Two Worlds – Chapter 75

Gunnery Sergeant Gwen Cunningham

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

“Come on, Terri. Open the door!” Gwen didn’t pound on the door, but she did knock with authority.

Terri had locked herself in the bathroom and refused to come out. It was a childish antic, but it was still effective.

“Please,” Gwen pleaded with her. “You don’t want to leave things like this.”

“I don’t want to leave things at all,” Terri cried back. Her voice hiccupped with sobs. “Why do you have to go?”

Gwen’s longtime girlfriend had asked this question hundreds of time since Gwen broke the deployment news to her. Sometimes it was asked somberly. Sometimes it was sobbed like it was now, but most of the time it was yelled in a fit of rage. One time the MPs had stopped by to make sure everything was ok. It was embarrassing, and word would get back to LCDR Shepherd about it, but her commander and the MPs had understood. Deployments were tough.

Gwen calmly waited for her girlfriend to pull herself back together. She knew Terri was a strong person, and would deal with this, but sometimes a girl just needed to vent. The least Gwen could do was wait.

“It’s my job, Terri.” Gwen’s answer wasn’t much louder than a whisper.

“Well your job sucks!”

That got a laugh out of Gwen, but it quickly subsided when Terri didn’t open the door.

“My shuttle leaves in an hour, babe. I’ve got to meet my new LT before that. Please open the door,” Gwen sighed.

“If you’re late will they leave without you?”

Gwen shook her head. “No. They’ll come and arrest me for being AWOL.”

“Would that keep you on Earth?”

“For a few hours, maybe. Then they’d slap me on the wrist and send me on deployment.”

“God your job sucks. Why couldn’t you just walk down a catwalk like your sister.”

Gwen involuntarily took a step back from the door like she’d been slapped. That comment hurt more than Terri knew. Constantly living in your supermodel sister’s shadow, and trying to make her own career was something Gwen had worked very hard at.

“Terri.” Gwen’s voice was harder now despite her trying to keep calm. “I’m leaving in five minutes. I want to give you a hug and kiss goodbye. I want to make sure we stay in contact. I don’t want to break up with you because what we’ve had has been incredible, but making you wait isn’t right or fair. You’ve got a life to live, and so do I. It’s just shitty luck that it’s a couple hundred light years away from each other right now. So please just open the door.”

Silence.

And then the latch clicked and the thin layer of polyplast opened up a crack.

“I’d wait for you, you know.” Terri’s red, puffy-eyed face emerged.

“I know, babe.” Gwen opened her arms and her longtime girlfriend fell into them and started to sob again.

Gwen comforted her, brushed her hair with her fingers, and held her tight. They held the embrace for the full five minutes until the reminder on Gwen’s PAD lighted up.

“Ok.” The big Gunnery Sergeant didn’t even realize tears had started to roll down her cheeks. “Everything’s going to be ok.”

Terri kept on sobbing as Gwen released her and picked up her bag. The rest of her stuff, which wasn’t much, had been picked up by a company contracted with the Ministry of War to transport or store service personnel’s gear while they were on deployment. Since Gwen’s deployment was a hostile environment deployment, the majority of her stuff was stored, but she was allowed to bring one polyplast crate with her to her new home. It wasn’t much, but she stuffed it full of everything she could.

The one thing that was missing was a picture of Terri.

<Breaking it off is hard enough. I don’t need a constant reminder.>

Maybe the school teacher would wait for Gwen. The soldier thought the odds of that were close to zero, but maybe she would. If that was the case then they’d pick up where they left off, but Gwen expected to receive an “I’ve met someone new” letter within the first six months. The only thing that kept it from being a Dear Jane letter was her breaking it off now.

<Terri will let you know though. She’s a decent person like that.>

“I’ve got to go.” Gwen walked to the door which slid open as she neared it.

“I love you, Gwen!” Terri cried out as Gwen stepped through it.

Gwen looked back at Terri with a sad smile. “Take care of yourself, Terri.”

The door slid shut and Gwen walked away without looking back. She pushed all of her feelings into the back of her mind and sealed them up tight. Compartmentalization was a necessary evil in her line of work. She couldn’t let feelings get in the way of the mission.

Her quarters were only a short ride away from the spaceport, and she was there with plenty of time to find her new commanding officer. Which was a good thing, because the fresh shavetail didn’t have a clue where he was going.

“Sir.” Gwen walked up behind the young man her PAD identified as Lieutenant Martin Maddox.

“Jesus, Sergeant.” The guy jumped a half-meter into the air and he didn’t even come up to her height.

“Sorry, Sir.” She tried not to think about how jumpy the guy was going to be when rounds started flying. “Gunnery Sergeant Gwen Cunningham, your new NCOIC.” She introduced herself.

“Marty Maddox.” The guy smiled and offered his hand.

“Sir.” She kept it professional, but took his hand and shook it.

The LT was small, but most people were small to Gwen. His MILNET profile listed him as 169 centimeters tall. His sandy-blonde hair was done in the typical officer fade style, and his brown eyes beamed with enthusiasm and energy. He fit the big-eyed and bushy-tailed stereotype to a T.

Normally, Gwen would only be able to pull the basics from his MILNET profile, but she still had some friends in SOCOM, and one just happened to be doing a stint at the academy. He sent over the LT’s file.

<Graduated West Point last year, middle of his class, and finished infantry basic officer leadership course just a few weeks ago. Also middle of the class. No other school training aside from the academy and IBOLC.> That part was a little worrisome. Usually, cadets got at least some additional training under their belt before they left the confines of the academy. Maddox either didn’t try or wasn’t good enough to get a slot.

Gwen tried not to judge a book by its cover though. A MILNET account didn’t tell you what a person was capable of.  

“So, Gunney, where are we headed?”

“Our shuttle is over in foxtrot concourse. From there we will take it to CFB Constitution. Once we reach the fleet base we’ll check the boards. The deploying battalion is assembling on the Cruiser Coral Sea. They’ll be our ride to Rogue Island.” Gwen explained the entire plan, although it would probably change by the time they made it to the shuttle.

“You seem on top of everything, Gunney.” The LT had a relieved smile on his face, which was good.

<At least he understands who runs the company.>

“We should get going, Sir.” She pointed toward the F-Concourse.

“Yes, of course.” He led the way and Gwen stayed slightly behind him.

<This should be interesting.> Gwen thought as she followed the LT into the shuttle and strapped in.

She looked down at her CMUs and saw her new unit designation, 8552nd INF BAT. She took a good look at her gunnery sergeant rank and let the new level of responsibility really sink in. She looked at her ranger tab, and wondered how Eve Berg was handling the shuttle ride to Styx. Then she took a look over at the LT who didn’t have anything but his platinum stripe.

<If he lets me do my job we’ll survive. If not, then we’re all totally fucked.> She sincerely hoped it was the former.

 

CWS Lancelot

System 1552, York Sector, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

“Prepare for transition!” The Captain’s voice echoed throughout the ship. “Battlestations!”

Sirens wailed and hatches secured themselves, but the spacers had been at their stations for the last thirty minutes as the Lancelot hurtled through her final leg of space toward System 1552.

The CWS Lancelot was a Knight-class Battleship and had been in service for a quarter of a century. It’s military-grade duro-steel hull was five meters thick beneath the protective nanite armor. Its electrostatic generators would fuse that armor at a molecular level, and make it one of the toughest nuts to crack in the known galaxy. On top of that, the one-and-a-half-kilometer long warship was equipped with a giant reactor capable of producing deflector shields to further strengthen its defenses.

Offensively, it had two hundred missile tubes and thirty energy cannons to bash away at its enemies. Along with Lancelot, her sister ship Galahad traveled toward System 1552. Together they could target the four reported enemy cruisers with four hundred missiles and sixty cannons. The enemy force would only be able to throw three quarters of that firepower back, and their hulls were thinner and they lacked shielding. The fight wouldn’t be a long one.

“Transition in three…two…one…” The communications officer counted down.

Lancelot lurched as she dropped her Alcubierre bubble and translated back into normal space.

“Navigation, get our location. Ops, full drone deployment. Get me eyes now. Comms, get me Galahad Actual.” Lancelot’s Captain ordered as he surveyed the holotank and its slowly growing one-light-minute bubble.

The steadily expanding bubble currently only showed two icon: BB 112 Lancelot and BB 115 Galahad, both the steady blue of friendly units. They were right on top of each other on the holotank despite being thousands of kilometers apart.

“Galahad Actual.” The other battleship’s Captain’s voice came through TACCOM.

“Galahad, this is Lancelot. Play it safe and go in together?”

Both captains had similar time in service and were both combat veterans. Lancelot’s skipper was given command by Admiral Nelson, but that didn’t mean he’d ignore the other captain’s experience.

“Roger that, Lancelot. We don’t know what they’ve been up to. Better safe than sorry. Five-thousand-kilometer spacing?”

“Roger that, Galahad. We’ll stick to the ellipse.”

“Happy hunting, Lancelot out.”

They cut the TACCOM connection and focused on their operations. It would take time for the two battleships and their expanding drone vanguard to get a full read of the system. All they could do for now was sit back and wait.

“Contact!” The readout changed as the combat information center updated the holotank over an hour later. “Four hostiles identified. Designated Bogies One through Four. All bogies are breaking orbit from around the second planet. They’re running, Sir.”

The mood on the bridge brightened considerably, but the Captain knew better than to let a perceived retreat influence his battleplan.

“Lancelot, Galahad, you seeing this?”

“Roger that, Galahad. If they want to run let them run. Our orders are to secure the system. Once they leave the system you get into orbit and do a full scan of the planet.”

“Roger that. Can’t let them get a foothold. Galahad out.”

The information coming in was already several minutes old due to the vast distance between the two forces. The Commonwealth captains watched with several minutes lag as the Eastern Block ships fled to the FTL limit and jumped out of the contested system.

<That was too easy.> They both thought. It cost a lot of resources to get a cruiser squadron all the way out here, and to have it just turn tail and run without even a rude comm message didn’t make sense.

“Sir, I’ve got weird readings coming from Drone Thirty-Two.”

The Captain overheard the young ensign analyzing the drone feed, and pulled up the data as the officer in charge of tactical operations moved over to take a closer look. The lieutenant might not have known what it was, but the two senior officers did.

“Evasive action! Full power to bow deflector shields!”

Everyone felt the lurch as Lancelot veered to starboard and fought the system’s natural gravity as it dived below the ellipse.

But it was a half a second too late. The lurch of the maneuver was nothing compared to the shockwave the rattled the ship as a continuous energy blast collided with Lancelot’s port side and drilled it for several seconds.

“Countermissles fire! Hide us in the chaff cloud. Ops get a targeting solution on those mirrors and have the drones blow them out of space.”

The shaking stopped as Lancelot exited the kill zone, but that only made the alarms sound louder.

“Damage report!”

“Forward deflector shields completely drained. ES armor down to thirty-three percent capacity from sections twenty-two to twenty-nine. No hull breech, but we’ve got a fire in Shield Generator Alpha. Damage Control Team Five is working on it now.”

The Captain knew it could have been a lot worse.

“Lancelot, Galahad, how the hell did they get a solar laser array up?”

A solar laser array was the first, basic defensive system put into any star system. An array of mirrors was deployed to harness the power of the local star to create a beam of energy stronger than anything mankind could artificially create.

Most infantry heavy weapons operated in the megawatt realm. Planetary defense centers, depending on their size and importance had gigawatt and terawatt level energy cannons. Warships started in the terawatt level and peaked in the low petawatts on battleships and assault carriers. In comparison, a solar laser array could easily throw out a one-hundred petawatt continuous beam of energy. Give it a minute and it would put a hole in a battleship.

It was quite possibly the most powerful weapons system in the universe, and it was cheap and easy to use. The problem with it was its limitations. It could focus the most powerful energy beam in the galaxy, but it wasn’t maneuverable. It took time to realign all the mirrors to hit moving targets, and starships moved awfully fast. To overcome this fatal flaw, system engineers went for sheer quantity. A developed system would have thousands of mirrors to fire dozens or hundreds of focused beams. It was certainly a deterrent, but not an insurmountable one.

No matter what engineers did they couldn’t fix the fragility of the array. The mirrors were mirrors after all, and all it took was a one crack to throw off the beam, and one mirror taken out to disrupt the whole array. Quantity was the best fix for this problem. Having lots of options to redirect the beam was the engineer’s best idea, but a system like 1552 wasn’t going to have a big array.

The two Commonwealth battleships executed their plan quickly. It was a standard battle drill hammered into the minds of every officer since their schooling. First, they needed to get out of the kill zone. Second, they needed to throw up a chaff screen so whatever was aiming the laser array couldn’t find them. Third, they needed to find the mirrors. Finally, they needed to take out the mirrors with targeted drone strikes or proximity kills with antimatter missiles. Either would do the job.

Lancelot and Galahad executed the plan flawlessly. Their combined drone vanguard stalked and killed the mirrors one by one. But that wasn’t the big thing on the Captains’ minds. They both knew that deploying a solar laser array was the first step in building a sustainable system infrastructure. An infrastructure like that included terraforming and colonizing worlds.

The Blockies’ decision to do that in a junction system to Commonwealth space spoke their intentions loud and clear. The Commonwealth wasn’t on the path to war with the Blockies in York Sector. They were already knee deep in it and they didn’t even know.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 95

Anika felt like someone had hooked her behind the naval and pulled. The sensation wasn’t doing her balance any good. She felt like she was in the middle of a horrible drinking game. The one where you chug out of a plastic yellow bat, put your forehead on it, spin around a dozen times, and then try and walk to something. She’d played it once and promptly fallen straight on her ass. That’s what she felt like she should be doing now, but she wasn’t.

She felt the sensation of motion, but her feet were firmly planted. She wasn’t falling or anything. The movement was horizontal. Not that she could tell what was really going on. Everything around her was pitch black.

Out of her peripherals she swore she could see something moving, but the second she turned her head there was nothing there. <This is fucking creepy.>

She didn’t panic. There was a split second, “what the fuck is happening” moment, but she quickly pulled herself together. She’d figure out what happened and why it happened when the time came. What she really needed to be ready for was what happened when the lights came back on.

Whatever was happening, and whatever the darkness was, it didn’t last long. She didn’t keep count of how many seconds passed, but it wasn’t more than three. In the darkness, it felt like a lot longer.

One second she was thinking about what her opening move would be when she could finally see again, and the next she came to a crashing halt. The world came back into focus, but it was dimly lit, and looked nothing like the sunny townhouse she remembered she’d been in. Worst of all, when the lights came back on she felt her stomach leap into her throat. She stumbled, gagged, but didn’t throw up. A couple deep breaths and she was standing up and studying the new surroundings.

“Sorry about the surprise trip. If you brace for it, you don’t feel a thing. Did you feel like a nun was grabbing you by the nose and dragging you along? People have told me that’s what it feels like the first time.”

<I know that voice.> Anika snarled and whipped around the see Liz standing in a corner of the room. About fifty feet separated them. <I bet I can get to her before she can yell for help.>

<I bet you’re thinking about yelling for help.> Liz’s thoughts wandered across Anika’s mind and she did a double-take.

She’d ever been allowed to read Liz’s mind before. That in and of itself was enough to make Anika hesitate.

