I’m on TDY from Hell – Mutt Hunt

“Thank you so much for coming, Sir. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

Gerry plastered a fake smile on his face and tried to not step on the little man walking next to him. The man was a dwarf. Not a dwarf as in a little person, but an actual dwarf. He’d been present at the gathering where Gerry had accepted the contracts, but had been hidden from view by the simple fact that his head didn’t clear the pew.

The dwarf’s contract made it into the pile despite his height, and now Gerry found himself south of the city on the McDowell Nature Preserve. The small patch of land with developments on all sides and Lake Wylie running along most of its boarder wasn’t anything special to look at if you had human eyes. Those that had the spark of magic, Divine light, or Infernal fire saw what it really was. McDowell Nature Preserve was a sanctuary for nymphs that had emigrated from Greece half a millennia ago.

The nature spirits took the forms of young girls. They flitted among the trees, rivers, and streams of the preserve where they endowed the land with beauty. The nymphs were a harmless species that favored singing, dancing, and generally being merry. Gerry found their existence interesting but ultimately pointless. Still, they provided a convenient alibi.

“It’s terrible, just horrible, Sir.” The dwarf, the Preserve’s caretaker, was on the verge of tears. “Six Dryades and three Naiads gone in a fortnight. Who would do such a thing? It’s an unthinkable loss. They’re on the endangered species list. We can’t afford to lose any more.”

It was obvious who was doing it. Tracks were all over the place, and reports of animal attacks on the human population were common over the last two weeks. It was the Lycans who’d found the Preserve and were feasting on the nymphs.

<Word on the street is they’re delicious.>

Satyrs had hunted the nature creatures in the old country, and things had only become more dangerous once they reached the new world.

<And now I’m here to save the day.>

“Thank you for your contract, Dwarf.” Gerry didn’t remember the little creature’s name. “I’ll take it from here.”

The little creature looked more than a little relieved at not having to enter the dark forest with Gerry. It was for the best. The dwarf’s stubby little legs wouldn’t carry it that far before the wolves snatched him up and ate him. The imagery of the little man trying to run for his life brought a chuckle to Gerry’s lips which he quickly disguised as a cough. The little thing didn’t even notice as it scurried back towards its miniature cabin built into the side of a hill.

Gerry had another thought about huffing and puffing and blowing houses down, but stopped the train of thought before it could continue. He had a job to do and it required him to concentrate.

By now it was easy to harness his Chi and pull it out to create weapons. He created the sword and shield he’d used on his first contract against the troll. He buckled the sword to his belt – it was easier to maintain the construct if he had physical contact with it – and he slung the circular shield over his back. Next he crafted an eight-foot spear from his energy.

<Just like old times.> It had been a few hundred years, but Gerry hadn’t forgotten his spear-wielding days as a skirmisher in Seere’s legion.

With his weapons ready he marched into the forest looking for his prey.

 

***

 

PREY

Grimm walked through the neighborhood sniffing the air and searching for the scent his master had given him.

FIND

There were other two-leggeds running around as he prowled the streets, but his master told him to ignore them. They were not to be harmed. Harming them would lead to pain. Grimm loved his master. He didn’t want to disappoint him. Pain was the least of his worries.

Human’s couldn’t see a Hellhound, which was why they weren’t all running in absolute terror as a large black beast, slightly larger than a Great Dane, walked down the center of their idyllic suburban street. His fur was midnight black and sleek. Anyone who touched it would find it was only slightly less yielding than steel. Grimm’s kind were built to last, to track, and to kill their pray for their master.

MASTER

Grimm could feel his creator. He was far away to the south, almost too far to feel him through the bond of creation. Master was on his own hunt. Master would kill his own prey tonight.

Grimm breathed deeply and his forked tongue lashed out and tasted the air. The prey was close. The scent was strong here. He turned his head left and right. The scent was weaker to the left so he started walking toward the dwelling on the right. It was tall, three stories, with a well-maintained lawn, and white picket fence around the edges. Grimm easily leapt the obstacle and continued around the back.

The scent only grew stronger. The prey walked this path consistently.

Doors weren’t a problem to a Hellhound. There was no warding to keep him out, so Grimm focused on the other side of the door – and he was there. Only a small tremor through the fabric of reality revealed his hop from exterior to interior.

An adult two-legged sat at a table with its face buried in an electronic device. It smelled similar to the prey but was not it.

EAT?

Grimm thought about it but shook his big head. His master’s orders were specific. He might come back later if master allowed it.

Another creature inhabited this dwelling, and it came around the edge of the table screeching.

“Shut up, Ruby!” The two-legged growled at the dwelling’s four-legged defender.

The defender couldn’t see Grimm, but it could smell him. It didn’t even come up to Grimm’s knee. It wasn’t a threat, but it could alert the prey to Grimm’s presence. A sub-vocal growl echoed out of Grimm’s throat. The defender cut off mid-yelp and toppled over onto its side – paralyzed.

The two-legged didn’t even notice.

Grimm followed the scent to a set of stairs that led down. He took them silently, his padded feet hiding his approach from his prey.

PREY?

Grimm took one last sniff and knew he had who he was searching for.

The room was cloaked in an unnatural darkness, but Grimm was a creature of darkness and fire. It only served to heighten his senses. He stalked through the inky blackness until he came to a bed. The prey was fast asleep and unaware that it was living its last moments.

Grimm pulled himself up onto the bed until he was towering over the prey.

“Wha…”

The prey was small, skinny, and weak. Grimm could smell the scent of magic in him, but it was soft.

“Who’s…?”

Grimm didn’t let the prey finish.

KILL

His master’s command echoed in his head as he clamped his massive jaws down on the prey’s throat. The prey gave a strangled scream as serrated teeth sawed into him as Grimm shook his head back and forth.

He backed up and easily pulled the prey neck first out of the bed and onto the floor. A thick trail of blood marked their path.

The prey was trying to say something and weakly batting Grimm’s shoulder with his fists, but it was no use.

Grimm thrashed, flinging the body like a rag doll all over the room until he felt the crack of the prey’s neck break. The prey went limp. Blood coated the walls and continued to flow from its corpse.

EAT

Grimm opened his mouth to an unnaturally large size and revealed his black maw. Like a black hole the body of the prey was sucked toward him before shuddering. It stopped like it was caught on something, and then a bright object pulsing with power detached itself from the body and disappeared into Grimm’s gullet.

DEAD. LEAVE.

He burped as the soul passed through him and down into Prince Seere’s realm. Master had been very specific about leaving the body, but not the soul. Still, Grimm had to mark his conquest someway, so he lifted his leg and peed on the remains.

There was another pop of relativistic disturbance as Grimm went from the interior to the exterior. He broke into a trot as he headed back toward the city. His bloody tongue lolled out the side of his mouth and dripped the life essence of the Dark Mage of Charlotte along the middle of the street.

TREAT!

Master had promised him a treat if he did what he was supposed to. Grimm couldn’t wait. His three tails wagged excitedly as he headed home.

 

***

 

Completing this contract served multiple purposes. One, it provided him an alibi for Grimm’s mission. Two, it satisfied Vicky’s incessant grumbling about the Lycans to the south. Three, it continued to show the supernatural community of Charlotte that Gerry was a good guy. Finally, it allowed him to kill something.

It had been too long since he’d killed something, and Lycan’s like these unorganized mutts weren’t terribly difficult to kill. So, to make it more of a challenge, he waited for the full moon. They were at their strongest under the light gray orb in the sky, their instincts were sharpest, and they were at their most vicious.

<But they never look up.> Gerry stood on a tree branch fifty feet above the forest floor.

He could see the whole pack moving beneath him. They were spaced out over several hundred feet with one wolf farther forward. Their alpha was at the center. A large gray wolf half against as big as any of the others. Gerry hoped to deal with him last. First he needed to deal with the others. There were four of them.

A plan quickly formulated in his head, he waited for the right moment, and he stepped off the branch.

He plummeted to the ground without a care in the world. He bent his knees at the last moment before smashing into the spine of the first wolf. The creature didn’t even have time to cry out in pain as Gerry snapped its back in half and plowed it into the ground. The parts of the creature that didn’t explode outward crumbled until the Lycan was hardly recognizable.

The Alpha’s head whipped around at the sound of its underling’s death. It gave a sorrowful howl that had an uptick of rage at the end. The pack stopped moving forward and immediately charged Gerry. Two headed straight for him, the Alpha hung back, and one vanished from sigh, presumably circling around to get him from behind.

It was all very predictable.

He stood there and watched them charge. They were faster than an average wolf, moving close to a hundred miles an hour when they got up to full speed. Their power was heightened by the full moon and their animal instincts were in overdrive after the death of their pack mate. Gerry used it all against them.

At the last second he leapt off the ground at an angle. Soil and roots exploded around him from the power of the leap. One of the wolves craned its neck trying the snap at him while trying to turn. It missed, and trying to turn at that speed didn’t end well. It tripped and careened into its partner. They both went tumbling into the underbrush.

Gerry’s launch took him to a nearby tree, he used it as leverage, pushing off it, and going even higher.

The sound of claws on wood was the only advanced notice he had. Instinctually, he tucked and drew his sword. The wolf that had tried to go around had climbed a tree and launched itself like a fury bullet right into Gerry’s path.

Gerry’s tucked chin pulled him into a somersault. The wolf barely missed him, flying right over him, but Gerry didn’t miss. His sword lashed out and cut open the wolf’s stomach. Blood and guts fell to the forest floor and the creature howled in death. It smacked into tree Gerry had been aiming for with a crunch and then fell twenty feet to the ground. It didn’t get up.

<Two down. Three to go.> Unfortunately, Gerry’s tuck had also thrown him off course.

He hit the tree hip first with a THUD that vibrated up into his shoulders before falling toward the ground. He got his feet up and pushed off the tree causing it to crack under the pressure and tumble to the ground. Gerry launched horizontally away from the tree, back flipped, and was able to get his feet under him before he hit the ground at an angle. He dug a shallow trench before he stopped.

He straightened up and was immediately hit and knocked to the ground by a ball of gray fur. The impact knocked all the wind from his lungs, but he was able to get his shield back around before razor sharp teeth followed up the Alpha’s attack.

Sparks flew as the giant wolf tried to eat his shield. <Move!> His instincts screamed at him. Staying still meant death is a fight like this.

The Alpha lunged again, digging his teeth into the shield. Gerry angled his shield to the side, throwing the Alpha off balance, and delivering a swift kick to the ribs. The blow staggered the gray wolf, and gave time for Gerry to arch his back and launch himself back to his feet.

Just in time, because the two other wolves came barreling back in to join the fight. The weren’t all the much shorter than Gerry on all fours, and when a brown one reared up on two legs like a horse it dwarfed the Infernal Dux’s human form.

Not that it mattered. Gerry knew the Lycan was trying to bring its full weight to bear on the shield in the hopes of breaking it, but it never made contact. Gerry spun lightly out of the way, so the wolf came down on hard ground with Gerry to its side.

Where he promptly stabbed it in the neck.

The brown wolf collapsed with blood squirting from the severed artery, but there wasn’t any time to celebrate. The final black and gray wolf were circling him now, snarling with hate.

Gerry considered his options and started to pour power into his shield. It glowed hot like molten iron as the power built up. The black wolf took a step back, but the Alpha wasn’t afraid, and it snapped at its remaining underling to get it back into line. The black wolf shook its head like if had just been physically struck, snarled, and charged.

Gerry was ready. He caught the wolf mid leap with a blast of light from his shield. It stunned the Lycan and didn’t allow it to see the spear Gerry summoned and was bracing into the ground. It pierced the black wolf’s heart, but didn’t stop it from collapsing on top of Gerry.

The Alpha didn’t hesitate. It jumped on the corpse of its final pack mate and began to tear through him to get to Gerry.

He partially succeeded.

