipulation. That would be pretty cool. Angela is a shifter, but I don’t know if I can learn shifting like that. It might be a good question to ask the DVA scientists if I ever get to talk to one. Or I could get Liz’s teleportation.> Anika shuddered at the thought.

No matter how much Becca frowned and rebuked her, Anika did not like that other woman. Something about her just rubbed Anika the wrong way.

<Whatever.> Anika shrugged off the thought and followed Coach Meyers back to the main collection of students.

Becca gave her a concerned look. Everyone had seen her get kicked across the room into the wall and then tossed like a ragdoll. Anika put her concerned girlfriend at ease with a smile and a thumbs up. Becca didn’t completely buy it. The blue-haired, cute as a button speedster would never be a subtlety Hero. Even her trying to keep an eye on Anika out of the corner of her eye was blatantly obvious.

“We’re done for today.” Coach McMillian announced to the sighs of relief from many students.

But before they could even turn toward the locker rooms Coach Meyer cut them off. “Wait, Coach McMillian, aren’t we supposed to tell them about their final.”

“Oh, yes.” Coach McMillian feigned surprise that no one believed. “We are supposed to let them all know how they’re going to spend the last week of school.”

<Week!> Anika’s mental shriek matched Kyoshi’s as all of the students went wide-eyed at the idea of a week-long final.

“Yes, a week.” Coach Meyers’ smile was diabolical. “Think of it as your Hell Week. All freshmen at West Private University have to go through it, and it is what we use to reduce the class number down to the twenty-eight allowed back for sophomore year.”

“But what about our school finals? We have to maintain a 3.0 GPA to stay eligible for the HCP.” Ashley Bates, the lesser advanced mind that controlled bugs, couldn’t keep the hysteria out of her voice.

“Hmm.” Coach McMillian scratched his chin. “So you’re telling me that you are going to be pushed to the limit mentally and physically over the next week, not knowing when you are going to be challenged, but held to the highest standard at a moment’s notice.”

“Sounds like you hit the nail on the head.” Coach Meyers nodded.

“Good.” Coach McMillian smiled. “Because what I just described is the daily life of a Hero.” All joking vanished from the man’s face. “A Hero has to be at the top of their game every moment of the day when they’re on duty. It doesn’t matter if they’re fighting a supervillain, attending a ribbon cutting ceremony for PR purposes, or getting a cat out of a tree for a little old lady. A Hero is held to the highest standard at all times. If you can’t handle this workload for a week then you don’t deserve to be a Hero.”

The combat instructor’s word reverberated through the group of freshman. Anika saw mixed emotions on the forty faces around her. Most looked determined with a hint of fear. A few looked completely overwhelmed, and a few didn’t look bothered at all. Angela was one of those. She stood close to the two instructors looking supremely confident in her abilities. Anika would have loved to know what was going through the shifter’s head, but her telepathy wasn’t good enough to see through the other woman’s mental shields.

“Any questions?”

Half the class had questions.

“It is all very simple.” Coach McMillian explained. “You all have cell phones, right?” Everyone nodded. “When one of your trials is about the start we will call you; so you will be responsible for keeping your phone on you and the ringtone turned up at all times.”

“But what about…?”

“We know your schedules,” Coach McMillian cut off Janet Ibsen, the light manipulator whose rope construct was turning into quite a formidable tool. “We will not call during those class times, but once they’re over you’d better be paying attention to your phone.”

“What about sleeping, bro?” Oliver Carpenter drawled in his surfer accent.

“You can be called at any time. Even in the middle of the night.”

“How’re we being graded?” The tech brilliant Super with a biochemistry specialty asked about the specifics.

“You will face multiple trials and each trial will have a certain amount of points assigned to it. The point totals will be gathered together at the end and you will be ranked again from one to forty. Only the top twenty-eight will be invited back.”

“If we miss the phone call?” Fiona Richardson, the class teleporter, asked.

“We will continue to call your number until the time your trial is scheduled to begin. If you miss the start-time then you forfeit the points from that trial.”

“What about an emergency?”  Simon Skylar practically whined. Anika had grown to dislike the lazy limited gravity manipulator.

“We monitor all the HCP students in the school so we will know if there’s an emergency,” Coach Meyers replied. “But if for some reason we don’t know we will review the information and render a decision on whether or not you can make up your trial.”

“Anything else?” Coach McMillian asked after several seconds of silence. “Ok then. You’ll get some more information when it starts, but that’s the gist of the final.”

Anika quickly found Becca as the class broke apart and headed for the locker rooms. She gripped her girlfriend’s hand firmly and tried to push down her anxiety.

“Don’t worry.” Becca’s eternal optimism put a smile back on Anika’s face. “We’ll be fine.”

“Of course you’d say that.”

“No we will.” Becca restated confidently. “We’ll both be on edge, but since we sleep together at least one of us will hear the phone go off in the middle of the night. We are also two of the fastest people in the class, so we’ll be able to get to out trials lickety-split.”

“You’re adorable.” Anika gave her a kiss as they entered the girl’s locker room.

<I just wish it was that easy.> She kept that part to herself.

 

***

 

“A whole week?” Liz looked pretty put off about that specific bit of information.

After a long day of school, and the fighting after classes, Seth needed a break.

<And what better way to blow off some steam than with my special lady.> So he got dressed up and took Liz out to a nice restaurant.

“Yeah, a week. It’s ridiculous.” Seth eyes gravitated toward her low-cut blouse for the hundredth time, but she didn’t seem to mind.

“They push you really hard and take up all your free time. It’s bullshit.” Liz frowned and pushed a leftover meatball around her plate with her fork. “I don’t get to spend nearly enough time with you lately.”

“I know.” Seth reached halfway across the table and Liz’s hand automatically went in to his like they were both magnetized. “But I’m going to make it up to you.”

Liz’s pout transformed into a little smile with that little twinkle in her chocolate-colored eyes that made his heart beat a little bit faster.

“Really? It better be good.” That twinkle became a grin.

“Oh it is.” Seth grinned back. “I was thinking that after the semester is over we get away for a bit. We’ve got a few months off, and I sure as hell am not spending it with my family. I was thinking an around the world tour, but I’m open to suggestions.”

“Hmmm.” Liz tried to play hard to get, but Seth could already see the smile pulling at her lips. “That could work. I’ve always wanted to see Bangkok.”

Seth couldn’t stop the snort that drew attention for nearby tables.

“We could go there and other places.”

The smile finally broke on Liz’s face, and Seth knew the tens of thousands of dollars he was going to spend was totally going to be worth it. One of those smiles was priceless.

“I’d love to.”

“Good.” Seth smiled. “Because I might have already booked our first flight.”

“Of course you did.” Liz’s rich laugh drew more attention than his snort. “Where are we going first.”

“Frankfurt.” Seth replied nonchalantly. “I figured we could cruise around Europe for a few weeks. Then we can jet down to Thailand if you really want to check it out. We can do all the sightseeing in China too, although I’ll have to check and see what we have to do to get in first. The Chinese are a little touchy; especially involving foreign Supers entering their country.”

Liz nodded like she already knew all of that and popped the meatball she’d been playing with into her mouth. Seth had no idea such an action could be such a turn on.

“Enough about the future. What about the rest of the night?” That twinkle in her eye was back.

“I was just going to let the night take us wherever.”

That got another laugh out of Liz.

“I call bullshit. You want to get all up on this. Don’t lie.” She ran her hands down her curves.

