I’m on TDY from Hell – Stepping into the Garden

<I’m never doing that again.> Gerry groaned and propped himself up on his elbows.

He was lying face-down in the dirt, naked, and his body was careening back and forth from burning up to bone-rattling chills.

“Sh…sh…shit.” His teeth chattered during a cold spell.

“It’s trying to find its equilibrium.” Seere was sitting against the wall slicing an apple with the still blood-covered silver knife. He popped the slice of fruit into his mouth with a smile. “You’ll be fine in a few minutes. Walk it off.”

Gerry tried to do what his Lord commanded, but his legs felt weak and he fell back on his face.

“Sir, what happened?” The last thing he remembered was something about new bodies and then pain.

“Transcendence happened, Gerry.” The Lord of Hell sliced off another piece and offered it.

When he stopped shaking, Gerry popped it in his mouth. Pleasant warmth blossomed through him as the tangy nectar of the apple flooded his taste buds. He immediately felt better.

“Transcendence?” Gerry was going to need more than that to understand.

“Transcendence,” Seere repeated. “On Earth you were a human. You had a soul than anchored you and served as a collection point for æther. When you prayed that æther went to my father, and when you died your soul and æther found my realm. As a member of my infernal legion you were still human in that regard. I allowed your soul to hold more æther so you could fight and win in my name, but you were still nothing more than a flesh container. Now…you are more. You are æther. If you want to be technical you are a blasphemed version of an angel, but it’s the best I can do.”

Gerry flexed his hand as he got to his feet. He didn’t feel any different, and when he looked up he had to look way up to look at his Lord’s scarred face.

“So this…”

“Is your human husk whittled by the Carver herself.” Seere finished for him.

“Then why do I feel so weak?” Gerry felt even more naked and powerless without his armor, which had mysteriously vanished.

“You’re like an aware newborn baby. Don’t trust your new senses until you fully understand them.” He advised. “But if you really want you can transform into your true form.”

“How?” Gerry very much did not want to feel weak while still in Hell.

“Look within yourself.” Seere closed his eyes and breathed deeply, so Gerry copied him. “Find your purpose, feel the heat, embrace it, and be you.”

Gerry frowned as he closed his eyes, but he followed the instructions. Surprisingly, it didn’t take long.

He found it. A small ember the he carefully stoked into a flame. He felt it catch, he felt the heat fill him, and everything seemed to explode.

The feelings of powerless weakness vanished. He felt power coursing through his veins. Power unlike anything he’d ever felt before. Gerry opened his eyes and he was almost at eye-level with the Lord of Hell.

“Yes.” The power was more intoxicating than any drug he’d ever done on Earth or in Hell.

He looked down and turned his midnight black hands over. They felt like normal flesh, but looked like the Infernal Iron of his old armor. The blue light glowed eerily from his body’s fissures, and the infernal writing seemed to waver like a flame. But now he could look directly at it. He couldn’t read it, but he felt he’d be able to understand it in time.

“Now release it. Carefully push the heat down, back into the core of your being, and exhale,” Seere instructed.

Gerry struggled to give up the power. <Who would ever want to be without this?> But he knew he needed to be able to go back to his human form.

A fifteen foot metal man was a little conspicuous, even in Hell.

He felt like a balloon that someone was squeezing the air out of. He felt himself shrink and weaken until he was nothing but a weak mortal again.

“That wasn’t so hard.” Seere smiled. “Give it time and your human form won’t feel so useless.”

“The more æther I gather…”

“The stronger you’ll be.” Seere confirmed.

That made Gerry feel better, and he didn’t hear any lies in any of his Lord’s statements.

“Your infernal form will also change as you will it.” Seere informed. “The Carver just gave you the basic model. The more power you gain and the situation will dictate how you choose to redefine yourself. But a word of warning.” Seere’s voice dropped into a serious tone. “Other creatures of æther will sense you when you reveal your true form. Your human form is hidden from them, even when you wield limited power through it. But your true form will bring Divine retribution down on you if you’re not prepared, and I will not be there to help.”

“Yes, my Lord.”

<Don’t use it unless I have to.> Gerry got the message.

“I’m glad you understand because you need to begin your mission as soon as possible. Your subjects are waiting for you on the other side. So prepare yourself.”

<Prepare myself for what?> Gerry thought as Seere reached down and grabbed him by the shoulder.

Everything changed, and Gerry felt his whole body twist. Whiplash struck his entire body. And then his bare feet were on cold asphalt, and he puked all over the place.

“The first time is the worst.” Seere gave him a few pats on the back, which drove Gerry’s weak human body to its knees.

Then he felt it. It was just a tingle in his head, and he would have missed it if he wasn’t paying attention, but he was intimately aware of everything at that moment.

“You stupid fucking whore!”

“No…please…stop!”

They were close. He pinpointed the fight a few floors up in the building next to them. The man slapped the woman across the back of the head, she stumbled, and he slapped her again across the face. The assault continued, but Gerry ignored it. He focused on what he felt.

He felt strength. Every time the man struck the woman, desire pulsed through the human. Gerry fed off the pleasure, he fed off the lust and the anger. And he didn’t have to do anything. He just stood there and soaked up the æther. It was as easy as breathing.

He was only slightly conflicted about the whole thing. Old Gerald wouldn’t have given a shit about the woman being beaten. Gerry didn’t feel some moral pull to help her. His truth-sense told him she was telling the truth about not liking being hit. He’d met plenty of women in the brothel that did like it, but he wasn’t going to come to her rescue. Hell was a cruel place, and he’d learned long ago to deal with his own shit. It seemed that Earth wasn’t so different.

“Do you smell that?” Seere took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

Gerry smelled rotting garbage, piss, and the faint hint of marijuana. “What?”

“That’s the smell of potential.” The Lord of Hell’s smile split his face.

“Where are we?” Gerry looked around, but he didn’t notice any of the skyscrapers.

<Duh, you’ve never seen a building bigger than a few stories.> He shook his head. He hadn’t been on Earth in a long time and things had clearly changed a lot.

“This is Eden!” Seere laughed. “But more specifically, Charlotte, North Carolina, and it’s currently ripe with strife and tension.” Seere looked hungrily at the city. “You will build your powerbase here. Eliminate the competition, and then expand my empire.”

“Yes, my Lord.” Gerry felt the mission solidify in his gut about the same time the man knocked the woman unconscious.

<No…wait.> It was the other way around. The woman had gotten to the kitchen, retrieved a knife, and killed the man.

That led to a rush double anything the man had given him. <Murder feels good.> A shiver worked through him as the flow of æther came to an abrupt end.

“Ahhh, you’re escorts are here.” Seere nodded toward a limo that had pulled into the mouth of the alley. “Do not fail me, Dux Gerry.”

There was a muffled flutter of wings and Seere was gone, which left Gerry standing naked and alone in the middle of an alley in downtown Charlotte.

The limo’s headlights fell on him and the car came to a sudden stop. The back doors opened and two figures stepped out. Even with the lights trained on him he could easily make them out. One was a tall, lean, older man. He wore a three-piece black suit and a top hat popular on a certain president long after Gerry died. He walked with a cane, but it was an accessory not necessary. The most striking thing about him was his skin. It was so pale, and contrasted so sharply with his black suit that it was off-putting.

The second figure was skipping instead of walking, and was dressed in a pleated schoolgirl uniform. She couldn’t have been older than a high school senior. Her white blouse looked dirty against her impossibly pale skin. Her bleach blonde shoulder length ringlets bobbed up and down as she skipped toward him. Her lips were painted a deep crimson which made her fanged smile that much more predictable.

< Soulless.> Gerry knew all about the creatures.

The creatures were once humans that were tainted by a curse set upon the land by another Lord of Hell, Satan. The plan was to have them feed off God’s precious humans to remove one of the sources of his power, but it backfired. Only ten percent survived the process of having the souls ripped out and plunged into Hell. Of that remaining ten percent only one percent had the control necessary to survive more than a year without killing themselves or their fellow Soulless. So they never became the scourge that Infernal Lord wished. They still did his bidding, or the bidding of other Lord’s they’d sworn their allegiance to. Their loyalty was to whoever could feed them.

With their supernatural strength and speed they made good soldiers, but only during the night. They were utterly powerless during the day, and although sunlight wouldn’t kill them, it rendered them just as easy to kill as a normal human. And with their iconic physical characteristics they were easy to spot, and certain groups of humans had made a habit of hunting them for centuries.

The two Soulless stopped a few feet from Gerry and studied him while he studied them. Gerry turned to the old, regal-looking man. But the little schoolgirl beat him to it.

“Bring the car around, Alfred.”

The man gave the petite girl a short bow and walked back to get the car.

“So you’re the new Dux.” Her eyes traced his naked form. “You’re better looking than the last one.” She even winked at him.

<First leadership test.> He glared at her and hoped she got the message.

“Little girl…”

“Don’t ‘little girl’ me you giant meatbag. I’m a hundred and seven. I run this shit here. I might look like teen Barbie but if you mess with my shit I’ll fuck you up.”

<Plan B then.> Gerry smiled at her and then moved.

The Soulless might be much stronger and faster than humans, but even in his human form Gerry was better. The schoolgirl had skill through. She was able to sidestep his grab, but that brought her right into the path of his fist. It pummeled her into the ground hard enough the crack the concrete. She recovered by rolling away, but not quick enough to avoid his second grab.

She clawed at him, but it didn’t do anything. He lifted her up by her throat. She tried to kick him but her pumps missed him by a foot.

“Let me be clear,” Gerry’s voice bordered on a growl. “I run this shit. You were just renting it until I got here.”

The little schoolgirl glared daggers at him and snapped her teeth like a wild animal. And then she giggled. It was short, bubbly, and totally the opposite of the short burst of violence they’d just engaged in.

“Good.” She stopped struggling and Gerry let her down. “I’m looking for someone to lead us. The old Dux was more interested in sticking it in me than putting me to work. I just want the opportunity to serve.”

Gerry heard the truth in her words, and he liked the fire in her; even if it had been aimed at him a second ago.

“I’m here to get shit done. As long as you do that we won’t have any problems.”

“Yes, Dux.” She bowed submissively low. “I’m Victoria, leader of my coven. I am yours to command.”

“I accept you and your coven, Victoria.” Gerry walked past her toward the limo. “I need clothing and a ride to our base of operations. We have work to do.”

“Yes, Sir.” She skipped back to the opposite side of the limo. “Welcome back to Earth.”

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Two Worlds – Chapter 92

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Old Chicago, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “Coop, that’s a lot of people.” Mike said what everyone was thinking, and in a way that conveyed the turbulent emotions rolling around inside the company.

It was like someone was pulling a gray veil down over the top half of Coop’s HUD, and the more he zoomed out the more the churning in his gut grew. He was scared, anxious, excited, amped up, ready to kick some ass, and feeling slightly hypocritical. A few months ago, these would have been his people. Now they were the targets.

<Don’t be that guy who shits himself the first time he sees combat.> Coop shook his head and pulled himself together. <I’m in a fucking suit of armor. There’s nothing these people could do to hurt me.> It might have been wishful thinking but it helped.

What helped the most was the gradually growing number of blue icons on the screen. The rest of the brigade was dropping into their assigned positions throughout the city. Ten thousand trained soldiers in the latest armor and weaponry stood between Coop and the mass of gray. Overhead two hundred assault shuttles buzzed like angry bees waiting for a call to help out the thin blue line. Because that’s what it looked like on STRATNET. A thin blue perimeter formed up at the river with pockets of troops at important positions inside the old city.