Gerry felt claws rip into his shoulder before he could bring his shield back around. A chunk of flesh was torn from him and blood because to leak down and stain his clothes.

Now it was the Infernal Dux’s turn to growl.

He lashed out with his sword and took the Alpha’s foot off. The big wolf hissed in pain, but kept up the attack. Claws rasped against Gerry shield over and over again. His dismissed his Chi spear and summoned another one. He drove it out from the mutilated wolf carcass and caught the Alpha in the shoulder. This time the big wolf squealed in pain and backed up. It slipped it its own blood, and without the traction of its fourth foot it fell hard.

It scrambled to get back to its feet, but the fall was all the time Gerry needed. He exploded out from the wolf carcass, showering the nearby forest in gore. He raised his sword up high above his head as he fell and drove it into the alpha’s skull. It went through skin, bone, brain, and exited the lower jaw.

The big gray wolf shuddered violently and then keeled over.

Gerry took a moment to recover, regulated his breathing, and felt the adrenaline begin to fade. With it came a rush of pain that almost drove him to his knees.

<I got lucky.> He grimaced through clenched teeth.

A Lycan Alpha’s bite was poisonous and would have required Gerry to tap into his Infernal nature to heal. It would have ruined the whole reason for him being out here in the first place.  Now, he didn’t have to pretend that the fight had taken something out of him. It would cement him even more as the human martial magician, and no one would be the wiser.

He reached out with his mind and located Grimm. The hellhound was already moving deeper into the city back toward the demesne.

<Good boy.> He thought and got to his feet and started to trudge out of the forest. He had to see the dwarf on the way out to confirm he was where he said he was when he said it. He expected the questions to start coming his way by morning.

<We both had a good hunt today.> He could feel Grimm’s elation at master’s mental presence, and he had the sudden urge to scratch the big dog’s belly. <Vicky’s whores can wait.>

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Two Worlds – Chapter 118

Eve Berg

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

 “Move! Move! Haul those lazy asses out of bed and MOVE!”

Sound ripped Eve and the rest of the ranger candidates out of their light sleep. They had learned over the last few months that sleeping too soundly was a good way to die.

<Just eight hours of sleep. Is that too much to ask for?> Eve grumbled to herself but not anyone else.

She lithely dropped from her top bunk and ignored the slight pain in her heart when she saw the bottom wasn’t occupied by SGT Diggle. It was just an old rolled up mattress with a blanket folded perfectly right next to it.

<Move or you die.> The thought ran through her head so she moved down the length of the barracks and into the latrine.

It was unisex and almost identical to the one back in Basic. The rest of the ranger candidates were frantically conducting personal hygiene, taking a shit, and a few of the more brazen ones getting in the shower.

“What’s the time hack?” she asked as she waited in line for one of the sinks.

“We’ve got an hour…”

<An hour was an eternity.> She felt her day brighten.

“…to do this, eat, clean the barracks, and gather all of our gear.”

The bright, shiny day suddenly had a severe case of overcast skies. “All our gear?”

“Yep.”

An eternity turned into not enough time in a flash. All of their gear meant their V3s. And if they wanted them in their V3s then there was at least fifteen minutes of pre-combat checks that needed to be run. That already put her down to forty-five…no…forty-three minutes because she’d been standing in line for two.

She abandoned her wait for the sink and hustled back to her bunk. There was a duffel in her assigned locker so she started to pack that. She could do personal hygiene after she cleaned but before she ate. She didn’t have a lot of stuff, but there was a science in how you packed it. Not only did you need to put the stuff you’d most likely need on the top, but you needed to fit everything in the small bag in the first place. No matter how much space you had it never seemed to be enough.

She packed like an expert in five minutes. Then she smoothed out the wrinkles on her bed. It was already perfectly made to standard. It was too hot on this hellhole to sleep beneath the covers anyway. Just lying on top of it saved her time and suffering from dehydration first thing in the morning.

Confident her area would pass inspection, she went back to the latrine. The lines had thinned out so she was able to wash her face with water, her pits and more sensitive places with nanite-infused cleaning wipes. She didn’t bother to do anything with her short-cropped hair other than make sure it didn’t get in her eyes. After a quick trip to the porcelain throne she was back upstairs and tearing into an MRE.

She scarfed down the poor attempt at eggs and precooked soy bacon, but mildly enjoyed the protein bar. After that it was off to the armory.

The squat duro-steel building looked just like every other armory she’d ever seen, but the inside of this one was truly beautiful. She wasn’t the first one it to check on her LACS, but she was one of the early ones. She gave her armor a pat as she walked up to it to start her external inspection. After a quick pass around that showed nothing was out of place she opened it up and started running internal diagnostics. There was no ammo in the armor, per regulation, but she opened all of the ports just in case. It also served to air out the armor a bit. It smelled pretty ripe after the weeks of field training exercises they’d been doing since the drop from orbit.

She ignored a second stab of heartache and after completing her diagnostics hopped in and closed up the LACS. By this point it felt more like a part of her than a piece of advanced technology.

With a couple of minutes to spare the entire class was in formation outside of the barracks. The instructors were there looking bored or intimidating. That was normal. What wasn’t normal was the caravan of vehicles lined up next to the road. They’d never ridden in vehicles since Eve arrived. They always ran everywhere.

“Company, atten-hut!” SGM Queen called the group to attention and gave them his patented stern expression. “Congratulations, Rangers!”

Eve was immediately on the alert for anything out of the ordinary because this was the first time the SGM hadn’t called them candidates or something more vulgar. It was also the first time he’d congratulated them on anything.

The SGM cracked a small smile which was truly horrifying. “Your formal training to become Rangers is now over.”

<What the fuck?!> Eve was pretty sure everyone was thinking the same thing because they all knew how long the program was and they had a whole month left.

“Don’t start getting any ideas.” The SGM confirmed her suspicions. “For the next month, we’re going to stop coddling you.”

Eve had to stifle a laugh and was sure one of the instructors watching the formation was going to get in her face about it. But no one did.

“We’ve done our part. Now it’s time for you to do yours. The last phase of your training is entirely up to you.”

<Interesting.> Eve did a lot of research about ranger school before coming and she didn’t know anything about this.

“For the next four weeks, and maybe longer due to the needs of the service, you will be imbedded in Ranger units throughout the galaxy. You will conduct operations with them and you will learn the shit we can’t teach you in a controlled environment. After that month is up, and if you are still alive, you will undergo the patch ceremony with that unit. You will get blood-pinned by the men and women you’ve bled beside. Hell, you might even stay with that unit, but no promises there.” The smile was gone and a serious look replaced it. “Make no mistake, this is the real fucking deal now. While we’ve been comfortably secluded on this lovely paradise, things have started to spiral down the shitter in the real world. We’ve got conflicts in two sectors with war on the horizon, and that doesn’t even count the little insurrections that pop up every year or welfare riots. There will be no shortage of missions for you over the next month, so take the time on your ride to your duty station to do something for yourself.” The smile was back. “Because you sure as hell won’t have any time later.”

“On the command of fall out you will report to the instructors behind you for your assignments. The V3s you are wearing are yours. We understand what it takes to get the preferences in your LACS right so we aren’t going to take that away from you before throwing you into the shit.”

<That’s a relief.> Eve fell out when the command was given. The armor was exactly how she liked it, and it had taken her months to get it this way.

She got in line with everyone else to receive their orders. The plan was for them to take the same stealth sloops they’d arrived in to the main distribution points of the Commonwealth Infantry. There they would team up with their units and go wherever the hell they were needed.

“Berg, you’re over there with that group.” The same SSG that had thrown Eve over her shoulder when she’d been captured during SERE training pointed her to a group of four standing over by one of the sloops.

Eve hefted her duffel over her shoulder and walked over to the small gathering where everyone was speculating where they were going. Speculation ranged from the Rim to Earth where they’d have to put down Rats in full rebellion.

By the time the instructors were finished dividing up the new semi-Rangers between the sloops the largest group was Eve’s, and things only got better when SGM Queen joined them.

“Mount up!” He yelled, propelling them into motion.

There was no hesitation, and in under a minute they were all strapped in, their weapons secure, and running diagnostics of the emergency equipment stationed near them. They all remembered the flight out to Styx and were ready for a repeat.

Minutes later there was a soft rumble and the sloop lifted off and shot toward the heavens.

“Settle in.” The SGM ordered before crossing his arms over his chest and closing his eyes. “We’ve got a twelve-hour flight ahead of us before the real fun starts.”

Eve was both exhilarated and scared. All of her emotions were wrapped up into a confusing ball that she had no outlet for. The SGM seemed to notice this about all his former students. So he tossed them a bone.

“You all are lucky.” He smiled, which didn’t help Eve’s emotional state. “When I did my first ops we went into a mining colony that was refusing to pay its taxes.” He scoffed at the good old days. “You guys get to be part of a fleet-level action. You’re getting the whole experience with a good unit: Alpha Company, Third Battalion, Third Ranger Brigade. Hell, you might even get your first combat drop under your belts a couple of days in.” The SGM laughed.

Eve didn’t call that luck. The last thing in this world she wanted to do was another pod drop. After what happened last time it was tough to think about what could go wrong with one where people were actually shooting at you.

“Don’t worry.”

Eve didn’t know if the SGM was talking to her or the group.

“Syracuse is still half a day away. Catch some Z’s, come to grips with your humanity, and then get your heads in the game because it will be go time.”

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Two Worlds – Chapter 117

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Alcubierre Bubble, Space

 <Punch…dodge…counterpunch…block.> Coop ignored the pain that shot through his arm and into his shoulder. All things considered, he was doing a kick ass job.

The 2223rd and 2224th Infantry Battalions had finally deployed to York Sector in the Rim, and they were flying there in style. Normally, transportation was handled by the fleet of troop transport ships the Fleet had ready, but things didn’t always work out the way they were supposed to; especially when it was an emergency deployment. Suddenly having to find a ride for two thousand grunts and all of their gear was a monumental logistical task. Luckily, this wasn’t the first time the Commonwealth had faced a situation like this.

The answer to the problem was interstellar cruise lines.

Coop thought that had come out of left field when him, Mike, and the replacements for the 2222nd were marched toward a half-kilometer long luxury liner. The crew stood next to the boarding ramp providing water, reassurance, and thanks for everyone’s service to the Commonwealth.

“The government owns a certain percentage of the industry. That way they earn some extra cash and always have transportation in case shit like this happens,” SSG Hightower explained as he led the way down to the lower decks where the HI enlisted were going to be berthed.

The SSG had a quick word with the officers and all the HI were able to break away from their units. Building espirit de corps and optimizing operational integrity by interunit cross training was the official line they were selling the brass, but really they just wanted to hang out and do their own thing.

That “own thing” wasn’t all fun and games.

Coop backed away and circled, shaking out his arms and spitting out a loogie thick with blood.

“Keep your hands up, Cooper.” SSG Hightower motioned a proper defensive stance. “You keep dropping your arms when you get tired. Suck it up.”

Among other things the five star luxury liner had available, one was a kick ass gym. It wasn’t nearly big enough for a bunch of ground-pounders who had nothing better to do for the multiple-day trip to New Lancashire other than work out, PMCS gear, or do pointless cleaning details. The place was always packed to the brim, but the one place that usually had a little bit of space was the anti-grav pit.

Normally, to blue-blooded guests the pit was a great way to simulate sky diving or any other number of stimulating activity. The HI had a different purpose for it, but it was no less stimulating.

The SSG had turned up the gravity to triple earth-norm and conducted combatives drills every few hours. That was why Coop was currently sweating, wore protective padding on his head, fists, and shins, and was bleeding from a cut lip.

Coop hadn’t taken the hit lying down though. Even if he lost, the SSG knew he’d been in a fight; but from the way things were going Coop thought he might actually stand a chance.

