Two Worlds – Chapter 110

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Thor, Asgard System, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

You could tell a lot about a base by their chow hall. Back at Stewart-Benning when he’d had real food for the first time, Coop thought he was living the high life. Now, he knew Training Centers’ chow halls were all about quantity not quality. Mattis was the best so far. The Fleet sustainment personnel really took care of the HI battalion. The chow hall at Tranquility on Luna fell in-between. It was rundown and dirty, but the food was decent, so at least the cook cared.

To anyone else this might not seem important, but Coop and Mike knew it meant everything. For centuries it was basic warfighting knowledge that an army marched on its stomach, and you could tell a lot about the command culture of a unit by how they fed their troops. Sustainment of a fighting force was critical for morale and a tactical necessity.

<Let’s see what the 222nd has to offer.> Coop thought as he stepped into a brigade dinning facility.

The theme was tropical in the nearly empty building. There was lots of color, exotic animals, and pictures of the beach and ocean everywhere.  It was over two hours since chow ended and another five and a half until it started again, so enlisted personnel in spotless, white uniforms were efficiently cleaning the entire space.

<Maintains cleanliness, check.> Coop went down the mental checklist he had for this type of thing.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen. We are currently resetting for dinner, but we have some sandwiches and drink options that are always available.” A zit-faced Private smiled and pointed them over toward a side section where a polyplast sneeze-guard protected tons of sandwiches.

<Kind, considerate, and willing to work with soldiers outside normal chow hours.> That was an important one in Coop’s mind. An HI trooper didn’t only eat three square meals a day.

People were starting to trickle in now that the duty day was ending, so Coop and Mike scanned their GICs and headed over to the sandwich section to join the growing line.

“Turkey, ham, salami…I’m in heaven.” Coop mumbled to himself as he looked over the selection. “Cheddar, provolone, swiss, gouda…what the hell is gouda?”

“Beats me.” Mike grabbed two ham and cheeses and stepped back so some of the other soldiers could get in.

Coop heard some grumbles as he took up some prime real estate, but he just couldn’t choose. He’d never had so many options before. The 222nd’s chow hall was rapidly approaching the one at Mattis.

<All of the above.> Coop finally settled on a turkey, ham, and salami with provolone cheese.

It was the last one, and his salivary glands were already working in overdrive as he reached for it.

“Move.” A big shoulder pushed him aside, grabbed the prize sandwich, and started moving away.

“Hey asshat!” Coop was yelling before he knew what was happening. His stomach and mouth were talking without bringing his brain in on the details.

The soldier who’d taken the prize sandwich was big – HI big. He was ten centimeters shorter, but probably had twenty-five kilos of muscle on Coop, who still looked pretty skinny for someone in his military occupation. The other guy visibly bristled at the remark and slowly turned to face Coop. As he turned, corporal chevrons became visible along with a pissed off scowl.

“What did you say, Meat?”

Now it was Coop’s turn to bristle. He wasn’t fresh meat anymore. He was done with Basic, had graduated pretty close to the top of his HI class, and already had one combat drop under his belt.

“I called you an asshat, dickcheese. You took my sandwich. That’s a pretty fuckin’ stupid thing to do.” Coop saw Mike shake his head and walk off toward the tables. Coop was in this one alone.

Being called an asshat and dickcheese were the magic words. The CPL completely turned to evaluate Coop. He didn’t look impressed. Then he put the sandwich in his CMU pocket and cracked his knuckles.

“If you want it, come and get it, Meat.”

That was all the invitation Coop needed. He reached back, grabbed a random sandwich and chucked it right into the CPL’s face. The flimsy wrappings didn’t hold up to a pitch thrown faster than a major league baseball player’s. Meat, cheese, and a variety of condiments exploded all over the CPL’s face.

Coop would have made a homoerotic joke if he’d had the time, but the CPL was already on the move. The other soldiers in the sandwich area were running for cover as the two HI closed. The CPL reacted first, throwing a one-two combo with surprising speed for someone with his bulk. Coop dodged the first, parried the second with his forearm, and unleased a jaw-cracking punch that landed.

The CPL’s head snapped to the side and he stumbled, but was able to dance backwards as Coop tried to capitalize on the small victory. The CPL shook his head once, and reacquired Coop with an unnerving smile on his face.

Then he came at Coop again.

Coop was ready for more and stepped closer to engage, but then the CPL changed tactics. He came in high and went low at the last moment. Coop didn’t have time to sprawl before CPL swept in low and put his shoulder into Coop’s stomach. Next thing Coop knew, he was being lifted off his feet and up into the air. He had no leverage, but he drove one elbow into the CPL’s head before he was twisted in the air and the ground rushed up to meet him. Coop landed hard on his back, cracking the cheap floor, knocking the wind from his lungs, and allowing the CPL to pass his guard and get a full mount.

What came next was a blur of fists and blood as the CPL pounded Coop’s face in.

Coop didn’t give up though. He blocked, bucked, and they rolled all over the floor. It was one hell of a mess. Both combatant’s blood was everywhere by the time Mike got in there and pulled them apart.

Still, Coop was the clear loser. All you had to do was look at his face. The CPL was by no means pretty, but he walked away. Coop was barely conscious.

“Happy?” Mike leaned over Coop munching on his second sandwich as Coop lost consciousness.

Bitter smelling chemicals snapped Coop out of a fever dream some unknown time later. The smell of antiseptic was cloaked by the smelling salts but eventually made its presence known.

“Owww.” Coop struggled to sit up and remember what the hell had just happened.

“Easy soldier,” a plump nurse put a hand on his shoulder and pushed him back onto his back. “You had quite a fall.” Her face said she didn’t believe that Coop had “fallen” at all, but wasn’t going to question it.

“What’s going on? Where am I?” Coop looked around. There were only a few beds in the immaculately kept space.

“The brigade infirmary. Your buddies brought you in for after duty sick call. Said you fell off a second story barracks porch and landed on your face.” Her snort told him that she definitely smelled the bullshit. “We held you overnight and kept you unconscious as nanites rebuilt the bones in your face. You won’t win any beauty contests for a while, but you’ll make a one hundred percent recovery.”

“He’s never been pretty.” Mike appeared in the doorway.

“Yeah, tell me about it.” The HI trooper who had beaten Coop’s ass stood next to him.

The CPL had some freshly reknit flesh over his knuckles and a smile on his face that showed some rapidly receding bruising.

“Well,” the nurse cut through their little moment. “You’re free to go. PT starts soon so I suggest you hurry.”

<PT?> Coop blinked unknowingly before finding a clock on the wall. It was almost 01:00. He’d been out for over sixteen hours.

Coop swung his feet off the bed and gingerly touched his face. Nothing hurt. The nurse had done a good job putting humpty dumpty back together again. A few steps told Coop his balance and equilibrium were fine, but he kept his guard up as he approached the CPL.

He nearly flinched back when the older HI trooper held out his hand.

“Nice to meet you, Private First Class Cooper. I’m Corporal Anders, HI for Charlie Company 2224th Infantry Battalion. Sorry about your fall.”

Coop eyed the man for a second before grasping his hand firmly. “I can be clumsy sometimes. No worries.”

And just like that the hatchet was buried, and invitations to do some blade training were exchanged. According to Anders, the 2224th only had four HI troopers for their whole battalion. They were supposed to get Coop and Mike to bolster their numbers, but the 2222nd’s deployment took precedent.

That was about the time Coop and Mike got pings on their PADs from the SGT informing them that they had five minutes to get into formation. The rest of the rear detachment was waiting for them. Despite Coop’s recent foray into unconsciousness, they were both in formation within three minutes. That gave the plenty of time to make brief introductions before reveille.

Once the ancient bugle ceased over the PA system and everyone dropped their salutes, the SGT did an about face to address the formation.

“I’m not going to sugar coat it,” she started, immediately putting everyone on edge. “Things have gotten dicey out in York Sector. Over the next forty-eight hours we’re going to be inprocessing over a hundred and fifty new troops. These replacements are immediately going to be sent forward to the battalion. In addition, Division command has relayed down the chain that the 2223rd and 2224th are deploying as well. It’ll be twelve months minimum. Shit is going sideways in York and they need some of us grunts to step on some Blockie throats sooner rather than later.”

<Shit. Seems like we’ll be getting some real life training in with Anders.> Coop didn’t look around, but he assumed other formations up and down the beach were getting similar news.

“We’re just going to do a short run this morning. First replacements should be coming into the spaceport around 04:00, so I want everyone shit, showered, and shaved by then. The LT, myself, and PFCs Cooper and Enders will be present to corral them. I want stations ready to go when we bring the first shipment back. S1 get them in the system. S2 make sure classifications are up to date. S3 make sure S1 has the latest assignment data and we’ve got bunks for them. S4 you’re going to lead a layout inspection of everyone’s equipment and get them what they need. S5 and 6 you’re going to get all of their contact information. You’ll deal with any dependent issues, and ensure wills are current.” She scanned the small assemble of soldiers. “We need to get these people in and out professionally. Let’s show them how the Quad-Deuce does it.”

“Ghostriders!” The soldiers, except Coop and Mike, sounded off with the battalion motto.

“Good.” The SGT smiled. “Let’s get warmed up. Front leaning rest position move!”

 

***

 

Eve Berg

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

 

It was official. Eve fucking hated space. Zero gravity training was just the nail in the coffin.

There was no up, down, left, right or any cardinal direction in the vast empty void of black. It was hard enough to do everything when there was a planet beneath you to act as a guide, but if you were in the middle of the abyss you were up a creek with the paddle fully lodged up your ass.

She passed, by the slimmest of margins, and promised herself to never volunteer for anything ship-related for the entirety of her military career; which made the next training that much more miserable.

The destroyer moved at a steady clip just above Styx’s atmosphere. In the belly of the mechanical beast the ranger candidates stood at the position of parade rest while SGM Queen looked them over.

“I’m not gonna bullshit you.” The old war-dog had never blown smoke up their asses. “We have a five percent casualty rate on this training iteration.” His hard eyes scanned the remaining faces of the ranger class.

They’d started with over sixty and were now under thirty. More than fifty percent washed out, gave up, or were asked to leave. Eve “Ice” Berg wasn’t going to let any of those three happen to her. The only way she was not becoming a ranger was the fourth option: death. And even then they’d award her the tab posthumously.

She did the math easily in her head. If they followed the statistical pattern at least one person in the class was going to die today.

“Fear is for the weak.” The SGM continued. “We don’t give in to fear. We aren’t HI. WE grab fear by the nut sack and squeeze.”

“Rangers lead the way!” The class roared.

They’d been allowed to say the nearly five hundred year old motto just recently, and it was just the motivational tool they needed this late in their training.

“Again.”

“Rangers lead the way!”

“AGAIN!”

“RANGERS LEAD THE WAY!”

“Sound off for equipment check!”

Ports on the back of the LACS model V3 opened up at the command and cords slithered down from the ceiling. The rear person took the cord and jacked it into the LACS in front of them. The destroyer’s neural networks did the final updates and ran a quick diagnostic on the armor’s systems. It all took about three seconds and either returned a green “GO” or a red “NO GO”.

“One, ok…!”

“Two, ok…!”

“Three, ok…!” They counted off.

It was another half millennia old tradition that served the dual purpose of verifying the comms links for the chalk – chalks being the group of ranger candidates doing the drop together.

Two fifteen-person chalks would be jumping: the twenty-nine students and the SGM himself. SGM Queen never made a trainee do something he wasn’t willing to do himself.

“ALL OK, DROPMASTER!” Eve had the honor of being the first candidate behind the SGM.

“One minute.” The sound of the destroyer’s skipper echoed in all of the helmets.

“LOAD PODS!”

There were a couple of different drop pods in the Commonwealth military’s arsenal. Some could carry half a squad and were mostly used for planetary invasions, but there were also one man stealth pods for covert atmospheric entries. For today, the ranger candidates were using standard single person pods. They were cheap and disposable.

Eve swung into her tube on the port missile battery and dropped down into the pod. It sealed herself behind her, just barely missing her helmeted head. She came to an abrupt halt at the bottom with a clang.

“FILL PODS!” The SGM’s second command came half a second before she got bombarded on all sides by dense gel.

If anyone had been claustrophobic they had gotten over it or washed out. For Eve, the armor helped. It was another layer between her and everything the universe could throw at her.

Once filled, a current went through the pods and partially solidified the gel, effectively trapping everyone inside a protective cocoon. The five-person pods had brackets that soldiers could be bolted into, but that wasn’t cost effective for the one-person rapid atmospheric entry vehicles.

“CHAMBER PODS!”

There was the grinding of gears as the pods were loaded into the missile tubes, followed by complete and absolute silence. Somewhere on the bridge of the warship a silicone and human brain were teaming up to find the best shot for the ranger candidates. The equations were complex, and one misplaced decimal point could have them going SPLAT or burning up on reentry.

<Don’t think about it.> She chided herself for the stupid mistake. She took some deep breaths and focused on what happened when they hit the ground.

The SGM hadn’t told them what was going to happen that morning in the barracks. He just told them to pack a standard load and get to the transport.

“God speed.” The skipper’s voice interrupted the silence of their pod/tomb. The next minute would tell which description was the most accurate.

“FIRE!”

Eve blacked out from the velocity. That was the drawback of these pods. The gel helped with the G-force, but nothing beat the anti-grav plates built into the better and bigger versions.

She came to about the time she hit the first big jerk on reentry. Even the gel wasn’t enough to keep her from getting bounced around a bit.

“Sound off!” It was the first time she’d heard strain in the SGM’s voice.

“Pod zero-one!” Eve did as she was ordered along with pinging STRATNET as a redundancy.

Everyone was doing the same and following her example with STRATNET – except one.

“Damnit!” Now the SGM sounded pissed.

Eve knew there was nothing she could do. They’d been told in training there was nothing they could do. In the simulations all of this had been simulated, not to this extend, but they’d done their best to mimic the hopelessness of this situation. Eve still found herself pinging the unresponsive pod on TACCOM right up until the end.

“BRACE BRACE BRACE!” Eve bent her knees as much as possible with the restrictive gel. Even then she felt like her ankle nearly exploded from the force of the impact.

She verified the drag chute had deployed, and it had. <Fat lot of good that did.> She winced as the gel became liquid and spilled out of the pod when it opened.

Eve immediately took a knee, using her pod as cover, and scanned the area with every sensor she had and the old reliable mark-one eyeball.

She tried to ignore the sensors showing the medical stats of the first chalk: twelve green, two yellow, and one black. The tag above it read SGT DIGGLE.

Eve felt like she’d been shot. Her friend and mentor was gone just like that. <All because of a fucking pod malfunction or some fleet puke couldn’t punch in the right digits!> Murder flooded her mind, but her physical senses kept scanning the area for threats.

A rally point blazed on her STRATNET screen and she automatically started moving toward it. A few hundred meters and five minutes later the first chalk was gathered in a circle with Eve and the SGM in the center.

“Private First Class Berg, you are the patrol leader. Your mission is as follows…”

Eve’s emotions took a back seat to the mission. Everything had to take a back seat to the mission.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 109

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Thor, Asgard System, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

<Oh my God.> Coop didn’t believe in God, but if he did this would be the Big Guy’s home.

Mike and Coop had been given tickets on a civilian liner to the Asgard System where they were both assigned to the 2222nd Infantry Battalion, aka the Quad-Deuce. Asgard was just a layover though. The two HI troopers would be assigned to a holding company for a few days until the next flight went out to New Lancashire.

Coop could barely hold back his excitement at getting out of the Sol System. Mike was a little down in the dumps about the whole deal because leaving Sol meant leaving Harper. But that was the military life. It was hard to get attached to someone when you got moved all over the galaxy.

“Are you seeing this?” Coop had his face plastered to the armorplast window as the five hundred passenger liner came out of the Alcubierre launcher.

There was the equivalent of an interstellar traffic jam leading up to and going out of the giant slingshot. And that was just this one. The system had four in total, one for strictly military use. Cargo haulers, freighters, and even private luxury yachts were backed up in one kilometer intervals as far as Coop could see. Their blinking positioning lights made it look like a conga line in space. The same was true for those coming out of the launcher. The line started a safe distance away so there weren’t any collisions, but there was a second line stretching forever, and Coop was in the back of that line.

“Attention, this is your captain speaking.” A voice announced over the speaker. “There seems to be a slight delay with System Control so we’re going to be here for awhile.”

To Coop’s surprise nobody groaned but him. It seemed delays in Asgard were common.

A while ending up being two hours, but Coop didn’t waste any time. While he sat fidgeting in his economy class chair he pulled out his PAD and did a little research. His PAD found access to the system’s MILNET node easily enough, so he was able to dig up more than the average civilian.

The Asgard system itself was the military and military-industrial complex capitol of the United Commonwealth of Colonies in addition to being the sector capitol. The system was only forty light years from Earth, and a longtime Core system. There were seven terraformed and inhabited planets in the system, each posting a population in the billions, some in the double digits. The system capitol planet was Asgard: the fourth planet from the yellow dwarf, home to the Admiralty Complex, and the second and fifth infantry corps. That was just the planet’s garrison. The system had six more corps assigned to it that were deployable and scattered throughout the Commonwealth; as well as the Eighth, Ninth, and Twelfth Fleets.

