A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 5

The apartment was half a mile from the campus, which was for the best. Seth needed space. He needed space from all the judgment he knew was coming. He needed space from the sights and sounds that reminded him of her. He just needed fucking space.

Monday was a federal holiday, Labor Day, so classes didn’t start until Tuesday. Your schedule was what determined when you moved in. Classes tended to break down into Monday – Wednesday –  Friday classes, or Tuesday – Thursday classes. The two-class per week breakdown led to longer individual classes, but psychologically it seemed to a lot of students that they weren’t going to class as much; which gave them a chance do other collegiate activities. Like partying.

Seth had been in a bit of a funk when he signed up for classes. He did it late and got stuck almost exclusively with Monday – Wednesday – Friday classes, but that helped him with the first day of school. He didn’t have anything to do but move in on Tuesday.

<And the first day orientation at one.> He reminded himself as he sat up in bed fighting a hangover.

Seth got in late last night, stumbled out of his Porsche coup that was poorly parked in its assigned space. He kicked the beer off the floorboards and into the parking lot as he did it, but he was too drunk to notice. The cops had, but since they didn’t have any proof he was driving, and the alcohol was out of his system, they went for a littering fine.

<Three hundred dollars my ass.> Seth almost crumpled up the neon orange ticket sticking out from beneath his windshield, but he didn’t.

He wasn’t ready to commit HCP suicide just yet, so he threw it in his glove box and tore off toward campus. It was only ten, but Angela had called a class meeting. Since she was still the number one ranked student in the class, she thought it gave her the right. Truthfully, Seth didn’t give a flying fuck about whatever Angela had to say. He was just holding out hope that everyone in the class didn’t hate his guts.

Nothing about the students’ center had changed. The floor looked like someone had polished it thoroughly in preparation for a semester’s worth of scuff marks, but aside from that nothing had moved more than an inch from where it had been in May.

It was packed though. People were streaming through it to get to classes. Those who didn’t have class until Wednesday were moving in, just like Seth had done, and among all that no one cared or noticed a small group of sophomores that were filing into a signed-out room.

“Seth!” Becca bounced over and gave him a hug.

It felt good, better than he’d remembered, but he didn’t let it last too long.

“Whoa, look at the hair.” He put on a façade of cheerfulness.

“I know right.” She moved her head back and forth modeling it for him.

“She always looks great.” Anika walked up beside Becca with a stern look on her face.

He expected to get the most hostility out of her. After all, Liz had kidnapped her, locked her in a hole in the ground, and was prepared to give her over to the asshat that had torn apart the city. All for a payday.

“Hello, Anika.” He couldn’t do more than stand his ground and see what happened.

“Hello.” She held out her hand, making the first move, and Seth took it. “You smell like a sewer.” She released his hand, and he could have sworn her saw the corners of her lips pull up a bit.

“Seth.” A deep voice announced as two human giants walked up behind him.

Mason and Kyoshi looked just as chummy and in love as they always had. It sent a spike of pain lancing through Seth’s heart, but he didn’t let it show. Not that his neutral facial expressions fooled Kyoshi, but at least she didn’t call him out on it in public. Her face did droop a little as she registered the negative emotion, but then Angela interrupted them all.

“Welcome back everyone.”

<Maybe I’m the only one, but does Angela look…fierce?> Seth couldn’t think of a different way to put it.

The teenage shifter had a rich tan going, she was as thin as her naturally muscular body type allowed, which meant she looked ripped.

<She looks like she spent the whole summer training while you spent it killing your liver.> He chided himself as she moved on.

“Some of you might remember from last year that when you first moved in you had a little help. You didn’t know it at the time, but that help was HCP sophomores helping the freshman get settled in. It’s a tradition at West, and the Dean has allowed me to coordinate it this year.” Angela smiled, and her teeth looked exceptionally white against her sun-kissed cheeks. “Since today is the first day we’re all here, and a lot of the students are already moved in, we only have a couple students to help. Actually,” she looked down at her list, “there are exactly fourteen freshmen we’re going to help. That, works out perfectly. Break up into groups of two and I’ll give you each an assignment.”

A year of working, fighting, and bleeding together made that quick and easy…for everyone but Seth. Anika, Becca, Mason, and Kyoshi grouped together, that much was a given, but what also seemed to be a given was the rest of the class avoiding him.

Seth had been reasonably close with a few other classmates. Close enough that they could spend a few hours helping a freshman move in. He’d hung out a few times with Alex Webb, who had the ability to augment his bones and muscles into a creature with enhanced physical attributes. They’d even gone to the bar once or twice when Liz was out studying.

<Studying…> It hit him that every time she said that she was off doing something nefarious.

The hesitation made him lose out partnering with Webb, who paired up with Fiona Richardson, the class teleporter.

<They look pretty cozy together.> He’d missed most of what happened at the end of last year and the beginning of this one dealing with his own emotions.

Next, he tried to grab Oliver Carpenter, a technopath with an affinity for surfing and flipflops. But the sandy-haired, laid back dude sidestepped him and joined up with Danny Mason, a duplicator.

Everyone was pairing up quick, leaving him with only a few options.

“Emilia?” He asked the ice blue-haired, cryokinetic Southern Bell who his parents tried to set him up with. “Want to…”

He never got to finish before Natalia Romanoff grabbed her BFBF, best friend and bitches forever, and walked her away. He didn’t look after them. Natalia could paralyze with a look if she wanted too.

<I see how it is. FUCK ALL OF YOU!> He gave them the mental finger loud enough for Kyoshi to take notice and come get him.

“Angela still needs a partner.” She offered, trying to keep the pity to a minimum.

“Great,” he grumbled, his cheery façade gone as he returned to the small group of people who weren’t treating him like a leper.

“Excellent.” Angela watched from the front of the room. “Now have one of you come up and grab a name and address.”

Seth watched as she tore off sections of the paper that was on her clipboard, and waited for her to finish.

“Seth.” Angela’s tone was flat as she approached him.

Aside from Anika, Angela had the most reason to be pissed with him. After all, his girlfriend had blown up her father. She just hadn’t blown him up enough to kill him. But the degree of blowing a person up didn’t matter much when Angela had thought her father was dead for several months.

“Angela.” He replied, his tone matching her.

Irrational as it was, he was a little pissed at her. After all, it was her father who caught his girlfriend and shipped her off to a maximum security Super prison where she couldn’t have any visitors or interaction with the outside world aside from her lawyer. Seth would know, he’d tried to get a call through when he got over the sea of emotions raging through him. Not being able to connect hadn’t helped things.

“Let’s get moving.” The brief tension was gone as Angela turned and marched out of the room.

“Really. That’s it?” Seth followed hot on her heels, while the rest of the class exited and dispersed to the four corners of campus.

“What were you expecting?” Angela didn’t even turn around as they exited the student center and headed down the line of townhouses on the opposite side of the street.

“Oh…I don’t know. A little cursing at a minimum, maybe a shot to the nuts.” Seth threw his hands in the air.

“And why would I do that?”

“You know why.” His statement caused her to stop and turn to face him.

“I will kick you in the nuts if it makes you feel better.” She replied seriously.

“Why would that make me feel better?”

“I don’t know, but you are projecting your anger and hatred onto others, and expecting to be driven away. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

“Cut the psycho-babbly bullshit.” He scoffed.

“That bullshit helped me through at a tough time and it might just help you too.” Angela remained stoic, which only pissed him off more.

“Fuck that,” he spat. “Let’s just do this stupid move-in thing so I can get back to what’s important.” The image of a bottle of bourbon appeared in his mind.

“Ok.” Angela shrugged. “But when you’re ready go find Dr. Johnson. He’s really good.”

She led the way down the row of townhouses lining the street, and for a brief second Seth thought he knew where they were heading.

<One-twenty…one-nineteen…one-eighteen…> He stopped before he crossed the threshold in townhouse 117’s property. <I can’t do it.> The memories were just too painful.

Thankfully, he didn’t have to. Angela turned up the walkway for townhouse 118. The front porch was covered in brown boxes stacked three high in some places.

“Hello?” A voice asked tentatively and a girl emerged from behind a stack.

Seth thought girl instead of woman for a reason. The girl couldn’t have been more than five feet tall. The stack of boxes she was walking inbetween dwarfed her. She was cute as a button though, her face reminded Seth of a kitten’s. Her black hair was cut short and her black eyes stared out at them with a bit of fear in them. Her features weren’t Super enough to draw immediate attention, but if you looked at the black irises for too long there was definitely something Super in them. She seemed like she was deciding between fight and flight for a moment before Angela spoke up.

“We’re here to help move you in,” she consulted her slip of paper, “Isla Perko?”

“That’s me, but I don’t need any help.” She lifted up two big boxes with ease. A little more ease than was common in a girl who was five foot nothing and a hundred pounds soaking wet.

“We know you don’t, but the school gives us volunteer credit if we do. So, we can either help you or we’re going to sit here until you’re done.” He shrugged trying to move the conversation along. “Your choice.”

Isla looked between the two of them, the mountain of boxes, and her watch. “Ok, my roommates are all in class and I need to get this all in and unpacked by twelve thirty.”

“Which room is yours?” Angela picked up a box helpfully.

“Ground floor on the left.”

“Cool, I had the same room last year.” Angela smiled and turned herself sideways to fit the box through the door.

Seth didn’t know what was weirder. Angela saying “cool” or smiling.

<This is going to be a weird year.> He grabbed another box and followed Angela and little Isla.

 

***

 

“I think this is it.” Mason looked down at the slip of paper just to make sure.

The dorm in front of them was easily ten stories tall, had people streaming in and out of it, and half of those people were students carrying boxes. There were even a few parents milling around. Mason only knew a few other HCP students who lived in the regular dorms, and he knew they could be problematic when it came to getting into the HCP. Some of the large residential buildings had hidden elevators down into the subterranean facility, but not all of them. As far as he knew, this wasn’t one of them.

“This is it.” Kyoshi had her eyes peeled and was watching the people. “Aiden Murphy is this way.” She grabbed him by the hand and dragged them through the front door.

The lobby was a masterpiece of linoleum, cork boards with advertisements, and rundown furniture. People were streaming in and out of the stairwell, waiting in line for the elevator, or just milling around talking.

“There.” Kyoshi located their target and cut a path through the other students. It wasn’t difficult, people just tended to move out of the way if you were twice as wide and a foot taller than them.

“Aiden Murphy?” They stopped in front of a guy waiting by the elevator.

He wasn’t what Mason expected. He was nicely dressed compared to the rest of the students in the area, including Kyoshi and Mason. The unofficial uniform of West Private University was t-shirts, shorts, and flip flops. Murphy had on a nice button-down shirt rolled up to the elbows, khaki slacks that weren’t going to last in the Orlando heat, and a pair of leather loafers that had to be accumulating a respectable amount of sweat. His brown hair looked like it had been recently styled and a pair of glasses made him look older than eighteen. He was also big, not Mason big, but a respectable six and a half feet tall. Despite the height, Murphy wasn’t muscular. He looked pretty average underneath the nice clothes.

“Yeah that’s me.” Murphy turned around and Mason and Kyoshi saw intertwining tattoos running down both of his forearms. If they had to guess they assumed he had two full sleeves, which was a bit of a contrast to the business casual outfit he was wearing.

“Hi.” Kyoshi smiled at the freshman. “We’re here to help you move in.”

Murphy gave the two larger sophomores a once over. His eyes immediately went to Kyoshi’s white hair, golden eyes, and Mason’s size. Mason saw him put two and two together. It wasn’t exactly rocket science.

“Sure thing.” Murphy smiled back. “This is actually my last box, but you’re more than welcome to help me unpack.”

“We’ll wait for the next elevator.”

The most recent ride was here, and there was no way it could accommodate Mason’s size and all the other students waiting to haul their belongings up to their new rooms.

<Interesting guy.> Kyoshi sent his way as the elevator closed behind the freshman Super.

<What do you mean?>

<His whole look is a ruse.> She scratched her chin in thought. <He’s putting on an act so everyone around him will associate him with that preppy façade, but that doesn’t mesh with what I felt and heard from him.>

<Anything I should know about?>

Supers didn’t always come from a good home life, and this wouldn’t be the first time Mason got burned by someone who appeared cool on the outside. Liz had rattled everyone she’d been around with her deception.

<No, nothing like that.> Kyoshi picked up on his thoughts. <He’s just really anxious, which is normal, and he wants to perform well today. He’s got a few ideas about what is coming, and he’s right about some of them.>

Mason remembered his first day. He met Kyoshi, and it was a strong attraction at first sight. Then he got the speech from the Dean after stepping into an HCP for the first time, before promptly getting stomped on by Coach Meyers. He couldn’t blame Murphy for being nervous if he had an idea what was coming.

<Any idea what his power is?> If he was ever going to have to face Murphy it was better to have all the intel he could.

<It’s something to do with his tattoos but I can’t tell exactly what?> Kyoshi sounded frustrated. <He’s not trained to deal with telepaths, but he knows not to be thinking about his power all the time.>

<Tattoos…hmmm…> Mason didn’t know what to make of that, but he was sure he’d get to find out sooner or later.

“Come on.” Kyoshi pointed to the stairs. “He’s on the third floor. It’ll be quicker to walk.”

 

***

 

“This can’t be right.” Becca looked down at the address, up at the building, and back down at the address.

When they first got the slip of paper they didn’t have any idea where it was, so they went to the car and plugged it into the GPS. The apartment, more accurately the penthouse apartment, that Scarlett Vaan was renting was a solid five miles from the school in a brand new building overlooking a small lake. The doorman at the front stopped the two young Supers, who were dressed in casual sundresses, because they looked like they didn’t belong.