<I’ve got this.> Coop circled, rushed in to do a quick combination, and then feinted a retreat. When the SSG came after him, Coop unleashed a devastating side kick meant for the SSG’s torso.

<Motherfu…!> The kick never landed. The SSG smoothly slide to the side while wrapping his arm around Coop’s leg.

That left Coop hopping there with the SSG securely holding him by the calf. If this had been a real fight the SSG could have done some serious damage to Coop’s knee or ankle. All he had to do was yank one way and push the other and Coop would need a visit to the Battalion surgeon to repair torn tendons or broken bones.

But this was training, and thankfully SSG Hightower didn’t ruin Coop’s day. But that didn’t mean the SSG let him get away from looking like an idiot.

Coop hopped around trying in vain to lash out and score a hit on the SSG. He didn’t want to take the fight to the ground, the SSG’s ground game was light-years ahead of his, so he was left their trying to think of a way to counter the NCO’s iron grip.

The crowd around the edges of the pit ooohed and ahhhed as the two giants went at it. Bets were being taken, and people were screaming as they lost half their paycheck on these little bouts. Coop had put down a few bucks on himself to win this fight. The SSG had the better odds by a long shot, but you had to take risks to earn rewards.

<Doesn’t look like that’s going to happen today.> His eyes scanned the crowd until they met a familiar set of brown ones.

For the life of him, Coop couldn’t remember the girl’s name. He had the curves of her body memorized, but her name continued to elude him. <Jill…Jamie…Gisel?> He was a little rattled from the fight.

She was a PFC from another unit so there was no conflict of interest. Not that Coop would have given a shit if there was. They’d been fucking like bunnies over the last couple of days, and he could tell from the look in her eyes that he’d be getting another type of workout when this fight was over. His vision was much better than an average human so he saw the way her smartcloth tightened as she breathed deeply. Some sweat dripped from her forehead as she watched the two HI go at it, and the way she slightly bit her bottom lip was all the nonverbal communication that Coop needed.

He gave her a smile, which ignited an animal passion on her face, but that was cut short when a shot of pain rampaged through Coop’s body. The SSG still had his leg in a firm grip, and had noticed Coop was distracted; so he started repeatedly pummeling him in the hamstring. Getting punched in the hamstring hurt like a bitch, especially when the painful shockwave reverberated up toward his nuts.

Four punches and Coop lost his balance and went tumbling to the ground. Once he was down it was quick. The SSG fell on top of Coop, knocking the wind out of him, and using the momentary lung spasm to pass Coop’s guard. Straddling on top of him, the SSG unleashed a few punches to Coop’s unprotected face before pulling back.

“You’re done, Cooper. Not bad, but not great either. I will concede you were better than last time. “

Coop felt like an idiot thinking he could take the more experienced NCO, but he accepted the man’s hand and gingerly got to his feet. Most of the crowd was cheering, but there were a few boos for those who’d lost their money. Coop gave them all the finger and then locked eyes with, <Jennifer, that’s it..wait…no…> It didn’t matter. If eyes could suck a dick then she was going to town on him.

“Ok, that’s it!” Hightower took control of the rambunctious group with a few loud words. “Shit, shower, shave and be ready for formation at 1330. We’ll see what the afternoon’s tasks are.”

That gave Coop and what’s-her-face time for a forty five minutes quicky. From the way his leg spasmed when he put pressure on it, he’d probably just have to lay there on his back and take it from her. Not that there was a problem with that.

She approached him, her eyes locked on like a tractor beam with another woman in tow. The other woman, a PVT by the rank insignia on her shoulder, had a hungry look on her face.

“Oh sweet baby Jesus.” Coop muttered to himself thinking about what fun the three of them could have together.

Of course, when something awesome was about to happen to him something had to immediately ruin it.

“Attention all personnel! Soldiers of the 2222nd and 2223rd report immediately to Observation Deck Alpha. Attention all personnel! Soldiers of the 2224th report to Observation Deck Bravo. Attention all personnel.” The message repeated.

Coop looked over to the SSG who just shrugged and started yelling for people to haul ass to their assigned observation deck. Coop looked back and the two women were gone, already scrambling to get where they needed to be. The loss of the three-way hurt Coop’s ball more than the hamstring punches, but he put that aside to get to observation deck alpha along with everyone else.

Observation Deck Alpha was mind-blowing. They’d styled it like an ancient Greek amphitheater. Everything was ornately crafted stone or marble. Even the seats looked cold and uncomfortable, but they looked out onto a thick piece of armorplast and beyond that was the open void of space – or it would be once they exited the Alcubierre Bubble.

The stadium-style seating only sat about five hundred, and since Coop got there later he was forced to stand in the back. Not that it mattered much. No one would be able to see over him anyway, so he leaned against the back wall and let people move around him. He kept his eyes peeled for, <Jean, I’m positive that’s it. Or…maybe not. I know it begins with a J. Is it Jean or Gene?>

Whatever the case he didn’t see her in the mass of people filtering in and mingling. They stood around aimlessly for five minutes before anything happened.

“All hands, prepare for transition in three…two…one…”

Coop watched the armorplast as they went from an Alcubierre bubble traveling faster than the speed of light to normal space travel. Everything in Alcubierre looked like white static. At “three” a tiny black dot appeared in the static and over the next two seconds it rapidly expanded as the liner shed the bubble and popped into normal space.

There was a collective gasp at the transition, and then the rapid return of conversation.

“Lock it up!” A tall woman with SGM insignia on her shoulders marched out onto the stage. “Battalion, Atten-hut!”

A thousand people braced to attention as a man with the golden stripe of a lieutenant commander walked out onto the stage.

“At ease.” A podium rose from the stone and the 2223rd’s commander stopped behind it.

Behind him the armorplast stared to display icons and information. Not only was it a protective barrier between the soldiers and space, but it was also the biggest holo-display Coop had ever seen. He recognized more of the icons from his training, and one stood out beyond all the others.

The theater went silent as everyone recognized the two crash buoys.

“Welcome to York Sector System 1552.” The LCDR’s voice was particularly emotional. “While we were all training, are brothers and sisters in the fleet were out here fighting and dying.” He tapped his PAD and information enhanced on the large display behind him.

DD 547 Barton and DD 783 Nightingale appeared along with a full rundown of their specs. Coop did some quick math and his stomach sank.

“We fought a battle with the Blockies in this system less than a month ago. We lost two destroyers in that battle. Don’t let the politicians or media try to convince you that this was a skirmish, or a tussle, or us and the Blockies just bloodying each other’s noses. This was a BATTLE, and we lost over five hundred spacers and infantry in that fight.” He fell silent and let everyone take that in.

“I’m not showing or telling you this to bum you out or ruin this nice little pleasure cruise we’ve been on for the last few days. I’m telling you this so this battalion is ready to get dropped in the shit. Make no mistake, this is a war zone. We are at war with the Blockies in this sector no matter what the politicians say in New Washington. If you come across a Blockie soldier you will engage and destroy them with extreme prejudice. Am I understood!?”

“Yes, Sir!” Coop winced as a thousand voices laced with anger roared through the enclosed space.

“Good.” The commander looked around and gave his soldiers a nod. “Sergeant Major.”

The woman strode up to the podium and started to run through a basic operations order of what they were getting into. Coop didn’t pay attention to most of it because this wasn’t his battalion, but he paid close attention when they went over the rules of engagement. Those would be universal throughout the sector.

There wasn’t any “only fire unless fired upon” crap. The enemy was defined and easily identifiable. The Blockies wouldn’t hide and neither would the Commonwealth. When they met in battle there would be no misunderstanding who was who.

Coop found himself wanting to go another ten rounds with SSG Hightower. His adrenaline was pumping and he was amped up when they were dismissed a few hours later. They were scheduled to be in the system for a while to drop off two companies to reinforce the brand new FOB Dietrich – named after the fallen task force commander who’d died in the battle.

The extra time gave Coop time to find Jeannette – it turned out that was her name. When he found her, he picked her up, threw her over his shoulder, and marched her right back to his room. She didn’t complain. If anything, the action turned her on even more. The third woman didn’t tag along though. Jeannette wanted him all to herself.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 13

 

“Walk me through it one more time.” Mastermind gripped the two railings and took a tentative step forward.

Daisy groaned as she stood next to him. She was ready to catch him if he fell, even if the old Hero chewed her ass out for it. His statement was two-fold. First, he wanted to walk through the course his physical therapist set up again, and Daisy didn’t like how much the ninety-five-year-old was pushing himself after getting shot. Second, he wanted her to run him through the attack on her home for the twentieth time.

“How about we take a seat and I’ll talk you through it?” She hoped he’d meet her halfway.

“No.” He stomped on the compromise. “I need to be able to run if I ever run into these people again, and to do that I need to be able to walk first. Let’s do this.”

Daisy was ready with a comment about him being a stubborn ass, but she swallowed it and resumed her watchful presence over the recovering legend.

“Topher and I were staking out the house after you got shot. You remember getting shot don’t you? It probably hurt a lot.”

“Smart ass.” Mastermind continued his exercises one step at a time. “And then…”

“The countermeasures go off in my house and when we go to check it out that bitch jumped right through my front wall.”

“Stal.” Mastermind corrected her.

After the first time she’d run through the story and given him the descriptions of the attackers he’d quickly identified the strongwoman as Stal, which was Russian for steel. According to Mastermind, she was a former KGB agent that they’d met and tangoed with in Afghanistan in ’86. Daisy’s task force had been working with the mujahedeen to stall the Russian invasion when Stal had dropped from a helicopter into a meeting of elders with the mission of assassinating them. She was basically the Russian female version of Rambo except more badass.

Mastermind had to go into her memories and bring out this one, and she almost wished he hadn’t. Stal was brutal and ruthless. She’d nearly killed Berserker in the fight and only retreated when Daisy started to fuck with her life-thread. Even then, it was like grabbing a steel wire and trying to pull it apart. It would have taken time, and her Spetsnaz backup didn’t give Daisy the time to get the job done. They saved the elders, which won them some goodwill from the people, but the fight was a draw.

After the fall of the Soviet Union a couple of years later, Stal went into business for herself. She was a highly paid, highly motivated mercenary that had jobs on her record from Hong Kong to Bogotá. Kevin could think of dozens of reasons why Stal would be ambushing Daisy in her home, but the simplest one was unfinished business. Stal and Daisy had fought to a draw before and now Stal wanted to put a W in her column.

It didn’t help that the woman was tougher than steel. She reminded Daisy a lot of Casey Williams in that way, if Casey was a psycho bitch. <Strong, but a lot tougher than she looks.> Daisy mentally sighed before continuing her explanation.

Surprisingly, the black blob girl – who the DVA was having trouble identifying– did not surprise Mastermind at all.

“Nightingale finally surfaced,” he’d said when Daisy told him about the nullifier.

“Nightingale?” Daisy was the only one confused until he unlocked those memories for her.

Daisy had thought Stal was hardcore but Nightingale – the codename for a former Krezic special operations officer – was a whole different brand of crazy.

“Her power has gotten more versatile.” Mastermind frowned when Daisy ran him through the interaction.

Daisy and Mastermind had met Nightingale while doing some regime destabilization in Krezic in the mid-eighties. Back then, the nullifier was an up and coming officer with a particular set of skills that made her the perfect choice for gathering up the island nation’s Supers and Powereds and handing them over to the regime.

She secreted the black goo-like substance from her pores. The goo had the actual nullification properties, and she’d been able to wear the goo like armor. Her control had gotten better in the last thirty years. Daisy’s memories of her were more of a gelatinous blob than someone in compression armor, and then there was the added surprise that she could put the armor on other people.

<That’s just awesome.> Daisy wanted to pound her head against the wall, and Mastermind hadn’t even gotten to the best part.