“Get ready, Alpha. The show’s about to start.” MSG Smith sounded calm and collected, like he was talking about the detailed maintenance protocols of a LACS instead of a half million angry protestors about to stampede into the place they were supposed to guard.

The horde of gray reached the river and had to bottleneck at the dozen bridges separating Old Chicago from the rest of the metropolis.

“ATTENTION! ATTENTION!” It sounded like every address system in the city was set to transmit, and an angry god was about the chew out his children. “This is Commander Reinhardt of the United Commonwealth of Colonies Armed Forces. Under Provision Two, Subparagraph Eight of the Commonwealth Charter the area known as Old Chicago is temporarily under emergency restriction. Any civilian caught crossing the Chicago River bridges will be in violation of this emergency statue. Non-lethal force will be used to detain any violators. Please disperse and return to your homes.” The god that was their brigade commander finished the announcement, and Coop watched the HUD closely.

There were two groups of protestors out there, both numbering a couple hundred thousand. The one to the east of Coop’s position was the anti-war protestor, the Doves. They’d started peacefully in PHA-4 and gathered strength and balls since then. There were half a dozen major bridges and three blocks standing between them and Coop’s position. If they decided to violate the order, they would be able to swarm Old Chicago much faster than the other group.

The second group was the pro-defense, the Hawks. It was tough to tell with the HUD but the LACS’ computer said they were smaller than the anti-war group, and they were currently stopped to the north with two major and several minor bridges in their path. If they decided to fight, then it would take them a bit longer to bring their sheer numbers to bear.

The first group that started to move was the Doves. Coop heard their emotional screams from blocks away before his HUD updated and showed them streaming across the bridge.

<So much for a peaceful resolution.>

“All units, weapons free. Non-lethal munitions are authorized.” The call came over the brigade net, and Coop recognized the voice of Commander Reinhardt. He didn’t sound as authoritative now that half of Chicago was giving him the finger.

“Alpha Company,” MSG Smith’s voice cut in. “Load gas rounds. Everyone give me one round at TRPs eight, nine, ten, twelve, and thirteen. Alpha team add fifty, Bravo add twenty-five, Charlie on target, and Delta negative twenty-five.”

Coop saw what the old NCO was going for. Instead of the company putting rounds right on the TRP, and creating one giant clump of gas in the middle of the bridge, he wanted them to blanket the whole bridge in the stuff.

“Set for airburst, Master Sergeant?” Coop asked when the MSG didn’t elaborate.

At this point, letting their rounds impact the ground was going to turn dozens of people into mush.

“Roger that, One-One. Airburst five meters. Fire on my mark. TRP eight, mark. TRP nine, mark. TRP ten, mark. TRP twelve, mark. TRP thirteen, mark. Rounds complete.” The MSG called the shots. “Fire mission complete. Stand by for further orders, Out.”

The line went dead and Coop felt a very underwhelming sensation pass through him. He’d just completed his first live fire mission, against human targets, in a potentially hostile environment. <And it was gas rounds meant to keep a bunch of Rats on the opposite side of the river.> He frowned, and watched his HUD.

The tactical symbol for gas had appeared over the five bridges they’d fired on, and it seemed to have temporarily halted the sea of gray. But not before a bunch of gray icons made it into the city.

“Something’s going on to the north.” Mike piped up.

Coop shifted his gaze to the second group of protestors. Unlike the Doves, the Hawks had taken their time and were approaching the situation tactically. They’d split their two-hundred-plus-thousand force in half. One half was marching across the bridges to their south, while the other half was circling around to the west.

“Alpha One, this in One-One.” Coop called up. “Looks like that northern force is going to cross the West Chicago Ave., West Grand Ave., and Kinzie Street bridges and hit the eastern force on their northern flank. You want us to do something about that, over?”

“Negative, One-One. Focus on the bridges into Old Chicago.”

“Alpha Company.” The MSG cut the private chat and came back over the company net. “Same deal with TRPs two, three, five, and seven. Fire on my mark.”

Coop executed his second real fire mission, and it was just as anti-climactic as the first.

“Hey, Mike, didn’t they say we’d be the biggest baddest motherfuckers on the battlefield? Isn’t that what HI is supposed to be? But here we are sitting blocks behind the front lines lobbing fart-bottles on these assholes.”

“Probably not going to be that way for long.” Mike replied.

Coop looked at his HUD and saw that the gray to the north wasn’t slowing down at all in the gas.

“All units, all units, northern force has masks and is equipped with…” the line suddenly went dead and a heartbeat later Coop heard a small explosion go off to the north.

He switched from his HUD to external sensors and saw a trail of smoke in the sky and heard a high-pitched wail as a Spyder fought to stay in the air…and ultimately failed. The one bright side was that it stayed on the good side of the river. The last thing anyone wanted to do was haul ass out into enemy territory to retrieve the pilots, especially since the Hawks just showed they had the ability to bring down a Spyder.

“Venom Four-Seven is on the ground. Northern force deployed MANPAD to take her down. It caught her by surprise. It was a lucky shot for them that won’t happen again. Pilot is alive and a squad from Sixth Battalion is on their way to rescue and extract.” The MSG updated them a few seconds later. “Keep your eyes on the ball, Alpha. This is turning into a party.” To emphasize the point, they heard sporadic gunfire to the east.

Their comms net was silent, but Coop was sure some electronic frequency somewhere was lighting up with requests, screams, and tactical decision making.

<And I’m sitting here with my thumb up my ass.> Coop leaned against the polyplast wrapped stone pillar he was using for cover against nothing.

All he could do was sit and watch as the gray flooded over the bridges into Old Chicago. Once over the bridge they started to spread out on either bank, but they weren’t able to advance far. The thin blue line was a lot tougher than it looked. It held the gray back for ten, twenty, then thirty minutes. The gunfire evolved from sporadic to a never-ending barrage. Occasionally, a Spyder would descend from the sky in a corkscrew manner to ensure no more MANPADs got a lucky shot. They’d touch down on the tops of buildings, drop off supplies, and load up the injured before jumping back into the sky and shooting south to whatever hospital was looking after the wounded soldiers.

Even from three blocks back Coop could tell who was firing. M3s firing had more of a HISS and POP, while a Rat’s chemically propelled rounds were more of a naturally loud BOOM. Either way, there was an orchestra of sound coming from their north and east that Coop only got to hear.

That all stopped abruptly with a frantic call over the net. “BREECH!”

The single radio squawk was punctured by the loudest BOOM of the day. The ground shook under Coop’s feet. He looked up in the direction of the explosion and saw a plume of smoke and dusk rising into the sky.

“THEY’RE…!” the line went dead as cascading rumble swept through the city.

“What the hell was that?” The entire alpha team asked simultaneously.

“That’s the sound of a building imploding.” MSG Smith cut the chatter with the explanation. “They must have gotten demo charges in somehow.”

<Somehow? Glad to know people are on top of the situation.> Coop knew he was expressing his anxiety by taking it out on the MSG, but that was a lot healthier than lobbing artillery in the general direction of the toppled building.

“MANPADs, demo charges, that’s a lot of ordinance for some civilians out for a stroll and Rats that just crawled out of the sewers over in PHA-4.” Coop stated just as a lightbulb went off in his head.

<Rats! Sewers!>

“Master Sergeant! Do we have eyes on the sewers?”

The answering pause went on far too long for comfort. “Shit, Cooper. You might be on to…”

Small arms fire swept their position. Several round bounced off Coop’s armor as the nanites did their job deflecting the old-school bullets.

“Contact front! One hundred meters! In the alley!” Without thinking Coop called out distance, direction, brought the Buss up to his shoulder, and opened fire.

The computer in his LACS filtered out the low-light of the dark alley and highlighted two dozen people with red hostile icons. <Shit!> Coop pulled the trigger again and again, but the stun bolt of blue-white light only fired every third pull. <Fuck this.> After a stun bolt he flipped the settings, the barrel rotated, and then he started to spit out controlled three round bursts of non-lethal ammunition.

Whoever the fuck was in the alley started to drop like they’d been hit by a giant fly swatter. They hit the ground screaming and struggling as the nanite packet in the round was released, and the nanites went to town on their vulnerable bits.

“One-One, take your team and grab one of them. We need information. We’ll cover you.” The MSG was right next to Coop, his own Buss burping out single shot stun bolts. “Go!”

“Alpha team on me!” Coop got up from the kneeling position behind the pillar he’d automatically gotten into when they took fire, and charged across the street.

More clangs echoed through his armor as the team took fire from their left and right as they charged across the street.

<How the fuck did they get all around us?!> Coop didn’t stop to think, and the four-man team entered the alley.

Whitehead and Melissa automatically set security looking in either direction as Coop and Mike went to grab one of the thrashing Rats.

“Oppressors!” one guy yelled.

<And we have a winner.> Coop fired a stun bolt into the guy point blank, and their new prisoner went limp.

“I’ve got the package. Heading back.” Coop sent to his team and the MSG.

The fire intensity had increased in the twenty seconds they’d been in the alley. MSG Smith and all of Bravo team were letting loose a stream of continuous fire from their positions behind the building’s pillars. Like Coop, they’d abandoned the stun feature and gone for the non-lethal needles. Return fire from the Rats was smacking into the polyplast casing, cracking it, and starting to chew away at the historical architecture underneath.

<This turned into a clusterfuck really quick.> Coop and his team hurried back across the street with the prisoner, with Mike acting as a human shield to keep the guy alive.

Once they were back across, every HI trooper Coop could see started lobbing ordinance out of their 125mm cannons. The trajectories were high but short, and shells started to explode all around the Regional Headquarters Building, filling the street and alleys with debilitating gas that quickly started to affect the unarmored Rats.

“Alpha, seal up your suits.”

That program was one of the ones Coop kept on his home menu. All he had to do was stab it with his eyes and his LACS sealed up tight, and his twenty-four-hour air supply kicked in.

“Get him in to see the CO.” MSG met them by the elaborate entrance to the building that now sported a few bullet holes. “He’s aware of the problem, but maybe this guy can give him some more information.”

“Yes, Master Sergeant.” Coop shifted the limp man’s weight on his shoulder and got a small groan from the prisoner in response.

“Good, you’re awake.” Coop grabbed him tight, which solicited a squeal like a caught pig. “Let’s go see the boss.”

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Two Worlds – Chapter 91

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Space between Mars and Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

The troop transport ship looked like a giant armored turtle swimming through space. Coop didn’t actually get to see the exterior of the monstrous ship as it pulled out of its Mars orbit and started accelerating toward Earth, but he pulled up the specs on his armor’s HUD when he descended down the back ramp of the Spyder and onto the cavernous flight deck.

He hadn’t been on any spacecraft aside from the small shuttle he’d hitched a ride to Mars on, and a troop transport was on the opposite end of the spectrum from the little puddle jumper. Their ride, the CWS Cleveland, wasn’t as big as an assault carrier, but that was because this was just a brigade-level transport. The large ship was eighty percent flight deck, and twenty percent engines and living quarters for the small crew operating the ship. The exterior of the hull was littered with railguns and point defense laser clusters. The ship was all defense and no offense. It left the fighting to its escorts. Cleveland’s job was to shit out the infantry to take an asteroid, planet, or whatever the fuck they were ordered to take.