<We don’t.> Becca kept looking up at the building, which only made the doorman more suspicious.

“Just call up to Scarlett Vaan,” Anika was on the verge or arguing with the man. “We’re representatives of the school sent to help her move in.”

“I assure you Ms. Vaan is being well taken care of. By The Lake Properties is a full-service establishment. Everything that Ms. Vaan needs she receives.”

“Please just call her, Sir.” Becca added her Midwestern innocence to the conversation. “If she says she doesn’t need our help then we’ll be on our way, but we need to hear it from her.”

The doorman’s iron demeanor cracked, and he reached for the phone by his little podium.

“Ms. Vaan…yes ma’am…right away ma’am…” the man tried not to looked upset as he put the phone back in the receiver.

“Ms. Vaan will see you now.” He led them inside to the elevator, swiped his ID card, and hit the button for the top floor. “Have a nice day, ladies.”

“That was weird.” Becca looked at her girlfriend who was frowning.

“Not really, Ms. Vaan is a little brazen with the use of her abilities.” Anika took a step forward. “And not nearly as good as she thinks she is.”

The elevator dinged open and they emerged into luxury. Plush furniture was everywhere. A kitchen with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances bordered a giant main room that was set up with a giant 4K HDTV smart TV. At least three bedrooms shot off of the great room, and from one of them emerged a very pretty woman.

<Thanks.> An unknown voice accepted Becca compliment.

Becca immediately put her mind on lock down and pushed the intruding presence out.

“I’m going to tell you right now it is not polite to go snooping around in other people’s minds, Scarlett.” Anika crossed her arms and frowned at the slightly smaller woman.

Scarlett Vaan was very pale, with silver hair that was pulled into a tight ponytail, and matching silver eyes. Those eyes studied Anika and Becca carefully. She fell between the shorter Becca and the taller Anika on the height scale, and had a body that looked like she did yoga regularly.

<She looks tight.> Becca couldn’t think of a better word to describe the woman, who did not look anything like the average eighteen-year-old. Scarlett seemed relaxed on the surface, but just below that Becca could feel the tension. It was like Scarlett was coiled and ready to spring at a moment’s notice.

“Well, first off I’m not eighteen.” She smiled, and Becca couldn’t hide her surprise. “I’m not at West to get my bachelors in whatever, so don’t think of me as a freshman. I’m a doctoral candidate here working on my Ph.D. in neurology and psychology.”

“And you’re an advanced mind, a strong one.” Anika added.

“Thanks.” Scarlett smiled back showing perfectly straight and white teeth. “You have no idea.” The smiled seemed downright predatory.

“Enlighten me.” Anika didn’t back down.

“Fine.” Scarlett shrugged, plodding down on the large sofa in lotus pose. “Every heard of psychic surgery?”

“No.” Becca scratched her head absentmindedly.

“Don’t feel bad. Not many people have, and not many people are capable of it.” Scarlett sounded slightly full of herself. “It’s not a skill that advanced minds can learn, except maybe a few beginner’s steps. It’s a unique power all by itself,” she continued. “I don’t have any telekinesis, so I can’t throw things around. My telepathy is ridiculously strong, but only in a small area, and really for a specific purpose.” She smiled. “Your little mental attempts to keep me out are pretty weak, no offense.”

<Tough not to take offense.> Becca grumbled, and only succeeded in getting a wider smile from Scarlett.

“I won’t bore you with all the details, so I’ll just say I’m a little more hands on than your regular advanced mind.”

Becca felt a shiver pass over her at that tidbit.

“I’ll be working a lot with Dr. Sanderson and Dr. Johnson instead of with the other freshman coaches. So thanks for the offer to help the new girl move in, but I’m good. You’re welcome to stay,” she added. “But I’m just going to watch Netflix until I need to head over for my first day.”

“No thanks.”

“We’re good.”

Becca and Anika quickly backtracked out of the apartment, into the elevator, and back down to the lobby.

“We’re out of range.” Anika took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “She’s only got a couple hundred-foot range, and the closer to her you are the stronger she is.”

“I don’t know about you but I got a creep-tastic vibe from her.”

“Yeah, me too.” Anika shook her head like she was warding off bad memories. “But that’s not our problem. Dr. Johnson will straighten her out. He’s a good man.”

“Good.” The last thing Becca wanted was some girl rooting around in her mind that wasn’t as nice and controlled as Kyoshi.

Neither of the Supers knew what psychic surgery was, but it sounded pretty self-explanatory, and not pleasant at all.

“Let’s get back.” Anika led the way to the car. “We have just enough time to grab a bite to eat before we head down to our first day.”

“Eat light,” Becca reminded her girlfriend. “You know what they like to do on the first day.”

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I’m on TDY from Hell – Hell’s Angels

Prince Seere tossed his knee over the edge of his golden throne and sighed. No one would call the sigh of the Lord of Hell dramatic, but that’s what it was.

<I’m bored.> He kept the stern yet fair veneer plastered on his face, but inside he was pouting.

You’d think that after millions of years in existence a fallen angel would have found a cure for boredom. You’d be wrong.

The ambient energy of his throne heated the hall. The rest of his kingdom was a cold and barren land. A place normally inhospitable to life. Until he arrived. He’d taken the land as his own, but it still required constant maintenance.

A small part of him envied his Duxes on Eden. Demon’s like Gerry had it easy. Eden was a paradise, no matter what humans thought. It was a naturally accepting and nurturing place. The best place next to heaven.

Hell was different. Hell had its own plan, and the primordial being that created it never planned to have it usurped by others. Occasionally, Seere had to force his land to obey. <Ugh, back to work.>

Without moving a muscle, he expanded his consciousness. A flood of sensation threatened to drown him, but he wrestled control of the deluge and willed it to obey him. Power, energy, emotion, pure unadulterated æther coursed through him. His body was a conductor and lightning struck him over and over again.

<That never gets old.> This time his sigh was something completely different.

He got to work.

Souls descended through the ætherial barrier that separated the realms. Hell didn’t have a sky, just an otherworldly barrier with shadowy constructs slithering through the darkness. His father’s guardians tasked with ensuing the damned stayed in Hell and away from his precious Eden. Unfortunetly for the old man, they weren’t quite as effective against angels.

Once the souls passed through the barrier and into his kingdom he had complete control over them. Each Lord of Hell did things a little different. Seere had been doing things his way for millennia.

<If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.> He loved the saying that had been made popular over the last few decades.

His winged maidens sought out the strongest, bravest warriors and brought them to the hall. There they would swear allegiance to him and begin their training. Only the best made it into his legions. Those who remained went into a queue. Administrators, and people who enjoyed organization way too much divided up the souls based on their skills and actions during life. People with talents became laborers, farmers, worked in the forge or in the whore houses. The worst, the refuse of the human species, the truly sadistic, Seere fed into the land itself. He used their æther to constantly strengthen his hold on the land and to empower it. That way, if something threatened him or his domain the land itself would rise in his defense.

To a point.

Hell had a mind of its own. If it sensed his weakness it would do the job the other Lords of Hell had failed to do since their exile.

Seere watched as it all happened, and even steered a few things in a different direction. He couldn’t give his administrators too much free reign. He’d found long ago that random inspections were the way to go. It kept people on their toes and honest.

<Well…honest enough.>

With his work done, Seer let the power fade. He dropped back into his body and took another deep breath. The exhaustion was brief and wiped out by a rush of fresh æther that filled the void left by his lordly duties.

But now he was back where he started…bored.

“The Ambassador of the Morning Star.” A guard was bowed before him.

Seere had no idea how long he’d zoned out. Sometimes he could be still for days or weeks at a time if nothing required his attention. But the heralded arrival of an ambassador was always something to look forward to. He didn’t here from his siblings all that often.

“Show him in.” He moved his leg off the arm of the throne and struck a more regal pose.

A flawless man walked into the throne room. His midnight black skin contrasted almost violently with his pale, shoulder length hair. Golden iris’ that belonged in Fort Knox were lowered as the man went to one knee, and his powder white wings curled behind his back. The man was lithe and built for speed.

“Rise.” Seere waved for the man to skip the pleasantries.

“Prince Seere, Master of Thieves, The Great…”

“Enough with the titles. My brother sent you for a reason. What is it?”

“Prince Seere.” The flawless man had to visibly restrain himself from adding on the Infernal titles. “My Lord Lucifer respectfully requests your presence at the Château of the Crossroads in Lord Azazel’s Neutral Lands.”

Seere’s face was placid, but inside he was groaning. Lucifer might be the one asking him to attend but he could smell his oldest brother was involved.

<What is Satan up to now?> Whatever it was, it was a good idea to go. Being out of the loop when it came to Infernal politics could be life threatening.

“When?”

“Today, my lord.” The first visible signs of fear appeared in the other man’s posture.

Seere knew why. Lords of Hell did not like to be summoned, especially at the last minute. Fortunately, for the messenger, Seere wasn’t going to tear off his arms and beat him to death with them. Unlike the rest of his siblings, he had a particular gift remaining from his time as a Throne.

“Very well.”

<At least it’s something to do.>

Seere hopped suddenly to his feet, fast enough that the messenger almost fell over backward.

“I’ll tell my brother you delivered his message.” With that, Seere unfurled his bloodstained wings and vanished.

What the angel did wasn’t technically vanishing. He dissolved himself into the æther, and honed in on his destination with an ability specifically limited to the Thrones of his Father’s judicial system. When you had to be nearly everywhere at once to dispense justice, you needed a way to get around. It was like using the ætherial equivalent of GPS. He moved from point A to point B faster than the speed of light. Once he reached his destination he reformed. The only sounds that announced his comings and goings was the slight flutter of wings.

Azazel, Atoner of the Wicked, ruled over the smallest kingdom in Hell, but that didn’t lessen its importance. “All roads lead to the crossroads” preceded the saying “All roads lead to Rome” by about two hundred and fifty thousand years. Crossroads were sacred to the Infernal. It was a place of negotiation and a place to strike deals. A deal made at a crossroads and signed in blood were unbreakable.

There was only one crossroad in Hell, and Azazel built a giant monstrosity on top of it. Seere appeared next to one of the twelve entrances and frightened the servants manning the gate half to death.

The souls of the truly wicked were drawn to Azazel’s realm, and he revisited all the pain and suffering on them that they did to their victims on Earth. He started by sowing all of their eyes and mouths shut, except for a small hole for them to subsist on a completely liquid diet. They were only allowed to listen and smell what happened around them, and the sudden sense of an Infernal Lord nearly overwhelmed them.

The Château of the Crossroads was a grand circular structure with multiple layers. The exterior looked like nothing more than a giant wall with huge humanoid figures cut into them. Each hole was cut in the mold of one of the twelve Lords of Hell. The holes were over three hundred feet tall, and would admit the Lords in their most powerful form.

Seere progressed through this section of the Château. His twenty feet had plenty of clearance.

After the giant outer wall, there was an open space. In this space, Azazel’s victims tended to lavished gardens and scenery. Sculptures long lost to the mortal world adorned the space while the scent of poppies filled the air.

Then Seere came to a square structure. This section had three twenty to thirty foot holes cut into each side to accommodate the form he currently inhabited. His entrance was on the far left of one side, so he looked to the right and saw the two other holes were already filled in. That meant his siblings were already present.

Seere passed through the second entrance and felt it slide closed behind him. Before him was the last set of entrances, the actual Château of the Crossroads. It was shaped like a triangle and was gaudy to a level beyond Seere’s taste. Azazel preferred to show off his finest collectables at the Château: Caligula, Genghis Khan, Hilter, Stalin, Pol Pot, and dozens of others adorned the walls on exquisitely polished silver spikes. Other servants were constantly polishing the spikes of the greatest killers in mortal history.

“Adolf.” Seere grinned at the man. “How’s it hanging?”

Blood flowed freely from the man’s nose and mouth permanently tinting his iconic mustache red. The architect of the Holocaust opened his mouth to reply and blood fountained out until he closed it.

“That’s what I thought.” Seere walked across the still, blue water and toward his door.

There were no bridges leading to the Château. The Lords of Hell had to cross the small moat on foot, but that was child’s-play to them. Anyone with a little bit of power could walk on water.

The final door was smaller than Seere’s current form. Each side of the triangle had four openings no more than six or seven feet tall. He knew there was some profound meaning to the multiple entrances to the Château, the different shapes, and the growing number of entrances per side, but he’d never paid much attention when Azazel started to get all metaphysical.

To get through the final door, Seere shed some of his æther and shrunk down to his human form. His scarred eye socket filled in, the age and wisdom drained off his face and was replaced by flawless white skin no older than twenty years. His armor and wings vanished to be replaced by a white t-shirt, jeans, and hiking boots. The angel ceased to exist and was replaced by a young man who would have fit in at any college in the world.

<Here we go.> Seere pushed through the final, normal looking wooden door and into a large room.

The room was filled with opulence, but he paid attention to none of it. His eyes were focused on the large round table at the center of the room where nine other Lords of Hell sat bickering.

“May I present, Prince Seere: Master of Thieves, The Great Dissenter, Harvester of the Elysian Fields.” An eyeless man stood in the corner.

<I can’t believe Azazel let this one keep his tongue.> Seere thought as he smiled.

Dimples and boyish good looks did nothing to cut through the tension around the table.

“Brothers, sisters, and others.” Seere shot a glare to the chair two seats down from him.