Seth blushed crimson as more eyes focused on them.

“Yeah, duh.” He tried to play it casually, and didn’t succeed.

<Only Liz has the ability to turn you into a blubbering idiot.> Seth tried to save it all with a smile.

“You’re so cute when you try not to be a horn dog.” Liz smiled, leaned back in her seat, and took a sip of the wine.

They both had their fake IDs, and the waiter hadn’t even carded her. A blouse like the one she was wearing tended to have that effect.

That sip turned into throwing back the entire glass. “What are you waiting for?” She asked playfully. “I’ve got to make a quick pit stop back at my dorm on the way back, but then I’m all yours.”

Seth waved down the first waiter he saw. “Check please.”

“So this Hell Week.” Liz stared while they were waiting for the check. “I’m guessing it’s the last week of classes.”

“Yep. Last few days in April into the beginning of May.” Seth was still amazed that college ended so early.

“So I basically won’t get to see you at all.”

“Not necessarily. I am just on call twenty-four seven except for the time I’m in my regular class exams.” Seth said the last few words in a whisper.

Liz might know about the HCP, but he wasn’t about to ruin all his hard work over the last year by blowing his cover at dinner one night.

“Well that’s a relief. I don’t want to spend a whole week away from you.”

Seth read between the lines and agreed. The weeks she’d just up and vanished had been awful, and neither wanted to relive that again.

The check arrived, Seth paid it in cash, and they headed back toward campus. As they drove his Porsche through the city Seth could feel a tension in the air. Everyone was still walking around and going about their business of a weekday night, but there was something underlying it all. He could feel it in subtly in everyone’s actions.

<First the power plant, then the Fist, the bombings, Wraith, the nightclub and parking garage raids.> Seth shook his head. Orlando had been through a lot, and it felt like the population thought it was going to get worse before it got better.

“Do you want me to wait for you?” He pulled up in front of Liz’s dorm.

“No, that’s ok. I’ll be a little bit. Why don’t you head back and get the room ready? Set the mood if you know what I mean.” She winked, and Seth gulped.

“Ok.” She leaned over and gave him a deep kiss. “See you soon, stud.”

She got out and sauntered away.

<That’s something I could never get tired of watching.> He watched her ass sway, shook his head to clear his mind, and then headed back to the townhouse.

 

***

 

Liz made sure Seth had a nice view of her ass as he drove away. It was the least she could do after the expensive dinner they’d just shared. The bottle of wine alone was over a hundred dollars. She swiped her card in the door and pushed through when it beeped and gave her the green light. People sitting in the common area turned and stared. The guys eyes’ lingered and the girls judged. That was just the nature of things. Just like it was Liz’s nature to not give a shit.

She entered the elevator alone and waited for it to start ascending before teleporting away. She appeared with her usual explosion of darkness in a penthouse hotel room across town. Her expanding darkness gave her the layout of the room before it dissipated. Damascus and his two cronies were on the couch watching T.V.

“So the whore returns.” The terrorist leader stated as she strutted confidently toward him.

“Sorry if I’m interrupting your circle jerk, Damas-douche.” She replied without skipping a step.

Every time she insulted the guy it royally pissed him off. But he called her a whore every time she came to report so she figured it was all fair game.

As expected, the man bristled and silver fire licked at his fingertips. One of goons actually got up off his fat ass and took a threatening step toward her.

“Unless you want to know what it feels like to hit the ground after falling twenty stories then sit your ass back down.” There was acid in her tone and the man involuntarily took a step back. “That’s what I thought.” She met the man glare for glare. “You’re just a giant pussy.”

“Enough!” Damascus shouted, banging his hand on a table. “What do you want?”

“You told me to keep my eyes and ears open for anything that might impact your operation.” Liz reminded him. “Well, I’ve got some information.”

“Go on.” He waved her on like a king commanding his servant.

She just smiled back at him. “Yeah, here’s the thing. I’m a mercenary, not one of you delusional fucking boy-toys. You want the information you have to pay me. That’s how this relationship works.”

“I’m going to tell our leader, in detail, or your continued insolence.”

“Your leader can stick a nice big, purple dildo up his ass for all I care. Money for information. What will it be?”

Liz didn’t know if he was going to burn down the hotel or have an aneurism. <This is fun.> She stopped the smile before it reached her lips.

After a moment the terrorist leader sighed. “How much?”

“Ten grand.” Liz threw out a random number.

The terrorist nodded and one of his flunkies walked over the to the bed, pulled a large duffle bag from underneath it, reached in, and then threw a wad of cash at Liz.

<Holy shit. I should have asked for more.> Liz counted the money and made a mental note of the bags location. If things went to shit then she’d at least try to get some extra cash for her troubles.

“You have your money. Now give me the information.”

Liz momentarily considered cutting and running at this point, but that was against her professional code of ethics; at least for now. She might cut and run and leave them hanging some other time, but they’d paid her so she dished about what she’d heard.

“There is an event happening at the HCP the last few days in April and into the beginning of May. The staff is going to be busy and distracted with the event. Conducting your operation at this time might increase your odds of success. The Heroes at the local HCP will have a delayed reaction, and having more time to execute while they get organized might be worth moving back your timeline a bit.”

The terrorists pondered the information, scratching their bearded chins in unison. “We’ll consider it.” Damasucs concluded non-committedly. “Where did you get this information?”

“I have a confidential source.” Liz shrugged.

“Could it possibly be the young man you just ate dinner with?” A smile pulled at the silver-haired man’s lips.

Liz’s world went cold for a millisecond before a white-hot burning rage nearly overwhelmed her. She tried to control it, but only partially succeeded.

“Listen here, ass-faces. Don’t go fucking around with my sources. I’ve got to work this town and this country after you finished jerking off with it. Do not touch my sources. Don’t even look at my sources the wrong way, or the next time it won’t be me but a nice fat bomb that teleports into this room. Fuck with me and you’d better hope that you’re bombproof or could survive a twenty-story fall.” Her grin was nothing less than evil.

“Watch your tone, whore.”

“Watch yours, fuck face. Your boss might be some hot shit. But I could kill you all in your sleep and you’d never even see it coming.” The evilness on her face became feigned sweetness. “And if your boss reputation is correct he wouldn’t even try to avenge you. The jihad takes precedence over your death after all.”

She had them, and they knew it.

“Understood.” Damascus said through gritted teeth.

He might be conceding to her wishes at the moment, but there was no question that she’d made an enemy for life.

<Fuck if I care.> Liz didn’t even say goodbye. <If we ever meet again outside of this op then only one of us is walking away alive. And that person will be me.>

She reappeared in her usual alley and worked on calming down as she walked toward the townhouse. By the time she reached their bedroom she was her usual charming self, ready to do unspeakable things to her boyfriend.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 62

Eve Berg

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

 Growing up in the Berg household had not been easy. Even living in the same house for more than a year had been a challenge. The most vivid memories of her childhood that Eve had were the packing and unpacking of thousands of polyplast containers. It seemed like every time they got close to finishing unpacking the last box, orders magically appeared and they had to start packing up again.

Derrick had been there at first to help, but he was much older than Eve. By the time she was getting into middle school he was already in the Fleet. Just like their mother.

Sonya and Richard Berg had waited until later in life to have kids. She was a naval commander and he was an infantry lieutenant commander when they had Derrick and she was a captain and him a commander when she gave birth to Eve.