Asgard was a world pretty similar to Earth. Gravity was 1.03% Earth normal and a few degrees colder on average. It had the same land to water ratio and didn’t suffer from any of the same environmental and ecological hardships as the home world.

Coop and Mike only got to fly by the second most important planet in the Commonwealth, far more important than little, old, overcrowded Earth. But even from a hundred thousand kilometers away Coop could still see the slight shimmer in the planet’s upper atmosphere.

“Holy shit is that a planetary defense shield!” Coop had thought it was a myth before he saw it himself.

“Yeah.” A tired-looking civilian answered from the seat beside them. “It wraps around the whole planet. It’s the only other world beside New Washington to have one. They say it’ll withstand a Blockie siege indefinitely, but no one knows until it gets put to the test. All I know is that it plays havoc with commerce, and traffic at the shield gates is always a pain in the ass,” he grumbled.

Coop didn’t give a shit about that. A whole planet was wrapped in a shield. <How is that not the coolest fuckin’ thing ever.> He kept his face plastered to the window as the shimmering blue, green, and white ball slid farther and farther away.

Now that they were out into the system’s shipping lanes they were moving at a good pace toward their destination. Coop didn’t bother to research the other five planets in the system. He knew they’d have hundreds of thousands of troops on them, have industry that supported the massive Commonwealth war machine, and of course there were the shipyards around the ice-world, Frigg, that produced the Commonwealth’s latest and greatest designs.

Instead, he focused his attention on the third world from the star. The tropical planet Thor: headquarters of the Second Infantry Corps, and their temporary duty station. Unlike Asgard, which resembled Earth in a lot of ways, Thor was what Earth looked like after the proverbial flood. Eighty-five percent of the planet’s surface was covered in oceans. The remaining fifteen percent was pockmarked with island continents. With the planet only being eighty percent the size of Earth, and at 1.25% its gravity, the largest island was only half the size of Australia, and the comments section on MILNET said you didn’t want to be stationed there. It was hot year-round and 25% more difficult to do anything up to and including walking. It was less of a problem for HI, but it would suck for the regular grunts.

On the bright side, it did lead to the Second Corps nickname: The Hellhounds. And word on the street was that Hellhound Six was a real ballbuster.

The passenger liner descended through the atmosphere to the spaceport. There was no planetary defense shield to protect Thor, but there was half a fleet in orbit to deter an enemy stupid enough to be in the system in the first place. Coop didn’t even feel a bump as the medium-sized ship fought the atmosphere on its way down. It was a civilian ship after all. They took into consideration creature comforts.

Coop and Mike grabbed their bags and disembarked with the rest of the passengers. They’d barely set foot on the polyplast floors when their PADs pinged with a rally point. It directed them to the recruitment office in the spaceport’s baggage claim area. Thor had a basic training center for any unlucky son of a bitch that lived here and wanted to join up.

Standing there at the podium, looking unhappy with the assignment, was a sergeant in CMUs. The skinny little people heading into the recruitment office gave her a wide berth, but Coop and Mike could tell she was their ride. If she hadn’t been, she would have been giving recruits the stink eye, not Coop and Mike.

“You my new guys?” She raised an eyebrow as Mike and Coop walked up.

“Yes, Sergeant. Private First Class Cooper and…”

“I don’t need your autobiography, Private. Get in the air-car and let’s go.”

Mike and Coop exchanged a look before following in the SGT’s wake. <And we’ve got another one with a stick up her ass.>

The waiting vehicle was a troop transport hovering a few feet off the ground. It was already half full of the new recruits, but that wasn’t what caught Coop’s attention. The minute they stepped out of the sliding polyplast door they were hit with enough humidity that he felt like he was breathing soup. It was easily thirty plus degrees Celsius outside, and Coop’s PAD informed him that it was late fall on the planet. It was worse than Stewart-Benning.

<Just a few days and I’m out of this swamp ass factory.> He told himself as he pulled himself up into the open-bay transport.

The recruits averted their eyes as they took their seats. Coop watched them as they examined their shoes or the paneling of the vehicle’s floor. One chanced a look at the two HI troopers. She was a pretty, young thing. Young in the sense that she had that naïve look Coop associated with someone with delusions about what the military actually was. Age-wise she was probably older than him. Her skin was a deep tan that was the norm on the planet. But she still glistened with sweat. Something told him people never stopped sweating on this planet.

They made eye contact briefly, and Coop gave her his best wink. Her face immediately soured and she returned to looking at anything but him.

<Ehh…your loss.> Coop sat back, crossed his arm, and shut his eyes.

It was impossible to sleep as the sun blazed down onto his face through the truck’s open top, but it was pleasant for the first few minutes. Having spent the last day in space it was good to be back on the ground.

The kids got dropped off first. A screaming drill sergeant yelled them off the truck and into a building where they would begin Day Zero. The HI troopers rode for another few minutes before stopping next to a squat building. Coop hopped down from the back and looked to the building on his right. Then he swiveled his head to the left and saw the beach.

<Beach?> White sand and clear blue water was less than a hundred feet from the front door of the Battalion HQ.

“Listen up.” The Sergeant hopped down beside Coop. “PT is at 01:00, duty day starts at 04:00 and goes to 16:00. We’ve got long days here, thirty-two hours. It’s hottest from 17:00 to 22:00 so we try to avoid being out around then. Chow is 03:00 to 04:00, 12:00 to 13:00, and 21:00 to 22:00. We’re going to get you signed in with the staff duty NCO, get you inprocessed to the battalion and then find you a temporary bunk.” She did a precise about face and walked into the building with Coop and Mike following quickly behind.

The air conditioning inside the HQ building for the Quad-Deuce was heavenly, and for a second it made Coop miss just how empty the building was. There was a CPL manning the desk who signed Coop and Mike in, but there wasn’t anyone running around the hallways, or even moving in and out of the building except them.

“Where is everyone?” He couldn’t stop from asking.

“We’re the battalion’s rear detachment.”

It seemed Coop had located the source of the SGT’s sourness.

“They left behind a squad and officer to ensure we could move new personnel forward, maintain communication with the families, and handle any administrative work that needs doing back here.”

<Wow that sucks.> Coop kept that thought to himself. <Your unit is off on the fringes of the galaxy and you’re stuck back here. Tough break.>

The SGT didn’t speak any more about it. They found a clerk in the S1 office who inprocessed them and assigned them two bunks in the barracks. The PVT told them not to get comfortable. Two new HI troopers were going to be called forward quick.

“It’s 15:30 already so you two are released,” the SGT informed after they finished all of the necessary paperwork. “PT is on the beach in front of HQ. Don’t be late or I’ll feed your ass through the grinder, understood?”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“Good, dismissed.”

Just like that Coop and Mike had fifteen hours of free time on their hands. So they did the first thing any soldier would do when assigned to a new base. They went to check out the chow hall.

 

***

 

Benjamin Gold

Location: Alcubierre Bubble, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Ben entered his private cabin and tossed his PAD onto the bed. “Geoffrey, hold all my calls unless we’re under attack.”

“Yes, Commander Gold.” The Semi-Intelligent AI replied without any emotion. If that was in its programming, it hadn’t gotten there yet.

CWS Argo had been in Alcubierre transit for the last five hours and Ben had spent every one of them, and every waking hour of the last day, double and triple checking his crew’s readiness for their first mission. The short battle hadn’t counted since they were high-tailing it out of the system before the first missiles were fired.

They’d done some training when coming out in Fortitude’s belly, but Argo’s crew was still green, which meant they had to establish their own SOP’s and learn how everyone worked together. They hadn’t had enough time to do it, and it was Ben’s fault.

He’d been so busy getting close to the Star Kingdom’s diplomatic delegation that he’d neglected his crew’s training schedule. On top of that, he’d volunteered his crew for duties related to the delegation instead of shipboard duties. The NCOIC hadn’t been happy about that and he didn’t mind telling the skipper how he felt.

“How’s Chief Yates taking all of this?”

“I believe he is happy about it, Sir. His exact words were: ‘I am glad to be out of my monkey suit.’” Geoffrey wasn’t programmed for subtlety, or he hadn’t picked it up yet.

Ben winced slightly at the comment. Their last function had been a dinner party, and the crew of Argo had supplemented the assault carrier’s servers.

“Is that the sentiment from everyone?”

“There is not enough data to support any conclusion, Commander Gold. But the crew’s vitals over the last twenty-four hours do indicate an uptick in enthusiasm. They are more active, especially the marine detachment.”

“That’s because Sergeant O’Neil has been running them through boarding and counter-boarding ops for the last few hours.”

The marines had taken to the change with gusto, and if anyone was going to be ready by the time they got to Cobalt Station it was them.”

“Geoffrey, diagnostic.” Ben cut the idle chitchat and got back to work.

A rundown of data started populating Ben’s PAD. He ignored most of it, zeroing in on the important parts.

Argo was locked and loaded. She had missiles in all four of her sealed tubes, and eight more broadsides worth in her weapons hold. A hundred thousand railgun rounds were also aboard. It might seem like a lot, but that number could shrink fast, especially when being used as a last-ditch countermeasure to incoming fire. The generators for the port and starboard 50 terawatt and 100 terawatt nose energy cannons were also operating at one hundred percent. Argo was ready for anything the station could throw at them. Not that Ben expected this to get violent. This was a routine check, and since the corporation paid the Commonwealth for the port calls there was no reason they’d start shooting.

The ship was ready, but Ben still had some reservations about the crew. Chief Yates and Lieutenant Briggs were top of the line. Just like he’d suspected, the marines took an instant liking to the peppy XO. Engineering was a little bit more questionable. There had been a few times during the workup where SP3 McKinnie wasn’t anywhere to be found and Spacer Lee seemed to be handling the workload, but there hadn’t been any time to look into it.

Lee herself was a bit of a problem though. It was nothing concerning her work. She did everything above standard, but she was a bit of a flirt, and it was causing problems with the maintenance deckhands. She seemed to have them pitted against each other to win her affection.

SP2 Olvera was still her quiet and detached self, which Ben didn’t think was a good quality in the NCOIC of the Communications Department. It didn’t matter that it was only a one-person department.

The helmsman, SA Gilbert, was solid, but a little cocky. Corporal Diez in navigation still didn’t seem comfortable with his job coming over from the infantry, but Ben didn’t foresee that being a problem. They wouldn’t be doing any complicated jumps as far as he could tell.

The marines had the hard job and they were ready to go. They were one man short, but he was confident they’d get the job done. Overall, Argo was ready for combat operations. Ben just hoped he didn’t have to fight any battles all the way out in the middle of nowhere.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 9

Daisy moved slowly and cautiously through the night. She was in full-on stealth mode. Kinetic energy absorbed into her from all angles. Her footsteps made no sound. The humid air didn’t rustle her clothing. Everything was drawn into the Hero and stored for later use.

<There.> Her target wasn’t that difficult to spot. <One step at a time.>

She kept her head on a swivel as she approached. She was squatting down to not be seen. She felt cold metal on her hand and she ran it up the side toward the handle up front. She crouched even lower for the final few steps and then acted. Hesitation would only lead to discovery.

“Ahah!” She pulled open the door causing Topher to jump a foot in the air. His gun was halfway out of his holster before he realized it was Daisy.

“Shit.” He gave a long exhale as he holstered his weapon. “You nearly gave me a heart attack.”

“You’re young and fit. I’m sure you would’ve survived.” She plopped into the passenger seat and brought out a bag she’d been carrying. “I’m surprised I was able to get this close. I’m sure these would have given me away.”

“Now that’s what I’m talking about.” Topher’s face split into a grin as the smell of cooked meat and fried potatoes filled the car’s interior.

Daisy handed over his burger and they both sat back to enjoy a late dinner.

“Anything?” She asked between chomps.

“Nope,” he replied with a mouth full of grilled cow.

Currently, they were sitting on a stakeout. Normally, Daisy as a civilian wouldn’t accompany him, but since she’d already been shot by the suspects, and the location they were surveilling was her home, Topher thought they could bend the rules this one time.

“So,” he said after a few moments of chowing down. “How’d things go with my parents?”

Daisy nearly shot ketchup out of her nose when she snorted. “Well…hmm…let’s see.” She set down her burger and turned to face him. “I was late picking them up because traffic was god awful. I don’t think they’d been waiting long, if at all, but then Kevin showed up.”

“He doing ok?” Topher interrupted.

Daisy irritation was cut by the moment of sweetness in her boyfriend’s genuine concern. “He’s good. Nothing the healers couldn’t patch up.” She refocused. “Your mother was understandably not thrilled by riding in the back of my car with a gunshot victim. If she’s still at the house when we get home I’ll call that a win. Your dad was actually pretty cool about it. I think he’s got an inkling of what I did for a living and there is some respect there. At the very least there’s a foundation to build on.”

“That’s good.” Topher’s face brightened like the dawn had just arrived. “Doesn’t sound like things went too bad.”

“Well…he wasn’t happy that I put his wife in the back of my car with a guy bleeding everywhere, but it could have been worse.” Daisy glanced at her HCP assigned housing and opened her sixth sense.

She only expanded her bubble until her house came within range, but even then, she had dozens of life-threads in her mind’s eye within her sphere of influence. None of them were Supers, so she let her heightened consciousness drop.

“Nothing?” Topher guessed what she was doing.

“Nada.” She shook her head.

“Well it looks like you just get to spend more time with charming old me.” He smiled despite her smirk.

“Yeah, that’s exactly how I wanted to…”

A loud CRACK echoed through the neighborhood. Before Daisy finished her sentence she and Topher were out of the car and moving toward the house. Topher had his weapon out and pointed ahead of him. He moved tactically, covering open ground quickly, and finding cover. His frail humanity necessitated it. Daisy wasn’t quite as encumbered.

She boldly walked into the street right in front of her home and expanded her senses. She covered the whole block, but focused in specifically on her home. The crack had been the sound of countermeasures activating. Nonlethal means would be the first to deploy, and she knew they had a good chance of taking down anyone without enhanced strength.

<Nothing.> She scanned the house.

It meant one of two things. First, the intruders were down and dead, which meant a shit ton of paperwork on the second day of school. Still, that was preferable to option two. If she couldn’t see them then her and Topher might need some backup.

“You take the back, I’ll go in the front.” She ordered, taking charge of the situation.

Topher didn’t argue. He nodded and sprinted toward the back gate. She gave him a few seconds, sent a quick text to John, and then prepared to enter. She had her hand on the doorknob and everything when half the wall seemed to explode everywhere. Since her kinetic absorption was ramped up she was like Moses standing in the middle of the Red Sea. Everything exploded around her and fell limp when it made contact.

Instead of opening the door she found herself standing a few feet to the left of a familiar women. The woman from the airport had jumped through the wall to her right, and caused the little explosion. Except this time she looked different.

If Daisy didn’t know any better she would have sworn the woman was wearing some sort of black armor. There was a moment where they just stood facing each other that Daisy got a good look at it. It wasn’t armor, even though the moonlight reflected off its black sheen. It wasn’t bulky enough. It looked more compression sportswear with a sinuous quality. Whatever it was it didn’t slow the woman down, but Daisy was prepared for that.

Electricity crackled in the air as a forked lightning bolt shot from Daisy into the woman’s chest. Two things happened. First, the woman didn’t do more than grunt as enough wattage to turn a human extra crispy slammed into her. Second, the black material reacted to the strike. It reacted hungrily, and the lightening vanished.

<Shit.> Daisy was already rolling out of the way as the woman came down on her previous position.

The ground cratered where her fist landed.

<Enhanced strength. No wonder the nonlethals didn’t do diddly squat.> She completed her roll and jumped up again.

Again, she reached out with her sixth sense and grasped for the woman life thread. If she could take her down this fight would be over and they’d have a source of information for what the hell was going on.

The woman extracted her fist and forearm from the concrete and turned to face Daisy. Despite being right in front of the Hero, Daisy couldn’t sense this woman at all. <Oh come on!> She back peddled as the woman advanced in a fighter’s stance.

Evasion was the name of the game. Daisy didn’t have any idea what the black compression armor was, but she didn’t want to get touched by it. Getting hit, doused, or otherwise violated by a viscous material was near the top of the list for Hero no-nos.

The woman started throwing rabid combinations. It was clear she’d had training, especially when a kick nearly took Daisy’s feet out from under her. Without her perception dialed up with electrical impulses to the brain she would have had to rely on blocking some of those blows, and that wouldn’t turn out well.

Daisy got a real sense for the armor when those strikes got close. It was like a cold front was passing by. Everything around her seemed to get drained. Whatever the compression armor was it was offensive, defensive, and creepy as fuck.

Daisy cartwheeled backward to avoid another sweeping kick. The half-digested hamburger didn’t agree with that. That was about the time she heard the first gunshots.

<Topher.> She made a decision quick.

She came out of the cartwheel, bent her legs, and jumped. She soared over the strongwoman, who jumped after her, and landed with a combat-roll in the back yard. Topher was taking cover behind the shed and exchanging gunfire with two people.