In addition to a non-power based affinity for tracking people down, Nightingale was also a master of enhanced interrogation. The island nation, even under new management, still remembered what Nightingale could do decades later.

The DVA had been more than a little interested to learn that Nightingale was on US soil. Their intelligence didn’t have much on her after the Republic fell. A lot of people thought she was dead, others thought she went to work for the new government, and some even believed she was working freelance like Stal. All of that made for a clusterfuck of opinions when Mastermind confirmed it was her.

Now the people in Washington were trying to puzzle out if this was a rogue organization or a state-sponsored attack by a foreign government. Daisy didn’t really care as long as they found and locked Nightingale up. A woman like that would make even the notorious Reaper lose sleep at night.

“They all grabbed the guy at the end and the world went all kaleidoscopey before they vanished.” Unlike the first two, Mastermind didn’t know who the third member of the bad-guy dream team was.

He had a few candidates that he was vetting through some of his sources. One was a former transporter for a Colombian drug cartel that decided to kill his employers and take over the business. The other was a central American revolutionary who didn’t like the US’s support of the government. Both were teleporters with distortion aftereffects of their abilities. Mastermind just needed to narrow it down to which one was the culprit.

“Hmmm.” He grunted as he finished walking the course the last time.

Daisy helped ease him down into the wheelchair. It wasn’t the first time she realized how fragile her old friend’s body was. Even all the healing in the world couldn’t fix old age – unless you were Hallow, and Daisy hated that asshole. It was a stark contrast to Daisy’s young and fit body despite being less than a decade younger than the almost-centenarian.

She’d known for a long time that she was going to get to a point in her life that all of her friends were going to die while she remained. This quasi-immortality was as much a curse as it was a blessing. She’d already lost a lot of those friends to other enemies: See-through, Dreadnaught, and most of her graduating class from Lander were gone. Her parents were long gone and she didn’t have any family left, aside was a few second cousins that didn’t even know who she was and couldn’t for security reasons.

<I was a moron.> She remembered when she thought the side-effects of her ability were a miracle. They were a curse, and the worst part about it was that if she didn’t accept that curse then innocent people would get hurt. Bad people would do bad things that she had the power to stop…at a price.

All of that flashed through her head as she helped Mastermind into his wheelchair. <That stubborn old son-of-a-bitch has at least another decade in him as long as he stops getting shot.> She convinced herself.

“Stop looking at me like some geriatric old fart.” The looks she gave him had been fleeting, but he’d been looking for the little things in people for a long time. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine. We need to worry about the team.”

The other two members of their covert squad were still MIA. Mastermind had reached out to Berserker but hadn’t heard anything back. Night was a whole different story. He didn’t even know where to start with her, so he reverted to their old form of communication. He left newspaper ads in the help wanted section and whispered into the shadows whenever he got the chance. It made the old man look completely off his rocker unless someone knew the logic behind it. So far, nothing from their old spy sorta-friend.

“And your boyfriend?”

That last part caught Daisy off-guard.

“Topher?”

“Yeah, I heard he got banged up in the scuffle. He doing ok?”

Daisy smiled at the look on her old friend’s face. He looked genuinely happy for her.

“He’s fine. Aside from his parents being in town, he’s doing great.”

“Do they have extra protection at his place?”

Since Topher’s parents had been spotted with Daisy and Mastermind there was a good chance someone with Stal or Nightingale’s skill sets would find out who they were.

“They’ve got an unmarked car sitting outside the house and a member of the Protectorate inside. At night Topher and I take over, and the DVA added a few countermeasures to give everyone a heads up if we have unwanted guests. They’re about as secure as we can make them without locking them away in the HCP or some DVA safehouse, and with how they feel about Supers they would just love that.”

She didn’t go into it with him; he had bigger things to worry about than her boyfriend’s biased parents.

“Good. We don’t get a lot of opportunities to love in our line of work, and after all the shit you’ve gone through you deserve it.”

It was a touching moment that she just couldn’t pass up. “Are you getting soft on me old man?” She punched him lightly in the shoulder.

“You’re calling me soft. I saw how you went straight to the donuts when you got here.”

They laughed as she wheeled him back to the infirmary. HCP students parted around them as they ran to and from classes. They knew better than to jostle Professor Meyers and the old man who all the other professors showed a deep amount of respect to.

<Plus, I’m sure he could still take a few of the underclassman. Even with a fresh bullet wound.> Daisy was confident she still had time left on this Earth with her old friend.

 

***

 

Lilly sat back and sighed. Less than twenty-four hours ago she’d been in an underground prison cell unlikely to see the light of day for anything but her court appearances. Now, she was on a beach in the south pacific, soaking up vitamin D, and drinking something fruity and full of rum. There were only a few ways life could get better.

She rolled over on her beach chair – on the deserted beach – and undid her bikini top to avoid tan lines on her back. Good thing Mika was more of an indoor person or he might have had a stroke. She closed her eyes and let the sun’s rays beat down on her. She felt the sweat starting to cover her body, she felt the kiss of the light breeze, she felt everything.

<Never going back to prison,> she thought sleepily to herself as she dozed off.

After the breakout, it had been hard to get Lilly to come to her Uncle’s private island. She only wanted to do two things: get revenge and find Seth. Since she could do both of those things in Orlando it seemed like a done deal from her perspective.

Armsman had eventually talked her out of it. “You need to lay low for a bit, Kid. Everyone and their mother is looking for you in the states, so the best place to be is not there.”

There was sound logic in the old villain’s statement, but she was young, free, and pissed. The last thing she was looking to do was something logical. Love wasn’t logical.

Because she was sure more than ever that she loved Seth Abney.

Eventually they compromised.

Seth would have to wait. Armsman made the point of him already being in a lot of trouble over not seeing her as Wraith the first time. The DVA would be watching and questioning him after her escape. If she wanted to protect Seth, the best way was to stay away…for now. He did let her pick up a few things though.

After teleporting away from the Heroes she’d stopped off in a few places around the globe. The flat across the Atlantic was automatically paid monthly so no one knew she’d been in an American supermax prison. She was able to get in just fine and set up the countermeasures if anyone followed. From there she jumped three more times to barren and inhospitable locations before ending up on her uncle’s little slice of paradise.

Everything seemed perfect on the outside, but the inside wasn’t so great. After her tanning session, Lilly put her top back on and headed back in. The above ground house was small and in keeping with the isolated island theme, but the underground bunker lived up the Armsman’s reputation. It was lavish and full of expensive things, including trophies of his time as a villain, a computer system that had Mika drooling over himself, an assortment of drinks that had left Lilly sleeping next to the porcelain throne after her first night of celebrating, and a completely equipped medical room for emergencies.

Currently, the room held her father.

“Hey, Dad.” Lilly walked in and dropped her towel and suntan lotion on a nearby chair. “Caught a few waves this morning.” Lilly wasn’t a surfer, but she was able to stand up on a board. “Then I worked on my tan. You wouldn’t believe how pale you can get from being underground for months. Of course you wouldn’t, you and Uncle Curtis never got locked up. I never really thought about that before, but now I know you both deserve a standing ovation. From all the stories you’ve told me, you are two lucky sons-a-bitches.”

“It has nothing to do with luck.” Armsman appeared and gave Lilly and her father a surprisingly soft look.

“I know it’s all planning, rehearsing, and execution, but you guys had to have had luck on your side to get away with all the shit you pulled.”

“We were just that good.” Armsman smiled. “And it’s good you’re talking with him. They say he can still hear us.”

“I know.” Lilly didn’t let the sadness leak onto her face.

Her father, the infamous supervillain Hellgate, lay motionless on the bed. Monitors were attached to several parts of his body. A dialysis machine was running nearby to keep his blood clean, several IVs were keeping him hydrated and taking care of any infections. He looked peaceful, like he was taking a nap, but Lilly knew different. Her father was as good as dead, and it was all the blonde bimbo bitch’s fault.

<You’re going to die Reaper. I’m going to fucking rip out your heart and shit down your throat.> She didn’t know how she’d do it, or when, but she knew it was going to happen one way or another. Lilly could be very persistent in punishing people who’d royally pissed her off.

“Mind if I have a few words?” Armsman asked.

“He’s all yours.” Lilly collected her beach things and headed back to her room.

A nice shower to wash off the sand and sweat was what she needed. After that a few light layers that left only a few things to the imagination were what she needed for the next part of her day. She walked to the opposite side of the house and pushed open a heavy door. A blast of cold air hit her in the face as she entered Mika’s computer sanctuary.

Dozens of monitors showed everything from world news to computer code. A few showed avenues of approach around the island, but all of those were clear. It was dozens of miles to the nearest island, and aside from a routine supply run by a family of smugglers nothing ever came out to this island.

“Hey, Wraith.” Mika perked up at seeing her, and how the cold air in the room made other things noticeably perk up beneath her thin clothing.

“What’s going on today, Mika.” She tried to stay business-like. “What’s he up to?”

Mika’s smile faltered, but he recovered quickly. “He went in and out of his apartment complex on time for classes. I’ve caught a few sightings of him throughout the day, but I don’t want to go into the school’s systems too much. The DVA and Heroes are monitoring them, and I don’t want them to trace the signal back here.”

“I’m sure you’ve got it all under control, Nano,” she switched to his hacker villain name. “From what you’ve showed me so far you’re one of the best.” That comment made Mika blush, but she ignored it. Her eyes were on the screens.

A few frames of Seth walking around the West Private campus were on loop for her benefit. <Damn he’s a good-looking man.> She kept her libido in check and studied him closer.

Seth looked a little ragged around the edges, and there was a scowl on his face. Mika reported that the DVA was following him whenever he wasn’t on campus, and Lilly felt the need to find that tail and snap their necks. Her Seth wasn’t a science experiment to be watched and studied. They needed to be together doing whatever the hell they wanted.

<Like the Caymans.> Lilly had many interesting experiences in her life, but the Christmas trip to the Caymans with Seth was probably the most at peace she’d ever been. Drinking and screwing into pure bliss could have that effect on a person.

“Where are his financials?” She looked around for the folder that Mika usually had waiting. That was the first sign she registered that something was off.

“So, Wraith, I think we shouldn’t be digging so much into him you know? It’s kind of an invasion of his privacy.” Mika stuttered in a poor attempt to stall her.

“Mika.” Lilly didn’t even realize she’d crossed the room and was in the technopath’s face. “Give me his fucking financials now.” There was a dangerous undertone in her voice that had him scrambling to obey.

The manila folder appeared faster than she could say “Abra Kadabra”. It was pretty short. After paying for tuition and rent there hadn’t been much activity. There were some food purchases here, gas there, and it was all pretty normal until the last few lines.

Clothing store purchases were the last three items on the report. Usually, that wouldn’t be a big deal. Seth was a stylish guy and he upgrade his wardrobe a few times a year, but not at places like Forever 21. Lilly didn’t even feel the page rip as she turned it so fast to see the copies of the receipts.

<Dresses, halter tops, a pair of flipflops, and a few BRAS!> She couldn’t control her shaking as pure unadulterated rage poured into her. She didn’t even notice how the lights seemed dim as darkness radiated off of her.

“Wraith?” Mika’s eyes were wide as he witnessed the display of power.

“Who is she, Mika?” There was murder in her voice. “What is her social security number? Where does she live? What is her schedule? And where is the best place to kill her?”

“I…um…” Mika stumbled over his words.

“LILLY!” Her uncle’s voice cut through her and she felt the rage dissipate, along with the darkness. “What the hell is going on?”

“She saw the financials,” Mika said when she didn’t offer a reply.

“Oh that,” Armsman scoffed and waved it away like a bad smell.

“What!?” The rage and darkness returned.

“Calm down.” He stated firmly as he walked over and put his hand on her shoulder. The brightness in the room returned and Mika sighed in relief. “Don’t read too much into these things.”