Deep down Eve knew her mother loved her. The woman just never showed affection. Even when her father was alive she couldn’t remember seeing them kiss in public. Sonya Berg was the stereotypical epitome of an ice queen, and it had served her well in her profession. You didn’t get to become the Chief of Naval Intelligence by being warm and cuddly.

<That was Dad’s job.>

While Eve’s mother was ice, her father was fire. He was full of boundless energy, passionate about himself, his job, and his soldiers. He was a true-blue leader, and that showed when his unit fought to the death on a contested world. Eve just hoped she could be half the soldier he was.

<If mom has her way I won’t be a soldier at all.>

Eve knew this day would come, but she’d hoped it wasn’t until after she’d graduated basic training.

“We need to talk…now.”

The tone made Eve shiver. It was the tone she’d used when Eve got caught smuggling sweets, or when she’d done poorly in school. It was a tone that conveyed failure and disappointment.

Eve didn’t even hesitate, she handed the tray over to poor Coop and walked behind her mother and security personnel out of the room.

<And things had been going so great. A little good natured ribbing between older brother and whatever the hell Coop is to me, and then she waltzes in and ruins everything.> Eve felt her blood begin to heat up, and that was a good thing.

You couldn’t outwit or outwait Sonya Berg. The only way to beat her was zealous commitment. Eve learned that from her father. He was the only one she’d ever seen get his way with her mother.

The promotion party was taking place at the NCO Club, a building that was part restaurant, part bar, part reception hall. The officers had a similar club not too far from here, but as a newly promoted NCO, the Gunnery Sergeant wanted to have her event at the NCO Club. She’d reserved one of the large rooms for rent and paid for the staff to cater the party. Eve suspected it was taking a big chunk out of her monthly pay, but she could afford it with the jump in grade.

Eve followed her mother as she marched out of the room they were using and into an adjacent one. This one was bigger and fancier, more in line with what an entire unit would use for their for milball. Like always, her mother walked into the room like she owned the place. In the middle of the faux-wood dancefloor she did a precise about-face and stared Eve down.

“Scan the room. I need to have a private conversation with my daughter.”

The security team nodded. Their commanding officer consulted her subdermal PAD, hit a few buttons, and stepped forward. Nanites crawled from pockets and crevices in the woman’s armor. They jumped into the air like little insects and scattered around the large space. Eve didn’t see any visual signs of the scanning, but she knew that the miniature robots were scanning the room for every possible surveillance method known to man.

After a few minutes the security commander nodded her satisfaction. “We’ll be right outside, Ma’am.” She backed out of the room and shut the door.

A moment passed and then Eve felt her skin prickle. The nanites that had been searching the room were now securing it against eavesdropping. By taking positions around the room, and linking together over their internal network, the tiny nanites were able to form an interdiction bubble. It wasn’t perfect, and could be cracked with enough time, but it would do in a pinch.

All of this meant that Eve was now alone with her mother.

“Eve.” The one word cut through her like a frozen blade.

“Mom.” Eve’s tone was already exasperated, so she reigned it in. “I’ve already been over this with Derrick.”

“Then you will go over it with me.” She put her foot down on Eve’s argument and strangled it.

“I’ve already made my decision.” Eve crossed her arms defiantly. “I want to do this. I want to finish basic and join the infantry. I want to fight on my terms. I want to be like Dad not you.”

Admiral Berg’s eyes softened for a heartbeat when her late husband was mentioned, but the last three words made sure to snuff that out. She didn’t glare at Eve, but her face was unreadable granite with a hint of disapproval.

“So, you want to throw away your life.” Her reply cut just as deep.

“I don’t consider serving my country to be throwing my life away.” Eve countered.

“But apparently the sixty years of service I have given the Commonwealth isn’t good enough for you.” Sonya picked apart her argument.

“No…Mom…I just don’t want to do what you do. Can’t you just accept that?” Eve pleaded.

“I can accept that you want to serve your country, but I cannot accept that you will waste your potential in doing so.” Her expression was still made of reinforced duro-steel. “You are intelligent, strong, determined, and I can see your father’s passion in you.” Her face softened slightly again.

“But if he was here he would also tell you that you should be using a different route to serve. Specifically, a route where you can spread your influence and make decisions that will lead to victory. That is a better use of your skills than dying from a stray bullet.”

“Mom, you have to realize that I’m not saying no to being an officer one day.” Eve knew she’d have to meet her mother halfway if she was going to make any progress. “But you can’t ignore the benefits of starting my career like this. I need to experience the infantry from the ground up. It will make me a better officer.”

“And you will be putting yourself and your potential in danger for at least half a decade before you’ve determined you’ve gained that required experience to move on to the next step in your career.” Her mother shook her head. “There is too much chance and too many variables that could go wrong in that time.”

Eve felt what little ground they’d gained slipping away. She’d been surprised her mother hadn’t fought her more on her decision to go infantry, but it was something she couldn’t take for granted. It would be just like Sonya Berg to lure you into a confident mindset before cutting you off at the knees.

“I’m willing to take that chance.”

“I’m not.”

And now they were at an impasse.

There weren’t many cards Eve could play, and any of them would further damage her relationship with her mother. But she had to try.

“Dad would let me do it.”

Eve saw the round impact and almost shatter her mother’s composure. Her eyes and nostrils flared momentarily before she got them under control. But the hardening of her cold blue eyes made it clear that approach hadn’t worked.

“Your father is dead. He forfeited his rights to raise you when he died in the infantry.”

If anything, Eve playing the Dad card had just backfired.

<Is this what I want?> Eve had to stop and question herself for a second.

She saw the path to victory, but it was going to hurt. Sonya Berg might be her mother, but if Eve played this trump card then she might become an enemy; at least until this issue between them was resolved and they both had some time to cool off. Eve knew her mother well enough to know she had a long memory and didn’t forget easily.

<Yes, I want it.> She reaffirmed her commitment.

She could tell her mother knew something was coming by the way her lip twitched.

“Let me live my life, Mom, and I won’t tell anyone how you live yours.”

That did it.

Sonya Berg’s face, already cold and unyielding, went completely emotionless.  There was no burning rage at the blackmail, just a stare void of humanity, and a far-off look like the Admiral had just lost another member of her family.

Despite the wealth and power that Sonya Berg had achieved in her lengthy career her life had not been easy: losing a husband, commanding men and women into battle, and running covert operations across the known galaxy took its toll. Admiral Berg had to see the lowest filth of humanity every day and then stick her arms shoulder deep into it to ensure the continued prosperity of the Commonwealth.

After a while she’d cracked and gotten help, pharmaceutical help. Even though it was the right thing to do, the culture of the military still hadn’t evolved despite hundreds of years of prodding. People were supposed to deal with their own shit, not show weakness, and get the job done. The Admiral seeking help wasn’t a career ending move, but the addiction problems were.

And now Eve was throwing that in her face.

<You don’t let me live my life and I tell everyone you like to pop pills on occasion.> Eve didn’t know if she could actually do that to her mother, but she didn’t let any doubt cross her face.

“Very well.” The Admiral replied after a tense few seconds.

Eve restrained herself from sighing in relief.

“I will let you continue this misguided quest as an enlisted infantrywoman, but beware.” The tone had gone from flat, dead, and emotionless to foreboding. “I will do everything in my power to ensure that you don’t go off and get yourself killed. People owe me favors, Eve. And I will use them to make sure you get your experience and live. In return, I expect that you will transition into the officer corps after you’ve gained your precious enlisted experience.”