“Don’t bother,” Liz spoke out loud. “No one will hear you scream.”

“Liz, this isn’t funny. Where are we and how did you get us here?” Anika took a few steps to get a better angle on Liz, but Liz countered her with a few steps of her own.

“I’m not going to answer the first question.” Liz shook her head, but her eyes never left Anika. “I’m not going to monologue and tell you my whole plan. That’s too cliché. As for the second part, I’m more than happy to spill the beans. We teleported.”

“Corporal Fuentes?” Anika took her eyes off Liz and looked around for the teleporter.

“The good corporal didn’t make it.” The sad look on Liz’s face didn’t match her tone.

“Becca?” Anika’s voice dropped low and came out as a growl.

“Becca is fine.” Liz held up her hands defensively. “I would never do anything to hurt Becca. I like her a lot. A hell of a lot more than you.”

“Well, at least we agree on something.”

Liz laughed, but then the two women returned to their tense stalemate.

“So?” Anika was beginning to freak out a bit. “What am I doing here?”

“You’re here because they want you here.” Liz shrugged.

“And they are?”

“You know who they are.” Liz didn’t smile this time.

Anika felt her heart fall into the pit of her stomach. <No…no…no…> Everything she’d feared that would happen in the last decade was coming true. <I knew I didn’t like this bitch. I knew there was something off about her. I know her showing up was too coincidental.> Targeting her anger at Liz helped stave off the panic growing inside her.

“You don’t have to do this, Liz. Just take me back to the townhouse and we can pretend nothing ever happened.”

Liz laughed at the comment. “Does that seriously ever work? What the fuck makes you think that I can take you seriously after saying some stupid shit like that. ‘We can pretend nothing ever happened’,” Liz repeated in a stupid, high-pitched voice that sounded nothing like Anika’s. “Of course, we can’t pretend that. You’ll go running to the Heroes the moment I bring you back. No, I’m sorry, Anika. But this is where you’ve gotta stay until they come pick you up.”

The finality in Liz’s tone was enough to make Anika’s next decision easy. She leapt forward with all of her increased strength and speed. She moved like a blur, reached out toward Liz, and…BAM!

Next thing Anika knew she was waking up on the floor with a metallic taste in her mouth. She spit onto the dust covered surface and stained it bright red.

“Ouch, that had to hurt.” Liz was squatting about five feet away with a wicked grin on her face.

<I’m going to rip your fucking head off.> Anika reached up and her hand connected with something solid.

“I know right.” Liz knocked on her end of the barrier. “This is some DARPA level, high tech, Super plastic shit. It’s stronger than a guy’s hard-on after Viagra.”

Anika rolled her eyes as she got back to her feet. She was a little wobbly and the room didn’t seem to be standing as still as it should. On top of that, her head now hurt like a motherfucker, and she was sure her shoulder would be turning black and blue soon.

“So this bad boy is a couple of feet thick, and it’s going to be used in the next generation of cells for strongmen. It won’t keep out Titan, but it’s more than a match for a second-rate HCP student.”

Anika bristled, but she kept her mouth shut. The best she could do was let Liz talk and try to gather any intel she could from the other woman.

“Also,” Liz practically bubbled with enthusiasm. “They designed it so a current could be run through the outer layers. I know, doesn’t make sense because it’s plastic, but whoever designed this was sharper than your average Super. So, to recap. If you charge this, you’ll get shocked, which you now know will put you on your ass. Even without the shock the wall will stand up to you for a long time. But it’s important for you to know that the generator that keeps the charge on this big guy is also the generator that pumps in the oxygen. So, you take down the generator you’re going to run out of air before you can break through the plastic. Obviously, I advise against that.” Liz moved to a table on her side of the wall and started to fiddle with something.

“I’m underground then?” Anika took her eyes off Liz’s back and looked around her jail cell.

“You get a gold star.” Liz looked over her shoulder and winked. “Yeah, you’re really far underground. A lot farther than your amateur telepathy would reach. If there was anyone to reach at all.”

Anika walked over to the stone wall of the cell and felt it. It was damp. <I’m probably near a water source, so that narrows me down to about seventy percent of the planet. Good job, Anika. Way to find a clue.>

Usually, in a situation like this Anika’s first objective would be to empathize with her captor. She needed to make them see her as a human being, not just a target or an obstacle in the way. That plan didn’t apply to this situation. Liz had been living with Anika and everyone else in the townhouse for most of freshman year. If Anika hadn’t humanized herself with Liz in those months, then she wasn’t going to do it in a few minutes.

“Is your name even Liz?” She asked, trying to gather more information.

Liz turned away from what she was doing and studied Anika for a moment. Whatever conclusion she came to made her more talkative, and that was fine by Anika.

“No, it isn’t. But my life as Liz Aretino was a lot better than what I’d lived before. I’m genuinely sorry this is happening to you. Even if I don’t like you. The guys who’ll pick you up are assholes, but a job’s a job and they’re paying me a shitload of money to grab you.”

“Why hand me over if they’re assholes?”

Liz’s face scrunched in annoyance at the question. “Didn’t you hear what I just said, M.O.N.E.Y. money, enough for me to take a bath in. I could literally wipe my ass with Benjamins if I wanted to after this.”

“Money isn’t everything.” Anika replied with shake of her head.

“Money makes the world go round, and if you think otherwise you’re a moron. What money can’t get you reputation can, and I’ll get both from this.”

“So, you kidnap some teenager and you’re a bigshot mercenary?” Anika scoffed.

“No, I’m already a big shot mercenary. This will make me a big fucking deal, and my salary for follow-on job is going to double or triple. You want the best you have to pay for the best.”

“But you give teenagers to assholes? Do you know what assholes do to a girl like me in a place like this?” A slight tremor ran through Anika’s voice.

But Liz just laughed.

“Any dude who tried to stick his dick in you without your consent would get their spine violently ripped from their body. Don’t try and use that shit on me, Anika. You’re better than that.”

Anika conceded the point, although the spine-ripping was a bit extreme. She would however turn their balls into pancakes.

“But you’re still handing me over to the bad guys.”

“Again, with the handing over,” Liz sighed deeply. “Fine, I’ll give you a fighting chance. If I send the guys to get you, and that’s a big IF, I’ll port them on your side of the wall. Then you’ll have a fighting chance.”

<No way she’d risk exposing herself if I had a real chance of winning.> Anika concluded after thinking it over for a second.

“So what, you’re just going to walk back into Becca’s life and pretend like nothing happened?” Just saying it made Anika’s blood boil.

“That’s the plan. I’ll tell them all how the big bad terrorists grabbed you out of the townhouse.” Liz chuckled.

Anika fumed behind the clear wall. “I wonder what Seth would think if he knew the real you.”

<That hit a nerve.> Anika saw Liz’s shoulders tighten for a second.

“Seth knows all he needs to know right now. He doesn’t care what I’ve done in the past, and I don’t care who he’s fucked. We’re more concerned about the future.”

“What about the present?” Anika tore into Liz’s argument. “What would Seth say to you kidnapping someone who wants to be a Hero just like him.”

“Seth doesn’t really want to be a Hero,” Liz laughed at Anika’s attempt. “Seth wants to be the best and he wants to be strong. He’s a protector, but he wants to protect those closest to him: friends, maybe his family, but especially me.” Liz crossed her arms and stared daggers at Anika. “Seth’s real heroic battle is the battle he’s going to fight against something he’s passionate about, like addiction. He’s going to start programs and use his strength to fight for what has personally affected him. He’s a good man, but he’s not the type of guy who’s going to run into a fire to save a crack head who fell asleep with the stove on because they were getting high. I’m pretty sure he thinks the world would be a better place without them.”

“That’s an awful lot of assumptions to make.” Anika took a seat with her back against the wall.

“Who said they’re assumptions?” Liz shot back with that grin Anika wanted to rip off her face. “You guys think all Seth and I do is fuck, but we talk. I know his reservations, and he knows I’m not an angel. We’re a perfect match, even if no one else wants to see it.”

“Well, I’m not going to talk you out of anything.” Anika shrugged. “I mean I think he’s going to figure out who you are and turn you in, because he is a good guy and you’re a raging sociopath and murderer.”

“Whatever.” Liz looked down at her watch to check the time, but Anika knew she was getting under the teleporter’s skin.

“The truth is hard to accept, but it’s going to hit you like a sledgehammer sooner or later.” Anika piled on for good measure.

“Well, if it does I’ll send you a postcard. I hear Syria is nice this time of year.”

Anika gulped as the weight of her own situation returned to the front of her mind.

“Seems like were both up shit’s creek without a paddle.” Anika concluded. “Will you at least grant me one last wish?”

“Jesus Christ.” Liz rolled her eyes. “What?”

“What’s your real name?”

“Huh.” Liz looked surprised by the question. “My name is Lilly.”

“Lilly,” Anika tried out the name. “It’s such a nice name. How’d you turn out to be such a raging bitch?”

“I don’t know, Fadeelah. Why don’t you look in the mirror.” With one last sadistic smile, Liz/Lilly disappeared in a blast of darkness.

<Shit. You’ve got to be kidding me.> Anika knew of only one teleporter who could do that. <And we did a fucking project on her.>

Stupid didn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what she was feeling.

 

***

 

“Dispatch, this is Seraphim. I’ve got eyes on target.”

“Roger that, Seraphim. Proceed with mission. Capture if able, but lethal force is authorized.” The dispassionate voice of Dispatch instructed.

Seraphim’s mission so far had been reconnaissance. The DVA, Heroes, and ForceOps soldiers needed intelligence before they counterattacked. Seraphim and others had been gathering that information.

<Now it’s time to hit back.> The smile curled her lips and exposed her fangs.

She looked down at the parking lot near the airport and planned her attack. A burned pile of metal was all the was left of a SWAT van that had eaten an RPG right in the grill. The windshield was splattered with red, showing her that the driver hadn’t made it. A few of the team members must have been injured in the explosion too, because there were only five SWAT officers currently exchanging fire with the terrorists.

As she circled, smoke from the burning planes and terminals blocked her view for a few seconds. Fire and EMS were waiting for the fighting to die down before running into the flames and rescuing anyone who was still alive.

Another RPG streaked from the terrorists’ position and smashed into an already crippled section of the terminal.

<I’ve got to go now.> She knew she couldn’t wait any longer.

Both the SWAT officers and the terrorists had formed two fire lines about a hundred feet from each other. They both exchanged suppressive fire and tried to move closer. Neither was making much headway. She saw one SWAT officer pushing out to the left, extending the line and trying to move around the flank by sneaking between the cars.

A terrorist spotted him and was moving to intercept, while another was reloading the RPG. She had a split-second decision to make, and she didn’t hesitate.

She got into position and dove toward her target. The air whipped by her head, spilling her hair behind her. This opening move usually sent the criminal running or they’d drop to their knees and surrender. The terrorists didn’t know her though.

<About time we got acquainted.>

She hit the RPG wielding terrorist just as he fired. The hit was enough for the rocket to impact the ground thirty feet short of the SWAT officer he was aiming for. The explosion blasted the car next to it onto its side where it collided with the next car in line. Glass rained down everywhere, but the SWAT officer was fine, and after a moment to shake off the tinnitus, he started to move forward.

She followed through with her attack. Her landing broke the terrorist legs like toothpicks and folded him in half, snapping his spine, and then flattening the back of his skull against the asphalt. The RPG clattered to the ground, and she stomped on the barrel rendering it useless.

She didn’t dawdle. The remaining terrorists turned their attention to her and opened up. She jumped back into the air and strained her wings to gain altitude. The air around her filled with bullets, some of which hit her or her armor.

“Dispatch, tell SWAT to push forward. I’ve got these assholes’ attention.”

The word must had gotten relayed quickly because the SWAT officers surged forward, raking the enemy positions with fire. One terrorist dropped dead, shot through the back of the head.

The remaining bad guys turned their fire back on the SWAT officers and sent them diving for cover, so that’s when she attached again. She didn’t bother crushing the second terrorist, she just picked him up as she flew past him. The man screamed, kicked, and shot at her as the arched into a smooth climb, but the bullets didn’t do much damage. One hit her cheek, which stung, and caused her to drop him.

<Not going to get any information out of him.> She was only mildly miffed about that.

The terrorist fell a hundred feet onto his head.

<Only two more.> She circled around and saw the results of her earlier decision.

The SWAT officer that had pushed out to try and get around them was down, with a steadily growing pool of blood spreading around his body. The terrorist had succeeded in getting around and was firing at the remaining SWAT officers from the side. She saw another cop go down as they got pinned between the two remaining terrorists’ interlocking fire.

She dove for a third time, landing hard on a car next to the man. The car cratered in the middle, causing the man to jump and turn, but by then it was too late. Her tail swept low and then up, so her barbed tail caught him in the unarmored spot beneath the armpit.

The man jerked awkwardly and she lifted him off the ground. He dropped his gun and coughed up a glob of bright red blood. His hands went to where she’d impaled his side, but it didn’t do much good. She whipped her tail around and tossed him like a ragdoll. He hit a nearby car hard, and slumped to the ground.

<If he’s still alive they can interrogate him. If not…oh well.> She didn’t feel bad for any of the people she’d just killed.

The last remaining terrorist seemed to realize that his situation had gone from favorable to shit since she’d arrived. He fell back, taking cover behind cars and firing over his shoulder as he ran. SWAT perused him, getting around to his sides and pinning him down.

“Dispatch, try and have SWAT make the guy surrender so we can…”

The whole space for thirty feet went up in flames as the terrorists detonated the suicide vest he was wearing. The SWAT officers were all knocked on their ass, and even Seraphim stumbled as she rushed toward them. A quick check showed all the SWAT officers were still alive, but the terrorist she’d chucked wasn’t.

“Dispatch, hostiles eliminated. EMS, fire, and rescue can head into the airport now.”

“Roget that, Seraphim. First responders moving now. We need you to regroup with incoming assets at Boone High School. We’ve confirmed the main targets location.”

“On my way, Dispatch.”

Seraphim jumped back into the air and headed southwest. It wasn’t far to her destination, and she couldn’t wait to take a crack at the terrorist leader.

 

***

 

Daisy’s foot tapped impatiently against the concrete front porch as she waited for Orlando PD to arrive.

<Come on! I’ve got better things to be doing than babysitting.> She silently fumed. She was going to have a long talk with Topher about his department’s response times.

Abney and his girlfriend were huddled together. He was comforting her, and she was trying to keep it together. He kept running his hand through her hair while she sobbed into his chest. Big tear stains had already soaked through. As she pulled back, he wiped the wetness from her cheeks and said a few words. The girl laughed and lightly punched him in the shoulder. Despite the situation, Daisy couldn’t help but feel happy for Abney. He was an ass, but it was good he’d found someone who could deal with all his shit.

<Liz Aretino.> Daisy committed the name to memory. She’d need to look deeper into the girl once this shit-storm had passed. She didn’t like outsiders knowing details about the HCP. That’s how security breaches happened. And after today there was going to be a major investigation. She was already dreading all the paperwork.

<There we go. Finally!> A squad car whipped around the corner with its lights flashing. Behind it was a camouflaged Humvee, and behind that was a man running and easily keeping pace with the two vehicles.