Beelzebub’s human form was a hunchbacked man dressed in rags. He constantly looked like he was in pain, and his hands were curled into talons like he had severe arthritis. But even from two seats away Seere could smell the blood on his breath.

“Brother!”

Seere’s glare turned into a genuine smile as he embraced the angel that sat right beside him. “It has been too long, Lucifer.”

Lucifer, The Morning Star, Father of Lies took the human form of a beautiful, smartly dressed man. He made his messenger look like an ugly hobo. He was wearing a suit of exquisite white linen with a blood red tie adorned with a starburst pin. Of all the Infernals present, Lucifer was the closest to what Seere would call an ally.

“That is nine of us. We have a quorum.”

There was no head of the table, but if there was that was where Satan sat. The Prince of Darkness and King of Hell had the human form of a frail, fatherly-looking old man. It was all a giant ruse. There was nothing frail or fatherly about the regular or combat forms of the most powerful being in Hell.

“Why have you summoned us, Satan?” Frigg, Keeper of the Gate, had only one form. She was a tall, regal woman with skin so pale it was almost translucent. Purple veins bulged as it carried her venomous blood throughout her body.

She gave Seere the creeps, so it was a good thing she sat on the other side of the circle.

“It is time for us to stop squabbling for scraps and take back what is ours!” Satan smashed his tiny fist on the table.

<Here we go again.> Seere felt tension leak out of his shoulders. There were no new Infernal political moves happening today. This was just business as usual.

“We must breech The Pearly Gates, rewrite the Balance, and take power from our Father.”

Satan had never been patient.

The Balance was the term used to define the movement of souls between the realms. Before their father’s conquest of Eden it had been simple. The Divine stayed in Heaven, the mortals in the Middle Realm, and the Infernals in Hell. The primordial beings kept their souls where they wanted them. Once the conquest was complete their father rewrote the ætherial laws.

Their father allowed those he deemed worthy to ascend from his newly conquered Eden into Heaven. These were the best of mankind, the cream of the crop. They’d shed their human concerns during their lifetime and engaged in selfless practices that their father deemed worthy. Those were also the virtues that he was steadily influencing human society with. Over centuries he’d gradually crafted the duality of concepts mortals referred to as good versus evil.

“Not my father.” Frigg muttered, not wanting to draw attention from the King as he continued his ranting.

“So, Seere. I’ve heard from my little birdies that you’re making a move in Charlotte.” Lucifer leaned in close.

As the only other former Seraphim angel present, Lucifer knew Satan wouldn’t start something with him here.

Seere felt all the tension return to his shoulders, and an uncomfortable feeling in his gut.

“Don’t worry, brother. I have no plans for Charlotte. However, you might have your Dux join forces with mine in Charleston. Together they might be able to do some good for once.”

Lucifer’s smile was so infectious it could almost make you forget he was the father of lies. The angel that tempted the first humans into giving into their animalistic nature, and allowing the other Lords of Hell to gain the foothold needed to pull human souls into their domain.

Lucifer had been able to tamper with the code of their father’s new ætherial law, but only to a point. Their father pulled his souls to Heaven, and Lucifer had rigged it so that those who were closer to their basic human natures were drawn to the realms of Hell. But for the most part, human souls underwent a cycle of reincarnation in the middle realm. They were neither “good” enough to make it into Heaven, or “bad” enough to descend into Hell.

It was their Father’s greatest defeat next to the Rebellion, and had supplanted Lucifer as a legend in human mythology. Now, Satan wanted to expand the work that Lucifer had begun eons ago.

“I will alert my Dux.” Seere left it at that. It would be years before the other angel checked up to see if Seere followed through, so there was no rush.

Getting into bed with Lucifer was better than with any of the other Lords, but it was still getting into bed with a viper and asking to get bit. Lucifer had his own plans, and even if they temporarily aligned with Seere’s they wouldn’t last more than a few centuries. He had to tread carefully. A war with Lucifer would decimate his kingdom.

He just needed to play it cool for now.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 100

Gunnery Sergeant Gwen Cunningham

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

“Hold the fucking line!” Gwen roared over the company net.  She could feel the enemy’s latest assault falling apart. “Keep up the pressure!”

She toggled to her own weapons menu and let out a silent curse. She only had two rounds left for her 125mm cannon, and both were anti-personnel, which worked out just fine for this situation. She switched screens with some fancy finger-work and looked through the eyes of the soldiers on the berms.

<They’re done on the north berm.> Gwen could already see the local militia covering each other’s retreat back toward the wood line, a wood line that was about fifty meters further away from the berm thanks to all the explosives that had been lobbed into it and the resulting fire. <We still haven’t seen shit to the west.> The opening from the FOB to the road had been empty the entire battle. <East and south it is.>

She programmed in the firing coordinates after the computer measured a back azimuths with the data coming from the soldiers’ armor’s computers. She felt the two soft thumps as the ordinance left the tube, and watched as they detonated in the middle of the enemy lines.

The death of at least two dozen militiamen attacking each berm was enough to break the assault. Gwen’s company and the militia still exchanged sporadic fire as the enemy pulled back, but the immediate threat was repelled.

But that didn’t mean it was break time. If anything, this was when she earned her paycheck.

“Resupply!” She yelled over the first squad net. “Squad leaders give me a SITREP.” She switched to the net she’d set up specifically for the men and women leading the soldiers on the berms.

The armorer and an assigned detail sprinted out of the makeshift armory with a big polyplast crate between them filled to the brim with magazines.

“Start on the eastern berm,” Gwen instructed as the squad leaders in that area replied that they were running on fumes.

The two soldiers changed direction mid-stride, almost tripped, but then recovered and raced off. While they were busy, Gwen catalogued the information the squad leaders were sending her and sent it off to the LT. The officer had spent most of his time on the northern berm, and hadn’t done anything to endanger his life or the lives of the soldiers stationed there.

After the first few assaults by the locals, Gwen and LT Maddox had fallen into a rhythm. The LT was in charge of directing the north and western berms. She insisted he take the easier load so he didn’t get overwhelmed. He’d move troops between them as he saw fit, and called for fire from Gwen if he deemed it necessary.

It had worked out perfectly so far, and it allowed her to focus her attention on the two hotspot berms, and raining down arty on the assholes trying to overrun them. Being close fire support in and of itself was a full-time job, and she was thankful that the senior squad leaders on the berms had proven capable of conducting a fixed defense. So, now that she knew they were being taken care of she needed to square herself away.

“Michaelson, meet me by the mortars.” She contacted her assistant.

The single operating mortar they had left was smoking from overuse, and Gwen estimated she wouldn’t be able to use it for another half an hour. Still, Michaelson was dutifully reloading the autoloader with the 80mm shells that had been keeping the locals at bay all night.

A crash course on mortar, swatter, and LACS reloading procedures had the young PVT learning on the fly. <No pressure though,> she thought as he smacked the lid of the auto-loader and initiated the diagnostic function. <If you screw up we all probably die.> She kept that thought to herself.

The PVT had become the second most important man in the company, behind her and ahead of the LT.

“Swatter three has been seeing most of the action. Get a few thousand rounds of ammo into her and then meet me by the armory.” She ordered.

“Yes, Gunney.” The PVT nodded and scampered away.

<Sweet kid. I’m going to put him in for a CAM when this is all done with.> Really, that was the least he deserved.

“LT, I’m going offline for ten.” Gwen sent the company commander the private message.

“Hurry up, Gunney. We don’t know when they’ll be back.”

“Roger, Sir.” She cut the link, and took up a position right next to the armory’s door.

She lined herself up at an angle with her ass and right side facing the door’s opening. Then she went to the LACS main menu and hit the OPEN/DISMOUNT button. The armor asked her if she really wanted to do that, she said yes. There were several loud hissing and popping sounds as the armor vented its chambers and opened itself up. Gwen emerged like a baby from a duro-steel womb, and only took a moment to stretch and shield her eyes from the morning sun before getting to work. Because the truth was that PVT Michaelson wasn’t enough to keep four swatters, an 80mm, and a LACS resupplied in the short time between engagements.

Gwen had to take the tactical risk and unass from her armor to do the job herself. She’d still be able to be back in the fight in about fifteen seconds, but they could lose an entire berm in that short time span, and the guilt of that would eat her up inside.

<Stop thinking about the “what ifs” and fucking work.> She chided herself as she walked over to the rapidly dwindling stack of 125mm shells in the corner of the building.

Swatter three was just on the other side of the wall from this stash of shells, and that swatter’s primary mission was to protect them first, and the southern berm second. Because if one of the mortars triggered one of the thermobaric shells they’d all be totally fucked.

<Best to get these first.> She picked up the last two thermobaric shells in the inventory and walked them back to her waiting LACS.

Modern artillery shells weren’t as long and bulky as older models. They didn’t need the chemical explosives necessary to send old shells flying, so their size was greatly reduced. Without the miniaturization techniques that had upgraded the entire artillery field in the last century, the LACS and HI as Gwen knew it wouldn’t even exist. They would still be running around with large vehicle-mounted guns and five-man gun teams. Judging by how Gwen had eliminated most of the militias arty already spoke to the upgrades’ effectiveness. Even when confined to a hundred by hundred meter space, the enemy still hadn’t been able to take her down.

<Stop patting yourself on the back.> She loaded the two thermobaric rounds into the side of the LACS. The armor did the rest; moving them to the assigned storage space, and updating her weapons menu automatically.

Next, she went back and did three trips of anti-personnel shells before going to grab some high explosive. She wanted a menu of options when it came to stopping the inevitable next wave. She was joined by PVT Michaelson soon after, and she detailed him to grabbing the HE rounds.

The PVT grunted as he hefted the shell into his cradled arms and walked out to the armor. While Gwen was able to carry two rounds easily under each arm, a regular grunt would find the rounds pretty heavy. The designers of the lethal ordinance had been able to miniaturize the arty thanks the cannon’s EM design, but that also gave them a chance to pack more bang for their buck. A modern 125mm shell had a lot more boom to it than its predecessors, which the Rogue Island militia and the surrounding forest could attest to.

<That’s actually a pretty good PT idea.> Gwen thought as she waited for the PVT to hoist his shell into the LACS’ reloading port. <I should get some dummy shells and have a squad carry them wherever they go, keep them out of the dirt during whatever exercise we’re doing. It’ll be like a mini log PT.> She smiled at the thought. Her troops would hate her, but they’d be ready if they ever found themselves in this type of position again.

She and the PVT were on their second round of reloads when the LT’s stressed voice practically screamed over the net.

“Gunney, to the West!” She spotted the LT sprinting toward the western berm.

“Move.” She shouldered the PVT out of the way.

Thankfully he dropped the HE round in the port beforehand. Her own anti-personnel rounds went into the dirt. “Pick those up and monitor the swatters. I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” She disappeared into her LACS.

She hit the CLOSE/MOUNT button on the main menu and the OPEN/CLOSE PORTS. There was the telltale hiss of the closing ports, and ten seconds later Gwen was hauling ass toward the berm.

“Moving, Sir.” She replied to the LT as she patched into his visual feed.

<Motherfucker!> On the road to the west a huge convoy of vehicles was hauling ass away from them going over a hundred kilometers per hour and picking up speed.

“They’re making a break for it, Gunney. Take them out!”

No sooner had those words left the LT’s mouth than the squads on the eastern berm started firing.

“Contact east, five hundred meters, a fuck ton of bad guys!” The squad leader eloquently yelled out distance, direction, and force composition for everyone to hear. “We’re going to need some backup.”

<Sneaky fucker.> Gwen spent a millisecond giving General Wood props, and listening to the LT yelling orders.

The general had been testing them up until now. He’d shown how much pressure he could put on the FOB from all sides, and now he was forcing Gwen to make a decision. Support the FOB with her arty or take out the vehicles that would race away and link up with a larger force somewhere out there.

The swatters started firing before she heard the hiss of the incoming mortars, and this time there were a lot of them.

<This is it.> She could feel it in her bones. They’d probably killed or injured ten thousand enemy soldiers over the course of the night, and even with his vastly superior numbers the general couldn’t keep that up forever.

<What would I have done?> Gwen asked herself, and came up with what was happening right now. <I’d order an all-out push. I’d bring all the mortars I had left to bear on the FOB. I’d use those to cover a massive assault to overwhelm one of the berms, while simultaneously sending out troops to get help and shore up my position in the planetary governor’s new grand army. Damnit! I hate a competent enemy.>

She ran up the eastern berm to the top and stood tall as she gazed out at the road. <Ten…twenty…forty…sixty plus vehicles.> She saw some of the same buses that she’d blown up less than twelve hours ago. There were also plenty of rhinos and what looked like newer trucks and SUVs with jerry rigged weapons emplacements.

They were spread out over a kilometer, with the sturdier vehicles off-roading to avoid presenting a clustered target for Gwen to hit. All four swatters were firing at will now. Their tracers were lighting up the morning sky, but it just wasn’t enough. Explosions started to rock the FOB as mortars made it through. Some fell within the inner perimeter, thankfully missing the swatters, but she saw the last 80mm fall off her weapons screen.

<Fuck!> She didn’t have any more time to think. She knew what the company’s mission was.

Her LACS’ neural network took the footage from the road and plotted the best spread of ordinance. She only had two thermobarics, two HE, and six anti-personnel rounds. It was going to take all of them if she had any shot of stopping the fleeing enemy.

As her computer lined up the shots she went back into the weapons menus and selected the specifics of the thermobaric rounds. Since the shells could cause massive destruction, the designers had built in a regulator. It allowed the HI trooper to gauge the amount of fuel to pump into the air before detonating. Since the start of the battle, she’d had the rounds dialed down since all the fire missions were danger close. Now, that wasn’t such an issue. She cranked them up to the max.

