Two Worlds – Chapter 83

Gunnery Sergeant Gwen Cunningham

Location: CWS Coral Sea, Rogue Island, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “Let’s go people, MOVE! Are you waiting for a fucking written invitation?” Gwen stood next to the rear ramp of the rumbling Spyder Assault Shuttle as a half of her company hustled into the belly of the beast.

The headquarters squad, a heavy weapons squad, and three regular squads boarded the bird at a run. Their heavy armored boots slapped the duro-steel planks of the Coral Sea’s flight deck like the drums of war. The five other squads of Echo Company were flowing into the bird next to Gwen’s, and it had a SSG yelling his own motivational incentives.

Down the line from Echo Company’s shuttles were six more shuttles loading three other companies from the 8552nd Infantry Battalion. Three hundred Commonwealth soldiers would be dropping onto Rogue Island on the Coral Sea’s first of three passes. No one expected any problems, but the fact that this was still considered a combat drop had everyone on edge.

CWS Coral Sea had popped out of FTL through the Alcubierre Launcher at Syracuse, this sector’s de-facto capitol. Gwen didn’t need to look at the sensors for more than a minute to notice the heavily industrialized system was on a war footing. Most of the system defense force’s wall units were concentrated in-system around the habitable planets and infrastructure. They would respond to any threats when their sensors registered FTL signatures. Commonwealth Fleet units were patrolling in force, but were close enough that they would be able to join with the defense force to defend the strategic locations.

Clearly identified lanes were marked throughout the system as its solar laser array test fired for probably the first time since the system was settled. She even saw a mine layer spewing mines and missile pods into space at strategic locations. So it wasn’t too big of a surprise when an outdated Cruiser jumping into the system received a lot of scrutiny. Even if it was only to switch over to their ship’s FTL drives and make the dozen light year jump to Rogue Island.

<Unless they’re expecting an attack.> She’d thought at the time.

<Not my job, not my problem.> She thought now as she counted heads and determined that everyone that was supposed to be on the shuttle was on the shuttle

She was in her LACS, looking lean and mean while still towering over everyone, including the lieutenant standing next to her. “We’re good to go, Sir. After you.”

The lieutenant, who was suited up in a full kit of Dragonscale Armor, just nodded his head and trudged up the ramp into the cargo hold. She’d seen the kid’s face before he’d donned his helmet, and the unhealthy green tinge to it made her pray that the boy leading this company didn’t blow chunks during the drop.

“We’re good,” she told the load master as she stomped up the ramp behind the LT.

The man nodded, and a high pitch whine signaled the ramp closing behind her.

“Everyone strap in! Equipment check!” she roared over the company network.

They’d drilled this a dozen times in Coral Sea’s VR simulators since learning this was going to be a combat drop, and she watched as her green company went through the motions.

It was important to be strapped in properly because one evasive maneuver or near-hit from a surface-to-air missile could knock you out of your seat and snap your neck like a twig. But even more important, you needed to have all of your shit when you hit the ground. You needed to be ready to fight.

The squad leaders toggled the acknowledgement of their orders, and within two minutes she had ten green indicators. That had to be good enough for her. Most of those squad leaders were just as green as the soldiers they were commanding, but she had to trust them on certain things. She couldn’t double-check all hundred soldiers to make sure the job was done right.

“All squads report ready to drop, Sir.” Since the LT was her battle buddy she did get to double-check his readiness, and he hers.

“Thanks, Gunney.” The man sounded like he’d been taking several deep breaths.

“Sir,” she switched over to their personal command channel for some privacy. “As far as first drops go, this one is going to be a cinch. It’s a mostly friendly world, limited evasive maneuvers will be necessary, and we’ll be on the ground within a minute. Nothing to worry about, Sir. The troops are ready.” She didn’t quite believe the last few words, but that was her problem to worry about not the junior LT’s.

“Thanks, Gunney.” The officer repeated before cutting the frequency and informing their pilot they were good to go.

The first part of her statement had been true. This should be an easy drop.

In the centuries since mankind started to spread out from the Sol System, and promptly started to kill each other throughout the galaxy, there were a number of different ways to get boots on the ground for an invading fleet. All of which depended on variables. The list was long, tedious, and listed in an FM somewhere, but it all boiled down to how quickly did the good guys need to get on the ground, and how much of a fight would the bad guys put up.

An ideal situation had a Commonwealth Fleet or Task Force in control of the planet’s orbitals. The enemy defensive fleet was either destroyed or had run from the system, and Commonwealth drones and atmospheric fighters had air dominance. The enemy’s defenses were already pounded to rubble, and for the most part they’d retreated to their planetary defense centers and were settling in for a siege. In this best case scenario, an assault carrier would descend through the atmosphere, land, and birth its brigade of troops onto the surface. This could be done with any warship in the fleet in any deployment pattern the brass wanted. . But from the soldiers’ point of view, they got to ride down to the planet on one of the toughest things in the galaxy. There really wasn’t much to worry about.

Of course, that was a tactician’s wet dream scenario. Gwen had yet to be in a landing that good, but she had ridden down to the surface within the protective hulls of warships before.

But that was not what they were doing today. They could have done that, and she would have preferred that, but the battalion commander wanted her soldiers one step closer to getting their drop badges, and she’d convinced the Cruiser’s captain that the situation on the planet was extreme enough to necessitate option number two.

Option number two was the first option that would qualify a soldier for the Basic Combat Drop Badge. Drop badges were something every soldier strived to achieve because that meant they’d been in the shit and come out the other side. There were different levels of badges, and you could get stars on top of them depending on how many drops you’d done, but option number two was the simplest set to get.

Option number two involved a ship, whatever ship that may be, skirting the atmosphere of the planet and disgorging Spyder Assault Shuttles. As fast moving mobile weapons platforms, the Spyders were a great way to get boots on the ground while facing minimal to moderate resistance. They could shoot down incoming ordinance and take drastic evasive action.

Gwen patted the hull of the bird whose belly she would ride down in. She’d always loved it when she knew a Spyder was nearby in support. The assault shuttles were vaguely arrowhead shaped, but with three sets of wings jutting out to the sides. This made it look vaguely like a spider, thus the name.

It had a duro-steel hull with limited nanite armor for added defense. They didn’t rate high enough to get a full coating. Often times, you’d find a lot of them with polyceramic plating in key locations the pilots felt were important.

Each of its wings had various ordinances on them: hypervelocity air to air or air to surface missiles and chaff. There was also a nose gun under the pilot’s control, and a rear gunner with a plasma repeater to give cover fire when troops unloaded. It could carry fifty normal grunts, but when you started to get into HI and some of the specialists with all their equipment that number got cut down.

Just as important for this mission was the Spyder’s speed. Not only could it go supersonic, but each wing was equipped with a grav-generator. The two-pilot team could manipulate gravity to their will and pull some truly incredible evasive maneuvers if they needed to. It wasn’t always good news for the guys in the back because of the limited gravity dampeners, but people rarely died on drops due to pure G-force. When push came to shove the fifty-ton war fighting machines were still one of the infantry’s best friends.

These were what most combat jumps involved, and completing five drops of this nature qualified a soldier for the Basic Combat Drop Badge. The badge was a bright silver color, consisted of the front profile of a Spyder Assault Shuttle, and appeared above the medals and ribbons on the left pectoral of the CMUs.

There was a third option for drops, an option that got any soldier who survived a single drop the gold Master Combat Drop Badge. Gwen had one of those drop badges, and getting it had been one of the most terrifying moments of her life. She was incredibly grateful that they hadn’t even considered that kind of drop.

The third entry option was used on heavily defended targets. It involved a fleet stuffing five soldiers into fire-team pods, loading them into missile launchers, and firing them into the planet’s atmosphere. The objective was to get on the ground as soon as possible. The five-man pods shot down to the surface like meteors on crack. They were fired amidst chaff countermeasures, electronic decoys, and drones providing defensive fire. Spyders and atmospheric fighters from both sides would still duking it out for control of the sky, and energy cannon salvos would be slugging back and forth between the orbital fleet and planetary PDCs.

She could still remember getting sealed into the literal sarcophagus with four other soldiers. She’d hyperventilated when it happened, and nearly pissed herself. She’d been fired into the atmosphere and nearly blacked out from the G-force. The pod shook like God was trying to strangle it, and heated up to the point she could actually see the normally pitch-black inside. Then she’d felt a jerk that nearly broke her legs, and then the pod smashed into the ground. One of the members of the fire-team had broken their spine on impact because he didn’t brace properly when the reverse thrusters failed to fire and the emergency chute deployed late.

After all of that, they’d had to get out, regroup, and fight the Blockies. Once she’d lived through that drop, she signed up for HI, got the enhancements and then went to Ranger School. She never wanted to feel so weak and helpless again. Little did she know SOCOM did those types of drops all the time, but their pods were stealth pods and they inserted without anyone knowing. She’d greatly preferred those drops to the living hell she’d endured as a regular grunt.

Gwen shook her head to get rid of those toxic memories. <I need to focus.> She had ninety-nine people counting on her to get them through this. Even if it was supposed to be easy.

“Howdy, everyone. Welcome to LoneStar drop ship services. . .”

<Oh shit.> Gwen felt her hands grab the frame of her seat until it groaned in protest.

There were a few things that she’d picked up throughout her time in the service. First, was to never trust a supply sergeant in a card game. Second, was to always bend your knees. It didn’t matter what for, it was just always better.  Last but not least, was to never go on an assault drop with a pilot from Texas. There was just something hardwired into their DNA. They were all fucking crazy.

“We are currently over the drop chute and are first in line. We are the tip of the spear today ladies and gentlemen. So just sit back, relax, and…” The guy never finished.

Gwen felt her feet fly into her throat as they dropped and then were smashed with the force of the atmosphere. She immediately cut the comm chatter and focused on medical statuses while she gritted her teeth.

Everyone’s blood pressure and heart rate were through the roof, but that was to be expected. They all had about five G’s pushing them against their seats. Even with enhancements that was uncomfortable.

She kept on eye on the medical readings while toggling over to the shuttle’s sensors. Normal soldiers weren’t given access to the outside world in the middle of the drop, but being a company NCOIC had its perks.

Superheated plasma was leaving a fiery trail across the sky as Spyders sliced toward their destination. The rear sensor showed the glowing behemoth of Coral Sea skating the upper atmosphere, but as she watched it she sighed in relief. The Cruiser wasn’t firing on anything, which was awesome.

Steady chatter was going back and forth between their Texan, the other Spyder pilots, Coral Sea, and the 8552nd command staff. She half-listened to it as she watched the sensors and monitored her own people.

<Looks like it won’t be too bad after all.>

“Launch detected.” Their pilot stated nonchalantly just as Gwen was starting to feel good about this drop. “Laser guided, supersonic, coming in at five-six degrees to starboard, ETA ten seconds, initiating evasive actions.”

Gwen had time to brace, but the rest of the squads didn’t. The Texan made their initial drop feel like a leisurely walk in the park. She watched one by one as her soldiers nearly lost consciousness. She was barely able to hold on, and she got to watch as the nose gun of the second Spyder in the descent spit out a wall 40mm exploding lead that blew the incoming, antiquated missile out of the sky five hundred meters from its target. They still felt the shockwave of the explosion, but they were alive.

“Target neutralized, nothing else on radar. Continuing mission.”

She felt the pressure ease and her people started to shake off the fog of near unconsciousness.

“Hey, Specialist, easy on the stick. I need my people functional so when we land we can actually do something.”

“Roger that, Gunney.” The pilot didn’t sound sorry at all. “Landing in two mikes, so be ready.”

She didn’t have any time to waste. “Two minutes!” she yelled, startling the last people out of their mental fog. “Secure equipment and prepare to disembark.”

All three companies were being dispersed across the planet. Echo Company’s mission was to secure an old fort outside the coastal city of Oldport. It was an abandoned Commonwealth outpost, so they had no idea what they were walking into. But they had a plan.

“One minute!” Everyone was ready to jump into the middle of a fire fight if they needed to.

“Lowering ramp,” the pilot announced forty seconds later.

The high-pitched whine of the hydraulics was drowned out by the roar of air. The rear gunner in the gunner’s turret swung out into the opening and scanned the area for the last twenty seconds of the Spyder’s descent before it abruptly touched down outside the old fort. This was the most dangerous part of the drop. A Spyder was at its most vulnerable when it was loading or unloading troops on the ground.

“Clear!” The gunner yelled, automatically moving his turret off to the side to give them fire support while they unassed from the shuttle.

“GO!” Gwen’s yell was superfluous as the soldiers jumped to their feet and rushed out of the Spyder.

They’d trained on this, and the squads executed perfectly. They ran out and formed a large three hundred and sixty degree circle around the Spyder. They all looked outward and kept their eyes open for any approaching threats.

“Good luck.” The Texan drawled as the Spyder lifted back up on its anti-gravs. Once it was about a hundred meters in the air it shot back up toward its rendezvous point with Coral Sea. He had two more runs to make, and after seeing their warm welcome they might be a lot more interesting.

“Squad leaders let me know when you’re up.” Gwen sat in the center of the circle with the LT and their commo specialist.

Green indicators came back.

“Good. First and second squad move to the fort followed by third, fourth, and fifth. I want complete security over the sight before the next drop lands.” LT Maddox took over, and his authority surprised her.

“Heavy weapons cover the road.” Gwen detailed their heavily armed squad to cover the most likely avenue of approach.

The remaining squad leaders received their orders, and they moved out.

The fort had been abandoned, so Gwen didn’t expect much, but she didn’t expect the locals to have taken a literal shit on it.

<Home sweet home.> She thought, and was glad she was in armor that filtered the rancid stench out of the air.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 99

Hellgate’s lifeline was hard to pin down. It didn’t have the duality of a shifter or the constant vibration of a speedster. It was unique. It was like trying to play whack-a-mole with a fundamental aspect of the universe.

The old supervillains thread was also hot. It wasn’t “stick your hand into a raging inferno” hot, but Daisy imagined it was what it felt like to hold your hand over a flame for just a half-second too long. She’d never done that before, or at least not that she could remember. She was too busy dodging actual explosions to be stupid enough to stick her hand over an open flame.

But that’s what it felt like as she grabbed the man by the metaphysical nuts. And damn it felt good.

She felt the energy of life pulsing through the thread. Calling it a thread really didn’t do the construct justice. It as a living embodiment of that person on some different plain of existence. There was love, sadness, joy, and hate coursing through the thread now and she could feel it all. Just like she’d feel it all when she cut his thread and absorbed the life force into herself.

<It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.> She smiled to herself as the villain vomited all over the ground and fell back to his knees.

She was already bottling things up. The villain’s energy couldn’t flow properly through his thread which led to metaphysical full-body constipation that she wouldn’t wish on her sixth worst enemy. She would totally wish it on the top five people on her shit list. Those assholes fucking deserved it.

She was Reaper again in these moments. Not necessarily the old one, but not quite the new one either. She didn’t want to take lives the way she used to, but she had to be real with herself in this case. If she let Hellgate go the guy would disappear for anther twenty years. No one would ever catch him, and the families of everyone he’d killed today wouldn’t get any closure.

For the thousandth time she struggled with her power, and that was a good thing. She was playing God at times like these. She had the power over life and death. She could conceivably live forever as long as she continued to kill.

She wondered if those ancient Greek myths about the three Fates was a prophecy about her. She didn’t spin the threads, or determine their length, but she was Atropis. She was the one who severed them.

<Shit or get off the pot, Daisy.> Only seconds had passed, but seconds mattered in her profession.

She took a firmer grip on the thread and Hellgate gave a gargled scream. She readied herself mentally and physically for the death of the man and the rush of his life force into her.

<Now or never.> It was the moment of truth, and she believed she made the right choice.

She started to saw away at the life thread. Hellgate gave a bone-chilling scream as his life started to slip from his body. Daisy shuddered as the tsunami of emotions started to flood her along with the trickle of his life force. She reached out for a shattered tree to steady herself and…

An explosion of blackness appeared around Hellgate.

<It’s too late.> Daisy instinctually thought, until she felt her connection with the supervillain vanish.

It was like someone turned off the light in her mind’s eye where Hellgate as standing. It wasn’t like Armsman where there was just a void of emptiness. This was like trying to stare through thick black fog with her sixth sense. If she was able to go in and get a hold of the man she knew she could finish the job, but without contact she was just staring at swirling black.

But that black was fading quickly. Until another explosion of darkness reinforced it. When it finally dissipated, Hellgate was gone.

<You have got to be shitting me!> Daisy took a few seconds to just stare at the empty space. She expanded her senses, but felt neither of those lifelines within her half-mile radius.

The rolling explosions of darkness could only mean on thing. Wraith had just rescued Hellgate from certain death.

<Rescue might be a bit premature.> Daisy thought, she had already been draining him after all. She had no idea what would happen to him now. No one had ever interrupted her mid-reaping before.

But even worse than the two villains escaping was the way her and Wraith’s powers interacted. Wraith was another villain she could add to the very short list of Supers whose power trumped hers. <This is just a hell of a shitty day.>

Daisy stumbled as the earth shook beneath her. The two titans were going at it over by the school and Iron Giant could use all the help he could get. She’d have to worry about Hellgate and Wraith later. Unless they just attacked her, which would be monumentally stupid, she had bigger fish to worry about.

She gathered the kinetic energy in the soles of her feet and launched herself into the air. She covered a few hundred yards before landing in the parking lot of the high school and seeing the utter chaos of the battle. Iron Giant, ForceOps, and the remaining Protectorate were throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Seif al-Din.

And then, just as she thought that, a ForceOps soldier emerged from a hole in the school with an industrial-sized stainless steel sink, which he proceeded to toss into Seif al-Din’s gut.

She barely stopped a giggle from escaping her lips. It was time for her to get in on this action.

 

***

 

“DAD!” Lilly blasted back into existence.

The darkness washed over everything around her, and told her she’d appeared only a few feet from Armsman.

“Dad, please wake up.” She was shaking him as the darkness receded.

A comforting hand came to rest on her shoulder, and the same tan, leathery skin got placed against Hellgate’s throat.