<Now there’s three of them! This day is just getting better and better.>

Both of the newcomers were wearing the same black compression armor. One was the big guy from the airport, the tightness of the armor confirmed that. The third was another woman. Unlike the two people who’d tried to shoot her at the airport, whose armor only went up to their neck, this woman was completely covered in a thick layer of the stuff. On top of that, when she saw Daisy land nearby, she pulled a blob of the blackness off herself and threw it at her.

Daisy easily rolled out of the way, the third person wasn’t exactly a major-league pitcher, but the blob changed course.

<You’ve got to be shitting me!> Daisy started to move.

The blob’s maneuverability was limited, and eventually it fell uselessly to the ground. Daisy marked the spot in her mind and made mental note to check it out when this was over. And it had to be ending soon. Houses were exploding and Topher was emptying his clip at the bad guys. At the very least SWAT would be arriving soon.

No sooner had she thought about it than a giant gust of wind announced a new arrival.

<No…no…no…no…no. Why the fuck is he here?!”

“Cease and desist!” Jetstream hovered above the four battling Supers and one human.

Of course, the people trying to kill Daisy and Topher had no intention of ceasing of desisting. Another black blob got lobbed up toward Jetstream, but his simply flew higher and it fell short.

Thankfully, the kid didn’t do any more posturing. He’d been attacked, and that meant he needed to take the bad guys down. Unfortunately, he didn’t bother to figure out who was who before he attacked.

The blast of wind took three of the five of them off their feet. Topher collided with the shed in a dull thud that really pissed her off. Ninja-looking girl and the big guy got knocked off their feet too. The strongwoman dug her extremities into the ground and rode out the hurricane force winds, and Daisy just absorbed the attack altogether.

When the howling wind died down, the compression armored gang started calling to each other in a foreign language. Daisy thought it might have been Spanish, but her ears were still ringing from the wind.

The group of three consolidated. The strongwoman kept an eye on Daisy while taking clumps of dirt and chucking them up at Jetstream. Daisy took the opportunity to rush behind the shed and check out Topher. He was out cold and there was a big bump growing on his head.

<Jetstream is gonna get my foot up his ass.> She promised the universe as she peeked back out from behind the shed.

The three intruders had finally reached each other. The two women got a hold of the man and the worlds seemed to twist around them. For a second they looking like a kaleidoscope image instead of three people. Then the image imploded and they were gone.

“Freeze!” With three of his five targets gone the flying hero turned his attention on the only moving one remaining.

“Take it easy. He’s a cop and this is my house.” Daisy inclined her head toward Topher and her now ruined abode.

“I will not tell you again. Freeze and put your hands behind your head.”

“Do you want me to put my hands behind me head or freeze?” Daisy couldn’t stop the smirk that spread across her face. “You need to work on your delivery, kid.”

“I said…”

“And I’m telling you to shut it, Jonas.” Her comment made the young hero freeze. “That’s a good boy. Let the adults take it from here.”

She could hear sirens in the distance. The cavalry was on the way just a little too late.

 

***

 

Izzy was a mess Wednesday morning, and it had nothing to do with drinking. She’d kept it to a minimum the previous night for several reasons. The most obvious was she didn’t want to get sloshed at a frat house and have some smelly unwashed man-child pawing at her all night. That was pretty high up on her list, but she also kept the HCP in mind. Wednesday was their combat ranking trials. She couldn’t be nursing a hangover when she went in to fight another Super for the first time.

Those were the two biggest reasons, but the third was personal. She couldn’t get Seth Abney out of her head. She didn’t have erotic dreams about him or anything like that, even if he was really cute. She couldn’t get him out of her head because of what he’d told her, or more importantly, what he’d left out. Whatever that was it had scarred him deeply.

Izzy remembered the pain on his face and in his voice like it had been branded into her mind. It was so vivid and memorable because it was so similar to what she’d felt, and what she’d seen dozens of others feel throughout her life.

She remembered the pain of getting all dressed up in her Sunday best. She’d be told to act natural and play with the other kids, but they all knew what was really happening. Potential parents were coming and they were being shown off. She’d been through that show and tell for years.

<And was always passed over.> She took a deep breath and pushed down the pain of rejection after rejection.

It took her a long time not to blame the potential parents or herself for not going home to a loving family. She’d concluded some things were never meant to be. The parents always went for the younger ones, and as she got older she became resigned to her fate. She’d stay where they told her to until eighteen, study everything she could, and then leave behind that part of her life and never look back. The goal of being a Hero was always on her mind, but she hadn’t truly believed she had a chance until she got the acceptance letter from West.

<Now I’ve got to prove I belong here.>

There was a loud clearing of the throat from the front of the classroom. Izzy looked up from where she’d been staring through her textbook and saw the teacher glaring at her. The History 101 professor had a stick shoved way up his ass, and he’d made that known several times over the length of their first class.

“Again, students, I will not repeat myself so pay attention.” He continued to drone on about the Neolithic Revolution and some of the first civilizations in the fertile crescent until the class ended. Then he gave an obscene amount of reading for Friday’s class and dismissed them.

Izzy spent the next hour eating lunch alone in the dining hall, and by eating she meant pushing the food around with her fork and occasionally nibbling on pieces. She was just too nervous to fill her stomach. Fighting wasn’t something that came naturally to her, but according to the rumor mill that was what they’d be doing for a whole year.

She spotted Seth across the sea of students. He was alone at another table exactly like her’s, except he was eating his food. She almost went over to talk to him, but resisted the temptation. His body language practically screamed “fuck off” to anyone who came near him. Before she talked to him again she needed to get a better idea of what had hurt him so badly.

With plenty of time left before her ethics class she headed down into the HCP. Passing through the polymorphic barrier in the student’s center still sent a chill down her spine. She crowded into the lift with a few older students and descended toward her second day on her path to being a Hero.

“Good luck, Freshman.” An older woman gave Izzy a once over before exiting the elevator.

“Um…thanks.”

<That’s not foreboding or anything.> She tried not to psyche herself out but it was hard.

The Dean put some of that uneasiness to rest. He was a small guy, and it was hard to think of someone so soft-spoken as a mighty Hero. But he had to be. Only the best were allowed to teach the next generation of Heroes.

<Right?> She was pretty lost in this new world.

Her roommates hadn’t been much help. They hadn’t really gelled and Izzy blamed the upcoming combat trials. Everyone was suspicious of everyone else. The Super she gotten the closest to was Seth.

<Not again.> She pushed him out of her mind and focused on the Dean. What he was saying was important.

But it didn’t last long.

“Normally, I’d keep everyone here for the full hour of class, but since today is your combat rankings we’ll moving into that. However, before Coach McMillan and Coach Meyers take you away, I want to again reiterate the secret identity clause of your HCP contract. We have had no violations so far, but breaking that clause of your contract will lead to disciplinary action and most likely expulsion.” The Dean’s eyes swept across the room ensuring the freshmen understood the gravity of the situation. When he was satisfied, he took a step back and handed over the podium.

“Listen up,” Coach McMillan’s voice boomed through the room. “You will line up single file at the door and follow my lovely associate to the main viewing room. If you get lost and can’t complete such a simple task you fail and go home. You’d think people wouldn’t need to get threatened with expulsion in something so straight forward, but I’m not spending my whole afternoon playing find the freshman.”

Everyone did as instructed, and Izzy had to jog to keep up the fast pace the speedster set. They ended up in a room where flat screen monitors covered nearly every inch of the wall, showing the reinforced combat cells in ultra-high definition. A large screen dominated the center of the room, suspended from the ceiling by steel cables. It looked like it belonged in the center of a train station, or the airport concourse at JFK, instead of in the comparatively smaller viewing room. Names and locations flashed across the screen until all the freshmen knew where their first matches would be held. That only took up half the screen. The other half was filled with a traditional looking bracket like you’d see for the NCAA tournament. It was blank at the moment, but Izzy doubted it would stay that way for long. She barely had time to take in the plethora of plush couches and refreshment bar before Coach Meyers was calling out instructions.

“Glad you all made it,” the older woman’s expression in no way conveyed glee. “The next part is still pretty simple, but has the same implications. You will find your name and what combat cell you will be fighting in on the board. You then have five minutes to get there before the doors lock. Once you complete your bout you will be evaluated on the spot by one of Dr. Sanderson’s healers. From there you will either return to the viewing room to identify your next match, or be taken to the infirmary for treatment before returning here. Any questions?”

Someone asked about rules and Izzy paid close attention. She wasn’t going to get expelled by doing something stupid on the second day. The last one surprised her, <Don’t kill my opponent.> she gulped at the need for such a rule.

“Find your assigned cell and MOVE!” Coach Meyers’ yell sent Izzy springing into action.

She got her assignment and sprinted down the hall. She was surprised that her tight black uniform was so comfortable as she hurried to her first trial, but that surprise was replaced by near terror as she found her door and pushed through it. The door on the other side was still closed, so she waited and avoided the temptation to chew on her nails.

Finally, the other door swung inward and another woman stepped in. She was half a foot taller than Izzy with silver hair and silver eyes. She moved with a sure confidence, and looked much older than eighteen.

<It’s the hormones in everything now-a-days.> She tried not to let her anxiety show, and all that got from the other woman was a grin. <Oh crap.>

<Oh crap indeed.>

The unknown voice in Izzy’s head confirmed her worst fear. She was facing a telepath. The group of Supers she was weakest against.

“This first round match is between Isla Perko and Scarlett Vaan,” announced a voice that neither student knew. “The match will begin in thirty seconds, and will only conclude with an acknowledgement of surrender or incapacitation. The use of lethal force is not authorized. Any use of such force will result in your expulsion from the HCP and possible criminal charges. Good luck.”

Izzy and Scarlett looked at each other for a moment. She didn’t know what Scarlett was going to do, but she was going to use those thirty seconds wisely. She closed her eyes and took deep breaths. She focused her mind on them. She breathed in through her nose and out through her mouth. After three breaths, she felt the familiar sensations of peace, safety, and security fill her mind. She took those sensations and pulled. She transformed them from the abstract to the physical.

When Izzy opened her eyes, she was seeing the world through a pinkish-blue lens. Most people would find this new worldview distracting, but Izzy was able to glean more information about her environment. Scarlett was a kaleidoscope of shifting color as energy coursed through her. Ironically, the other woman’s mind was a deep scarlet color. It was different than previous advanced minds she’d known, but not too different to denote a different ability. That tidbit of information only created more questions and confusion. She’d only been in a fight twice in her life, and both were under the age of twelve. Neither involved powers, and neither had so much riding on it.

Izzy raised her fists into something approaching a boxer’s stance and focused. The enhanced vision was only a secondary aspect of her power. Her primary gift itself was the pinkish-blue, skintight, aura that surrounded her body. The defensive aura would protect her from physical attack up to a point, and it even allowed her to hit stronger and manipulate greater strength. But what it didn’t do was protect her mind.

<And thinking about it just let her know what my weakness is.> Izzy felt stupid, and Scarlett trying and failing to contain her laughter made her face flush with embarrassment.

Izzy looked over at the clock on the wall and prepared herself. <Three…two…one…> She didn’t give herself time to think she just acted.

She rushed the advanced mind determined to get in a few good hits before she used some mental voodoo to take her down. If Izzy was able to show a solid effort then maybe the professors wouldn’t hold it against her.

“I surrender.” Scarlett didn’t even move. She held up her hands.

Izzy skidded to a stop a foot from her with her fist raised and poised to strike. “Can you even do that?”

“By forfeit the winner is Ms. Perko.” The unknown voice announced and the door opened to admit a grey-uniformed healer.

The upperclassman gave Scarlett a shake of his head before confirming they were ok.

<Huh. That was easy.> Izzy dropped her defensive aura and followed the upperclassman out of the combat cell and back up to the viewing room. <But I don’t think I’m going to get a lot of points by being surrendered to.>

She was the only one in the viewing room when she arrived, so she took the time to study her opponents. That way she’d show the professors what she could really do in the next round.

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I’m on TDY from Hell – Dominion

Charlotte was her city, her home, her Dominion. She’d been assigned this duty station hundreds of years ago when mankind first started to expand into the Americas from Europe. Before that she’d been just another member of the Divine Host. She’d been just another soldier cog in the wheel of their Father’s great plan.

In 1760 she’d advanced from a Guardian to a Dominion. She’d been promoted to an officer rank for the good work she’d done in Richmond, Virginia. The Power charged with the governance of English America had seen something in her then, and she’d proven him right. For over two hundred and fifty years she’d looked over her Dominion and ensured it prospered. She’d influenced mankind’s battles, healed the sick, tripped up the wicked, and slain the truly evil. That was her job, and her singular purpose for existence. She needed to make sure Charlotte and its souls flourished.

“Dominion Ava!”

She was coasting above the Bank of America Corporate Center. The top of the building looked like it was filled with pikes ready to impale some unlucky creature falling from above. In the twenty-five years of its existence that had never happened, but she knew humans were susceptible to bouts of stupidity, so she cruised around it a couple times a day just to be certain no one had met that unfortunate fate.

“Lucas, how many times have I told you to just call me Ava? I don’t call you Guardian Lucas, so please just relax.”

“Yes, Domini…Ava.” The other angel was apologetic.

Like all angels of his type, Lucas was chiseled muscle with broad shoulders, a rugged jaw, and hard features. He – like Ava – was a warrior.

<If I had twenty Lucas’ I could rid my city of the Soulless and the other pieces of shit defiling its streets.>

Despite what humans who attended mass every Sunday might think, swearing was not something sinful. Only taking her father’s name in vain fell into that category. Besides that, anyone could say all the “shits”, “fucks”, and “assholes” they wanted. The Divine really didn’t care.

Twenty Lucas’ would go a long way, or twenty angels at all would be appreciated. Currently, Ava only had eight other angels under her command. Nine angels total, a single squad, was responsible for protecting a dominion of over a million souls.

<I just had to go kill that Infernal duke.> She knew it had been the right move, but no good deed went unpunished in the Divine Host.

She’d shown just how competent and skilled she was by dismantling the Infernal network in Charlotte, and an Archangel had decided her reward was to cut her command in half. He’d said, in all his Divine splendor, that she had everything under control, and troops were needed elsewhere.

“What’s happened, Lucas?”

As one of her independent team leaders, Lucas only came to her for serious issues.

“The Remnant has left his territory.”

<Shit!> That definitely fell into a “come get me now” category.

“Please tell me you have a location on him?” The last thing she wanted to do was spend all night flying around looking for that drunken frat boy.

“He’s at the Our Lady of Souls sanctum.” Her subordinate replied.

“Huh…” that caught her off-guard. “Well this shouldn’t take long then.”

There was a blaze of white light as Ava zeroed in on the Divine sanctum and rocketed toward the destination. She entered through the roof, passing harmlessly through the domed ceiling, and landed heavily on the alter.

She unfurled her wings to their full length, nearly touching either side of the sanctum, and bathed the room in her Divine power. From the sheath on her back, resting beneath her shoulder blades, she unsheathed her sword. The moment her hand touched the pommel it ignited with golden flames that licked at the fabric of reality.

The pews held several gatherings of people. She felt various powers emanating from all of them. The women to her left had natural magic flowing through their veins and filling their ætheric auras. A group of men in the rear all had the mischievous qualities of enchanters, except for one. He was brimming with physical magic. His whole body seemed to vibrate with quiet intensity as his power strained against him.

<It’s been a long time since I last saw a martial magician down this far south.> She made a mental note to find out about this man.

But neither him, the enchanters, the circle of witches, nor the other magic wielders were her concern. Her concern was the man standing near the front looking smug with roguish charm.

“Bacchus, what are you doing here?” She held her sword at her side, but was ready to spring into action if need be.

“Please, lovely Ava, Bacchus makes me feel old. I go by Brock now.” He smiled at her.

“Fine, Brock You know you aren’t supposed to leave your territory.”

“Alas, I do, sweet Dominion of our fair city.” His smile never slackened. “But I wanted to come and see what my friendly neighbors had to say tonight, and to meet our newest arrival.” He pointed back toward the martial magician.

She caught the large man studying her when she turned back to regard him, but he made no attempt to hide it. Martial magicians weren’t known for their subtlety, and this wasn’t an exception.

“Mr…?” She gave the man the opportunity to introduce himself.

“Fuller, Gerald Fuller. But all my friends call me Gerry.” He smiled, and his teeth were nearly as perfect as Bacchus’.

“Very well, Mr. Fuller. Welcome to Charlotte. I hope you enjoy yourself during your stay, and please keep the bloodshed to a minimum.” She noticed the enchanted sheepskin coat he was wearing. “I do not wish any innocents to be caught in the crossfire of your contracts.”

“I’ll do my best, Ava.” The man gave a short bow, which she returned.

“Go home, Brock.” There was a flash of light, an expenditure of power, and the next second her good-natured pest of a Remnant was transported back to his territory. “Good evening, everyone.” She arched her wings high and with one powerful flap she was up and passing through the domed ceiling on her way back into the skies overlooking her dominion.

“Did you find him?”

She heard the hurried flaps of Lucas approaching five minutes later.

“Yes, he was just sitting in on a local meeting to meet a newcomer. There’s a martial magician back in town.”

Her subordinate frowned and scratched his head. “What’s it been, thirty, forty years?” Lucas wondered out loud.