<I hope they don’t have their own swatters. I should have loaded those EW shells.> She’d be kicking herself later, but up until a minute ago they didn’t need anything to confuse the enemy. They just needed to blow the bastards up.

She dropped back down below the berm, took a knee and let ‘em rip. She staggered the shots so they’d all come down at once and give the enemy no time to take evasive action.

“Fire mission on the way, Sir. Splash in ten.” She’d built some extra evasive maneuvers into their flight profile to avoid any basic swatters. “I’m dry on my cannon and heading to the eastern berm to reinforce.” She did a quick check of her Buss as she ran across the width of the FOB.

The LT didn’t answer, he was to fixated on the transport column racing away from them as fast as their electric motors would take them.

Mortars were still falling all around them, and she probably looked like some muscular holo action star running through explosions. It made for good recruitment footage until one made it through the swatters and hit her armor right in the shoulder.

<Shit on a stick with a side of chocolate ass!> Gwen cursed as her head ranglike a gong.

The explosion blasted her off her feet, gave her a crick in her neck, but didn’t do much other than that. She shook it off, got back up, and kept going. Even the direct hit from the antiquated 80mm wasn’t enough to break through the LACS, although she did have a few blinking damage warnings for the scales in that area.

<I’m gonna need a chiropractor.>

She was still picking herself up and dashing for the opposite berm when her shells hit.

Her audiovisual was already dampened from the mortar shell that normally would have ripped her head off, so she didn’t hear the overwhelming BOOM as two thermobarics dialed up to the max exploded roughly a kilometer away. She would have felt bad for the hundreds of human beings that were basically vaporized in the resulting fuel air explosion, but they’d just dropped a mortar round literally onto her head, so it barely registered for her.

The vehicles didn’t fare much better, and those that might have survived the explosions didn’t survive getting roasted alive in burning wrecks.

“Great job, Gunney!” The LT was giddy as she hit the eastern berm and started dishing out hurt from the business end of her Buss. “Looks like you got them all.”

“I better have, Sir. We’re out of thermobaric and we’re only got a handful of HE and anti-personnel left. On the bright side, I’ve got a full load of EW, so we’ll be able to confuse them to death.” Her smartass remark only got her silence as a dozen rounds pinged off her armor. She took aim and killed the guy shooting at her.

“I think that fire mission shook them up good.” The squad leader in charge of the eastern berm stated.

Gwen saw it too. The thousands of militiamen involved in the assault were already falling back. <Maybe I killed the general?> That would have been well worth the expenditure of their last big shells. <Cutting the head off the snake and all that.>

“Sir, it looks like they’re falling back over here, so it might be a good idea to get on the horn with HQ and update them. Without more ammo we aren’t going to be able to hold this position if they come back in force.”

“Yeah.” It sounded like the LT was accepting defeat and he didn’t like it.

<It’s tough, Sir. But we’ve accomplished our mission until now.>

It had come with a cost. As the SITREPs rolled in they had two KIA on the list. A LACS might be able to take a direct 80mm hit, but the Dragonscale armor couldn’t. Add that to the six WIA throughout the rest of the fight and they’d lost nearly ten percent of their combat power in one night. That was something battalion needed to know about.

“I’ll get with Chaos Six right after…”

Gwen saw the light in the sky at about the same time the LT did. She craned her neck back, immediately regretted the decision, and went to full magnification on the LACS. But she didn’t need it. When you’d seen one atmospheric detonation you’d seen them all.

“Gunney, we just lost comms with HQ.” The specialist came over the company net a second later.

“I know,” Gwen sighed. “Someone just took out our orbital relay.”

“Who…how?” The LT sputtered.

There were two easy answers to the question. Both weren’t good for the soldiers of FOB Oldport. First, the planet’s militia had orbital strike capability. A backwater planet like Rogue Island didn’t have any need for that type of tech, and if they did, they’d been hiding it, which meant this little rebellion had been in the works a lot longer than the brass thought.

That was the best-case scenario. The other possibility was that a warship was destroying anything in orbit to disrupt communications, usually in preparation for an invasion. Since the Commonwealth wouldn’t blow up their own satellite, that meant the Blockies were in town.

<I just hope Coral Sea left an emergency FTL drone out there like regulations dictate. Because if the Blockies are here we’re up shit’s creek with our paddle so far up our ass we won’t be able to find the handle even if we tried.>If anything, Gwen was understating just how fucked they truly were.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 99

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

“Mary mother of fuck that’s good.” Several heads around the chow hall turned as Coop took a big gulp of the beer and sighed.

There were some traditions in the Commonwealth Navy that were holdovers from the old nations that had originally comprised it. One of those traditions was the rum ration. They’d tried to get rid of it in the twentieth century, and that didn’t work out well, so they’d brought it back to life when the Commonwealth was created. There had been some minor adjustments though. First, they didn’t serve rum anymore because there was a real safety concern. So, the new rum ration ended up as a single beer a day that could be consumed when the soldier or spacer was off duty and only in the chow hall.

After a day of fighting Rats in the streets of Old Chicago, the brigade, battalion, and ship’s CO thought it was a good idea to let the troops have a beer and blow off some steam.

<It’s real beer!> That alone was more than Coop was accustomed to.

Back in the PHA they had booze, but it was cheap ass shit either distilled in the secret bowels of the PHA towers, or putrid soy crap allotted as part of the BSA ration. It would get you drunk but it would rot your gut in the process. There was more than one welfare Rat out there who didn’t see fifty from drinking all that shit.

“Ahhhhh.” Coop reclined in his chair and looked around.

The chow hall was packed full of soldiers. Some were upbeat and shooting the shit with each other, while others looked like they’d just bit into a lemon. A few of the latter ones were shooting Coop glares, but he didn’t care. They’d just come through their first combat action and lived. If there was anything to celebrate it was that.

“To alpha team.” Coop raised his already half gone beer. “We got to go down into those sewers and kind of blow shit up, and we all made it out with nothing more than some nicked scales. Next weekend we graduate and then I probably won’t see your ugly mugs again.”

Melissa and Whitehead laughed as they clinked their beers to Coops. The woman muttered something under her breath, probably something to do with counting down the minutes until she got away from Coop, but no one caught it. The only one who didn’t cheer was Mike. He just sat there with a scrunched-up face.

“What burrowed into your asshole?” Coop asked as he downed another quarter of his beer in a single gulp.

Mike gave him a quick glare, eyed everyone around them, and raised his glass. “To absent friends.”

<Shit.> Coop felt like a real asshole as the smirk was wiped from his face and he raised his own glass. This round of clinks was much more subdued.

As far as casualties went the 1894th hadn’t taken any. They might have been facing off against a few hundred thousand angry Rats, but they were still wearing heavy battle armor designed to shrug off small arms fire and keep on charging. The regular grunts throughout the rest of the brigade hadn’t been so lucky. Coop knew about the one time the Rats had nearly broken through the defensive line, and then there was that building that had come down, so there were casualties. Coop didn’t have any numbers or any idea who they were, but the glares they’d been getting around the room said that maybe a few of those fallen soldiers’ friends were in the room with them.

<That killed the mood.> Coop finished off his beer and got to his feet just as his PAD chirped.

He pulled it out of his CMU’s thigh pocket and checked the message. The MSG wanted to see him for his after action review. Coop knew it was coming, and as far as he’d heard he was going to be the first person in the company to get one.

<Oh joy.> He gave a nod to his teammates, tossed his beer bottled in the recycler, and headed back toward the massive hangar that comprised the majority of the turtle-shaped transport ships.

Just like on the ride over, the MSG had made them strip out of their armor for the three hour ride back. They’d all downloaded their suit data to the NCOIC and he was reviewing it before the individual AARs. So it was no surprise when Coop walked into Venom Two-One’s empty troop bay and saw the MSG still in his armor.

“Take a seat, Cooper.” The MSG’s armored form was standing totally still, but Coop knew there was a lot going on inside the duro-steel shell.

“You should really grab a beer, Master Sergeant.” Coop tried to break the ice with a grin. “Everyone else is.”

The suggestion got no reply aside from the armored gauntlet pointing impatiently at the padded chairs, so Coop took a seat and waited.

“Hopefully you know this already, Cooper, but an after action review is a recap of a mission where we analyze what happened and offer sustains and improves. First off, I want to congratulate you on a job well done leading alpha team.”

The congratulations took Coop off guard. “Thanks, Master Sergeant, I was just doing my job.”

“You did more than that,” the NCO continued. “You thought outside the box. You literally thought about what was underneath the box. You relayed that information up the chain of command and with that information brigade was able to circle the wagons before the Rats came out of the ground and took us by surprise everywhere.”

If Coop didn’t know better he could have sworn the MSG sounded proud.

“Your team also did a good job of scouting that tunnel and slowing down one of the Rats’ avenues of approach. I watched the footage and what you had your team do with the anti-personnel shells was smart. Artillery isn’t that useful underground, but mines are.”

“Thank you, Master Sergeant.” Coop smiled as his ego doubled in size.

“Because of these two actions I’m putting your team in for Commonwealth Achievement Medals.”

“CAMs!” Coop couldn’t hide his surprise.

It wasn’t a commendation medal, meritorious service medal, or any of the bigger awards that he’d learned about in Basic, but it was something to put on his uniform that didn’t make him look like every other shitbag Private in the service.

“You earned it, Cooper. You and your team did good work.”

“Thank you, Master Sergeant.” Coop got to his feet still feeling pretty good about life.

“Where do you think you’re going?” The MSG’s armored head swiveled toward him before his ass was more than a few centimeters off the cushion. “That was just the sustains, with an example of you and your team going beyond what was asked of you. We haven’t even gotten to the improves yet.”

<Why does that make me nervous?> Coop couldn’t see the NCO’s face, but something had changed.

“We need to talk about this.” Holographic imagery appeared between Coop and the MSG.

It detailed, in slow motion, the point in the battle where Coop had just climbed up out of the sewer. The team was providing cover fire while he was trying to stick the lid back on the manhole. A Rat unloaded his old-fashioned pistol into Coop, Coop smacked him aside with the manhole cover, and then smashed it back into place so Mike could jerry-rig a welding job to keep the hundreds of Rats below ground bottled up.

Coop watched it all play from beginning to end twice and didn’t see an issue.

“I’m not sure what you’re getting at, Master Sergeant. My team and I did a great job of securing the threat.”

“Yes and no.” The MSG put his large metal hands on his hips. “What were our orders concerning the civilians.”

“We weren’t supposed to use lethal rounds. Any missile use had to go through the battalion CO.” Coop paraphrased the standing orders from memory.

“That’s the letter of the order. What was the intent?”

<You’ve got to be shitting me!> Coop caught on a moment later.

“Am I being thrown under the bus for braining the one guy!?”

“Cooper, you used his head as a fucking piñata.” The MSG countered, much more intimidating in his LACS. “And then you left all the inside goodies splattered against an alley wall.”

“Come on, Master Sergeant. The dude literally emptied his whole clip into my dick.” Coop made circular motions around his crotch to emphasize the point. “There is no way that wasn’t justified.”

“Cooper, what were you wearing when that happened?”

“What?”

“What were you wearing?” The NCO repeated.

“I was wearing my LACS,” Coop replied.

“Was that peashooter the guy was unloading on you with going to do anything to penetrate your LACS?”

<Fuck.>

Coop paused for a moment, “No, Master Sergeant.”

“You used excessive force outside the commander’s intent for this mission, Cooper. This wasn’t the only time you overreacted when confronted with a situation.”

“Master Sergeant?” Now Coop didn’t know what he was talking about.

The MSG fast-forwarded the holo until they got to the point in the fight when the Rats starting lobbing flaming bottles at the HI troopers. “Here.” He stabbed a metal finger as Coop’s reaction when fire from the exploding bottle blanketed him. “You freaked the fuck out and fell back from the line, and even worse, you almost got overrun while you were busy rolling around on the ground.”

<Oh shit.> Coop knew the MSG was right, he just didn’t like admitting it.

“Your big improve for this mission, Cooper, is to understand the difference between taking an attack in your skin versus in a LACS. You don’t need to be worried about fire, or even more small arms. The suit will protect you, that’s what it is there for.”

Coop didn’t know how they’d gone from talking about his good thinking and courage to him being a scared little bitch, but they’d done it.

“The battalion CO is probably going to formally reprimand you for this.” The MSG continued.

“What?!” Coop couldn’t believe it.

“He could give you extra duty or dock your pay, but it’ll probably just be a counseling and a written reprimand in your file. Lieutenant Commander Tully knew he was taking FNGs into the field, and he’ll take that into consideration.” The MSG turned off the holo. “Any questions?”

<Can I have another beer?> Was what Coop really wanted to ask.

“No, Master Sergeant.”

“Good. Go grab the rest of your team and have them line up by the Spyder to see me. I’ve got a lot of these counselings to do, and I want to be done with them by the time we hit Mars orbit. I’ve got enough paperwork to do in your last week without this.”

“Yes, Master Sergeant.” Coop got up, walked down the ramp, and went to execute his orders.

<I wonder what everyone else is doing?> He thought of Eve and the other members of his Basic class. <Probably not getting chewed out for doing their fucking jobs. I’m a soldier, I don’t use my words to solve problems.> He still couldn’t believe he was getting busted excessive force when his entire job description was the use of excessive force. <I’m HI. If the Rats had their feelings hurt they shouldn’t have rioted in the first place.> That’s how he felt, and a written reprimand wasn’t going to change that.