Eve nodded. Today was a victory for her, and she didn’t want to push it. She’d won the battle but there was still a war to fight, and she’d already gone nuclear to get this far.

“Thank you, Mom.” Eve slowly approached her mother, like she was some caged animal, and gave her a hug.

The Admiral was still unresponsive except for a quick pat on the back.

“Now I need to leave.” She pulled away. “I made this quick stop here to talk some sense into you. I’ve got better things to do with my limited time.”

<That’s mom. Her job is her life and nothing is more important.> Eve simply nodded.

The Chief of Naval Intelligence walked to the door, opened it, gathered her detail and left. Eve waited for the tingle of the interdiction bubble to fade before heading back over to the party.

Everyone looked at her when she entered, but Coop was the first to get her.

“Take your tray and get back to work.” He had that grin on his face that she was beginning to fall for.

He handed her the tray and she immediately noticed that several of the entrées were missing. Guests could have taken them, but she’d bet her monthly pay that Coop’s sticky fingers were the real culprits.

<Dammit, Coop!> She sighed and got back to serving the guests. <Now Janney is going to kill us.>

Coop might be slick, but PO3 Janney saw and heard everything. If by some miracle he missed it, then GYSGT Cunningham sure as hell knew.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 61

Name: ???

Location: Windsor City, Windsor, Star Kingdom of Windsor

 He didn’t have a name, he just had a number. NI1 liked it that way.

The less of an electronic trail an agent had the less chance they’d get caught. For this mission, to this civilization at the ass end of nowhere, he’d had to undergo a full scrub. All evidence of him down to his GIC had been expunged. The tattoo on his wrist had been printed over by flesh-covered nanites. To anyone looking or scanning him on this world he’d look like any other respectable Englishman.

<This is just too weird.> Despite being on assignment, the sight of looking down at his pale tattoo-less wrist still felt wrong.

The abnormality from galactic standard had been one of his first missions on Windsor. Without a GIC how did the Star Kingdom identify their citizens and prevent identity fraud. The concept of identity fraud had been dead since the invention of the GIC, which measured everything unique about a person down to their brainwave pattern.

The Star Kingdom’s answer was less elegant but just as effective. Cybernetic implants behind the ear and fused directly into the brain gave the Kingdom a firm grasp on their citizenry. Passive scans of a random group of people showed the NI1 agent that signals were constantly being transmitted and gathered by the authorities. The extent of what the Crown discerned from that data was still unknown to the agent, but at a minimum they knew exactly where all of their citizens were at all times.

<It’s just wrong. I don’t think the Blockies even go that far.> He was beginning to wish he hadn’t volunteered for this assignment.

He didn’t normally volunteer, because an agent was just as likely to be voluntold what they were going to do; but his handler had given him a heads up about this op.

<It’s going to be a big new AO and if you can get in on the ground floor they might make you an assistant chief or the chief of that desk once it gets big enough.>

Getting out of the field was eventually what every sane field agent wanted to do. If someone wanted to stay in the field, then you kept them in the field because they likely had a screw loose and would go on a killing spree if they had to sit behind a desk.

He wanted to get behind a desk one day. Preferably as a chief that made the decisions. So here he was in Windsor City trying to get as much information on this Star Kingdom as possible.

Rain was starting to drizzle on his uncovered head as he headed to a nearby pub. The rain had no acid content, and the air was free of most pollutants. The settlers of this planet had taken care of it during the minor terraforming, and had strict environmental standards. From what the NI1 agent had gathered most of the Kingdom’s industrial infrastructure was space-based or took place on Hilsborough.

The agent would have loved to get a look at the small, hot planet farther in-system, but he hadn’t been able to get clearance. His cover story had him as an industrial machine salesman, which theoretically would allow him to get into production plants and sell specific equipment. His “company” specialized in military equipment in the hopes he’d be able to get a look at their defense apparatus, but so far nothing. His request was still pending.

The street was moderately busy. It was just outside of the downtown area, about three kilometers from the palace, and a hot spot for the sales community. He blended in well here, and had made dozens of contacts. The NI1 agent had his fingers on the economic pulse of several industries just by making the rounds at a half dozen pubs each night and engaging in a slightly competitive “how much did you sell today” discussion with the locals.

He still didn’t think himself as a local, even though he had been here for six months and didn’t see an end in sight. It was dangerous to put down anything resembling roots in his line of work. Connections that weren’t cultivated assets were nothing more than liabilities.

“Hello, Robert.” A woman stepped out of the dark shadows of an alley and slapped him hard across the face.

No connections meant no relationships, but the agent was still a man, and having a little female strife in his life made him seem like a local in the eyes of his business connections.

“Bloody hell, Elena.” He’d turned enough to not take the brunt of the hit, but enough to leave enough of a handprint so it looked like it hurt.

“You’re a lousy git, you know that Robert.” With her piece said, Elena turned away and stomped off.

The agent massaged his jaw for a second in case anyone was watching and then headed into the first pub. The second he pushed through the door everyone started laughing and half a dozen pints were bought in his name. Apparently, Elena was quite the catch, and quite the bitch. Many men had tried and failed to do what he’d done, and that earned him a lot of respect and free booze.

Of course the agent knew all of this, and made sure to get just buzzed enough to make sure he didn’t come off as a bad sport. There were few higher insults than passing on a free pint.

He spent an hour at the pub, got all the information he needed, and then headed on to the next one. The nightly pub crawl was ruining his liver, but there were pills to fix that.

He finished his round of clandestine activity at a bar just beside his flat. Or at least that was the plan. He rounded the corner and found the street blocked off and a dozen Bobbies milling around the pub and the building his flat was located in.

“Oy, what’s going’ on here?” He asked. It wasn’t too hard to act like a drunken passerby.

The Bobbies, who retained their nickname from the original London police force, all wore light armored chest plates. An anti-personnel weapon was secured in a hip holster on their right side and a long black baton on their left. The agent knew those batons were electrified and could kill a man if energized enough.

“Move along.” The Bobbie didn’t even spare him a second glance, which was what the agent wanted.

<I’ve been compromised.> It was any agent’s worst nightmare, especially when they were so far from friendly space.

He kept walking past his flat and didn’t look back.

Not until he heard a set of footsteps behind him.

He didn’t look back. Instead he looked down at his wrist like he was checking the time. A subdermal PAD had been built into his flesh for the mission, and he used that to check the microscopic nanites that were all over his clothes. He used them in the pub to gather information from everyone around him. You could always tell something important from someone’s facial expression when they thought you weren’t listening.

Using those he could clearly see the two plainclothes Bobbies following him about ten meters back.

<And I’m made.>

His cover was burned. Procedure dictated he go to ground and look for the next available exit from the system. That was easy. He had a safe house ready not too far away, but first he needed to get rid of his tail.

Over the next half block he gradually worked some stumbling into his walk. Doing it all of a sudden would have tipped of an observant cop to his ploy. So, he spaced it out and then slowly angled sideways until he ended up propping himself up on the side of a building.

“Ahhhh, that’s the stuff.” He planted his feet like he was going to take a piss on the old brick wall.

That finally got the Bobbies involved.

“Stop right there!” They shined bright lights in his eyes.

“Oy, what the fuck?” The agent slurred as one of the Bobbies rushed forward to restrain him.

“You’re under…” The Bobbie didn’t get to finish.