Lilly was at war with herself. All of a sudden, she was a little girl getting bounced on her father’s knee and squealing with delight. That foundation of happiness her father had given her was in conflict with her training. All she wanted to do was cry and shake her father until he woke up, but her training was screaming at her to do first aid, to get him to a healer, or for her to do anything but sit there and be a useless teenage girl.

“His pulse is faint.”

She couldn’t see her Uncle’s face, but she could hear the concern in his voice.

“We need to get out of here.” Lilly started to sort through her mental locations for a safe getaway.

<They’ll definitely bring in a tracker after this shit show, so I need to cover our tracks.> She settled on her loft across the Atlantic. The electrified cage and myriad of international regulations on Supers would bog down anyone who followed her.

“No.” Armsman’s single word wounded her like he’d slashed her with his katana.

“What the fuck do you mean, no?” she snarled back.

“I mean I’ll get him to safety while you finish the job.”

“Finish the job!” Lilly shrieked. “Fuck the job, fuck Seif al-Din. All I want is to make sure my dad’s ok.”

“If you really want to make sure your father is ok you won’t ruin his reputation. What happens when he gets better? What happens when that big ass terrorist escapes here and learns that you turned tail and ran like a little bitch? What is your father going to do then? You two are already on the run from the good guys. Don’t be forced to run from the bad guys too.”

<FUCK!>

Armsman making a good point wasn’t helping the internal struggle Lilly was feeling.

“Shit! I hate it when you’re right.” Lilly decompressed slightly.

“Get used to it, Wraith. With age comes wisdom.”

“And erectile dysfunction, so don’t get ahead of yourself old man.” She shot back.

Armsman laughed and gave her shoulder a squeeze. “I’ll take good care of your Dad. I’ve got a tight little Tai thing with a gift for making people feel better.”

“Ugh, gross. Please tell me she’s a healer.”

“Among other things.” He gave her shoulder one last pat. “Remember, I’m not going to be able to cover you. So get in and get out. Don’t fuck around. Reaper’s range is a half-mile so we’re probably not even safe here.”

There was a sound like someone was ripping the universe a new asshole, and they turned just in time to see Seif al-Din get smashed through the school. A blonde-haired woman could be seen jumping into the air away from the beast before it got back to its feet.

“Or maybe she’s a little busy and you’ll have a few extra seconds to do your job.” Armsman shrugged.

“This isn’t my first time, Armsman.” It felt like the tenth time she was telling the old villain that.

“It’s the first time you’re jumping back into a fight after having one of the most legendary Heroes of all time nearly put down your father.” He deadpanned back. “Don’t underestimate her or anyone else. You get in and you get out. Understood?”

“Yes.” For once, she didn’t have something witty to add.

“Good. Now get me and your dad to my place. I’ll take care of the rest.”

She knew the place in question pretty well. It was basically a deserted island in the Pacific. Technically, it was part of the Philippians, but he bribed the local officials to leave him alone. He lived there with a harem of Thai whores and generally did whatever the fuck he wanted.

Lilly and her dad ventured out there for a vacation every few years. Her dad didn’t like her hanging around with the whores, but with no one else on the island but the two old supervillains there wasn’t much else to do.

The location solidified in her mind: clear blue sky, white sandy beaches with colorful seashells, a small hut that just served as the surface entrance to the vast subterranean network of structures that was Armsman’s real home. As she saw it, she wished she was going to.

<I’ve got to finish the job. For dad.>

She sighed, and opened her eyes to give the two other villains a grin. “See you soon.”

In a flash of black the two old men disappeared and left her all alone to exfiltrate the worlds more dangerous terrorist from a battle with some of the most famous Heroes to ever live.

<No problem, piece of cake.> She teleported from her position in the open by the suburban house, to the middle of the wrecked woods.

She needed a good vantage point to find the right moment to jump in there. She didn’t want to teleport and get her head taken off by Reaper’s roundhouse kick. That would just be a horrible end to a semi-shitty day.

<Dad’s safe, Uncle Curtis will take care of him…ewww. But it’s all going to be fine.> Lilly didn’t want to think too much about the recovery process. She had talked with those whores before. They weren’t exactly a good influence. Seth could attest to that.

She snuck through a forest that looked like Bastogne during the Nazi siege of the 101st Airborne. Everything around her had been shattered by the explosion of the buried mines. It was a miracle that Reaper had survived it in the first place.

<That’s why we don’t underestimate Heroes.> She took a knee next to what wasn’t much more than a stump and reached out to her ready table back in her bunker.

High-priced binoculars appeared in her hand and she took a good look at the battle.

<Reaper, Iron Giant, flame girl, guys in camouflage everywhere. One dude is teleporting in and out dropping grenades all over Seif al-Din.> She watched that guy’s tactics for a minute and committed them to memory. <Now I just need them to break off for a second so I can get in there and finish this.>

“Re…p…r, come in,…Re…p…r.” She nearly missed the staticy voice as she shifted position, but the shift moved some of the dirt and uncovered the little white earpiece.

She picked it up, wiped off the dirt and grime and tuned in.

“Reaper, come in. Reaper, come in. I say again. The use of deadly force is authorized. Take down Seif al-Din. Take him down. We have rescued Anika Kemps. I say again, we have rescued Ms. Kemps. End this fight, Reaper, end it. Reaper, come in.” And the message repeated.

“What the fuck!?” Thankfully there was no one around to hear Lilly’s scream.

“Hello, hello, identify yourself.” The voice over the earpiece asked.

“Identify yourself.”

“No, identify yourself.”

“No, identify yourself.”

“This is a secure Hero communications device. Unauthorized use is prohibited by federal law.”

“This is a secure Hero communications device. Unauthorized use is prohibited by federal law.”

“Stop repeating me.”

“Stop repeating me.” This time Lilly couldn’t help but laugh.

<Heroes and their rules.> She would have pocketed the device to sell to Mika, but there had to be a GPS in it somewhere, so instead she stomped on it. <That should slow Reaper down for a few minutes.>

But more importantly, it gave Lilly a chance to figure out just what the hell was going on with Anika. <I call bullshit.> She threw one last glance at the raging battle and figured the big bad terrorist could hold his own for a second until she got back.

She left Orlando in an explosion of darkness to see what the fuck was going on.

 

***

 

Have you ever traded punches with God? Daisy could now honestly say she had.

She bided her time and waited for the right moment before throwing herself at the giant creature. Seif al-Din had Iron Giant pinned under one of his massive, ape-like feet, and was getting ready to rain down another hammer-fisted blow on the strongman. She put her shoulder right into the terrorist’s gut and let leash with just about all of the kinetic energy she had stored up.

The sound of the impact left her ears ringing, and she’d have a serious case of tinnitus if she didn’t get healed.

The creature bellowed, more in frustration than pain, as it folded in on itself, lost its balance and fell into the already smoking high school. The main building collapsed under his weight and he was momentarily buried underneath the rubble. Daisy jumped back to give herself some breathing room.

The painfully full sensation she’d been feeling was gone, now there was a void within her that she hadn’t felt in a long time. She’d put everything she had into that hit, and the beast was already getting back up.

<We need more heavy hitters.>

A chunk of concrete came rocketing out of the pile of rubble and was on a direct course for Daisy. <Time for a refill.> She crossed her arms in front of herself and ground in her heels.

The concrete smacked into her hard enough to turn a regular human’s bones to jelly, but she absorbed the energy and the slab cracked around her. She emerged on the other side of the small dust cloud feeling a little better and looking for more sources of energy. She couldn’t give Seif al-Din a hickey at her current power level.

The swipe from the beast’s taloned hand changed all of that. She didn’t see it coming with the dust around her, it caught her off-guard, and it sent her flying. She went from near empty to full in a heartbeat. The only other time she’d felt a hit like that was when she’d sparred with Iron Giant.

She soared through the air like a football thrown by a quarterback hyped up on steroids. She went up and over the school, over two blocks of suburban houses, and landed in the parking lot of a second school she didn’t even know was there. The asphalt cratered around her, and her head spun from the overdose of energy.

She tried to get up and get back to the fight. <Fucking fuck!> She hissed as the shoulder she’d landed on refused to obey her.

“That’s just great.” She rolled to her other side, had better luck, and did a one-armed pullup out of the six-foot crater. “No communication, I’m busted up, and John’s probably getting his ass whooped.”

She’d only had this type of injury once. On top of her shoulder being dislocated, she could feel the breaks in her bones. Tiny microcracks had broken along her collarbone and shoulder blade from her body trying to store more than it could handle.

Now she definitely needed healing.

“Lady, are you ok?” Out of nowhere ran a little girl, maybe six years old, wearing a sundress with a flower pattern.

She did that typical kid thing where she got too much up in Daisy’s business, and then her jaw dropped when she saw the large hole next to Daisy.

“Did you fall?”

Daisy couldn’t stop the snort from escaping her lips. “Yeah, I fell. Where is your mommy? It’s too dangerous to be out here now.” Daisy looked around for the girl’s mother.

“She’s at the coffee shop watching the TV.” The girl replied with a sense of childish wonder, as she continued to study the hole.

“Ok, let’s take you back over to her, kiddo.”

“Ok.” The girl hopped up and held out her hand for Daisy to take.

The moment she grabbed the little girl’s tiny hand a sense of peace washed over her. Even her shoulder didn’t feel that bad.

“You’re special?” She asked the girl as they walked hand-in-hand across the street toward a packed coffee shop.

“Mommy says I’m very special, but I can’t tell anyone. But I can tell you, you’re a Hero!” The girl squeaked out the last bit, and it brought a smile to Daisy’s still-masked face.

“Always listen to your mommy.” Daisy stopped the girl from running out into the street and reminded her to look both ways before crossing. “But as you get old don’t be afraid of what other people think, always remember that you’re special and you can do anything you put your mind to.”

“Even become a Hero?”

“Sure,” Daisy laughed as she pulled open the door to the coffee shop. “Even become a Hero.”

“Oh dear God, Annabeth!” Presumably the girl’s mother detached herself from the crowd huddled around the TV and ran toward them.

“Ma’am, your daughter was wandering around the school parking lot across the street. It’s probably not a good idea with a fight happening two blocks away.” As if on cue the ground rumbled and coffee cups fell off tables to splash their liquid glory all over the floor.

“Yes, I’m so sorry.” The mother profusely apologized. “Annabeth, you need to stay with me, do you understand?”

“Yes, mommy.” The little girl looked crestfallen as she closely examined her shoes.

“It’s ok, Annabeth, remember our little chat.” Daisy smiled at the little girl.

She released her to her mother and the peaceful sensation immediately faded. She was still battered and broken. The young girl’s immature healing hadn’t really fixed anything, but felt a little better. Good enough to get back into the fight.

A glass shattering, heart stopping screech filled the air, and Daisy’s hands immediately went to cover her now bleeding ears. It sounded like nails being dragged across a chalkboard, and the most annoying sound in the world all rolled into one superpowered sonic assault. The glass of the coffee shop shattered and people screamed, but Daisy was too deaf to hear them.

Her eyes were fixed on what was happening in front of her. Two blocks away, Seif al-Din rose up into the sky. One hundred foot wings splayed out to either side of him, and with each beat debris and mini-tornadoes sprang up and wreaked havoc on the surroundings. Slowly, the beast gained altitude and made a lazy turn to the East.

<When did this fucker get wings!> Daisy’s own jaw had dropped, as another few flaps had the terrorist soaring in her direction. <And where the fuck does he think he’s going?>

Iron Giant, the Protectorate, and ForceOps were nowhere to be seen. As far as she could tell, it was up to her to bring the big bad guy down.

<Ok. I’ve got this. I can do it.> She shook out her kinks and winced as her shoulder protested the very idea of what she was about to do.

She waited until the moment was right. <Three…two…one…>

She launched herself into the wild blue yonder.

 

***

 

A blast of darkness heralded Lilly’s arrival into the underground prison. It was dark and dank, just how she’d left it, but with one noticeable difference. She rushed over to the thick, tech genius plastic barrier, and rested her hands on it. The darkness made it hard to see, but even then, it was clear there was nobody in the cell.

“What the fuck?” Lilly debated teleporting into the chamber just to make sure this wasn’t some grand optical illusion. She knew Anika’s power set was always growing, and that might now include illusionary abilities.

<But it still doesn’t explain the radio call.>

She did a second search, just to make sure Anika wasn’t hiding in some dark corner, but it came back the same.

“Ugh. Fuck it. No way am I going to pick up that asshole after this.” She sighed as she rested her head against one of her upstretched arms.

Not only was her father on death’s door because of that Reaper bitch, apparently, Lilly had failed in her own mission as well. All of that meant her and her father’s reputation was in the shitter now. The best outcome she could hope for was that Seif al-Din got his ass handed to him by the Heroes and word of her fuck-up never get out.

<Fat chance of that.> A man with al-Din’s reputation didn’t go down easy.

“What do I do now?” Lilly just wanted to close her eyes and go to sleep for a year, preferably next to Seth.

She felt and smelled like someone had taking a steaming dump on her chest. Emotionally, she was all over the place, and all she wanted to do was go on vacation. <But that ain’t gonna happen now.>

With Anika gone that meant she’d tell everyone who Liz really was. Lilly’s cover would be blown, everyone she’d considered a friend would hate her, and just the look Seth would give her would break her heart.

<I can’t go back.> The thought settled into her gut like a lump of burning iron.

Tears started to leak out of her eyes, and she had to pull up her mask to wipe them free.

<Stupid…stupid…stupid…how the FUCK did she get out!> She smashed her fist against the barrier. This side wasn’t electrified so it didn’t do anything.

The only way in or out of the place was teleportation, so that meant…<Wait.> She froze. <Anika adapts to powers. She’s been around me for months. But I’ve only done one or two small teleports of small objects around them. Just enough to prove I was a Super and get them to trust me.> Conflicting thoughts rampaged through her mind.

<But that’s still the only explanation. Anika had to teleport free of here, and the only way she could have done that was if she got my power. Is this all my fault?>

“Huh.” The revelation set in. “Well fuck me sideways.” The tears turned into a sad chuckle.

She never even saw the knife coming.

With her arms up and her head buried in them it was easy for the knife to find the opening in her tech genius armor just below the arm pit. It wasn’t a big knife, only a couple inches long, but knifes don’t work on the same scale as dicks.

Size does not matter when you get stabbed.

Lilly had been stabbed before, but she’d always been prepared. She’d always been in fight-mode and seen the attack coming. This one came out of thin air, from behind, and was delivered with surgical precision.

Her body involuntarily jerked as pain lanced through her chest and back. Her immediate reaction was to teleport, but as she reached for her power the whole room started to spin, a wave of uncontrollable nausea hit her, and her power slipped from her grasp.

She fell into the barrier and slid down into a sitting position. A trail of red followed her down the see-through wall.

“What…” She couldn’t finish as she turned her head and vomited what felt like everything she’d eaten in the last week.

“It took you long enough.”

All she saw were boots as her body refused to respond to her brain’s commands.

“Wha…” She tried again, but her tongue was going numb.

“Don’t worry, Wraith, it’s over.” A big strong hand grabbed her by the chin, pulled off her mask, and stared her in the eyes. “Or should I call you, Liz Aretino, or maybe Lilly. I don’t know your surname yet, but your mother’s last name was Noel, Amelie Noel. I figured you out, Wraith, like I always do. It was only a matter of time.”

Lilly’s vision was getting cloudy. It was starting to blur around the edges as the paralytic continued to devour her body. She couldn’t feel the blood leaking from her side anymore, and she couldn’t move her lips or feel her tongue. But for the moment her eyes worked just fine.

The man standing before her was wearing khaki gear, like you’d see in the Sahara, with an African mask. He was missing his giant rifle, but that really didn’t matter at the moment. His presence was the nail in the coffin of what was undoubtedly the worst day of her life.

<Hunter?> She got the one thought out before the blade’s poison consumed her and she faded away into unconscious darkness.

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I’m on TDY from Hell -Spoils of War

<Bodies bodies everywhere but no one left to kill.> Gerald mused as he looked over the battlefield.

With the enemy General suffering from a fatal case of spear-in-brain, the legions of Beelzebub were suddenly leaderless. What followed was a chaotic route as Seere’s advancing infantry legions and artillery pounded the rabid horde of creatures. A few of Beelzebub’s remaining champions, another Infernal Knight in particular, tried to turn the tide back in their favor. Gerald disposed of that insectoid-looking creature as well.

After that it was a wholesale slaughter.

The pass leading into Prince Seere’s kingdom was filled with bodies. The legions under General Icilius had advanced to the mouth and stopped. As much as every single soldier wanted to pursue the fleeing creatures, breaking formation and blindly chasing after them could have lost them the battle.

At last count, roughly a legion and a half of Beelzebub’s original force left the mountain pass alive. General Icilius had lost two thirds of his own force in the battle and he needed to be concerned with a counterattack. Artillery and a company of skirmishers harassed the enemy all the way to the horizon, but they didn’t dare cut deeper into Beelzebub’s kingdom. The Lord of All the Flies would throw dozens of legions at them if they instigated a full-scale invasion.

The creature at Gerald’s feet tried to rise, but a moderate application of force and the thing was forced back down on its ass. For its resistance, Gerald twisted the thing’s arm that was secured behind its back. The grating of stressed bone and growl of pain from the enemy champion brought a smile to Gerald’s lips.

“Sir Gerald.” General Icilius and a gaggle of other officers stepped over corpses as they approached.

There was a wide circle of dead around the captured enemy champion. Most were missing important body parts or their heads.

“General.” Gerald nodded respectfully as the smaller man approached him and the prisoner.

“Has the vermin betrayed his master yet?” The General spoke like he was asking what was for dinner later.

“No, Sir.” Gerald shook his head.

Truthfully, Gerald hadn’t tried hard to get information out of the patchwork thing that looked like a half-man half-prehistoric avian reptile. The thing was an Infernal Knight of Beelzebub, and as a fellow Infernal Knight Gerald knew the thing would die before giving up any valuable intelligence.

He’d still tried, and the creature’s wings, legs, and other arm lay in a growing pool of blood around the thing as a result.

“It was worth a try.” The General sighed as the members of his entourage moved to form a circle around Gerald and the creature.