“Hello again, Ms. Meyers.” Colonel Ford appeared next to her in the blink of an eye.

“About time you showed up.” She rounded on him, the anger evident on the portions of her face not covered by a mask. “What the hell happened? I thought you had this under control?”

“I thought we did too.” The ForceOps Colonel walked past her and into the house. “Corporal Fuentes got ambushed before he could react, which is to say it happened very quickly. He was both a teleporter and a trained ForceOps soldier.”

“Well someone shot him in the head and now Kemps is gone.”

The Colonel turned his hard eyes on her, so she calmed down. He’d just lost a man. She needed to remember that.

“We’ll get the witness statement and try and get a reading on the tracker we placed in her panic button.”

“But you’re not optimistic.” Daisy read the look on his face.

“No.” He shook his head, suddenly looking a lot older than he really was. “If someone was able to get the drop on the Corporal they would have planned for our contingency and countered it.”

“So, we’re back to square one?”

“I’m afraid so.”

Daisy didn’t like the sound of that at all, and it showed.

“But I’m here so you can do something about it.” The Colonel switched topics. “I’m here to transport you to an assembly area. We’ve got a location on Seif al-Din, and we’re putting together a strike team to take him out. If anyone knows where Ms. Kemps is, it would be him.”

“What are we waiting for?” Daisy cracked her knuckles in anticipation.

“Nothing.” The teleporter grabbed her arm.

“Wait a second,” she held up a hand and walked back out onto the porch. “Abney when you get finished get back to the gym. We’re pulling in all the students.” She saw his eyes dart to the girl talking to the cop, and the question forming in his mind. “No, your girlfriend can’t come. Have her head over to the dining hall and shelter in place with everyone else.”

She didn’t wait for any acknowledgement from the freshman before heading back to the Colonel. “Ok, let’s go.”

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I’m on TDY from Hell – Skirmishers

With a few flaps of his powerful wings Gerald was back on the mountainside among the airborne soldiers. But things had changed. The winged men and women were no longer sitting around fiddling with weapons or engaging in their pre-battle rituals. Everyone was on their feet. Wings were being shaken out, armor was on, weapons were at the ready, and they were organized into their individual companies.

Ten blocks of one hundred soldiers dotted the mountain like angry pimples ready to burst on the approaching enemy horde.

Even in formation, they parted for Gerald. As an Infernal Knight he had an imposing form that parted people as easily as his blade parted flesh. He walked unimpeded to the front where the Colonel was standing with his swords drawn.

“Colonel.” Gerald walked up beside him. “Our mission is the enemy air support.”

The enemy was close enough now that everyone could make out individuals in the black mass moving toward them. It was easy to see the nearly five-thousand screaming, winged predators flying over the legions of ground troops.

“That’s insane,” the Colonel growled. “We’ll be outnumbered five to one.”

Gerald understood that the leader was worried about his regiment, his life, and his reputation; not necessarily in that order. Gerald also knew it wasn’t the Colonel’s place to question his orders.

The Colonel realized his mistake too late. Gerald slowly rotated his head in the smaller man’s direction. The world around Gerald  vibrated with agitation. Darkness gathered around him, making him seem taller and broader than he actually was. Spikes grew from his armor and dripped a black poison that would painfully torture its victims until they suffocated on their own tongues and their hearts swelled and burst within their chests.

The Colonel took a step back, failing to hide the fear on his face. “My apologies, Sir Gerald. We will attack and destroy the enemy. Their strength is irrelevant. Prince Seere always prevails.”

The world stilled, the darkness vanished, and the spikes retracted back into Gerald’s armor. “Fear is the tool of the weak, Colonel. I advise that you don’t allow your fear to get the best of you.”

The threat was there. The Colonel would need to fight like a madman if he wanted to retain Gerald’s favor, which was the General’s favor, and ultimately Prince Seere’s favor.

The Colonel nodded, and they both turned their attention back to the coming battle. Gerald kept an eye on the Colonel in case the man decided to stab him in the back. It wouldn’t be the first time someone tried it.

General Icilius’ infantry legions were organized across the pass. The lines were thinner than Gerald liked; ten deep at the center and six at the flanks.

<Artillery will be able to funnel the enemy into the more heavily defended sections of the formation,> he reminded himself. But at first glance he didn’t like what he was seeing. <I need to find their leaders fast.>

Gerald’s eyes traced the formation and moved toward the enemy. A few stragglers from the three companies of skirmishers were running for the newly dug trenches. The two defensive lines in front of the main army looked finished.

Those three hundred skirmishers, all of which would certainly die, were made up of modern soldiers. They were armed with modern weapons and trained with modern tactics. Hopefully, they’d be able to take down ten times their number before they were overrun.

<Hope.> He chided himself for such a childish thought. <Hope has no place in Hell.>

The first rank of Beelzebub’s legions crested the last hill leading up to the mountain pass. There was only a slight incline and a mile between them and Gaius’ waiting infantry. From his concealed position on the mountainside, Gerald could hear their hungry cries and roars of rage.

The enemy surged forward like a tidal wave, but the pass was smaller than the hills they’d been crossing to get here. They were forced to bottleneck as the terrain shifted.

Gerald saw the advantage. “Sniper.” He crossed to the scout sniper he’d spoken with before reporting to the General. “Do you have coordinates?”

The sniper already understood what Gerald was getting at. The younger soldier had already seen that the mouth of the pass was a potential choke -point and had detailed the artillery coordinates in his terrain sketches. Gerald made a mental note to get the forward-thinking soldier’s name after the battle.

“Runner!” Gerald called.

There was a flutter of wings and a young boy appeared wearing a unarmored tunic.

“Take these to the artillery commander. I want a barrage of fire on those coordinates. Tell him it’s an order under my authority.” The back of the paper burned while not actually consuming the paper. Gerald pulled his hand away to reveal a dark seal. “After you have seen the commander report to the General’s staff and explain the small change in the battle plan.”

Technically, Gerald shouldn’t be giving orders like he was. He was outside the regular chain of command. But he knew Gaius, he knew what was at stake, and he knew the General wanted his top commanders to show initiative ─ as long as it fell within his overall intent. Lastly, he was an Infernal Knight. People did what he ordered, especially lowly artillery regimental commanders.

The boy bowed deeply, nearly scraping his nose in the dirt, and flew off toward the rear.

The enemy legions were still surging forward, funneling through the gap toward the waiting skirmishers. Even if the artillery hit now there would still be thousands of beasts charging Gaius’ lines. But a few thousand was better than tens of thousands.

Gerald’s change was a longer-ranged version of Gaius’ own plan. Creating a wall of corpses would slow down the enemy. If they could dam the mouth of the pass then the enemy couldn’t flood the area with troops. They’d only be able to trickle in. With smaller, more manageable opposition Gaius’ strategy would be even more effective. They would lose less men and the victory would be even greater.

<As will the spoils.> Gerald felt his blood heat as the impending violence drew closer.

He twirled his spear in anticipation. The longer-than-normal blade of Infernal Iron cut through the mountain rock effortlessly. With his power, Gerald had honed the blade’s edge to a molecular level. It would cut nearly anything in existence with little resistance.

Whistles filled the air signifying the runner’s message was received. One moment Beelzebub’s mutilated creations were rampaging through the pass, and the next they were engulfed in flames. Those who weren’t swallowed by the inferno of fire were cut down by the shrapnel. Cries of pain joined the calls for blood, but the enemy still pushed forward. Thousands came into range of the skirmishers while thousands more died as the artillery bombardment continued.

Cracks started to fill the air as the three hundred skirmishers opened fire. Sharp singular cracks echoed off the pass’ walls from an infernal variation of what the younger soldiers called an M4. Louder steady booms of what they called a “Ma-Deuce” nearly drowned out the more numerous M4s.

Now Beelzebub’s minions in the pass started to die. Whole companies were mowed down by the skirmishers. Creatures with avian features wailed, died, or continued to screech as they bled out.

Unlike Gaius’ own legions, Beelzebub’s forces would not immediately turn to ash and return to his kingdom. It could be hours or days before the corpses of the dead would vanish and return to the rival lord’s realm. Seere’s legions had the power of hellish resurrection on their side. Managing your resurrected was a crucial tactic in the eternal wars of Hell.

Despite the artillery salvos, an entire legion had filtered into the pass. Even with overwhelming firepower three hundred was no match for ten thousand. The weight of fire slackened as the first of the three companies jumped out of the trench and ran for the second line of defense.

Gerald saw the tactical error immediately. <The trenches are too far apart.>

The first company would only reach the second trench seconds before the enemy reached the first. The second company would be caught in the open between the re-entrenched first company and the rampaging enemy legion, and the third company would still be in the first trench being slaughtered.

Gerald felt a twinge of sympathy for the skirmishers but quickly banished the thought. He’d been a skirmisher once. He knew a skirmishers job. It was their job to harass the enemy or die trying.

 

***

 

The jungle was hotter than hell, which Gerald found ironic at first. The unit veterans told him to dress in light layers. He didn’t believe them. He was wearing a hardy leather vest over a heavy tunic. He’d still been shivering when they left the city and marched for what seemed like three days and nights to the borders of Prince Seere’s lands.

Now, in the lands of his Lord’s enemy, Gerald was regretting his decision.

He moved forward slowly, spear out in front of him, while watching where he stepped. Apparently, he wasn’t watchful enough. His foot came down on a dry branch and there was a loud SNAP. The sound seemed to echo through the tropical nightmare the skirmishers had been living in for the last few days. Although, it was hard to tell in this place. The land was in a state of eternal twilight. There was no moving sun to mark the passage of time.

Gerald was part of a five man team, now down to three. Their mission was to harass the boarder of their Lord’s greatest enemy.

His name was Cain.

There couldn’t have been two more different kingdoms. Cain’s land was humid, tropical, and untamed where Seere’s land was cold at its heart, temperate at best, and rigorously organized. The endless fields of wheat the skirmishers had crossed to reach the border were pleasant enough. But aside from the slight rise in temperature, Gerald didn’t find the fields any better than the city. And the people working those fields didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves.

Gerald would gladly go back there now.

The three skirmishers froze as the snap echoed through the jungle. Gerald held his breath. A man armed with a sword, whose name Gerald still hadn’t learned, glared at him. A woman with a bow kept frantically looking behind them. They’d had another spearman and swordsman at the beginning of their mission. The swordsman had drowned crossing the river that marked the border between the two kingdoms, and the other spearman had been killed by the defenders.

Gerald strained his hearing while holding his breath. His pounding heart and rushing blood drowned out anything he might have noticed. They stayed silent for a long time. They’d fallen for this trick before. It was how they lost the other spearman.

The lone swordsman was the team leader. He would figure out when things were safe to go. It was just Gerald’s job to look, listen, and feel for danger.

He didn’t sense a thing.

Slowly, the swordsman rose from his kneeling position. He turned in a circle for one last look before he motioned for Gerald and the archer to keep moving. Gerald exhaled a sigh of relief and took one step.

A javelin shot from the overgrowth straight toward his chest.  Quick reflexes saved his life. He threw himself to the side and onto the wet soil. The soil moved beneath him. Living things crawled just beneath the surface. Worms poked their heads above the fertile dirt, tiny mouths with razor sharp teeth grinning and snapping at him.

Gerald jumped to his feet and turned to run. The swordsman had his back to a tree and his eyes desperately searching for the unseen enemy. The archer was more permanently attached to the same tree. The javelin had pinned her to it. She was already dead. A surprised look mixed with a hint of pain frozen on her face. The enemy liked to dip their weapons liberally in the poisons native to the realm.

A shriek came from directly above him. Gerald threw himself back onto the dirt, braving the disgusting worms as they tried to slither into his mouth, nose, and ears. He rolled, slapping the disgusting creatures off his face, and got to his feet with the spear at the ready.

The swordsman was dancing around, using the tree and impaled archer as cover. Hounding him like an animal was one enemy soldier.

She wore a green loincloth than blended into the foliage around them. The rest of her was bare and nothing but muscle and bones. She looked like a decomposed corpse. She cried with rage and frustration as she swung a serrated club at the swordsman’s head. She missed and the swordsman planted a boot in her gut, kicking her back. She rolled with the blow and came up facing Gerald with two short daggers made of bones in either hand.

Gerald was horrified but couldn’t look away. One side of her face was nothing but bone while the other had scraps of flesh still hanging from it. Despite that, normal brown eyes with huge, dilated pupils stared at him. Her body wasn’t in much better shape. One of her breast was completely gone. Underneath was a little skin, but beneath that the white of her ribs showed through. The skin of her other breast was scrapped off, her nipple was gone, and all that was left was a lump of red muscle. No blood flowed from any of the openings.

“Kill the bitch!” The swordsman ordered just as the feral woman screamed and charged.

Instinct took over and Gerald thrust with his spear. The small daggers didn’t have the ability to parry the blow and his spear point drove through her still intact breast. She cried and fell backwards. Gerald jumped to avoid the slashing bone-blade, and brought more weight down onto the spear, pinning her to the ground.

<Just like the Captain did to me.> Gerald vividly remembered his second death, and he hoped that one of these wild creatures had done that to his cruel commander.

The swordsman quickly stepped forward and took the woman’s head off with a clean chop. Despite that, the body still continued to slash for several seconds before going still and then evaporating into ash.

“Good job, meat.” The swordsman breathed heavily.

Gerald nodded, but kept his eyes scanning for more threats. This was his first mission. He wouldn’t be “meat” anymore if he lived through it.

<Whatever motivates me to stay alive> He thought.

The now-dead archer had contemplated out loud taking her own life more than once in this hellish jungle.

“Let’s move back to the Styx.” The swordsman pointed back toward the river. “I’m sure they’ll counter attack. We’ll hide in the trees and jump on them when they do.”

Gerald nodded. It seemed like a good enough plan. He grabbed the dead archer’s bow and quiver of arrows. She wasn’t turning to ash like the already departed feral woman.

“She’ll be back a few days after we get out of this shitty place.” The swordsman took point and started the walk back to the border.

He’d never make it.

Halfway back they were ambushed again and the swordsman took an arrow to the throat. Gerald killed the two skeletal warriors, made it to the river, and successfully waited for the rest of the skirmishing forces to withdraw.

He’d been credited with three kills on the campaign, was no longer referred to as meat, and finally got himself a proper weapon: a spear with an actual blade. Not a wooden stick with a jagged piece of metal strapped to it.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 74

Eve Berg

Location: Classified

 They began with twenty-five. Only a quarter of what they started with in Basic.

Eve did a quick count as she stepped onto the loading ramp of the shuttle that would take her to Ranger School. A surly looking deck chief with PO2 markings scowled at her as she scanned her GIC. Even when his machine gave an affirmative beep he didn’t look impressed. Eve spotted an open seat on the far side of the shuttle near the cockpit hatch and went to take it. The other Ranger candidates didn’t give her much of a second glance. They were all occupied with their own thoughts.

Eve sat down, strapped in per regulation, and calmly assessed the situation. <You’re about to enter hell, so be ready for it.>

She’d done as much reading on Ranger School as she could between hump sessions with Coop. In a way, she envied him. He was going off to his own difficult schooling and he didn’t have a care in the world. Coop lived fully in the moment, and at that moment all he’d been concerned about was what was between her legs.