The NI1 agent moved fast, faster than humanly possible for an average person. He grabbed the arm trying to restrain him and twisted. It snapped easily. The Bobbie cried out in pain and tried to pull back, but the agent kept him close. The other Bobbie was going for his gun, and the agent made sure to use the cop’s partner as a human shield.

“Shut it.” He hissed in frustration as the cop with the broken arm resisted. The agent bobbed back and forth to stay behind him and not give the other Bobbie a good target.

“Freeze! You fucking wanker.” The other Bobbie tried to get a shot, but the agent stayed out of sight, while skillfully sliding the entrapped officer’s own gun from its holster.

“I said…”

The Bobbies’ mouth snapped shut when the agent shot him in the head.

“You…”

The agent didn’t give the other officer a chance to comment. He torqued the man’s broken arm in the opposite direction then punched him in the temple. The Bobbie tumbled to the ground, unconscious and maybe dead. The agent didn’t care. He was already sprinting the other way.

His feet pounded against the cobblestone streets.  It wasn’t real cobblestone, but it looked like it, and the rain was starting to pool on it. The agent had noted in his report that the people of the Star Kingdom seemed to have a particular fascination with gothic revivalist architecture. Anyone with money or in the nobility had their brownstones, manors, or even small castles done in the style.

At the moment, the buildings’ style made everything feel more foreboding, and that was something no one liked to feel when they were running for their lives. The agent was already dialed into the Bobbies frequencies and they’d already discovered their agents. Both were confirmed dead at the scene.

<Shit!> Killing locals wasn’t part of his mission, but he had to do what he had to do.

He darted through some alleyways and emerged on a deserted street a few blocks from the scene of the crime. It was pouring out now, so it would be suspicious being outside.

<I need to get out of the open.> He quickly crossed the street and headed for another alleyway.

An air-car whipped around the corner just as he entered the alley. It would be scanning multiple aspects of the visible spectrum for him, so he activated the nanites in his coat and stepped further into the shadows. The special little robots broadcasted to any sensors the scene of a bunch of rats eating out of a garbage can. The Bobbies would have to physically enter the alley to see that wasn’t the case.

The car zipped by, not even stopping, and continued on its wild goose chase.

The agent let out a sigh of relief, waited a minute, and then stepped out of the shadow.

A massive arm shot out of the darkness behind him and grabbed him around the neck.

Instinctually, the agent tried to drive his elbow into his assailant’s ribs. His elbow struck and then shattered as he hit solid combat armor.

“Motherfucker!” The agent cried as combat stimulants and medical nanites flooded his system.

He barely skipped a beat, but that was enough for a second massive arm to grab his injured arms and twist it behind him.

Whoever it was who had snuck up on him had completely immobilized him.

<Fuck…fuck…fuck!> The agent’s mind scrambled for a plan.

Training took over and his mentally accessed his PAD. He shot off his final report via tight-beam transmission to an FTL equipped drone he had sitting in deep space. The message would take a day to reach the drone, then the drone a week to reach the FTL limits before jumping back to New Lancashire. It was Plan Z as far as good plans went, but it was all he could do at the moment.

If the Star Kingdom saw this as a declaration of war their fleet would get to New Lancashire before his report did.

<I tried.> The agent resigned himself to his certainly gruesome fate.

The agent tried to get a good look at his captor, but all he saw was big, black armor, which only meant one thing. The one thing was that he was totally screwed.

The light from an air-limo’s headlight illuminated the alley and confirmed the agent’s suspicions. The man holding him was close to three meters tall and was thicker than a skyscraper’s main duro-steel support beam. That, and the night-black combat armor, confirmed he was a member of the Queen’s Own Obsidian Guard.

The Obsidian Guard was the royal family’s personal bodyguards. They were ten thousand strong and bred from birth to be warriors. Rigorous epigenetics programs and embryotic procedures made them perfect soldiers and completely loyal to the Crown. If an Obsidian was skulking in an alley waiting for him then his mission to this Star Kingdom was being watched by eyes way above his pay grade. Unfortunately, those eyes were from the wrong team.

A chauffeur exited the limo with an umbrella and went to the open the rear door. He stood ramrod straight as his passenger exited, and then followed her as she approached. He made sure not a drop of rain touches her exquisitely done hair.

“Don’t strangle the little spy, Sergeant. I need to speak with him.” The tone carried the authority only someone born to the aristocracy could possibly have.

The Obsidian loosened his grip on the agent’s throat, but not enough so the man could squirm out and run.

“Robert.” The woman’s face finally came into focus, and the agent nearly crapped himself. “Or at least that is your NI1 cover identity.”

There was no use in playing dumb, so he put all his cards on the table. “Good evening, Duchess Rose Bay.”

The woman interrogating him was just over two meters tall and breathtakingly beautiful. Her hair was blacker than the Obsidian’s midnight-black armor, and it fell in styled ringlets to her shoulders. It contrasted sharply but exquisitely with her pale white skin. A tight red gown clung to her lithe, athletic figure in all the right places, and a slight slit in the thigh and chest showed a sexy amount of skin. She moved with an easy grace, the type of grace the agent had learned to fear. Lastly, her vibrant rose-colored eyes, complete with blue specks, were appropriately inviting. The type of inviting you’d see on the hangman as he strung up his victims at the gallows.

Nothing but cold, calculated cruelness ever reached the eyes of the Star Kingdom’s Chief of Intelligence.

“Good.” She smiled.

Her canines were a tad longer than normal and the rumor was that she’d specifically altered them so she could rip out the throats of people who displeased her. The NI1 agent had chalked that one up to someone’s wild imagination, but now that he saw her smiling he wasn’t so sure.

“Let us dispense with the pleasantries.” She pulled a golden dagger from the small clutch. “You are an agent of the Commonwealth’s NI1 intelligence section. You have been looking into our Kingdom for the past six months as your Commonwealth continues to expand into neighboring space. You fear us because we are strong, and you want to know our capabilities before you start to dictate your demands.” Her eyes hardened. “Even after hundreds of years you are still land stealers. You usurp the natural order for your own reasons. You spread your false democracy, and squabble with a starfaring nation that is hardly different from your own.” She placed the tip of the blade to his throat and he felt the nanites crawling along its edge.

She put her face close to his, so close he could smell her sweet perfume. Her eyes bored into his, piercing through his mind and looking for more information in his soul.

“I want to kill you,” she shoved those teeth again. “But…” she sighed dramatically, “Others believe it is best to have neutrality between our nations.” She pulled her blade away from his throat, but he felt a trickle of blood run down his neck from the nick she’d given him.

The agent hadn’t realized he’d been holding his breath until now, and he felt himself deflate as she took a step back.

“Still…” She stopped and twirled the blade between her fingers. “You did kill two of Her Majesty’s officers in cold blood.”

Her blade slashed out so quickly he couldn’t follow it. He’d moved his hand instinctually to protect himself. And she’d casually lopped off his hand.

The Obsidian released him as he fell to the ground. Shock was starting to set in, but more drugs pumping into his system stopped him from losing consciousness. He saw the Obsidian pull a kit from his side and start to treat his wound.

“Thieves lose their hands in the Kingdom of Windsor, Mr. Secret Agent Man. Be thankful it wasn’t your head.” She turned around and the soft clicking of her heals echoed throughout the alley as she walked away and got back into the air-limo.

The Obsidian finished treating the agent’s wound and then handed him a polyplast slip. It was a ticket for the next flight out of the Star Kingdom leaving in an hour.