Once in position they slowly started to chant. It was the same gutted, tortured language of the angels that Gerald had spoken when he’d siphoned the power from the champions he’d killed. This was the entire reason the thing was still alive and not dead like the rest of its compatriots.

General Icilius was a fighter. Gerald had known this for what felt like forever. The man, despite his tactical brilliance, was not one to sit in the rear and direct a battle. Unfortunately, that was exactly what his current rank required. To ease his transition Gerald and the General had struck a deal. Gerald would always try to capture someone, preferably someone with power, for the General to play with after the battle was won. Today, that unlucky son of a bitch was the man-prehistoric bird creature.

Gerald gripped the thing’s remaining limb harder as it started to struggle. The General slid his roman gladius out of its sheath and pointed the tip at the thing’s chest.

“Last chance.”

Gerald could feel the fear radiating from the creature, but it kept its mouth shut. Resurrection as a lesser being was something it was not looking forward to, but it was better than resurrection as a traitor.

“Very well.” The General stepped forward and the chanting intensified.

The General slid his blade into the creature’s chest at an agonizingly slow pace. The thing screeched, its screams of pain a mix between a man’s cry and a bird’s squawk. Gerald watched it all with a detached expression. The only thing he was worried about was getting out of the way when the General’s sword finally passed all the way through the thing.

Gerald held on for a few more seconds after the creature went limp, just to make sure it wasn’t playing possum. Once he felt the power transfer begin he let the things fall face first into the puddle of blood. The resulting splash covered his armor in even more blood, but the normally black Infernal Iron had been a dripping red now for hours. A little more splatter wasn’t going to change anything.

The General inhaled sharply as the majority of the creature’s power flooded into him. Some still leaked away back toward Beelzebub’s kingdom, and a tiny sliver attached itself to Gerald, but with a full ritual the General got most of it.

“Ahhh.” The General sighed like he’d just eaten a delicious steak. “Thank you, Sir Gerald.”

“Of course, Sir.” Gerald gave his longtime mentor a small bow. “With your leave I’m going to return to the city and make my report. Is there anything else you’d wish me to convey to our Lord?”

“We will need reinforcements to hold the pass, but I’m sure our Lord is aware of that. We’ve won a great victory here today.” The General looked out from the mouth of the pass toward the red, barren, and scorched kingdom beyond it.

Gerald nodded again, spread his blood-soaked wings and sprang into the air. He climbed higher and higher into the sky until the whole battlefield was spread out below him. To the east was nothing but red, although a mass of black dots was hurriedly scrambling farther east. The pass was full of death, but beneath that Gerald could already see the changes. Prince Seere’s kingdom expanded to the west beyond the mountains, and was dominated by flowing waves of gray-green grain. It looked peaceful and lush compared to the barren desert of Beelzebub realm.

Gerald only knew the fundamentals of Hell’s Teutonic Laws, but he did know that kingdoms waxed and waned depending on the power of their ruler. With Beelzebub’s defeat the red, barren ground was already retreating from the pass and Prince Seere’s authority asserted itself. The beginnings of grain stalks were already beginning to sprout in the pass and just beyond it.

Gerald had seen the same transformation on the border along the river Styx. As Cain and his Lord jockeyed for power, Cain’s wild forests sometimes crossed the river until they were torched and beaten back by Seere’s legions. For Prince Seere to hold the newly claimed pass he would need to secure it with soldiers and power, but that was a decision for the Lord to make.

Gerald was an Infernal Knight. It was his job to kill whoever his Lord wanted dead.

With one last look at the changing landscape Gerald turned west and poured on the speed. He streaked through the air, a sonic boom cracking behind him as he climbed to his maximum speed. He had no idea how fast we could truly go, but he did know he could reach the coastal capitol city of Prince Seere in roughly an hour.

As he streaked across the sky, and the ground flew past below, he saw the smaller cities and towns of the realm. They were nothing compared to the capitol, but were situated at crucial crossroads. They were places to collect the grain and station soldiers for strategic deployment. Aside from grain silos and military barracks, they were only a small collection of buildings surrounded by a central structure. The structure fell somewhere between a manor and castle depending on how close it was to a contested border. The nearest town to the mountain pass had a large, fortified castle at the center; while the one closest to the capitol looked more like a summer palace than a defensive structure.

Prince Seere appointed trustworthy men and women to rule those smaller towns, but they all bowed to Seere. He was the undisputed Lord of these lands.

The fog rising from the sea was Gerald’s first indication that he was almost home. It created a wall rising all the way into the perpetually cloudy sky. When Gerald first got his wings he wanted to fly over the sea, but Icilius told him he could never do that. Others had tried, died, and never been resurrected. People whispered that only Prince Seere could travel beyond the fog that marked the end of their world.

Gerald slowed as he reached the air-space around the capitol. Airborne regiments flew in synchronized formation, engaging in mock battles with invisible foes, or real battles with other regiments. Those were fought with wooden weapons, but there were still fatalities.

Gerald weaved between the units, who didn’t stop their training, and made a gradual descent toward the glowing golden hall. It put every other structure he’d ever seen to shame, and he couldn’t wait to enter it. He landed outside the front gate with a squish as he sunk half a foot into the mud.

Even with the rank he’d attained he still felt the permanent cold that was etched into his bones. With a glare at the sodden ground he stomped toward the open golden gate. He climbed the steps and the mud seemed to disintegrate, along with the blood on the bottom of his feet. Seere didn’t want his hall getting dirty so the hall itself didn’t allow it.

The moment he crossed the threshold warmth filled his soul, and he sighed with relief. The gate guards gave him a deep bow, but he ignored them and started the long walk to the throne room.

Very little had changed in the golden hall since Gerald had first arrived in his Lord’s kingdom. Seere’s personal guards still lined the hall like intimidating statues in their Infernal Iron armor, but Gerald no longer feared them. In fact, he’d found the woman he’d talked to on his first day in Hell and fucked her when he’d become an Infernal Knight.

<The privileges of rank.> He grinned beneath his helmet. They’d both enjoyed that night.

Large tables were rising out of the floor as he passed, enough to seat ten thousand men. Gerald knew what that meant. A victory was always followed by a grand feast. General Icilius would return a hero and he would be honored and rewarded.

Gerald could already smell the meat, ale, and bread. The hall’s bakers made the best pastries on Earth or in Hell. He put the thought out of his head as his mouth started to water. The door to the throne room was open, but Gerald did not enter. Someone did not just enter Seere’s presence without permission.

“Enter, Sir Gerald.” The powerful voice of his Lord called after a minute.

Gerald did as he was instructed. He walked to within thirty paces of the giant Prince and went down on one knee with his head bowed so his chin touched his chest. His rank didn’t call for total prostration.

“Rise, Sir Gerald, and report.”

Gerald rose to his feet and delivered the news of the great victory.

There was once a time when Gerald feared his Lord, feared hearing his name, or being in his presence. That had all changed. Being in the golden hall, and being within his Lord’s powerful sphere of influence filled Gerald with awe. Prince Seere was truly great, and he’d given Gerald so much since he swore his undying loyalty.

The Prince smiled at the good news, his rows of shark’s teeth making him look like the apex predator he was. “Excellent. We will feast in honor of the dead and in celebration of our conquest.”

“Yes, my Lord.” Gerald bowed deeply, almost making a ninety-degree angle with his body.

“Sir Gerald.” The Prince interrupted as the Infernal Knight took several steps back and turned to leave. “After the celebration please come see me. I have a new assignment for you.”

“Yes, Sir.” Gerald bowed low again.

<A new assignment so soon.> Gerald wondered as he left the throne room and walked back toward the hall’s entrance. <It must be important.>

Usually, Prince Seere allowed some downtime between missions. It was good for morale and the soldiers’ well-being that they are allowed to return home and reap the spoils of war. Food and drink were not the only things a man could enjoy after a long and bloody campaign.

Gerald marched out of the hall and ignored the return of the chill. He made a beeline for one of the brick structures surrounding the large golden hall. It was an actual home; which was more than most people had in Hell. Most had to deal with a tents or drafty wooden barracks. Gerald had lived in both as he worked his way up the ladder.

His home as an Infernal Knight was a two story brownstone just around the corner from the golden hall. It sat on a paved cobblestone street, not a mud-drenched avenue, and had armed guards patrolling. They bowed as he passed.

Gerald looked to the Victorian mansion across the street to see the lights were still off. That was the General’s home, and he clearly hadn’t returned from the front yet. Gerald’s eyes swept his surroundings as he climbed the dozen stairs to the front door. Even in the homes of the leaders of Prince Seere’s legions you couldn’t be too careful. One of the guards would gladly stab a General in the back as long as they could get away with it.

Sensing the coast was clear he unlocked the door with his power and walked into the brightly lit space.

“Master.”

She was waiting for him in a kneeling position by the front door. Her alabaster skin practically shone as the overhead candle-chandelier bathed her in flickering golden light. She was completely naked and her body language communicated her total submissiveness.

Gerald’s eyes hungrily traced across her flesh. She’d done her blonde hair in twin braids that she’d artfully draped over her shoulders to cover the nipples of her full breasts. Even then he could see they were hard from the cold.

“Master.” She repeated, chancing a gaze up at him.

Gerald’s blood sang with desire. Lydia, his usual whore, had hit all of his pleasure buttons. She knew he liked to dominate his partner. He especially liked them on their knees. She knew he liked to pull her hair while he fucked her senseless from behind, and the twin braids would be perfect for that. It took everything Gerald had to control himself.

He took a deep breath and closed the door behind him. “Draw me a bath, Lydia.”

Her eyes twinkled with delight at the suggestion. “Yes, Master.”

She rose to her feet and swayed up the stairs toward the master bathroom. Gerald had a perfect view of her full, toned ass, and he had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep his emotions in check.

First he needed to clean himself up. He was covered in the sweat and blood of his enemies. Then, after he was presentable, he could have his way with her.

He stripped out of his armor and placed it on a rack at the top of the stairs. The Infernal Iron would absorb the blood and mend itself with time, so it required little maintenance.  His own skin wasn’t flawed perfection like Lydia. His own flesh was scarred, burned, and bruised. Life had not been easy for him in Hell, but he’d made the best of it and risen to a position he could do just about anything he wanted. Or anyone he wanted.

Lydia was waiting in the tub for him when he arrived. She was lounging in steam that rose up and curled around her face. She remained submissive, while beckoning him with her open legs.

<The best thing about being an Infernal Knight is the indoor plumbing.>

The stray thought passed through Gerald’s mind as he sunk into the warm water and her waiting embrace.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 82

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

 “Down…up…down…and hold it.”

<For fuck’s sake.> Coop growled as the heavy weight on his back and shoulders threatened to crush him.

It was 1659 on a Friday afternoon. The duty day ended at 1700. Alpha Company 1854th Infantry Battalion had just finished up their last week of training in their main occupation specialty. They’d lost four people in the process. One had fallen out at the beginning of the phase because he just couldn’t do a fire mission to save his life. How that guy got into the HI in the first place was beyond Coop’s understanding.

The second loss had been a little more violent. Coop had experienced his own bumps and bruises on his first fire mission and the resulting counter-fire. The second loss, that poor son of a bitch, had panicked and done the exact wrong thing at the exact wrong time. He’d jumped to avoid the blast. The computers in the artillery round had sensed that, and executed an air-detonation to kill its target. Coop didn’t learn until after the incident that the munitions were for training purposes. They still went boom, and it was a big boom, but it was a boom designed not to kill you. Unless you were a moron.

Loss number two fell into that moron category, but he’d lived. The shrapnel from the explosion hadn’t penetrated his LACS, but the shockwave drove him into the ground like a kinetic missile. The guy broke his back, and would be in the hospital for a few weeks getting the disk regrown, surgery, and then having his enhancements removed before getting shipped back to the regular infantry. Master Sergeant Smith didn’t tolerate morons in the HI.

Losses three and four had been more administrative failures. They hadn’t passed the Joint Platform Artillery Coordinator (JPAC) certification that had just been administered. Those two were being recycled to Bravo Company to get a second chance before being given the boot. So Alpha Company had gone from twenty to sixteen, which was a nice even number for log PT.

“You are one with the log. Be the log. The log is an extension of you.” MSG Smith always got philosophical when it came to his favorite PT exercise.

“If you don’t let us out on time I’m going to drop a log in my suit.” Coop grumbled to the amusement of the rest of his four person fire team.

Log PT was an archaic phrase. Back in pre-expansion armies they used to make groups of soldiers carry around a large wooden log. The thing weighed a couple of hundred pounds and it forced the soldiers carrying it to work together to accomplish whatever sadistic mission their instructor had planned for them.

Log PT was all about physical toughness, mental fortitude, and teamwork. Time hadn’t changed that. Technology had just made it more of a pain in the ass.

The Commonwealth Heavy Infantry School didn’t use a wooden log. A, because wood was expensive and was used as a luxury item for much more important things than being hauled around by a bunch a teens and early twenty-somethings. And B, why use it when mankind had already mastered gravity.

The resulting demonic device was still referred to as a “log”, it still looked like a log, but it probably weighed as much as half a forest.   The modern day log was a device mostly comprised of old-fashioned steel with a grav-plate built into the center of it. That way the weight of the log could be adjusted based on the instructors preference and the team’s ability. Of course, the instructor didn’t tell the team how much they were lifting, but a person got good about determining weight when they had to carry it on their back all the time.

At the moment, they had it on their back and were doing pushups.

Not only did they have the log to deal with, but they were at the end of the training day, exhausted from completing their JPAC quals, and they hadn’t eaten for hours. They all had water, but water didn’t put calories into their exhausted bodies. Then of course there was the LACS. HI troopers did everything in armor, and log PT was no different. So, not only did they have a log, which Coop estimated was putting another fifteen tons of strain on them, but they were wearing their armor on top of it. And the MSG had disabled their ability to use the mechanical muscles to cheat.

“So what are your plans this weekend?” The MSG asked, as he tapped away on his PAD. “Doing anything stupid”

“Oh course, Master Sergeant!” They all yelled. “The three B’s, Master Sergeant: beer, bitches, and bad decisions!”

The old soldier laughed and the weight on their shoulder relaxed to a bearable level. “Recover!”

They all started to move.

“Don’t drop my logs!” The MSG growled as they went through the complex routine of moving as a team to get on their feet and the log off their backs while not having it touch the ground. “If you drop it the only thing you’ll have between your legs for the next forty-eight hours is that log.”

The seasoned HI trooper was referring to an exercise where they walked around with the heavy log between their legs in a quasi-squat position. Even a few minutes of doing that made your quads burn and your back ache.

So Coop made sure that no one on the team let the log touch dirt.

“Secure your logs and gather ‘round for a safety brief.” The MSG commanded, signaling to everyone that their day and their week was finally over.

All sixteen troopers ran over to deposit their logs in their racks with a renewed motivation for life, and then ran back to gather around the MSG. There was no formation. They just clustered around the large man in a gaggle.

“You all know what I’m going to say so I’ll keep it short. You all want and need the three B’s. I get it. I was young and stupid like you all once.” That got a quick laugh. “But the three B’s will fuck you up if you let them, so we’ll started there. Beer! You like it, I love it, and neither of us will ever operate any type of machinery or drive while under its influence. Understand?”

“Yes, Master Sergeant.”

“Next are bitches.”

There were a few women in the company, but by the looks on their faces they knew the MSG wasn’t talking about them. “Bitches” encompass anyone not of the military persuasion who could be a distraction to the NCOIC’s troopers. They didn’t necessarily need to be female.

“There are thousands of bitches within a couple of kilometers who would love to get filled up by you strong studley troopers. They will bear your children, become a military dependent, and then slowly leech the life out of your souls.” The MSG’s own two divorces might have been influencing this part of his briefing. “Or they’ll fill you up and turn tail and run like the cowards they are.” He added for the female’s benefit.

<Doesn’t mean he’s wrong though.> The man had experiences that Coop didn’t.

“All I’m saying is that unless you’re in love and ready to start your own clan, make sure that shit is wrapped up before you go to pound town. There is nothing worse than coming back from deployment and finding out you’ve got a kid, or missing one because you’re pregnant.” He let that sink in for a minute.

Nobody in the group wanted any of those things to happen.

“Lastly, there are bad decisions. Personally, I break this down into a couple different categories: there’s harmless fun, harmful fun, honest-to-god bad decisions, and you’re a fucking moron decisions. Stick to the first one, because if I have to come get you from the MPs I will make you hate your existence. Do you get me?”

“We get you, Master sergeant!”

“Good. Enjoy your weekend.”

And just like that they were free. They were free to slip out of their stank-ass armor and hit the showers. They were free to feel like human beings again and not mobile killing platform whose sole mission in life was to call down the steel rain on their enemies, or call upstairs to the big guns that could blow most anything from existence. They were free to stuff their faces in the chow hall after a long week.

<All work and no play makes me fucking miserable.> Coop thought to himself as he dressed in casual civvies and threw on some foo-foo juice. <The ladies love it when I smell fresh.>

“Ok.” Coop clapped his hands loudly to get everyone’s attention.

Over the course of their training, thanks to his less than legit connections, he was the unofficial company MWR representative. MWR stood for morale, wellness, and recreation. The program had been around for centuries, and its purpose was to ensure soldiers had something to do in their downtime. Coop’s take on MWR was a little different than what was authorized by the program’s standards, but what people didn’t know couldn’t hurt them. Basically, Coop’s MWR program involved two critical pieces: sex and booze.

<It’s all a growing soldier needs.>

“This is what I was thinking. First stop is at Madame Lee’s. Those of us who want a rub and tug can get one. For our select few who have decided they are in a monogamous relationship with a Fleet-puke millions of kilometers away they also offer traditional no-fun massages.” He gave a nod to Mike. “For the lovely ladies who wish to partake in tonight’s merriment, they have more than a few boy toys that you can have your way with.” He winked at the women in the class who’d poked their heads out into the hallway to see what was going on.

A few rolled their eyes and disappeared back into their rooms, but one or two looked intrigued. Coop took that as a good sign.

“After Madame Lee’s we’ll head over to the Buckin’ Bronco, where I can use my employee discount to get us all half off drinks.”

The girls who had previously ducked back into their room poked their heads back out.

<Yeah, I thought so.> He thought smugly.