“Don’t…” Lilly sputtered, unable to bring forward the rage when she was overcome by shock. “Some bitch is stealing my man.”

“More like he’s using her as a rebound.” Armsman kept his hand firmly on her shoulder. “It is reasonable when he felt betrayed by you and thought he wasn’t ever going to see you again. The real questions are going to get answered now that you’re free. Now we’ll watch him closely to see what happens next. That’ll tell you whether or not he’s worth it.”

“And if he’s not?” The pang of sadness that lanced through her heart was too similar to what she felt when she talked to her father’s barely surviving body.

“If he’s not worthy then we’ll kill him and his new play thing. That’s the least that you deserve.”

The love that was in her uncle’s statement brought a smile to her face. “I’m sure it won’t come to that. I’ve got faith in Seth.”

“Time will tell.” Armsman leaned back in one of the chairs. “Let’s get to work, Nano. Time to decide the fate of a promising young man.”

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I’m on TDY from Hell – Man’s Best Friend

Gerry sat cross-legged on the ground with half a dozen tomes spread out in a crescent moon shape around him. His eyes darted back and forth between them gathering information and storing it much more quickly and effectively than a human brain was capable of.

He’d moved the table to the opposite side of the room with a thought, which cleared a large open space for him in the center. In the open space he’d drawn a perfect circle. It was drawn in something sticky and red that had a strong smell of iron. That circle was divided into six sections and in each section a symbol was drawn. Those symbols were still drying, and one had begun to drip.

<Damn.> Gerry used his thumb to wipe away the leakage and return the symbol’s integrity.

The six symbols had varying levels of depth to them. They were more than something sketched out on the hardwood floor. They meant something more.

Gerry double checked all of the symbols, and then waved a hand and half the old, leather-bound books closed with a ominous SNAP. His first creation circle was complete.

He took a deep breath and smiled as the power of his demesne flowed into him unencumbered. It had been collecting for days, and it felt like submerging his head into an ice bath. It shocked him down to his core, and he felt his human form strain to contain it all. He pulled until he couldn’t hold anymore and channeled it into the circle.

The outer perimeter shimmered and glowed a deeper, sinister red before flames lept into the air. The scarlet tongues of fire didn’t scorch the hardwood or even heat up the penthouse. If anything, they gave the room a more cheerful glow.

<It’s ready.> Gerry consulted the remaining tomes and gathered the energies around him. He’d never done this before and he didn’t want to waste what he and his demesne had already collected.

The first symbol he had written in his own blood was the ancient alchemic sign for water. The inverted triangle shimmered just as the outer perimeter of the circle had, but it didn’t burst into flame. Instead he smelled an ocean breeze and tasted salt on the tip of his tongue. The symbol turned blue and rippled as he infused it with the natural element pulled from the environment around him. He used the skills he’d learned as a martial magician. It wasn’t that much different from pulling his human Chi and forming it into weapons.

Once the symbol was stable with a full amount of energy he tied it off and moved on to the second symbol. The symbol for Earth, a prerequisite for creating any creature in this realm, was nearly identical to the inverted triangle meaning water. The difference was that a line was draw horizontally through the triangle. Gerry focused beneath the foundation of the building and felt the warmth of the planet itself. He smelled richly turned soil as he channeled the power into the symbol. Instead of glowing it seemed to darken and grow more solid than the floor it was written on.

While the water symbol rippled, the symbol for Earth stood firm and resolute. It was the foundation for what he was trying to accomplish.

<Two down, six to go.> He felt a surge of excitement as he consulted the tomes again. There was just something about playing god that was intoxicating.

The third symbol was the symbol for air, a regular triangle with a horizontal line through it. As he reached up and pulled power from the atmosphere he didn’t smell or taste anything. This time he felt absolute freedom coarse through him. It was the opposite of the firmness of the Earth.

As power poured into the air symbol it became nearly intangible. To anyone else it would have looked like a wisp of nothing, but Gerry could see the power anchored to the section of the circle.

<Now on to the fun stuff.> The natural elements were the foundation of what he was creating, but to fulfill his mission it needed his own infernal touch.

“Wrath.” He muttered, pulling from his demesne and harnessing the anger and violence that he’d collected from the city.

It was surprising that such a simple symbol could create so much power. It was another horizontal line, curved upward at each edge like a scythe. In the center, pointing down and slightly outward were two more lines that looked like a mix between fangs and a curved sword blade. It burned the same red as the encircling fire, and Gerry could feel a rise in his bloodlust that he had to beat back before tying off the power.

“Gluttony.” He whispered the name for the fifth symbol.

It reminded him of an upside down smiley face, without the eyes, and if it was on the face of a mad-man. The symbol ate the power Gerry pumped into it like some ravenous beast. It roiled when he cut off the flow, and settled into shimmering blackness, like when oil sat on top of water.

“And lastly, a dab of Pride.” Gerry felt his chest puff out, his back straighten, and his chin rise as power flowed through him, from his demesne, into what looked like a tortured Y. It glowed with a golden color that reflected every image in its best light.

Gerry took a deep breath and exhaled. The ritual had taken power from several sources and his human husk was feeling the results. But he wasn’t done yet. Six fully empowered symbols of natural and infernal power waited for his command inside the creation circle.

All he needed to do was be God.

He got to his feet and rubbed his hands together. He channeled more power into the circle’s perimeter to ensure nothing leaked. He double checked the seals, took another peak at the tomes, and clapped his hands together.

BANG

A mini shockwave of creation exploded as the lines dividing the circle’s section vanished and the symbols exploded to cover as much space as possible. Earth, air, and water rushed to the center. They pushed past the emotional energies to form the foundation. Wrath, greed, and pride fought each other for space as the natural elements started to harden.

<Now!> Gerry sliced his palm with a knife and splattered blood on the construct.

It recoiled at first, but then the blood penetrated the weak areas. The thing shuddered as infernal power flooded into it. Wrath, gluttony, and pride took the opportunity to enter the construct as well.

<Easy…easy…> Gerry took hold of his creation with his mind and started to gently bend it to his will.

He looked down at a picture he had and worked off that. Time flew by as he created, but he didn’t notice any of it. He was completely engrossed in his work.

Finally, he was satisfied. He pulled back from his creation and let the circle of fire dissolve. The hardwood was undamaged and all signs of the creation circle were gone – until a claw reached out and dug a shallow groove in the wood.

“Woof.”

“No!” Gerry admonished the creature by waving a finger in its face. “Bad Dog!” A carpet appeared underneath his creations feet, causing it to jump in surprise and start wagging its tail.

“Sit.”

The dog obeyed and a large bone appeared at its feet. It went to work chewing it to pieces while Gerry sat back and watched.

<Now what should I name you?> His thoughts were interrupted as he felt a presence approaching the edges of his demesne.

“Stay.” The dog continued to chew on its toy and didn’t move as he approached the elevator.

A few seconds later it dinged and opened to reveal Vicky and another Soulless that Gerry hadn’t met.

“Sir,” Vicky bowed. “I’ve brought…” she caught sight of the dog, “…what the fuck is that thing?”

Calling it a dog was a bit of a crude classification. It was three feet tall on all fours with short black fur that bristled when it realized Vicky was addressing it. Hellfire burned in its eyes as it got to its feet and opened its massive maw. Swirling darkness stirred in its gullet while thick needle-like teeth gnashed in agitation.

“Easy boy.” Gerald put a hand out and the dog listened.

<That’s the beauty of being something’s creator. Absolute loyalty is a built in feature.>

“That thing is butt-ugly.” Vicky grimaced, which got her another growl.

“It is magnificent, Dux.” The other Soulless got on one knee in submission. “I have never been in the presence of a Hellhound, but it is a truly breathtaking creature. “

“So that’s not just a butter-face dog?”

Both Gerry and the new fellow shot her glares. Gerry’s hound was back to ignoring her though. He was too focused on his bone.

“Infernals have used Hellhounds as soul hunters for centuries. Give the masterful creature a scent and it will track it’s pray to the end of the earth, kill it, and eat its soul.”

Gerry was starting to like the new guy.

“Enter.” He allowed them to step into his demesne. “And who are you?”

“I am Anton, Dux, an emissary from my lord in Charleston. I have a message from him and Lord Lucifer.”

That put Gerry on edge, but he didn’t let it show. The last thing he needed was another Dux butting into his territory while he was still building his powerbase.

“What does your lord have to say?”

“My lord wishes to congratulate you on your ascension. He and the previous Dux had a mutual understanding and business relationship that was profitable to both parties. My lord simply wishes for that to continue.” Anton remained bowed the whole time he spoke.

“Do you have details of this arrangement?”

“Of course, Sir.”

“Leave them with Vicky. I will review them shortly, but as long as nothing is too arguable I don’t see any reason why a mutual partnership, where we both benefit, can’t continue. I will send word for you when I have completed my review.” He didn’t want to give any ground, so as long as there were no concessions within his territory Gerry wasn’t opposed to an alliance.

“Yes, Dux.” Anton bowed deeper and returned to the elevator. He knew when he was being dismissed.

Vicky…not so much.

“Why did you create a dog?” She looked around him at the heavily-muscled beast.

“Can’t I have a companion?” He teased as he went over to rub the infernal beast’s ears.

“I can get you a companion. A companion who will make you feel a lot better in the downstairs play area.” She frowned.

“You need to think a little farther ahead, Vicky.” He chided her. “I’m moving through these contracts and gaining the locals’ trust, but I’m going to have to start picking off the competition. The newest mystery martial magician in town is going to be the obvious suspect unless I have an alibi.”

He patted the hellhound’s head and a spark of enlightenment flared in his mind.

“I’m gonna call you Grimm.”

He grinned at Vicky, while Grimm drooled all over the carpet. He thought it was pretty clever, but the Soulless just rolled her eyes. Apparently, there were books and a TV show that already used the name.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 116

Noah Grisham

Location: CMS New Day, System 1776, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

<Steady…steady. Just a little bit farther.> Noah sat in the captain’s seat gripping the armrest with white-knuckled anticipation.

Eight-digit money signs were flashing in his mind with each kilometer crossed by the Collie ship, but he couldn’t let it get to him. The military vessel was doing roughly what he anticipated it would do, but to pull this off he needed it to do exactly what he wanted.

It was like luring a mouse into a trap. They’d put out the cheese and now they just needed to wait patiently to pull the string and trap it. It was all about timing and positioning. They needed to get the Collies into a position to take them under fire from both ships. Individually, the two pirate ships were ridiculously armed for something of their size and class; but in the end they were still a mining ship and a modular cargo ship. The gunboat was a ship with military-grade armor and weapons. This would take teamwork.

Unfortunately, teamwork wasn’t something pirates excelled at.

“He’s calling again.” Able informed with an annoyed scowl on his face. He’d been stroking his pistol for the past ten minutes with a faraway expression on his face.

Noah new that expression, his large mercenary friend was imagining all the contingencies of the operation. He was running through possibilities in his mind and playing out what could happen. Damaging the Collies ship was just step one. The ship needed to be damaged enough to not flee and not fight back, but not damaged enough to kill their mark. Thankfully, they knew exactly where to hit it. Their patron had given them rough blueprints of the ship and highlighted its weak points.

Step two was boarding the vessel. Since there were undoubtedly Collie marines onboard it was going to be a close quarters, bare-knuckled brawl once they got onboard. They had parasite craft that would attach to the hull and slowly drill through it, but numbers were the key. That’s really where Full Moon came into play. They had a ton of pirates ready to pillage the gunboat.

Noah counted on losing most of them in the fight. Collie marines didn’t fuck around. New Day would provide support during that phase of the operation. Step three wasn’t going to be as tough as taking the ship, but it was still going to be rough. It involved grabbing Gold, killing the crew of the Full Moon and escaping to collect the reward.

Noah had a plan, but that was literally thinking two moves ahead. That was all well and good from a strategic point of view, but he still needed to be in the present.