Internally, from an aesthetic viewpoint, it wasn’t much. It was designed to get soldiers and their equipment from Point A to Point B, and Cleveland did it efficiently without any creature comforts. A quick ride from Mars to Earth was going to be fine, but spending days or weeks on this thing would have been a pain in Coop’s ass.

Ten thousand soldiers and two hundred Spyder assault shuttles were quartered away on the flight deck. It was one hell of a force to see all gathered in one space. This many asskickers in armor and weapons could break a lot of shit once they were pointed in the right direction, but that wasn’t their mission today. Their mission was to stop people from breaking shit while limiting the amount of shit that they themselves broke. As far as Coop was concerned, it was a gross misuse of resources.

<I didn’t sign up to be a hog.> He remembered all the times the cops had smacked him down. Sometimes in his own home during contraband checks, and other times in the Civil Administration Building.

He still remembered the pain of the bail capsule being shot into his brain. Even though that was another lifetime ago.

“Listen up!” MSG Smith’s baritone barked over the company channel. “We’ve got some time to kill until we get to Earth. We just picked up our destroyer escort and are heading there at full military power. We’ll haul ass for an hour and a half until we hit the turnover point and start decelerating. Call it three hours until we hit Earth’s atmosphere. Until then, I want you all to stick your LACS in their chargers in the Spyder. There’s no need for you all to walk around like big dicks in the locker room and waste power. Execute.”

Coop reluctantly did what he was told. He would have preferred to explore with the suit a bit, because being HI tended to be an all access pass when it came to getting what you wanted. After all, who was going to mess with a guy who could lift an air-car and walked around in a ton of duro-steel all day long that was nearly immune to puny normal grunt-level weapons. Plus, the neural network on the LACS was a lot better than staring at a PAD’s tiny screen.

It took twenty minutes for the sixteen-trooper company to unass from their armor and ensue it was properly stowed. The LACS were locked to their GICs and customized to them, but that still didn’t stop the MSG from closing and locking the hold of their Spyder.

“Ok, let’s go grab some chow.”

They had to snake their way through two battalions before they made it to the hatches at the rear of the flight deck, and those hatches were guarded by armed MPs. The military cop’s M3s were pointed at the ground, but Coop could tell they wouldn’t hesitate to use them.

<Why are there a bunch of cops riding shotgun on this op?> He assumed it was to deal with any protestors they got their hands on, but that didn’t explain why they were in scales and armed on the flight there.

“Stop gawking, Alpha, or you’ll be eating chow standing.” The MSG wasn’t in the mood to wait around.

Some things always took precedence, and food was at the top of that list for an HI trooper. They needed more calories than the average human, and if they were going to have to fight in the next few hours they needed to top off their metabolic tanks.

The chow hall was big enough to fit the entire ship’s crew and a battalion of infantry, which still meant that they only had about twenty minutes to scarf it down before they needed to make room for the next battalion. Since the 1894th was so small, it gave them a little more time.

Coop noticed there were no officers present. They probably had their own special chow hall closer to the bridge. This was just for the rabble rousers and their NCO babysitters, but at least the food was good. They had pasta, flank steak, mashed potatoes, fruit, vegetables, and even an ice cream machine.

Coop scooped himself a bowl of pasta, grabbed a few pounds of steak, made a mountain of mashed potatoes, and piled it high next to a respectable sea of greens. Then, he grabbed another bowl of ice cream just because he had a sweet tooth.

The cooks glared at them as he and the rest of the HI company practically cleaned them out. <Better get used to it.> Most of the 1894th was lined up behind Alpha and they all had big stomachs to fill.

MSG Smith waved them all over to a large table and they sat together as they stuffed their faces. There wasn’t much talk at the beginning, just eating, but then small conversations started to break out.

Mike was uncharacteristically tense, and Coop asked him about it. Harper hadn’t talked to him in a few days, and the big guy was worried she was going to break things off between them.

<Last thing we need during this drop is my biggest weapon thinking about a girl.>

“No way, dude. Harper can’t do any better than you. She’s probably just cramming for a test or something.” He realized a little late that “cramming” might not have been the best choice of words, but he still thought he got his point across. “Tell you what, once we graduate we’ll have a few days of leave built up. I’m sure they’ll be sending us to Constitution before we ship out. We’ll take a day or two and hop down to Luna and see her before we ship out.”

Realistically, the infantry would probably tell them to stow their shit on the first boat heading out of the Sol System, but the promise helped put Mike at ease, which was the whole point. <Plus, I can get some ass just as easily on Luna as on Mars.>

“Everyone listen up.” The MSG effectively ended all side conversations. “Let’s get real for a minute before we head back, hit the head to evac all of this chow, and suit back up.”

Coop leaned in toward the MSG just like the rest of the company.

“I’ve been on a few of these drops over my career and I’ve picked up a few things. First, always follow orders. The local government, the officers, and most importantly the MPs don’t screw around when it comes to civil disturbance missions. Do what you’re told, when you’re told, and you’ll be fine.”

Heads nodded around the table.

“Second, don’t try and start anything. The people we’ll be facing off against are mostly pissed, scared, or both. They feel like they’re being treated unfairly, or something is happening that they oppose, and they have no control. They aren’t necessarily bad people. If they aren’t shooting at you leave them be. Because if you start shit, and give them a target for their anger, we’ll being going blades hot by the end of the night.”

That made Coop gulp. Going blades hot meant hand-to-hand combat. And fighting hand-to-hand against a bunch of Rats without any armor would be like fighting the food in front of them. The Rats wouldn’t stand a chance.

“Lastly, just remember everything I’ve taught you over the lovely time we’ve spent together.” That got a few laughs from the group. No one would consider the time lovely.

“You’ve got all the tools you need to succeed, so just go out there and execute.”

“Yes, Master Sergeant.” Coop wasn’t the only one who felt a little motivated by the old NCO’s little speech.

“Good. Now finish your chow. The next hour is your time, but be back at the Spyder ready to work. Team leaders stay with me for a few seconds.”

<So close.> Coop wanted to scan the female talent in the brigade before he had to potentially gas a bunch of Rats.

Coop stayed seated as the rest of the company finished and went to do whatever they wanted before reporting back to the assault shuttle. The rest of the team leaders waiting for their NCOIC to finished his ice cream cone before getting down to business.

“Team leaders,” the MSG slurped the last of the vanilla out of the cone before popping it into his mouth. “You’ve been chosen because you’re not terrible at HI work. Some of you have rank, which helps, and some of you can weasel your way in and out of situations.”

Coop felt that last bit was for him.

“But you’re going to have to step it up now. We aren’t dealing with holographic targets three hundred meters downrange. We’ll be facing off against real people, Commonwealth citizens with families and friends. We can’t fuck this up, understood?”

“Yes, Master Sergeant.”

“I hope so, and I hope you’ve been listening to what I’ve been teaching you. You four aren’t just trigger-pullers on this mission. You’ve got command of your own little teams. Your job is just as much about communication and coordination as it is about putting rounds downrange. I need your heads to be clear, your teams to be functional, and everyone ready for anything.”

There was something in the MSG’s voice, something in his tense shoulders, that set off warning bells in Coop’s head. Whatever was going on, the wise, old MSG had a bad feeling and he was subtly communicating that to his team leaders.

“No one has my permission to die today. Am I being abundantly clear?”

“Yes, Master Sergeant!” They turned a few nearby heads with their reply.

“Good. Be ready to go in fifty minutes.”

Coop got up with the other three team leaders, stowed his tray in the rack, and made his way back to the flight deck. Despite the talent he was observing as he meandered around the open space, his mind was elsewhere. Even when a few lovely ladies came up to talk to him, his heart wasn’t really in it. So, he found a quiet corner and pulled out his PAD.

He did a few searches for stories about past civil disobedience and didn’t find much. What he did see was once or twice a year people got worked up, broke some shit, and then scampered back into the PHAs when the infantry arrived. Casualties were minimal, and the reports were generally short reviews of what was looted or the local politicians ranting about the Rats being menaces to society. As a former Rat, Coop knew a lot of what they were ranting about was true. Rats had their own selfish agendas and they didn’t care if some suburbanite had his home wrecked and a few bottles of booze stolen.

<Still seems off.> Coop’s finely tuned bullshit-o-meter was telling him things weren’t what they seemed. <What we’re dropping into sure as shit isn’t a few Rats boosting a ride and ruffling the burbanites’ feathers.>

Coop chewed on that thought as he took a big shit and then made his way back to the Spyder with a few minutes to spare. Most of his team was already back, and Mike was already back in his armor.

“You ready for this?” Coop patted the massive man on the bicep. “We get through today and then we’ll see Harper again. Who knows maybe we’ll all get so drunk and she can slip us some of those sober pills, or maybe we’ll be guinea pigs for an IV.”

Mike didn’t say anything over the LACS intercom, but he nodded, so Coop took it as a win.

Ten minutes later, Coop was saddled into his own LACS and watching the ships external sensors. Mars was a red speck behind them and Earth a blue in front of them. One hundred kilometers on either side of them were two destroyers. The black ships had their running lights flashing per inner Sol System regulations. The Blockies didn’t like it if we snuck ships around and vice versa. But the two, three-hundred-meter-long warships looked like a pair of fish swimming next to a whale. If the Blockies wanted to, they could blow an entire Commonwealth brigade and two destroyers into finely-dispersed stardust.

<That’s the kind of shit you can’t think about.> Coop snapped himself out of that line of thought, and paid attention to making sure his team was good to go.

“Attention all Bulldogs, mission update in five.” SGM Crum’s voice announced over the battalion net about forty-five minutes after they started decelerating for their approach to Earth.”

Coop was sitting back in the Spyder’s troop bay because he didn’t have anything else to do.

“Attention, Bulldogs, it’s almost go time.” LCDR Tully announced. “Spyders will be loaded and sealed at T-minus thirty. Depressurization will occur at T-minus fifteen. Company commanders will send final status updates at T-minus five.” He read off a few tasks.

Coop toggled to his own task menu and saw he had his own task to report team readiness at T-minus ten.

“Situation update. We have a more accurate count of the protestors coming in from the north and south, and have confirmation their target is Old Chicago.”

Coop brought the HUD up on his LACS and enabled the map function to show him what the LCDR was talking about. There were two oceans of gray marching steadily toward Old Chicago. They were only a few kilometers from the Chicago River. He fast-forwarded their approach and the estimated time of the brigade’s arrival and saw they only have their boots on the ground for about fifteen minutes before the protests lead elements reached the AO.

“…estimating two to three hundred thousand protestors on each side…”

Coop had been busy looking over the data, but that part of the LCDR’s update leapt out at him.

<We’re going to stand against four-hundred to six hundred thousand protestors?! Are we trying to reenact the Alamo?> Coop kept that to himself, even as his team channel lit up with chatter.

“Shut it, and listen up!” Coop snapped back, because that’s what he was supposed to do as team leader.

There was no change in mission, execution, service and support, or command and signal. The LCDR had just let the entire battalion know that they were about to step in front of a surge of angry people sixty times their size and politely ask them to stop.

<There is no way this can go right.> A ball of lead settled in Coop’s gut similar to the sensation when he’d nearly been convicted that day in the PHA months ago.

“Be ready, Bulldogs. Happy hunting.” The LCDR cut the link, and left several hundred HI troopers wondering what the fuck they were about to drop into.