If bouncing at Buckin’ Bronco had taught him one thing about a soldier it was that they’d never turned down cheap, or better yet, free booze.

“Anyone who’s in, we leave in five. The rest of you can play with yourselves for all I care, but the rest of us are gonna have some fun.”

He liked to think it was his shining personality and natural charisma that got the majority of the company to join him on their night out, but it was really the promises of cheap sex and cheaper booze. But these were the kinds of activities that really bonded a group together, and Coop was still determined to prove he hadn’t peaked with Eve. Even a rigorous HI qualification hadn’t completely distracted him from the woman and the pedestal she was on.

Things started out well enough. They all crammed into a convoy of cabs that took them to Madame Lee’s. The whores nearly fainted at the sight of so many HI troopers walking into the place. At least the female ones did. The gigolos looked like they’d died and gone to heaven.

Coop picked a more experienced looking woman with purple hair and luminous green eyes to get him off, and she was worth every penny. She had him forgetting that sex-crazed weekend when she engaging in her own mind-blowing game of bobbing for apples.

Due to his own preoccupation, he didn’t pay much attention to what the rest of the HI troopers were up to in there, but everyone came out with a smile on their face. Mike even commented on the quality of their deep tissue massages.

<Huh, I might need to try that sometime.> Coop hadn’t thought of any other type of tissue getting massaged at the whore house.

After everyone was done they headed down the street to the Buckin’ Bronco, and that was where things got interesting.

They all started off with shots, then they chased them with beer, and a few of the girls even ordered a bottle of wine. Coop didn’t know why they had to be snotty about it. <You both just fucked a couple of man-whores. It’s not like you have the moral high ground.>

That thought process got him in trouble as he tried to hit on one and then the other. One was not interested and the other was really not interested. A little bit of persistence got him cold-cocked in the eye. The women were HI after all, the profession didn’t encourage pacifism.

Normally, a punch in the face wouldn’t have been a big deal for Coop. Especially since it wasn’t much more than a love tap, but his drunk self stumbled back into another group of guys. There were about twenty of them, and he unfortunately knocked into their leader and spilled the guy’s beer all over the place.

“What the fuck!” The smaller guy’s words were already slurred.

“Sorry about that.” Mike came to the rescue, looming over everyone. “My buddy here just tried to bite off more than he could chew.” He nodded toward the two HI women who were sipping their cheap-ass wine. “Pretty sure they’re an item if you know what I mean. How about I buy you a new beer?”

It was meant to be a diffusing joke, and reparations, but the drunk leader wasn’t in the mood.

“Names, ranks, and GICs NOW!” The man screamed. “Drunk and disorderly conduct is not acceptable.”

Coop thought he sounded like a child throwing a tantrum.

“Hey, we’re just having’ a good time, man.” He smiled at the guy, overestimating his charms thanks to the thick lenses of his booze-goggles.

It definitely hurt more than it helped.

“It’s Sir, and I will not repeat myself.”

“What an ass.” Coop mumbled not so subtly.

The officer’s soldiers bristled behind him.

They all stunk of booze, they were running high on getting freshly laid, and all the wrong juices were flowing. If Mike had been able to get a few more words in the whole situation could probably have been de-escalated, but Coop had been trained to seize the initiative and take action.

“Fuck you!”

“No, fuck you!”

Coop respected people like GYSGT Cunningham, PO3 Janney, Eve, Mike, MSG Smith, and even LCDR Shepherd because they’d earned that respect in his eyes. The flip side of that was Eve’s mom, who just scared the shit out of him, but the little drunk O-1 talking shit and continuing to yell at Coop was in neither of those categories.

So it wasn’t a surprise, at least from where Coop was standing, when he shattered the officer’s jaw and knocked him back into his friends.

“Oh fuck.” Were Mike’s last words before everything descended into chaos.

The rest of the HI guys didn’t know what was happening, but they saw three of four other people jump on Coop and Mike, and that was all they needed. Their blood was already pumping and they tore into the regular grunts.

Eleven HI versus twenty plus regular infantry wasn’t even a contest.

Coop ripped two guys off him and threw them in either direction. He shook another off and stomped on his chest, definitely breaking a few ribs, and he head-butted a final guy so hard he shattered his nose and cheek bones.

The whole thing was a drunken brawl, lacking the finesse and training they’d all gone through. It was all fists, feet, and blood until the last person fell and eleven HI troopers stood over the losers like angry gods.

“We need to get the fuck out of here.” Mike was the first one to come to his senses and bolt for the rear exit.

No doubt the MPs were already on the way.

“Bronco!” Coop called to the bartender and bar owner as he chugged the last of his beer that had miraculously survived the slaughter.

The old, retired soldier looked like he could bust the nanites of a battleship hull with his scowl, but he knew what to do. Coop was illegally employed as a bouncer, and if Coop went down Bronco faced a heavy fine from the base and a possible forfeiture of his liquor license.

So, with a flipped switch and a few commands from the old man’s PAD the security went down and the footage was erased.

“You owe me big time, boy.” He shouted after Coop. “Your next two shift are just to pay me back.” The fight had taken its toll on the furniture.

Coop didn’t even answer. He and the rest of his company were tearing down the alleys and getting as far away from the Buckin’ Bronco as possible. If they got caught, the MPs would be the least of their problems.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 81

Benjamin Gold

Location: CFB Constitution, Sol System, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 Commonwealth Fleet Base Constitution was the heavyweight champion of the Sol System. It was a living breathing organism more complex and confusing than any tiny human body. Fleet personnel, infantry men and women, and Ministry of War contractors moved through the fleet base like cells through the human body. Everyone had a job, everyone had a purpose, and most importantly everyone was on the move.  Millions of people moved through the station every day, and they all had somewhere to be.

It was easy to get lost in the ten kilometer thick, fifty kilometer high central spire surrounded by its six levels of docking yard rings. Those rings housed about seventy percent of First Fleet. A few assault carriers, squadrons of battleships, battlecruisers coming in and going out on patrol, regular and missile cruisers, and enough destroyers to protect commerce in the galaxy’s most populated system.

The CFB gave any first time visitor a severe case of shock and awe, and Ben found himself the unlucky victim this time around. Despite having reached the rank of lieutenant commander, he’d never been to the Sol System’s major hub of warships. The irony didn’t escape the young skipper as he set foot off the shuttle and into the massive complex. Luckily, he had a guide.

“You’re down on F-ring. That’s usually where they keep the smaller ships, or ships that are finishing their yard time.” Commander Wythe, now almost exclusively referred to as Sarah, was dressed in her CMUs.

The two golden stripes of a commander tended to offer a small bubble of privacy on the bustling anchorage, especially when she had a newly awarded red command stripes between the gold. Ben’s parents Memorial Day celebration hadn’t just been their first kiss. Sarah had also made a few contacts and secured herself a new position. Ben didn’t know how she’d done it, but a week after the party orders came down giving her command of a brand new cruiser.

She had the rank, time in grade, and experience for the position. It was the suddenness of it that was surprising. But Ben didn’t care. Not only was she the skipper of a new cruiser, but the cruiser’s mission had also suddenly changed. The new warship, just recently out of its maintenance qualifications, was headed to the York Sector with its sister ship.

As a result, Ben had given Sarah a private briefing on the Star Kingdom of Windsor. A very private and extended briefing. It was tough to beat how everything was magically falling into place, but then it got even better. Not only were they serving in the same sector, in the same task force, but the cruiser was giving his gunboat a ride out there, which meant even more time they could spend together.

Sarah had been quick to tell him that they probably wouldn’t get any time at all, but Ben still held out hope. His innocent crush might just be turning into something more.

“You are docked up in C-Ring. We can see your ship on the way to mine.” It felt a little weird talking possessively about multi-billion dollar pieces of naval warfighting technology, but he loved that she lit up every time he mentioned it.

Two skippers walking together created a path like Moses parting the Red Sea, but even with that it took nearly half an hour to get from the shuttle bay at the tip of the central spire down to C-Ring.

“There she is.” Sarah involuntarily gripped Ben’s bicep. “That’s my girl.”

There were no windows on the CFB. Windows made of polyplast or even the stronger armorplast were a tactical liability. Gunners on an enemy ship would target the feeble material and blast hole after hole into the CFB. So, instead of weakening the structural integrity of the base, designers utilized sensors to maximize the view for the base’s inhabitants. Thin, clear polyplast panels were everywhere on the inside of the thick duro-steel walls, and acted like the windows that everyone desired.

“She is beautiful.” Ben split his attention between the cruiser and the officer ordered to command it.

“She’s a new Virtue-Class. She’s got thicker armor than other cruisers; three and a half meters instead of three. She doesn’t sacrifice any speed either, and she’ll still outrun a battlecruiser. She packs a punch too. A dozen energy cannons and sixty-five missile tubes. She can throw around her weight if it’s needed.” Sarah was practically bouncing up and down on her toes. “We’re going to be a pivotal addition to the task force.”

“Yes you will.” Ben looked at the ship’s crest for CA 663 Fortitude.

<The CWS Fortitude. It is a fitting name.> The name wasn’t written on the side of the ship in white paint. That would compromise the hull’s nanite stealth function, but he’d heard Sarah gush about the ship enough over the past few weeks that he’d never forget it.

Despite her being the captain, and having the orders to prove it, the half dozen marines standing guard at the entry hatch had standing orders that no one was allowed to enter. Not even the captain, and they weren’t compelled to give a reason why.

“How about we check out Argo and then come back.” Ben stepped in when Sarah started to puff up at being denied entry to her own ship without an explanation. “I know you are looking forward to those new aspects in the design.”

That did the trick, but Sarah made sure to get the soldiers’ names and ranks.

“Sure.” The NCO in charge didn’t even hesitate. “Won’t matter though, we aren’t part of the ship’s marine detail.”

Ben half guided, half dragged Sarah away from the sergeant.

F-Ring was different from C-Ring. First off, there were a lot more berths. C-ring held the mid-class ships, mostly cruisers. The average cruiser was five hundred meters long. A gunboat was only one hundred, which meant that even with some destroyers present there were about three or four times as many ships on this ring.

“I cannot find her.” Ben pulled up the registry to find what berth Argo was sitting in.

“Classified projects won’t have their berth listed. Scan your GIC.” Sarah informed.

A soft beep and new information popped up on the subdermal PAD that projected the information through his CMUS and onto his forearm. The berth assigned to Argo was disguised as under construction. Dozens of people still walked past it every second, but they didn’t pay any attention to the workers in their contractor’s overalls, and the contractors didn’t pay any attention to them. The eight men and women went about their business until Ben and Sarah approached.

It was then that Ben spotted the weapons discretely placed within easy reach of the so-called workers.

<No one is getting onto my ship without clearance. Not unless they’d got a squad of marines as backup. Not even me.> Ben met the worker’s leader.

They didn’t exchange pleasantries. There was no, “Hello, Sir. What can I do for you, Sir?” The man just had a portable scanner. Ben held out his GIC and the man scanned it while his team looked ready to take them down if an unfavorable reading came back. Thankfully, a green light flashed and the man moved to scan Sarah.

“She’s the captain of the ship taking us to our destination, so I’m clearing her.” Ben’s words were unnecessary as the scanner beeped green again.

The worker inclined his head toward the hatch and turned back to his work. They never exchanged a single word.

“Intel guys have about as much personality as a bulkhead.” Sarah shot a look at the team over her shoulder.

“They are just doing their job.” He held the door open for her and then sealed it behind them.

Lights flickered on as the sensors identified their presence. Conservation of energy was key in space. Even on one of the biggest non-planetary structures outside of Earth-orbit they did everything they could to not waste any. The lights lead the way to a second hatch. This one was guarded by another marine with sergeant’s chevrons.

“Your GIC please, Sir.”

Ben got scanned again, and got another green light. When the soft green beep filled the air the marine slid his rifle into a clasp on his back and lifted the helmet off his head.

“Nice to finally meet you, Sir.” The marine braced to the position of attention. “I am Sergeant Cassius O’Neil. I’m the squad leader for the Argo’s marine detachment.”

“Nice to meet you, Sergeant.” Ben smiled at the infantryman and told him to relax. “Any updates I should know about?”

“The wrench-turners are finishing up the final checks over the next few days. The XO is already aboard and has worked with logistics to have them transport all of our provisions and gear in by the end of the week. She’s a brand new ship with that new ship smell, Sir. It’s blasphemous to ask for anything more from the good Lord.”

“Um…I suppose it is. Thank you, Sergeant.” The religious reference was a little weird, and Ben made a note to look into the Sergeant later.

“You recognize the accent?” Sarah asked as they opened the second hatch and entered CWS Argo. “I’m surprised you don’t with all your diplomatic studies,” she smirked when he shook his head. “That marine is from The Papal Planets, I’d guess Mark since they tend to supply the most soldiers.”

<Of course.> Ben knew all about the new home of the Roman Catholic Church among the stars.

A single system with four planets: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  It was a member of the Commonwealth, and like most Commonwealth systems was largely left alone as long as they paid their taxes, both monetary and in personnel, and ensured their system’s security was up to standards. Outside of that, the Commonwealth didn’t care what they did religiously, as long as they didn’t try and interfere with other system’s religious laws and freedoms.

He was busy recalling a paper he’d done about integrating recruits from the Papal Planets in the Commonwealth Armed Forces, and the leadership difficulties it could present, when the ship said hello.

“Hello, Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Gold. I am the Commonwealth Warship Argo’s Semi-intelligent ship’s interface. Please designate your voice preferences.”

“What?”

“Please designate voice preferences.”

It didn’t help that the voice coming out of the ship was a sexy, female, Englishwoman. Ben shot a sideways glance at Sarah, who looked like she was ready to burst out laughing.

“You’re a proud daddy now, Ben. You need to name her and then you can make her sound however you want.”

“Designate voice as female, but less…forward…if that make sense.”

“Affirmative, Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Gold.” The ship’s voice lost its sultry husk, and now sounded reasonably professional for a military warship. “Further settings can be designated on your PAD, Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Gold.”

“Please just call me Commander Gold, captain, or skipper.” Ben didn’t want the ship addressing him by his full name and rank every time they talked.

“Yes, Captain. Please designate my identity.”

“What?”

“You’re action to address you by an abbreviation of your full name and rank indicates a preference for brisk communication. Based on that preference my programing is ninety-eight percent confident that you will not wish to address me as the Argo’s semi-intelligent ship’s interface. Please designate my identity, captain.”

Ben looked around for inspiration, but there was only one thing that felt right.

“Designate yourself as…Sarah.”

“Very well, Captain. Please let me know if you require any more information.” The ship went silent.

He turned around with a grin on his face to see the human Sarah standing there with her hands on her hips.

“Really?” She tried to look irritated, but a grin kept pulling at her lips. “You just want to get laid don’t you?”

Ben thought it was best to keep his mouth shut.

“Fine.” She smiled that smile that got him every time. “But we aren’t doing it in this cramped tin can. We’re going to christen my cruiser, Gold. Understood?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

It was about as good a first day off Earth in an active duty military capacity as he could expect.

<Being a commander certainly has its perks.>

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 98

Walking alone down the sci-fi-esque corridors didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right that this was an emergency and he was hiding below ground. It didn’t feel right that the only thing different between today and any other day was that the lights were dimmer.

If this was a movie then the earth would be shaking, and he’d be stumbling down the hallway grasping at anything to remain upright. The lighting would be a dim red and flashing, and people would be running everywhere trying to fix what was obviously going wrong.

Seth didn’t see any of that as he worked his way through the HCP. He hardly saw anyone except a white-uniformed senior who told him to head to the gym.

Seth barely had to think as he worked his way toward the giant space, which wasn’t exactly a good thing. <That guy had half his fucking head blown off.>

It wasn’t every day that you walked into your living room and found a dude lying on the floor with shattered bone, blood spray, and fragments of brain-matter spewing from a giant open head wound. It was even more unlikely to find one of your barely conscious roommates only a few feet away, and it bordered on impossibility that his girlfriend would then arrive crying about how they’d been attacked.

<All of that on top of a terrorist attack.> Seth stopped to take a breath.

He wasn’t tired, but he still felt like an elephant had taken a dump on his chest. <And Liz is still out there.> He knew why Coach Meyers wouldn’t allow her down into the HCP, but the logic was overridden by the fear of someone busting into that cafeteria and shooting everyone up like swiss cheese.

Honestly, Seth didn’t know what he would do if he lost her.

“Seth!” People immediately started to call his name as he rushed through the double doors and into the gym.

The giant space still dwarfed the amount of people present, but it looked like most of the HCP was present. Or at least the portion that was still at school.

The seniors were helping to corral the students into their classes, and were getting a headcount. The three remaining class sizes varied, but everyone was wearing their uniforms.

“Abney, get your uniform on.” Coach McMillian seemed to be orchestrating the chaos, while Professor Livingston stalked through the students probably reading their minds.

<Stop dawdling and get suited up.> As if to prove a point, the professor’s voice resonated in his head. <We need to be ready at a moment’s notice.>

<Ready for what?> He didn’t get an answer to that until after he was changed and back with his class.

“As you all might know by now, shit has hit the fan out there.” Coach McMillian’s joking attitude had vanished like someone snuffed it out with a fire extinguisher. “Right now, our job is to sit tight and await further instructions. If need be, we’ll be acting as first responders or search and rescue. I’m going to break you all up into teams. Each team will be led by one of the seniors. I want you to get together, familiarize yourselves with each other’s abilities, and make plans to deal with typical emergency situations. Hopefully, we won’t be needed, but we’ll be ready if we are.”

“Hey, where were you?” Mason and Kyoshi pushed through the gathered freshman. “You’re the last one here.”

“You won’t believe this.” Seth told them about what had happened, that Liz was freaking out, Becca was getting treated by medics, and Anika was gone.

Kyoshi nearly broke down when she heard Anika had been grabbed, but she held it together. Mason, the gentle-giant, looked like he wanted to rip someone’s head off. With him, that wasn’t an exaggeration.

“Hey, where’s Angela?” Seth looked around and spotted the angelic shifter pouting in a corner.

“Her mom is out there fighting these assholes, her dad was killed by one of those assholes, and she’s stuck in here with the faint possibility that we might be able to go out when this is all over and pick through rubble looking for survivors.” Kyoshi paraphrased.