“1979. Five Soulless were slain at a biker bar. That was a member of the McGee clan though. The Fullers are smaller and more elusive from what I remember.”

“You want me to check into him?” Like a good soldier, Lucas read the intention behind his commander’s words.

“Please, and let me know if there are any Infernal mutterings going around. A martial magician in town about to deal with their spawn is going to kick over some stones that we could exploit.” She brainstormed at the climbed higher.

No human would look and see two of the city’s nine angels soaring through the night sky. They were invisible to mortal souls, cloaked by Divine influence. Humans were free to make their decisions without influence from either side. That was the agreement that was usually adhered to. The last thing people needed in such a turbulent time was to know that Heaven and Hell existed. They had enough to deal with just paying their bills and raising their families in an ever changing world.

“You’re in charge, Lucas. I’ll be back in an hour.” She didn’t explain herself to the Guardian; she just pointed herself south east and rocketed away faster than anything man-made could travel.

For a minute the land blurred by behind her until she abruptly stopped above a city sitting on the coast. She defied the laws of physics, stopping on a dime like that, but the Divine weren’t ruled by the laws of mortals. Only her father’s laws mattered to her.

Even several hundred feet off the ground she could hear the waves lap against the shores of Charleston. She smelled the salt and pollutants in the air, and tasted it on her tongue. With the lights of the city she could see for miles around, but even without them the darkness didn’t encumber her senses. So, she saw the other angel approach quickly to investigate to unexpected arrival.

“Oh,” the large, bulky man who made an NFL linebacker look small grunted as he got close. “It’s just you, Ava.”

“Emmanuel, always nice to see you.” She greeted the dark-skinned Dominion of Charleston.

He wore the night like a cloak, while her pale skin and blonde shoulder-length curls made her stick out like a strobe light in the fall night.

“Are you here to beg for more soldiers?”

Emmanuel had been a Dominion for a century longer than Ava, something he never forgot to remind her of, and he currently had two squads under his command.

<Eighteen angels assigned to cover half a million while I have nine to cover double that. I’ll never understand how the Powers deploy us.>

“Not tonight.” She smiled politely with a twinge of passive aggression.

He might have a century longer than her in grade, but she’d killed an Infernal duke. He couldn’t say the same.

“I’m just looking for a little Dominion cooperation. Just want to pick your brain for any local intelligence.”

Emmanuel crossed his arms in front of his chiseled chest as he hovered in the air. “Ok, I’ll bite. What do you want?”

“Just wanted to know if you’ve heard any rumblings about new Infernal management in my Dominion? I’ve got my people on the lookout for the replacement, but you know how it is. I’ve only got nine bodies to cover a million people and over five-hundred square miles.”

Emmanuel rolled his eyes, but she could see he was seriously thinking about her request.

“I haven’t heard anything definite, but there has been some activity with the Infernal forces here. You know how it is when you’re dealing with a full Infernal contingent instead of the remnants of one.” He gave as good as he got on the passive aggressiveness.

“Possible joint operation?” She kept her face neutral, but that seriously worried her.

One of the Divine Host’s biggest advantagse when fighting the Infernals was that they always fought among themselves. They were greedy, power-hungry, and selfish by nature. They didn’t play well with others.

“Maybe. We’ve never been able to confirm it, but we’ve suspected for decades that the Dux here is a representative of Lucifer.”

Both crossed themselves instinctually at the mention of their fallen older brother. He was the angelic version of Icarus. He’d been the Morningstar, the brightest of their father’s creations. Then he’d been seduced by Satan and his quest for power, and fallen like the rest of the Infernals.

“I still don’t understand why they can’t just call them a Duke instead of Dux.” She shook her head as she contemplated what a combined Infernal assault would mean for their three squads of angels.

“You know the Infernals and their titles.” He shrugged.

“Yeah.”

She knew the Dux she’d killed had been a servant of Seere, and she also knew that the former Throne and Lucifer had a fairly cordial relationship as far as Infernals went.

<This isn’t good.>

“Should we contact Uriel?”

The Archangel Uriel was the angel in charge of all angels in the modern nation of the United States of America. Ava and Emmanuel had served under her for a quarter of a millennia, and they both had a good idea what the angelic general wanted brought to her attention.

“Not yet.” Ava shook her head, causing her curls to bounce. “If we get more substantive evidence we can take it to her, but we’ve got nothing to go on but rumors.”

“True.” Emmanuel nodded.

They found themselves in an odd moment of agreement, and both angels wanted to end that as soon as possible.

“Thank you for the information, feel free to look me up when you’re up North.”

With a flap of her wings, a flash of light, and a minute later she was back in Charlotte wondering just how to interdict something as potentially apocalyptic as an Infernal joint operation against the Divine.

<I need to get my assets in play.>

Like the Infernals, the Divine had their own methods of getting involved without directly getting their hands dirty.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 108

Benjamin Gold

Location: New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “Sir, I really think…”

“Lieutenant Commander.” Rear Admiral Hank Nelson held up his hand in a halting motion. The officer was sixty centimeters shorter than Ben, and not nearly as thick, but the smaller man had a gravitas that Ben couldn’t match. “Enough.”

The one word stopped Ben’s argument in its tracks. A door slid silently open revealing a conference room onboard the RADM’s flagship. All the smaller man had to do was point to a chair and Ben complied. The RADM took a seat at the head of the table and gave Ben a pointed stare.

“I have allowed you to continue in your duties assisting with my diplomatic team for long enough, Lieutenant Commander Gold. Your insight has been valuable, and the comradery you have formed with Lord Captain Churchill has allowed us to advance our overall mission faster than we believed possible.”

Comradery wasn’t the best word to describe what Ben and the Duke of New Oxford had. It was a competition. Word eventually got back to the Lord Captain that Ben was a Gold. A Gold whose family had property rights to more planets than the entire Star Kingdom. To the Duke, Ben was a worthy adversary and they’d engaged in what amounted to high-level games of skill and wit ever since.

That was part of the reason Ben didn’t want to leave. The nobleman would see it as a victory, and it would hurt future diplomatic efforts on Ben’s part. Because, in the mind of the Duke, the aristocracy’s priorities outweighed simple military requirements. A simple thing like orders wouldn’t stand in the way of a Lord achieving their goal. Ben capitulating to the RADM was a sign of weakness in the Star Kingdom’s culture.

Admittedly, the Star Kingdom didn’t usually have this dilemma since the upper-crust of officers in the Royal Navy were all Lords, and trading favors could resolve any issues with a simple email. Ben didn’t have that luxury or leverage. He had to do what the RADM told him.

Ben had told the RADM all of this but it didn’t matter. That was why this counseling session was happening in the first place.

“You forget, Mr. Gold, that you are a warship captain first and foremost. Your responsibility is to your ship and your crew.”

“Yes, Sir.” Ben knew there was no sense in arguing. The RADM had made up his mind and that was that.

“I’m glad we have an understanding because that makes my next question that much easier.” The smaller man leaned forward, bringing his full half-century of experience to bear. “How the hell did you get this assignment?

<Oh no.> Ben didn’t like where this was going.

“Sir?” He feigned surprise and ignorance, but wasn’t sure it worked.

“I reviewed your record before you arrived. You have solid performance reviews, a doctorate in your chosen field, and what I’ve seen over the last few weeks shows that those achievements seemed to be merit based.”

<That went well enough.>

“But,” the RADM’s eyes narrowed, “there is nothing in your record that stands out as truly exemplary. Why have been promoted ahead of your peers to lieutenant commander? Why were you given command of a gunboat that someone needs top secret clearance to read the schematics?”

“Sir…”

“Don’t give me any bullshit, Gold. I can smell the patronage and cronyism a thousand kilometers away.” A vein was bulging in the RADM’s head. He pulled out his PAD and pulled something up with a few clicks. Then unexpectedly laughed. “It figures that the newly appointed Admiral Helms would have been the one to sign off on your promotion orders. He even wrote me a letter about you with ‘suggestions’ about deployments.”

Ben didn’t know about any letter, so this time the confusion was genuine.

“If I had my way I’d have you as an assistant engineering officer spending twelve hour shifts running diagnostics on this carrier’s thruster systems. But,” he let out a long breath, “I can’t relieve you of command without cause, or override a full admiral’s orders; even if Helms was just an ambitious little prick Captain underneath me at one point.”

Ben thought it wise to keep his mouth shut.

“So, with all of this out in the open, I’ve got your new orders.”

There was a chime and Ben pulled out his PAD. He read the detailed email while the RADM activated a holo with a star map of the space surrounding New Lancashire.

“Lieutenant Commander Gold, you will take CWS Argo on a routine patrol and port of call in System 1776.”

The map zoomed in again to show a star system eighteen light years from the sector capitol.

“System 1776 has a small mining operation around the asteroid belt between the sixth and seventh planets.” The holo turned into a split screen and showed the single system beside the greater sector as a whole. “The small station is owned by the Cobalt Mining Corporation, a subsidy of Gold Technologies.”

Ben could hear the RADM’s voice dripping with irony, and he couldn’t blame the man.

“We have a contractual obligation to check on the station once a month, but because of the recent incident we’re a couple of days late.”

The remains of the task force that had successfully defended System 1552 against the Blockies had limped back to New Lancashire after being relieved by a fresh pair of battleships. It would have left New Lancashire itself dangerously understrength without the Star Kingdom’s dreadnaught in-system, but Ben could tell the RADM wasn’t happy having the only other non-damaged heavy-hitting warship in the system come from an only recently declared ally.

“Your mission is to conduct the scheduled port call with the station, do a standard inventory and contraband sweep, and place an early warning drone at the edge of the system.”

The split screen vanished and lines of various brightness appeared between the systems denoting the warp valleys that expedited Alcubierre travel. System 1776 had one of the duller shaded lines going to and from it, but lessons with Sarah told him what they meant.

People too often thought of space as two dimensional and linear, when it was three dimensional and confusing as hell. In the two-dimensional star maps shown back in elementary school they painted a nice orderly network of travel through Commonwealth controlled space, with major junctions for ships to make their transfers into new warp valleys. The reality was that there was more than one way to make it from point A to point B, and that was where three-dimensional space came into play.

New Lancashire was at the end of an explored valley, and the easiest way to get to it was by passing through two separate junctions. System 1552 was one of them. The other was System 1773, which had a fledgling colony and only a destroyer in orbit for defense.

The Blockies had two movement options. They could either roll right through the system and use the junction, or go around it on a slight detour. That’s where things got interesting.

Systems 1772 through 1776 all occupied the same rough area in space. They were all stacked on top of each other, but still light years apart. System 1773 was on the same valley line as New Lancashire, but system hopping from 1771 to 1772, 1774, 1775, or 1776 and then back into that warp valley that ran from 1773 would circumvent the early warning the Commonwealth-held system provided.  The result was an enemy fleet in New Lancashire with no advanced warning. The detour would take longer and cost more resources but it would give the enemy the element of surprise. That was something the RADM could not afford to give them.

“All of your gunboats are going out.” Ben pointed at the other highlighted detour system.

“Yes,” the RADM was staring at the star map pensively. “We’ve already got a network established around 1552 because of the raid, and we need to cover our other avenue of approach.” The RADM shook his head, breaking out of whatever tactical trance he’d been in. “Do you understand your orders, Lieutenant Commander?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Then you will depart no later than 0800 hours.”

“Yes, Sir.” Ben knew when a conversation was over and he was being dismissed, so he got to his feet and left.

He immediately headed down to the hangar bay where Argo was docked because they had a lot to do and only a few hours to do it in.

<And I do not need to give the rear admiral another reason to distrust me.> Ben wasn’t even a month into his six month cruise, and despite his good work he was already on the boss’ bad side.

Noah Grisham

Location: CMS New Day, System 1773, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

The Dawn looked like a proper mining ship again. All the extra paneling and sensor-spoofing material from the Arachna job was gone. On top of all that, her emissions pattern and registration were all bran spankin’ new and legit. Any Collie vessel that ran a scan on him would see the Commonwealth Merchant Ship New Day out of New Lancashire that was contracted with Cobalt Mining Corporation to mine ore at any of their installations in the sector.

As far as cover identities went, it was the best one he’d ever seen. Whoever was paying him eight figures to grab this Gold guy had serious connections in this sector.

<I’ll have to ask about repeat business. A man can get used to this.> New Day was coasting into orbit around the inhabited moon of a gas giant in system 1773.

New Day this is System Control. Continue course and speed. You cleared for orbit in slot 448.”

“Roger that, Control. Holding course and speed for slot 448.” Able was at the controls and piloting the ship into its parking spot.

Noah was behind him in what was traditionally the navigator’s seat. He was going over all of the information available on their operations, including the contact they were meeting on the ground. They were using old-school tradecraft for this op. There were no electronics involved. Everything was hardcopy or face-to-face.

New Day, this is Full Moon.”

Able looked over his shoulder at Noah when the crackly voice came over the ship-to-ship comms.

Full Moon was the second ship Noah had hired for the job. Truthfully, he would have preferred to do it alone, but going up against a military gunboat required more than one ship. They needed to set a trap and spring it expertly if they wanted to survive. Luckily, there were still people crazy enough in the galaxy to go up against the Collie navy; especially when cold hard cash was involved.

Full Moon was an older class of transport ship that had been retrofitted over the decades by its various illegally-minded crews. It looked a little bit like a human ribcage. The main section of the ship ran about seventy-five meters long and had thick duro-steel arms, six on each side, extending out into space. Those arms were designed to grab and secure modular cargo containers for transport. Each container could hold thousands of tons of cargo, and Full Moon could hold six of them. As an independent shipping vessel it could make a solid living, and it did, as long as no one looked too closely at what it was hauling. That, and the armaments that had been camouflaged into the design.

“Boss?” Able asked.

Able and the captain of Full Moon didn’t get along. They were both hammers who looked at a world full of nails. Their mindset was: if you hit things enough you made it work for you. That was the reason Noah was the brains behind the operation. Sometimes subtlety was the best course of action.

“Let him through,” the pirate captain sighed.

“Go ahead, Full Moon.” Able replied curtly.

“I’d like to send a man down with you on the milk run, New Day. Need to make sure we get all supplies that we need.”

The only supplies the two ships were getting were a quick refuel of exotic matter to make the jump to their final destination, and the intel telling them where that destination would be.

“Negative, Full Moon,” Able replied when Noah shook his head. “We’re only going to be planetside for an hour tops, we need you to supervise the refueling.”

There was some grumbling on the other end, but eventually the other captain agreed. There was no reason to start shit when he could stab them in the back after they grabbed Gold. Noah put that likelihood at sixty percent, and it jumped to one hundred if the other captain learned just how much Able and Noah were getting paid compared to him.

“Button everything up while we’re gone, Able. I don’t want Full Moon getting any ideas while we’re away.” Noah would be able to monitor the ship’s feeds from the surface, but having all the doors locked had a way of putting his mind at ease.

New Day pulled into orbit in its assigned spot, cut the engines, and its two crew members geared up. Able had an armory of weapons stowed away in the smuggler’s hold that contained his entire wartime kit from when he fought for the Maccabee Alliance. It was all fifty years out of date, but he expertly maintained it, and he would be a threat to anything less than a modern armored infantry soldier. His dedication to his gear was one of the things that made him a top-tier mercenary.

Noah had his own stash of weapons, but they were subtler. He had a standard license PDW which he could openly carry on his hip. That would ward off any amateur criminals. The blaster Able lent him would deal with the more cunning criminals, and that was discretely hidden in the folds of his coat. System 1773 was in the middle of their planetary winter, and it was hovering a little below freezing at the moment. The rest of his weapons compliment was a variety of stabbing instruments, all sheathed, and all coated in some exotic toxin. Some were manmade, and some came from far off worlds that Rim settlers wouldn’t have a vaccine for until it was too late.

“Let’s do this.”

Their contact was meeting them in a cantina down in the center of the planet’s single city. Calling it a city was a stretch. There weren’t even ten thousand people on this rock trying to scratch out a living, and he meant “scratching out” literally. This was a dense, ore-filled world where the one and only industry was mining. Cobalt had received a loan and equipment from the Commonwealth to terraform it and paid them extra for that destroyer in orbit.

All of that ran through Noah’s mind as they hustled through the ship’s corridors to the waiting shuttle. An old plasma repeater was tucked into a hidden wall compartment, but other than that it was just a regular two-person puddle jumper. Noah took the driver’s seat on this one and initiated the drop sequence to pop out of the bottom of New Day and hit the atmosphere for their rendezvous.

They’d be on the ground, depending on traffic in fifteen minutes.

The cantina was half a kilometer from the spaceport, and even in the late morning it was packed with people. The planet attracted a rough crowd, and Noah had seen more than one person eyeing the foreigners. Able warned them off with his cold eyes and scarred face while Noah looked for the contact.

He spotted the man immediately. He was one of the best dressed people in the joint, and was wearing all of the color coordinated clothing it said he would be in. He spotted the two pirates too, and immediately got to his feet.

“Grab a chair. I’m going to hit the head.” Noah headed toward the rear of the establishment, past where the contact had been sitting.