“Be on it. Your life depends on it.” The voice was electronically filtered so it sounded a lot like an iconic science fiction villain from the 1970s.

The Obsidian left him in the blood-stained alley and effortlessly jogged alongside the slow-moving air-limo as it pulled away and disappeared down the street.

<Fuck this.> The agent knew he was lucky to be alive. <I think it’s about time for that desk job.>

 

***

Duchess Josephina Barrow

Location: Windsor City, Windsor, Star Kingdom of Windsor

Josephina Barrow, the Duchess of Rose Bay, didn’t hide her disgust at letting the small, weak man live. She took a modicum of pleasure from taking his hand, but regenerative technology made the small gratification fleeting.

<We should attack, expel them from the sector, and turn their worlds into molten ash.> Many on Her Royal Highness’ Council agreed with her, but the Queen had made her decision.

The Duchess couldn’t blame the Queen. The United Commonwealth of Colonies was huge. Their fleets were numerous, and a single star system, even one as magnificent as Windsor, was nothing compared to the vast might of the Commonwealth.

The Star Kingdom needed to play nice for the time being. They needed both the Blockies and the Collies to fight among themselves. The Star Kingdom would play both sides and wait for its moment. Then they would strike and repel the invaders. This sector of space belonged to Windsor, and the Duchess would see that her Queen’s wishes were obeyed.

<I had to let him live, but that doesn’t mean I can’t gather a little intelligence in the process.> She activated the nanites she’d pressed into his bloodstream when she cut his neck.

The NI1 agent was headed to the nearest spaceport. He obviously wasn’t as stupid as he looked. She’d have to detail a cargo vessel to follow him back to the ridiculously named New Lancashire system. Hopefully, she’d be able to glean a little more detail into the Collies’ operations once he was back on the inside.

Satisfied that she had everything she needed, the Duchess put the nanites in sleep mode. The microscopic organisms attached themselves to tissue and camouflaged themselves within the agent’s body, making them virtually undetectable until activated.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 88

Lilly appeared in her room in a blast of darkness. Her new, fancy rifle was slung over her back and she had the rest of her gear bundled in a bag. She tossed the bag into a corner of her room and headed for the shower.

<These guys might wear their stench like some badge of honor, but this is America bitches. We don’t think smelling like pig fart is a good thing.> She gagged as she remembered the last time she’d been around these people.

She’d kicked ass and taken names but that didn’t stop them from smelling like shit. She hoped they’d bathed before traveling, because moving around incognito was a lot easier if you didn’t smell like you were bringing the sewer with you.

She turned the shower to hot and jumped under the pulsing streams of her state-of-the-art shower head. It would have felt great if it didn’t burn like a motherfucker.

<Ugh.> She groaned. Despite her best efforts, she’d still burned on that rooftop.

She turned down the heat and gingerly washed herself. After she dried off she’d have to put on a generous amount of aloe.

“Lilly, are you back yet?” Altair knocked on her door as she was blow drying her hair.

“Yeah, I’m in here.” She yelled back.

Her father let himself in and started to arrange a series of folders on her unmade bed. After she was confident she smelled pristine and was presentable she joined him.

The information laid out had the basic first step of their plan. It had information on the three men she was meeting. They all looked like hairy fur balls in all of their pictures. Every one of them had deeply tanned skin, big, bushy black beards, and thick almost unibrow eyebrows. They looked like a stereotypical jihadist.

<They’re just going to love me.> She couldn’t wait to see their faces. <And if they have a problem with me I’ll just shoot them in the face.> She was confident she’d be able to manufacture some sort of accident before they had to report back to their boss.

The information her father was giving her was only the basics though. There weren’t many operational details. “They are playing their cards close to the vest.” He answered when she pressed for more information. “They are the clients and we have to obey their wishes.”

“Whatever.” Lilly sighed, and started to pick out her outfit.

She couldn’t go traipsing around Orlando in her Wraith gear. That would bring Seraphim down on her world-class ass and ruin everyone’s day. At her father’s insistence, she wasn’t going to wear anything too revealing. Because then their clients would get upset, shit their collective chickens, do god knew what, and then Lilly might have to put them down. And that would be bad for everyone.

It was warm again in Orlando so layers were out of the question. She pulled out a pair of jeans, nothing skin-tight, but not loose either. Baggy ones that would make her look more like a dude. She slipped on her favorite cyber-punk t-shirt and ended with a hooded windbreaker. She pulled up the hood to see how she looked.

<Not great but it’ll have to do.> She pulled her dyed blonde hair into a ponytail and slipped it through the back of a baseball cap. <That should offer a little more anonymity.>

One last look in the mirror showed that she looked like any other college kid who’d stuck around during spring break. The windbreaker was even a UCF one just to add to the impression.

“Ok, I’m ready to go.”

Her father scrutinized her appearance for a moment before giving his nod of approval.

“You will meet them here.” Altair showed her a picture of the location. “And I’ve already scouted this site. It should be safe for you.”

Lilly scrutinized the alleyway and took in all the detail. “Ok, see you soon.” She gave him a quick peck on the cheek and disappearing in a wave of darkness.

She reappeared in the same alley he’d shown her in the picture. The shadow blast of her teleportation told her it was all clear, so she walked to the back door she was told was unlocked and entered through the building’s service entrance.

You’d think she’d be meeting three terrorists in some rundown factory or seedy motel. Nothing could be farther from the truth. She wound through a couple of corridors and emerged into an upscale lobby of a four star hotel in downtown Orlando.

<They take hiding in plain sight to a whole new level.> She thought as she walked across the lobby.

The file told her where all the cameras were so she made sure to angle her face away from them. The last thing she needed was someone tracing all this back to the hotel and discovering her identity. That would suck on so many levels.

She walked over to the elevator like she owned the place, got in with an elderly couple, and hit the button for the top floor. <Because of course the well-funded jihadists are in the penthouse suite.>

The couple didn’t pay any attention to her. They were too busy bitching about an election. Apparently the two candidates running were unpopular.

She was alone when she reached the top floor. The elevator opened and she stepped into a foyer area. To get into the next section of the floor she needed to swipe a card. Thankfully, that had been part of the prep package. She slid the card through the reader, it beeped green, and she pushed it open.

Her three contacts stood at the far end of the suite that took up the entire floor. Equipment was strewn all over the place; equipment that if the hotel maid saw she’d be calling Homeland Security. Just with a quick glance Lilly saw, AK47s, grenades, C4, tangles of wires that looked like the beginnings of IEDs, a handful of artillery shells, cell phones lined up neatly and labelled, and several sets of body armor.

“We did not order a whore.” The leader stepped forward.

This guy did not look like one of the guys in the picture. He didn’t have the big, bushy, black beard. His hair looked like sterling silver, all of his hair: beard, mustache, eyebrows, and short-cropped military-style hairdo.

“You fucking wish.” She shot back, adding a little extra swagger as she walked into the room. “I’m your guide, and the only reason you have any fucking chance of doing anything in this town. So shut your stupid face or you all can go circle-jerk each other somewhere else.”

The two men beside the leader bristled with anger and started toward her. Lilly’s hand went to the small gun in the small of her back. These might be the people she was working for, but there was no way in hell she was going into this thing unarmed.

Before the two muscle-heads got close the silver-haired leader held up his hand. “My apologies. You must be Wraith.” He gave her a small bow.

She couldn’t hide her surprise.