“Yeah, I guess I’d be pretty pissed too.” Seth looked at it from the other girl’s perspective.

“Abney, you’re with me.” A stocky boy in a white uniform walked over toward him. “I need the members of my team to pay attention or someone could get hurt.”

“Sorry.” Seth’s apology didn’t come off very apologetic. “I’ll be right there.” He turned back to his friends, roommates, and people he’d sweated out the freshman year of the HCP with. “Be careful, please.”

Mason just nodded. The motion conveying all the emotions the big man was feeling. Kyoshi was a bit different. She could feel Seth’s fear, trepidation, excitement, and worry. Her eyes watered, and she opened her mouth to say something, but then snapped it shut after nothing came out. After a second she mirrored Mason’s nod.

That was good enough for Seth. He walked over to the senior, who was tapping his foot like an impatient grade-school teacher.

“Ok, let’s do this.”

 

***

 

Things were getting hot and heavy quick, and not in a good way. Wraith and Armsman had escaped from their short fight with Seraphim, but that didn’t mean they were out of the woods yet. Technically, they were adjacent to the woods right now. Their third fallback position was behind where her father and Seif al-Din were about to take on the Heroes, and they arrived just in time to see the whole fucking world explode.

Dirt, trees, and even a metal man when flying in every direction. Windows shattered as fire raced to engulf everything. The concussive blast felt like someone took a hammer to her, but Lilly shook it off.

<Boom goes the dynamite motherfuckers.> Her laugh got overridden by a cough as the dust and debris started to settle back down.

The third position didn’t have the vantage point of the second, or at least it didn’t a few seconds ago. Now, Lilly had a pretty clear shot at her father and the Heroes from the side yard of the house she was standing next to.

“Get ready.” Armsman dropped the large rifle he’d been using and pulled his katana out of its scabbard.

Lilly was about to ask what he meant when the enemy arrived, and she got her answer.

<If we can see them, then they sure as shit can see us.>

Four men in fatigues appeared out of nowhere in front of them and immediately went on the attack. One immediately disappeared, leaving just three, but that still left them outnumbered. Also, being flexcuffed at the ankle limited their tactical options.

One man’s hands crackled with electricity and he lunged at Armsman. The aged villain took it like a man. He rolled with the punch as it grazed his face. The soldier obviously thought it was going to put the old man on his ass. He didn’t expect for the electricity surging through him to zap out of existence the moment he punched him.

And he sure as shit didn’t expect Armsman to step into him and impale him with the sword.

“They never fucking learn.” Armsman unsheathed the sword from the surprised looking soldier’s chest with a loud sucking sound.

The soldier stood upright for a second before toppling over. That gave Lilly enough time to reach for her guns.

She brought them up, but couldn’t get a shot off before a blur of camouflage slapped the gun from her hand.

<Ugh…I fucking hate speedsters.>

The soldier in question skidded to a stop, his boots grinding up perfectly manicured grass.

<Well, at least he’s got limits.> The cool skidding move wasn’t for show. The guy literally couldn’t turn as his super speed, so he had to run quickly in straight lines, stop, reorient, and then attack again. Lilly could work with that.

But not attached to Armsman like they were a two-person chain gang.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Armsman hissed as Lilly whipped out a knife, kneeled, and cut through the flexcuff in one smooth motion.

“Sure, Reaper might suck the life out of me, but if I can’t move Speedy McSpeederton over there is going to whoop my ass anyway.” Lilly straightened just as the speedster looked ready to strike again.

The third soldier looked content to keep his distance and force the two villains to split their attention.

“Your funeral, kid.” Armsman kept his eyes on the threat. He might love Lilly like blood, but if it was his ass or hers, his won every time.

“Ready…move.” The speedster vanished, and so did Lilly, plunging the whole area into darkness.

She appeared behind the third soldier. Nobody could see, feel, or hear anything but her. The speedster had stopped when the lights had gone out. The third soldier remained rooted in place, and Armsman was running through a precise set of forms to ensure no one caught him off-guard.

<I can work with that.> Lilly planted her foot into the third soldier’s lower back.

The man, caught totally by surprise, stumbled forward into Armsman’s powerful swing. The darkness dissipating replaced the eerie calm with the screams of the man. The old supervillain’s sword was buried deep in the man’s thigh. He yanked it out, and with a simple flourish decapitated the soldier.

“I need back up, I’ve got two men down.” The speedster had sped away to get some distance while still keeping an eye on the two villains.

Lilly didn’t hear the reply, but she felt it. The round punched her in the back like the hand of fucking God. Her tech genius designed body armor saved her life, but that didn’t stop it from hurting like a motherfucker.

Her scream snapped Armsman’s head in her direction at about the same time Seraphim landed back in their midst. This time the demon woman didn’t wait, she whipped her tail around and launched her barbs. The target was Armsman as the perceived greater threat. Lilly would have taken more offense to being considered the less dangerous one, but she was too busy rolling on the ground in pain.

“Nice try.” The barbs turned to dust the moment they touched Armsman. They didn’t even pierce his clothing.

“Worth a shot.” Seraphim produced her own blade and started to circle Armsman. “I’ve always wanted to take you down. People talk about you like you’re the boogeyman. All I see is an old man trying to stay in the game long past his prime.”

Lilly chuckled painfully at Seraphim’s attempt to get into Armsman’s head. That place was already fucked up beyond anything the Hero could imagine, which explained why Armsman laughed off her goading like it was a polite joke at a dinner party.

“Hush, little girl. If you run off and let the big boys play, then I won’t chop you up into sushi.”

Seraphim bristled at the comment. She probably hadn’t been called a little girl in thirty years.

Lilly slowly started to regain her breath, but she stayed down. Either a sniper had taken a shot at her, or there was a ranged combat Super with the ForceOps crew. Either way she didn’t want to give the guy a second shot.

<Ok, so we need to kill Seraphim, then get Dad and Seif al-Din, and then get the fuck out of here.> That had been the plan. Draw in a lot of Heroes, ambush them, fuck’em up a little, do a fighting retreat, and then get out.

Lilly had already captured the objective, so there wasn’t much else to do other than rampage, rape, and pillage a little. And the other terrorist teams were likely taking care of those parts if they weren’t dead already.

“This is fun and all, but I’ve got better places to be.” Lilly rolled, pulled one of her Glock’s from it holster, and unloaded on Seraphim.

Since it wasn’t the electromagnetic rifle the shots barely budged the woman.

“What’s wrong, Wraith. You blow your whole load on that last shot.”

The shots might not have hurt, but they took the demon’s attention off Armsman for a split second. He sprung at her. Their swords met in a clash of steel, but that wasn’t the most impressive part. Seraphim was able to bat the old villain’s blade away with her superior strength, but it left her vulnerable. Armsman abandoned the blade in favor of a grapple, trapping the Hero’s extended arm between them so she couldn’t reverse her attack and bisect him. With a different opponent, she would have been able to do just that, but the second Armsman got a hold of her a ripple went through her body. One moment the old nullifier was grappling with a tall, strong, winged demon creature and the next a woman stood in her place.

Her face was still masked, but Lilly spotted vulnerability in her eyes as Armsman overpowered her and they both went crashing to the ground.

<Gotta kill that bitch.> Lilly tried to get a clean shot with her gun, but Seraphim and Armsman were too busy rolling around on the ground and fighting for position.

<Almost…>

The ground shuddered like another explosion had torn into the park, but this time there was no fire and debris. A second shudder a few seconds later, and a shadow passed over the three Supers.

Lilly couldn’t help herself. She peeked behind her to take a look just as the world exploded in an ear-splitting roar.

 

***

 

Daisy had him. She had Hellgate by the balls and they both knew it. It was a surreal experience that she’d been waiting decades to feel. She’d fought this asshole dozens of times. Sometimes it was small scuffles like the disaster at the Sprout coffee shop. Other times it was a presidential assassination attempt like the first Memorial Day parade. Until now, the man had always been too slippery, or had been hiding behind Armsman.

<Not this time, fucker.>

As sweet and savory as the emotions flooding through her were, she uncharacteristically hesitated. The old Reaper would have torn the experienced supervillain’s life thread to shreds and watched him die with no remorse. But that wasn’t Daisy anymore. That wasn’t what she had become, and she didn’t want to go back.

<Things are…better now.> She hesitantly described her life.

She thought of Topher, her fellow HCP professors, her friends, and even some of her more tolerable students. She didn’t want to throw all that away.

<Where the hell is Dispatch when you need her.> Daisy didn’t have a clue where her earpiece had been blasted to during the explosion, and she knew she couldn’t take her eyes off the villain to find it.

<Leeching it is.> She finally decided, and squeezed.

Hellgate immediately doubled over and made retching noises.

<Gross.> She’d puked in her mask before when a criminal messed with her inner ear.

The man reached up with trembling hands to lift his mask just enough for the chunks of food and bile to spill out. Whatever frightening effect his devil mask had on Daisy at one time vanished with that image. <I wish I had a camera.> She could have shattered the illusion of the legendary villain in one thirty second YouTube video.

Daisy was so busy thinking about what she should be doing with Hellgate that she forgot her own rule that she’d drilled into the freshman all year long.

Constant Vigilance.

Iron Giant had smashed into Seif al-Din like a humanoid missile, but then she’d lost track of them. Now that was going to come back and take a chunk out of her well-toned ass.

The sudden shudder or the ground made her move for cover at first. She thought someone was still launching RPG’s into the park. But then a second shudder made several nearby tree corpses shudder. And then an ear-splitting roar nearly knocked her off her feet.

She turned around as a shadow fell over her and almost pissed herself.

Seif al-Din had arrived. Not the handsome, charismatic middle aged terrorist leader with his expensive suits and talk of killing the Zionist imperialists. No, this was the Seif al-Din that nations feared. This was the creature that destroyed part of New York and took nearly an entire Hero team with him. This was the creature that Daisy was supposed to kill if given the go ahead.

Seif al-Din was a healer with adaptive shifting, which meant his shifted form healed into something stronger when it was injured. What resulted after a decade or two of fighting everything from Mosad assassins to the U.S. Army’s M1 Abrams tank was a nightmare.

The thing stood roughly fifty feet tall, but it was hard to tell with all the trees in the area cut down to size by the initial explosion. His legs were thicker than the three remaining tree trunks put together, but still looked humanoid, with the exception that his skin looked like a bad patchwork quilt. The majority of his flesh looked like a mix between gray stone and scales, but Daisy got the impression that it was strong. Other parts were the tan of his normal flesh, while others were charred black. She didn’t know what the difference was, and she didn’t have time to think.

One of his feet was descending toward her with the intent of squashing her like a bug. The foot was normal for a human, despite the size, except for the big toe. That toe curled into a giant claw that dug into the dirt where Daisy had been standing before jumping away.

The jump saved her life, and it also helped against the strain that her full kinetic battery was taking on her. She went from feeling like her soul was being stretched to the breaking point to extreme discomfort.

“Reaper.” Despite the grotesqueness of the creature trying to curb stomp her, it’s voice retained the culture, accented voice of the terrorist leader. “It has been quite a few years since I’ve looked down on you like this.”

Unlike last time, this time Daisy actually got to see his face. And she almost puked.

His head looked more insectoid than human or reptilian. A dozen eyes dotted a round, vaguely human shaded head. The adaptation gave him a full three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of his surroundings, so if he was paying attention there was no way to sneak up on him. It was a great tactical advantage, but she had to believe it must give him a headache.

“I made you a promise last time, and I’m here to make good on it.”

The creature’s maw opened and spoke, revealing razor sharp teeth perfect for tearing flesh from bone. His nostrils weren’t more than tiny slits above that, and it left Daisy wondering how the creature got enough oxygen to stay alive.

“Are you just going to sit there and blabber or are you going to fight you giant fucking Jurassic Park reject!” Daisy couldn’t help but taunt the beast.

“Very well.” The thing smiled and she could see its giant, bulging muscles coil and prepare to spring its death trap for her.

And that left her in another conundrum. Did she let Hellgate go to focus on the more dangerous threat, or did she eliminate him so he couldn’t stab her or the other Heroes in the back once he got his shit together?

She had to move before she made the decision because she didn’t want to be a pancake. Seif al-Din sprang at her and it felt like a mountain suddenly grew legs to stomp on the nearby villagers. Thankfully, Daisy wasn’t alone in this.

Seif al-Din saw it coming, but there wasn’t much he could do in midair. Iron Giant smacked into the creature’s ribs. The impact rocked the world like a thunderclap. The unstoppable thing meeting the unmovable object, but Seif al-Din didn’t scream out in pain. He gave a grunt and snapped at the metal man who’d practically imbedded himself the terrorist’s torso. Thunderclap after thunderclap rocked the clear sky of Orlando as the Hero unloaded his powerful punches on the beast.

John could have been screaming his defiance or years of built up rage as he hammered Seif al-Din back into the ground. Buildings shook and collapsed from the impact. Then he started to drive the creature back away from Daisy and the rest of the Heroes.

That gave her a second to think, but there wasn’t much she had to think about. The threat was clear and the danger was present. She couldn’t allow Hellgate to just walk away from this, or let him bring his teleportation back into the fight. It was too dangerous, and one misstep from Daisy or John could leave any number of Heroes, soldiers, or innocent civilians dead.

She knew what she had to do.

Hellgate was about a hundred yards away and struggling back to his feet. She’d been forced to stop leeching from him to concentrate on Seif al-Din, but John had bought her the time she needed.

She turned back toward Hellgate, found his life line standing lonely and alone in her mind’s eye, and grabbed it for a second time. But this time it would be the last.

 

***

 

<Fuck me.> Lilly couldn’t help but be impressed by the sheer size of the beast rising up from the shattered remains of the park. <I do not one be on that thing’s bad side.> She made a mental note to apologize to the monster for some of the comments she’d made, but not all of them. Some of them, especially toward the misogynistic fucktard Damascus were warranted.

“Son of a bitch!” Armsman hollered from behind her.

The hand-to-hand combat expert had succeeded in getting Seraphim into a headlock, but the women had buried her teeth into his forearm and was busy trying to chew his arm off.

“Let me get a shot!” Lilly felt adrenaline pump into her as she aimed her Glock at the struggling pair. “Come on, Armsman, I got the husband, let me have the wife too.”

The old man looked a little annoyed at her childish exuberance, but he released the woman and dove to the side. Immediately, it looked like the woman started to melt.

“Gross!” Lilly yelled as she pulled the trigger and emptied the entire clip into a real-life example of the wicked witch of the west’s demise.

“You’ve got to be shitting me!” Armsman roared as the melting finished and a winged Seraphim launched herself back into the air.

It wasn’t a flawless leap. One wing looked like it was struggling to hold up her weight, she wasn’t flying straight, and quite a few large drops of blood fell back down to the ground as she struggled to gain altitude and escape.

“Yeah, you better run.” Lilly reloaded and fired off a few more rounds at the Hero’s retreating back, but it was beyond her pistol’s range and she didn’t hit shit.

Still, it felt good to kick Seraphim’s ass this time.

Armsman didn’t look so happy. “You let the bitch get away!”

“I fucking shot her full of holes!” Lilly held up the empty magazine. “It’s not my fault she can fucking melt like that. That’s creepy as fuck, but I bet she’s going to be out of the fight for a bit.”

Lilly looked around for more threats just as the sky seemed to crack open around them. She looked up, thinking some military jet was breaking the sound barrier on an attack run, but all she saw was the giant creature stumbling back as a gleaming metal figure a fraction of its size pounded away at its chest.

<That can’t be good.> They were heading in their direction.

“We need to go.” Lilly grabbed her uncle’s hand and they vanished out of the duo’s destructive path.

They reappeared close to their second fallback position, which had a much better view of the park now that most of the trees where shattered husks.

What she saw made her heart stop.

Her father was a few hundred yards from her, struggling to get to his feet. Less than a football field away from him was Reaper. The Hero’s head was moving back and forth between the beast being beaten backward by her ally and Lilly’s father. She couldn’t see the conflict on the Hero’s face, but her focus on Hellgate instead of Seif al-Din sent flashed crimson warning signs in Lilly’s mind.

Then, her father who was standing with his hands on his knees collapsed.

<NO!>

She didn’t even think. She teleported to her father’s side in a blast of expanding darkness. Before the darkness had dissipated, she had him in her arms, and a second blast took them back to where Armsman was waiting to put his protective hands on both of them.

Previous

I’m on TDY from Hell – True Power

Captain Icilius strode back and forth in front of the five men standing at attention. His eyes bore into each and every one of them. Gerald took the gaze for what it was meant to be; an inspection of their worthiness. Gerald was still scared of the Captain; and he should be, but he knew today wasn’t about intimidation. Today was the start of something new.

“You five are the most worthy of my company.” The captain didn’t have to call out like he was addressing his entire hundred-man unit, but he did anyway. “Don’t take that as a compliment.” His eyes dared anyone to think he was actually being nice. “Being the smartest of the stupid still means you are stupid, but you have shown enough skill in battle that I can be confident you won’t get killed immediately.”

The captain stopped walking back and forth to stand at the center of the formation. “Because of your mild aptitude you are being given a gift by your lord and master.”

Gerald waited with his eyes locked forward and his chin held high, but nothing happened. He knew better than to look around so he continued to stand there and do nothing.

<I’ve seen people get killed by our lovely Captain for flinching and ruining his big speeches.> Gerald suppressed a shudder. He hoped he survived this gift.

“For the first time in your miserable lives you are going to be given real power.”

And that’s when it happened.

Gerald felt a pressure inside himself. He struggled to breath and remain at the position of attention as something warm and invigorating filled him. It was the first time since he stepped out of Prince Seere’s golden hall than Gerald hadn’t felt cold. In fact, for a brief moment, he felt whole.

Just as suddenly as it started, it stopped. Gerald and the other four soldiers collectively exhaled from the experience. The Captain had been right. It was the best Gerald had ever felt, but like everything in Hell it came with a downside. That feeling was fleeting and it left him wanting more.

“You’ve been gifted with a trickle of power. Something so minuscule compared to our Lord’s supreme dominance that there isn’t even a unit of measurement to describe its insignificance.” The Captain glowered at them.