“They’re decelerating.” Able’s words cut through his mind like a plasma torch.

“No.” Noah calculated the trajectories with the new data and it didn’t look good. “Why are they going to sit at stand-off range? They see we’re in distress and they can’t help us sitting all the way out there.”

The pirate captain swiveled his seat around and brought up the gunboat schematics their source had given them.

“He’s still calling.” Despite the seriousness of the situation, Able still sounded bored.

“Tell him I’ll call him back when I fucking want to. God damnit! It’s like I’m babysitting a child!” Noah screamed, picking up a nearby spare circuit and chucking it across the bridge.

“Yeah, you were on speaker.” Able replied. “He hung up.”

Noah wanted to tear his hair out at all the incompetence he was surrounded with. The carefully planned op was slowly falling apart, and tens of millions of dollars was slipping through his fingers.

<I can fix this. I will get paid.> Determination flooded through him as he started working out different vectors.

He factored in the gunboat’s new data, Full Moon’s position, and their own derelict course. It took a minute, but he got it.

“Able, I need a controlled detonation of external pod two-two.”

That shocked the mercenary. “What?”

“Did I stutter?” Noah rounded on him with rage and excitement burning behind his eyes. “Blow the shit out of pod twenty-two. It’ll spin us to port and open up firing lanes again.” He expected the big Maccabee to jump into action. “DO IT! NOW! “He roared when the big man didn’t.

For what it was worth, Able finally jumped into action and scrambled down the ladder leading from the bridge to the innards of the mining ship.

<This will work. I’m sure of it.> Noah convinced himself as he watched the gunboat continue to decelerate.

He continued to ignore more calls from the Full Moon. The overgrown child would just have to wait.

“We’re good.” Able responded three minutes later. “Ready to blow pod two-two on your command.”

Noah double and triple-checked his math. When fifty million was on the line you wanted to be sure.  “Ready. Blow it in three…two…”

A loud beep and red lights started to flash around the cabin.

“No. No…no…no…NO!” Noah’s disbelief increased with each word. “Fucking imbecile!”

The pirate captain couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Full Moon had just lit up the approaching gunboat with active targeting sensors. Everyone within a light minute knew that the modular cargo ship was about to fire unknown, unauthorized weaponry at a Commonwealth flagged warship. If that didn’t scream pirate, Noah didn’t know what did.

“Able, abort!” He screamed into the comms. “DON’T blow it.”

“Ok.” The monotone reply made Noah relax a hair.

Until his screen started to light up with missile launches and energy cannon blasts.

 

Benjamin Gold

Location: CWS Argo, System 1776, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

“Deceleration in three…two…one…mark.” Spacer Gilmore hit the maneuvering thruster like a master pianist. The sequence of bursts flipped the small gunboat around so it’s engines were pointing in the opposite direction. Physics would do the rest. When they came to a stop, or as close to a stop as you could in space, they’d would be a comfortable fifty thousand kilometers from the New Day and an even more comfortable hundred and fifty million klicks from Full Moon, with New Day between them.

“Sergeant?” Ben switched to the marines’ frequency.

“We’re locked and loaded, Sir. Ready to launch on your orders.”

The small armored shuttle Argo had wasn’t standard issue to other gunboats. It was an addition likely to be put in future models depending on how it worked here. For the most part, a gunboat was the shuttle that was launched from a larger boat and ordered to dock with another station or ship to check it out. The problem with that was it left the entire gunboat vulnerable on approach. The same was still true for Argo’s shuttle, but it was smarter to only put nine lives in danger instead of twenty.

It was a cold logic, but the Fleet ran on numbers. The mission came first.

Plus, the marines lived for this shit.

“XO?”

“No change, Sir.” LT Briggs replied a she studied the holo-bubble.

“Geoffrey?”

New Day’s outputs remain steady.” Which meant the AI was seeing the same thing as their normal human eyes.

<Good.> Ben wanted to have all of his bases covered before launching this mission.

He still thought everything was going to be fine, but better safe than sorry.

“Sergeant, launch when we hit seventy-five thousand klicks.”

“Roger, Sir.”

With the shuttle’s thrusters and Argo’s acceleration behind it, the shuttle would only take a few minutes to cross the distance between the gunboat and the mining ship. It minimized the danger as much as possible, and still let Argo cover the shuttle.

The distance counter shrank quickly over the next few minutes until it was time. Then suddenly the bridge lights turned red and alarms started blaring.

“Abort launch! Evas…” Ben didn’t even get to finish before he felt the jerk of the ship maneuvering.

“Missile launch!” Despite the surprise attack LT Briggs was cool as a cucumber.

“Six birds inbound… ETA twenty seconds…tracking.” Chief Yates’ fingers blurred across his station.

All Ben had to do was sit back and watch as his bridge crew went into action. <That training really paid off.>

LT Briggs was already alerting damage control teams, which were admittedly thin since the marines were tucked into their armored shuttle. Chief Yates was already directing countermissiles that were spitting out of Argo’s tubes. The Helm was turning the ship perpendicular to the enemy fire to interpose the gunboat’s thicker hull and armor between the missiles and the crew. SP2 Olvera was already broadcasting the hostilities to Cobalt Station and trying to jam the enemy’s comms.

It wasn’t a well-oiled machine yet, but it was a hell of a lot better than what Ben had been working with before. That gave him the opportunity to look at the big picture.

Full Moon was the one firing. New Day’s radio chatter made that clear. The captain was practically crying to help them get out of the line of fire. Helm was already moving horizontally across the ellipse, so the mining ship would avoid the gunboat’s counter attack.

Explosions started to dot the holo-bubble as each of Argo’s countermissiles found a target. That just left two missiles incoming, and those didn’t get much farther as point defense lasers slashed out and detonated them.

“Chief, try to wound them if possible. Go for the engines.”

“Aye, sir.” If the ship’s NCOIC was upset about the order he didn’t let it show.

Ben watched as one of the modular cargo crates jettisoned from the ship and floated into space. Full Moon had three on each side of the ship, giving her a total of thirty six missiles if all the pods were missile pods.

<We need to end this quickly.> He expected the next salvo to contain double the amount of missiles.

The missiles themselves were obsolete by decades, and were easy to pick off, but quantity was a quality all its own. Argo was only a gunboat after all.

The gunboat shook slightly as two of her tubes fired, the ship rolled, and the other two tubes fired. The cherry on top was the fifty terawatt energy cannon steadily firing on the cargo ship. With those containers and the ship’s overall design, it wasn’t built for a standoff fight.

No countermissles flew out to meet Argo’s incoming salvo. Point defense started to light the space up with flares of energy, but it only took out one of the incoming missiles. Two missiles were moving faster than the third. Both were can openers. They detonated within a few kilometers of Full Moon. The remaining missile pods on the side of the ship were shredded by the hypervelocity rounds.

Nothing exploded because the pods protected the hull for the most part. Argo’s sensors could still pick up air and fluids leaking through the main hull, but Full Moon was still under control and executing evasive maneuvers. The ship was rolling to protect its damage when the third missile detonated. The cone of the anti-matter blast was a glancing blow, just what Chief Yates intended, but it was enough to wreck the aft portion of the ship where the engines were.

Full Moon spun like a top and then coasted dead in space.

“Go, Sergeant, Launch!” Ben ordered, and Argo vibrated from the armored shuttle’s ejection.

“Shuttle ETA eleven minutes, Captain.” Geoffrey informed him.

“Cover the shuttle, Chief. Do not let the pirates seize victory from the jaws of defeat.”

“Yes, Sir.”

With Full Moon’s lack of maneuverability it was an easy target for the energy cannons. The shuttle’s biggest problem would be getting through the growing debris cloud as the ship rotated aimlessly on its axis.

“Patch me into STRATNET when their boots hit the ground,” Ben ordered. “I want to see what they see.”

 

Sergeant Cassius O’Neil

Location: CMS Full Moon, System 1776, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Smoke filled the corridors of the pirate ship. O’Neil and his men couldn’t see anything with the naked eye, and were relying almost entirely on millimeter wave radar as they cleared the ship cabin by cabin.

“Watch your corners.” He reminded a PVT for the third time.

For a few of his men this was their first time in a real combat situation, and they were anxious.

“Corporal, make sure…”

“Contact!” The PVT that O’Neil had just reprimanded charged into a cabin alone.

“For the love of the Almighty.” The SGT posted up against the door as the PVT stumbled back out of the door, rounds ricocheting off the scales of his chest piece.

O’Neil grabbed the PVT with one hand and yanked him out of the way before one of the rounds punched through. With the other hand he grabbed a grenade, pressed the button, tossed it in the room, and manually pushed the door closed.

“Frag out!” Three seconds later the ship shook. “Move!” He yanked open the door and stepped aside to cover the hallway while a CPL, another PVT, and the overeager PVT rushed into the room.

There were a couple short bursts from an M3 and then it was silent.

“Clear!” The call came over TACCOM.

O’Neil stepped in to see the carnage. Four men were dead. Two were torn to bits by the grenade while the others had less grenade damage and more gunshot holes in them.  The SGT crossed himself and said a quick prayer for the dead. They might have been trying to kill him, but every human in the cosmos was a child of God. He had to always remember that.

“Next room,” he ordered, and they pushed forward.

The moved methodically through the cargo ship and only faced light resistance. The men weren’t ready for a fight. Most were already injured by the crippling of the ship, but they weren’t going to be taken alive. The punishment for piracy was severe, especially here out on the Rim. No one wanted to be sent to some moon to mine ice for decades.

The whole operation took less than twenty minutes before they reached the bridge.  It was sealed off with an old-fashioned automaton guarding the entrance. The machine didn’t last more than a few seconds and barely got any shots off.

O’Neil fashioned a breaching charge to the door and triggered it. It was a two-step device. The first tried to override the doors electronic commands. That only worked about half the time. If it did, it didn’t trigger the second step, which was the more direct of the two approaches. This door failed to open with step one, but step two blew it right off the wall and into the bridge. The shockwave killed the two guys standing beside the door ready to ambush the marines.

The nine marines flooded in and made short work of the remaining pirates. There wasn’t any talk of surrender, just a quick firefight that left one of O’Neil’s marines with an injured forearm. That marine was more pissed than hurt by the injury.

“Clear!” The SGT toggled TACCOM to beam the transmission back to Argo.

“Good work, Sergeant. We’re coming in. Stand bye to inventory, process, and retrieve any stolen good aboard.