He rounded a corner and saw the man go into the rest room. He pretended to check his PAD for thirty seconds and then headed in after him. The place was empty, but Noah spotted the small envelope balanced on the sink. He picked it up, stuffed it in his coat, and took a piss for the sake of covertness.

When he got back, Able had a couple of whores sniffing around, and the big man was enjoying the attention.

“Let’s go.” They didn’t have time for an afternoon quickie.

They backtracked to the spaceport and hit orbit fifteen minutes later. They were back on New Day within the hour, and after only one sweep of the ship for bugs he opened the package.

“Set course for Cobalt Station in System 1776.” He broadcasted to Full Moon. We’ve got twenty-four hours until the package arrives.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 107

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: JB Armstrong/Tranquility, Luna, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 A promise was a promise, and a promise before combat was one Coop wasn’t willing to break. After their quick, barebones graduation, he and Mike hopped the next shuttle to Luna. The normally stoic Mike, always a man of few words, was practically giddy at the prospect of seeing Harper again. The two Basic fuckbuddies had been trying a long distance relationship since Basic graduation, and so far things seemed to be working.

If Coop was being honest with himself he was a little jealous they were making it work. He hadn’t received anything from Eve since they said goodbye.  But that was old Coop’s insecurities. New Coop was excited to see a new city and to sample its local delicacies.

Tranquility and the adjacent Joint Base Armstrong were anything but new. JB Armstrong was built on the foundation of the initial lunar landing site at Mare Tranquilitatis – The Sea of Tranquility – and had been built up and militarized since the 2030s. The resulting base was a hodgepodge of buildings on the edge of the city with no thought being spared to urban planning. But that was understandable. At first the architects were only worried about staying alive.

Tranquility started as an accompanying research station a few decades later, and both had grown by leaps and bounds over the last several centuries. Now, about ten million people called Tranquility home, and a brigade kept a close watch over this portion of Commonwealth territory. Luna had ten major cities spread across the surface, each guarded by a Brigade, with a division-level command being in charge of the entire planetary defense. But that was just the army units on the surface. The orbitals were a whole difference story.

“Now that’s something you don’t see every day.” Coop had whistled when their shuttle crossed the defensive rings that encircled Earth’s only moon.

Luna was a centuries-old Commonwealth territory and one of the first investments of the new starfaring nation after its creation. It fought a war to win it, and it was going to keep it. The two rings covered in railguns, point defense lasers, energy cannons, and missiles tubes were capable of holding off a sizable enemy fleet, which made it a military stronghold in the system. It was also a great training site for military personnel. The unique environment allowed all different sorts of specialty schools to be located there.

Originally, the idea of terraforming Luna had been passed around, but a quick cost-benefit analysis showed it wasn’t viable. Terraforming a planet that already had a workable atmosphere was doable, but Luna wasn’t more than a big rock in space; so they did the next best thing. Giant generators were buried into the ground to project shields around the habitable zones, and all the cities were placed in the lower altitude “seas” across the moon’s surface. Walls were built up on natural or man-made ridges so the shields didn’t interfere with the faultlines of the moon, and thus modern life on Luna was born.

As a result, the military had enclosed, environmentally stable inhabited zones where normal schools, like Harper’s Nursing School could be located. But it also gave them the barren Zero-G wastelands where infantry specialty schools could conduct their training. Coop knew he might find himself back on Luna at some point for additional training, so he was determined to map out the local scene while there.

<Weird.> He remembered thinking when the shuttle descended and had to pass through the Tranquility’s shield.

It went from barren gray nothingness to a temperate paradise once you passed over the tall, thick wall around the perimeter and through the double-layer of shielding. He saw squads of infantry doing maneuvers in full armor on one side, and literally a hundred feet away a pickup game of basketball was going on with guys in t-shirts and shorts. For someone who’d grown up on Earth and been a part-time visitor on Mars, seeing that was a little nerve-racking. So when Mike went off to suck face – and do other things – with Harper, Coop went to the enlisted soldier’s gym in the protective comfort of a building.

Nobody higher than a corporal was there, so as an HI PFC he basically had the run of the place. There were no other heavies present, and a few people congregated around him as he did his workout; sometimes putting up multiple tons on the magnetic resistance. Thankfully, a few of his admirers were of the female persuasion.

“You’re a big one aren’t ya?” A voice asked from behind him as he racked the weights.

“That’s what I’ve been told…oh!” He visibly recoiled as he got a look at the person talking to him.

Unlike the attractive brunette that had been discretely watching him out of the corner of her eye, and who he thought looked ready to come over and talk to him, Coop found himself facing somebody who looked like their face had gotten into a fight with some nanites and lost horribly.

She, at least he thought she was a she, had a crooked nose from one too many bar fights. Her eyes were spaced a little bit close together, and one side of her face looked like it had been hit by a stun baton; that, or she’d recently had a stroke. Either way, it gave her a lopsided expression where only half her mouth worked, which made understanding her already thick accent that much more difficult.

Her PT uniform showed she was a corporal, so Coop tried to recover. “What can I do for you, Corporal?”

“Nothing, Cooper. I just wanted to see if you wanted to make a little extra cash?”

Her knowing his name wasn’t a surprise since it was on his shoulder right below his single chevron and rocker.

“Depends?” He answered noncommittally.

“A few of my contacts back at Mattis told me you like to make a quick buck and have certain tastes.” She smiled, which creeped Coop out more than anything.

But what she said put him off. “Look, I’m flattered…but…I’m not a gigolo…” He started, only to get a hearty laugh from the CPL.

“Boy, you couldn’t handle me.” She wiped a tear from her good eye. “But thanks, I needed a good laugh.”

Now Coop was really confused. He had a taste for women and fine booze, but that was about it.

“I’m talking about your tendency to talk with your fists, Cooper.”

<Ohhh. Wait…How…?>

She saw the question in his eyes and smiled that lopsided smile again.

“I looked you up, Cooper. You’ve got an official reprimand for excessive use of force against a civilian. My little birdie also told me that you instigated a fight and took down a good chunk of a company of grunts over spilled beer and a mouthy LT. So, am I talking to that Mark Cooper or are you some little bitch and I’ve got the wrong person?”

Coop glared at her and got to his feet. He was a solid half a meter taller than her, could probably break her over his knee with little effort, and it didn’t matter that she had two more rough-looking guys behind her.

“Looks like I got the right guy.” She nodded.

Coop didn’t even realize his fists were balled up and shaking.

“Meet me at this address at 20:00. If you come I’ll cut you in for thirty percent. If you don’t, then it’s your loss.” She got up and left.

Just like that Coop wasn’t interesting in working out anymore. He was interested in what the butt-ugly corporal was talking about, what the total would be that his thirty percent would be coming off of, and what he had to do to get it.

<Fortune favors the bold even if curiosity killed the cat.> He made up his mind before he left the gym.

At 20:00 he arrived at a storage warehouse at the ass end of the joint base. He knocked twice on the old-fashioned steel door and a second later it rolled up. CPL Ugly was there waiting for him with the creepy lopsided smile.

“Glad you could join us, Cooper.” She turned to the rest of her small group. “The muscle is here.”

The two other guys, the same ones from the gym, didn’t look happy to see him, but they didn’t argue with the boss. Coop walked into the small space, angling himself to keep everyone in his line of sight as the door fell back down into place.

“What are we doing?” Coop’s gut was telling him to be cautious, and he always trusted his gut in situations like this.

“The job is simple.” The CPL got right down to it. “We’re in the repo business, and there’s a local tough guy who’s delinquent on his payments.”

<That’s pretty vague.> Coop wondered if they were legit, or if they were hired muscle for some local loan shark. After a moment of thought, he concluded it was the latter.

“What do I have to do?” Coop hadn’t heard anything too incriminating. He could still walk if he didn’t like what they were selling. Or, he could fight his way out. But judging by the CPL he was sure he’d take some hits in the process.

“All you have to do is stand there and look big.” The CPL smiled at him. “I’ll do all the talking. Just follow my lead.”

<And be prepared to break skulls if it comes to that.> Coop knew how this all worked. He’d been on the giving and receiving end of these types of visits back in the PHA. They rarely ever ended with kind words.

“How much does it pay?” That was the ultimate deciding factor.

“The target owes twenty-K. We charge our employer ten percent, and you get thirty percent of the profits.”

<Six hundred.> Coop did the mental math.

“Ok, I’m in. Now where’s my gun?”

“Gun?” The CPL feigned shock, but he saw right through it.

“Yeah, gun. Only an idiot would go into this without some firepower.”

The CPL saw she wasn’t going to pull one over on him and pulled a PDW from behind her back.

The personal defense weapon was the weapon authorized for civilian ownership and use. They weren’t supposed to be lethal, but they’d put a person down until the cops arrived; which meant the rounds had a low velocity, and were made of polyplast instead of metal.

<They still hurt like a bitch.> Coop had been hit by one before and didn’t want to think about it. <But that was before I was HI.> As long as the target didn’t have anything more lethal he’d be fine.

“We copacetic?” The CPL raised the eyebrow on the normal side of her face.

“We’re good. Let’s get this done.” He accepted the PDW. If this little side business had a contract, handing over the firearm was the equivalent of signing on the dotted line. They were in it together now.

<Six hundred bucks and I’ll be out of here before the cops or MPs start looking into it closely.>

No one was going to give two shits about a local thug getting smacked around, and that was presuming the guy went to the cops to begin with. Even if the authorities got involved it would take them time to refine their list of suspects. Even if they did suspect Coop, he’d be halfway across the known galaxy before they linked him to anything, and he didn’t intend to get wrapped up in an investigation in the first place. He was smarter than that.

All of that ran through his head as he pulled on a pair of glove and did a quick inspection of the PDW. He ejected the magazine, pulled the bolt back a few times to see if it was well maintained. It was, so he slid the magazine back in, chambered a round, but made sure it was still on safe before sticking it into the pocket of his coat.

An old-fashioned ground car took the four of them from the warehouse to an older, more decrepit section of Tranquility. Scantily clad woman walked the street, rundown businesses lined the main drag, and people who didn’t belong rolled through quickly with their doors locked and their windows up.

It felt like home to Coop.

They parked the car in an alley connected to one of the less decrepit businesses and entered through an open side door. There was a short hallway packed with what looked like costumes before they walked out of an employees only door and into the main section. It was a titty bar in the middle of mudwrestling night.

<The classics never die.> Coop stutter-stepped as he watched two topless women exchange punches in the filthy pit.

Guys with handfuls of money were yelling and betting with their PADs while a giant holo-board kept track of the odds second by second.

“Let’s go.” One of the CPL’s other goons elbowed Coop.

They shouldered aside the patrons and headed straight for another door. Two big guys, but not as big as Coop, blocked the way. Coop didn’t see what happened, but it happened quickly. By the time he caught back up to the CPL both guards were out cold and seated in chairs next to the door. A cursory glance and someone would conclude they were just sleeping on the job.

The CPL didn’t stop, she threw open the door and walked in like she owned the place.

“For fuck’s sake!” The sleezeball behind a desk piled high with cash grabbed for something out of sight.

“Tisk Tisk, Marco.” The CPL had her PDW out and pointed at the man’s head. “Raise your hands slowly or I’ll put one in your eye. Regrowing an eye costs at least twenty grand without coverage. Do you want to lose double tonight?”

“Bitch,” Marco spat back, but raised his hands slowly.

Whatever the case the CPL had a reputation.

“You borrowed ten grand from Gus. That, plus the vig and delinquent payments equals twenty.  We’re here to collect.” The statement was superfluous. Her two goons were already at Marco’s table counting out the money.

The titty bar owner made it easy on them. Everything had already been neatly divided into thousand dollar stacks. They were halfway through throwing the cash into a bag when the door opened and the two guards rushed in.

Whatever the CPL used to take them down they didn’t stay down.

Whoever they were, they knew what they were doing. They flowed through to door and split to either side. Each had their own sector to deal with and their PDWs were held with confidence. They might even be off duty cops or soldiers.

But even with all that they weren’t ready for Coop. He was standing to the right of the doorway. He turned when he heard the door crash open, pivoted, and lashed out with a front kick. The guy moving in Coop’s direction took the kick in the side. There was a momentary look of surprise, replaced by a grimace of pain, as the kick lifted him off the ground and threw him into his partner who was moving in the opposite direction.

The second guy’s PDW went off with a suppressed pop when his partner bowled over him and they both went crashing to the floor. The round missed the owner by about a meter, but you would have thought a bomb went off by the way the man dove away.

<Definitely somebody off duty.> Coop concluded after noticing the updated PDW. They weren’t usually suppressed like that.

He kept up the pressure and rushed the guys as they were still trying to untangle from each other. He was on top of them raining down controlled blows before they could point their PDWs at the new danger.

It took a couple punches, but he knocked both of the guards out cold. Meantime, the CPL hadn’t even moved. “Let’s go, Marco. I don’t have all day.”

The guy got to his feet with a glare. He had looked smug when his guys came rushing to the rescue, but that look had quickly soured.

The CPL’s guys finished gathering up the cash and headed back out the door. The CPL started to back out too, but Coop walked right up to Marco’s desk. He looked at the titty bar owner and then at the still-large pile of cash. He grabbed a fifty off the top of one stack.

“For my inconvenience.” He smiled sweetly before following the CPL out of the room, through the bar area, and back out the side door into the car.

The guy behind the wheel peeled out of the alley. All the evidence remaining of the collection activities was the smell of burnt rubber. Coop’s only regret about it all was that he might have liked to return to the establishment at some point. That was a no go now.

“Here.” The CPL pulled in front of the shitty motel that Coop and Mike were renting a room at.

She handed him six hundred, which he confirmed with a quick count. In exchange he handed back the PDW which he didn’t need after all. He dropped the magazine out the bottom and ejected the round from the chamber before giving it to her. Giving someone you’d just met, who you didn’t totally trust, a loaded weapon was just bad business.

“Don’t spend it all in one place, and don’t deposit it all at once. The bank on post will take any deposit amount, but anything over five hundred triggers an automatic subroutine. Don’t be a smart ass and do four-ninety-nine either. They’ll flag that too. If you’re going to save it, do four-fifty today and the rest tomorrow. That shouldn’t raise MWFAS’ eyebrows.”

“Thanks for the heads up.” Coop didn’t know any of that.

“Thanks for having our backs.” The CPL gestured toward the door. “If you’re ever back in town and want some more entrepreneurial opportunities look me up.” She sent him an encrypted e-mail with her contact information.

“Will do, Corporal.” He closed the door and she left.

He walked back to his room where the “Do Not Disturb” sign was on the door and he heard the distinct sounds of Mike and Harper fucking. That sent him to the hotel bar where he quickly blew a quarter of his cash on getting shit faced.

At some point during his seventh beer his PAD pinged with his orders. He was to report to Bravo Company 2222nd Infantry Battalion stationed in New Lancashire.

Coop was heading to the Quad-Deuce and the Rim.

Previous                                                       Next

A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 8

Sleep didn’t come easily that night, and that was probably the point. The instructors left the sophomore HCP class with two homework assignments. Have their lists of classes ready to go tomorrow, and start to consider teams.

It wasn’t a huge surprise that sophomore year was team year. They’d heard snippets from the former sophomores and Kyoshi’s dad had based the summer training around that. Still, it was hard to pick and choose your dream team when you didn’t know how teams would even be selected.

“They’re screwing with us.” Angela sat with her feet pulled up under her. “They want us to overthink the situation. We need to get into a flexible mindset about these types of things. We need to take what’s coming and roll with the punches.” The angelic shifter was scribbling on a sheet of paper.

“You’re definitely going to be one of the team captains. You’re the top of the class. They have to pick you.” Becca was looking at her own sheet as she laid back so her head rested in Anika’s lap. “Ani would make a great captain too.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, but I lost to Mason in a two-on-one. I don’t think they’ll be picking me anytime soon.” She glanced over her shoulder. “No hard feelings.”

“We’re good.”

Mason and Kyoshi sat at the kitchen table reviewing their own sheets of paper. Everyone around the room was concentrating on that while making mild chitchat. The papers themselves were plain unordinary things that you could find in any day planner. It was what they represented that had everyone so focused.

They represented the future. These were their schedules for the year, and it would determine their Hero careers moving forward.

Of everyone in the room Angela’s looked the cleanest. She was booked Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from eight to noon with regular classes. It was the opposite method from a normal college student. Normal students avoided early classes like the plague. They needed enough time to recover from a ride on the booze train or a trip to pound town. The normal college student loaded classes up in the afternoon. But not Angela. She was determined to get her morning classes out of the way so she could spend her afternoons focused on what really mattered.

They didn’t have an ethics class this year, much to their relief. They all understood the necessity of being ethical, responsible Heroes but the class could be incredibly boring at times, and people spent a lot of that time worrying about what fresh torture awaited them in physical training.

The first real surprise of the year was the cutback on physical training. The class, which used to take up most of their afternoons, was now only an hour and a half from noon to one-thirty. Kyoshi, Mason, and anyone who wasn’t a speedster secretly hoped that it meant they wouldn’t be running five miles at the beginning of each session anymore, but no one was willing to get their hopes up.

It was what happened after that training that they were all trying to figure out. Whatever their decisions, none of them thought they were going to get off light in the working out department.