Gerald daydreamed for a second about what it must be like to have so much power, but quickly banished the thought. Thinking like that was a sure way to get killed. Having your head in the clouds was a good way to lose it.

“Now that you have power, I am going to teach you how to use it.”

Gerald was understandably reluctant to be taught by the ridged man. After all, the first time he’d been taught something new the Captain’s spear had ended up in his gut.

“Power can be used in a variety of ways.”

Two soldiers brought out a thick log and placed it upright next to the Captain. Without looking the Captain unsheathed his sword and took a swing at the log. A loud THUMP echoed through the small clearing as the blade dug partially into the wood.

“You can use it to be stronger.”

Gerald’s eyes widened as the Captain visibly grew large and bulkier. Veins popped and the Captains eyes went wild as he swelled. With a short yell the Captain drew a second sword and slashed at the wood. The wood practically exploded around the point of impact. The blade didn’t go all the way through, but it did send the log flying a few dozen feet backwards and tumbling to the ground.

Gerald gulped as the Captain turned and pointed his sword at them.

“Strength and durability is valuable. But you can be the strongest infernal in Hell and be worthless if you can’t hit anything.” The Captain’s figure blurred and suddenly he was standing by the battered log several dozen feet away.

Gerald hadn’t been able to follow the man’s movement.

“Speed and strength together are much better than either alone.” The Captain effortlessly lifted the trunk, which must had weighed a thousand pounds, and walked it back over to the five soldiers. “But most of us don’t have the luxury of having both in sufficient quantity.”

Once the Captain dropped the tree his body shrunk back to his normal short and stocky shape.

“Power also gives us the ability to influence things and shape them to our will or empower them to function how we want them too.”

The Captain took his sword and held it out in front of him. For a moment he just stood there staring at it.

<Wow.> Gerald thought as the blade’s edge seemed to flicker in and out of existence.

The captain gave it a casual flick and it cleanly sliced through the thick log. The ground shook slightly as the chunk of wood crashed to the ground. He went over to the dislodged piece, his muscles bulge again, and he picked it up. He walked back over to the man standing next to Gerald.

“Hold out your arms,” the officer commanded.

The man gulped but did what he was told.

“Find that power you felt. It could be in your mind, your gut, your heart, or your cock. Wherever it is, grab it firmly and believe. If you believe you are strong you will be strong. If you believe you are fast you will be fast.”

A fire burned in the Captain’s eye as he said this. Gerald would never forget that look. It was total, unabashed greed. It was the look of someone who wanted something so bad they would do anything, or be anything to get it.

It was in that moment that Gerald vowed he would do his best to get in the Captain’s good-graces, because a man who was willing to do anything for something was a man that could be trusted ─ up to a point.

<As long as we have a mutual goal this could work.> Gerald thought through the impromptu plan, because deep down he knew he was just as greedy as the Captain.

The fleeting satisfaction from the rush of power was something Gerald knew he would always want. If the Captain could help him get it, then the ends justified the means.

The man standing next to Gerald’s muscles vibrated, but didn’t bulge. The Captain didn’t care. He dropped the heavy log into the unprepared man’s arms. The man collapsed under the weight with a painful cry.

“Practice is the key to success.” The Captain walked away ignoring the man’spainful sobs. “Practice this and you can be great. If you are great, our Lord will give you more. As your prestige rises so will your power.”

<Good enough for me.> Gerald smiled, and started to practice.

 

***

 

Gerald brought his weapon down in an overhead swing. He’d perfected the technique cutting wood for the winters back in Massachusetts when he was alive, and had adapted it to crushing skulls on the battlefields of Hell. In this instance, he was aiming for the ground instead of wood, and his weapon of choice was an ultra-dense warhammer instead of an axe. But the effect was the same.

The ground split in front of him. The crack extended about fifty meters and the ground crumbled away. Hundreds of Beelzebub’s monstrosities were pushed into the fissure by the weight of their own army. The attack didn’t last long. Less than a minute passed before the ground sealed itself up.

Gerald could see behind him thanks to his power, so he saw to two creatures trying to sneak up on him. One of those got a bladed wingtip through the throat and the other was swatted halfway to the horizon by a backward swing of the warhammer.

Gerald jumped into the air and flapped his wings to gain elevation. Once he was high enough he surveyed the battle.

The situation was not good.

The airborne regiment that had flown into the enemy air support’s flank was all dead. Gerald had found the dual swords of the regimental commander and used them to dispatch a second enemy knight and absorb that creatures remaining power. General Icilius was executing his plan flawlessly, but it wouldn’t be enough. A wall of artillery explosions hammered the enemy horde about a third of the way deep into their formation. The shield-wall was fighting savagely with the front third and slowly advancing, but the amount of bodies they were leaving behind showed the high price the legions were paying.

A small, flying blur collided with Gerald knocking him toward the ground. It was scaly, slick and all teeth and claws. It crawled all over Gerald’s massive torso trying to bite or scrape at his flesh. All it did was uselessly scratch against Infernal Iron. Finally, Gerald got his hand around the creature’s neck and squeezed until the things head popped off.

<Little shit.> He growled, flicking his gauntleted hand to get the slime off.

Gerald used more power to heighten his perception of time. The battle slowed to a crawl, as he turned to survey it. Thankfully, he’d taken the time because another one of the critters was flying in slow motion toward him. With a thought Gerald enhanced his vision and saw another three following farther back. He traced the trajectory back to its origin and smiled.

<Jackpot.>

Gerald let go of his enhanced perception and dodged left. The flying critter rocketed past him and straight into the fiery explosions of the artillery wall. Gerald ignored the things shriek and shot toward his goal. In the back section of the lines, situated around a number of large soldiers, firing the little creatures at him was the enemy General.

Gerald could tell it was him by the blatant ostentatiousness of the outfit. The patchwork creature had an overlarge man’s head on top of what looked like a hippopotamus’ body with stubby ostrich legs. He was wearing a cloak of multi-colored feathers larger and broader than the first knight Gerald slew. There was no mistaking the thing as anything but a General.

And the General saw Gerald coming.

With a thought, and influx of power, Gerald’s weapon became his trusty molecularly-honed spear again. He crashed into the General’s guard impaling the first creature through the throat. The thing gave a death-squawk as Gerald rolled and came up on one knee. He spun three-hundred and sixty degrees, slicking through unarmored thighs and knees with ease. Half the guards went down unable to move while the other half gushed blood.

Gerald ducked under the swing of a sword, pulled a dagger from his belt, and tossed it at the offender. The dagger passed through the swordsmen’s groin and imbedded itself into the ground. The swordsmen wouldn’t be getting up again anytime soon. Gerald used his own spear to thrust, hack, parry, and bludgeon his way toward the enemy general.

More of the little creatures tried to overwhelm him, but Gerald unleashed a torrent of flame from his mouth. Whatever the slimy part of the creatures was it was combustible. A dozen of the annoying beings exploded with enough force to kill a few of the nearby guards.

Soon there were only a few guards and the general left. The guards charged Gerald together, coordinating their attacks and doing their best to stop him. But Gerald was an Infernal Knight for a reason, and one by one the guards lost their heads or other important body parts.

As the last guard fell Gerald turned toward the general and…

…the next thing Gerald knew he was regaining consciousness. He shook his head and looked around. He was at the bottom of a large furrow. Dozens of bodies cushioned him, and by the scent and sticky sensation most were leaking flesh-bags whose internal skeletal structure had been reduced to powder.

<Clever bastard.> Gerald gave himself another good shake and launched himself into the air and back toward the General.

The monstrous leader stood tall with what passed for a sickening grin on his ashen colored face. Gerald hadn’t realized it before but only one of the arms on the creature’s body was a normal human arm. It looked miniscule and unusable on the thing’s bulky torso, but now Gerald saw it as the ruse it was. The General’s other arm was larger, considerably stronger, and ended in a fist the size of a horse-drawn carriage.

A single punch from that arm had knocked Gerald out cold. It was only for a few seconds, but Gerald couldn’t let that happen again. The possibility of drowning in the enemy horde was a real possibility.

Gerald charged back at the bulbous enemy General and swung at his torso on the side opposite from his powerful arm. The creature danced backward much more nimbly that something its size should ever be capable of, but not fast enough. Gerald’s blade cut deep and blood splattered the ground.

It only oozed for a second before it stitched itself closed, and the general’s face twisted into a superior sneer. Then it attacked.

Gerald barely got out of the way of the fist. It struck nothing but air, but the power of the blow continued long after the physical appendage ended. Several ranks in front of the General were flattened by the after-force of the strike.

<I can’t even be near that fist.> Gerald dived under it as the General tried to backhand him and dug a shallow furrow as a result.

As the huge hand passed overhead Gerald jabbed it with poisoned spikes from his gauntlet. The General let out a roar of pain and stumbled backward. The black spider web of poison started to crawl across his massive palm, but it didn’t make it far.

<Damn.> Gerald jumped into the air to avoid a follow-up hammer-fisted smash.

He realized his mistake a moment too late.

The pressure wave from the General’s punch washed over Gerald and sent him spinning away head over ass. He extended his wings fully to stop his tumble hundreds of meters from his target, and beat them powerfully into a dive and regain the momentum of the attack.

Seere’s legions would be turned to ash within the hour if he failed.

<I need a distraction.>

Gerald knew exactly what he needed to do.

He dodged the waves of pressure, or powered through them, as he closed on the enemy General’s position. He landed with a loud THUD, cracking the ground again, and throwing the massive leader off balance. Those stubby legs weren’t well made for fighting a maneuverable opponent.

Then he charged straight at the enemy. The General might be the leader of Beelzebub’s legions, but he still had the same trait as all of the enemy Lord’s creations. They relied as much on animal instincts as they did on rational thought.

Gerald was going to use both of them against the thing.

Gerald roared a challenge as he crossed the space, building up his energy for a powerful blow. At the last second he flapped one wing to dodge to the side. The General’s fist followed him to deliver its own blow.

Or at least that’s what the General thought was happening.

What Gerald did instead had taken an unknown amount of time to master. Quicker than a flash, Gerald cloaked himself in layers of light that made him appear invisible, while at the same time creating an illusionary copy of himself. The copy dodged to the side in a feint that drew the attention and the fist of the General.

The wave of pressure hit the doppelganger as it lunged for its imaginary strike. The force of the strike blasted the illusionary copy out of existence. Only then did Gerald drop his cloak and thrust his spear forward with enough force to make a mountain shudder.

Gerald felt the power within him get cut in half with the force it took to land that blow, but it was worth it. The spear tip, which flickered in and out of existence it was so sharp, penetrated the turned neck of the General. With a surge of effort that drained even more power, Gerald drove the spear upward into the General’s brain.

It was a guess that the leader’s brain was there in the first place, but no one decided to have a human head and not put the brain where it was supposed to be. Beelzebub wasn’t that creative.

The General’s body shuddered. Gerald let go of his imbedded spear and rained several poisoned blows into the creature’s legs and torso just to make sure. Finally, after a several seconds of twitching and foaming at the mouth, the patchwork General pitched forward onto the ground and died.

The effect on the battle was immediate. The control the fallen General had been exerting over the half-mad creatures was gone, making them fully crazy. They attacked anything they could reach. And for most of them that meant each other.

Whatever remaining champions Beelzebub had on the battlefield tried to restore some semblance of control, but they didn’t have the skill or the power the General possessed; a good fraction of which flowed into Gerald as he replenished most of his lost strength.

<Time to end this.> Gerald wrenched his spear out of the fallen General and started to carve a new path through the horde.

The leadership might be decimated but Seere’s forces still had to put down tens of thousands of rabid abominations before they could go home.

Previous                                                            Next

Two Worlds – Chapter 80

Ezekiel Mackintosh

Location: Capitol City, New Washington, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Esteemed members of this most revered Council of Representatives, the time to act is now!” The Prime Minister smacked his hand like a gavel on top of the podium.

The sound echoed across the gigantic splendor of the Hall of Representatives. The Hall, as it was commonly called, incorporated the neoclassical style of the original Washington D.C. while infusing modernist elements. White marble columns dozens of meters tall ringed the central chamber and provided the foundation for a dome. Polyplast screens on the inside of the dome gave the appearance that it was open and allowed the representatives to stare into the clear blue sky of Capitol City.

Normally that feature was on, but the importance of the speech led the Prime Minister’s team to disable it for the duration of the speech. They didn’t need some Spyder Assault shuttle on patrol ruining the gravitas of the moment.

“This isn’t about you,” Ezekiel pointed at a pre-selected representative in the crowd, “and this isn’t about me.” He smacked his chest with passion. “This is about our children and our children’s children. We cannot leave them behind in the race for knowledge. That is why I stand here before you today.” The Prime Minister made sure to straighten to his full one hundred and ninety-nine-centimeter height. “Because it is up to us to ensure the continued prosperity of our Commonwealth. Our union is built on a foundation of principles: basic rights for the human race as it continues to expand throughout the galaxy, a common defense against those who would seek to do us harm, and free trade among our member system to ensure economic success. And I would put forward to all members of this august body that a strong, centralized, and standardized education system is not only necessary but prudent to ensure our Commonwealth’s basic principles are safeguarded.”

Applause rose up from the assembly and Ezekiel took the time to take a step back and smile for the cameras. The cameras panning the audience wouldn’t focus in on the section of seating designated for the Eagle Party, where no one was clapping or looking particularly happy. They would focus the high definition footage on the Progressive and New Labor parties whose alliance held a slim majority in the government.

<Optics is everything.> Ezekiel kept his award-winning smile plastered on his face until the applause finally dissipated.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it is my duty as your Prime Minister to see this measure through. It is with conviction that I put before you this act to create, fund, and administer a unified Commonwealth education program. This program will uphold the highest standards of excellence so our children can exit our schools and step right into productive positions in our galactic society.”

<Thunderous applause…good camera shots…and that’s a wrap.> The Prime Minister took a full step back and to the side of the podium. The holographic text that only he could see winked out of existence, and he descended the dais to greet and shake hands with the growing crowd of representatives.

The Council of Representatives, the United Commonwealth of Colonies governing body, was designed around simplicity. Each planet with Commonwealth membership received a single representative seat, and one vote in all matters under the purview of the council. Currently, there were one hundred and sixty-six colonized systems under the Commonwealth banner in explored space. Within those one hundred and sixty-six systems there were five hundred and four colonized planets. In addition, there were another several dozen systems and nearly fifty planets currently being considered for Commonwealth membership, but the process took upwards of five years to be completed.

To be elected a Prime Minister needed two hundred and fifty-three votes, and it needed to hold that majority through their term. Losing that majority, even on a single vote, could lead to a vote of no confidence in the PM’s leadership. Currently, Ezekiel’s Progressive-New Labor alliance held two hundred and fifty-nine votes, and that was much too close for comfort for the agenda he was proposing.

Systems typically allied themselves together to exert more leverage in the voting process, so although there was equal representation on a planet by planet basis, some systems held more sway than others. As the PM descended the dais, he focused in on some of those more influential voting blocks.

“Fantastic speech, Mr. Prime Minister. Very inspiring.”

“Our children really are the most important issue of this administration. You have my full support.”

“We stand behind you one hundred percent, Sir.”

The single system ass kissers always got to him first. He was pretty sure elbows were thrown and noses were bloodied in the race to get to him first, but he had to be cordial to them all. <I need every vote I can get.>

“Representative Summers, thank you for being here today.” Ezekiel finally broke through the more insignificant politicians and got to one of the big fish.

The representative from the planet, Baja, the largest of the four planets in the Alta California system, raised an eyebrow and the PM’s arrival.

“Buenos dias, Mr. Prime Minister. It is my duty to be at all of these events. How else can we effectively govern?”

<At least it’s an opening.> Ezekiel pressed on.

Normally, Baja and Alta California sided with the Eagle Party due to their precarious position bordering several Blockie systems. But today, the PM felt he had a chance. The education system in the system, especially Baja, was one of the worst in the Commonwealth. They had high unemployment and growing discontent with voters age eighteen to thirty. The PM’s plan for education reform was aimed directly at systems with these issues, and turning Summers to the Progressive side for this vote would give Ezekiel some breathing room.

The Prime Minister was about to get into it and earn the representative’s vote when a strong hand clasped down on his shoulder.

“Sir.” The single word was grumbled reluctantly.

Ezekiel knew that voice, and turned to regard its owner with surprises and a little irritation.

“High Admiral Gilmore, what can I do for you today?” The PM looked behind the stout leader of the Commonwealth military, the representative for the military capitol world Asgard, loyal Eagle Party member and saw Connie Price with a no-nonsense look on her face.

“Mr. Prime Minister, I need a word with you in private.” The only Admiral with six golden stripes down his CMUs inclined his head toward one of the doors exiting the Hall.

Ezekiel looked to Connie who gave him a curt nod.

“Very well, Representative Summers.” He turned, but the Baja representative had already walked off.

<Damn!> He felt like an idiot standing there, so he marched across the room with a determined look on his face.

His security detail closed around him before he reached the exit and cleared the hallway by the time he made it through the door with the high admiral and his chief of staff in tow. Thy walked a short way down the hall to a marked shield room. The PM didn’t think the admiral would want to talk anywhere else. You didn’t get to be the leader of the galaxy’s largest military force with loose lips.

Once door shut behind them, and their PAD’s squawked sadly as they lost connectivity, the PM turned on the admiral.

“Xander, this is highly irregular.” The PM didn’t both to control his emotions. “Butting in like that during a political gathering…”

“I could say the same thing about your attempt to broaden Commonwealth powers beyond security, trade, and taxation, Ezekiel,” the admiral fired back. “But that’s not why I pulled you away.”

There was a hissing sound as the door reopened and the room’s three occupants went silent.

“I hope I’m not disturbing you.”

All three members of government relaxed as another admiral with five golden stripes walked in.

“Thank you for coming so quickly, Sonya.” The high admiral shook the chief of naval intelligence’s hand and guested for everyone to have a seat.

Ezekiel claimed the one at the head fo the table while Sonya began to activate the room’s holo-projectors.

“We have three matters of importance to discuss with you, Mr. Prime Minister.” The intel chief began with a nod from her superior. “First is an update on what is happening in York Sector.”