“Yes, Sir.” The connection terminated, and the SGT turned to his men. “Corporal,” he called over his team leader and established a helmet-to-helmet private connection by patting the man on the shoulder. “I want you to take your team and wait by the entrance hatch. I’ll take mine to check out the undamaged pods. Make sure no one gets sticky fingers.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

They split up and went to work.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Rankings and Teams

Season 2- Sophomore Class Rankings

  1. Angela Martin- Angelic shifter
  2. Jason Cook- Advanced Mind (strong telekinetic, weak telepathy)
  3. Kimberly Goodman- blaster who can control the properties of the spheres she creates
  4. Erin Fisher- can animate inanimate objects
  5. Mason Jackson- super strength and durability
  6. Anna Fletcher- electrokinetic
  7. Teresa Shaw- multispecies shifter
  8. Anika Kemps- designation undeterminable, learns new powers over time (Strength, Speed, telepathy)
  9. Alexander Webb- augments muscles and bones into creature with enhanced physical attributes
  10. Seth Abney- Broad Spectrum Elemental Manipulator
  11. Casey Williams- super strength and durability (more so durability than strength)
  12. Lorelei Gilford- blaster (eyes), more durable than average
  13. Kyoshi Schultz- Advance Mind (Strong telepath, weak telekinetic)
  14. Liam Garrison- toxic obfuscator (breath) and produces neurotoxin with skin
  15. Simon Skylar- creates a 3-foot gravity field around himself
  16. Emilia Scarborough- cryokinetic
  17. Fiona Richardson- teleporter
  18. Rebecca Whitfield- speedster
  19. Natalia Romanoff- paralysis with eye contact
  20. Carson Long- explosive blows. Kinetic and thermal energy release.
  21. Oliver Carpenter- technopath
  22. Jacqueline Eaton- aerokinetic
  23. Ashley Bates- lesser advanced mind- bug control
  24. Richard Gibson- has the ability to alter his size with a corresponding change in strength and durability
  25. Danny Mason- Duplicator
  26. Janet Ibsen- light manipulator, creates a light-rope
  27. Blake Rhodes – muscle mimic
  28. Rowan Michaelson – (transfer student) conjurer

 

 

Season 2 Freshman Rankings

 

3. Isla Perko – defensive aura

16. Aiden Murphy – tattoos come to life

40. Scarlett Vaan – psychic surgery

 

Sophomore Teams

 

Team 1

Angela Martin, Kyoshi Schultz, Alexander Webb, Fiona Richardson, Natalia Romanoff, Oliver Carpenter, Blake Rhodes

 

Team 2

Jason Cook, Anika Kemps, Teresa Shaw, Liam Garrison, Emilia Scarborough, Danny Mason, Janet Ibsen

 

Team 3

Kimberly Goodman, Anna Fletcher, Casey Williams, Rebecca Whitfield, Jacqueline Eton, Carson Long, Richard Gibson

 

Team 4

Erin Fisher, Mason Jackson, Lorelei Gilford, Simon Skylar, Ashley Bates, Rowan Michaelson, Seth Abney

 

 

Two Worlds – Chapter 115

Noah Grisham

Location: CMS New Day, System 1776, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “He’s calling again.” Able, the large Maccabee mercenary looked across the cabin at Noah.

Noah tried very hard not to grind his teeth. Dental work out on the Rim could be very costly. Instead, he clenched his fists repeatedly around a squishy red ball. He took all of his anger at the immature, moronic, and childish nature of the Full Moon’s captain out on the ball.

It didn’t help that much. <Finding good help now-a-days is impossible.>

“What are the odds that he’ll call again if I don’t pick up?”

Able chuckled and shrugged. He didn’t get paid to coordinate their ragtag little task force. That was all Noah’s job.

“Fine,” the small pirate captain exhaled. “Put him through.”

The captain of Full Moon was a round man. He wasn’t particularly tall or large, just round. His double chin stared back at Noah through the ship-to-ship commlink and his beady black eyes looked surprised that he’d gotten through.

“Where is Captain Able?”

“The captain is busy at the moment preparing for the operation. How can I help you, Captain?”

“You can help me by putting the big putz on now!”

Noah kept the polite smile on his face while he imagined sneaking on board Full Moon and slitting the fat man’s throat in his sleep. The arrangement he and Able had was a good one. It kept Noah alive and in control of his ship, and it kept Able somewhat-rich and able to kill when he wanted to. It was a match made in hell and it worked. It just sucked at times like this when delicate operations were in motion and some ass clown started questioning things.

“He is unavailable, Captain. Can I take a message?” He tried not to keep the disdain out of his voice.

“The mark is late!” The round man smashed his fist on the station in front of him. “Our timetable is narrow and he’s late. I’m beginning to wonder if you aren’t playing me after all.”

That was the other bad part of working with pirates. They were notoriously untrustworthy.

“Alcubierre transit times are only estimates, Captain. Our window allows for another forty minutes before we have to move to Plan B. Captain Able requests that you remain calm until then.

“Don’t give me that shit you scrawny little piss-ant. Able is too busy to take my call but he knows I have legitimate worries and wants me to keep calm. I call bullshit. Put him on NOW!”

“Have a nice day, Captain.” Instead Noah cut the link. His pleasant smile transformed into a scowl and he started to furiously squeeze the ball.

<I can’t wait to kill that fat sack of shit.> Noah and Able had no intention of sharing the money with Full Moon’s fat captain and his crew.

“He does have a point.” Able threw in his two cents.

“Not you too.” Noah shot his much larger compatriot a glare. “We’re still good for Plan A as long as fatso doesn’t do something stupid.”

Currently, New Day was plodding along at the slow speeds of a typical asteroid mining ship away from Cobalt Station and toward the Cobalt Mining Corporation’s owned portion of the system’s asteroid belt.

Both pirate ships had checked in with the station several hours ago, gotten their assignments, and headed out to do their apparently legitimate work. New Day was assigned to extract the valuable minerals from a particularly large asteroid in the belt, and Full Moon was the cargo ship designated to transport that raw material to one of the Corporation’s many refineries.

They’d staggered their departure from the station. It was pretty standard protocol for a two-ship mining team. New Day actually had to have something ready by the time Full Moon arrived. Currently, Noah was about two hundred thousand kilometers ahead of Full Moon and doing a fuel-conserving burn toward the belt where they hoped to intercept the mark upon arrival in the system.

The plan’s brilliance was in its simplicity. New Day would have something vital break around the time Mr. Gold entered the system. They’d send out a distress call, which the Commonwealth Military was contractually obligated to respond to. Full Moon, while not capable of handling the issues themselves, would offer their assistance to the military ship like any good citizen. Once the mark was in range of the two pirate ships they’d attack, cripple it, and board to take their hostage. Then they’d get the hell out of dodge and collect their paycheck.

It was retirement level money. Able might very well take it and walk, but Noah couldn’t. Sitting on some tropical planet for the rest of his life would drive the small man crazy. He’d probably kill someone over something stupid and then spend the rest of his life behind bars.

There wasn’t going to be any retirement for him, but his ship was going to get some state of the art upgrades, and he’d have just about every whore on Tortuga walking bow-legged for a week.

<But I need to get this prissy little rich kid first.>

Noah had done his research and this Gold guy was worth a ton more than what they were going to ransom him for.

“I’ve got a reading.” Able was monitoring the hyper limit, and a small footprint had just appeared. It matched the rough description of what they were looking for.

“Game time.” Noah sent the quick message to Full Moon to follow their lead.

Able cranked up the engines and New Day started to rumble as their acceleration increased.

“Suit up.” Noah and Able shrugged into a pair of vacsuits. For what was about to happen they’d need them.

Their sensors updated a few minutes later. What once had been empty space was now a ship contact. CWS Argo’s unclassified information scrolled down their screen. It was exactly what their contact said it was going to be.

It was a big gunboat. Probably one of the biggest Noah had ever seen, but it shouldn’t be too big of a problem once they got them right where they wanted them. They just needed to follow the plan and everything should work out fine.

Noah let a few minutes go by before giving Able the nod to kick things off with a bang – literally. A charge on the hull exploded, blowing open a decent-sized hole and venting atmosphere and a whole lot of important other stuff into space. The damage looked worse than it was, and a lot of the debris were excess items that had been staged there to make the accident more convincing. Noah wasn’t stupid enough to actually cripple his ship with Full Moon nearby.

“Send the message.”

The SOS went out with an accompanying data burst about eight minutes after the gunboat made entry into System 1776. Any sooner and it would have looked conspicuous. But the data was all real and if the gunboat’s crew studied New Day’s information since they made transit they’d see that they were burning hard for the belt. That type of burn could lead to the cascading failure that was being transmitted in the SOS.

To even the most trained eye this looked like a legitimate call for help from a vessel registered to the corporation legally allowed to be in the system. No trap or plan was perfect, but Noah was pretty proud of the job he’d done.

<The Collies won’t even know what hit them.>

 

***

 

Benjamin Gold

Location: CWS Argo, System 1776, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “Three…two…one…transition.” There was a shudder and customary flood of nausea as Argo exited its Alcubierre Bubble and appeared on the edges of System 1776.

“Systems Check.” Ben sat in his command chair studying the holo-bubble as it steadily began to expand over the next minute.

“All clear, Captain.” LT Briggs confirmed after the departments had reported to her. “One contact moving at a high rate of speed toward the asteroid belt. Confirmed as a mining vessel for Cobalt Mining Corporation.”

“Good work everyone.” Ben got to his feet and looked over the bridge. “Keep an eye on that contact and plot a course to Cobalt Station. We’ll start there with a cursory inspection before moving on to patrol the system.”

“Aye, Sir. Plotting course for Cobalt Station.”

“Roger that, Sir. Keeping an eye on the contact.”

The crew of Argo had done a few drills on their trip out to the backwater system, and it had helped. If they ran into anything like what had happened in System 1552 they’d be able to do something about it instead of running for help.

“Lieutenant, you have the bridge.”

“I have the bridge.” Briggs stepped up to the command chair as Ben stepped down.

He’d been on duty for nearly the whole trip. It would be almost eight hours before they docked with Cobalt Station and he was determined to get at least a little shuteye before having to go aboard. Not only was he a representative of the Commonwealth Armed Forces, but he was also a major stockholder, and son of the CEO of Cobalt’s parent company. That alone was enough to put whoever was in charge over there on edge.

<I will keep it short and sweet. A simple inspection and then we are out. We can have this whole mission done in a few days and then I can get back to the real action in New Lancashire. If they plan a diplomatic mission I might be able to go along.> The last thought was a reach, but a man could only hope.

“Sir, LT Briggs requests your presence back on the bridge.” Geoffrey announced. “Sensors registered an explosion onboard the mining ship we were tracking. They are requesting immediate assistance.”

“Analysis?” Ben would get another recap from his XO when he got back to the bridge, but this was an excellent opportunity to measure the Semi-Intelligent Ship’s Interface’s report against what human minds would come up with.

“The ship was accelerating at the high end of its classification’s specifications. A blow out is entirely reasonable if the ship was not well maintained. Historically, Cobalt Mining Corporation has only met the minimum standard for maintenance. A passive analysis of the debris jettisoned from the explosion shows fuel, water, air, and parts of machinery. Measurements show that the amount of debris monitored would not necessarily lead to the seriousness of the SOS the crew is broadcasting. But I understand humans have a tendency to overreact, and broadcasting something more serious than the actual nature of the accident is a good way to ensure immediate assistance from nearby vessels. I believe the term for it is ‘better to ask forgiveness than permission’.”

“You got all of that from their data burst and a passive sweep?” Ben couldn’t hide how impressed he was.

“Yes, Commander Gold.”

“Good job, Geoffrey. Now let’s go hear what Lieutenant Briggs has to say.”

The XO said basically the same thing. She was still calculating the measurements of debris as they related to the seriousness of the alleged accident, but she came to the same conclusion.

CMS New Day was crying for help. She was hurt, but not seriously wounded. Either way Ben and his crew would render assistance as was their duty. He’d just need have a strongly worded conversation with the captain about how to remain calm in the face of danger.

“Plot a course.” Keep maximum safe distance and prep the shuttle.

Argo had one armored shuttle for ship to ship transfers when deployed. Its offensive abilities were zilch, and its cluster of point defense lasers couldn’t stand up too much, but it wasn’t designed for battle. It was designed to move cargo or people in situations exactly like this one.

“Sergeant O’Neil, get your squad prepared. We are going to be assisting this vessel.”

“Yes, Sir.” The marine looked happy to be doing something other than VR training.

“Sir, we’ve got another vessel approaching to the stern of the in-distress vessel.” There was a beep of an incoming message. “Sir, they are offering their assistance in any way we deem appropriate.”

“Distance?”

“The new vessel, CMS Full Moon is one hundred and eighty five thousand kilometers from New Day.”

“Order them to proceed here and await further instructions.” Ben pointed to a space on the holo-bubble.

Ben was going to put the stricken New Day in between Argo and Full Moon. He’d keep Full Moon as a reserve in case he needed them, but he wasn’t stupid enough to get himself sandwiched between the two unknown vessels.

“Geoffrey, keep an eye on Full Moon.”