“I’m finished.” Angela announced first. Making some final notations and giving the sheet of paper a small nod. “What have you all decided?”

“You show us yours we’ll show you ours.” Anika replied without looking up.

“Close Combat, Weapons, and Focus.” Angela announced.

“Really?” Kyoshi head popped up. “I would have sworn you were going to choose Ranged Combat.”

“Why, because it’s one of my weak points?” Angela replied a little harshly and Kyoshi blushed. “No. It is a valid question.” Angela realized her social faux pas and tried to put the advanced mind at ease. “While Ranged Combat would possibly be beneficial, I simply lack the power set to be truly successful in it. I’ve got counters to deal with ranged combatants, but I ultimately think Focus will be better for me in the long run. With how my ability works, Focus will teach me more skills to deal with ranged combatants than Ranged Combat.  Close Combat and Weapons speak for themselves. How about you Kyoshi?”

“I’m still deciding, but Focus is for sure.”

Everyone around the room nodded. An advanced mind not take Focus was like a fish not swimming.

“I’m thinking I’ll stick with Close Combat as well and maybe taking the healing class.”

“Really?” This time it was Mason who was surprised.

“Yeah,” Kyoshi only sounded more confident after Mason’s confusion. “I’ve got skills but I’m not a front-line combatant. In the event of an emergency I think me being able to step in and provide first aid will be just as valuable as the punches I can throw. My mind is my weapon, not my fists.”

The two smiled at each other.

“Well my fists are my weapons.” Mason countered. “So Close Combat it is for me. It’ll try out Weapons to see if I can leverage anything to be useful, but I’m a strongman and strongmen tend to be Close Combat specialists. Lastly, I was thinking about trying Subtlety.”

“You…Subtlety?” It was Kyoshi’s turn to be surprised.

“Like you were implying. Sometimes a mind can be a powerful weapon. Subtlety might shake loose some new ideas with my ability. Fight smarter not harder ya know.”

“That’s wise.” Angela chimed in as she studied Mason a little too much like an opponent for Kyoshi’s liking. “Becca, Anika?”

“Close Combat, Focus, and Subtlety.” Becca replied with a satisfied head bob. “I think I could learn a thing or two just like Mason.

“I’m leaning towards Close Combat, Ranged Combat, and Focus.” Anika was still frowning at her paper.

“Ranged Combat?” Everyone chimed in.

“Yeah.” There was a slight blush under her olive skin. “A lot of people in our class have ranged powers. If I’m spending three more years with them I’m bound to pick up something. I’m already feeling an…I don’t know how to describe it…an itch?”

“I hear you can buy a cream for that.” A voice said from the front door.

Everyone but Anika and Kyoshi jumped a little as Seth made his presence known.

“Can I come in, or is this a special invite only study session?” His S’s slurred considerably as he pulled open the patio door and stumbled inside.

“We’re just looking over schedules for the semester.” Angela answered, her tone neutral and her face watching him closely. “You are welcome to join us.”

“Don’t mind if I do.” He plopped on the couch next to Anika and Becca and pulled out a bottle of amber liquid. “So, what’s everyone taking this year?”

“A little bit of everything.” Becca tried to bring a little cheer back into the room. “What are you thinking of, Seth?”

“Ehhh.” Seth waved his hand dismissively which sloshed a little of the pungent liquid onto the couch. “I guess I’ll do Close and Ranged Combat, but I don’t know about the third one. What do you think?”

“I think a little Subtlety would be wise.” Anika barely stopped from glaring at Seth.

“Whoa. Ok. No need for the stink eye.” Seth caught her intent anyway. “But no Subtlety for me. I’m tired of people lying and sneaking around. If you’re going to do something, get up and say it to my face. That’s my motto now.”

“Ok.” Angela got to her feet. “Seth, you’re drunk and making everyone uncomfortable. Please come with me. I’ll get you some water and find you a place to sleep it off.”

“Really…REALLY?!” Seth got irrationally loud. “I’m making your uncomfortable?” He was on his feet now with the bottle’s contents doing even more damage to the upholstery. “I come over here to see everyone together having a grand old time, and I didn’t even get a text. Some friends you are.”

“Hey, buddy.” Mason stepped up and put a comforting hand on the shorter man’ shoulder. “How about we head up to my room?”

“It ain’t your room, Mason.” Seth shrugged off the hand, spun, and the bottle clipped the strongman tricep. It shattered and spilled the whiskey everywhere.”

“Jesus, Seth.” Becca blurred into the kitchen to grab some towels, but Seth wasn’t paying attention to her.

“It ain’t your room.” Seth continued without missing a beat. “It’s your room.” Seth pointed to Kyoshi. “She got you whipped man. You couldn’t come out and have a drink with me even if you wanted to. Forget about playing video games or just hanging out.”

Mason bristled at Seth’s words toward his girlfriend.

<He’s drunk, hurting, and doesn’t mean it. Don’t take any offense.> Kyoshi’s comforting words in Mason’s head helped him relax.

“See!” Seth practically exploded. “There she goes again, man. She’s getting her little tentacles in your mind. Taking you over bit by bit. Soon you won’t even remember what you liked to do by yourself. It’s all about what you do together. Soon you aren’t even going to remember what it’s like to hang out by yourself. Then what? Huh? Then you’re hooked…you’re addicted to her.”

Everyone could tell the conversation had veered away from Mason and Kyoshi and toward a third party not currently present.

“Seth.”

“Don’t even start with me!” Seth pointed the broken bottle threateningly at Kyoshi. “It’s you that did this to me…him.” Seth didn’t seem to notice the slip, but everyone else did.

“Buddy.”

“Fuck you guys. I’m outta here.” He stumbled toward the door, dropping the bottle to complete its destruction, and threw open the door before vanishing into the humid night.

Everyone else just stood there for a moment not really knowing what to do.

“Do we go after him?” Becca had reappeared and was trying to soak up the whiskey that was everywhere. The whole common area smelled like someone had thrown a kegger.

“I’ll keep an eye on him.” Kyoshi concentrated and found Seth’s mind.

It was a whirlwind of emotions within a glass case of despair.

“Maybe we should follow him, but stay back until he needs us.” Mason suggested.

“Maybe.” Kyoshi frowned as she heard a car door open and close and the rumble of an engine. “No, definitely.”

 

***

 

“Stupid fucking assholes.” Seth spat as he hit the button to start his sporty coupe. It roared to life, he threw it in gear, and peeled out. “Clean that up off your street cocksuckers!” The car went from zero to sixty in under four seconds and he put that to the test as he screamed past the line of apartments opposite the student center.

“Call Butch.” He told his car, and the car did as instructed.

The car was good like that: loyal, obedient, and simple. He didn’t have to worry about the car stabbing him in the back.

“Was up?” A voice was barely audible when it answered. There were a lot of voices and music in the background.

“Yo, Butch, it’s Seth.”

“Seth…S-Man. Holy shit, bro. I haven’t heard from you in months.”

“Just busy man. What you up to?”

“Party at my new digs. Checking out the new talent. You want in?” The big lacrosse jock was nothing if not reliable.

“Text me the address. I’ll be over soon.”

“Sure thing, bro, but what about your old lady. She was a ten, bro. Don’t throw an ass like that away.”

Seth stomped on the brakes as a light turned red. Smoke and the smell of burned rubber filled the air. It was the perfect metaphor for his mood.

“I’m through with her. See you soon.” He hung up and a second later an address came through.

He punched it into the GPS just as another car started honking. The light had changed when he was entering the information. The car honked again. Seth stuck his middle finger out the door and stayed still.

“Hey, asshole. Move!”

Seth heard the guy slam his door as he walked up toward Seth’s car. Seth opened the window.

“Hey are you…” The guy leaned over to look into Seth’s car but never got to finish.

Seth grabbed the guy by the scruff of the shirt and pulled. The guy’s head rebounded off the top of the door. Seth felt the satisfying crunch of nose cartilage crumbling just before he fell to the ground crying.

“Nobody fucking tells me what to do.” Seth opened his door but didn’t get out. He put a foot on the ground and felt the earth around him rumble with his power.

He flexed his ability. He remembered it being easier, but he didn’t relent. He pushed until he got what he wanted. There was a slight crack and the sound of leaves rushing through the air before a final CRUNCH. The cherry on top was the wailing of a car alarm as one of the palm trees that lined the road fell and crushed the front half of the other guy’s car.

“Well will you look at that.” Seth felt a burst of relief rush through him. “I’ll let you take care of that.” He shut his door and hit the gas.

The light was red now but he didn’t care. He peeled out again leaving the injured man in a cloud of smoke. Five minutes later he was pulling behind Butch’s new place. It was a large frat house with Greek symbols prominently placed on the front. It was surrounded by other frat and sorority houses on Greek Row.

His sports car got a few appreciative glances from some ladies on the porch, and their expressions brightened when they saw who was driving it.

Seth walked into the house like he owned the place. Judging by the way female heads turned when he entered, he’d have no trouble forgetting a certain someone tonight.

 

***

 

<So this is a frat party?> Izzy stood in the middle of the action.

She’d seen the raunchy comedies from the 90s and early 2000s. She’d laughed along with the other moviegoers and imagined herself all grown up and attending one of those. Now that she was here, the contrast was stark.

First off, no girls were getting drunk and flashing all the guys. Secondly, there were no model/actors here. No one had professionally done makeup. These were real people. That meant the girls that were drinking kept a hand over there drink most of the time. Even the drunkest ones weren’t flashing the crowd. The most flirtatious might pull a guy upstairs for a little no-pants action but they were discrete about it.

The other difference that the movies never quite hit right was the smell. They were in Florida in late summer. It was hotter than hell, which made the whole frat house smell like balls. Cheap beer and BO reeked from everything. Every new entrant into the house got that momentary face pinch of the odor before they powered through it to the keg. Eventually, you got drunk enough not to realize it.

“Yo girl, you havin’fun?” A big hairy man walked up to Izzy and leaned casually against a wall.

She felt slightly trapped next to his considerable bulk, and none of it looked like fat. He was cute in the classic strong jawline way, but the scent of cheap booze and something a little more illegal coming off his breath was a total turnoff.

“My name is Isla.” She replied. She didn’t like being called “girl”.

Unfortunately, the guy took that as an invitation to move a little closer and smile a little wider.

<At least he’s got nice teeth.> She tried to look on the bright side.

“I’m Butch.”

Now was about the time she looked around for backup, but all of the other girls were nowhere to be seen. Izzy had only gone to the party because one of her roommates had grown up locally and her boyfriend was on the lacrosse team and going to pledge the fraternity. So he had to be there, and she wanted to be there to support him. Plus, it was kind of their last night being regular college students. Tomorrow they had their ranking fights and then it was off to be a Hero.

She couldn’t imagine what the next few months held. She was still sore from the short fight, running, and pullups.

“So where you from?” Butch had drawn closer while she was lost in her own thoughts.

“Here and there,” she replied noncommittally as she looked for an exit.

“Sounds hot.”

She stopped what she was doing and gave the large man-boy a level stare. <What?>

Even in his drunk state Butch was able to figure out he’d said the wrong thing, and his drunken thoughts allowed her to find an escape route.

She scanned the room and found a familiar face.

“Excuse me.” She lithely slipped through a small opening. “Seth!” She called out, remembering the sophomore’s name from earlier.

The sophomore was leaning up against a wall talking to another girl. She was blushing and giggling nervously as he whispered something into her ear. As Izzy approached she couldn’t tell if it was gratitude or annoyance that flashed across the other woman’s face. Seth was clearly putting the moves on her, and Izzy was totally cock-blocking him.

“Sorry, I gotta…” the other woman untangled herself from Seth and vanished back into the throng of people gyrating to music on the impromptu dancefloor. If clothes weren’t involved then in nine months there would probably be a few bundles of joy arriving into this crazy world.

“Fuuuuuuuck.” The word was drawn out as Seth slowly turned to regard her. “What?” He snapped.

Izzy took an involuntary step back, but then straightened her spine and stood her ground. “What? A girl can’t come up and talk to you?”

“There’s a difference between talking and twat-blocking.” Seth mumbled back as he lifted a red solo cup to his lips and drained the last of whatever was inside of it. When he finished he tossed it to the side and studied her. “I know you.” He cocked his head to the side in a classic thinking motion.

“Yeah, I’m Isla. But most people just call me Izzy.” She replied finally smelling the whiskey all over him. “And you’re drunk.”

“How observant of you.” He didn’t seem to care about her criticism.

<Why should he. He’s a sophomore. I’m a freshman. He’s already gone through what I’m about to go through. Why should he care about my judgment?>

“Sorry to break that up.” She motioned to the crowd behind her where the girl had gone. “Just needed an exit from an over enthusiastic frat boy.”

“Butch is actually a pretty good guy. Always there for a friend.” Seth countered, lifting his glass to the big man across the room.

She didn’t even see where he got a new one from.  “Well he kind of smelled like a urinal cake. Women don’t usually like that.”

“Then what do they like?” Seth crossed his arms and leaned back away from her against the wall. “Please enlighten me.”

Izzy frowned. “Judging by what I just saw you’ve got a pretty good idea.” She pointed a thumb at the crowd.

“You’d be surprised.”

His reply took her totally be surprise. His casual arrogance was gone. It was filled with pain and regret. Without even thinking she took a comforting step forward before stopping herself.

“Well,” she was nervous now. How does someone reply to that? “I’m not really one to talk. I’m not like most girls.” She didn’t mean for it to come off sounding superior or entitled, just different.

“Now you’ve got my attention.” The sadness was gone replaced by that cool confidence that was a little intoxicating. “What’s your story Izzy Perko?”

“Not really much to tell.” She shrugged. “Didn’t know my mom or dad. I got left on a church’s steps as a baby. I know it’s a little cliché but it still happens in some places. After that, I bounced around foster homes for eighteen years: five different elementary schools and three different high schools before getting accepted here. Some of the foster families were good. Some sucked balls, but I made it through. Now I’m here and going to make the most of my life.”

Somehow during her little biography Seth snagged a beer and handed one to her. “I’m sorry.” He lifted his glass to hers and took a sip. “That must have been tough.”

“Yeah,” she shrugged, sipping tentatively at her own drink. It tasted about as good as it smelled. “But the past is the past. I’m focused on the future.”

That made him smirk, which made her smile.

“Enough about my sob story. What about you?”

His smile vanished. “You’ll find out soon enough,” he replied with a sourness that made her beer look sweet. “I’m the spoiled rich asshole who’s made all the mistakes.” The ending was mumbled into the cup as he drained its contents again.

“I’m sure it’s not that bad.” She reassured him.

She hated seeing people in this much pain. That’s one of the reasons she wanted to be a Hero. She’d seen that look on orphans’ faces too many times. The look when a person thought they were a failure.

“Don’t…”

“There you are.”

Izzy got cut off by a woman with short blue hair suddenly appearing next to him.

Seth face went from sad to sad and pissed off. “What do you want, Becca?”

“We all want you to sleep it off.” Her tone was bubbly despite the seriousness of the subject.

“Can’t you see I’m having a conversation. Fuck off.” He spat back, which seemed to hurt the blue-haired girl a lot.

“No, you need to sleep it off.” Izzy’s voice was firm. “I’ll help get you home.”

The blue-haired girl, Becca, gave her a suspicious look.

“Don’t worry, I was there earlier today. Got my ass kicked and had to run five miles in thirty-five minutes.” Izzy tried to be vague, and Becca got the intended meaning immediately.

Becca’s face softened and she thanked Izzy for her help. “Come on, let’s get him out of here.”

Together they were able to guide Seth out the back door and into the back of a sporty car. Judging by Seth’s rich boy quip, it was his. They used the GPS to get him home, which was a swanky place not too far away. He was silent the whole way and didn’t bother to thank either of them when they hauled him up to his room. He just grumbled something unintelligible and slammed the door behind him.

That left her and Becca all alone in the hallway. Izzy didn’t know what to say and Becca just looked embarrassed.

“He’s not normally like this.” Becca replied after an awkward silence.

“It’s ok. I’ve seen worse.” More than one of her foster fathers had trouble with the bottle. Luckily, they never did anything.”

“Still. His behavior…” Becca trailed off. Her eyes darted back and forth like she was looking for something, and when she didn’t see it she leaned in close.

“Last year there was this girl,” she started in a conspiratorial whisper.

When she was done, Izzy knew the barebones of Liz and immediately understood were Seth was coming from.

It only made her want to help him more.

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I’m on TDY from Hell – The Resistance

“You’re what!?” Vicky shrieked that evening in the demesne.

Everyone was standing around the rich mahogany table and staring at the tactical layout of the city’s warring factions.

“I don’t think I stuttered.” Gerry looked at his other lieutenants. “Did I?”

“No, Dux.” Jezebel, the sex demon, answered in her default sultry but sweet tone.

“Find something big and black and shove it down your throat.” Vicky snapped back, her fangs fully extended.

“Ladies.” Gerry brought the fight to an end while raising a hand. “This isn’t up for discussion.”

“Sir.” Vicky’s voice went from heated to pleading. “You’re going to a meeting of people who are trying to kill my family. I think I have a right to be a little pissed off.”