Eve didn’t work like that. Sure, she could appreciate a good fuck, but her mind was constantly going. Ranger School was always at the back of it, and no matter how good Coop made her feel it was always there waiting for her.

Stepping out of the spaceport’s main concourse and into the section devoted to the special operations community was something she’d prepared for. The two guards in Dragonscale armor at the section’s entrance gave her a pat down, then a full body scan, and then checked her GIC. They didn’t want people in here that weren’t allowed.

And she immediately saw why.

Eve had flown between worlds with her parents. She’d been instructed in the warship classes of the Commonwealth Fleet since she could read. She knew everything there was to know about space travel and the navy. But when she stepped into that hanger bay she didn’t recognize the ship that was there.

<It’s smaller than a gunboat.> She didn’t stare too much. The ground crew was already eyeing her suspiciously. <But it isn’t boxy or bulbous like a cargo shuttle. It’s too big to be a Spyder, and a Spyder couldn’t make a jump out of the system.> She was mentally scratching her head as she rounded the corner and met that surly crew chief.

Now that she was sitting and strapped in, she still didn’t have a clue what the hell she was sitting in.

The ship was about fifty meters long, which was half the size of a gunboat, but it still had the dagger-like dimensions that were common in Commonwealth ships. The engines in the back were a little on the large side, but that was understandable for a small ship that had FTL capability. The hull was also interesting. It didn’t have the noticeable nanite coating that was a ship’s first defensive measure. The hull of this vessel was slick, like glass, and it looked incredibly fragile.

“It’s a Sloop.” A man huffed as he half sat, half collapsed into the seat next to her.

“Excuse me…Sergeant.” Eve quickly noticed the three chevrons on the man’s CMUs.

“The ship, it’s a Sloop. The SpecOps community has a few dozen of them roaming around the galaxy. They always show up with one of these to take the fresh meat to Styx.”

Eve had so many questions, but she didn’t blabber like an idiot. Blabbering made you look like a moron, and they didn’t let morons be leaders in the Commonwealth military. So instead she opted for a different approach.

“You seem to know a lot about this ship and our destination.”

“I should, this is my second trip to Ranger School.” The soldier closed his eyes and started taking deep breaths.

“Second. They let you come back?” Eve hadn’t heard of any cases of a person failing and being given a second chance.

“It was medical.” He answered the question for her. “Lost my left leg below the knee to a fucking landmine. I dived instead of dodged.” He cracked open an eye and grinned at her. “So are you here to be all that you can be PFC Berg.” He squinted momentarily at her name, but that was it.

<Last thing I want is for anyone to draw the connection from me to my mother.> She thought.

“I’m here to be the best, Sergeant Diggle.” She read the name tag on his CMUs.

“Well you’re in the right place.” He nodded and closed his eyes again. “You eat this morning?” That question came out of nowhere.

“Yeah,” she replied.

“Huh, too bad.” He half-laughed as the power in the seating area came on.

Eve felt the ship come to life. It was a soft purr compared to the loud rumble of most ships, which confirmed to her that this ship probably had more secrets to hide.

Another quick look around showed that the compartment was full.

<Twenty men and five women.> She quickly calculated.

The sloop looked capable of carrying three squads in full battle-rattle, so there were a few seats unoccupied. One such seat was on the opposite side of Eve from the deeply breathing sergeant.

Eve took special note of the ranks in the compartment to see where she fell in the pecking order. <At the bottom.> She quickly realized.

There were a couple other PFCs in the group, but all of them would have time in grade on their hands, and maybe even combat experience. She’d gotten her rocker for being the best in basic, these guys had earned it the old-fashioned way. The majority of the people had the two chevrons of a corporal, and they all had a grim look on their face.

<I got my briefing from a Gunney who doesn’t like to bullshit. I can’t imagine what these guys heard from their unit’s NCOs, especially if they were assholes?> The rumor mill in the military could be just as lethal as a bullet, and depending on who you heard something from a standard detail could sound like hell on earth. <The only way to know for sure is to just do it.> And that’s exactly what Eve was doing.

There were only two NCOs present, and one was SGT Diggle.

A final passenger stepped on board and walked to the center of the space. The door hissed and sealed shut behind him. Eve gulped at the rank insignia on his shoulder: three chevrons, three rockers, and a star in the center of them. On top of that intimidating fact, he had a Ranger tab just above his rank insignia.

“My name is Sergeant Major Queen.” The man’s gravelly voice sounded like he’d breathed vacuum at some point and they’d messed up the corrective surgery. “If you make it to our destination I will be one of your instructors.”

<If I make it?> Eve wondered, as the Sergeant Major popped a squat in the empty seat next to her and buckled in.

Eve didn’t even look at him. She kept her eyes on the opposite bulkhead, but she didn’t miss the pitty-looks the other candidates were shooting her way.

“PFC Berg,” the senior NCO huffed. “Any relation to a particular woman who goes by the first name Sonya?”

<Shit.> Eve wanted to automatically deny it, but that would be like lying to God.

“Yes, Sergeant Major.” She kept her voice low.

“Hmm.” The man scratched his recently shaven chin. “I knew a Richard Berg once. Good man, good leader, died a good death.”

“Yes, Sergeant Major.” Her voice caught a little bit at the memory of her father.

“I’ll make you into a Ranger, PFC Berg. Just don’t crap out on me today.”

“Yes, Sergeant Major.” She had a feeling she’d be saying those three words a lot.

With their brief conversation completed, the SGM unstrapped and went through the hatch to the pilot’s compartment, or least that’s what she assumed was through that hatch. She’d never find out.

It was about the time that the SGM left that she realized they were already in the air. The sloop was so smooth she didn’t even feel it take off or blast its way through Earth’s dirty atmosphere. The transition into space was no different, and with no windows or access to the ship’s cameras she’d never have known if not for the pilot.

“Attention all candidates, this is the skipper speaking.”

<I guess a sloop rates high enough to have a ship’s captain instead of a pilot.> She was learning lots of new things today.

“Please pay attention to the safety gear stowed to your left. Conduct an inventory and diagnostic of that equipment now.”

It was a basic task, but Eve made sure she did it to standard even if it did take her twenty seconds longer than the rest of the candidates. <If they’re having us test this equipment then there is a reason.> She’d been around the military long enough to know that things done on an individual or unit level usually had a purpose. It was the bigger stuff that was usually bullshit.

She acknowledged her equipment’s readiness through the subdermal PAD on her forearm that was projecting the imagery through her CMUs.

“Prepare for FTL jump.” The skipper’s voice came back immediately. “Be aware, the compensators in your compartment are only operating at ninety-seven percent efficiency. Normally, we would stop and make repairs, but we’re on a tight schedule today.”

Eve could hear the grin in the skipper’s voice.

“Since you are a bunch of high-speed, low-drag individuals we’re going to press on. If at any time the pain becomes unbearable, please let us know and the Sergeant Major will come and get you.” The last bit sounded innocent enough, which meant it was a trap.

<Oh shit.> Now it all made sense.

SGT Diggle’s question about whether she’d eaten, the SGM’s motivational statement to not crap out on her. Ranger School didn’t start when they landed on Styx. It started now.

“FTL jump in five…four…three…”

Eve tried to take a few deep breaths and settle her already revolting stomach, but she didn’t have enough time.

“…two…one…engage.”

Eve had always heard that traveling at FTL speeds with a bad Alcubierre Drive, or out of synch compensators was a living hell. But now she knew it for sure. The moment they jumped into FTL travel it felt like the universe was using her bones as a tuning fork. Every millimeter of her vibrated painfully as the sloop launched itself through the valleys of the stars on route to its destination.

She lasted about twenty seconds before she lost her breakfast. Good thing the gravity still worked or blobs of food would have floated through the compartment and all over the other candidates. Puking on someone right off the bat was no way to make new friends.

Her food splattered on the floor around her. She gritted her teeth to try and make it stop, but that only make the pain worse. It felt like someone drove a lightning bolt through her skull until she loosened her jaw.

<How long do we have to do this?> She wanted to ask SGT Diggle, but the man’s face was scrunched up in pain, and he didn’t look like he wanted to talk.

Eve lost all sense of time while she rode out the pain. It didn’t get any worse, but it didn’t have to. It already sucked donkey dick. Twice she saw the SGM venture back into the compartment, looking like nothing in the world bothered him.

<He has to have more enhancements.> Eve told herself, because there was no way someone could walk under this constant pain. Even her recent upgrades didn’t help her at all.

The pain had her second-guessing her chosen life-path. Regular infantry wouldn’t be that bad, or even Heavy Infantry. If she let the SGM know that she’d had enough then they’d probably ship her back to Mars and she could be in the same school with Coop again.

Then it hit her. <That’s what my mother wants to do. Fucking bitch. Best case scenario she gets me out of the infantry all together and back into the navy. One phone call and I’ll be into one of the academies. Her worst case is me being a Ranger, better trained, and better armed than ninety-nine percent of the soldiers in the galaxy.> As much as Eve hated her mother in this moment, she had to concede the woman was brilliant.

Then everything gave a sudden jolt and the pain stopped.

“HULL BREACH!” Red warning lights started to blare as Eve felt the oxygen being stripped from the room.

She remembered where the safety gear was and reacted on instinct. She grabbed the helmet and rammed it onto her head. It sealed and she felt the life-giving oxygen start to flow. Her smartcloth uniform reacted as well, slithering up to form a neck gator, and down to cover her hands and protect her skin. It was still freezing, but she wouldn’t lose any fingers.

One of the candidates wasn’t fast enough. Eve didn’t even see what happened, but one of the other women didn’t meet whatever standard this test set. She did give a scream as an armorplast bubble sealed her off from the rest of the compartment. Air must have pumped back into that section because the woman screamed her frustration and wiped away a few tears before crossing her arms and talking animatedly to herself.

“It seems like we’ve sprung a leak.” The skipper’s voice came back over the intercom. Eve got the mental imagery of the man sitting by a roaring fire and sipping coffee with the SGM and the ship’s crew while they laughed at the poor Ranger candidates in the back. “I’m going to need someone to go outside and patch that hole. Any volunteers?”

Seniority is a pain in the ass, and as such Eve and another PFC ended up suiting up in the safety gear they’d just inventoried and doing a short space walk onto the hull. There wasn’t an actual hull breech. The skipper wasn’t going to put a hole in his ship just for training purposes, but Eve and the other PFC had to close things up, and re-pressurize the compartment before getting back into the ship.

They didn’t get any thanks for their work. Just a “sit your ass back down” from the SGM, and the return of the bone-rattling pain as they jumped back into FTL.

They started with twenty-five and ended the trip with twenty-two.

<And we haven’t even formally started yet.> Only the motivational words from the SGM, and the need to shove her success in her mother’s face got her through the journey to the planet Styx.

Eve resolved to embrace the suck, because there was no question that the next few months of her life were going to be a fuck-fest, and not in a good way.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 73

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Joint Base Mattis, Mars, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 The cargo ship’s landing struts hitting the ground jostled Coop awake. He blinked rapidly to clear his vision and wiped away the small pool of drool. After forty-eight hours of sex-Olympics a good long rest was exactly what he needed.

“And that’s it folks.” The Specialist flying the box sighed over the intercom system. It’s been an honor and a privilege serving all of you today. Now, get the fuck off my ship.”

As if on cue the hatch to the ship hissed open and two men with corporal’s chevrons jumped in screaming.

“Infantry, off the bus and fall in. Move! Move! MOVE!” The guy yelling could have given Corporal Collins a run for his money, but that didn’t intimidate Coop anymore.

The corporal might be wider, but Coop was a solid forty centimeters taller, and was fairly confident he could kill the guy with a single punch. All of that put together led to zero sense of urgency.

Coop slowly got to his feet, but the corporal pointed right at him with a glare.

“Heavy infantry, stay where you are!”

<Fine by me.> Coop grinned back at the corporal and plopped back down into his seat.

Mike tried to pull in his knees as the regular infantry grunts hustled out of the ship, but it didn’t do a lot of good. A bunch of people had to hurdle him to keep their new instructors happy, and quite a few didn’t make it.

“My bad…Sorry about that…You can do it.” Mike was nice enough to apologize to all the people glaring daggers at him.

Not that anyone could do anything about it.

When all was said and done the shuttle was empty except for the four men and two women who were obviously enhanced to the standard of the heavy infantry.

“I’m Coop, this is Mike.” Coop made eye contact with one of the girls.

Her body was top notch, but her face looked like she constantly smelled something rotten. Since that didn’t change when she looked at him, Coop diagnosed her with a case of resting bitch face.

She didn’t look like she was going to reply when the ship’s interior descended into darkness. At first, Coop thought someone had shut the door on them, and that was kind of true. A man now occupied the doorframe, a hatch that was meant to allow two normal people to pass through shoulder to shoulder. The new man was also hunched over, which solidified the fact he was also a heavy. The hatch was only two-hundred centimeters tall.

“Everyone out and onto the bus. Don’t worry about your shit. We’ll pick it up for you.” The man rumbled, but his voice was calm and measured. It was nothing like the corporals that had come in hot and raising hell.

“You heard the man, let’s go.” Coop spoke up, and popped out of his seat.

He liked being treated like a human being and not livestock to be driven around.

He led the way out of the cargo ship and into the warm air. It was actually comfortable until the air hit his lungs. It felt like someone had stuck a hot poker into his chest. Coop’s hands flew to his chest as he half-fell out of the door.

The man was standing right next to the opening, caught Coop, and handed him a little blue pill.

“Take this now.”

Coop did as he was instructed and felt the pain immediately cease.

“Your body isn’t used to good air.” The man held up a bottle of pills. “Take one with breakfast and one with dinner for the first week. For the second week, take one each morning. For the third week, take one every other morning. By week four you should be good to go. If not, take a pill when you feel you need it, but see the medic first so we can figure out what’s wrong. Understood?”

“Yes…” Coop took a quick look at the man’s shoulders. “Master Sergeant.”

<Holy Shit!> Coop hadn’t seen someone with three chevrons and three rockers since the podium at graduation. And he sure as shit hadn’t ever spoken to one.

“Good, now get on the bus.”

Coop jogged over to the empty air-bus that was hovering beside the ship. It was painted a deep red. He knew it was the correct bus because the second air-bus, a sky-blue painted one, had lots of shouting coming from it.

<So far so good.> Coop already liked HI school better than basic. Even if Eve was gone.

He ignored the pang of sadness and focused on doing what the MSG instructed.

It took them a few minutes to get loaded up because the MSG had to go through the same pill speech with the other five recruits getting on the ship. Mike hopped onto the bus, eliciting a slight groan from the anti-grav generator, and took a seat across from Coop. The bus wasn’t big, but it would still comfortably fit the seven HI troopers.

“Welcome to Joint Base Mattis.” The MSG was the last to climb the stairs, and the door snapped shut behind him. “My name is Master Sergeant Smith, and I’ll be your HI instructor for the next eight weeks.”

Sitting down and looking up at the MSG, Coop got a better idea of what he would be dealing with. The MSG was a few centimeters taller than Coop, but he was a hell of a lot thicker. Saying he was as wide as two people might have been a little on the conservative side. His head was shaved bald and polished so the Sun’s light reflected off his dark skin.