 

***

 

Eve Berg

Location: Styx System, Classified Space, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “Ranger candidates!” SGM Queen barked as he stalked back and forth across the ramp of the Spyder.

The ramp was open, and the assault shuttle was buzzing above the ground at a leisurely fifty kilometers per hour. That was nothing for a craft that could easily go supersonic, but it still made the ground race by only ten meters below them.

“Up until now you forty have met the standard. You haven’t exceeded it, you’ve just met it. You all have shown basic competence with the V3 Leonidas Armored Combat Suit, and are moderately proficient in squad level tactics. But that doesn’t make you special. In fact that just makes you like every other grunt or HI trooper in the infantry. You’ve just worked with fancier gear. It’s what comes next that what will make you Rangers.”

“What do you think, Ice?” SGT Diggle elbowed Eve in the ribs. “What fresh torture do they have in store for us today?”

No one in her ranger class, which had already lost a third of its candidates, called her Eve or Berg anymore. Not everyone in the class had a nickname, but she did. The full version was “that ice cold bitch”, but those closer to her called her “Ice”.

The name came out of necessity. There were a lot of roosters and only a few hens in the forty-person Ranger class, and after months you could cut the sexual tension with a spork. In her mind, Eve only had one option. She didn’t want to get worn down and fuck someone like a few other candidates who were no longer in the class. This wasn’t Basic and they didn’t put up with that shit.

Eve just turned it off. She shut down that side of her that missed Coop, missed what they’d done that weekend outside Stewart-Benning, and instead became an ice cold bitch that had punched out more than one wannabe who came on to her. So far, it was working out pretty well.

“Welcome to SERE phase, candidates.” The way the SGM said it made everyone shiver.  Even the woman named Ice. “Survival, evasion, resistance, and escape. That is what you are going to be doing this phase. Squad leaders, distribute the parcels.”

SGT Diggle was Eve’s squad leader, and she could have done worse. Unlike most of the guys who thought she was an ice queen, Diggle actually liked her. She was that annoying, hard-ass younger sister he’d always wanted. As such, he handed her the first parcel. Despite wanting to open it Eve didn’t. She’d learned to be cautious. Some stupid dipshit had opened stuff before they were authorized to before, and had that shit explode in their face. That as all the motivation she needed to quell the curiosity. There was no bigger motivator to not do something than to see some poor bastard with his thumbs blown off.

“Open it.” The SGM instructed after everyone had one.

Eve did what she was told and found a bare minimum of supplies.

<Now the last week makes sense.>

After weeks in the field doing combat training, the ranger candidates had spent a solid week doing nothing but wilderness survival, woodcraft, sheltercraft, learning traps and snares, food and water procurement, water purification techniques, improvising equipment, first aid, and camouflage techniques. Now, it seemed they were going to put it all to good use.

“This is all you’ve got.” The SGM pointed down at the bare minimum of equipment, the biggest of which was a five centimeter duro-steel knife. “So make it count. ON YOUR FEET!”

Everyone jumped to their feet and automatically lined up by squads.

“STEP FORWARD!” The SGM motioned all the squad leaders to step up to where the open ramp started to angle downward.

“Your mission is to survive for the next week. I don’t care how you do it, but you must survive to pass this phase. Don’t look so smug,” The old NCO’s eyes scanned the group, “because mother nature isn’t the only SOB waiting for you down there.”

With his piece said, the SGM grabbed the first squad leader by the collar of his dirty CMUs and tossed him out the back of the moving Spyder.

Eve’s mouth opened in shock. <Did he just kill Anderson?>

Half a second later they saw water underneath the Spyder and Anderson splash down a dozen meters from shore.

“GO…GO…GO!” The SGM yelled, and the thirty-nine remaining candidates leapt out of the Spyder and into the lukewarm water.

A kilometer away, a group of instructors crouched on the other side of the small lake. Their faces were obscured by mud, and their CMUs were camouflaged by the native foliage. Once they saw the last candidate hit the water they started to move out.

“Let’s go bag us some fresh meat.”

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 4

“What the fuck, Kevin.” Daisy didn’t care about the irritation in her tone or the fact that her old friend was bleeding from a gunshot wound in the back of her car.

<It’s not like this isn’t the first time.>

They were racing away from the airport with Topher’s parents in tow. If there was any silver-lining to this, it was that Topher’s father seemed to have a bit more respect for her now. His mother was another question.

“What is going on!?” It didn’t help that she was sitting closest to the bleeding stranger.

“Kevin, these are my boyfriend’s parents. Christian and Penelope, this is Kevin, an old friend from a different life.”

“An old life that is coming back to haunt us.” Kevin groaned as he continued to put pressure on the wound.

“Not here.” Daisy shot him a look as she deftly dodged a truck that was only going ten over the speed limit. Thankfully, traffic heading away from the airport was much thinner.

“We need to assume they got your plate number, so they’ll check your residence.” Christian went into cop mode.

“Yep.” Daisy pulled out her phone and texted John quickly that she might be having unwanted company.

Christian’s eyes squinted a bit at her texting while driving antics, but sometimes there were more pressing matters. “If they have the resources, they’ll be checking traffic cameras next.”

“Easy.” Daisy got off on a ramp, nearly catching some air, and made a tight turn that left an smear of rubber on the asphalt. “We don’t have many cameras in the city. That’ll probably change after the attack and all the money funneling into the police department, but as far as I know there is only one traffic cam anywhere near Topher’s place.”

“Any banks, ATMs, or stores you know with external security cameras?” Christian was peering out the window and up into the sky like he was looking for something tracking them from above.

“A couple. I’ll steer clear of those.” She took another turn on a side street and slowed down.

They were in a neighborhood now. A nice looking one with well-kept lawns and the occasional white picket fence. Palm trees lined the road on either side and tree trimmers were hard at work maintaining the façade. Daisy drove all the way down to the end, and pulled up on the curb.

“Here’s the key. Lock the door behind you, call Topher, and press this button if you need help immediately.” Daisy handed over a small device that looked like remote car starter.

She had given Anika a similar one last school year to press if she needed an extraction. This particular device was connected to the local PD, the DVA, the Protectorate, and the HCP.

“Life or death emergency only,” Daisy clarified. Pushing that button would leave her a mountain of paperwork. She didn’t want to have to wade through a sea of papercuts because Penelope got spooked by a tree brushing against the side of the house.

“Got it.” Christian was already getting out and heading for the back. He got their bags and got his wife out of the car with only a little fuss.

“I’ll be back soon,” Daisy reached over the seat and grabbed the door to pull it closed before hitting the acceleration.

Tired squealed as the SUV leapt forward and she immediately grabbed her phone.

“What’s going on Daisy?” John picked up after one ring.

“I need a pickup immediately. I’ll text you the address. Me plus one. He’s got a GSW to the side, but it doesn’t appear to have hit anything vital. Have Sanderson ready when I arrive. It’s a professional courtesy.” That was a polite, discrete way of saying they had a retired Hero that needed help.

“We’ll be ready for you.” John only sounded mildly exasperated as he hung up the phone.

Daisy continued for several miles before finding a park. A quick check told her there were no cameras. She fed the meter with as much change as she had and texted the address. Less than a minute later a man in a dark suit and sunglasses showed up.

“Could you be any more conspicuous?” Daisy dug into him without really meaning it as she helped Kevin over.

The guy didn’t say anything he just grabbed them both. There was a loud POP, Daisy felt like there was a sudden pressure change all around them, and then they reappeared in the sterile, white infirmary of the West Private HCP. Which Kevin immediately befouled by dripping blood everywhere.

“Why am I not surprised.” Dr. Sanderson walked out of his office not bothering to hide his irritation.

Daisy and the good doctor had a conflicting relationship to say the least. She’d killed his brother, but his brother had tried to kill the President. He thought she’d overstepped her authority as a Hero and as a decent human being, and she thought he was being a bit of a melodramatic asshat. But, she’d been trying to turn over a new leaf, so they found a middle ground where they could be professional with each other.

As of today, professionalism was where it ended. He approached Kevin, asked him some questions, and then went to work on the wound. He didn’t release his trademark golden healing mist right away. First, he looked at Kevin from the front and back.

“I don’t see an exit wound.” His brow furrowed, as he waved to a few orderlies nearby. “Get him on the table and get supplies.” He didn’t elaborate and the orderly didn’t ask.

They eased Kevin down onto a table and turned him onto his side. “Don’t move,” was all the instruction Sanderson gave before golden mist started to waft off his hands.

It made a small circle, just larger than the bullet hole, and seeped into Kevin’s flesh.

“Ahhhhh, that feels better.” Kevin gave a sigh of relief and his whole body relaxed.

“I’ve turned off your nerves around the area.” Sanderson pulled on a pair of butt inspection gloves and grabbed the forceps the orderly handed him. “I’ve got to go in and remove the bullet before I can patch you up.”

“Shouldn’t you at least wash your hands?” But it was too late. Sanderson was already digging around inside Kevin, and Kevin wasn’t even budging. He didn’t even wince in pain.

Sanderson wasn’t digging around for long before he muttered something and slowly pulled the forceps out. At the end was a black bullet with some type of weird carving on it

“Save that.” Daisy instructed, much to Sanderson’s irritation.

A swirl of golden mist later and Kevin had a new few inches of fresh, pink flesh.

“Thanks, Doc.” Kevin extended his hand and Sanderson accepted it with a smile Daisy never thought he was capable of.

“Anything for an old-timer.”

“You two finished being butt buddies now?” Daisy cut the moment short. “Because I’d like to know what the hell you were doing walking around all shot up in my city.”

“The work we did in the eighties is back, and it just took a chunk out of my love handles.” Kevin said it like she should know what was happening.

The blank look she gave him had him sighing deeply. “It’s probably just better if I show you.” Kevin gestured for permission, and Daisy gave it with a sigh of her own.

He gently placed a hand on her head and ceased to be Kevin. Now he was Mastermind, and he took her back in time to January 20, 1981.

 

***

 

The bar was rundown, smelled a bit like fresh piss, and was full of unwelcome looks from the locals. That was how Hero bars stayed under the radar. Who the hell wanted to hang out a place that seemed to be used as a public toilet and everyone looked like they were ready to kick your ass if you said the wrong thing.

Daisy Lee Meyers didn’t have that problem. She was this particular establishment’s queen.

“Fat Bobby’s. Damn I miss this place.” Daisy stood back watching herself drink everyone else under the table. “My tolerance was just about as legendary of my Hero status back then.” She laughed.

It was weird having what amounted to an out of body experience, but this wasn’t the first time this had happened, so she knew to just roll with it. Replaying memories was a bit of a specialty for Mastermind, and this wasn’t their first rodeo together.

They changed their angle to get a better view of 1981 Daisy.

“That outfit should be a felony.” Daisy was thankful she couldn’t recall this memory off the top of her head.

She’d never been a fan of the eighties fashion trends. All the obnoxiously bright colors, shoulder pads, spandex, and leggings. <I’m even rocking a side ponytail.> This was a nightmare not a memory.

In front of her was a pyramid of shot glasses five long at the base. 1981 Daisy had her head in her hands while she looked past the trophies of her copious alcohol consumption and to the boxy TV over the bartender’s head.

“Turn it up!” Old her yelled before ordering another shot.

“I, Ronald Wilson Reagan, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

“About time…”

“Carter wasn’t that bad…”

“He’s going to get us into a shooting war with the Ruskies…” Conversation broke out around the room as the fortieth President of the United States was sworn in and went on to make his inaugural speech.

The new president wasn’t more than a few minutes into the speech when the doors to the bar opened and a familiar looking, but considerably younger face walked in.

“I used to look good.” Mastermind smiled, and Daisy elbowed him lightly in the ribs, and shushed him so she could listen.

“Daisy.” 1981 Kevin walked up to a plastered 1981 Daisy.

“Kev!” She grinned up at him, and slapped him on the shoulder hard enough to nearly knock him over. “What brings you to my little watering hole?”

“Could we talk in private, please?” Kevin looked around and nodded to a few of the off-duty Heroes he knew.

“Sure thing. Step into my office.” Daisy got up, walked to the rear of the bar, and opened the door to the lady’s restroom.

The memory shifted and blocked out everything aside from what was happening in that room.

“We’ve got a new President.” Kevin started.

“Yeah, I’ve been watching.”

“He wants to take the fight to the bad guys no matter where they are.”

“Really now?” 1981 Daisy looked intrigued by the idea.

“Of course, there is a lot of oppression out there in the world, both human and Super. We’re still in the middle of a cold war that could turn hot at a moment’s notice. Drug cartels are running South America and importing their product here. The Republic of Krezic is experimenting on Supers and Powereds like we’re lab rats. The new president wants to do something about all of this.”

“That’s ambitious.” Daisy saw herself swaying on the toilet and felt sick at what she used to be.

Even though it had been tough, she was thankful everyday she’d been forced into an inactive status, been allowed to hit absolute bottom, and then been given the opportunity to get herself right again. A lot of people had been there for her, and Kevin specifically had helped her piece together bits of her lost past. This was just the next step in confronting what she’d been and done all those years ago.

“It is, and that’s why the President instructed me to put together a team to go after these people who look to harm not only the United States, but humanity in general.” 1981 Kevin laid his cards on the table. “I want…no…I need you on that team, Reaper. You can do a lot of good.”

“I’m hearing a lot of ‘we’re going to do good and help out the little guy’, but not actual specifics or measurable goals. If we’re just going to be pointed at something and told to make it better then I’m out. I’m a hammer. I need a nail.” Despite her level of intoxication back then, Daisy was still critical of Kevin’s pitch.