After the update the rest of their time was filled with the soul-crushing sense of waiting for the inevitable. At T-minus thirty minutes to drop their pilot announced in a no-nonsense tone that they were sealing up the Spyder. At T-minus fifteen minutes there was a short howl of escaping air as the flight deck was depressurized for the drop. At T-minus ten minutes, Coop sent a green acknowledgement that his team was good to go. At T-minus five, Coop assumed MSG Smith sent that the company was ready to drop.

And at T-minus zero Coop felt his stomach drop as Venom Two-One led the way by dropping out of the artificial gravity of the Cleveland and into space.

At T-plus thirty seconds the weightlessness was replaced by the chaotic buffering of the assault shuttle hitting the atmosphere, and the next few minutes were spent getting smacked around like they were a can of paint that the Earth itself was trying to shake up.

But eventually that ended, and Coop was sorry that it did because at T-plus three minutes the skids of Venom Two-One touched down on the wind-swept and empty North LaSalle Drive outside the eleven-story Regional Capitol Building.

“Let’s go, Alpha. Time to earn that paycheck!” The MSG yelled as he led the twenty troops in Venom Two-One’s bay out into the city of Old Chicago.

“I want three-hundred-and-sixty-degree security around this site.” SGM Crum’s voice cut in.

“One-One, you deploy your team to cover zero to ninety. Two-One, ninety to one-eighty. Three One, one-eighty to two-seventy. Four-One, two-seventy to three-sixty.” The MSG punctuated the orders with icons indicating their areas of responsibility.

Coop built on that by evenly spacing his troopers through the section, while acknowledging the receipt of the MSG’s deployment orders. “Get there, but find good cover.” Coop ordered, and went a step further by sending pie-shaped fields of fire to his team.

Green acknowledgements came back and the three blue icons of Alpha Team started to spread out around the building. They were assigned to protect the front-right half of the building facing North LaSalle Drive and the left half of the building on West Randolph Street. Blue icons showed the rest of the company spreading out to do the same around their areas of responsibility.

“Team, the battalion command team is moving inside the Regional Capital to meet with the administrators and decide our plan of action, so be ready to move if we need to, but right now I want target reference points dialed in for every intersection between us and the river.

Target reference points (TRP) was a term used to identify an easily identifiable point on the ground which could be used to control indirect fire. There were dozens in Coop’s area of responsibility and he started to delegate them to his team. He didn’t know how the other team leaders did it, but he assigned them based on distance. The computer automatically populated the intersection, but he added the bridges to the list. He took the farthest ones out, then had Mike do the next layer, Whitehead, and lastly Melissa because he could trust her to do danger close fire missions.

STRATNET did most of the work, and within a few minutes they had thirty TRPs set up to put whatever ordinance they needed into those areas.

And not a moment too soon, because they’d barely finished when the first waves of gray started to approach the bridges.

<Here they come.> Coop’s thought echoed the MSG’s warning, and was followed by the rumble of his stomach wanting to take a nervous shit.

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I’m on TDY from Hell – Choices

<So let me get this straight,> Gerry thought as the giant golden doors closed silently behind him. <Lord Seere is a fallen angel who retreated into hell after a failed rebellion against God. He was a judge on Heaven’s Supreme Court, and God didn’t like how he ruled on a case brought by Lucifer. So God, who happens to be his dad, ripped out his eye. Also, let’s not forget, God isn’t GOD like I’ve always been taught. Sure, he seems powerful. He made heaven, conquered Earth, and then remade it in his own image. He’s one of the primordial universal ætheric beings, but he’s one of at least a few of them. And yeah…the one that created Hell might still be around, but no one knows, and the fallen angels just decided to take their land without asking. Seems like a good thing I got this new gig.> He felt mentally winded as he exited the golden hall and stepped into the cold.

Everything around him continued like business as usual. No one knew, or if they did they didn’t care, that Seere was what he was. Other Dux were probably told the same story, and they still accepted their titles and responsibilities wherever Seere sent them. A shiver that had nothing to do with Hell’s chill passed through him.

Honestly, he couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of here now. He’d rather take his chances on Earth then be sitting around Hell when its Maker finally showed up.

<Return in a day and you will be complete.> He remembered the Carver’s words, which left him with some time to do one thing he’d promised to do before leaving.

It was Lydia. Sure, he would rip her throat out without a second thought, but he had promised her that he’d set her up with a new favorite. And he tried to be a man of his word.

It took him a few hours of wandering around to find the man he was looking for.

“Colonel.” Half the men in the assembly area dropped to their knees when Gerry walked in.

“Sir Gerald.” The man bowed deeply. “I heard we were victorious, thank our Lord.”

“Yeah, we won. But I’m here to talk with you privately. Will you?” Gerry motioned toward the open flap of the large tent the men had gathered in.

“Yes, Sir.” The Colonel rose, sheathed the swords he was cleaning, and followed Gerry out. “Sir?” The officer asked when Gerry stopped.

“Colonel, how would you like the best blow job of your life?”

The man was surprised, but his expression quickly morphed into a grin.

“You know what they say, Sir. A man who won’t fuck won’t fight.”

“That is what they say.” Gerry grinned back and motioned for the Colonel to lead the way to the brothel.

The brothel was several two-story buildings connected together not too far from the two-story brownstones where Gerry lived. The building was under heavy guard. A full company of heavily armored infantry stood at attention around the building. Gerry knew from Gerald’s experience that it was the best and worst assignment in the Legion.

It was the best because half-naked women walked around all day long showing off what their gracious Lord had given them. They taunted, teased, and sometimes even caressed the soldiers and anyone passing who looked like they could pay.

It was the worst because you were forced to stand there for an eight hour shift watch while half-naked women walked around all day taunting, teasing, and caressing you. Sure, once you were off duty you could find someone to screw, but by then you were so worked up that a light breeze would set you off.

They didn’t charge by the hours in Hell, they charged by the release. And a simple foot soldier couldn’t afford to get his dick wet more than once if he wanted to eat something other than the gruel the Legion served.

The footsoldiers saluted as Gerry and the Colonel passed, and all the whores descended on them like giddy schoolgirls. It would have made Gerry nervous, especially after the recent assassination attempt by a whore, but his armor would stop anything the women could use against him. Plus, they weren’t wearing enough to hide anything.

“Ladies, please…please…” Gerry couldn’t help but laugh as he was groped from every angle.

“I love you long time. I give you sucky sucky!” A whore with sharp Asian features clung to his arm.

“Darling, don’t bother with that trollup. You need a woman who can take care of your every desire.” An English woman in a low-cut Victorian gown punched the Asian whore in the kidney to get her off him.

That woman didn’t last long either before a similarly dressed woman curse at her in French and tried to claw her eyes out.

“GIRLS!” There was a loud boom like an artillery shell landing in the middle of the room, and the whores fell back. “Please give our gentlemen time to admire the goods.”

The woman who stepped forward was deeply tan and breathtakingly beautiful. Small slips of fabric left little to the imagination, but strings of gold, precious stones, and beads covered the rest of her body. Her heavy eyeliner highlighted intelligent chocolate eyes that held more than an ounce of cruelty.

“Madame.” The Colonel gave the brothel’s manager a snort bow.

“Cleo.” Gerry was less formal, and gave the woman a once over with a smile that she grinned appreciatively at.

“Sir Gerald, Colonel.” She didn’t bother to learn the officer’s name. “How may I fulfill your desires today?”

“He’s here for Lydia.” Gerry nodded at the Colonel. “I told her I’d find her a replacement, and he’s it.”

Madame Cleo looked the Colonel. “It is a step down for her.” She stated. “She will not be pleased.”

“She’ll take what she can get.” Gerry’s tone became hard. “Men don’t tend to like fucking women who try to kill them, even if it’s on the orders of someone else.” He cut off the brothel manager’s retort before it started. “This way she doesn’t lose face, and still gets something out of it.”

Madame Cleo didn’t look so hospitable after the ultimatum, but she reluctantly nodded. Her job was to protect her girls, and Gerry’s proposal was the best case scenario for Lydia.

“Wait, she tried to kill someone.” The Colonel opened his mouth.

Gerry grabbed him by the scruff of his uniform, pulled him close, and channeled the old Gerald.

“You will go upstairs and you will fuck her good. She’s gonna suck you dry like a vacuum cleaner, and you’re going to want to come back here every day. Trust me.”

The Colonel nodded quickly, even though it was clear he didn’t know what a vacuum cleaner was. Gerry only knew about it in principle, but he did know that Lydia sucked like one, and he trusted Madame Cleo to deal with the rest.

“She’s upstairs, Room two-twelve. Enjoy yourself.” She gave the Colonel a sultry smile as he climbed the stairs and vanished.

Then her smile vanished and she gave Gerry a level stare. “And you.”

“Give me the Asian and the Englishwoman. I liked how they played off each other earlier.” He grinned and spent the rest of the night having his own fun.

Gerry woke up the next morning bright eyed, bushy tailed, and ready for a quickie. It turned out the Asian whore was quite skilled in the art of sucky sucky. After that it was rinse and repeat with the Englishwoman, who wasn’t about to be left out of the fun, and then actual rinsing and getting cleaned up for the big day.

He’d been proclaimed Dux by Lord Seere, but he wouldn’t truly be the Dux until he got his new body and arrived on Earth to do his Lord’s bidding. So he left the whores tangled in the sheets, paid Madame Cleo on the way out, gave her a kiss on the cheek goodbye, and headed straight to the forges.

Seere’s personal guards were in the exact same places scattered around the room with the other’s standing guard near the gate. They waved him through without a second glance, and he entered the earthen room tinged with blue light. Here, things weren’t the same as the last time.

Gerry stepped forward and looked at himself. The ivory white block of material was now a man. An inanimate, stiff man, but still a man who looked almost exactly like Gerry. It was smaller than his Infernal Knight form, but that was a given. You couldn’t have an eight and a half foot man walking around humans. He would draw attention.

The creation’s stature was still impressive. It was six and a half feet tall with broad shoulders and a barrel-chest. Its arms contained bulging muscles. Its forearms were thick, finely sculpted, and ended in two large hands that looked like they could palm an average man’s head like a basketball.

The torso made a V-shape down towards a narrower waist complete with rippling abs. It ended in two legs that were powerful and as thick as tree trunks.

<Carver hit the large and mighty request right on the nose.> He nodded.

“Imitation is the greatest form of flattery.” The Carver stepped from the blue flames and shuffled toward him.

“Does that count if you’re imitating yourself?”

She didn’t answer. She just smiled and headed toward the black block. It wasn’t a black block of infernal iron anymore.

<Wow.> Gerry couldn’t keep his jaw from dropping as he looked at what the Carver had created.

The block of Infernal Iron had been crafted into a humanoid shape, but where the ivory man was a perfect replica of Gerry, the black man before him looked like a fifteen foot tall blank canvas.

<A blank canvas of physical perfection.>

Looking at the two carvings side by side Gerry could see the imperfections in the ivory form. The man of infernal iron was a perfect balance. It looked powerful and strong, but Gerry could sense it was fast and agile. It was a masterpiece, and he envied whoever it was for.

The only part he didn’t understand was what looked like fissures that had been carved into it. They weren’t cracks. The Carver hadn’t made a mistake. The fissures had been built into the man, and they fit. He just didn’t know their purpose.

“Magnificent isn’t it.” Lord Seere stepped through the wrought iron gate, and Gerry had to stop himself from dropping to on knee. “She does exquisite work.” His shark-toothed smile sent glints of blue light everywhere.