He snapped a few words in Arabic and the two goons backed off. “We have heard of you killing American Heroes.” The way he smiled creeped her out a bit. “You have done a great service to our cause, and we thank you for that.”

“Um…ok.”

<How does anyone respond to that?> She didn’t like these chauvinist pigs, and she certainly didn’t like doing them any favors.

“How about we get down to business?”

“Excellent idea. And before I am rude and offend you, my name is Damascus.”

“Nice to meet you, Damascus.” She said just to be nice. “Now let me know where you want me to show you around.”

“Certainly.” He waved to a large map spread out on the bed.

There were markings all over the city in different colors. She gleaned some of the plan from the obvious nature of some of the markings, but others she had no idea. Damascus just watched her for a while and let her take it all in. If she didn’t know better she would have sworn the guy was trying to impress her.

“It is a three-pronged attack.” He moved up beside her to explain sections of the map.

He moved too close for comfort. Lilly took a half step away just to be safe and grabbed a hidden knife in case he got handsy.

“The first step is to disrupt communication.” He pointed at several sites and a few radio stations. “We will either shut it down or take it over so our message can be heard.” She could tell which ones were to be blown up, they were marked in red, and the ones to be taken over in green.

“Once we have full control of the communications network we need to work on transportation.” More red marks slashed across Interstate 4 before it reached Orlando as well as the 17, 441, 417, 408, 429, the Florida Turnpike and a few other smaller roads into the city.

Lilly counted the number of roads to be destroyed and it roughly matched the number of artillery shells in the room. <That’s gonna be one hell of an explosion.>

“With avenues of approach destroyed it will take time for the American Army to respond in force. It will also cut off commerce to the city. Since your grocery stores run on just-in-time ordering within a few days they will all be out of food with nothing new coming in.” Damascus’ creepy smile was back.

“What about the Heroes? They’ll have teleporters or they’ll just go around your blown-up roads.” She asked.

“It will be more than broken stone blocking the entrance to the city.” As he said it silver tongues of flame sprouted from his finger tips and seemed to dance to some unheard song. “And the Heroes. They will have their hands full dealing with our commander.”

Lilly knew it was coming, but it still sent shivers down her spine. She’d met the man they called Saif al-Din once before and he was scary as fuck. And that was before she’d read up on what he’d done. She didn’t know how he’d stand up to all the Heroes that would be called in, but Damascus’ confidence in his boss told her the super-terrorist could and would.

<Whatever, not my problem. I’ve got my mission. I’ll make sure Seth’s safe, and then it’s off to some tropical island for a little until shit settles back down.> It was as good a plan as any.

“After transportation, we take out the utilities.” Several red marks were drawn through places like the city’s power plant, which was just now getting fully rebuilt. “And thanks to the intelligence you gathered for us we know everyone’s response time to our actions. We will strike hard and fast, and everything will crumble before the Americans can respond.” Damascus’ eyes were ablaze with fiery purpose.

<I need to show them around and get away from these nut-jobs.> Lilly got the feeling they really shouldn’t be doing this. But it was too late to turn back.

“Ok, so I’ll take you to these places but your guys are setting all your shit up.” She summed it all up.

“Yes, of course. And you will execute your part of the plan when the time comes. It is perhaps the most important part of all.” He handed her a manila envelope.

Inside was a picture, directions, and a proposed time table for getting the job done. Below it all was the bonus they were going to pay her. Her eyes bulged at the number of zeroes on the page, but she remained professional, or at least professional by her standards.

“This is doable,” she replied nonchalantly.

“Good.” The silver-haired terrorist’s smile was back. “Let us start with the communications locations. Some are not far from here. Perhaps a walk to enjoy the fresh Florida air.”

“Damascus. Judging by the timeframe you have on this assignment you’ve given me we really don’t have time to go for a romantic stroll. I said it when I walked in here. I’m not you whore. I’m here to do a job, so let’s stop dicking around and get to work.

The man’s smile faltered for a split-second. Anger clouded his expression until he got it under control. “Of course, you are correct. We cannot delay.” He snapped orders to the other two men, who immediately went to work with the explosives. “Very well, Wraith. Please lead the way.”

Lilly reached out and grabbed the man’s hand, ignored her stomach turning over in repulsion, and teleported away.

 

***

 

Seth stumbled into the air-conditioned building. The world was still spinning slightly from his successful streak at the beer pong table, but he was good. All he really cared about was the chill that crept over his body.

It was hot outside, hotter than the last few days of spring break. His tan skin was starting to get burned in a couple areas and he had sand in his shorts. With his slight alcohol-fueled skew on reality, the most pressing issue in his life at the moment was getting an ice cream cone.

The shop had a cow for a mascot, and a life-sized plastic one was standing by the wall. Or at least Seth thought it was plastic. In his current state, it seemed to be swaying where it stood.

<Pull it together.> Seth shook his head and concentrated on the mission. <What flavor do I get?>

“Hey there.”

Seth jumped a foot in the air at the high-pitched voice behind him. There was also a slight stinging pain in his butt where the person had pinched him.

“What?” Seth answered stupidly.

“I said hey, isn’t it polite to say hey back?” The girl behind him asked.

She stood with her arms crossed over a sizable pair of breasts contained by a purple bikini top. Her skin was a dark ebony and her dark brown hair curled around her shoulders. His smile was both inviting and mischievous with just a hint of intoxication. It was the default expression on just about every college student on the beach.

“Yeah…hey.” Seth finally replied.

“My name is Bianca, what’s yours?” She asked sweetly.

“I’m Seth.” He automatically held out his hand for Bianca to shake.

She took it and shook firmly. “Wow, those are some big hands. You know what they say…?”

Seth probably did know what they said, but he just couldn’t think about it at the moment. The pull of the cool chill of an ice cream cone was starting to creep back up on him.

“So,” Bianca frowned a little at his lack of response to her statement, “where are you staying?” We’re over at the Sands.” She motioned to a few girls in line behind them.

One was another ebony skinned beauty with big, gold hoop earrings and blonde hair that looked very unnatural on her. The other was a Hispanic girl with sharp eyes and an even sharper glare for Seth. Both wore bathing suits similar to Bianca’s and were similarly endowed in the chest area. In fact, the other two seemed to be fending off other guys trying to chat them up.

“I’m down the beach a bit.” Seth replied noncommittally.

He might be a little wasted, but his tongue wasn’t loosened enough to give away the HCP’s hotel’s location.

“You mind if we come along?” Bianca asked, her smile revealing adorable dimples.

“Um…” Seth struggled to answer. His mind said one thing but his penis said another.

Visions of a four way were flashing through his head. Bianca’s friends turned their attention on him, waiting for an answer, and possibly thinking he might be a little brain dead because of the delayed response.

Girls like these didn’t get told no.

“Move bitches, coming through.” A new voice snapped him out of his physiological dilemma, and he breathed a sigh of relief.

Liz strutted into the ice cream shop like she owned it and the buildings next to it. She completely ignored the guys starting at her. Instead, she fixed her own smoldering glare on Seth. She was wearing a black fishnet top over a black bikini top that was struggling to contain her. A matching short skirt flared around her hips and covered just enough to leave the imagination guessing. Her blonde hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she had an expensive-looking pair of aviators on that she pushed up into her hair as she entered.

The three girls, including Bianca, silently hissed as she approached; like a pack of hyenas suddenly confronted by a lioness.

“Hey there stud.” She pulled herself inappropriately close to Seth and shoved her tongue down his throat.