“I can’t give you more unless you join up, but a little birdy told me we’ve found some actionable intelligence in Krezic. That would be our first op.”

“Taking down a government that likes to experiment on our kind…sounds like fun.” 1981 Daisy smiled a slightly crazy smile that put modern Daisy on edge.

The memory started to dissolve around them and Daisy found herself standing back in West Private HCP’s infirmary.

“So…the people we pissed off while on this team are looking to dish out a little payback?” Daisy felt like she had the gist of the situation, and that she was in store for several more of the memory restoration sessions. She needed to know who she was fighting before they walked up and kicked in Topher’s front door looking for her.

“More or less.” Kevin took a deep breath and laid back down on the bed.

Daisy hadn’t seen it before, but the old Hero’s age was showing. Hell…he was in his mid-nineties, and only constant healing had kept him as young and spry as a seventy-year-old. Whatever was coming, Daisy doubted the old advanced mind had enough left in him to take the fight to the enemy. He’d barely escaped with his life this time.

“Let’s bring John in on this. If these people are in Orlando he’s going to want to know about it.”

Kevin didn’t look happy, but he agreed. He didn’t really have a choice.

“I do have one request.”

“Shoot.” Daisy helped him up and toward the door leading to the rest of the facility.

“We need to check on the rest of the team and make sure they’re ok. They might have started with me because I’m the oldest and physically weakest, but the rest of our friends might be next.”

Daisy didn’t even know who these “friends” were, but the look on Kevin’s face convinced her she had to help him. When you made friends in this business it was for life, even if you couldn’t remember them because your memory had been wiped.

<And things were just starting to settle down.> Daisy gave a mental sigh and she gave the old Hero a shoulder to lean on as they went to look for her boss.

 

***

 

Becca looked up at their new apartment with a frown on her face. They’d just completed the drive back down to Orlando, which had been two hours longer than planned due to traffic, and she’d been looking forward to checking out their new home. The only problem was…

“This place looks just like our last place.” The blue-haired speedster hmphed and crossed her arms across her chest.

Their new place was supposed to be an apartment building a few blocks further from campus. They were renting out one room. With two people the single-room rent was manageable. Kyoshi and Mason were going to be renting another unit, but their flight would be getting in later. Angela had the third room all to herself and was going to be getting back on Monday. Becca wanted to get there on Sunday to check the place out and put a homey touch on it before everyone else got there. Their fourth roommate was a mystery, but it would probably be a Super in the HCP. The apartment was owned by the HCP instead of the school, and it was designed to give sophomores a little more freedom while still making sure they were secure.

“Most of the buildings around here look the same.” Anika effortlessly dislodged two of their bags from the mess that was the trunk. “It makes sense that landlords would buy them up, call them apartments, and then rent them out to students. We’re only a three-block walk from the student center.”

“Ok, well let’s see what we’re working with.” Becca marched forward, up the stairs, and stuck here key in the door.”

It swung inward before she could push, almost pulling Becca in with it, and revealed an equally surprised man.

“Jesus, Mary, and…” Becca scrambled back a little faster than was humanly possible, and Anika immediately dropped their bags and moved into a defensive position.

“Geez,” the unidentified man did his own backward scrambling. “You scared the shit out of me.” His eyes darted over Becca and Anika, taking in their blue hair and silver tattoos.

Then he relaxed a little, and put up his hands in the universally known “take it easy” expression. “You must be my new roommates.” He extended his right hand. “My name is Rowan, Rowan Michaelson.”

Anika slowly rose from her defensive crouch and took the man’s hand. She was the more durable of the women, so she was more likely to survive an attack if this was a trap.

“I’m Anika.” She squeezed. “And that’s Becca.” She squeezed harder.

“Nice to meet you.” The last word came out a little trained as Anika continued to increase her grip strength.

She saw a bit of perspiration forming on his forehead, and his face was getting a little red. It was pretty noticeable since he was pale as a sheet and the only color to his face was the vibrant freckles dotting his face.

“It’s going to be nice to have a feminine touch around here. My last roommates were complete slobs.” He breathed a sigh of relief when Anika released his hand.

“Where was that?” Becca, always trying to be friendly, butted back into the conversation.

“I did my freshman year at Korman, but didn’t make it back for sophomore year because of grades. I took a year off to study up, took some classes at the local community college, and reapplied. I didn’t get back into Korman, but they did have a spot for me here.”

Everything seemed to fall into place with his story, but Anika wanted to get it out of the way so she just asked him.

“Are you a Super?”

Rowan’s eyes went wide and he scanned the area. “Yeah,” he whispered keeping his voice low. “Aren’t you?”

Anika just gave him a teasing smile, picked the bags back up, and entered the apartment.

“Yeah, we’re Supers.” Becca answered for her, rolling her eyes slightly as her girlfriend ascended the stairs to find their room, number four.

“Ok, good.” He looked relieved. “I thought I’d just blown my SI before school even started.”

“No, you’re good.” Becca kept the new student in her peripherals as she surveyed the first floor.

It was exactly the same setup as the old townhouse they lived in. The kitchen was behind the living room with a half-wall between them. The furniture and TV was different, but the space was the same. The stairs were in the same place. There was one ground floor room that was open and presumably Rowan’s. There were probably two second story rooms, and judging by the outside view, a single room on the third story.

She would have loved a little change from freshman year, but the cost of the place was half as much as she’d been paying, and that was desperately needed now that her town wasn’t pitching in as much money. She still had enough for tuition and books, but everything else was on her dime.

<Work should be easy enough to find. I just need to get findin’ it.> That was one of the reasons they’d come back two days early. Getting a jump on the job rush was the best way to land the best gig.

“Do you need any help with the bags?” Rowan asked helpfully.

From Becca’s initial impression he seemed like a pretty nice guy. <But I thought Liz was too.>

A noticeable cloud fell over the room. Rowan felt it and was understandably confused.

“Sorry. Living in the past a little.” Becca looked over as Anika descended the stairs. “I’m going to head over to the quad areas and start looking at the bulletin boards. Maybe I’ll have a job before Mason and Kyoshi get in.”

“You want me to come?” Anika felt the mood shift.

“No, I’ll be fine. You can milk all of Rowan’s secrets while I’m gone.”

<I don’t know why that always makes people uncomfortable.> Becca saw the boy go red in the cheeks. <We say it on the farm all the time.>

Anika watched her girlfriend go with a slight frown before turning to Rowan. “So, Rowan, what’s your power?” She cut right to the point again.

“Um…don’t take this the wrong way, but that’s my only advantage against a class that has known each other for a year. If I want to make any headway I need to keep that a secret.”

Anika didn’t take it the wrong way, in fact, if Rowan had told her she probably would have labelled the guy a moron.

“Fine, I’ll find out in two days. Mind giving me a hand with the bags?”

 

***

 

Light flashed all around the vehicle she was sitting in. Even though the windows were bulletproof and tinted, every reporter and their mother was looking for a good shot.

<Fucking morons.> Lilly thought as the Federal Bureau of Prison’s van driving her to the courthouse took a right turn into the gap in the line of reporters.

They were screaming questions at the van. They were stupid ones like, “Why did you do it?” “Are you a Terrorist.” “Do you regret it?”

<Money, no, and no. Why would I regret becoming a fucking legend?> Lilly jerked in her seat as the van came to sudden stop.

“Prisoner, stay seated and await further instruction.” Reggie, one of the four guards transporting her, was the one giving the orders.

She did what she was told, but still looked over her shoulder and saw a metal gate rolling closed to interpose itself between the van and the clamoring reporters. The rest of the building wasn’t as utilitarian. The courthouse in whatever city she was in was modern, and more glass than steel and concrete. It was a welcome change of scenery from her cell and chatting with the Bloody Bitch in the cell next to her.

Those conversations made her laugh, which probably made her seem a bit crazy to the four guards.

<Fuck ‘em. They’re about to throw the book at me anyway.> This was only a bail hearing, but it was still a dog and pony show for the assholes who’d caught her. <They want to show off their pretty little prize and try to make everyone forget they fucked up and didn’t catch the real bad guy.>

The door next to her, a lot thicker and heavier than it looked, slid to the side. “Prisoner, exit the vehicle.

Reggie was tense, and she couldn’t blame him. They were about the charge her with a shit ton of crimes in there, and she had proven resourceful enough to evade DVA capture until they got lucky. She wasn’t going to cause problems yet. This wasn’t the proper stage.

She followed instructions, stepped out of the discretely armored vehicle, and stood patiently as they chained her up. She was already wearing her exploding accessories that prevented her from teleporting away without losing her head. They added ankle shackles. She was already handcuffed, and then they attached the two with a loose length of chain. This way she couldn’t lift her hands too high over her head.

“She a spitter?” A bailiff entered from the single armored door leading into the loading area.

“Haven’t had any problems yet?” Reggie replied truthfully.

“Yeah, I prefer to swallow.” She made all the boys uncomfortable. Except for the bailiff, who pulled a plastic mask from his thigh pocket.

It wasn’t anything near her Wraith mask. In fact, it made her look a bit like Hannibal Lecter from that creepy movie, but it’s purpose was obvious. It only slightly disguised her identity while completely eliminating her ability to spit on people.

“Ok, let’s go.” The bailiff grabbed her by the elbow and started to lead her into the courthouse while the four prison guards took up positions in a block around her.

She knew everyone except the bailiff was a Super, and this probably wouldn’t be the best time for someone to spring a rescue for her.

She was pretty sure Reggie had a kill switch on him somewhere.

They led her through the door, down a tiled hallway, and into the main courthouse. They took a circuitous route to keep her away from the cameras, but the news crews were out in force and were able to catch up to them before they got to the side entrance of the courtroom. Reporters swarmed them with their same inane questions, and Lilly just did her best to smile and wink at them all.

<It’ll make for a good cover photo.> She thought just before they hauled her through the door and into a packed courtroom.

Pretty much everything went silent when she appeared.

“As you were.” She made a sit-down gesture with her chained hands. “Don’t stop on my account.”

People glared daggers at her and she just chuckled.

“All rise for the honorable Judge Wainwright.”

Lilly was already on her feet so she stayed there. Reggie moved her into position beside her lawyer, and all the guards took a step back. They were just outside of arms reach, but would be on her in a second if she tried something.

“The United States vs. Liz Aretino aka Lilly Noel aka Wraith.” The obese and balding federal judge read off the paper in front of him. “You are charged with treason, five counts of first degree murder, six hundred and eighteen counts of second degree murder…” That got a reaction from the crowd.

Lilly was prepared for it though. Her lawyer knew a lot of those deaths wouldn’t stick to her. The Justice Department was trying to pin every death on her when they had confirmation she was in that area. A lot of it wouldn’t hold up, but just one first degree murder conviction was enough to send her away forever.

“…kidnapping, grand theft, unlawful carry of a firearm…”

Lilly could help but laugh at that. The electromagnetic rifle that she’d used was definitely not approved. Even the NRA wouldn’t endorse something with so much firepower.

The judge went on for a solid minute reading the rest of the charges before finishing with, “how do you plead?”

“Not fucking guilty!” She raised her own voice over her lawyer’s statement.

She might as well have dropped her pants and mooned the crowd for the reaction she got. People were full out screaming at her from behind the thick wooden bar that separated her from the common people and reporters.

“ORDER!” The judge smacked his gavel over and over again. “You will keep control of your client, Counselor.”

“Geez, I was just answering the question.” Lilly shrugged.

“The prosecution requests that the defendant be denied bail and turned back over to the bureau of prisons until such time as the court is ready to proceed with trial.”

“Objection, Your Honor,” her lawyer’s statement stunned a lot of people. “My client is a first-time offender with no history of criminal activity.”

“Your client is charged with killing hundreds of people in one of the worst terrorist attacks on American soil in history. She helped blow up good chunks of a city.” The prosecution shot back.

“Allegedly.” Lilly added her two cents to the argument, which got more yells from the crowd and gavel-banging from the judge.

“Bail is denied. Trial will commence at eight o’clock on Friday the eighth.” The judge gave a final bang, and some people actually cheered.

“We knew we weren’t going to win that either way.” Her lawyer turned to her. “This isn’t a setback. We’ve got…”

“FUCK YOU, WRAITH!” Was the only warning she got or needed.

She moved on instinct a millisecond before she heard the BANG of a gunshot. There was a searing pain in her side, but she could tell is was just a flesh wound, so she kept moving. She rolled over the top of the table and was able to grab hold of the edge and pull it along with her to create some cover.

There were screams as people ran and the guards sprang into action. None of it mattered to her lawyer. She saw him hit the floor with his eyes glazed over with a nice, big, bleeding chest wound.

<Well shit.> She thought as the guards got it under control and Reggie grabbed her from behind the table.

“Missed me!” She yelled and laughed at the man struggling with the bailiff and one of her escort guards. “Welcome to my world!”

Reggie and the other two guards forced her through the side door and into the hallway. They carried her down it, busted through the door into the loading area, and threw her in the back of the car.

“Do you guys think I can get a continuance now. I’ve got to find a new lawyer.”

She never got an answer.

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I’m on TDY from Hell – Lay of the Land

“Sweet digs.” Vicky shouldered past Jeb with a toothy grin.

Jeb growled back, but cut himself short. In the short time Gerry had known the greed-powered demon he’d seen that the man liked to appear sophisticated.

<It makes sense.>

People who had money and power tended to be sophisticated. Jeb needed to act the same way to get close to his prey. It was a basic predatory adaptation.