“Thank you, my Lord. Now it is your turn.” The Carver bowed creakily, and shuffled backward to disappear into the fire.

“Your turn, Sir?” Gerry asked, not sure what came next.

“Yes.” Seere took a deep breath and flexed.

Gerry felt the room shift. It felt like he was suddenly somewhere else. The feeling of being confined underground and in the heat of the forges was gone. Now he felt like he was standing in the middle of an open field with a cool breeze was blowing across his face.

Light started to trace itself along with floors, walls, and ceiling of the room. It twisted into lines, geometric patterns, and writing. The light had a depth to it that physically hurt to be near, like it was steadily pulling him toward it, gradually stretching him to the point of breaking. Then there was the writing. He couldn’t even look at it. His eyes started to burn whenever they drifted near it.

Seer was chanting, Gerry saw his lips moving, but the words never reached the new Dux’s ears. They seemed to go around him, below him, and above him. They were clearly avoiding him.

Gerry looked down and saw four layered circles had appeared on the floor: one around him, one around Seere, one around the ivory carving, and the last around the giant black figure.

Seere finished chanting and reality shifted again. Gerry felt like he was falling, but his feet were firmly planted inside his blazing circle.

“There is more to change than just your mind and body.” Seere’s voice was deep and serious. “Ever since you entered my lands you have shared in its power. I have given you the power to do as I will, but as a Dux on Earth that will no longer be the case. You will be separated from my infernal lands, but do not fear,” he cracked a small smile. “We have a solution.”

The circles around the white and black figures flared, drowning them in light.

“My father laid the ground work when he conquered Earth and remade it. He draws power from humans that way. They pray to him, imparting a sliver of æther with their wish. He never fulfills them, but he always collects the payment.” Seere took a deep breath to push down the anger clearly building within him.

“But my father’s greed is your road to power.” A line flared out from the two figures’ circle into Gerry’s. “And now you have a choice to make. You can’t draw power from simple wishes like my father, but you can draw power from the more vivid aspects of humanity. It is best to fixate on one of their primal emotional states: lust, pride, anger, greed…” he trailed off as Gerry got the gist. “I can make you a magnet to attract the æther off humans with those proclivities. When you are around them you will leech off them. It won’t be much, but over time it will slowly build your power. On top of the lands you will rule over and gain more power through, you will be a force to be reckoned with.

Gerry thought about what the Lord of Hell was saying and started second-guessing his decision. <So I’m being tossed out into the cold.> Suddenly, life as a simple Infernal Knight was looking pretty good.

But he’d gone too far. There was no going back now.

“Can I choose all of them?” Gerry asked.

“You can.” Seere nodded. “But it will dilute the æther that is drawn to you. A man focusing on too many things at once will miss something, and that applies here. Trying to draw from so many sources will weaken your metaphysical magnet. Selecting one attraction will get you the most strength.”

“But it also requires me to be around certain people or in certain environments to get the power. All people feel at least one of the primal emotional states, so this will be a constant source of power. I’ll take quantity over quality.”

“Very well.” Seere showed no indication of how he felt about the decision.

He started to chant again and the light intensified around the two figures. When the light dimmed, the fissures on the black statue glowed the same blue as the fire, and infernal symbols adorned the iron.

“That’s for me?” Gerry asked, looking at the glowing, intimidating fifteen foot infernal iron man.

Seere barked a laugh. “That will be you, Gerry.”

“But the white one?” Gerry pointed at the much more human looking carving.

“That is your human husk, the form you will present to the world. But this,” he pointed to the black statue, “this is your true form, your infernal form.”

Gerry had trouble wrapping his head around that. <How am I going to be that?>

“I’ll handle that.” Seere stated.

Gerry was now convinced the Infernal Lord could hear his thoughts.

“The transformation process is almost complete.” Seere looked down at Gerry and smiled. “But I like you Gerry, so I’m going to give you a gift.”

There was a flash of light and Gerry felt dizzy and disoriented. Like someone had just set off a flash-bang grenade in front of him.

“As a Throne, I was bestowed with a gift from my father. A gift that has served me well over the eons. I’m passing that on to you in the hopes it will serve you just as well.” The Lord of Hell took a deep breath and spoke,” Gerry, you are a platypus.”

It was stupid, unexpected, and obviously a joke, but Gerry felt something as Lord Seere made his statement. The words felt hallow, like they lacked some important substance.

Seere saw the confusion on Gerry’s face and smiled. “You can now tell lies from truth.”

Gerry didn’t know if that was a blessing or a curse.

“Now for the finale.” Seere clapped and rubbed his hands together, and the lines between all four of their circles blazed to life.

Gerry immediately felt a rising burning sensation. It spread from his heart, through his arteries to his extremities. Every moment that passed the pain built until it was unbearable.

“I couldn’t tell you about this part.” Seere didn’t look sorry. “But people would turn down the job if they knew what was going to happen.”

He pulled a brilliant silver dagger from his belt. He slowly slid it across his palm and then splashed the resulting blood across Gerry, the dark infernal form, and the smaller human husk.

Gerry screamed as a tugging sensation ripped his soul to shreds, reformed it into something new, and plunged it into his new infernal body.

He blacked out instantly.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 90

Gunnery Sergeant Gwen Cunningham

Location: FOB Oldport, Rogue Island, United Commonwealth of Colonies

They had a couple of minutes to get organized before company arrived. The four rhinos were being tracked by STRATNET and a digitized countdown to their arrival appeared on Gwen’s HUD.

<Two minutes.> She quickly scanned the Company’s ready status with her armor and started issuing orders.

“Squad leaders, tell me when you’re up. Give me at least a heavy weapon on the other three berms. We don’t want them to catch us with our pants down. Michaelson, get over here.”

Private Michaelson had the best and worst job depending on how you looked at it. He’d been selected at random to be Gwen’s shadow. It was his job to make sure the company’s only HI asset was ready to rock and roll. He also doubled as a protective detail in case Gwen needed to execute fire missions while the FOB was being breeched. Getting that much face time with the company NCOIC was only going to do good things for the PVT’s career as long as he was good at his job.

On the down side, sitting next to the HI trooper without the defensive benefits of a LACS, and handling highly explosive ordinance wasn’t the safest occupation in the military. It wasn’t as big a deal on Rogue Island, because they were facing a force with inferior technology, but normally it wasn’t a great thing to be assigned to an HI trooper. People tended to get blown up doing the job.

Gwen made sure the PVT was following her and went to find a good position. There wasn’t much cover, and she’d have to constantly move to avoid counterfire, so she set up shop in an open area where she still had line of sight to the front berm. That way she’d see for herself if anyone was stupid enough to attack a fortified position held by a company of Commonwealth soldiers.

The squad leaders toggled back their replies and green indicators popped up showing they were all good to go.

“Stay frosty, Echo Company.” LT Maddox motivated over the company net as the four-vehicle caravan broke into the clearing around the FOB and spread out.

Gwen watched through the eyes of the troopers on the berm as the four lightly-armored vehicles created their own firing line extending the length of the front berm. Soldiers in green fatigues and manning what looked like old MK-22 grenade launchers stuck out of the top hatches of the rhinos.

The MK-22s were a rapid-fire 20mm grenade launcher. They were great for suppressing large formations of enemy troops, or large riots, nearly a century and a half ago. At the time they were totally bad ass, but their effectiveness was severely limited by modern armor. A soldier in scales could take a direct hit from the grenades and keep fighting. But still, they were grenade launchers, and having dozens of round flying through the air wasn’t good for people’s health.

The four soldiers in the gunners hatches were wearing old laminate armor shells. The laminate had been big back when energy weapons had first appeared on the scene and most militaries had converted. The laminate could absorb and deflect a lot of a laser’s power, but was less effective against projectile ammunition.

When the starfaring nations took a dual stance on ammunition the laminate armor had been discontinued. It might stop a ricochet from an M3, but a direct hit was going to punch through it and the man wearing it.

The passenger’s door of the middle right rhino popped open and a man waving a white flag hopped out.

“Weapons hold. Remember the ROE. They’ve got to shoot first.” Gwen reminded the soldiers aiming modern weaponry at the opposing force.

“I’d like to speak with your commander!” The man with the white flag yelled with authority.

Gwen zoomed in to get a better look at him. He was a pretty big guy, with a pretty big gut, but it made him look powerfully built rather than fat. He had a big, bushy red beard that she could see behind the armorplast visor of his armored helmet, and it was clear he wasn’t one of the high value targets.

Unlike the guys in laminate shells, their leader was wearing ceramic plating. Ceramic armor was lightweight enough to be worn by people without enhancement, and still effective against projectile and energy ammunition. It had been discontinued about fifty years ago when the Commonwealth perfected their medical procedures and developed Dragonscale. Still, it was effective enough that a few rounds from a M3 would be needed to punch through it.

For the leader to be wearing this he had to be pretty important or pretty rich. Either way, it was a good idea to talk to him.

“I’m the company commander.” LT Maddox popped his head up over the berm.

Gwen nearly face palmed. <Don’t tell him our strength, idiot.>

“Keep the details to a minimum, Sir.” Was what she sent to the LT over a private channel.

“My name is General Christopher Wood, Commander, Oldport Citizens’ Militia.” The bearded man replied.

<General.> Gwen knew the rank hadn’t been used for centuries. But she knew why the guy was using it. <Step one of a separatist movement is to separate yourself from the old establishment. Differentiation is important, as is creating your own rules, behaviors, and norms. I bet the guy even has stars on his shoulders.> She couldn’t tell with the armor on, but she’d bet good money on it.

“How may I help you, General Wood,” the LT replied diplomatically.

“Usually, it is polite to introduce yourself when someone has rendered you the courtesy.” The General shot back.

Gwen rolled her eyes, but noticed the power play for what it was.

“Lieutenant Martin Maddox, Commonwealth Infantry.”

“Lieutenant Maddox.” The general nodded. “I’m here to discuss your troops trespassing on our land.”

“There is no trespassing, Sir. Despite what you or your government might say, this is still Commonwealth territory. And until otherwise ordered, I will maintain this property.” The LT showed some backbones and stared down the general.

“I’m sorry to hear you disagree with our politics.” The general shook his head.

“It’s not my job to agree or disagree, Sir. But I took an oath to obey the orders of those appointed over me, and that is what I am going to do.” The LT stood up on the berm, which was tactically stupid, but it made for a picture-perfect moment.

“I can respect a man of honor.” The general nodded to the LT. “But I will not tolerate further encroachment of our sovereignty. You are ordered by the Citizens’ Militia to remain at this location until further notice. Furthermore, you will lay down your weapons and let the citizens of this planet go about their business as they see fit. This is your only warning, Lieutenant.”

“And I don’t take orders from you.” The LT and general engaged in a staring match for a few seconds, but it was hard for the older man to stare at the faceless, nanite-scaled helmet of the LT’s armor.

“You’ve been warned.” The general made the “load-up” circling motion with his hand and the four rhinos started to reverse and turn in synchronized coordination.

The general hopped back in the passenger side of his rhino and the four-vehicle caravan drove back down the access road. STRATNET tracked them all the way to the main road before they exited the sensor’s range.

“That went better than I thought.” The LT and most of the soldiers on the front berm marched down the elevated earth.

“They weren’t going to start anything with four vehicles and in armor we could turn into Swiss cheese. No, they were getting a feel for us, a feel for you, and trying to get a look at our capabilities.”