Coop pegged him as coming from a tropical world or near the equator on Earth.

Beside that, there wasn’t much to say other than MSG Smith was a big motherfucker. His CMUs were in a field setting so all they saw was his name, ranks, and that he was a member of the 1894th Infantry Battalion.

The MSG saw Coop looking.

“JB Mattis is the headquarters of the First Infantry Corps, so this isn’t some training center like where you came from. This is an active military base. First Corps provides boots on the ground for any mission happening in the Sol System. Since that is one of the most populated systems in the whole galaxy they deal with a whole array of shit.” The MSG’s eyes swept the enlisted soldiers to make sure they were paying attention.

“The eighth division is pretty famous in itself. It is one of the most decorated units from the Lunar Skirmish.”

Coop didn’t know much about the Lunar Skirmish aside from it was a fight between the new Commonwealth and the new Eastern Block over complete control of the moon. It took place a couple decades after the end of the Last Terran War. Just long enough for the human race to rebuild, a generation to be born, and to come of age without living the horrors of war.

Both new super-nations wanted control of the high ground over Earth, and the Commonwealth ultimately prevailed.

“The eighth division broke the Blockie siege of Kepler Crater, and the ninth brigade helped lead the charge that drove the Blockies all the way back to the Mare Insularum. Over fifty percent of ninth brigade, fourth battalion was lost in that offensive. But it put the nail in the coffin of Blockie forces during the Skirmish.” His gaze was heavy as he finished recounting the unit’s history. “You are all members of an honorable legacy now, so don’t fuck up.”

Coop looked down and saw that his own CMUs now read 1894th INF BN, and his chest unexpectedly filled with pride.

<Clever bastard.> He thought as the bus started up and zipped off toward wherever it was taking them. <Make us think that we’re part of this big noble tradition. It’s instant motivation. I like this guy.> Coop could respect a man who knew how to get people to do what he wanted.

Joint Base Mattis was nothing like Stewart-Benning. It wasn’t made of endless white barracks and a few administrative buildings. Here, the barracks were ten-story buildings of red brick grouped together in sections. The barracks were at the center, and around them were the administrative buildings. They were made of the same brick exterior, but they drove by one that was getting work done, and there was clearly duro-steel beneath the brick. All the administrative buildings also had logos and holographic images flickering on them. Lastly, Coop saw the same squat duro-steel armories that that asshole sergeant had been in charge of back at the training center. There was one for each of the administrative buildings, and next to those squat buildings was a large fenced area. Coop saw a lot of soldiers in those fenced areas.

“Mattis was well planned out when it was founded.” The MSG followed his new students’ gazes. “Battalions are grouped together, then brigades and finally the divisions. It’s designed so troops can muster and be ready to go in less than an hour. Each brigade even has its own spaceport with attached assault shuttles. Which is why this is a joint base and not just a regular infantry base.”

The bus continued on for twenty minutes, which told Coop that this place was fucking huge.

<Makes sense. A corps is a million men. They need a lot of room to put a million men, all their equipment, and the naval attachments to their units.>

Finally, the bus started to slow down as they came to another fenced section. Two metal statues flanked the gate like some ancient city’s defenders. The statues were a solid three meters tall and armed with giant weapons. Their presence stated loud and clear, “All who enter here prepare to feel the pain.”

Then one of the things moved.

“Shit!” The armored not-statue seemed to fixate on Coop as the bus stopped next to it.

Even though they were hovering off the ground, Coop could have sworn he felt the ground tremble as the thing walked toward them. It wasn’t an awkward robotic walk either. The HI trooper moved fluidly like a normal person. It was weird to watch.

“Guard duty is one of the duties you will be required to conduct when you’re a student here.” The MSG informed while the bus driver spoke to the armored trooper.

The guard cleared them and waved them thru. Over the entrance to the gate, in bold red letters, the motto of the heavy infantry was written for everyone to see.

BRING THE HURT

The school was small compared to everything they’d passed, but that was to be expected. This was just one more battalion area among the ten thousand battalions that comprised First Corps. They just had the added protection of a fence encircling their area.

“Everyone up and out, we’re late.” The MSG ordered as he led the way off the bus and into one of the squat duro-steel armories.

Coop didn’t know what he expected when he walked into the building, but it wasn’t a classroom with another fourteen big people and an even bigger suit of armor standing next to a holo projector.

“Every ass better find a seat in three…two…” The MSG never reached one.

Mike and Coop settled into a seat in the middle of the room that was meant for five times as many people as were here.

“Now that the whole class is here we can get started.” The MSG stepped up beside the holo projector and it sprang to life with a lot of diagnostic information Coop didn’t understand.

“Welcome to Joint Base Mattis, Alpha Company, 1894th Infantry Battalion.”

<We’re a company?> Coop looked around at the nineteen other faces in the room. <I’m not that bad a math, but we’re a few heads short of a hundred.>

“In eight weeks the twenty of you will represent the heavy firepower of two whole infantry battalions. Count it ladies and gentlemen. The twenty of you are going to be responsible to bring the hurt to the enemy on behalf of two thousand Commonwealth soldiers. It is not a responsibility to be taken lightly, so don’t fuck around for the next eight weeks, because in all likelihood your actually going to be the firepower for five battalions.”

<What?>

“The military table of organization and equipment,” The MSG keyed to holo from his PAD, “dictates that one heavy infantry trooper will provide firepower for one company of infantry.” The MSG’s gaze swept over them. “If we lived in a perfect world that would be the case, but we don’t live in a perfect world, and the Ministry of War makes a habit of ensuring it stays that way. The infantry is lucky to get five heavy infantry troopers per battalion.”

Coop wasn’t a renowned military strategist, but that seemed like a big tactical error.

“I bet you’re all wondering why I’m telling you this? Why is Master Sergeant Smith saying that the Ministry of War, who writes all of our paychecks, is fucking up?” He smiled at everyone, including Coop.

“I’m telling you this because I don’t want you to live in a world of MTOE’s, METLs, FMs, and TMs. As a heavy trooper you need to live in a real world where you can assess the situation and unfuck whatever is going on around you. The HI doesn’t need big meat-heads. It needs smart soldiers who can see the angles and get the job done.” His smile vanished. “Your basic instructors and recruiters thought you twenty might fit that bill, but it’s up to me to see if you’ve really got what it takes.” Then his smile was back. “So, ladies and gentlemen, expect the next eight weeks to suck. You’re going to do more homework than you did in six months of school, and I’m going to PT you until you’re half dead. And I’m going to do all of that so when five thousand soldiers are counting on you to stay alive you don’t fuck up and get everyone killed. Any questions?”

Coop wisely kept his hand down and his mouth shut. The only thing he did do was pull out his PAD, set it to record, and open up the word function so he could take notes.

“Good.” The MSG waved away the MTOE he’d brought up on the holo. “We’re going to do two things today. First, I will go over the curriculum of the course. Second, I’m going to give you a full rundown of the armor you’ll be fitted with tomorrow, and that you will live in for the next eight weeks. The first thing is going to be simple and fast, and the second is going to take most of the day.”

<So much for a Day Zero where we get to settle in.> Coop mentally sighed as he settled in for a long day. It was weird to think he’d been asleep a half hour ago.

“This course will be divided into three phases, each with a final examination to assess your proficiency. If you fail the final, you will be recycled to the next iteration. If you fail again you will be shipped back to the regular infantry. If that’s the case, then you’re enhancements will have to be removed, and trust me, you do not want that.”

Coop gulped. <Going from a super human to a regular old Joe again, no fucking thanks.>

“Phase One starts today.” The MSG pointed at the armor standing on a rack next to him. “Phase one is the introduction, acclimation, and use of your armor. Phase Two,” the rack spun at this vocal command, “is your training to master the art of indirect fire and qualify as joint platform artillery coordinator. This phase is the foundation of our motto. Dressing up in big, heavy armor and running around with a machine gun is not your primary function. Your job is to rain hell down on our enemies. But that is not an easy job. You need to learn to use your targeting systems, you need to learn how to execute fire missions, and you need to learn to coordinate with infantry and naval assets in the middle of a shit-storm.”

It was very evident that the MSG spoke from personal experience.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are descended from the field artillery and armored corps of pre-expansion armies. We bring the hurt because we are the biggest, baddest motherfuckers on the battlefield and that comes with responsibility.”

Coop felt unsure for the first time since learning that he’d be an HI trooper. All the perks were great, but he was now really seeing the reason for getting all the enhancements in the first place.

“The last phase, Phase Three, is close combat.” Meter long blades shot from the forearms of the armored suits. “There will be a time when it is just you and an enemy on the battlefield. You both have firepower, but you’re both also fast. Things are going to get up close and ugly. Phase Three is to make sure you make that poor bastard die for his country. Questions?”

Coop couldn’t take his eyes off the twin blades that looked like they could impale a man easily. They were the dull gray color of duro-steel except for the edges. The edges had a shine to them that looked sharp. He didn’t know the specifics, but he sensed that honed edge could do damage to thick battle armor.

“Now on to the reason why you are all here.” The blades retracted back into the armor as the MSG spoke. “Everyone, this is the Leonidas Armored Combat Suit, or just LACS for short. I don’t need to tell anyone why we decided to name our armor after the Spartan king, do I?”

Coop kept his face neutral, but the MSG saw right through him. Coop didn’t have a clue who this Leo guy was.

“Your first assignment for tonight is a thousand words on King Leonidas of Sparta and why you think we decided to name our suit after him. Don’t give me bullshit, just the facts, and consider this the easiest assignment you’ll get while here.”

No one groaned. Basic had beaten that out of him, but Coop still silently bitched about it. <I didn’t join the Heavy Infantry to write essays.>

“There are currently three versions to the LACS, V1-3. This is a V2, the most in-use version of the armor. The armor is made up of layers. The first layer is an interior malleable woven ballistic composite. Sensors and circuitry rest on top of this weave to tap in the rest of the armor as well as link into your CMUs and transmit your data on STRATNET.” The armor opened up to reveal the first layer inside.

<Kind of looks like a knit sweater,> Coop observed.

“As you can see here,” the MSG pointed to another layer, “the next layer is a ballistic gel to reduce blunt force trauma and protect the circuitry.” The armor closed back up. “Now we get to the good stuff. The main protection is six centimeters of duro-steel. Over that is carbon nanotubing similar to the Dragonscale Armor. But in addition, there are pockets of nanites strategically placed to aggressively defend against specialized ordinance. HI is a target, and they shoot a lot of nasty shit at us.” He patted the armor fondly. “That’s the defensive stuff, let’s move on to offensive.”

“The LACS V2 has two shoulder mounted weapons. The first is an eight round hypervelocity missile launcher to use against hard targets or as anti-air. The second is a hypersonic railgun. It can be used offensively to shoot up infrastructure and enemy soldiers, or defensively, as a portable swatter. The gun only has fifteen thousand rounds of ammo so make sure you use them wisely. On the back, you’ve got a 125mm artillery tube which you’ll use to earn your paycheck. You’ll have a variety of ordinance from EW chaff to antimatter rounds that you’ll all need to know about. But make no mistake; this tube is your most valuable weapon. The hypervelocity missiles might seem kickass, but this tube is the bread and butter of the HI. Never forget that. You’re not regular grunts, so don’t go around fighting like one.”

<Geez we get it, walking artillery not infantry grunt. Roger that, move on.>

The MSG moved on, and six hours later Coop’s brain felt like Jell-O.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 94

“So…” Liz set down her phone and looked back at her two friends. “What are your plans for summer break?”

Becca brightened up instantly. “I’ll be spending the summer in plaid.”

“Plaid?” Liz snorted. “Plaid won’t go well with that hair.”

Becca’s pout didn’t extinguish the excited twinkle in her eyes. “I’m going to cut it. I’m thinking a pixie cut, but I haven’t decided anything yet. Pigtails are so last year ya know.”

“I think they’re adorable.” Anika stepped in with her own smile. “And I think you’ll look great in plaid.” The last bit was delivered defensively.

“Ok,” Liz held up her hand in surrender. “But why plaid?”

“It’s what everyone wears in Montana. Plaid and blue jeans. I’m gonna look like a lumberjack.” Becca was daydreaming in her own fantasy world.

“Not everyone wears blue jeans and plaid all the time.” Anika looked exasperated. “Just like not everyone from your town has a buck tooth, has made love to their sister, and sits on the porch all day with their shotgun.”

“I think you’re thinking more of the South than the Midwest.” Liz came to Becca’s defense.

“Thank you, Liz.” Becca gave an exaggerated nod. “And only old man Wilkes sits on his porch with his shotgun, but that’s because he’s too old to go hunting in the winter, so he just does it from his front porch.”

Liz couldn’t help but giggle. It seemed like both of the women had valid points.

And that’s when the lights flickered and died.

“What the heck?” Becca looked around.

Windows ringed the dining hall so there wasn’t a risk of injury due to the sudden blackout, but everyone on West’s campus knew the mayhem that followed the last city blackout. As if on cue, every cellphone started to beep, vibrate, flash, or ring as the school-wide information system kicked into high gear.

Liz had two messages.

You’re on. Was the first from an unknown number.

Shelter in place. Was the second from the school.

<Yeah, no chance in hell I’m doing that.> Not only would it make her job even harder, it would certainly blow her cover.

Liz got to her feet and gathered her bags.

“Where are you going?” Becca asked, as she read over her own text message.

“I’m going back to the townhouse,” Liz stated firmly.

“Didn’t you get the text?” Anika was on her feet too, but she hadn’t moved to block Liz yet.

“Of course I got it, and that’s the last thing I’m going to do.”

Becca looked utterly confused at Liz’s refusal.

“Look around,” Liz waved at the good little boys and girls that were staying in their seats and watching their cell phones religiously. “I’ve seen how this movie ends. A bunch of students sitting in a dining hall is a juicy target that just about every movie villain can’t pass up. For all we know shit’s going down on the other side of town and this is just precautionary.” Liz didn’t back down as Anika finally moved in front of her.

“That’s stupid. This isn’t a movie.”

“Exactly,” Liz nodded in agreement. “Because when shit finally goes down and you two need to do something about it you’re gonna get busted. It won’t matter that you saved a bunch of people. You will have broken a rule and that’s gonna get you the boot. Maybe you’ll get into another program, but there’s no guarantee that you’re both going to get admitted together, or even remember each other. Seth said something about a memory wipe. Think about them apples for a second.”

Becca’s eyebrows had nearly climbed into her hairline, and Anika looked like she’d bitten into something sour. But it didn’t take more than a few seconds for both Supers to come to the conclusion that Liz was right.

“What’s your big plan then?” Anika crossed her arms defensively.

“We go back to the townhouse,” Liz repeated. “It’s not far, so I’m sure we’ll all make it in one piece. We’ll hunker down there and wait for things to settle back down. Plus, I think we’ve got some leftover pizza in the fridge.” She gave the two HCP students a big, toothy smile.

“And if something bad happens?” Becca had already taken a few unconscious steps toward the door.

“If something bad happens then you two can get physical. On top of that I’m sure Mason, Kyoshi, Seth, and Angela are going to turn up at some point. I wouldn’t want to be the bad guy who walked into that townhouse with all of you there.”