Conversely, his reaction to Vicky was based on his basic nature and ingrained biases.

Infernals have a hierarchy in Eden just like in Hell. In Prince Seere’s kingdom you had the worker class: the forge workers, the whores, and the people who farmed the Elysian Fields. Above them was the warrior class. Those who fought and died in droves in defense of the kingdom. Above them was the officer class: the colonels, generals, Infernal Knights, and Prince Seere’s personal guards. Lastly, there were the royal administrators; the Duxes, and finally Prince Seere himself at the pinnacle of the pyramid.

While a similar hierarchy existed in Eden, it went beyond that. Entire species were worked into the hierarchy based on their usefulness. If your species was important to the ultimate goal of reconquering the high realms, then you were important.

A Soulless like Vicky, even though she was at the top of her species’ hierarchy, was beneath a demon like Jeb.

“It looks like your interior decorator ripped off Napoleon.” She wiggled her eyebrows suggestively at Gerry, but he saw through her veneer.

Vicky had been in this place before, but she’d spent that time on her knees in the shag carpet with the old Dux’s cock triggering her gag reflex. Now, she was entering it as a lieutenant, equal in her eyes to the demon beside her, and possibly knowing the new Dux better than anyone.

Gerry didn’t mind a little bit of healthy competition between his underlings, but too much and there’d be problems. <I need to keep an eye on her.>

Jeb’s growl at her disrespectful comment seemed to reverberate in the space around him.

“Easy everyone.” Gerry made placating gestures with his hands. “Let’s get started.”

Jeb bowed his apologies while Vicky winked her thanks. If it came down to it, Jeb would rip her limb from limb with only moderate effort.

Two other people entered behind Jeb and Vicky. One instantly gave Gerry a raging boner while the other made him immediately wary. It was a confusing mix of emotions.

“Introductions are necessary, my Dux.” Jeb turned to his compatriots. “This is the lovely Jezebel.”

“Jizzabel.” Vicky coughed loudly.

Gerry gave her a hard stare and motioned for Jeb to continue.

“My Dux,” Jezebel took over and curtsied deeply.

Her skin was a sun-kissed bronze and her voice was soft velvet. Her hair fell down below her shoulders in exquisitely styled, silky, brunette ringlets, and her amber eyes smoldered in the crystal chandelier’s dancing light. She was wearing a black evening gown that had a slit all the way up to her waist, and revealed a toned, athletic leg that went on for days. As she bowed, Gerry got a good look down her dress at the impressive amount of cleavage. It was perfection. Her every movement and every word seemed designed to tingle his groin; which only meant one thing.

“I am demon of the Fourth Choir, my Dux.” She straightened out of her curtsey, and Gerry immediately missed the view of the demoness powered by lust.

“More like a slut of the triple penetra…”

<That’s enough.> Gerry reached out with the swirling æther of his demesne and grasped Vicky by the throat.

Her mutter turned into a shocked choked as Gerry slowly squeezed. Her eyes bulged, and her hands gripped the back of a chair hard enough that it shattered into splinters. All eyes turned to regard them, and he didn’t miss the slight smile that pulled at Jezebel’s lips.

“You have a lot to offer, Vicky. But don’t test my patience. I will return you to your former position. Do you understand?” He relaxed his grip so she could nod, and then he released her. “Thank you, Jezebel, please have a seat.”

That only left the last man. He was a giant who resembled men in Hell that Gerry had learned originated from islands in the Pacific. He had the same sun-kissed skin as Jezebel, but it seeped off him in rolls of fat. He was also tall, a few inches taller than Gerry, with a shiny bald head and beady black eyes. All of that made his child-like face that much more out of place.

“I’m Lono, my Dux,” his voice was low and he spoke slowly. “I am a demon of the Fifth Choir.”

Gerry nodded. It made sense the mountain of fat was from the Choir of Gluttony.

“There are only four of you?” Gerry had expected more, which made him confident the prior Dux had been a fool.

“Three, my Dux.” Jeb quickly corrected, shooting a sideways look at Vicky. “We lost four of our number in the battle for the city that killed your predecessor.”

“A battle you lost.” It was a statement not a question, and a statement that made all three demons want to look anywhere but at Gerry.

“I told them not to do it.” Vicky spoke up, but her tone held none of its former arrogance. It seemed Gerry’s display of power have leashed her for the moment.

Jezebel hissed slightly, but otherwise remained silent.

“That is the past. We must look to the future.” He put them all at ease.

He waved his hand over the polished surface of the wooden table and it rippled like he’d dropped a stone in a chestnut-colored pond. The tabletop twisted and grew upward into a three dimensional map of the greater Charlotte area. There was nothing mistaking the map for what it truly was.

A new battle plan.

Vicky saw where he was going first, which confirmed his choice to have her here despite her general dislike for the other demons.

“My coven holds territory in these areas.” Vicky touched the areas with her delicate, pale finger and a purple hue spread across the otherwise black city.

“My base of operation is here, my Dux.” Jeb highlighted a single skyscraper in green.

“I’m the CEO of a successful online dating service,” Jezebel poked the black map with an exquisitely polished nail just east of the main city around the Charlotte Country Club. “I also arrange meet and greets for exclusive clientele, which puts me in contact with many of the city’s elite.” Pink specks lit up all over the city.

“She provides hookers for all the rich guys and dabbles in sex trafficking.” Vicky spoke plainly.

“Succinctly put, yes.” Jezebel ignored Vicky and smiled and Gerry. “My presence is not measured in territory but in influence, favors, and my currency is secrets.”

“Yeah, guys say anything when they want you to make them cum.” Vicky showed the demoness some fang. “My own coven has learned a few secrets too.”

“Petty things compared to my knowledge.”

Gerry could see fire behind Jezebel’s eyes so he stepped in. “Anything and everything will come in hand.” His tone made the women back down. “Lono?”

The big man wobbled over and touched his finger in two dozen parts throughout the city and suburbs, lighting them up with an orange glow. “I own popular food chains.” He informed simply.

Gluttony could take many forms, but from what Gerry had researched in his short time before the meeting, food was a common one in modern day America.

“Thank you, Lono.” Gerry leaned back and studied his combined territory.

It was sparse, separated, and dangerously vulnerable. He touched his own index finger to the tower they were in. It, and the block surrounding it, ignited to create a blood red glow.

“We’re weak.” No one liked to hear that, but it was the truth. “We need to consolidate our forces, research our enemies, and deal with them one by one; preferably silently. We need to draw as little attention as possible to ourselves while we gather our strength. We cannot survive a large scale assault on our positions now.” It was a barebones plan, but it was a start.

“Tell me about our enemies.”

Jeb got to his feet, but Vicky beat him too it.

“As I said on the car ride here, the Lycans in Rock Hill disrupt our distribution system, and the pack that roams between here and Columbia sometimes hunts as far north as Carowinds Amusement Park.”

“Those are not relevant enemies.” Jeb cut in, a vein pulsing in his forehead from the irritation. “They have never bothered our assets, just harassed the Soulless. They have not dared to declare war against us.”

“Jeb is right, Vicky.” A sharp look from Gerry stifled the retort the Soulless was preparing. “Until they threaten us more we cannot take action. One day,” he reassured her. “But right now we need to focus on immediate threats. What else stands in our way of consolidating the downtown business district?” He highlighted the area surrounding the hotel they were all sitting in.

“Our first and gravest threat is the Divine Sanctums.” Jeb started to jab his finger into the blackness and the locations turned a luminous white. “The Divine will not directly interfere with mortal affairs, but if they sense demonic presence they will act swiftly. That is how the last Dux fell. The Dominion of the city cut him down with her flaming sword.”

Gerry involuntarily shuddered, and he wasn’t the only one. He had no intention of tangling with angels who were the relatives of Prince Seere anytime soon.

“Other threats?”

“Human sorcerers, the Salvatore Family, is concentrated mostly in the city, and extends out toward the airport.” Jeb waved to an area which turned sky blue.

“They run an import export business out of the airport,” Jezebel smirked. “A few of the underbosses are regular clients.”

“They’re enchanters who have a habit of bottling sunlight and selling it to vampire hunters.” Vicky spat.

<Enchanters?>

Vicky caught the uncertainty in his eyes.

“Enchantment is one of the branches of magic, and the Salvatore’s are one of the older families practicing that art. The main family is from Naples, but they have branches all over the world,” Vicky explained. “Their form of magic allows them to give specific properties to an object. They can make a suit jacket bulletproof, a tennis ball explode on contact, or, as I’ve seen before, a bottle of water that glows with the powers of the sun.”

Gerry could see how a bottle of sunlight could be a pain in the ass to Vicky and her coven. “Any other mortal threats?”

“There are a scattering of magical creatures throughout the area. Most are not coordinated, and might even become allies with the proper suggestion. The same is true of solo magical practitioners. A circle of witches operates and protects Lake Norman in the North from human interference, but we haven’t dealt with them at all. Other Lords of Hell hold minor sway in the area, but they have been greatly depleted in recent years. Far more so than us. Besides them, our greatest threat is the Remnant that resides at the University of North Carolina Charlotte.”

<Remnant?> Gerry was getting tired of not understanding what was going on around him.

“A Remnant of the old world, and quite a spirited one.”

Gerry didn’t know if his eyes were playing tricks on him, but he swore that Jezebel was blushing.

“Remnants are what remain of the world before the False God conquered Eden. They are the old Gods, greatly reduced in power, but still dangerous.” Jeb finished. “Jezebel is our liaison with him, and their relationship is of a purely physical nature.”

“Understood.” Gerry fought down the jealousy rising in his gut, and the urge to kill this Remnant.

He knew his lust was empowering Jezebel, and he couldn’t show weakness in front of her. They’d just met. “For now we will concentrate on the Salvatore Family. If we can drive them from the city we will unite our position here with the rest of Vicky’s coven, Jeb’s company, and Jezebel’s enterprises.”

Everyone around the table nodded, even Lono.

“We are here to serve, Dux.”

Gerry got to his feet and everyone did the same. “Prepare your troops. We begin tomorrow.” He dismissed the demons with a wave of his hand.

“Vicky.” He held her back, and felt her unease.

She’d debased herself countless times in this room, and he could sense she feared it would happen again. Despite his urge to teach her some manners, he wasn’t going to do that to her.

But that still didn’t quench the carnal desires he’d been holding back since first arriving in Eden.

“Bring me your best whore.” He commanded, watching the tension leak out of her. “Someone with stamina.”

“Yes, Dux.”

She backed out of the room, and twenty minutes later Caroline showed up.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 98

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Old Chicago, Earth, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Change of mission!” MSG Smith slid into position a few meters from Coop like a runner sliding into home base.

The bulky, armored NCO was a one-man reaction force. He was sprinting all around the building and offering more firepower wherever the STRATNET maps said it was needed, and right now that was Alpha Team’s position.

The pillar Coop was taking cover behind looked like a once mighty tree someone had taken a chainsaw to. The polyplast layer to protect the old architecture was already blown to shit, and to call the remains architecture was stretching the definition of the word to its limits. What it was now was something to put between Coop and the rioters trying to kill him.

<In their defense I’ve probably killed a few of them.>

Coop inched out behind the barrier and his targeting display lit up. The area was still a target rich environment, and red silhouettes popped up on his HUD. He took aim, squeezed the trigger, and a single non-lethal round leapt out of his Buss. The round splattered into the target’s chest, knocked him over, but didn’t kill him. What the Rat did get was an extreme case of crotch rot as the nanites packed into the round headed south and proceeded to irritate the crap out of his junk.

<Yeah, I’d be out of the fight too.> Coop cringed as he saw the guy scramble for cover with his hand down his pants.

Coop repeated the process twice before the enemy targeted him. A round ricocheted off his shoulder and another off his head before he pulled back behind cover. His HUD kept track of his ammunition and he was down to only one hundred and seventy-two rounds in this barrel. He only had three thousand-round reloads left, and while that might seem like a lot he’d gone through double that in the last twenty minutes.

<Twenty minutes where people seem to have been too busy with their thumbs up their asses to make a decision about what the fuck we’re going to do.> He fumed.

“About time!” He answered the MSG’s statement with genuine enthusiasm. “Please tell me we’re getting the fuck out of here?”

“New mission.” The MSG ignored Coop. “Right now the regional government employees are backing up all of their data onto portable drives. In one-five minutes that process will be complete. For the next fifteen minutes we hold the perimeter, after that we fall back by squad into the building and up to the roof. Battalion command has set up a few defensive strongpoints inside the building to hold until the Spyders can get here and get everyone out. Alpha team, this is your position.”

<Fan-fucking-tastic.> Coop immediately noticed that their positon was the first one. They’d be handing the defense of the main entrance with the objective of keeping the Rats pinned there while the civvies hauled ass to the roof.

“Any chance we can get some more ammo, Master Sergeant?” They wouldn’t be able to hold out for the next fifteen minutes with what they had.

“Last resupply is coming around in five. Grab what you can and hold. Understood?”

“Yes, Master Sergeant!”

Coop watched the NCO turn and hightail it to the next position. The big man could have relayed the orders over the company net, but there was something about getting the news in person that helped the situation.

“So,” Mike was the next soldier in the firing line. “What do you want to do when we get back to Mars?”

Coop choked out a laugh as he gunned down a squad-sized element of Rats that were trying to charge across the street. The laugh was half at Mike’s comment and half at the Rats. The skinny kids, they didn’t look like they were older than sixteen, were hefting crowbars and poylplast two-by-fours.