Gerry rubbed his eyes in exasperation. “Vicky, I’m going for information gathering purposes. I’m not going to hunt down one of your coven and cut their head off.”

“If that was this group’s plan for the night would you?”

“Absolutely.” Gerry answered without hesitation. “If one of your people has to sacrifice themselves so we can gain the information needed to root out this resistance to us then it’s a risk worth taking.”

Veins started to bulge in Vicky’s neck as she struggled to contain herself.

“But I don’t think that’s going to happen.” He tried to put her at ease. “I don’t even think the Soulless are the main topic at tonight’s meeting. If anything, it seems to be a general assemble of the locals to go over routine matters, settle disputes, and generally interact with each other in a non-threatening environment.”

Gerry had gotten all that information from one of the elder Salvatore’s minions. After he’d left the tailor, he waited around for one of the trusted goons to leave. Then Gerry got him alone and extracted every drop of useful information. Channeling the æther to read the man’s mind, influence his emotions, and then erase the memory of the encounter was well worth the expenditure of power. He’d even imbedded a “last case scenario” code into the man’s brain to be used when Gerry saw fit.

If Gerry hadn’t known it before he knew it now. Being a Dux was awesome.

“So I am going to do this, and that’s final. What we need is a contingency plan if things go south.” Gerry pointed back to the three dimensional city rising out of the tabletop.

“I still feel it is unwise for you to put yourself in such a vulnerable position while you are still…acclimating to your territory.” Jeb had almost said “weak” but stopped himself.

“With risk comes reward.” Gerry swatted aside the argument while continuing to study the map. “The location of the meeting is here.” He pointed at one of the white spots on the map.

“In a sanctuary of the Divine, my Dux. That alone is enough reason to reconsider.” Jeb tried again to get Gerry to change his mind.

“All the more reason.” He felt a jolt of adrenaline.

It had been a long time since Gerry had truly tested himself. The battles on the boarders against Cain and Beelzebub’s legions had been challenging, but this was a whole new level. Going up against one of the Divine was next level.

<Easy, Gerry.> He took a deep breath and checked himself. Overconfidence was one of the quickest ways to lose your head.

Vicky shook her head, Jezebel’s face was a mask of barely contained sexual energy, and big Lono looked perpetually hungry. It was a motley group, but it would have to do.

“I want each of you to provide me with two of your best fighters.” The request got barely contained grumbles.

It was evident that the lieutenants didn’t like working together, sharing resources, or even being in the same room with each other. Unfortunately, working together was the only way they were going to accomplish their mission and get Prince Seere what he deserved.

“The meeting starts at eight. I want your people here at seven.” He poked a structure a block away from the sanctuary, but with a good overwatch position.

It swirled like grains of sand blowing in the wind and reconstituted itself to show an enlarged view of the building.

“Put two on the roof with high-powered rifles, another two in the lobby for rapid response if needed. Any of your people have ranged abilities?” Gerry didn’t know what Lono and Jezebel’s minions could do.

“I will supply the shooters,” Jeb informed. “I have a lucrative partnership in several mercenary firms. I can have two capable operators here in an hour.”

“I will supply the fighters.” Jezebel and Vicky echoed each other, and then went back to glaring.

“Jezebel will provide the fighters,” Gerry decided. “This meeting is at least partially about dealing with you and your people, Vicky. So it would be best if there wasn’t any of them right outside to draw suspicion.”

“Then what do you want me to do?” Vicky crossed her arms beneath her breasts.

“I know you have the ability to compel people,” Gerry stated.

Vicky’s eyes widened in surprise. Apparently, she thought she’d been playing that one pretty close to her well-formed chest.

“It wasn’t hard to figure out, and I want you to use that to indirectly influence the evening.” Gerry smiled like an alligator that was about to eat one of its young. “Compel bums, school children, couples on vacation from Milwaukee, or whoever you can find. I want at least a dozen people hovering in the area who will throw themselves into the line of fire to protect our retreat if we need them too.

Vicky’s face paled a little at having to compel a dozen people, but she nodded. She knew her contribution would be the one that really made people hesitate if things got to the point of violence.

“Lono, I want you to have safe houses ready for our people if we need them. I know you have a couple restaurants in the area. Shut them down early, pay the staff overtime, or do whatever else you need to do to get them ready to shelter us during a fighting retreat.”

Lono nodded, his triple chin jiggling in the process.

Gerry checked his watch. It was five-thirty. “Get to work. It’s almost time to figure out just what this city can throw against us.”

An hour and a half later Gerry stood in the lobby of an apartment building a block away from the church where the meeting was taking place. Six people stood with him. Two had the rough and ragged look of soldiers, except for the longer hair and the beards. It reminded Gerry of the legion he’d left behind.

“You two, roof.” Was all he had to say before the men hurried up the several flights of stairs. They didn’t bother with the elevator.

Next he turned to Lono’s two fighters. They didn’t look like fighters. They looked more like two useless meatbags. They were big like their master, but their eyes were vacant and they spent eighty percent of their time around him shoveling something into their mouth. Honestly, it was pure genius on Lono’s part. The pair screamed non-threatening.

Or it was pure stupidity, and Gerry would have to rip out the gluttonous demons tongue when he finished.

The last two soldiers sent by Jezebel were two little sex pistols that would fit in on any corner in the city, which was exactly what he was going to do. Their short skirts and tight shirt showing enough midriff to make a man salivate would draw eyes for all the wrong reasons.

“Go.” He told the four demonic creations known as imps.

When Gerry had searched imps on the internet before he’d only seen pictures of stubby, red, fat creatures with pitchforks, horns, and tails. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

The most common imps were humans transformed by Infernal blood and enslaves to the demon that sired them. But imps could be born of an infernal womb or by infernal seed. That distinction created two classes of infernal minions. The first was lower in the hierarchy.  They were simply transformed into their semi-infernal state. The second was born into their infernal class, which on earth was right below the demons themselves.

Gerry didn’t know if Lono and Jezebel’s additions to this mission were born or transformed, and he didn’t care. He just hoped they could fight if push came to shove.

With his troops in position,n Gerry watched and waited. In addition to servicing as overwatch, the men on the roof took pictures and video of the people entering and exiting the church before the meeting. Hopefully, Gerry would be able to compile complete dossiers on the city’s resistance to his Lord by the end of the night.

At ten to eight Gerry exited the building and walked the block to the church. He passed the two imps who were busy having a hamburger picnic on a bus bench adjacent to the church, while the two hookers were turning down Johns who were lining up at their corner.

As he passed them he waved for them to take a walk around the block and come back. A line of cars in front of a church looking for female satisfaction might draw Divine attention. From what Gerry knew about them they were kind of tight-asses about that type of stuff.

The church itself looked like it was a hundred years old in a good way. Everything around the small building looked meticulously kept, which was a contrast to the downtrodden neighborhood surrounding it.

Gerry didn’t pause as he climbed the steps to the large, wooden double doors. He acted like he belonged, which he did thanks to the invitation.

“May I…” the large man in a black suit standing guard at the door was one of Salvatore’s goons. “Oh, hello again, Mr. Fuller.”

Gerry was waved through with no other hassle.

Anyone would suspect that when an Infernal creature crossed the threshold of a Divine sanctuary they’d burst into flames, burn, or at least be weakened. But nothing was further front the truth. Gerry felt a rush of positive emotions as he crossed the threshold. Thanks to his attunement to the æther he got power from all primal human emotions including the positive ones.

Infernals were basically the bastard step-children of the Divine, so the sight of crosses and angels didn’t repel them. In fact, this place kind of felt like home.

“Mr. Fuller.” The Salvatore patriarch waved at Gerry through the small crowd.

“Nice to see you again, Sir. Thank you for the invitation and your  help today.” Gerry walked over and grasped the older man’s hand.

“We’re all on the same team, Mr. Fuller.”

“I’d like to call this meeting to order.” A stately woman climbed the steps to the alter and with a sweep of her hand all the candles in the room were lit.

The room’s side conversation gradually died down, and the woman commanded everyone’s attention.

“Thank you. As this month’s hosts, my Circle and I would like to voice the first point of order. The pollution of Lake Norman must stop. It’s…”

“Here we go again.” Salvatore rolled his eyes and leaned back in the pew.

“Enlighten me.” Gerry didn’t get quite as comfortable.

“The Cornelius Circle practices natural magic. Every time someone farts in their protected zone they throw a hissy fit.” Salvatore sighed as the woman’s impassioned speech about the sacred Mother Earth largely fell on deaf ears.

Gerry payed special attention to the group, and committed their faces to memory. The Cornelius Circle was thirteen people, all women from their late teens to early seventies. The woman on the alter, the Circle’s leader, was their eldest member. But he could tell from his pew she still had fire left in her soul. The way she ranted on mildly impressed the undercover Infernal.

After ten minutes, the woman gradually started to wind down and stepped down from the alter with all the statesmanship of a monarch.

“Finally.” Salvatore jumped to his feet and walked up the center aisle and up to the alter.

“Greetings.” He bowed to the segregated groups with a flourish. “It is my honor to present a rare occurrence in our parts. May I introduce Mr. Gerald Fuller, of the Boston Fuller’s.” A murmur went through the crowd as the old enchanter spoke. “I am sure Mr. Fuller will stay after to meet everyone, and I am sure he will take contracts. Let’s just keep from targeting each other.”

<Contracts?> Gerry just smiled calmly as people turned to look at him.

“Mr. Fuller was in my humble shop today gather supplies to deal with our pest problem. I’m sure we’ll be free of the undead within the week with a true martial magician in our midst.”

<Shit.> Gerry kept the smile plastered on his face to hide his real emotions. <I really need to research my family more.>

“A marital magician in Charlotte. I haven’t seen one of you down her in ages.”

Salvatore wasn’t done yet, but he beat a hasty retreat as a man got to his feet and advanced toward the alter.

The man was an Adonis, with a Mediterranean tan and a flawlessly symmetrical face. His lips pulled back in a confident, easy going smile that was undoubtedly a panty dropper. He wore a worn UNC Charlotte Lacrosse hoodie with the arms ripped off to reveal large, sculpted muscles. He was easily Gerry’s height, maybe an inch or two taller, and he was every bit as fit.

“Brock. You honor us.” Salvatore was already heading back to the pew, but Gerry could see he was nervous.

<And I  know why.> He looked past Brock’s frat boy appearance and saw a deep well of power. <The Remnant.>

Suddenly, being at the meeting wasn’t the best idea. Gerry knew from a quick glance that he hadn’t accumulated enough power to take on the vestige of Earth before Seere’s father’s conquest.

“What brings you to our little slice of paradise?” Brock leaned casually against the alter.

Gerry knew he needed to pick his words carefully. “I just arrived and found Mr. Salvatore with a little help. Now I’m here.” He shrugged nonchalantly. “There’s not really much to the story.”

Brock watched him for several seconds before shrugging back. It was the kind of shrug you could do if you were the strongest guy in the room.

“I might have a contract for you.” Brock looked up quickly. “But I’ll talk to you after.”

The Remnant was interrupted by a flash of brilliant white light. The flash filled Gerry with an unexpected surge of power that he barely kept contained. He felt like all his senses were dialed up to eleven and every molecule in his body vibrated.

When the flash faded, Brock was back in his seat and the most beautiful woman Gerry had ever seen was standing on the alter.

She made Caroline look like a troll and Jezebel like a two dollar overworked street whore. It was tough to put the rest into words.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 106

Eve Berg

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

 Eve’s life fucking sucked more than usual. She woke up naked in a cage. She didn’t know how long she’d been in it. The days and nights on this rock hurtling through space didn’t work like they did on Earth. What she did know was the sun had only set once while she was confined, and the relief from the heat only brought more problems. Things went bump in the night on Styx.

The cage was solid duro-steel, not military-grade, but able to handle her enhanced physique. It was only about 110 centimeters long, half of her height, so she’d spent the undeterminable amount of time cuddled up in the fetal position, which helped preserve the little modesty she had left. It wasn’t that tall either, so getting comfortable was literally impossible. The only silver lining she could see in the whole situation was that it was raised a meter off the ground, but the flip side of that was that she got to watch the creepy crawlers slithering around underneath her.

It looked like whatever sick fuck terraformed this armpit of a planet did a little interspecies splicing as well. The things moving around beneath her looked like miniature cobras crossbred with scorpions. The creatures’ hissing fangs and hooked stingers triggered parts of her hindbrain that screamed at her to run or get the hell away from the abominations. That made her predicament a special type of hell since she couldn’t even stretch out.

“Food.” A voice snapped her out of trying to ignore the hypnotic slithering of one of the creatures directly beneath her.

“Food” was stretching the meaning of the word to its limit. It looked like a clump of half-digested vomit, and smelled twice as bad. Even worse, it wasn’t nearly close to the caloric intake her body required. She was literally wasting away in this cage while her tormenters watched.

The small polyplast tray was pushed through a slot built into the bars. It fell, hit her on the ass, and slipped sideways spilling a third of the meal onto the bottom of the cage and down into the snake-scorpion pit.

She scrambled to recover what she could while the reptilian hybrids went ape shit.

“Water.”

She made sure the plate was secure before turning her face skyward. A nearly empty water bottle got upturned and the lukewarm, chemically cleaned H2O poured out onto her face and mouth. It tasted like swamp water swabbed out of some wrench turner’s ass crack, but water was water.

She caught most of it and scarfed down her food as fast as she could. She needed the maximum amount of time to digest it before her captors came back. Feeding time was always followed by questioning.

Eve knew what this scenario was supposed to represent in her training. They’d gone through the survival and evasion parts of the SERE exercise. The second of which they’d failed abysmally. Now they were working on resistance and escape, with resistance being resistance to enhanced interrogation.

<Mankind sure has made an art out of fucking with each other.> Eve curled up tighter and her stomach rumbled painfully.

All the captives figured out early on they put something in the food, something to help ease their tongues, but eating it and fighting the cocktail was better than starving to death.

And death was a possibility. They’d already lost one soldier. He went crazy and attacked his electrified cage until it burned him from the inside out. Their “captors” hadn’t gotten there in time, and the camp smelled like roasted flesh for days. Or what she thought was days.

<Taking away a person’s sense of time is interrogation 101.> She remembered her lessons from what felt like a different lifetime. She knew the ranger instructors were going to screw with them, but she never expected this.

“Wakey wakey.”

She had a split second’s notice before a rod came thorough the bars and tens of thousands of volts of electricity paralyzed her nervous system.  She spasmed hard, smacked all of her limbs and head into the cage. The auto-defense feature on the cage doubled the voltage based off its programming and she passed out.

She came to in a small mud hut with light poking through in several spaces. She was still naked, and tied to a chair in a humiliating position. Her head was still ringing and it took her a moment to get her bearings.

“What’s your mission?”

The first question was always the same. She’d been told her mission at the beginning of the exercise and then told not to tell anyone.

“My name is Private First Class Eve Berg, United Commonwealth of Colonies Infantry, Genetic Identification Code NWCC103124142212.”

“What’s your mission?”

“My name is Private First Class Eve…”

The fist smacked into her face, stopped her recitation, and knocked her and her chair to the ground. She landed hard on her shoulder and felt it jostle uncomfortable in its socket.

“What’s your mission?”

“To fuck your mother!” she spat back at them.

<Wrong answer.> She knew she’d fucked up when two guys grabbed her chair lifted it up and walked it over toward a giant vat of ass water.

“What’s your mission?!” The lead douche was yelling right next to her ear as he grabbed the back of her hair and slowly applied pressure.

Her face inched toward the warm water. She turned her head, but another guy grabbed it and yanked it back so she would go in face first.

“My name is…” Her face plunged into the tepid water and a mouthful of it went right down her throat.

Her body immediately went into distress. In her current condition, she could have held her breath for several minutes, and at her full health a full ten, but that all required her to have her mouth closed before she took the plunge.

She fought as the water damaged her lungs, she coughed it out, and only succeeded in swallowing more as her body involuntarily breathed in. She tried to kick out but her legs were firmly strapped to the chair, and any wiggling she did didn’t break the grips of the men holding her under.

They were all big, burly men, just like the Rangers liked them. And this wasn’t their first rodeo.

She felt herself slipping out of consciousness when they yanked her back up. She promptly vomited everything as she struggled to get a breath. Thankfully, they didn’t resubmerge her immediately.

“What is your mission?!” The guy’s breath was hot against the side of her face and smelled like MREs.

“Ok,” she choked out a reply as she rapidly filled her lungs with oxygen and blinked the tears from her eyes. “I’ll tell you what you want to know.”

Her chair was dropped back to the ground, and the three men stood around her, uncomfortably close, violating her personal space.

<Cultural tactic to make me uncomfortable.>

She understood the purpose behind what they were doing. People from the Commonwealth were used to a personal bubble of a meter or so. Getting inside that made them immediately uncomfortable. Just the men standing there was unsettling.

<Stupid thing to feel after nearly getting drowned,> she thought absently as she continued to clear her airway.

“Talk!” A demeaning slap cracked across her face; bringing more tears to her eyes.

“M…my real name is Captain Mal Reynolds. Me and the crew of the Serenity are…”

The fist hit her right in the gut and knocked all of the new air from her lungs.

“Nice try.”