The PM looked over his shoulder to Connie who quickly angled her PAD for him to read.

“Yes, those new colonization efforts out on the Rim. Is something wrong?”

Sonya didn’t have to say anything. She just played the recorded sensor data from the Lancelot and Galahad as they retook System 1552.

“Jesus.” The PM wasn’t a military expert, but he knew enough about sensor data to see the big points. “They fired on us, why?”

“We believe they’ve reached some type of accord with the Star Kingdom of Windsor, Sir.”

The PM saw something pass between Berg and Gilmore, but his mind was too busy wrapping his head around what this meant for his domestic agenda.

<Fuck!> As a political rule he didn’t like to curse, but this situation warranted it.

“Trying to cut our supply lines is an act of war, Sir.” The high admiral stated bluntly when the PM failed to respond.

“And that’s not all.” The intelligence officer queued up another holo-recording. “Four days ago, there was a skirmish in contested space near the Syracuse system. As ordered, elements of the eight and sixth fleet conducting border enforcement operations consolidated and began to recon in force due to the Blockie’s sixth fleet’s presence in the area. Since then it has been a game of cat and mouse.”

<How the hell can you be playing cat and mouse with a fleet of two hundred plus warships.> The PM didn’t understand that part, but he didn’t dwell on it.

“We believe the skirmish resulted when two advanced echelons transitioned into the same system here.” The system in question was less than three light years from Syracuse. For all the PM knew, they could be fighting a battle for that crucial systems right now.

“We’ve been in contact with Syracuse system defense and everything is still online, and they are on high alert.” The high admiral read the PM’s mind before motioning for Berg to continue.

“Two or our cruisers scouting the way for the main consolidated fleet encountered a Blockie battlecruiser and three destroyers here. The senior captain of the cruiser pair ordered the Blockie task force to exit the system. The Blockie captain told our ships to exit the system. They danced back and forth, with non-political language until they started shooting at each other.”

“Did we win?” The PM knew it was a stupid question the second it came out of his mouth.

“We hit their battlecruiser pretty good and destroy one of their destroyers, Sir, but we lost one of our cruisers and the second was severely damaged.”

The PM sat back heavily in his chair. <If Gilmore knows this then the Opposition knows, so we can’t keep it quiet as just another skirmish with the Blockies. Damnit!> The PM was starting to regret his decision to consolidate his forces, which might have provoked this incident.

“Sir, the Blockies started this with their fleet deployment.” Gilmore stared the PM right in the eyes. “We’ve just responded to protect the sovereignty of our Mid-World systems.”

“They’re pushing us across the board, Mr. Prime Minister.” Admiral Berg jumped in. “Making pacts and aggressive moves in York Sector, and now this just outside Syracuse. We need to start seriously considering that they might hit Syracuse directly.”

“But I thought that would have been suicide for their fleet?”

“They wouldn’t be able to hold the system, Sir. But unless we start to move Third Fleet into the area they could go in, smash our infrastructure, and get out with minimal losses. The Syracuse Defense Force is good, but they can’t take on a Blockie fleet.”

<This is not happening.> On the eve of a major reform the PM now had war to consider.

“Is that what your analysts are telling you? Does Syracuse look like their target?”

“It would do the most damage to us.” Berg nodded.

<You don’t even know the half of it.> Ezekiel knew that Syracuse’s two planet’s representatives held a lot of sway over another dozen in the council. Having the system battered would affect the entire economy of the sector. Not to mention losing the launcher in Syracuse itself would lead to logistical nightmares for years to come.

“What part of Third Fleet can we move into Syracuse without leaving the rest of the sector vulnerable?”

Gilmore and Berg nodded simultaneously at the PM’s decision. That helped him feel a little better.

“Syracuse Defense Force has twenty battleships in their ranks and a couple of squadrons of destroyers. To present a serious deterrent to the Blockies I would suggest moving half of Third Fleet to Syracuse. That, along with the system’s defenses should give the Blockies more than they can handle. We can have the consolidated ships of our sixth and eight fleets continue to search for sixth fleet’s location with orders to fall back and not engage if they make contact. They can also act as a quick reaction force if the Blockies divert to a secondary target. The rest of Third Fleet will remain at their anchorage and respond to other systems threats per their standing orders.”

Ezekiel looked over his shoulder at Connie and waited for her input. After thirty seconds of serious typing away she nodded slowly.

<Ok, this can work.> The PM took some deep breaths.

“Do it.”

Gilmore had his PAD out drafting orders immediately.

“Sir, I would also advise sending a small force of reinforcements to York Sector.” Berg advised.

“Do we have the ships, Admiral?” The PM was already getting a headache from all of this.

All he wanted to do when he got up this morning was pass his Education Bill. Now, he was dealing with military logistics.

“We have a pair of new cruisers finishing up their qualification cruises at the Reykjavík yards in a few weeks. They were going to go to the Thirty-Second Fleet, but we can break them off the York Sector until things quiet down there. I know Admiral Nelson will appreciate it.”

“Ok, get them out there and get a better assessment on what’s going on. We might need to get involved with this Star Kingdom of whats-ya-ma-call-it if they’re getting in bed with the Blockies.”

“Yes, Sir.”

High Admiral Gilmore grumbled and opened up a new set of orders. Changes like this couldn’t come from Sonya Berg. Corporate tycoons, politicians, and even regular service members would ensure the conspiracy mills got turning the second the queen of galactic intelligence start pushing out deployment orders.

The situation was already tenuous enough without throwing that stick of dynamite into the fire.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 79

CMS Dawn

Location: Arachna, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 It was hot and humid around the equator of Arachna. The goldilocks world was positioned nearly identically to Earth around its native star, Mu Arae. The system had four worlds, but only Arachna was habitable.  Only a little terraforming was required, and due to environmental concerns, the planetary transformation that was required was limited. The reason for that was Arachna was the first planet discovered by humans to have sentient life already present. The life was intelligent, the dominant species on the planet, and would have wiped out humanity’s ancestors if they’d cohabitated the same ecosystem.

Their scientific name was long and a point of pride for whatever scientist had named them centuries ago, but the average person just called them Arachnids. Arachna’s dominant species was big, the size of a large horse with eight legs. Each leg had three “fingers” capable of gripping their surroundings. A lack of opposable thumbs gave them no ability to use tools, but the creatures were still driven by a simplified evolutionary mindset that limited their thought process to: eat, drink, find shelter, fuck, and protect their territory. Scientists made a distinction between protecting their territory and protecting their young. There was more than one observed feeding where baby Arachnids were on the menu.

Their torso was a bulbous armored sack, with hairy scales that were stronger than the weapons primitive humans tried to hack each other to death with on medieval battlefield. Rising up from the center mass was a three-meter-long tail that was the primary means of identifying sex. Male Arachnids had a quarter-meter long stinger that pumped a neurotoxin into its victims. It would kill a full-grown human in ten minutes if they hadn’t already bled out from the stab wound. Female’s had tails that spit out a corrosive acid that was designed to eat through rocks and build nests to lay eggs in, but it worked just fine as a weapon.

Simply put, Arachnids weren’t that different from a lot of the primitive species back on Earth; with one significant difference. They produced a product that people loved.

That was the reason the equator of the planet was so hot and humid. Most of the eight-legged creatures thrived in the damp, sweltering climates. The creatures also required more oxygen than humans. The composition of Arachna’s original atmosphere was forty percent oxygen sixty percent nitrogen compared to Earth’s twenty-eighty ratio. Terraforming had changed that in the human habited areas, but the Arachnid sanctuaries contained the original atmosphere.

The atmospheric difference, the heat, and the danger the Arachnids posed on their own turf was why the Commonwealth Merchant Ship Dawn’s mission was so dangerous. Only a fool, or a genius, robbed Arachnids of their silk.

“Boss, I’m getting the fucking creeps from this place.” The deckhand was wearing stolen overalls of the planet’s corporate giant, Limitless Ltd.

Limitless Ltd. had the proprietary rights and licensing to remove a predetermined amount of Arachna Silk every month from the planet. The corporation could then turn that silk into the premiere smart fabric of the galaxy, and because they were the only one with access to the supply, they controlled the price. A meter of the material went for five thousand Commonwealth dollars. A low-quality suit or dress made of Arachna Silk went for a hundred thousand dollars. The crew of the Dawn was stealing a lot more than that.

“Stop complaining and keep your eyes on your PAD. If you snap the strand we’ll have to start up a whole new coil.” The boss snapped back as his eyes scanned the entrance to the massive cave-like structure that the creatures called home. Thick drops of dew constantly dripped from the ceiling, making the entrance look like a giant drooling mouth.

The Dawn was parked right at the entrance to a network of these caves. A few thousand Arachnids called this area home, and the last thing the boss wanted was to be spider-food. Tubing jutted out from the hull of the Dawn and down into the caves. A sleeping agent pumped through those tubes and put the Arachnids into a dreamless slumber. That allowed the crew to rig up the reels that would pull the silk, which was simply the webbing the creatures created, out of the caves.

The Dawn was a standard mining vessel that had been slightly converted for this particular bit of thievery. Mining vessels all had the universally recognizable flying-saucer look. A central half-moon bubble housed everything important, including the bridge and crew quarters. The flat disk extending around the bubble was the mining section of the craft and the legs that extended to grip asteroids. The bottom of the ship was flat, with the only opening being the engines, drilling laser, and intake ports.

New paneling had been added to the Dawn for this job to give it the radar signature of one of the corporation’s compliance vessels. Compliance came in once or twice a quarter, unannounced, to ensure local management wasn’t getting greedy, and that the Arachnids were living the same life they’d lived for the last several thousand years of their existence.

“We done yet, Boss?” The fidgety crewman asked impatiently.

“We’re done when I say we’re done,” the boss snapped back. “We paid a fortune for the paneling and access codes. Five minutes in, thirty minutes on site, and five minutes out. That’s the plan and we’re sticking to it.” He glared at the back of the crewman’s head. “If you want your cut you’ll do the work.”

That shut the deckhand’s mouth and got him concentrating on the white thread that was being pulled in by the winch at just a little over a meter per second. It was important not to snap the thick thread of silk as it was pulled in and coiled. A break before it was done reduced the integrity of the material, and diminished its quality. The last thing the boss wanted was to sell a substandard product. The type of people who would buy this from him would break his kneecaps if he tried to rip them off.

Thirty minutes on the ground would net ten million when they sold the goods on the black market, and because the supply was so limited they could charge market price for the silk.

The boss knew this. He also knew the accumulated total of all the expenses and the crew’s cut of the take. Even after all of that, they would all take home a decent chunk of change.

But there were always ways to make that better.

The boss was a big guy, close to two meters, but withered with age. A silver goatee about ten centimeters long hung down below his chin. His long silver hair was tied up into a bun that pulled back his already sun-worn face. He looked like he’d cracked a few heads in his days, and he had the scars to prove it hadn’t always been easy. A particularly nasty one across his throat showed he’d nearly died at least once. He had an old-school combat vest with anti-ballistic and energy- absorbent ceramic paneling to protect his expanding waistline. That was the best a person could get without getting into current military grade tech. A pistol was strapped to his hip and a handful of knives could be seen across his body.

The boss looked like a stereotypical pirate captain. Even more than that he was an older captain. That fact alone rated him respect and loyalty from the crew of the Dawn.

“Time.” A slight man behind the boss announced as they hit the thirty-minute mark.

“Status?”

“I shut down the flow five minutes ago.”

The deckhand’s head snapped around in horror, just in time to see a flash of brilliant light as the boss shot him directly in the face with a ten kilowatt blast.

The laser pistol, a fifty-year relic from the Maccabee Alliance’s last galactic scuffle, melted the man’s face and turned his brain into soup that slowly started to slosh out his charred eyes and burned-out mouth. The man died with a gurgle, but the rest of the crew wasn’t so fortunate.

The Arachnids regained conscious in a murderous rage, and they took it all out on the crew of the Dawn, which was the plan all along. There would be no remains of the six crew members that were tasked with standing in the caves and ensuring the silk didn’t get tangled up as it was pulled back toward the ship. Four of the six died as the larger and faster females stampeded over them shooting their corrosive acid. Those who weren’t killed by the acid eating through their bodies were trampled to death.

Those four went quicker than the other two. Those two were surrounded and overwhelmed by the males. The boss and his remaining crew member didn’t see as the two unlucky guys were repeatedly impaled and pumped full or neurotoxin by the irate Arachnids.

By the time the horde of horse-sized creatures reached the mouth of the cave the Dawn was already sealed up and lifting off the ground. The Arachnids converged on the body of the final boiled-alive crewman, aggressively ensured he was dead, and then dragged his body back into the caves.

“Let’s get out of here.” The small man said from the captain’s seat of the ship.

“Sure thing, Boss.” The older, grizzled, silver-haired man deferred to the younger captain.

<You’d think they’d figure it out, but they fall for it every time.> Noah Grisham, Captain of the Dawn, shook his head as the ship quickly gained altitude.

Noah was forty-one years old, 165 centimeters tall, as thin as a beanstalk, with a long face, and a messy mop of red hair. His eyes looked like he was perpetually on drugs, and their blue sheen always seemed dull and uninteresting.

And all of it was an exquisitely crafted illusion.

Captains of pirate ships tended to have a short life expectancy, and that was something Noah looked to avoid at all costs. He’d bought and been running the Dawn around space for over a decade. He would have proclaimed himself the captain but his sickly appearance screamed of weakness, and pirates acted like sharks with blood in the water when they smelled weakness. The answer to his solution was Able.

Able was a soldier turned mercenary from the planet Canaan of the Maccabee Alliance. He’d seen and done enough to make God shit his pants. Able agreed to be the face of the Dawn’s motley crew for a large cut of the profit and an ironclad secret partnership with Noah. It was a perfect brains and brawn combination, and one that had just netted both of them seven figures after the silk was delivered and all expenses were paid.

The Dawn climbed through the planet’s rough atmosphere, its sensors and expensive hull additions hiding them in plain sight as they rocketed into space.

Sweet Betty, this is ground control.” A nervous voice came over the net as the local Limitless Ltd. compliance checked in on them. “I hope everything went well. It was a pleasure having you with us today.”

Noah snorted as the corporate bureaucrat pandered his way through the goodbye. “Thank you for your hospitality, ground control.” Noah answered making his voice annoyingly nasally and high-pitched. “Our report will get forwarded to corporate with the next data dump, but between you and me you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

Noah could practically see the corporate lackey exploding in his pants from the news. A good report meant a bonus. If the pirate captain really wanted to fuck with the guy he’d make sure a report was never filed, then a crew would eventually go out to check the site, and they’d learn they’d been robbed. The compliance asshole would then find himself shoveling Arachnid shit for a living.

But that was just a dream no matter how much he wanted to do it. The report template and authentication ID had cost them another five grand, but it would make sure that no one ever came looking for the stolen silk. Making the robbery look like it never happened was part of the deal, and the clients he represented were very strict about following the deal to the letter.

Noah cut the link without saying anything else.

“Three hours to the launcher, Boss.” Able replied from the helmsman’s chair.

“Three hours until we can relax.” Noah whispered to himself. They’d change from their Commonwealth based registry to something else once they hit FTL.

He was already planning on what to do with his share of the cash. <Invest obviously. I also need to upgrade the ship, more fuel, supplies, and then a trip to the Rim.> It was another part of the deal that the Dawn got out of the Core Worlds for at least a few months. <There’s lots of work out on the Rim. I’ll hire a new crew and we’ll pull a few jobs before we get rid of them and jump to our next sector.>

That had been the Dawn’s MO for nearly a decade, and so far, it was working out quite lucratively for the young, innocuous-looking captain.

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A Change of Pace – Chapter 97

It sounded like someone cracked a whip and banged a gong nearly instantaneously. There was no mistaking the cracking of the whip for anything but a gunshot, and it only took a moment to figure out what had the deep gong reverberating through Daisy’s eardrums.

“SNIPER!” Everyone reacted instantly, but not in the same way.

Matchbox spun in the direction the shot had come from and her fiery shield flashed into existence. Mr. Morningstar sprinted behind her for cover. She enlarged the shield slightly to cover the both of the them. ForceOps soldiers started to either dive behind cover or move toward the sound of the gunshot. Daisy heard distance, direction, and descriptions being called out.

Seraphim sprang into the air like a shoulder-launched missile to gain the high ground. Bullets weren’t a big deal to her, but any element of surprise the Hero strike team had was now gone. Seraphim would get eyes on the sniper and the two villains in the park with her increased elevation.

Daisy and Iron Giant just kind of stood there assessing the situation. There was no need for them to jump behind cover, they were bulletproof, and there was little Iron Giant could do to get to the enemy before ForceOps teleporters like Colonel Ford.

But Daisy could do something.

She opened her sixth sense and extended her reach in the direction the soldiers had identified the shooter. Three lifelines popped into her mind’s eye as she focused in on the school rooftop.

“Colonel, do you have men on that roof!” She pointed toward the school in the background.

The colonel was busy shouting orders, so he didn’t hear her. In the time it took her to run from her position to the colonel’s one of the lifelines was snuffed out. She examined the two remaining lifelines. One was strong and firm, probably a strongman or someone else with enhanced durability. The other was slippery and elusive. It seemed to flicker in and out like a two-year-old flipping a light switch for the first time.

There was something oddly familiar about the slippery thread, but she didn’t have to think about it. The strongman’s thread disappeared from her mind’s eye and reappeared directly in front of her in an inky blast of shadow. The man was struggling with his belt like he had ants in his pants. There was also a big hole in his camouflage blouse. His face looked like he’d been stung by a bunch of bees, but that was nothing compared to the black and blue bruise she could see flowering across his chest.

“Get back! Grenade!” The strongman quickly got his vest off. He wasn’t going for his belt after all. He pulled a blinking canister from the small of his back, and dived away from Daisy and the soldiers; shielding them with his body.

Daisy did some of her own jumping to get out of the blast radius.

The explosion was louder and more forceful that she’d expected. She’d barely put any distance between her and the strongman, so she ended up riding the wave of explosive force as it blasted her back about ten feet. She stopped the shrapnel dead against her skin, but that didn’t do anything to dissipate the heat.