<They’ve been watching too many holos.> Coop thought as he gunned them down. <They’re called suicide charges for a reason.>

“Well.” Coop split his attention between Mike and the advancing masses of pissed off people. “A good woman and an ice cold beer sounds good to me.”

Mike’s sigh was drawn out over their personal chat line. “Don’t you want to try anything different? You can get your dick sucked and get drunk any day of the week. This needs to be more than that. We’ve just popped our combat cherry.”

“I don’t know if I’d call this combat.” Coop aimed and fired again.

<More like shooting a shotgun into a lake; only this time the fish are shooting back and there are a shit load of them.>

“But since I’m a generous man, if we get out of here unscathed then I’ll let you plan the party.”

Mike toggled back his agreement. It was a deal.

“Friendlies behind.” Two HI troopers trotted over to Coop’s position and dumped a load of magazines and shells onto the ground next to him before moving on.

“What the fuck…wait!” Coop yelled back, but they were already gone.

His HUD identified the armament from a quick peek. He’d just unceremoniously received another five cartridges of thousand- round non-lethal ammo. Three buckshot grenades and an anti-personnel artillery shell. He scooped up the rounds and grenades and stored them in his armor, but the artillery shell was just screaming to be used.

He reached behind himself and toggled to the screen. A rear section of the armor opened up that led to the auto-loader and Coop had to strain to reach behind his back and get the round slotted properly. In that time, two dozen rats started sprinting across the street and were within a dozen meters when he got his rifle back on target. He sprayed them down using the last of that barrel’s ammo, and radioed in a fire mission while he reloaded. While he slipped two new cartridges into the empty non-lethal ammo barrels the anti-personnel round thumped out of his tube and crashed into the alley where a lot of the bastards seemed to be coming from. The BOOM rattled the street, and his field of fire was momentarily cleared of red icons.

He looked at the countdown clock until they started their exfil. <Still twelve minutes!> Time was crawling along as they defended the building.

“Incoming!” Someone yelled at the seven minute mark.

For a second, Coop thought the Rats had finally gotten their hands on mortars or something. That wasn’t the case. Instead, his shoulder mounted railgun swiveled and automatically targeted a bottle that was being thrown across the street at his position.

“No!” He tried to stop it, but it was too late.

A three round burst spit from the gun, and the bottle exploded and fire spilled everywhere, including all over Coop.

Mentally, Coop knew he was fine. The LACS was designed to be worn by HI on volcanic worlds and still keep the wearer at a pleasant air-conditioned temperature of twenty-one degrees Celsius. But there was something about seeing fire coat your body that set your body into “oh shit” mode no matter what you were wearing.

“Motherfucker!” Coop didn’t even feel the heat, but he still tipped over and scrambled backwards in a crude attempt to stop, drop, and roll.

“Cooper, get back on the line!” The MSG’s voice roared over the net. “We’ve got incoming.”

It seemed the Rats had finally nutted up and were mass charging the perimeter. The Molotov Cocktails were just the first wave. More than Coop could count were streaming across the street and the fastest were already clearing the pillar he had been using for cover.

Those little shits’ faces looked triumphant until Coop cycled to the grenade barrel and unloaded a buckshot grenade into their faces, and anyone else’s within the hundred plus degree cone of fire. They all fell to the ground writhing and screaming with a few not moving at all.

“Everyone, fall back to the inside and take up position at your designated strongpoints.” The MSG ordered. “Do not, I repeat, do not use blades if the Rats get in close. They’re still citizens and we don’t want human shish kabobs on the evening news. That comes directly from Bulldog Six.”

Coop caught the ass covering the MSG did at the end. If it was up to the NCO he might have let them use blades if they got overrun, but now they’d never know. They had their orders.

“Let’s go Alpha Team, Whitehead and Melissa first, then me and Mike. Go!”

It had been drilled into them from the beginning that everyone turning tail and running away at the same time was a recipe to get shot in the ass. Retreats always needed to be orderly, or it would turn into a route and a lot of dead soldiers. So Mike and Coop held their ground, firing off a thousand rounds into the surging mass of Rats in the twenty-plus seconds it took the other two team members to haul ass inside.

“Now!”

Mike and Coop took turns leapfrogging in five second sprints back toward the main door. Even then, they were only a few meters ahead from the nearest Rats, so Coop fired off another buckshot grenade before he went through and locked the doors. It bought him ten seconds to sprint toward the strongpoint.

“Bottleneck them at the door.” It was the obvious course of action, and with the strongpoint behind a series of barriers erected on the balcony above, and offering full view of the door, it was what the battalion command group had in mind.

Polyplast didn’t crack and break like old-fashioned glass. Coop got to see as it got punched in more and more by volleys of gunfire from the Rats. Chucks fell out while the rest remained intact until it was finally punched out of the frame and fell to the ground.

“Concentrate fire, don’t let them get through to spread out. If they do, it’ll be like trying to root out cockroaches.”

“Cooper, we still have five minutes until the backup is done and the Spyders arrive. You need to hold, understood?”

“Yeah, sure thing, Master Sergeant. I’ll keep the whole city at bay over here while you all finish backing up your files.”

“Lock it up, Cooper, and get your shit together. Here they come.”

It wasn’t until then that Coop saw the MSG in cover where the balcony they were set up on met a hallway. The second door cracked open, fell in, and Rats tried to stream through. Five Busses roared their defiance and smacked people back as they tried to scramble through.

<Now that’s what a real clusterfuck looks like.>

The doors weren’t big, so they could only get a few people crammed through them at once. Since there were two sets of doors, there were people stuck in the small vestibule between them. Those people were literally getting squished between a rock and a hard place as the people in front got shot by Coop’s team, and the people behind tried to push in. People were falling all over the place, slipping on the broken polyplast doors, and trampling the Rats on the ground. Coop and the team weren’t killing the Rats trying to get in. The other Rats were doing that just fine by themselves.

“Melissa, pick off anyone that gets through.” Things were going good now, but when they eventually had to reload or the Rats would get the break they needed.

One girl got through before then. She squeezed behind a guy who took a round to the chest, and scrambled along the edge of the wall, trying to run along it and into a door that led to a section of cubicles. She had another fiery cocktail in her hands and looked ready to burn the fucking building to the ground.

She only made it halfway there before Melissa drilled her. She careened sideways, smacked her head against the marble wall, and collapsed to the ground. The bottle burst, spreading fire across the floor and all over her. She regained consciousness quick when her brain realized her body was on fire, but by then it was too late. If Coop had lethal rounds he would have put the girl out of her misery, but instead he had to watch her burn.

<Hopefully that doesn’t spread.> He watched the fire sizzling on the ground, but he didn’t have time to split his attention.

The Rats were still trying to push through the doors like everything they’d ever wanted in life was on the other side. It was sheer madness.

Then the team had to start reloading, and that’s where people started to get through. Melissa picked some off, but then groups of two got through. She only got one before the other scrambled behind cover or out of sight. Sooner than Coop would have liked there were two-dozen through the doors and shooting up the place. Some had more cocktails and were throwing them at random. Soon Coop’s sensors told him there was a lot of smoke in the air.

“Master Sergeant, this whole fucker is going to go up in flames. You almost done?”  Coop didn’t bother with tact.

“Three minutes, Cooper, in two you start falling back. Bravo team will cover you.” The MSG cut the line, and Coop’s barrel ran dry.

“Fuck!” He reached into his armor but it was empty. “I’m out of non-lethal.” Coop switched to the grenades and started lobbing them into the surge of people below.

The buckshot blew through the Rats like a giant decided to step on them, and the gas helped a bit, but the Rats kept coming. They were already streaming to the foot of the staircase that led to the team’s position.

“Melissa!” Coop was desperate now. “Grab an anti-personnel from my loader, prime the fucker and toss it down there.”

“Are you fucking serious?!”

Coop couldn’t tell because of the helmet, but he was sure her eyes were buggin’ out.

“That’ll…”

“Just do it!”

Melissa might think throwing an anti-personnel artillery shell into a building’s lobby was crazy, but she didn’t argue anymore. Coop opened the appropriate armor section and felt the jostle as Melissa grabbed what she needed.

“Give me twenty seconds.”

Twenty seconds went through all of Coop’s grenades and left him with the railgun and the stun beam that was utterly useless to deal with this many charging bodies. He still used it because that was all he had, but he kept the railgun rounds in reserve. There was no telling what would be waiting for them once they got onto the roof.

“Frag out!” Melissa yelled exactly twenty seconds later.

None of the team had to duck down, so they saw the shell, clearly meant to be detonated outside, explode inside. It was like a shockwave went through the lobby and knocked everyone on their ass.

“Fall back!” Coop seized the moment and pulled his team out to run down the hall. Behind them he could hear more Rats picking their way through their fallen friends and doing god knew what to the area around the lobby.

“Alpha Team on the move,  ETA ten seconds. Don’t light us up.” He sent ahead of them.

The teams’ enhanced muscles propelled them quickly down the hall. They rounded two corners before they came to another choke point. Bravo team was station behind a wall of furniture, which they sprinted past. Alpha team had done their part, and Coop led the way as they passed two more strongpoints and emerged onto the roof.

“Give me a perimeter around the LZ!” The battalion commander yelled the second he caught sight of Coop. “Eyes out. Make sure no one takes a shot at the Spyders as they lift off.”

Coop could see one of the war machines on the rooftop loading up people and big boxes hovering a meter above the ground. He assumed that was all the data they’d backed up. Two more seemed to be circling the building and waiting for their chance to land.

“Four corners!” Coop yelled and the team took up the positions he assigned over STRATNET.

Coop took the one closest to the door, and split his attention between the roof entrance and the surrounding buildings.

<We’re sitting ducks down here.>

“Bravo team falling back.”

“Charlie team falling back.”

“Delta team falling back.” The three other teams announced in several minute intervals. “Master Sergeant, they’re going to be on our ass when we arrive, so be ready.” Delta team’s leader sounded stressed.

They hadn’t taken any fire yet, but Coop knew it was only a matter of time. The original Spyder had loaded up the boxes and as many civilians as it could hold before taking off, and the second Spyder took care of the rest. The third and final Spyder was Venom Two-One, their bird, and it was coming to take the Company home.

“Haul ass, Delta!” The MSG’s motivating words were unneeded as the four HI troopers busted through the door at a run.

They were halfway to the Spyder when the Rats came through.

“Contact rear!” Coop, resupplied with a few more cartridges since arriving, opened up on them.

But they just kept coming. All the might and power an HI trooper held, and the Rats didn’t care.

<Maybe it’s because they know we aren’t trying to kill them.> Coop wondered how it would have all played out if they’d gone in with regular ammunition.

It didn’t matter though, they just kept coming. After enough got through, they started to spread to the sides with the intent of encircling the Spyder.

“We need to go, NOW!” Coop yelled over the company net. Just about everyone else was in the Spyder, and as far as Coop was concerned that made him in charge on the ground. “Melissa, Whitehead.” He didn’t need to say anymore. “Venom Two-One, we could use a little assistance if you don’t want Rats crawling up your ass.”

“Negative, Alpha One-One, tail gunner only has lethal rounds.”

<Who’s fucking bright idea was that?> Coop saw the blue icon of his two team members disappear up the assault shuttle’s back ramp.

“Let’s go, Mike!” Coop got up from his kneeling firing position and ran, and the Rats sprinted after him.

“Venom Two-One take off now!”  Coop was last, still ten meters away when the shuttle started to pick up off the roof.

The Rats’ screams of rage behind him told Coop he’d made the right call, but as the shuttle rose meter by meter he needed to concentrate.

<Bend the knees, a little power, but not too much…and now!> Coop’s enhanced legs shot him into the air and into the back of the rapidly rising shuttle. <Swish motherfucker.>

Rounds started to crack against the shuttle’s hull, but it would hardly scratch the paint. Until…

“One…two…three, inbound. BRACE!” The pilot put the Spyder into a spin that avoided the three centuries old RPG’s launched at them from the surrounding towers.

It was good for the bird because it avoided them taking a shot and possibly letting something vital get hit. However, it was bad for Coop because he wasn’t strapped in.

He felt like clothes in a dryer as he tumbled around the troop bay, smashing into everything and everyone.

“God damnit, Cooper!” The MSG reached out and tried to grab him but missed.

It was Mike’s iron-like grip that finally clamped down on his leg and held him in place. The ramp was starting to close, but not before Coop caught the distinctive contrail of an incoming round.

“Venom, one’s about to buttfuck you!” Coop’s railgun swiveled and let out a long burst.

It caught the RPG just in time and it exploded about twenty meters from the shuttle. If Coop had missed that things would have come right into the bay, exploded, and taken down the whole shuttle.

“No need to thank me.” Coop announced as the Spyder leveled out and climbed rapidly out of range of any more attacks.

“Sit down, strap in, and shut up, Cooper.” The MSG sounded uncharacteristically tired as they left Old Chicago behind.

Coop felt the same wave of exhaustion settle over him as they left the battlefield behind, and with it came a sense of failure. They’d accomplished their mission. They’d taken the data they needed, got the civilians out safely, and no one had more than some bumps and bruises. Their mission was a complete success.

<Then why does it feel like we didn’t accomplish shit.> Coop pulled up the STRATNET display.

The brigade was pulling out of the city. The hawks and doves were clashing across the river, and even though he couldn’t see it Coop knew the city was burning.

“Fuck it.” He muttered to himself. “Just get me off this fucking rock. I never want to come back. Things will be better out there.” He looked up toward space, and wondered what Mike had planned for them once they got home.

Because Earth wasn’t his home anymore.

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