The leader grabbed her by the hair, dragged her back to the vat of liquid, and shoved her back in. This time she kept her mouth closed, and was able to resist for several minutes before her body started to protest. She kicked and thrashed as she did until she found what she was looking for.

Her foot restraints were made of cheap plastic and they snagged against something loose and sharp. She couldn’t tell what it was with her head underwater, but she masked the sawing motion of cutting through the restraints as her resisting her torturers.

They pulled her out of the vat and one of the guys grabbed her by the throat. He stood before her in a powerful position, and started to lift her off the ground with a single hand.

“What’s your…?!”

Her hips screamed in protest as she yanked in either direction to snap the last vestiges of the clinging plastic. After a moment of resistance they snapped and her legs were free. She took the perfect opportunity to bring one foot right up into the interrogator’s crotch.

<Pretty soon their new nickname for me will be Nut Buster.> She thought with savage glee as the powerful man dropped her and went down.

The look of surprise and complete pain on his face was priceless.

Her chair landed hard and rocked for a second before she used both legs to push off the man’s falling form and propel herself backwards. He hit the vat with a loud CLANG as she shot backwards like a missile into the second interrogator.

Situational awareness was key, and she just hoped he hadn’t moved since she last went under. He hadn’t, and the force of her push, and hitting his body, cracked the chair enough to get her tied arms out from behind it.

She struggled to get free, but not before the third guy was on her. Rangers didn’t hesitate, and the guy landed two body-racking blows before she struggled free. The second one staggered her, but she was able to get a block up before the third that would have knocked her out. Instead, it just knocked her sideways, where the thin wall of the mud hut didn’t stand a chance against her. She went right through it and sprawled on her ass.

“Ice!” SGT Diggle yelled from his own cage where he was hanging naked over a pit of his own snake-scorpions.

Eve spared a second to look over at her closest comrade in ranger school and it nearly cost her. The third interrogator came barreling through the wall like a runaway mag-lev train. She dodged to the side to avoid his grab, and wouldn’t have succeeded if an unknown amount of time hadn’t produced a decent layer of sweat and bodily grime all over her naked torso.

He got a hand on her and it slipped off. She didn’t hesitate again. She took off like a bat out of hell into the jungle. She was naked as the day she was born but she was free.

<Escape!> she was now on the fourth and final phase of the exercise, and she could already hear the camp guards organizing to pursue.

She took a header into a muddy pit about half a kilometer away when she wasn’t paying attention, but that worked out to her benefit. The thick layer of mud offered her protection from the annoying, winged bloodsuckers hovering around, and it screwed with her pursuers’ thermal imaging. Because of the accidental trip she was able to avoid capture.

She didn’t stop moving for what felt like hours after that, and she only stopped because her body collapsed and refused to keep going. She crawled into a crevice beneath a downed tree and munched on moss that was growing underneath it.

Her subdermal PAD was offline and not connecting to any networks, but there was basic information and programs saved in the bio-storage device. One told her the moss wasn’t poisonous, but it wasn’t exactly nutritious either. What it would do was fill her stomach and give her a trickle of energy to keep going.

That’s how things went for the next forty-eight hours: mud-up, run, hide, find food, seek shelter, and repeat. In the end, she was the only person to make it to the extraction point. By the time the exercise ended a day after that they’d lost half of the remaining ranger candidates to interrogation. SGT Diggle made it, even managed to bloody a few more noses back at the camp.

It was only later that Eve learned that escaping from the camp was extremely rare, and that put her on people’s radar. She wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 105

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

Coop knew it was coming. It was a matter of “when” not “if”. Their last week couldn’t consist solely of hand-to-hand combat focusing on the blades in their LACS forearms. That would be too easy. So when MSG Smith released them at 1600 on Thursday with a stern warning to ensure their LACS were fully operational, Coop knew something was up. It was the same thing as when you were told there was no morning PT and a 0800 formation. That was code for a surprise urinalysis. Sometimes the military telegraphed their moves like an eight-year-old learning to box.

Coop went over his armor with a fine-tooth comb, and demanded his team do the same. Everyone else in the company got the hint, so when 0001 Friday morning rolled around and they were all woken up by a blaring alarm they were ready.

“Get to the motorpool…double-time…in your PT uniforms. You have two minutes. MOVE!” The MSG roared with a level face.

Despite the volume and hustle in the MSG’s voice it just didn’t compare to what Alpha Company had gone through a little over a week ago. There was a big difference between getting yelled at by the MSG and hearing the roar of Spyders on strafing runs, the chorus of old chemically-powered rifles trying to punch holes in your armor, and the thundering booms of a building collapsing. Next to that, training was just…well training.

“Fall in…front leaning rest position move…the pushup! Ready! Begin! One…two…three…ONE!” They did five minutes of pushups straight as a warmup, followed by the same amount of sit-ups and air squats to get the blood flowing through their bodies.

A regular human might have doubled over and puked from that type of exertion, but Coop and company weren’t even breathing hard.

“Listen up!” The MSG barked as they recovered. “This is it for the sixteen of you. You’ve passed your qualifications, seen something approaching the real deal, and for the most part you handled your shit. Soon you will graduate HI school and advance to the rank of private first class if you aren’t one already. You will be given a two day pass to do whatever you want, and then your ass will be the property of the Commonwealth Infantry.”

Coop couldn’t stop the grin from pulling at the corners of his lips.

“But that is in the future.” The MSG smiled and Coop’s grin vanished. “Before you are entrusted to go off into the wild black yonder you need to impress me. I do not give a shit if you passed those qualifications. A retarded monkey could pass those. I do not care if you fired non-lethal rounds in anger at a bunch of Rats throwing glass bottles at you. And I certainly don’t give a flying fuck if you think you’re ready.”

Coop could have sworn the big NCO looked right at him when he said that.

“This final test is meant for you to prove to me that you’re ready to be HI.” The MSG paced in front of their small formation. “I hold the keys to your future. If you do not impress me you do not pass. It is that simple. LCDR Tully will back up my evaluation of you, so every qualification on Mars won’t mean jackshit. Impress me or the last eight weeks means nothing.” The MSG let that sink in.

“Are you ready?”

“YES, MASTER SERGEANT!” If there was any time to be motivated it was now.

“We’ll see.” The NCO ignored the motivation. “Your first task is a fifty kilometer run. Your route has been downloaded to your PAD. You have two hours to complete the run. Starting…NOW!”

They took off like sixteen bats out of hell, and Coop hoped no one got in their way because they’d get stomped on. Coop was going to do anything to get through this last test, even if that meant kicking a regular grunt to the curb.

Thankfully, that wasn’t a problem when you were running between 0030 and 0230 in the morning. The pace and distance itself wasn’t even that bad with their enhanced muscles and conditioning. Everyone made it under the time-hack. The real issue was their metabolism. All the calories needed to run that far that fast left a gaping hole in Coop’s stomach. By the time they finished the run, chow was eight hours behind them, and he could feel his body literally eating itself alive.

The MSG was waiting for them at the finish line with a not-impressed look on his face.  He handed them each a liter of water and a two-thousand calorie nutrition bar. Both barely put a dent in what their body craved, but that was all they were going to get.

“Behind me are your LACS. Each of them has suffered some type of failure despite being told to be in working condition. You have one hour to discover and fix the malfunction. EXECUTE!”

<You have got to be shitting me.> The armor wouldn’t even open up to let Coop in, which meant there was a total system’s failure.

He had to use an old-school hand crank to get the armor open so he could find out what was wrong and that ate up valuable time. When he did open it enough to squeeze in he had almost no power remaining, and the MASTER WARNING icon dominated his screen.

<Fucking asshole son-of-a-bitch goat fucking dick!> Coop let out a stream of curses as he slipped back out of the armor.

The MASTER WARNING icon meant that the LACS had shit a brick and he needed to go through a full reboot one system at a time. Normally, the process took one hour. Coop had to do it in fifty-three minutes.

He completed it in fifty-two minutes and forty-five seconds.

<YES! Suck on my balls motherfucker!> Coop celebrated as the LACS HUD illuminated and initiated the start-up procedure.

The fifty kilometer run was a physical workout, but this LACS test was a mental one. It required the full, intimate knowledge of everything they’d learned several weeks ago. It was a thorough test, but as a student, Coop only thought about how much of a pain in the ass it was.

Two of the sixteen didn’t meet the standard. They were asked to leave and were recycled to the next class. The plus side of that was getting another week of training with blades. The downside was that one more failure and they were going to get their enhancements stripped from their bones and tossed back into the regular infantry. That was not something you wanted to do after you experienced the strength-multiplier HI was on the battlefield.

Their successful completion got them two two-thousand calorie bars, armor with a full hydration bladder, and ten minutes of downtime. The ten minutes seemed to last for two before coordinates started populating on the HUDs along with countdown clocks. Coop recognized those coordinates. It was the live-fire range they’d done their Joint Platform Artillery Coordinator (JPAC) certification on.

<Knowledge of our armor…check. Call for fire…check. Wanna bet our last test is going to be a hand-to-hand exercise.> It made sense, but Coop didn’t have time to think about it. He was still hungry, tired, and had twelve straight hours of fire missions ahead of him.

Everyone passed the call for fire test. Some were battered and bruised, their armor scratched and dented from close calls, but they all pulled through. Anything less than perfection during this trial was unacceptable. This was the core of HI, and the MSG made sure they knew that.

It was 1500 by the time they finished their test. Everyone else on JB Mattis had nearly gone through an entire duty day while they were out on the range blowing shit up. But Coop knew they weren’t done yet. The day didn’t end until 1700, and even that was flexible.

“Fall in!”

They’d run all the way back from the range, another couple dozen kilometers. Some fared better than others. It depended on how much you used your suit, so Coop was pretty tired by the time he jogged into the motorpool, but he was at sixty-four percent on his battery.

<Fucking morons.> He saw some people were down to less than forty percent power. <We’re about to try to gut each other with enhanced maneuvers and you burned power running.>

Coop took some long sips from his hydration bladder and punched in a series of commands. He’d saved one of the calorie bars and started chomping on it while he stood in formation. If anyone was closely monitoring him they would have torn him a new asshole, but he didn’t really care about that right now. He needed every last bit of energy he could get. A couple minutes in close combat would be worse than the entire fifty kilometer run they’d started out with.

The MSG didn’t waste any time. The armorers appeared with the training blades on grav-sleds. You could still pummel someone to death with them, but you couldn’t run someone through. Although, the sensors on the blade would let the LACS neural network know if someone delivered a killing blow.

The fourteen remaining HI troopers stood at the position of attention as the armorers methodically went through their ranks and replaced the blades. Coop savored every minute, because he knew it wouldn’t last.

“Alpha Team, step up!” The MSG was in his armor now, and he directed them to four separate marked off areas through their HUDs.

Coop went straight to his assigned cube, and watched as three other instructors emerged from the staff building. All were in LACS, and all had training blades protruding from their forearms.

“Survive for more than three minutes against an instructor and you pass.” That was the only instruction the MSG gave as the cadre picked a student and lined up opposite them.

<You’ve got to be shitting me.> Coop silently wondered why the universe hated him when SGM Crum stepped up to face him.

The SGM didn’t say anything. He just stood there like the grim reaper waiting to tear out Coop’s soul.

“Begin!”

The SGM moved.

Coop barely got a blade into a blocking position before the SGM hit him like an angry Norse god with an affinity for hammers. It was like Coop’s blade wasn’t even there. The SGM smashed him aside, and it was only thanks to a quick turn that a death blow turned into a glancing one. That didn’t help when the SGM smashed an elbow into Coop’s armored head and knocked him to the ground.

Coop rolled instinctually. He barely missed getting impaled by the SGM’s downward thrust, but still received a slice across his back as the SGM followed up the thrust with a lash from the opposite blade. Sensors told Coop nothing had gotten through, but he’d be vulnerable to weapon’s fire in those damaged places if this was the real deal. Thankfully, this was blades only, and the SGM let Coop get back to his feet.

Coop took advantage for that and charged. <The best defense is to shove your blades up their ass.> Coop’s blades arched in a figure-eight in front of him as he tried to confuse and surprise the SGM.

It didn’t work. He got in two offensive attacks, before a kick lashed out and knocked Coop off his feet. He fell on his ass with an oomph, and barely got his blades into a blocking position above him. The SGM crashed into him like a force of nature with enough brute strength that Coop got tagged by his own blades before he could divert enough power to counter the stronger and more skilled NCO’s attack.

The SGM added to his advantage by putting the tonnage of his LACS into the attack. It was the battalion NCOIC’s first mistake. Coop put a full burst of power into driving his knee into the SGM’s side. The blow knocked the NCO off Coop, and allowed him to get back to his feet. He pressed the attack while the SGM was off balance, but it didn’t do much good as the older soldier casually batted away Coop’s strikes.

Coop stepped back and looked for an opening while quickly checking the stopwatch in the corner of his HUD.

<Only halfway there?!> Time did not fly when you were getting your ass kicked. <Fuck it!> The only thing worse than losing was going down like a little bitch, so he charged again.

He played it smart though. He didn’t let his anger or frustration get to him. He followed the techniques they’d been taught, and used every ounce of his power to keep just a centimeter away from the SGM taking his head off. He got a bit worried when he dropped below ten percent power and the SGM was still pounding on him.

All around, Coop the other members of Alpha weren’t doing so hot. Melissa hadn’t lasted two minutes against a GYSGT. She was on her back, and the GYSGT had her blades pressed against Melissa’s chest. That was a kill blow if Coop had ever seen one.

Whitehead wasn’t doing much better. He looked like he was being chased around the cube by another MSG. Whitehead was quick though. He might be able to make it to three minutes if his power levels held out.

Mike was locked in a grapple with MSG Smith. Coop’s best friend was the only one of Alpha Team that came close to the big NCO’s weight class.

<You got it, Mike. Kick his ass!>

But the moment Coop thought it, MSG Smith got his hip into Mike’s gut and flipped him over and onto the ground. There, the struggle continued with one of the MSG’s blades already pressing against Mike’s shoulder.

<Twenty more seconds.> Coop’s power level fell to six percent, but he gave it everything he had. He even made the SGM take a few steps back to avoid some chops that could have been fatal.

With five seconds left the SGM came out of left field with a high kick that sent Coop flying out of his cube and suffering from a severe case of whiplash. He was sure he’d find a big indent in his armor that matched the SGM’s boot, but that was a secondary issue to all the ERROR lights that were going off on his HUD. He was down to two percent power and systems were getting shut down to sustain critical operations.

“TIME!” Someone yelled out the sweetest words Coop had ever heard.

“Help Alpha.” The MSG ordered and Coop felt two people grab him. “Medics and armorers are standing by to pry you out of your LACS and fix anything we broke.  Bravo, you’re up.”

“Did we make it?” Coop sent over the team channel that was still in the STRATNET system from the riot.

“I don’t know.” Mike didn’t sound happy, which didn’t bode well.

It took two armorers fifteen minutes to get Coop out of his armor. The SGM had done some damage with the enhanced kick, and the large dent made it difficult to open and close the suit. By the time Coop got out the other three teams had already fought the instructors with varying levels of success.

“On me.” MSG Smith announced once everyone was pried, pulled, and extracted from the LACS. “This last test was also your last lesson. None of you will survive against a seasoned HI combatant.” The MSG didn’t sugar coat it. “The rest of that training is up to you. Get with the other HI in your battalion. Train with them, and make sure you’re ready when you have to go up against a nutcracker, because all of you would have died today in a real fight.” The other cadre were already gone and back to their end of week activities.

“The good news,” the MSG continued, “is that even though some of you didn’t make it to the three minute mark you’ve impressed me enough to recommend you all for graduation.”

That caused a wave of relief to wash over them all.

“So get back outside and fall in, Alpha Company.”

Coop was too happy to care what was about to happen. He just did what he was told.

Back out in the motorpool SGM Crum stood in his CMUs with LCDR Tully and LT Swanson. The battalion command team gave them all a nod as they fell in with MSG Smith at the front of the formation.

“Congratulations on another class well-trained, Master Sergeant.” LCDR Tully and the MSG exchanged salutes and the MSG jogged to the back of the formation as the battalion commander stepped forward.

“Congratulations to you as well, Alpha Company. I’m not going to bore you with quotes on loyalty, respect, duty, selfless service, honor, integrity, or personal courage. You have all earned your place in the brotherhood of Heavy Infantry. You are now the most powerful land combat troops in the galaxy. With that power comes incredible responsibility, so use that power wisely, do your job, and bring the rain.”

With his little speech completed, the LCDR read the orders promoting several of the newly certified HI troopers to PFC. Coop among them.

There wasn’t any more ceremony, pomp, or circumstance to the graduation. This wasn’t Basic. It was only 1800 when the LCDR released the graduated troopers on their two-day pass before they went into the real infantry.

Despite wanting to go out and drink his face off Coop settled for a gut-busting dinner at a local diner with the rest of Alpha Team before hitting the sack.

<I can party over the next two days before shipping out,> he told himself.

Coop fell asleep that night one pay grade higher, with a bigger paycheck due in his account, and with a bit more self-respect. He’d survived a tough school. Now, he just needed to survive whatever the galaxy threw at him.

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