The last sentence put Anika over the top. She actually grinned a little. “Ok, let’s get going before they lock us all in here.”

Since they were the only people moving they drew a lot of attention. Thankfully, no one got in their way until they reached the door.

“I’m sorry girls, but no one is allowed to leave.” An older guy, probably a grad student, whose job it was to swipe the meal cards stepped in their way.

“Yeah.” Liz put a hand on his chest and pushed him out of the way. “I don’t think so.”

The guy wasn’t tiny, but Liz being so aggressive took him by surprise.

“Hey! I’m calling campus security.”

“Whatever!” Liz yelled back with a laugh. “I’m safer where I’m going.”

They exited through the front door of the student center and walked down the street at a quick pace. They could hear explosions in the distance, but nothing was close to the school. Less than five minutes later they were shutting the townhouse door behind them. No one had tried to stop them on the street and they hadn’t been attacked.

So far, everything was going according to plan.

“So, what now?” Becca stood in the living room with her hands on her hips.

“Now we eat and wait for everyone else to get here.” Liz went to the fridge and wiggled out the box of pizza.

Whoever had put it there was a Tetris master and it took some finagling to get it out, but by the time she got it out Becca and Anika were sitting on the couch.

Liz took a deep breath and made sure her mental defenses were up.

<No one else is home, good. Now I just need to separate them, make the grab, and make it look like someone came in here smashed up the place and took her.>

Liz didn’t like that she was being put in this position. Becca being a speedster was a big problem. She could move around faster than Liz could see. The blue-haired Super needed to be dealt with before Liz could make the grab.

<And even then, it won’t be easy. Anika isn’t exactly slow.>

That didn’t matter as much. All Liz needed to do was get a hand on the woman.

“Do you want me to heat it up?” Liz called back to the two women in the other room.

“Yes!”

“No!”

“One cold, one warm coming up.”

Becca wanted the warm one, which gave Liz the opportunity she needed. She grabbed a couple of pills from a little plastic baggy she had stored in her pocket. If a cop had seen her with these pills she’d be in a lot of trouble. She quickly got some of the frozen cheese away from the crust, crushed the pills as best she could and sprinkled them into the sauce. Then she put the cheese back down, popped it in the microwave, and hoped this would work. The guy she got the pills from said they were super potent and could knock out an elephant in a minute.

<Now we’ll see how it works on a speedster with a super metabolism.>

Liz didn’t need too long, just a few seconds.

“Hope you’re hungry.” Liz put the slices on plates, because they weren’t animals, and brought it back into the living room. “Who am I kidding you’re always hungry.”

Becca grinned happily and devoured her piece. Anika just nibbled at hers. Her eyes were on her phone and the TV they’d turned on while Liz had been in the kitchen.

“Any new information?” Liz settled in the seat next to Anika.

If Becca wasn’t around, Liz could have made the grab right then, but with the speedster around it was just too risky.

“They’re saying terrorists are attacking Orlando.” Anika had gone still, and her voice was almost robotic. “They’ve hit the power plant, IEDs have blown up a lot of roads, they brought down some planes and took a chunk out of the airport, and there is a huge silver fire spreading to the north of us.”

“Every Hero in the state is jumping in to help, and the news is just telling everyone to stay home or stay where they are.”

“Well we’re home and were safe.” Liz smiled.

“Huh…” Becca’s face crinkled as she looked down at her phone. “Something is also going on at Lander. There’s…”

A man in camouflage and armor appeared in front of them.

Becca screamed like a stereotypical girl.

Anika was on her feet and in a combat stance.

Liz had her gun in her hand before she knew it and was pointing it at the new arrival. <What the fuck!>

Whoever this guy was he’d just ruined everything.

“Geez, relax!” He held up his hands defensively. “Ms. Kemps, it’s me, Corporal Fuentes. We met a couple of months ago.”

“Anika, who is this guy?” Liz asked, playing the protective friend and not lowering her weapon.

Anika remained in her combat stance for a second before relaxing. “It’s ok everyone, relax.”

Liz slowly lowered her gun, but didn’t click the safety back on. Becca took a few deep breaths and braced herself against the couch.

“You scared the bejesus out of me.” She steadied herself.

<No…no…no!> Liz was mentally pulling her hair out. <This fucking asshole is ruining everything.>

“Ms. Kemps, I’ve been ordered to get you out of here for your own safety.” He held out his hand. “Please come with me.”

Anika reached out for the ForceOps operator, but then hesitated, and retracted her hand.

“I’m not going anywhere without Becca.” She stated in a voice that made it clear it wasn’t a suggestion.

“Ma’am, I…”

“I’m not going anywhere without Becca.” Anika repeated, her eyes fixed on the military teleporter.

The man’s gaze was conflicted, but only for a second. “Yes, ma’am. You’ve got three minutes to get anything you need for the two of you. We’ll be going to an undisclosed location for an undetermined amount of time. Please prepare accordingly.”

“Ok cool.” Liz decided to make a scene. “You two get whisked off the safety by Sergeant America over here and little old me gets to stay in the city that’s under terrorist attack. Awesome.” Liz rolled her eyes at the end to add the necessary teenage sass.

The corporal didn’t say anything. He just looked at Anika for confirmation.

“Whatever is going on has got something to do with me.” Anika stated hesitantly. “It’s safer for everyone if I get out of here. Once I’m gone the madness should stop and you’ll be fine. Plus, you don’t want to leave Seth again. Right?”

<Oh, you’re good bitch.>

Anika had maneuvered Liz into a corner.

If Liz continued complaining she’d tip Anika and the corporal off that something was wrong, and who knew where things would escalate to from there. It left Liz with only one choice.

“Fine.” She pouted. “But if I die I’m going to come back and haunt your ass.”

“Good enough for me.” Anika grabbed Becca by the hand. “Let’s grab some clothes.”

“Okeydokey.” Becca gave a huge yawn as they headed up the stairs. “Gotta grab some plaid.” They disappeared leaving Liz all alone with the corporal.

<Three minutes.> Liz’s mind went into overdrive. <Three minutes to make sure this whole mission doesn’t get FUBARed.>

There were three pieces to the puzzle: Anika, Becca, and the corporal. She needed to grab one, remove the other, and leave the third not knowing what the fuck happened. That part of the plan was already in motion. She just needed to figure out the other two parts.

The corporal stood there and watched her like a hawk, so to look casual Liz walked back over to the couch and sat down. Pretending to watch TV gave her the cover she needed to think quickly.

Her father had taught her from an early age to be able to think on her feet. On top of that, she had a natural gift for it. With the added teleportation, she’d inherited there were very few problems she’d come across that she couldn’t solve.

<If all else fails I’ll just brute force this bitch.> It was Plan F, but A thru E weren’t looking too good.

Two minutes later Anika and Becca reappeared, with Becca moving noticeably slower.

“I don’t feel so good.” The blue-haired speedster was gripping her stomach and looking a little green.

“Baby?” Anika looked genuinely concerned, and Liz saw her chance.

“Don’t just stand there all macho man, GI Joe. You’re in the army, you’ve got medical training, help a lady out. Anika, I’ll help you with the bags.”

“Um…yeah sure.” The seemed to snap Anika out of protective girlfriend mode. “Thanks, Liz.”

“No thanks necessary.” Liz was being completely truthful with that statement.

Liz and the corporal both moved toward Becca and Anika. Becca slumping down to her knees made the corporal run to catch her. He managed to grab her before she hit the floor. Anika’s eyes were wide with fear at the sight of her girlfriend. She was so focused on Becca she would have missed an elephant marching through the room.

It was exactly the moment Liz had been waiting for. The corporal had his hands literally full. Becca was out of commission, and Anika’s focus was elsewhere.

Liz didn’t even think, she just acted.

The pistol she’d first pointed at the corporal had been tucked into the back of her jeans. In a fluid motion, she drew the weapon, pointed and fired. The hallow point round hit the corporal just above the forehead. The entry-wound was small, only the size of the bullet, but the exit wound blew most of the man’s skull and brains out around where his neck met his spine.

To Anika’s credit her training got her moving before the shock could set in, but it was already too late. Anika just whirled to face where the shooting was coming from.

Liz was already close enough to reach out, touch the other Super while she was turning, and teleport.

A blast of darkness surged through the living room. When it vanished all that was left was Becca, barely conscious on the ground, and Corporal Fuentes’ corpse lying on top of her with a big chunk of his head missing. Blood splatter covered both of them, and a growing pool of blood was going to make sure the occupants of townhouse 117 never got their deposit back.

Liz and Anika were gone.

 

***

 

“Let’s go people, let’s go!” Daisy felt like a traffic cop trying to wrangle a bunch of three-year-olds on a sugar high.

Her charges really weren’t doing that bad, but she was growing more and more impatient with the tinniest delay.

“Abney, Fletcher, get your heads out of your collective ass and get up here.” She snapped at the freshmen who were moving too slowly for her current mood.

Daisy had been sitting in the control room and rapping up Abney and Fletcher’s last trial when the lights had flickered, died, and then come back to life on emergency power. Her first move was to call Topher. This type of situation wasn’t exactly new, and she needed to make sure it was safe if this was really the start of the shit-storm she’d been fearing for weeks.

Her call never got through.

<They’re taking out communications, making it harder to call for help.>

It would throw the city’s defenders off for a heartbeat, but they had special satellite phones, and a dedicated DVA satellite, for just this type occurrence. Still, the phones really weren’t supposed to be used for HCP instructors to call their boyfriends.

<Too bad. Rules were meant to be broken.> But that had to wait. There were other procedures in place she needed to follow.

Step one was to gather all of the HCP students and visitors in one centralized location. That location was the giant gym she routinely kicked the crap out of freshmen in. Having everyone in one place was a good way to make sure nothing happened if big explosions targeted the school in attempts to bury the HCP.  That was more of a Cold War mindset, but it could apply to other situations. Also, it gave the staff eyes on everyone. Meaning, that if someone was there that wasn’t supposed to be there, or had harmful intent toward the school, they’d be trapped. They’d have a lot of human shields, but they’d still be trapped.

<If any of my kids ends up a human shield I’m going to fail their asses.> Daisy chuckled. She’d trained her freshmen better than that.

Her real concern was the DVA contractors she was charged with. As if by the power of her will alone, the contractors and a masked Fiona Richardson popped around a corner ahead of them. Richardson had been completing her own final trial when the power went out.

“That’s everyone.” Daisy did a quick headcount and motioned for everyone to hurry up.

A few minutes later they were all in the gym, which despite having about fifty people routed to it was still abundantly spacious. Once there, she found Sanderson and Grace who were checking people over. Sanderson for any injuries sustained, and Grace for any intruders who weren’t supposed to be here.

“John!” She called out, leaving her small group to intercept the HCP Dean.

He held up a serious finger that screamed “DON’T Interrupt”, so she sat back for a minute and waited.

“Understood.” The small man practically growled.

Daisy heard what sounded like an explosion from the other end of the line, but she was too far away to confirm that.

He hung up and spun to face her. “What?”

This was stressed out John. This was the John that Daisy had seen back when she was a member of the Patriots. When he was like this there was no arguing. Shit was serious. If he asked her to jump, she didn’t even ask what building she needed to jump over.

“What do you want me to do?” Her own resolve settled. If he was like this, then it was more than simple gang violence.

“Right now I need you to sit tight and wait for deployment orders.” John didn’t even speak about her current non-certification, which meant she’d be getting another rundown from Dispatch about what she could and couldn’t do while being a temporary Hero.

“Yes, Sir.” She almost stopped it there, but she couldn’t. “John, can I get one of the phones. I need to make a call.”

It came out more pleading that what she intended, but that might have helped her case. John’s face softened for a moment as he handed over his own phone. “Make it quick. And if you get an incoming call you need to hang up and get me ASAP. Got it.”

“Yes, Sir.”

John spun around and headed over toward Grace while Daisy quickly dialed a number from memory. Kids today relied too much on numbers saved into their smartphone. They were always shit out of luck if their phone died and they had to call someone. But not Daisy. Being old-school helped sometimes.

The line connected when anything else would have received an error message.

“Hello!” Topher’s voice was stressed and there were blaring sirens in the background.

“Topher, it’s me Daisy.”

“Daisy. Thank god. Are you ok?”

She almost laughed. “Don’t worry about me. I’m in an underground fortress. What about you? Are you ok?”

There was a worrisome pause. “I’m fine. Not hurt or anything, but things are…bad out here.”

“Tell me.” She hadn’t been briefed on anything yet and this was a chance to get a firsthand account.

“IED explosions all around the city have cut off most of the roads in and out. Power plant is down again. Armed teams have taken radio, TV, and blown up a lot of communication’s towers. They’ve got their manifesto blaring on anything left broadcasting. We’re trying to hunt down and reinforce some strategic locations, but these guys are like fucking cockroaches popping up everywhere. They already took down most of the airport, SWAT’s engaged now.” Topher stopped there to collect himself.

“Now we’ve got a huge fire up north that we can’t really get to because the roads are out. They’ve got all the uniformed officers consolidating through the city so we can respond and recon in force.”

<Good that’s a solid tactic. Keep my boy in blue as safe as possible.> Ideally, she’d liked him stuffed in an underground bunker, but she knew Topher couldn’t run away from helping people any more than she could.

“Please promise me you’ll be safe.” Her voice wavered as she left the fear show. “I can’t lose you.” She blinked her eyes rapidly to clear the tears. She couldn’t have any of her students seeing this.

“Don’t worry, Babe. I’ll be ok.”

It was a lie. They both knew it. There was no safe with what was out there. There was just the illusion of safety you projected around yourself so you could keep doing your job to the best of your ability. You’d worry about the danger when it came up and stared you in the face, but not before then. Normal people needed that from you, and you had to deliver. It was literally the difference between life and death.

“I love you.” Was all the Daisy could say before getting choked up.

“I love you too, Daisy.”

A beeping on the line announced on incoming call on the satellite phone.

“I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.” Daisy had to tear her heart away from the conversation.

“Me too, I’m responding to a call. See you soon.”

“Bye.”

They left it there because there was nothing else to say.

“John!” Daisy yelled, holding up the phone for him to see before tossing it to him.

The she turned around to compose herself. A few tears had leaked out despite her efforts, so she wiped them away and took a few deep breaths.

<Everything is going to be fine. Topher is a good cop. He’s well-trained, experienced, and can get through anything he puts his mind too.> She specifically didn’t think about the amount of luck that went into surviving an encounter with a Super if that Super intended to do you harm.

“What do you mean they aren’t…!”

“No, I understand. But it’s not like we’re just having a fucking picnic over here either.”

John’s cursing surprised Daisy. She hardly ever heard the stoic shifter drop a four-letter word.

<This can’t be good.>

“Yeah, ok.” John deflated a little. “Just get them here as soon as you can.” He hung up and his shoulders sagged.

“What’s going on, Boss.” Craig blurred to his side just as Daisy walked over.

John looked around to make sure there was enough separation between the staff and the rest of their guests. “Lander went dark about fifteen minutes before all of this started.”

“Coincidence?” Daisy didn’t believe in them.

“ForceOps and DVA don’t have any connection, but they’re scrambling Heroes to get there. Worst of all. Most of the heavy hitters are there for Intermurals and the afterparties.”