<And if they know anything about modern military organization, you told them there are only a hundred of us here.> Gwen left that part out.

“I’m interested to see what happens next,” she said mostly to herself.

“Whatever it is, we’ll be ready, Gunney. I want you to set up a watch schedule, at least twenty five percent of the company on duty and on the berms at all times. I want those swatters set up, and you to be ready to bring down the rain at a moment’s notice. When they come they’re going to come in numbers.”

Gwen agreed with the LT’s assessment. The only way they could take the FOB was with overwhelming numbers. <And a shit ton of people are going to die in the process.> She needed to think of any way to avoid that.

“Sir, radio in to HQ that we made contact with the local militia. I’ll get our men into position.”

She left the officer to do officer stuff, and she went to work getting the FOB ready. It was rapidly getting dark and she needed to have those swatters up an hour ago, so while three squads maintained security, another four set up the stationary anti-air batteries. She used her suits’ neural network to run diagnostics and do systems tests by throwing pieces of fruit into the air. It got turned into a fine yellow mist by the high-velocity rounds.

With the defenses set up, she broke the company into three eight-hour watches, designated a watch NCO to supervise two of the three, and then finally grabbed some chow.

Her stomach growled with the hunger that always followed a combat drop, securing a position, and a tense conversation with the locals. She scarfed down the stew-like substance after hitting the auto-heat feature and letting it heat to a palatable luke-warm. Then she headed into the ops center. The LT was present talking with higher, the commo SGT was trying to boost their signal and listen in on the local’s comms, and the company armor specialist was finishing up reassembling the class five fabricator. That was who she needed to see.

“Specialist.” She walked up behind the soldier who’d decided to dedicate her career to one specific thing rather than become a traditional NCO. “Give me the run down on what we can make with this thing.”

Fabricators were tricky. Some were used for general production of items, and other for more specifics. A class five fabricator was used for ammunition, but it could only create the ammunition whose designs were loaded into its databanks.

“We can make anything we need to shoot, Gunney.” The specialist had her helmet off and was brushing short strands of hair out of her eyes. “I’m about to start up a batch of one mike mike. Do you want anything in particular?”

“Can you make me a hundred and twenty forty millimeter diggers?”

Diggers were jargon for 40mm sensor grenades fired from an M3’s grenade launcher. The grenades would dig into the ground and create a sensor bubble. What Gwen wanted to do was get enough launched so the company had complete three hundred and sixty degree eyes on their surroundings. That way no one could sneak up on them.

“A hundred and twenty. That’s a tall order, Gunney. The LT wants us to have a reserve…”

“A reserve is all well and good, Specialist, but what good is it if we can’t see what we’re shooting at until it’s too late.” Those words got through to the junior NCO.

“Yes, Gunney. A hundred and twenty diggers are going to take an hour.”

“Thanks, Specialist. Then get to work on those one mike mikes. I’m sure we’re going to need them.”

An hour later and the yellow dwarf at the center of Rogue Island’s system had fallen beneath the horizon, and forty soldiers equipped with the 40mm attachment on their M3s were in the prone position along the berms. There were ten per berm space roughly ten meters apart, which would give complete coverage for the hundred-by-hundred meter box the berms created.

“Each of you has three rounds,” Gwen detailed their mission. “I want you to put a ring of them at one kilometer.” Targeting icons appeared across the soldiers’ HUDs showing them where to fire. It was a simple mission that even the greenest soldier should be able to accomplish. “Load one round…aim…fire.”

There was a series of thumps as forty 40mm grenades went sailing a kilometer into the distance.

“Comms, prepare for data link.”

All forty grenades hit where they were supposed to, dug into the ground, and started to transmit.

“Good link, Gunney. Updating.” A few seconds later and a border one kilometer out sprang to life on everyone’s HUD.

“Follow designated fire pattern.” The LACS computer updated the best placement of the diggers to get maximum coverage.

Two more volleys went down range and not ten minutes after firing the first round, Echo Company had a comprehensive sensor bubble out to one kilometer. No one was going to be sneaking up on them anytime soon.

With her last mission completed, Gwen partook in one of the military’s oldest traditions.

Hurry up and wait.

Now, the company had to sit back and wait for something to happen.

They didn’t have to wait long.

“Gunney, this is Six-One, I’ve got movement on the road.” The squad leader for sixth squad, the squad currently watching the western berm radioed in.

Gwen jerked so hard she almost fell out of the charging rack. She was still in her armor since she needed to be ready to go at a moment’s notice, but that wasn’t a problem. She’d learned to sleep in full battlerattle back in Ranger School.

“I’m on the way. Is the LT aware, Six-One?” Gwen checked her armor’s clock and it showed that they were only three hours into Gwen’s eight hour shift off, but she was at a hundred percent power now.

Sixth squad’s squad leader was a corporal who might not have given the heads up to the officer yet.

“No, Gunney.”

“I’ve got it, Six-One. Keep an eye on that road.”

Gwen called the LT, but he was already up an in the ops center. All he had to do was watch the STRATNET holo to see the vehicles in question. The road was inside the sensor bubble she’d established three hours ago.

She linked up with the LT as he marched out of the building and toward the roadside berm. “Sir, we’ve got a six-vehicle convoy moving at sixty kilometers per hour.” Gwen knew he was seeing the same thing on his HUD, but reporting a situation was a force of habit.

The front and rear vehicles were rhinos. The sensors painted the vehicles as they passed and gave Gwen a comprehensive look at everything. For instance, these weren’t armed with the MK-22s, these had long-barreled, late twenty-first century heavy machine guns mounted on the roofs. She didn’t know what museum they’d looted those from, but the weapon’s information popped on her screen and told her the FOB was in their effective range.

“Keep your heads down.” She sent out a warning to sixth squad.

The sensors also gave them a good shot through the vehicles windows. It wasn’t a full picture, but from what it collected her suit was able to determine there was a squad of infantry present in each of them, and they all seemed to be armed with M1s.

M1s were the grandfather of the M3 and the first generation of electromagnetic rifle. Compared to an M3 they sucked. The firing rate was slower, the muzzle velocity was lower, the battery life was impractical for the battlefield, and you had to change out the barrel ever few hundred rounds because it would overheat from all the pressure. The kickback on the things was a bitch too. Later versions had been updated as technology advanced, but the M1s were generally considered a stopgap in electromagnetic rifle production before the better M2 came along. So of course, a lot of the leftover M1s got shipped off to the colonies and found homes with militias like the one trying to drive a force by the FOB.

“I’m seeing four buses, approximately thirty soldiers per bus, Gunney.” The LT was tapped into the same data feed, so they both saw an over-strength company driving off to do exactly what Echo Company’s orders were to prevent. “It could be an ADVON for a large force?”

“Or they’re testing us, Sir.” Gwen thought she was right, but the LT’s thought had merit.

“Either way, we can’t let them pass.”

Gwen wanted to argue with him, but she couldn’t. Her 125mm cannon and the 80mm mortars would turn that convoy into flaming wreckage in seconds. Their outdated machine guns might have the range, but they weren’t going to hit anyone behind the berm. It was like shooting fish in a barrel, and she held the shotgun.

“The ROE gives us the right to engage.” The LT turned to her. “Our mission is to stop a linkup like this between Oldport and other cities’ militias. Prepare to fire, that’s an order, Gunney.”

Gwen bristled slightly at the LT’s choice of words, but she knew what she had to do. Her neural network was already connected to the 80mm mortars, so she opened up their menus and synchronized them with her 125mm cannon. The autoloaders loaded HE rounds into the tubes. With STRATNET up, and the smart computers on the shells, she didn’t even have to plot a grid coordinate for the fire mission.

<They’re taunting us.> There was no other reason for the convoy to be driving at sixty when the rhinos could pull one-fifty. None of the vehicles were air-mobile, but with a flat, clean road to drive on they should be doing more than sixty. <Shit.>

“What are you waiting for, Gunney? Fire!” The LT had his hands on his hips and was staring at her.

“Company, everyone up. I want one hundred percent security on the berms. Move!” She ordered over the company net.

“Do your job, Gunney, and fire!”

Gwen’s head snapped toward the LT, and she projected her face on the officer’s HUD. She saw the man gulp slightly at the murder in her eyes.

“Don’t lecture me about doing my job, Sir. I not worried about that. What I’m worried about is what comes next.” She bent her knees and absorbed the recoil of two rounds fired from her cannon in rapid succession.

Nearby the 80mm’s soft booms joined the chorus.

She staggered the shots perfectly, so the convoy didn’t even stand a chance. Simultaneously, all six HE rounds roared through the windshields of the vehicles and exploded. Armor tore, reinforced glass shattered, and people were engulfed in flaming death. One second the over-strength company was driving down the road, the next they were either dead or trapped in flaming coffins they’d never escape.

A few screams echoed across the empty space between destruction and the FOB for maybe a minute before they all fell silent.

“Specialist!”

“Yes, Gunney.” The armorer’s side of the channel was noisy with a churning mechanical sound.

“You better start pumping out one mike mikes like your life depends on it.” She turned to the LT with cold, stern eyes. “Because I guarantee you in the next few hours we’re going to need every round we can get our hands on.”

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Two Worlds – Chapter 89

Benjamin Gold

Location: CWS Fortitude, Alcubierre Bubble, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “You good, Sir?”

“Yes, I am fine.”

Chief Yates leaned back in his seat and shrugged. Ben wouldn’t say he was pouting, but he wasn’t his usual positive self.

Argo’s OIC and NCOIC sat on the bridge of Fortitude in visitor seats, just like Ben had at the beginning of their journey out to York Sector. But a lot had changed since then.

First thing was that he’d started to develop a working relationship with Chief Yates. The old, silver-haired chief petty officer was a little crusty around the edges, but he was damned good at his job. He’d been all over the Commonwealth and served on everything from gunboats to the latest and greatest assault carriers. He’d been married three times, divorced twice, and his third wife was currently MIA. Not in the military sense of the term, she’d just run off one day and the Chief came home from a deployment to an empty apartment.

Thankfully, after wife number one he’d learned to keep his MWFAS account information to himself. So now, the average height, slightly large in the midsection CPO was finishing out his assignment on this gunboat before heading into retirement.

“Nothing but white sandy beaches, drinks with those little umbrellas in them, and lovely ladies to keep me company.” The Chief had shared his plans over drinks, which only made the rest of the trip a little harder for Ben.

Because the second thing that had happened after he familiarized himself with his crew and his ship was that Sarah had broken it off.

<She did not even have the decency to do it to my face.>

His PAD had chimed at the beginning of the duty day after launching away from Asgard, and a short message from Commander Wythe, not Sarah, had come through ending things. She listed not having enough time to spend together, and the needs of her new command as the primary reasons, but Ben couldn’t stop a nagging suspicion in the back of his mind.

She’d been totally uninterested in him beyond basic superior-subordinate professionalism up until his deal with Rear Admiral Helms. Then she’d become interested, helped him prepare, gotten close, and ended up getting out of the personnel department by doing god knows what at his family’s Memorial Day party.

<No.> He shook his head to clear all the negative emotions. <I looked in her eyes. We slept together and laughed together. It is not possible she faked all of it just to get ahead.>

Still, the doubt persisted, so he concentrated on what came next.

“Transition in three minutes, I say again, transition in three minutes.” A voice announced over the intercom. “All hands, battlestations.”