“Son of a bitch!” She roared, flailing her arms and shaking her body to dislodge the flaming bits of metal burning her skin.

“Medic!” someone called through the smoke that always followed an explosion.

“Squad leaders, accountability check.” Colonel Ford’s voice rose above them all.

“First squad sound off!”

“Second squad sound off!”

The two dozen ForceOps soldiers began to call out names and gather the information their commander required, but Daisy turned her attention back to her sixth sense. She reached again for the rooftop where only one life thread remained.

<Gotcha, Wraith.> There was no mistaking the darkness blast for anything but the notorious teleporter.

She reached for the life thread. It flickered as her fingers tried to grab it, so she drew back and tried again. Just as her fingertips brushed the edges of the slick thread it vanished.

<What the fuck!> Daisy spun around like it would help her find it, but it was gone. There was nothing but a void where Wraith used to be.

“Seraphim, report!” Daisy’s agitation leaked into her tone.

“I’m circling. Primary targets appear to be remaining in place within the park. They even are laughing and pointing over at the sound of the explosion.”

Daisy had to suppress a growl.

“Confirmed two secondary targets on the school rooftop.”

<Two?> Daisy reached out and still felt nothing occupying the space.

“One looks to be clad in black. Based on the darkness explosion we can confirm she’s Wraith.”

Daisy knew Seraphim had to be physically holding back to keep herself from diving onto that rooftop and ripping the villain’s head off.

“Second looks to be male, dressed in olive fatigues, equipped with a sniper rifle, and a sword that I can see. He looks like he’s the sniper.”

<Olive fatigues, sword, empty void where my powers can usually detect people.> It felt like a stone fell a couple of stories and into the pit of her stomach.

“All units be advised, Wraith and Armsman are on the building roof to our East.”

“Reaper, this is Dispatch. Could you please repeat that?”

It was the closest thing to surprise Daisy had ever heard from the mysterious Hero communicator.

“On the rooftop to our East we can positively confirm Wraith, and based on Seraphim’s observations, and my sense of that area, I’m telling you that Armsman crawled out of whatever hole he’s been hiding in to be here today.”

“And he’s working with Wraith…?” Iron Giant chimed in.

“Which means the guy in the park with Seif al-Din has to be Hellgate. Believe me now, guys!” The last was a blatant “I told you so” that fell somewhere between a triumphant yell and a melancholy comprehension.

“I am advising DVA headquarters of this development.” Dispatch spoke first. “Be advised the situation at Ladner is still not contained. Backup will be delayed.”

“For fuck’s sake. What the hell is so important in California that we’re not going to get Titan or some other heavy hitter out here and help us take down on of the most dangerous terrorists in the world?”

It was a rhetorical question, and Dispatch understood that because she remained silent.

“That’s why we’re here, Reaper.” Colonel Ford answered instead. “I’m two men down, but we’re here to get the job done. We’ve been after this asshole for over a decade. This ends today.”

Daisy liked the enthusiasm, but there were problems to his motivational game plan. Namely, they were still facing off against Seif al-Din and they’d lost the element of surprise. The way the notorious terrorist was just sitting there and waiting for them to make the first move told her that he had a plan to deal with them.

“Wraith and Armsman are gone.” Seraphim reported in abruptly. “They just teleported away.”

“Ok.” Iron Giant stepped back into his role as team leader now that they’d thoroughly lost the first round of the exchange. “Seraphim coordinate with Colonel Ford on locating Wraith and Armsman. Colonel, get another strike team ready to teleport in and engage them.”

The Colonel nodded. If he was upset about not going after Seif al-Din he didn’t show it.

“Your people need to know not to fuck with these two.”

Daisy was surprised to hear that four-letter word come out of John’s mouth, but that just told her how far up shit’s creek this whole thing could go if they weren’t careful.

“Any power-based attack is going to be useless against Armsman. You need to concentrate on secondary effects and weapons. I don’t suggest getting into a hand to hand fight with him. He’s got to be sixty or seventy years old now, but he will gut you like a fish if you get close enough. You’re going to have to move fast. Any sign of trouble and Wraith is going to get them out of there.”

“This isn’t my first day, Iron Giant.” Ford snapped back, his emotions still raw from losing people. “I know how to assess a threat and determine an appropriate battleplan.

“If you can, separate Wraith from Armsman and I’ll take her down.” Daisy added her own two cents.

Ford just nodded, already calling out orders to a few of his soldiers to be ready to move on his word.

“And us?” Matchbox walked over. Her eyes still scanned the rooftops looking for threats.

“We check on Galavant and then we get to work. Same plan.” Iron Giant smashed his fist together. It sounded like some medieval battle-chant of metal against metal.

“Our youngest member is still alive.” Mr. Morningstar entered the conversation. The old Hero looked a little frazzled. He’d done a lot of good work over his career, but today was just out of his league. “He’s got a head injury, but the ForceOps medics are looking him over. I’m afraid he won’t be much use to us now though.”

Daisy was relieved the young hero was ok, but she didn’t let it distract her from what was about to happen.

<Now it’s our turn.> The four Heroes set off at a run for the park and the enemies waiting for them.

 

***

 

“Can you please just toss the meat-sack off the roof. I’m not some psycho bitch. I don’t want my uniform covered in blood.” Lilly prodded the dead wannabe journalist with her toe.

“You’ll have to help. We’re still within a half mile of Reaper. We need to stay together.” Armsman proved his point by pulling plastic flex-cuffs from the belt of his fatigues and zip-tying their hands together.

“What the fuck!” Lilly could count over a dozen reasons off the top of her head why this was a bad tactical decision.

“I’m keeping you alive. Your father and I had to do this all the time back when she was active.” His tone left no room for argument. “Reaper was a ruthless hero, Wraith.” He looked Lilly right in the eyes. There was a hint of concern from the old supervillain. “She will rip you apart from the inside out if you give her the chance.”

“Ok…ok,” Lilly held up her hand, the attached one, in surrender. “Let’s get this corpse out of here so we have a decent firing position.

Together they rolled the dead man off the roof of the one-story suburban house. The house was on the opposite side of the park from the high school, which put the maximum distance between their old and new position, while still giving them a line of sight to her father and the man paying them. They were standing under a wooden pavilion calmly talking and waiting for the Heroes to make their move.

Armsman got down into a prone firing position, which yanked Lilly down with him. They both quickly realized the flex-cuff wasn’t going to work with their hands strapped together, so they switched to their ankles.

With Armsman in the prone, staring down the barrel of his fifty-caliber sniper rifle, and Lilly up on one knee they were ready. All they had to do was wait.

They didn’t have to wait long.

Within a few minutes four Heroes came charging into the far side of the park.

<I guess Uncle Curtis put down the human can-opener.> She thought when she didn’t see the armored Hero with them. <One less person to worry about.>

As Armsman lined up his first shot, focusing on the fire girl, Lilly thought about her secret bunker and what she’d set aside on her ready table. With a thought, and a small puff of shadow, the RPG appeared in her waiting hands. She was locked, cocked, and ready to rock.

“On your mark,” she told Armsman.

The man didn’t say anything. He just concentrated on the group of Heroes and fired.

Lilly felt the shot just as much as she heard it, and she unleashed her own hell on the Heroes. There were a few hundred yards between her and them, so she fired where she thought they would be. Then she thought about ammunition. More RPG rounds appeared in a rolling wave of darkness, and she fired as many of them as possible. By the time her first round reached the vicinity of the Heroes three more were on the way.

They exploded in blinding, fascinating fireball, and she couldn’t stop from giggling at the sight.

Their job wasn’t to kill the Heroes, although that was always encouraged. Their primary mission was to distract them so they didn’t notice the true danger until it was too late.

“Fucking trees.” Armsman cursed from beside her. “I’m barely getting any shots, and even these heavy slugs won’t penetrate the fire woman’s shield.

“Oh well,” Lilly shrugged. “Worth a try.” That was about the time she noticed the shadow descending on them.

“Hold on.” She teleported herself and Armsman off the roof a few seconds before Seraphim’s armored bulk smashed into their position and through the roof.

They appeared on the lawn just beside the house whose roof Seraphim had just caved in.

<Wow she really likes to make an entrance and crush shit.> Lilly thought as she unslung her rifle and got ready to either shoot or run.

Adrenaline raged in her body as the fight or flight instinct kicked in. She mentally overrode the flight instinct she felt at the sight of the demon-woman.

“WRAAAAAAAITH!” Seraphim popped back up through the hole in the roof, and Lilly shot her right in the chest.

The electromagnetic round swatted Seraphim from the sky and into the neighboring house.

<Damn!> Lilly had dialed up the power settings on the rifle after it didn’t take down the first strongman. She’d just drained half the battery, but it was worth it to see the flying bitch literally get knocked off her high horse. <I don’t know why I was ever scared of her.> She smirked behind her mask, before grabbing Armsman by the shoulder and teleporting to another location.

 

***

 

<What the fuck was that?> Seraphim grunted as she flopped out of the ruins of suburban home that the DVA was going to have to pay to fix.

She flexed her arms and legs. Everything seemed to be moving just fine. She also patted herself down for blood…nothing. The problem came when she tried to take a deep breath. Pain lanced through her stomach and chest so powerful she had the bite down on her tongue to stop from screaming.

She’d felt this injury before, but that didn’t mean she was used to it. People were very rarely able to hit the renowned Seraphim hard enough to break one of her ribs.

“Colonel, this is Seraphim. Wraith’s last known location was a rooftop on the far side of the part. Triangulate on my GPS if you need coordinates. But be advised, she’s packing some serious artillery. If you’ve got someone who can do a quick patchup on bones I might need to borrow him for a second.”

Just as she cut the comm line the ForceOps colonel popped into existence in the neighbor’s front lawn with two other Super soldiers. The three soldiers hurried over to her and made a small perimeter.

“Wraith did this?” The Colonel raised an eyebrow as he surveyed the damage to the two houses.

“Our brief fight did.” Seraphim winced as another soldier started to look at her ribs.

“I can numb the pain and get you back in the fight, but healing the bone will take me at least a half-hour.” The medic shook his head.

Seraphim couldn’t keep the look of irritation off her face. Part of it was struggling to breath without stabbing pain, but the rest was not working with the top caliber healers she was used to as a Hero.

<You do the best with what you can?> Henry had always said.

The thought opened up a different kind of wound and she shut down that line of thought before she did any more damage.

“Get me back in this.” She urged the medic to get to work.

The other soldier stood guard while the Colonel walked slowly around the two houses. He stopped at a spot on the opposite lawn. “Wraith was here.” He stomped his foot on a spot. “I can feel the tingle I get near another teleporter’s nexus.”

Seraphim knew all about the tear in reality teleports made when they moved from one place to another nearly instantaneously. Her former husband had been able to tap into those nexuses and follow his prey. Thus, the name Hunter.

Judging by the Colonel’s continued presence he didn’t seem to have the same gift or level of training.

“You’re good to go. That’s the best I can do.” The medic pulled away from Seraphim and she tested her body.

Deep breaths no longer hurt, but she still didn’t have full range of motion, and there was a persistent numbness around her injury that threw everything off.

<I’ve got to deal with it.> She thought as she bent her legs and shot into the air.

Her powerful leap took her a dozen feet high and her wings did the rest. When this was all over her shift back to human form would reset the injury like starting over in a video game. She’d be as good as new, but she didn’t dare take the chance doing that now. Too many people were getting shot at to risk it.

“Come out come out wherever you are.” She whispered to herself as she circled the battlefield when a sudden explosion shattered the momentary peace after the barrage of RPGs.

<I’m going to kill you, you stupid bitch.> It was the last time Seraphim was going to let Wraith make a fool out of her.

 

***

 

<What is this, fucking Apocalypse Now?!> Daisy ran through the trees as fire erupted all around her.

Her perception was dialed up to the max, so the RPGs seemed to be bearing down on Heroes in slow motion. All they needed was Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries and the imagery would be complete.

Matchbox jerked as a rifle round smacked into her shield just as they heard the boom of the sniper. The younger Hero stumbled, and Mr. Morningstar fell back with her looking completely out of place and useless in his tuxedo.

Daisy strained to find the source of the RPG barrage, but all she felt was void in the direction they were coming from. <Come on, Tom. Do your fucking job!> She growled as she was showered with dirt, splinters, and flaming shrapnel, but she kept on going.

She didn’t have a mirror, but her clothes had to be in tatters, and she knew she was sporting several burns like some teenager with a bad case of acne. But none of that mattered. She could see the targets lounging under in a wooden pavilion acting like someone wasn’t lighting up the park with explosives. Their nonchalant expressions made her want to hurt them even more.

Then the explosions suddenly stopped. There was a muffled scream from far away and then silence. Daisy almost stopped to see what was happening, but that would only give their targets more time to react.

“Colonel, this is Seraphim. Wraith’s last known location was a rooftop on the far side of the park. Triangulate on my GPS if you need coordinates. But be advised, she’s packing some serious artillery. If you’ve got someone who can do a quick patch on bones I might need to borrow him for a second.” Seraphim’s strained voice came over the communications net. Whatever happened didn’t go the airborne Super’s way.

<Let them concentrate on Wraith and Armsman. You need to deal with the real bad guy.> If she’d told herself forty years ago, that she was going to refer to Armsman as “not the real bad guy” she would have kicked her own ass. But time and perspective changed everything.

“Matchbox, Mr. Morningstar, fall back. Let me and Iron Giant take the first crack at them. You step in if you’ve got a shot,” she ordered.

The order saved both of those Heroes’ lives.

Daisy and Iron Giant charged Seif al-Din and Hellgate’s position alone. Their feet thundered across the tree-filled park with Iron Giant’s massive metallic frame about twenty yards ahead of her. She was going to peel off and hit them on the flank while Iron Giant hit them head first, but they never got that far.

<It was all a diversion.> It was her last thought concerning the RPG attack before the world exploded around her.

Before they’d arrived the terrorist with his supervillain ally had planted a field of landmines around their position. Iron Giant must have stepped on one of them because she saw the big guy get blasted into the air. But it didn’t stop there.

The mines were daisy-chained together. If one went off they all went off. Daisy put all her effort into manipulating her kinetic absorption, channeling decades of skill, into surviving the earth itself giving a mighty heave.

Fire, pain, dirt, smoke, shrapnel; she was assaulted by them all as she was picked up and thrown into the air by the surprise attack.

For a split second, she wondered what would have happened on that Memorial Day back in seventy-two. If the parade had never been attacked, then her father never would have used the technique for surfing a shockwave that he’d been perfecting. If he’d never perfected it, he never would have taught it to his daughter. If Daisy had never learned it, and instead tried to absorb the full force of an explosion, she probably would have died a long time ago.

<It’s funny how shit seems to happen for a reason.> The idle thought passed through her mind as she soared through the air with her limbs flailing like one of those annoying inflatable balloon men car dealerships and tax centers seemed to have a hard-on for.

The technique wasn’t flawless though, and she couldn’t do anything about the fire. Next thing Daisy knew, she was waking up on the ground. She’d blacked out for a second. Everything hurt, and her kinetic absorption ability had a weird sensation to it that she’d only felt a few times in her life. She felt like a water balloon filled to the brim, and straining to hold together.

She was full, and likely hadn’t been able to absorb the full force of falling from whatever height she’d been at; which explained the aches and pains.

She looked around frantically, but Iron Giant was nowhere to be seen.

Instead, she saw two of the worst men in the world walking in her direction.

“Dispatch?” There was no reply.

Daisy moved her hand to her ear and felt the slickness of blood, but no earpiece. The men continued to get closer, so she struggled to get to her feet. Vertigo hit her immediately and she reached to the nearest tree for support.

<Fuck!> Her hand came down hard on giant splinters. The top seventy percent of the tree had been sheared off by the explosion, leaving nothing left but a jagged corpse to stab her with.

Her vision wavered like she was looking at a mirage despite her best efforts to focus.

The men stopped about thirty feet away from her, but she could still feel their smug smiles.

“You look like shit, Reaper.” Hellgate spoke with the same confidence he had decades ago. “But you’re still a lot prettier than I expected.”

Instinctually, Daisy reached up to touch her face. Pain traveled across her features as she felt burned skin and a decent amount of blood. She didn’t panic though, head wounds tended to bleed a lot even if they were minor. What did send her into full on panic mode was that the left half of her mask had been burned off. It had saved her eye from being a burned crisp, but it was giving the two evil men a decent side profile of her real face.

“Go stick your dick in a blender, Hellgate.” She spat back, literally spitting out a glob of blood in the process.

The laugh that came out of Seif al-Din’s throat was charming to the point Daisy would have sat down and had a drink with the man if she didn’t know he was one of the worst Super’s living on the planet Earth today.

“Our banter was short-lived, Reaper, but I’ve always heard you had an interesting sense of humor.” The terrorists voice was intriguing and cultured, nothing like the evil that was in his heart and soul.

“Hellgate, better yet, why don’t you just shove your dick down his throat. You’d get a kick out of it and it would shut him the hell up.” Daisy tried to stand without the assistance of the murdered tree, but it wasn’t happening.

“Ah, hahaha. Playing on the homophobia of my people. Clever, Reaper. Very clever.” Seif al-Din continued like she hadn’t even spoken. “However clever you seem to think you are it will not save you from certain death.” The sophistication of his slightly accented voice dropped an octave into the truly sinister. “I told you we would meet again. You decided to skip our fun in New York, and your team payed the penalty for it. Now it is just you and I. The famous, Reaper and infamous Seif al-Din. The only regret I have is that the world will not see you fall.” He sighed a bit dramatically.

“Today, the last obstacle to my power will be removed. My last true challenger will be vanquished.”

His smile made her want to puke.

“Any last words?” He started to advance toward her.

“Yeah,” she saw the glint of metal behind him. “Blow me, asshole.”

Iron Giant hit Seif al-Din with a flying tackle that careened both of them into the graveyard of fallen tree limbs. Hellgate’s head snapped toward the terrorist, who’d turned into a human bullet, with Iron Giant acting as the propellant, and Daisy took advantage of his lapse in focus.

She reached out with her power, fighting the wave of nausea and pain threatening to overwhelm her, and grabbed Hellgate’s life-thread.

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