West’s own crop of seniors still hadn’t returned. Normally, John would have gone, but with things so uncertain here he decided it was a good idea to stay. Robin and Marshall had taken them instead.

<Really could have used Force Field about now.> Containment would have been a hell of a lot easier with the seasoned Hero.

“Hopefully, the situation there will get sorted out soon, and they can redeploy assets to us. But right now it’s just us, the Protectorate, and the ForceOps troops Colonel Ford detailed to us.” The phone started ring again. “Speak of the devil.”

John turned around the answer, but only made it a few steps before he froze. “Are you sure?” He nodded his head a few times to whatever the Colonel on the other end was saying. “Ok, I’m on it. Reaper.”

<And here we go.> Going from Daisy to Reaper was always a good sign that shit had hit the fan.

“The teleporter they sent to grab Ms. Kemps is not responding. Her last reported location was her townhouse. I need you to get out there and assess the situation.”

Daisy nodded, accepting the plain gray mask he handed over to her.

“Let me help.” Seth Abney stepped forward from where he’d clearly been eavesdropping. “I live there, my friends live there, and my girlfriend is probably there. Let me help.”

“Yeah, me too.” Fiona Richardson stepped forward next to Abney. “I’ll be able to get you there in the blink of an eye.”

Daisy looked to John for his input. She knew what she would do, but she wasn’t calling the shots.

“Go.” He said throwing two more masks to the freshmen. “But no combat. If things go wrong you get Mr. Abney back here, Ms. Richardson. Let Professor Meyers handle anything unpleasant.”

Both freshmen looked a little upset that they were going to miss the action, but they realized they were lucky to get off the leash in the first place. They hurried to get their masks on and secure. They were both in their black uniforms already, so no regular person would mistake them for anything less than a Hero. Even if that wasn’t true yet.

“Let’s go, Richardson.” Daisy grabbed the girl’s shoulder and motioned for Abney to do the same.

Fiona Richardson had the potential to be a top tier teleporter when she was fully trained up. But she still had some work to do. Currently, her teleports were accompanied by a pop that sounded like someone was bursting a balloon, and there was minor disorientation for her passengers when they arrived.

Daisy made sure they didn’t arrive in the house because of the side effects. Abney had to bend over and try not to puke while he got his bearings. Daisy just had to take a few deep breaths to regain her equilibrium. It wasn’t the worst teleport she’d ever experienced, but if Richardson wanted to make it to Hero she really needed to figure it out.

<Game time.> Daisy extended her sixth sense toward the townhouse only a hundred feet away. She felt one lifeline inside, and it had the slipperiness of a speedster.

Still, she approached cautiously. There could still be someone there hidden by a nullifier. Armsman had tried that trick before and she had taken a bullet because of it.

“Stay here and keep an eye out.” She instructed the two freshmen as she climbed the porch steps and kicked in the front door.

<They can bill me.>

The door went flying, but she didn’t just charge in. She used the doorframe as cover, accelerated her mind, and peaked around the edge to get a quick view.

Two bodies were on the floor and one was clearly dead.

“Shit.” Now she rushed in. Trying to keep an eye on as much of the room as possible. “Abney, Richardson, get in here now.”

Both freshmen ran in and Richardson went green in the face before rushing back out to puke in the bushes. Abney didn’t run, but he didn’t look great.

“Liz!” He yelled out, taking his eyes away from the dead uniformed man and a blood-covered Becca.

“Whitfield?” Daisy knelt beside her and shook her shoulder gently.

“Wha…goin’ on? Why room spinnin’?” Becca moaned.

“You’re ok. Keep your eyes closed, take my hand, and let’s get you onto the couch.

Daisy helped the speedster up off the blood-soaked floor. There was a lot of blood that had spread far, which meant some time had passed since the shooting.

She studied his posture. <It looked like he was bent over Whitfield when he got shot.> That much she could tell from how he’d tipped over from a kneeling position to lay next to the speedster.

“Liz!” Abney appeared in the stairwell, panic on his face.

“Abney!” Daisy snapped to get his mind focused again. “Any sign of Kemps?”

“What?” He looked at her like a deer in headlights.

“Kemps!” she shouted. “Did you see her?”

“No,” He replied. “No one else is here.”

“Guys, someone is running this way.” Richardson informed from a position she’d taken near the door. “They looked freaked.”

“Seth…Seth…SETH!” Liz tore up the little sidewalk that lead up to the porch.

“LIZ!” Seth flew back out the door and wrapped her up in a bear hug.

Daisy gave them a few seconds before she stepped in.

“What happened?” She gently pushed Seth aside.

“It was horrible.” Liz sobbed. “Anika and Becca were getting ready to leave. The military guy there came to get them. Then some guys busted through the door. They shot the soldier and grabbed Anika.”

Daisy saw the girl hyperventilating and gave her a chance to steady herself.

“I just fucking ran.” Liz looked down at the floor trying to hide the  shame on her face and not succeeding. “I ran out the back, up the block, and hid in the alley. When I saw you three arrive I came out?”

Daisy gave the girl a pat on the shoulder, and felt her life thread. “You’re a teleporter?”

“Um…yeah.” The girl looked embarrassed again. “I mean I’m not HCP powerful or anything, but I can move small objects.”

“We know she’s a teleporter.” Seth stepped in. “She’s on record and everything.”

“And she knows about the HCP?” That much was clear from the short conversation.

“I trust her completely, and she hasn’t betrayed anyone in this townhouse all year.” There was no hesitation in Abney’s voice, and the way Liz looked at him was clearly with love.

<It’s your funeral if she fucks you.> Daisy shrugged. People had to make their own mistakes.

“Ok.” She refocused her attention on the dead body in the living room. “Dispatch.”

“Yes, Reaper.”

“Inform Iron Giant that we’re at the scene. The ForceOps teleporter is missing a big chunk of his head, and Kemps is gone. A witness says a bunch of people barged into the house and took her. Another witness seems to be drugged or poisoned.”

“Acknowledged, Reaper. Please stay on scene and wait for Orlando police to arrive. I’ll relay any follow-on orders from Iron Giant.”

“Thank you, Dispatch.”

“Who are you talking to.” Abney’s girlfriend looked confused.

“Don’t worry about it.” Daisy replied gruffly. “Just try and remember everything that happened. The police are on their way to get your statement.”

“Oh…ok.” The girl took a deep breath and grabbed Abney’s hand tightly.

He returned the gesture and Daisy couldn’t help but smile. She just felt sorry they both had to endure all of this.

Previous

Kindle Update Available

The amazon team has gotten back to me and an update to The Harbinger Tales is now available to fix a lot of the grammatical errors in the book. If you bought the eBook between OCT2016 and early JAN2017 then this is for you. Below are the instructions:

When you’re logged in it will say Hello, (Insert Name) Accounts and Lists. Hover over that. Go down the Account column to Manage Your Content and Devices .

It will list all of your eBook purchases on this page. Go down to The Harbinger Tales and on the far right will be Update Available. Click that and you’ll have the updated title sent to you. 

Also, if you didn’t know yet, The Harbinger Tales is now available on Kindle Unlimited. So if you didn’t want to pay to read it before, but you have Unlimited, now you can read it for free! If that isn’t an incentive I don’t know what is.

Now you’re good to go! Thanks for purchasing The Harbinger Tales. Please rate it and write a short review to help get the word out there.

I’m on TDY from Hell – Preparation

Gerald shook his head and pushed the memory of his second death to the back of his mind. This briefing was neither the time nor the place to reminisce. Plus, things had gotten better after that.

“General Icilius.” Gerald gave a small bow to the man commanding Prince Seere’s forces on this battlefield. But he never took his eyes off his surroundings. “I have the latest reports from the scout snipers.”

The General’s face twisted into a scowl. He was not the biggest fan of the legion’s newly adopted tactics. Gerald had no idea how long Gaius Icilius had been fighting for their Lord, but it was long enough that he was set in his ways.

But old dogs could always learn new tricks, and they learned them when they were ordered to by a Lord of Hell.

“What do the snipers have to say?” The old dog had learned those new tricks but still didn’t like them.

“Enemy strength has been revised to eight full ground legions and half a legion of air support,” Gerald relayed calmly.

The General’s scowl deepened.

“Thank you, Sir Gerald, please stay. We need to alter our battle plan.”

Gerald nodded and stood off to the side, close enough that he could see the map stretched across the table, but far enough on the periphery that the other commanders could easily lose sight of him. The map was not any type of map he had seen when he was alive. It was made of tightly stretched vellum, but was etched in intricate detail. At the will of the viewer the map could expand and contract to any section of their Lord’s domain, or any ground his legions were occupying. Right now it was showing the mountain pass that was their battlefield and the area around it stretching for miles.

On the far side of the map a mass of black, misty figures was slowly marching forward. The mist congealed and took the shape of the approaching army. It showed vaguely man-shaped creatures. All had been mutilated at some point. Parts of their body had been removed and replaced.

Gerald saw many with bird-like heads and beaks. Some had wings but were flightless and nearly all of them had talons or other cutting extremities. These soldiers didn’t need weapons. They were weapons. The same was true for the half-legion of air support, except they had working wings.

It was typical to see this type of mutilation and madness from the legions of Beelzebub. The Lord of All that Flies’ larger kingdom bordered Prince Seere’s on one side. Unlike Gerald’s relatively merciful ruler, Beelzebub took pleasure in the suffering of his damned souls, and his Infernal legions didn’t receive any special treatment.

<Which is why he is a constant threat to Prince Seere’s kingdom.> Gerald glared at the map.

The approaching army, although eighty-five thousand strong, was nothing more than an angry mob being prodded along by a few only half-crazed commanders.

“We can expect simple, brute tactics from the enemy. That has not changed.” The General addressed his own gathered commanders. “They will advance in force and try to crush and overwhelm us.” Gaius gazed harshly at the commanders, his eyes literally smoldering with Infernal power. “We will hold.”

The only other option was a slow and painful death. That was Gaius Icilius’ punishment for those who fled.

“I want two shallow trenches dug immediately, each five feet deep and across the front of our entire lines.” He drew his finger across the positions on the map. Red lines appeared where he touched vellum. “Place the first here.” He indicated a location about a thousand yards from the front of his lines. “And a second here.” The second line was maybe two hundred yards from the mass of red mist that indicated his own forces. Unlike the black wave of screaming avian creatures approaching, the red mist showed orderly men waiting in organized formations.

Digging defenses that quickly would have been impossible for a mortal human army, but an Infernal legion would have no problem accomplishing the task.

“I want three companies of skirmishers in the front trench. Once the enemy gets into range they will open fire. When the enemy begins to draw closer they will bound back to the second trench under cover fire one company at a time. If any remain they will retreat behind our front lines after their positions are overwhelmed.”

The old dog didn’t like the new tricks but he sure knew how to use them.

“Our three legions of infantry will form up here.” The General pointed to the narrowest section of space between the two mountains.

It was the only entrance to Prince Seere’s lands in the area, and was the obvious target of the enemy. Thirty thousand men plugging a gap a quarter of a mile wide was still going to be challenging, but Gerald knew the General had it covered.

“We have two regiments of infantry in reserve. They will reinforce the line if it begins to weaken or breaks. But I say again,” the General’s smoldering glare burned into the other men, “we will hold.”

“Sir, we…” Another commander started to speak up.

“Artillery,” the General spoke over the foolish commander, “will reinforce our flanks if need be, but I want it to concentrate its fire across the space one hundred yards from our front line.” Gaius indicated the positions on the map. “I want Infernal Iron to rain on these creatures. I want the iron rain to build me a wall of their dead. With that wall built the enemy will struggle to advance over their own losses. When that happens we will push forward. The enemy will be caught between its own dead and our blades. And we will slaughter them.”

Gaius might not be a fan of the newfound tactics, but he loved modern artillery.

Gerald nodded at the plan. Gaius knew more about tactics then he did. It was Gerald’s job to jump into that mob of mutilated demons and enact his own one-man slaughter. That was the purpose of an Infernal Knight: to kill, conquer, and unleash his intimidating presence on the battlefield.

Those were all things that Gerald had become a master at.

“Our own airborne regiment will reduce the enemy’s air support.” The General continued. “Those snipers can make themselves useful and remove the threat to my infantry. Sir Gerald.” Gaius looked up from the map. “You will stay with the airborne and move when the time is right.”

“Yes, General.” Gerald bowed his head slightly.

That was Gerald’s real purpose here. When the time was right it was the Infernal Knight’s job to shift the course of the battle, either by killing other knights or destroying the enemies leadership structure.  Gerald would need to find the half-mad commanders of the rampaging horde and end them.

“Questions?” The question was not a question. Gaius’ plans were never questioned. “Good. Return to your troops and prepare for battle.”

The commanders bowed respectfully to their leader and left one by one. Only Gerald remained. When it was just the two of them Gaius’ expression relaxed to something approaching hardened granite, which Gerald took as affection.

“It’s a good plan, Sir.”

“It is, but our own scouts royally fucked us.” The General’s eyes burned with anger as he studied the map. “Eighty-five thousand against our thirty-five thousand.”

“It will be a great victory.” Gerald replied confidently.

“That will depend on you.” Gaius turned toward the knight. “Once you have the commanders’ heads their mob will break, and our artillery will pound them all the way back over the horizon. But all of this is simply a stalling tactic until you can strike. So strike quickly, Gerald. Or your favor falls with mine.”

It was an implied threat. Gerald knew that. He had hitched his wagon to Gaius Icilius since his first day in Hell, even if he didn’t know it at the time. Gaius’ success was Gerald’s success and vice versa. If they failed here they would both fall from their Lord’s favor. And that was unacceptable.

“I will kill them, Gaius. Just hold the line.” Gerald’s face hardened with resolve. He gave one final bow and exited the tent.

He unfurled his wings and with three mighty beats he was soaring through the air toward the backside of the mountain. He looked down as he passed the legions of Prince Seere and noticed how small they were compared to the horde in the distance. An even smaller force was frantically digging the trenches while the three companies of skirmishers moved into position and set up their weapons.

<This battle might be interesting after all.> Gerald smiled as he rejoined the regiment on the mountainside. <And if we die there is always next time.>

Gerald had no intention of dying today, but no one ever did.

 

***

 

Gerald coughed, his lungs spasmed, and fluid flowed from his mouth. His chest heaved again and again as an endless amount of gook seemed to empty out of him.

<Wha…what happened?> Gerald’s mind thought in a panic.

The last thing he remembered was the cold, wet mud on his back and Captain Icilius standing over him.

“This must be your first time.” A voice cut through the memory and brought him back to the present.

Gerald looked around and almost vomited again. He was standing chest deep in green-yellow sludge. The sludge stewed and churned grotesquely. Giant bubbles formed as far as the eye could see. They grew taller and larger before silently bursting. They might have been silent but the smell was deadly. Gerald gagged again as a nearby burst wafted in his direction.

“Where am I?” Gerald slogged out of the gunk struggling against it.

It almost felt like the liquid pulled against him, trying to drag him back into its foul depths.

“The Resurrection Pool.” The voice stated calmly.

“Resurrection?” Gerald pulled his feet from the pool and onto hard ground.