“Battlestations?” Ben looked around with confusion as he grabbed his helmet and shoved it on his head.

It was a formfitting design, engineered to take up the least amount of space, with a clear armorplast visor that doubled as a HUD. He felt it pop into place and his smart-cloth CMUs automatically formed a neck gator to completely seal his body in. If Fortitude got ambushed coming out of FTL, which was every skippers’ worst nightmare, then Ben would be able to avoid death-by-vacuum for a few hours. The helmet had a small oxygen canister built into it, but it would only buy time, and that was only if the CMU’s integrity wasn’t violated by shrapnel. Then, he’d be dead in minutes.

“Book says you don’t have to be at battlestations when transitioning into a friendly system, but this is the Rim, so better safe than sorry.” Chief Yates placed his hand on Ben’s shoulder, automatically creating a TACCOM link between them.

“That makes sense. Commander Wythe is very good at her job.” It was meant to be a compliment, but it came out cold and stiff.

The CPO wisely didn’t comment.

“Transition in one minute.” The intercom continued to count down.

“Lieutenant Briggs, report Argo’s readiness for transition.” Ben sat back and waited for his XO to answer.

Truthfully, he should have been on his ship and not sitting useless on the cruiser’s bridge. He didn’t know why Sarah had asked him up here in the first place.

“Skipper, Argo is green for transition.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant.” Ben cut the line, and was thankful for the millionth time that Briggs was a competent officer.

He’d learned in the last week that one of the most important parts of being a skipper was to ensure you had a top-notch XO. A good XO was invaluable. A good XO and CPO was hitting the lottery.

“Transition in three…two…one…”

Ben felt the jerk as Fortitude went from faster than light speed to cruising at several kilometers per second. Sarah had cut the ship’s speed down to nearly nothing so they could make a quicker changeover through the system.

The holo-tank slowly expanded the one light minute bubble around the ship as they started to coast into the system.

“Ma’am, I’m picking up Commonwealth comms drones.” The communications OIC identified a few icons in the growing eighteen-million-kilometer bubble around them.

“Interesting.” Sarah was sitting in her command chair with a pensive look on her pretty face. “Check their queues to see if there are any pre-programmed…” Just then the holo-tank chirped as two contacts came into range.

Ben was halfway across the bridge, but he saw the icons in the tank: BB 112 Lancelot and BB 115 Galahad. Both were registering blue, friendly transponders.

<What are two battleships doing out here in a middle of nowhere junction system.> Ben didn’t have time to puzzle out why.

“Fortitude Actual, this is Lancelot Actual, over.” A tense voice announced itself over TACCOM.

“I read you five by five, Lancelot Actual. What’s with the welcome committee?” Sarah asked back, her face glued to the holo-tank.

Fortitude, change course immediately to niner-zero and go to emergency power.”

Lancelot…” Sarah was about to protest but a burst of STRATNET data from the pair of battleships updated the tank, and it became obvious why the battleship’s skipper wanted them to haul ass.

“Data received, Lancelot, but we can’t just run off with our tail between our legs. We’re escorting the supply ship Beans and Bullets. They’ve got a battalion of troops along with fuel for the atmospheric exchangers still going on New Lancashire, and tons of food and raw materials. We can’t just leave them.”

Beans and Bullets has the same information as you, Fortitude. They’re changing course and pulling their max acceleration. Match speed if you want, but be prepared to fight.”

“This is Liberty Actual,” the other Virtue-Class cruiser captain broke into the conversation. “We’re sticking with Fortitude to pull security for Beans and Bullets. Looks like we’ve got reinforcements coming in behind you, Lancelot.”

Liberty was right. Ben saw two FTL footprints on the holo-tank. The one to Fortitude’s port was much larger than the one to Lancelot’s stern, but every energy cannon and missile counted when it came to a fleet engagement.

Ben suppressed the surge of fear and dread that tried to escape, and turned it into a gulp. Whatever was about to happen it could get bloody.

<It all depends on who they are and what acceleration they pull once they exit FTL.> He did some mental calculations, and enemy forces transitioning at even a moderate rate of speed would put Fortitude, Liberty, and Beans and Bullets in a tight situation.

Currently, they were a little under ten million kilometers from the Commonwealth battleships. The presumably friendly FTL signature was another million kilometers behind Lancelot, and the one everyone was nervous about was thirty-fiving million kilometers to the stern of Fortitude’s new heading and negative to the elliptical. The biggest missiles in the battleships’ tubes had a maximum range of eight million kilometers. Everything below a battleship had smaller missiles with a five-million-kilometer range.

Ben was still doing some mental math when a new icon popped onto the screen.

“FTL signature!” Fortitude’s navigation OIC shouted into the already stressed bridge. “Five-zero million kilometers at elliptical bearing two-five-five, designated Delta.”

“This system’s starting to get a little crowded for my taste.” The CPO sitting next to Ben looked calm, but his frown lines betrayed his anxiety.

“Let’s get back to Argo.” Ben and the Chief both got to their feet.

“Lieutenant Commander Gold.” Sarah’s voice popped into his head over a private link. “Your orders are to take the Argo and make all due haste to New Lancashire. The Commonwealth cannot lose this junction system. Apprise them of the situation and return with reinforcements.” Her voice sounded detached as she relayed the orders.

“Yes, Ma’am.” Ben matched her tone. “Happy hunting.”

“Ben…” there was a slight pause and a crack in her professional demeanor. “Be careful.”

“You too, Ma’am.” Ben thawed his tone, but remained professional. She’d made it clear it was over, and he wasn’t going to stick his toes back in only to get hurt again.

He cut the link and hustled off the bridge with Chief Yates not far behind. Thankfully, the corridors of warships, even Argo, were designed with big people in mind, but the hatches were another deal. He had to duck through each of them, and in his haste, he’d smacked his head once or twice.

“Make a hole people!” Chief Yates roared in the way only a senior NCO could, and people parted to let him and Ben through.

“Lieutenant, warm her up! We’re out of here as soon as we get the green light from Fortitude.”

“Yeah, I figured, Sir.” The XO must have been watching the gunboat’s holo-tank because her voice was stressed too.

“Geoffrey.”

“Yes, Commander Gold.” The ship answered.

After the break up, Ben wasn’t going to have the ship constantly remind him of the woman who’d tossed him aside for whatever reason. After five minutes digging around in the ship’s settings menu he’d not only changed the name, but the voice of the Semi-Intelligent Ship’s Interface. So, instead of it reminding him of the woman he’d grown close to, now it sounded like an older English gentleman who’d been present for most of his life. Having Geoffrey present, if only in spirit, helped Ben’s mood significantly.

“What is an ETA on getting all of our systems up?”

“Sir, it will only require three minutes for the reactor to come online from standby mode. Another two minutes and all essential systems will be green. Secondary systems will require another five minutes.”

“Weapons?”

“Weapons charging has commenced. Missiles are already in the tubes, but charging will take seven minutes.”

“Fortitude Actual, Argo Actual, over.” Ben cut his link to the ship and opened one to the bridge.

“Go.”

Sarah’s voice was beyond stressed now.

Argo will be ready to depart in five minutes.”

“Make it three, Argo. Or you’re going to get caught in the middle of this. Fortitude, out.”

“Geoffrey?”

“I heard, Sir. On your authorization, I can bypass minor protocols and reduce the reactor initiation to two minutes and thirty-five seconds and can initiate other essential systems in-flight.”

“Do it.” Ben’s head rebounded when he didn’t duck low enough, but he kept on going. Three minutes was barely enough time to get back to the gunboat.

They made it in two minutes and fifteen seconds. The flight deck was clear and the gunboat’s engines were already emitting the blue-white glow of engines ready to manipulate gravity to their human master’s will. One marine guard stood waiting at the entrance hatch in full Dragonscale Armor.

“Let’s go!” The outer hatch hissed shut behind the three men, and the interior slammed shut with finality.

“Helm!”

“Yes, Sir.” Spacer Apprentice Silas Gilbert, Argo’s helmsman, answered. Thankfully, despite his junior rank, the former Rat from New York’s lower-city was a hell of a lot better at piloting the gunboat than Ben.

“Get us out of here.”

“Roger that.”

Ben felt the docking clamps disengage a second before the rumble of the retracting flight deck nearly made him smash his head into another bulkhead as he and the Chief rushed through marine country and up toward the bridge. They pushed into the much smaller, but still identical setup to Fortitude’s bridge just as Argo dropped out of the cruiser’s belly and engaged its engines.

“The skipper has command.” Lieutenant Briggs’ relief was obvious as Ben passed through the thick, marine-guarded hatch and into the bridge.

“I have command.” Ben took his proper position at the command chair and looked at the holo-tank.

<Oh no.>

“Helm, set course to one-zero, and go to full power.”

“Aye, Sir. Course one-zero, full power.”

Ben didn’t feel the gunboat accelerate, but he started to see it on the holo-tank. Gunboats were some of the fastest ships in the fleet, they were small, lightweight, and with an overpowered engine designed to allow them to use their speed to get out of sticky situation. The situation Argo was in was one of the stickiest.

The holo-tank had updated FTL footprint Bravo when the ships transitioned, and it was now reading the ugly red icons of Blockie warships. Specifically, three battleships and a pair of destroyers. If it was two and two it would have been better odds for the Commonwealth, but the additional tonnage of a third battleship gave the Blockies a decisive edge.

“FTL emergence!” Corporal Diez, the infantry grunt cross training with the Fleet, and Argo’s single-person navigation department, yelled out.

You could tell the almost NCO was used to yelling “grenade” instead of tactical information.

“Charlie has transitioned.” The icons were gray for a few seconds until they picked up the transponders and turned blue.

The holo-tank updated with the new information: DD 547 Barton and DD 783 Nightingale.

Ben did the math. <Two battleships, two cruisers, and two destroyers. That’s ninety-four energy cannons and five hundred and seventy missiles per salvo.> It was a respectable amount of offensive firepower, but it still came up short.

He didn’t know the specifics of the Blockie ship classes, but a general assumption would be six hundred and forty missiles per salvo and one hundred energy cannons between the three battleships and two destroyers. None of these calculations took into account Argo’s four missiles and three lasers. Argo might be the biggest and baddest gunboat in the galaxy but it was insignificant compared to the two task force sized elements heading toward each other.

More mental math told him that there was going to be blood. Fortitude, Liberty, and Beans and Bullets weren’t going to be able to escape. Carrying nearly no acceleration over from FTL had them starting the race from a dead stop. The Blockie force had come out of FTL at a sprint and was gaining. The good news was that the two cruisers would rendezvous with the battleships and newly arrived destroyers before it happened, and be able to screen the supply ship as a single fighting wall before they got overwhelmed.

Not that Argo would be there to see it. They’d be in an Alcubierre bubble before the shooting started, and most likely back after it finished.

Ben felt happy his little ship wasn’t going to be there to get blown apart, and ashamed that he felt any happiness. For all he knew Sarah and a sizable chunk of the Commonwealth Fleet in York sector were about to get wiped off the map.

<You can’t do anything.> He told himself over the next hour as his gunboat drew closer to the FTL jump point and the two task forces closed on each other. <Follow your orders. Get help.>

It didn’t help that the Delta FTL contact had dropped an unidentified warship in the assault carrier tonnage category slightly under fifty million kilometers from the two task forces, and they weren’t responding to anyone’s hails. It was just sitting there and watching.