Suddenly, the heat outside had nothing on the heat pressed against him.

<I’m really going to need that ice cream now.> He thought has he tried to control the physical reactions to his super-hot girlfriend sucking his face off in the middle of a crowd.

Before he ran out of breath she pulled back and gave him a small peck on the nose for good measure. And then she turned on Bianca.

“He’s taken, Skankarella.” Liz said it so politely you’d think she was thanking Bianca for a large donation to a worthwhile charity.

“Oh no she didn’t.” The friend with the hoop ears looked ready to throw down as she started to undo the two pieces of jewelry.

Liz just smiled as the girl got all riled up.

Sometimes how someone reacted to the threat of imminent violence told you a lot about who they were and if they should be messed with. Thankfully for hoop-girl Bianca was a little more observant.

She held up a hand to hoop-girl. The other girl looked at Bianca in surprise before reattaching her earrings. “Bitch ain’t worth it.” She muttered.

There was a short stare-down between Bianca and Liz where something was communicated. Whatever it was Liz clearly won. Bianca puffed herself up, making sure to show off all her assets as she marched out the door with her small entourage.

“Beach bunnies.” Liz shook her head and turned back to Seth.

“What?” Things were such a whirlwind he had trouble focusing.

“Beach bunnies,” she repeated, taking a step forward toward the waiting server. “Women who go to beaches like Daytona for spring break and fuck their way through the week. They trade pussy for hotel rooms, booze, and whatever else that can get their dirty traps on. That skank would have used you for a place to crash tonight. She might have not even put out for you.” Liz frowned as she looked over the menu.

“Huh.” Seth let it sink in, and realized Liz knew an awful lot about being a beach bunny.

But Seth also knew a lot about being a boyfriend, and his instincts told him to shut the hell up if he wanted to get laid.

“Well, thank you.” He put his arm protectively around her waist and she melted into him. “Can I interest you in an ice cream cone?”

“I’m interested in a lot of things.” Liz smiled back. “But right now I just want to spend the day with you.”

Seth sensed the shift in her tone and pulled back to get a good look at her. “Liz, is everything ok?”

Whatever he thought he saw quickly vanished as a billion-watt smile lit up her face. “Of course it is.” She draped her arms around his neck and pulled him in for another kiss. “I just needed to get away from Orlando and back to you. I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you too.”

They smiled at each other, and then the coughing cashier ruined the moment.

“Can I get you two anything.” It was a middle-aged woman, and she didn’t look too happy at having two kids making out in front of her and holding up the line.

“Give me two cookie doughs.” Seth ordered, knowing what Liz liked.

She smiled at him, accepted the cone and dragged him outside.

“I’ve always wanted to go for a moonlit stroll on the beach.” She said as they walked down a crowded Atlantic Avenue.

“It’s the middle of the day.” Seth looked up and had to protectively cover his eyes with his hand.

The ice cream was already starting to melt.

“I guess we’ll have to think of something to do until then.” She grinned back.

The subtext was not lost on Seth this time. He grabbed her hand and half-pulled, half-dragged her back to the hotel.

 

***

 

The hotel sheets had a high thread count. Daisy was sure of that. She used to have a lot of money. In fact, she still did. Once upon a time she’d used that money to buy nice sheets with a high thread count, and these felt like those.

Of course, she hadn’t been sharing the bed before.

She savored the soft feeling on her bare back for a moment before sitting up. She grabbed the sheet and pulled it against her chest as she sat up.

<Just because I finally slept with him doesn’t mean he gets a free show.> A smile pulled at her lips as she recalled that first night, then the morning, afternoon, and night every day since.

It was embarrassing in an age where sex was given more freely than before, but it had been a long time since Daisy’s last time. Judging by the activity over the last few days, she’d been determined to make up for lost time.

<It doesn’t hurt that Topher is very satisfying.>

She looked over and smiled at the naked bulk of her boyfriend. He was snoring softly and sprawled over a large chunk of the king-sized bed. She watched him for a moment before letting the sheet fall and crawling on top of him.

“For the love of god, woman. You’re going to be the death of me.” He sighed tragically once she’d coaxed him awake.

“Well at least you’ll die happy.”

Thirty minutes later, she stepped out of the bathroom towel drying her blonde hair. Topher was still in bed drinking a lot of water just in case she was up for round two. As much as Daisy wanted to she had other responsibilities to attend to.

“I’ve got to go do a headcount to make sure no one has been stolen.” She said casually as she tossed the towel into a used pile they’d started to collect near the door. “Head down to grab some breakfast and I’ll join you soon.”

“Yeah sure.” He replied, still slightly out of breath. “Just let me get my sea-legs back and I’ll get right to it.”

She laughed, gave him a kiss, and left the room. Like every morning since they got here, Craig was waiting in the hallway with a shit-eating grin.

“You’re glowing this morning, Daisy. Is all the sex good for your complexion?”

She shot him a good-natured glare. “My love life isn’t the one we should be worried about.”

It was no secret that trips like this involved the exchange of bodily fluids from a lot of the HCP students. Daisy’s job was to monitor the situation and make sure someone didn’t do something they’d regret. But her job ended there. The HCP students were training to be Heroes, and that meant they had to be accountable for their own decisions. If they knocked up some chick in Daytona during freshman year of college that was a problem they’d have to deal with.

“You got it?” Daisy asked, as she walked down the hall occupied exclusively by HCP students and pounded on doors.

Sometimes the thought of their physical training coaches was enough to make the kids think twice about unprotected sex, but sometimes it wasn’t. So they had a plan B.

It started as a trickle at the end of the hall. Students started to appear from rooms and walk down the hall toward the elevators. It still surprised Daisy that she rarely saw the same pairs emerging from the rooms.

<That has got to be awkward when they get back to campus.> She thought. <I guess what happens on spring break stays on spring break…except herpes.>

The first pair got to them and Craig held out a plastic jack-o-lantern. His kids used matching ones when they trick-or-treated in the fall, but this time it was full of condoms instead of candy. Under the watchful eyes of the two instructors the HCP students passed by and everyone, male and female, grabbed a few.

“Wrap it, before you tap it.”

“Cover your stump, before you hump.”

“No glove, no love.”

“Chain the beast, before presenting the feast.”

“If you can’t shield your rocket, leave it in your pocket.”

“Sheath that knife, she ain’t your wife.”

“Especially in December, gift wrap your member.” The last one was a little outdated.

Craig had a one-liner for every couple passing them, and it was really hard for her to keep a straight face. Together they did the same routine on each of the floors until they had a count of everyone.

Everyone was present and accounted for.

<Whew.> Her biggest fear was losing a student. <Just one more day.>

It had been her mantra over the last week as the days slowly counted down. Despite how nice it was to sit in the sun all day long, and spend her inside time wrapped up in the sheets with Topher, this whole week was just a pause in reality. There were still problems awaiting her when they got back.

The prep for the semester final was starting in its end phases. Angela was still coping with the loss of her father. Seraphim was still patrolling/terrorizing the Orlando underworld. Wraith was still on the loose, and the news from Rabat was not good. The siege was over, but the bad guys had to have gone somewhere.

Daisy knew in her bones something big was coming. Her past was coming back to haunt her while her present and future hung in the balance. It was a daunting thought, but whatever the legal dweebs at the DVA might say Daisy was a Hero.

And Heroes didn’t let shit like this stop them from doing their job.

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