Unlike where he had died, the Resurrection Pool was warm. Even if it smelled foul, Gerald wanted a few more moments to savor it. If he’d learned nothing else it was that Hell never stayed bearable for long.

“Did you think dying in Hell gets you out of your eternal debt?” The voice cackled in laughter.

Gerald followed the sound to a dark hole in the wall. Next to the hole, and a steady trickle of people exiting through it, was a tiny man sitting on top of a pile of stones. Gerald approached him slowly.

“Watch the scroll!” The man screeched as Gerald drew near and almost stepped on parchment that was camouflaged by the dimly lit Pool.

Gerald quickly jumped away. “How, Sir?”

“You will always resurrect here, Gerald Fuller, recently appointed skirmisher under Captain Gaius Icilius. There is no end to your servitude to our great Lord.”

“And you?” Gerald asked, feeling anger build in his chest. He didn’t like being lectured by a guy who sat in this warm place for eternity. “What do you do?”

“I am the Record Keeper.” The tiny man replied like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “So do not distract me. Be gone.” With a wave of his hand Gerald felt his body accelerate even though his feet didn’t move.

In the blink of an eye he was standing at the end of the tunnel with dull sunlight only a few feet away. He looked back and saw nothing but the blackness of the hole.  The Record Keeper had vanished.

<Creepy.> Gerald suppressed the involuntary shiver as he started to walk toward the light.

The experience made one thing abundantly clear. He didn’t want to die again. He resolved to do just that as he stepped into the dull light, the cold sank back into his bones, and his eyes focused on the city of soldiers spread out before him.

<Now how do I get back to that Captain?> He asked himself as he took his step into the frigid air wearing nothing but tattered gray garments. <I want a rematch.>

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2017 Writing Plans

So…I thought I’d just write a quick update to tell all readers and fans what the status is with everything, and my plans for 2017 🙂

  1. Fixing the eBook edition of The Harbinger Tales.

The first eBook edition that was sold between OCT2016 and JAN2017 had a lot of grammatical errors. If you bought the paperback or the eBook after the first week in JAN2017 then don’t worry. A lot of the errors were fixed before those versions went out.

I will start by apologizing for that. While indie publishing isn’t as perfect as the traditional variety, it should have been better than what was originally put out. I’ve already taken the steps to contact Amazon to push out the corrected version. They probably won’t send everyone an email, but there is a process to go into your “Managing Devices” page on amazon.com and update to the latest edition.I’m pretty sure it’s free so that a plus. I will post on this blog and at the end of my webs serials the process once it is out. The last thing I want is for people to be thrown off the plot of the story because of editing.

2. Continuing with all my web serials

I don’t want anyone to think I’m not going to keep going with the web serials. If you read A Change of Pace then you’ve probably noticed that it is winding down. I know a lot of Drew Hayes’ fan fiction gets abandoned and I can honestly see why. Keeping up a web serial is a lot of work and burnout is always hovering just around the corner. A Change of Pace itself is closing in on 1000 pages and almost 600,000 words. That’s a shit-ton in my personal opinion, and it takes me two days out of the five I write to put that chapter together on top of my regular 9-5 job. So, what I’m getting to after this ramble is to say that I DO plan to continue A Change of Pace. The chapter lengths might shorten a tad as I work more on my original projects, but this web serial holds a special place in my heart. It’s the first writings that I shared with people, and it gave me the confidence to start my original serials and self-publish a novel. I don’t want that to end.

Despite A Change of Pace being the first, Two Worlds might be the most popular of my web serials. It will continue to be published twice a week at this rate. If I need to drop it down to once a week just because life kicks me in the balls, or even permanently drop it down to once a week I’ll let you know, but I plan to keep up the twice a week while I can. I can tell you the TW universe is going to start expanding. New characters and new adventures are in store for everyone while still revolving around good old Coop and Ben. Although, for the first 170,000 words the story is mostly about Coop, and people have loved it 🙂

My newest project, I’m on TDY from Hell, has received a positive response, but it’s not as widely viewed as TW or COP. I’ll get it onto topwebfiction to get it out there and maybe RRL as well. It’s a different genre for me, but it grabs some of the fantasy audience I haven’t really grabbed with COP or TW.

My three web serials basically mirror my favorite genres to read: superhero, military sci-fi, and fantasy. What can I say, I write what I like to read.

3.) A Two Worlds eBook: Spring – Summer 2017

I’ve put out some feelers to see what people would think of a Two Worlds eBook. The few responses I’ve gotten have been positive,so I’ll probably go ahead with it. I think it will be broken up into more of a novella than a big eBook novel. Right now TW is upwards of 170,000 words which is 50% longer than The Harbinger Tales. It took about a grand to try and get The Harbinger Tales up to snuff before publishing it, and I just can’t do that with all of TW. I’ll clean some stuff up plot-wise now that I’m much farther into the serial and there might be continuity stuff to alter,  and I’ll get it edited. What I will do is break it up along the phases listed on my site. It will be multiple phases in one book, but I’ll break it up as best I can. Let me know if you like the idea of this. I do want to hear from you all about it.

4.) The Harbinger Tales 2 – Title Pending

My next big novel publishing will be the second Harbinger Tales book. I’m working diligently on it now. My first editor, my lovely wife, won’t get to it until the summer, so it’s probably looking at another fall-winter release, which I’m good with. One Harbinger Tales a year is my goal, and now that I’ll be adding Two World novellas to the mix, it’s an ambitious goal.

So that’s my 2017 plan as of now. I hope you all continue to read my web serials, buy my books, and otherwise just enjoy the stories that I tell. Because that’s what this is all about for me. Telling interesting stories.

Two Worlds – Chapter 72

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

Goodbyes were never fun, and Coop was not good at them. More importantly, he didn’t want this to be goodbye. He wasn’t weepy about it though. He was an HI trooper not a little bitch, but that didn’t stop all the emotions.

“I guess I’ll see you later.” Eve stopped in the middle of the military spaceport, dropped her bags, and threw her arms around him.

They towered over the rest of the soldiers and spacers briskly moving toward their shuttles, so everyone could see them. Neither of them gave a shit, but that didn’t stop them from getting looks.

“Hopefully soon.” Coop replied, only to get a sad smile in return.

Heavy Infantry School was another eight weeks of training. Everyone going into the school had successfully completed basic or done a tour as a regular infantryman. They knew how to fight, and had been chosen for this profession based upon that and their natural aggression. Coop was proud of his accomplishment, but he also knew HI training didn’t have anything on Ranger School.

Coop was going to Joint Base Mattis on Mars for his training, but Eve’s final destination was classified. On top of not knowing where she was going, he’d heard through the grapevine that Ranger School was a six month course. The graduation rate in that time frame was twenty-five percent. Three quarters of a class got recycled at least once, and a surprising amount died in the process. Ranger School produced one of the Commonwealth’s four special ops branches, so there was a fairly big chance Coop would never see Eve again.

“We go where they need us.” Her words said one thing, but her arms tightening around him said another.

“I’m gonna miss you, Boss-lady.” Coop blinked his eyes quickly, refusing to be overwhelmed by the moment.

“Don’t get yourself killed, Cooper.” Eve released him and took a step back. “If we meet again we’ll both deserve another forty-eight hours pass.”

Coop thought she deserved a medal for the way she’d fucked him during the last forty-eight hours, but all he could do was nod and smile.

She gave him one last beautiful, perfect grin, turned, and disappeared into the crowd. Even with his height he quickly lost sight of her.

<It’s like ripping off a Band-Aid.> Coop told himself. <It’ll hurt like hell for a minute and then I’ll be fine.> They didn’t use the old-fashioned first aid tool in most of the Commonwealth but it was the basic medical tool in the PHA.  

He took a deep breath, and then a new terrible thought hit him. <Why do I feel like I just peaked and it’s all downhill from here?> He shook his head violently to dislodge the thought. <Pull yourself together.>

There were still hundreds of billions of women in the galaxy. He knew he’d always carry a flame for Eve Berg, just like he still had an ember of emotion for Hailey, but there was still plenty of tail to chase. <And I’m heading to a whole new planet. I wonder how Martians fuck?>

That thought put a smile on his face just as his PAD beeped. The communication device was stowed in one of his thigh pockets, but thanks to his recent enhancements he didn’t have to dig it out every time he got an email. The wonderful Commonwealth doctors had given him a subdermal link on his forearm that he’d linked to his PAD during a break in the no pants dance with Eve.

He pulled up the notification, which transmitted through the fabric of his CMUs, and saw it was just a calendar reminder.

Don’t miss your shuttle dumbass! Shined back at him. He didn’t remember writing the reminder in the first place, and he didn’t have time to think about it.

<Shit!> Coop took off through the crowd, bowling over a few people until they got the memo to get out of the big guy’s way.

Thankfully, his gate wasn’t that far or his first act as a PVT would have been to miss his shuttle to Mars and be late for training. He didn’t want to think about what they’d do to him then.

Coop and a hundred other unlucky souls were taking the ride to Mars on a standard cargo shuttle. Basically, the spacecraft was a large box with wings and thrusters to help stabilize during atmospheric maneuvers. They’d be making the whole trip with sub-light engines, which meant they were in for an eight-hour jaunt through the stars. Considering it used to take months to get the Mars this wasn’t too bad, but it still meant sitting strapped into cushioned seats for the better part of a day.

<At least I’ve got some good company.>

Mike was easily the largest guy in the shuttle, and he’d saved a seat for Coop. They weren’t the only two HI troopers in the shuttle, but their future classmates were sitting at the opposite end of the passenger section.

“Hey,” Coop huffed as he collapsed into the seat and started strapping into the safety harness.

The ship had compensators to deal with the gravities they’d be pulling during the trip, but the cushioned chairs were designed to make the trip a little more comfortable. Its real purpose was to not jostle people around during a combat drop through the atmosphere, but the military liked to make sure things could be used for multiple purposes.

“Welcome to Air Mars ladies and ladies.” A sarcastic voice announced over the intercom as the door slid shut and sealed barely five minutes after Coop arrived. “My name is Specialist Second Class Wright and I’ll be your pilot today. Your co-pilot is Specialist Third Class Dicks. I know what you all are thinking. Yes, his last name is the same as the male reproductive organ, and yes he takes a lot of shit because of it.” That got a few laughs out of the soldiers and spacers in the cargo hold. “However,” the pilot’s voice turned more serious, “please be advised that Specialist Dicks controls the internal compensator settings on this cargo vessel. If he willed it, the next eight hours could be the most miserable of your lives. As such, I suggest you keep the dick jokes to a minimum, sit back and enjoy the flight.”

Coop chuckled as a few faces around the hold went pale. The last thing anyone wanted was a irritated spacer taking out his frustrations on the infantry.

“Oh, I almost forgot.” The pilot’s voice rang through the hold. “There are no barf bags on this flight. I suggest you swallow it like a man or the rest of the lovely Commonwealth service members sitting with you are going to make sure you don’t remain conscious very long.” He ended the speech in a cheery voice that made Coop nervous.

There were only a handful of people who could knock him unconscious if he started spewing like a fire hydrant. The mental imagery was just starting to run through his mind as the ship lurched and they were all pressed back into their seats.

“Here we go into the wild blue yonder. Flying high into the sky!”

Coop didn’t know if the SP2 had left the intercom live on purpose or not. <At least the flight will be entertaining.>

The cargo ship, like every other ship in the Commonwealth fleet, didn’t have windows. Windows were just a built-in weakness for the enemy to target during a battle. What warships and cargo shuttles did have were external cameras that you could tap into. Coop did just that. He pulled his PAD from his pocket and linked to the ship’s systems. It accepted his STRATNET ID without any fuss and allowed him a rear view of the ship.

<Holy Crap!> The ship was already pulling into the blackness of space.

Earth was still huge behind him, a big ball of blue tinged heavily with brown.

“It used to be all blue and white.” A smaller man with a PFC’s insignia sitting next to Coop stated. “That’s before we killed the environment and left our home world to rot.”

“Still looks pretty cool to me.” Coop replied, as some of the orbital habitats started to come into view.

They were all reflective heaps of duro-steel. Solar panels littered the exterior and sucked in the sun’s energy to cut down on fuel costs. Some were nothing more than utilitarian blocks that you couldn’t see inside, while others were ornate rings with clearly visible biospheres of green life. Others took on any geometric shapes that man could fashion into space stations, and showed varying levels of opulence. In Coop’s opinion, none of them could compare to the planet beneath them.

“What are those?” Coop asked, angling his PAD so the more knowledgeable soldier could see.

“Those are defense platforms.” The man stated with a sneer.

Coop saw two types of platforms. The first were disks with bulging turrets on the top and bottom. The second set was block-shaped and had just as many weapon placements.  Some were pointed at the planet, some at each other, and they all looked like they could turn the cargo shuttle into stardust.

Coop took note of the disk-shaped ones with the Commonwealth flag stenciled on it. A blue square in a field of silver stars with a white X, a red cross, and a golden screaming eagle diving with a hissing snake gripped in its talons at the center of it all. He knew from school they’d tried to blend the founding nations flags as much as they could without it looking too shitty. He thought the end product looked pretty good.

“Whose are those?” Coop didn’t recognize another stenciled flag on a defense turret that seemed to be tracking them.

This one was a block of red with a black circle in the center that held a golden sickle and hammer laid over one another. Coop got an uneasy feeling as the thick guns on the block of duro-steel followed them until they were clear of the orbital habitats.

“We’ve successfully cleared the neutral zone.” The pilot came back on the intercom. “Since the Blockies didn’t decide to turn us into a flaming ball of death you’ll all arrive safely on Mars in seven hours and forty minutes. I suggest you hold onto your dicks because it’s about to get heavy.”

“Aw fuck.” The soldier leaned back into his seat and started taking deep breaths. “I hate this part.”

“What…” Then Coop felt it.

The shuttle went to full power on its sub-light engines and he felt an unpleasant rumble in his gut. Through his PAD he could see the stars spinning all around the ship. He immediately turned it off and shoved it back in his pocket. A few deep breaths and he felt fine.

The soldier sitting next to him was a different story.

The shorter man’s gag reflex kicked off Coop’s. He’d always been the guy who puked if someone else puked, and this time was no different.

“If you spew I’m going to choke you out, Coop,” Mike said calmly, but he was purposefully looking the other way.

A very wet burp sounded from the regular soldier next to Coop. <Ahh fuck it.>

Coop elbowed the man in the head as gently as possible, which still snapped the poor guy’s head back into the cushioned seat. The gagging stopped instantly, and Coop’s stomach settled back down.

Coop checked the guy’s pulse to make sure he hadn’t kill him, and ran a basic medical scan with his PAD just to be safe. Once Coop was sure the guy wasn’t hemorrhaging blood into his brain, he sat back in his seat and relaxed. He didn’t really feel bad about knocking the guy out. He’d been knowledgeable, but a bit of a whiny bitch.

“Wake me up when we get there,” Coop asked Mike.

“Didn’t get that much sleep this weekend, huh?”

Coop could feel Mike’s grin through his closed eyelids.

“Not a wink.”

<And It was the best few days of my life.> For the second time Coop had to squash the idea that he’d peaked.

Instead he focused on what he’d had to do when he got to Mars, and those thoughts eventually put him to sleep.

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