“Skipper, three-zero seconds to Alcubierre jump.” SA Gilbert announced.

“All hands, prepare for FTL jump.”

A wail went through the gunboat, and Ben plopped down in his command chair and strapped in. Jumping into FTL could be a little bumpy, especially on a smaller ship.

“STRATNET coordinates inputted. We have a lock on New Lancashire’s buoys. Transitioning in three…two…one…”

Argo leapt away from System 1552 at faster than light speeds as the Commonwealth and Blockie forces closed into attack range.

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I’m on TDY from Hell – Let There Be Light

The golden hall was mostly empty except for Prince Seere’s guard. The thousand-man brawl from last night was over. You’d think that would be a given after a solid twelve hours, but you’d be wrong. The cleanup effort was still ongoing. Dozens of men and women were sweeping ash into dustpans, and others had rags and hot water to scrub away the blood.

<It won’t let you track in mud, but it’ll let you die and bleed all over the place.> Gerry was sure no one but Seere himself understood the golden hall, but the thing seemed just as alive as any person. And just as picky.

Gerry walked the long hallway, savoring the warmth all the way to the throne room. Thankfully, Lydia was gone. Whether he was Gerald or Gerry, Gerry was pretty sure he’d kill that bitch again if he saw her anytime soon. Some things with the newly appointed Dux had changed, but others hadn’t. He was now more polite, courteous, and considerate to everyone he met, but he still had a plan to kill them all; and he would do it in a heartbeat.

“My Lord.” He dropped to a knee before Seere, who was lounging on his throne.

“That was quick.” Seere gave a flap of his bloodstained wings and the doors slid silently shut.

Gerry was now alone with the most powerful creature he’d ever met and his personal guard. <This is too good to be true,> briefly flitted through his mind, and he had to reassure himself that he wasn’t going to get beheaded just when he thought he’d hit it big.

Seere sensed the trepidation, or read Gerry’s mind. The new Dux couldn’t tell which, but the giant smiled comfortingly.

“You really need to relax, Gerry. I’m putting too much time and effort into you to just kill you. So,” he waved off Gerry’s feelings like a bad smell. “I hope the Carver treated you well. She has an…unique sense of humor.”

Gerry really wanted to ask what she was, but thought better of it. “Yes, Sir. She’s one of a kind.”

“You have no idea, but enough of that.” Seere beckoned him forward. “I promised you a tale to clarify everything. So pop a squat and listen.” With a wave he dismissed his personal guards. Whatever he was about to tell Gerry, it was for his ears only.

“I’m going to tell you about the story of this.” He waved his arms dramatically. “It’s the story of you, the story of me, the story of everything.”

He sighed and sat back down on his golden throne.

“In the beginning, everything in the universe was tightly packed into a pocket-sized sphere. Or at least that’s what I’m told. Nobody was around when the universe was small, no matter what religion tells you.”

Religion was a touchy subject in Hell for obvious reasons. So touchy, everyone refrained from using words like “God” and “Holy”, even if they were being used blasphemously. This was the first time Gerry had heard anyone, much less Seere himself, talk about religion.

“Then there was light!” Seere clapped his hands, which made Gerry jump and the hall tremble. He chuckled at Gerry’ surprised expression. “The sphere exploded and it released the æther.”

“Aether?” Gerry couldn’t keep his mouth shut. “What’s æther?”

“Humans don’t have a firm grasp on what æther is, but the closest description I can think of is God.”

Gerry took that in and digested it.

“But don’t confuse the human interpretation of God and æther as the same thing, because they most definitely are not.” Seere’s face soured. “Aether is something that links all things. It is the fundamental building block of the universe. Atomic and subatomic particles are a full order of magnitude larger than æther. Normal humans haven’t discovered and will likely never discover æther.” Seere said the last part condescendingly. Like humans were dirt.

<He’s a Lord of Hell. Of course he thinks that.> And after everything Gerry had seen, he had to agree with his Lord.

“But enough about æther. All you need to know is that it is the true source of power in the universe.” Seere curled his hand into a fist. “Out of this explosion of æther the first ethereal creatures were born, and that is where humans get confused. The God they so foolishly worship was one of these primeval creatures. He is comprised of æther, and can control it, but he’s not omnipotent and omniscient. He’s just as flawed as the rest of us.”

Now Gerry knew Seere was speaking from personal experience.

“So the first ethereal creatures swim around the cosmos for a few billion years; fighting, fucking, and generally doing whatever the hell they want.” Seere continued. “But you can only screw around for so long before you get bored. So they started to build. But ‘build’ isn’t the right word,” Seere scratched his chin. “You could say this is the moment of creation, but that’s egotistical and only plays into my father’s narrative.”

Gerry really wanted to delve into that a bit more, but Seere rolled right over anything he might have said.

“Whoever was left of the ethereal creatures created their realms of power. One of them created Earth. Another created Hell. My father created Heaven, and others created other realms that even I’ve only heard myths about.” Seere frowned. “And then there was peace. Everyone was too busy working on their own creations that they left each other alone.”

<Holy shit!> Gerry thought, and it was oddly appropriate.

“Now, the scope of our story focuses down to Heaven, Hell, and Earth; or the Higher, Middle and Lower Realms respectively. I know what created the middle realm but it disappeared before my birth or when I was very young. Either way I didn’t pay attention. But I do remember the First War of Conquest.” His expression softened, like he was remembering better days.

“My father.” It hardened back to stone at the mention of the name. “The one you all call God, conquered the middle realm and captured its æther. My and my siblings fought a war against the creatures that inhabited it. We killed most, and stripped what was left of nearly all their power. Then my loving father ‘remade the world in his own image’.” Seere used air quotes ironically. “He fostered the growth of humans in his new creation. He fashioned their souls to fill with that realms æther, and then be drawn back to his realm when their mortal form died. Then he charged us, his firstborns, his angels, with stewardship over his new flock.”

If Seere had looked upset before he looked royally pissed off now. Gerry valued his head so he didn’t even breathe until the Lord of Hell got his emotions back under control.

“Naturally,” Seere said through gritted teeth. “Many of my brothers and sisters didn’t agree with what was demanded of us.”

Gerry couldn’t relate. His father had always shown him love and support, but he could imagine having a cold, distant, power-hungry father would suck.

“I’m sorry.”

“I don’t need your sympathy!” Seere roared, shaking that hall.

The very sound of his voice practically fileted flesh. If Gerry hadn’t been wearing Infernal Iron he would have been killed.

Seere glared at him, but slowly regained his composure.

“My father gave us power to do our duties. Power drawn from Heaven. Like him, we are creatures of æther, and can control and manipulate it to our will. But unlike him, we don’t have the sheer capacity, which made it difficult to resist.” Seere surprised Gerry by giving a short chuckle. “My father is like that CEO or President who always holds onto fifty-one percent of a company’s stock just so he can do whatever he wants with an organization. Then he left the running of it to us.”

“That’s hardly fair.” The three words escaped Gerry’s mouth before he bit down hard on his tongue.

“It most certainly wasn’t.” Seere gave him an affirming nod. “So we tried to do something about it.”

Seere’s eyes glazed over at the fond memory. “The War of Rebellion.” He sighed. “Its entirety isn’t well documented in human texts because of how close we really got. I can still remember it. Lucifer and Satan fighting Amenadiel and Metatron in my father’s throne room, Seraphim against Seraphim. They destroyed my father’s palace in the process, and I laughed as it burned.” Seere’s lips pulled back into his truly terrifying smile.

This time Gerry kept his mouth shut and waited for his Lord, an angel from Heaven, started to speak again.

“But our diversion failed to distract him long enough. We weren’t able to take his throne and gather the æther needed to defeat him. He returned and cast us out of Heaven and into the middle realms. We were few in number by then, only a few dozen from various Choirs. Then he sent Michael, Gabriel, and a legion of Guardians to finish us. He didn’t want to just defeat us, he wanted to ground us into dirt and make an example of our defiance. All because we didn’t agree with him. So we did what he didn’t expect. We fled here.” He gestured around the room.

“My father hadn’t heard from the primordial creature that created the lower realms, but he dared not aggravate him in his weakened state. So he let us go.” Seere finished, and gave Gerry a shrug. “Fast forward another few eons and here we are. Now I’ll take your questions.”

“The creature that created Hell?” The revelation that there was something bigger and badder than Seere was hard to comprehend.

“We don’t know. We took ownership of our lands, and absorb the æther of the souls drawn here by their actions to serve us.”

Gerry nodded. “And the other Lords of Hell?” He only knew of Cain and Beelzebub.

“Most are fallen angels like myself. A few, like Cain, are cursed beings that have amassed enough power to hold their lands. Beelzebub is a creature of this realm as is The Carver, but she has sworn her loyalty to me.”

“And you, my Lord. What part did you play?” It was a daring question to ask, but Seere grinned.

“In Heaven I was a Throne, an angel of justice and a symbol of godly authority to my lesser brethren.” The angel explained. “I judged actions and crimes based on divine law and made my rulings. My power, and the power of my throne,” he patted the gold throne he was sitting on, “allowed me to enforce my rulings.”

“Open rebellion wasn’t the first action we took against our father,” Seere continued. “All our motivations for rebellion were different, but some of us fought back because we truly believed our father was showing favoritism to humans. Our lives were filled with servitude. The Seraphim’s spent their time endlessly singing my father’s praises. We were slaves to my father’s will while human had the ability to choose. We just wanted to be able to choose”

Gerry saw pain in his Lord’s eyes for the first time.

“My older brother, Lucifer, brought the case before me for judgment and I agreed with him. Needless to say, my father did not like my decision. He took my eye for my crime. Apparently, justice wasn’t as blind as my father wanted it to be.”

“When the fighting started I made sure to give as good as I got, but my greatest accomplishment was this.” Seere patted his golden throne. “I stole my throne from Heaven along with its divine reservoir of æther. For my actions they call me Master of Thieves.” He grinned, liking the name. “Those with more tact and manners call me The Great Dissenter.” While he liked the first name, there was clear pride in the second.

Gerry just sat there for several minutes, awestruck, and not sure what to say.

<What do you say to the creature that defied God’s will, stole a super powered throne, and escaped to Hell where he now rules his own kingdom?>

“That’s a hell of a tale, Sir.”

Seere laughed a rich, hearty sound that filled the throne room with extra warmth. Apparently, that was the proper response.

“And it’s only half of it.” Seere smiled, wiping a tear of laughter from his cheek. “The higher and lower realms are securely under our respective control, but the Middle Realm is not. The Second War of Conquest got us a foothold on Earth, and we’ve been trying to expand it ever sense.”

From what Gerry had heard, taking power away from the creature that called himself God was a good idea. “What do you need me to do?”

Again, that was what Seere wanted to hear.

“You, Gerry, will be a Dux on Earth. You will expand my influence, gather land, make alliances, eliminate opposition, and pave the road for an eventual assault on Heaven.” Seere’s eyes shone with a zealous fire. “You are going to be the tip of my spear, Gerry. Can you do that for me?”

Gerry immediately went down on one knee and bowed his head. He didn’t care if his Lord had asked him to stop doing it, this occasion demanded it. “Yes, Prince Seere. I will be your vanguard. I will defeat your enemies and gather your power on Earth so you can take the fight to the self-righteous prick in the sky.”

“Good.” The Infernal Lord and fallen angel grasped Gerry shoulder, and pulled him to his feet. “Then we have more work to do before you are ready.”

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