“Yes, Commander Gold.”

<Better to ask forgiveness than permission.> He repeated what Geoffrey had said earlier.

He could deal with a freighter captain’s complaints about being treated suspiciously by his own military. An apology and a bottle of booze went a long way with the people who made the Rim their home. What Ben couldn’t allow was his command to be put in danger, and while he didn’t think that was the case he’d rather be prepared than suckered into a dangerous situation. His crew’s safety and the safety of his ship were his first priority.

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A Chance of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 12

“Target acquired.”

“Moving into position now.”

<A phone.> It was almost comical how the DVA had caught back up to Wraith. <A find my phone app. Wow.>

Seth watched it all unfold from his seat in Dean Ditmar’s office back in Florida. The DVA agents still flanked him, and occasionally shot him looks, but everyone’s eyes were on the large screen on the Dean’s wall. They’d been able to set up a VTC with the operation’s tactical operations center across the country.

They weren’t the only ones. Most of the HCP deans and half of the players in Washington were watching the operation unfold.

<Geez, she’s just one woman.> Seth knew it wasn’t just that, but still the amount of resources being allocated seemed extreme.

He knew Liz needed to be caught for what she’d done. She’d killed people, helped with a terrorist attack, and done a bunch of other stuff he didn’t want to think about. He also knew that the Feds needed to place all of the bad shit that had happened at someone’s feet. Without Seif al-Din, it was Wraith’s burden to bear.

That was why local and state police, SWAT, DVA, and a full Hero team stormed the apartment building when the signal was given. Seth wouldn’t be surprised if God himself was piggybacking on this assault with the amount of firepower that was being shoved into a single apartment.

They had access to the body cams the Hero team was wearing for the op, so they saw it all unfold in high definition.

“Breach in three…two…one.”

Some Hero with a type of explosive power put his hand on the exterior of the building. One second the wall was there the next it was like someone had glued TNT to the exterior. Plaster, drywall, and smoking wood obscured the footage while the assault team burst into the apartment.

There were three people inside, and Seth heard the Dean’s breath catch at the sight.

Some guy was wearing old OD fatigues from the Vietnam era and an obscuring mask. It would have looked ridiculous if he wasn’t a walking arsenal of guns, knives, and even a freaking sword were visible through the rapidly clearing debris. The second guy was short and looked like some type of tech villain. He couldn’t have looked more like a computer as fear flashed across his face.

But Seth lost focus on everything else when he saw her. She was standing in the middle of the group. The other two villains had a hand on either of her shoulders. Despite his best efforts, Seth could still remember those chocolate brown eyes staring into his after one too many drinks. Those perfect lips kissing him. Those hands doing all sorts of stuff that he didn’t want to tell the lovely DVA agents about.

She looked…harsh though. He features were more defined, she’d lost a bit of weight, but none of it where it counted. Her eyes were blazing though, and as the Heroes moved into the room a smartass grin formed on her lips, one that he’d seen on her more times than he could count.

She raised a hand, extended her middle finger to the swarming Heroes, and then was swarmed by darkness. The camera feeds went black and calls for SITREPs and for members of the team to sound off flooded the radios. Slowly the darkness leaked away, and when it was gone there was nothing there.

“Target’s vanished.”

“Son of a bitch.” The DVA agent who brought Seth in growled, while the Dean just shook his head sadly.

Seth didn’t know what to think. Emotions rushed though him that he had trouble understanding. He was angry. Angry that Liz had escaped after everything she’d done, but he was also impressed. She’d taken on a full assault by a Hero team and everything the local law enforcement could throw at her, and she’d literally vanished right in front of them. Underneath all of that was a speck of happiness that conflicted with his anger. No matter what she’d done, she’d been the first girl Seth really considered committing to. That was a big deal for him and those feelings didn’t just go away.

Those feelings were rearing their ugly head at the worst possible time. Seth’s heart ached a bit after seeing her. She looked different. Prison had done a number on her, and she might even be a little unhinged from the experience, but she was still Liz and he couldn’t help but have an ember of love for her.

All of that played across his face and he wasn’t able to hide it. He looked over and saw the female DVA agent watching him closely. He tried to school his features, but it was too late. Whatever she was going to take away from that brief show of emotion she’d already done it.

Really, Seth didn’t have anything to hide. He hadn’t helped Liz at all in her escape or at all since she’d been captured. The DVA would find no connection between him and his ex, but that hardly mattered. The look in that DVA agent’s eyes said that they had a suspect, and that suspect was him.

“Are we done here?” Dean Ditmar seemed more tired than usual.

“Are we, Seth?”

“Lawyer.” He stated simply for the hundredth time. After what he’d just witnessed he wasn’t saying jack shit to anyone about anything without legal counsel present.

The powers that be were going to be searching for another scapegoat and that sure as hell wasn’t going to be him.

“We’re done. For now.” The DVA agent drove that point home with her eyes. “This goes without saying but don’t go anywhere, Mr. Abney. We might have some follow up questions at some point.”

“You know where to find me.” Seth stood up, shouldered past the two agents guarding him, and headed for the door.

He needed to get out of the HCP. He needed fresh air, and above all he needed a drink. It was close enough to the end of classes that he didn’t think the professors would care about him skipping out early. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. They would care. He just didn’t, so he changed out of his uniform and headed out.

The lift came quick since he was the only one using them right now, and it took him up to the student’s center. It was packed, but he ignored the throng of people moving around him. He needed a quiet place to think. There really wasn’t a quiet place on a big campus like West’s, but he found a free bench out on one of the school’s many quads. He gave a quick looked around for campus police before removing a flask from his backpack and took a swig. The liquid burned pleasantly on the way down. It was a little uneasy settling in his empty stomach, but he didn’t care. He took a quick second and third swig before hiding the flask back in his bag.

Then he shut his eyes, turned his face up towards the setting sun, and tried to relax. The booze helped a little, but it wasn’t enough to dull his thoughts. He remembered when he’d first met Liz. He’d just beaten up a drug dealer at a party – he hated drug dealers with a special passion – and one pulled a gun on him. Liz came out of nowhere and knocked the guy the fuck out.

It was instant attraction. Not just because of the tight yoga pants she was wearing, but because of how confidently she took out the piece of shit. Confident people being attractive worked for guys just as much as for girls, and Liz had confidence coming out her ass.

<Such a nice ass too.>

The memories made him smile, but there was a dark tinge to them now. He saw them all through the scope of someone trying to worm her way into his life. It made him feel upset and violated. That was where the booze helped a bit to numb those feelings. He only wanted to remember the good times.

Seth didn’t know how long he’d sat there, but when the warmth of the sun left his face he got to his feet and went to grab something to eat. The dining hall wasn’t as packed as it was during lunch, so he grabbed his taco and found an empty table in the back of the room. The shell was soggy and the meat probably had been a different type of meat at some point, but it helped settle the booze in his stomach and that was all that he cared about.

He ignored everyone, didn’t make eye contact, and stewed in his own thoughts and memories, which was why it was such a surprise when someone walked up and sat down at his table.

“Hey,” the short freshman girl he’d met at the party had triple the number of tacos he did along with all the fixings.

“Um…hey, Izzy right.” Seth felt annoyance tinged with curiosity shoot through him.

He was definitely giving off a “do not disturb” vibe, so either she wasn’t that smart or she didn’t give a shit.

“So I learned all about you from your friend.” She started devouring her taco with the exuberance only possible after an HCP physical training session.

Seth mood immediately soured. “Becca needs to keep her nose out of other people’s business,” he snapped.

Izzy recoiled slightly, but shook it off. “She’s just worried about you.”

“She should still mind her own business.” That left them in an uncomfortable silence as they both munched on their tacos.

“Um…I want to ask you something, but I don’t want you to take it the wrong way.” Izzy began hesitantly.

“Which rumor is it this time that’s making it through the freshman class?” he scoffed.

“They said you got pulled out of class and arrested by the DVA today. That true?”

Seth could tell she was trying to be cool about this, but there was a burning desire to know that was clearly visible in her body language.

“Not arrested. They just wanted to ask me some questions.”

“About Wraith.”

The emotions threated to overwhelm him when Izzy spoke her villain name. He gritted his teeth and gripped his fork tightly as he tried to bury and lock it back inside himself.

“Holy crap.” Izzy looked around wide-eyed.

Seth didn’t even realize it, but the ground was shaking slightly. <Shit.> He took a few deep breaths and the tremors faded from the ground and himself. <I can’t lose control like that.>

He knew he couldn’t, but he really wanted to at the same time. A vision of him bringing down the whole building flashed through his mind, which he immediately suppressed.

“Weird.” Izzy looked around without making the connection between Seth and the mini seismic activity.

“So…”

“Yes her.” Seth cut her off, and his tone indicated that was the end of the line of discussion.

Izzy might have missed the use of his power, but she didn’t miss the look on his face.

“Cool, no problem.”

She tried to act relaxed, but he could see the nervousness building inside her. He could tell she was going to ask him something else.

“One more question and I swear I’m done.” She crossed her heart like she was seven and making a promise to her BFF.

Seth took a deep breath in through his nose, slowly let it out through his mouth, and steeled himself. “What?”

“What’s it like to have money?”

Seth couldn’t stop himself. He busted out laughing. If anything, that seemed to piss Izzy off.

“I’m sorry.” Seth could feel the tension leaving his body as he continued to chuckle. “That’s just a really random question, and if you want an honest answer it’s kind of a pain in the ass.”

“Wow. Money equals a pain in the ass to you. Spoken like a rich guy I guess.”

“Hey,” Seth glared back, his anger rising again. “You asked a question and I gave you an honest answer. When you have money that’s all anyone seems to be concerned about in my experience. That or getting more money. People stop thinking of people as people. My family isn’t even a family. My dad’s more worried about the family name than the people that actually have the name. My mom self-medicates herself into a coma, and my brother and sister are world class dicks. Money hasn’t done anything for my family except ruin it. It’s more like we’re a group of people that share chromosomes than people that care about each other.”

It all came pouring out in a rant that took Izzy and him by surprise. By the end of it Izzy was looking at him slightly differently.

“But at least you have a family.” She said after a few moments of silence. “I’ve never known my parents. I never got new clothes, a car for my sixteenth birthday, or even a going away party for graduation. I got legal documents saying I was now an adult and to take care of myself.”

It was Seth’s turn to be thoughtful for a moment.

“I’d still trade you.” He ultimately concluded.

“You wouldn’t say that if you were in my shoes.”

“And if you’d been in my shoes you wouldn’t want to be in them anymore.”

“Then I guess we’re at an impasse.”

“I guess we are.” A smile played on both of their lips.

“But if you want to live the good life so bad then I’ll give you your dream.” Seth blindsided her.

“What?” Milk practically squirted out of her nose as she caught something Seth tossed underhand across the table.

Seth laughed as she looked down and her eyes bulged.

“These are keys to a Porsche 911 Turbo S Cabriolet.” She cradled the keys like they were made of gold.

“So.” Seth shrugged.

“This is a two hundred thousand dollar car.” Her eyes continued to bug out.

“So.” Seth repeated with a smug look.

“So…SO!” She suddenly didn’t know what to do with her hands. “So…I can’t drive this.”

“Why not?”

“Because…”

Seth sighed, but he enjoyed seeing the look on her face. “Do you have a license?”

“Yeah.”

“Is it suspended in any way that would legally restrict you from driving a motor vehicle.”

“No, but…”

“Then let’s go.” Seth interrupted her as he got to his feet.

She didn’t move as he walked away.

“If you don’t come with me I’m going straight to campus police to say that you stole my car.” That got her moving.

“But…but…” She was at a continued loss for words as he led the way out of the dining hall and down the street to where the car was parked.

“Where are we going?” she asked as he hopped in the passenger seat and reclined it back to a lounging position.

“You said you never got new clothes, so we’ll hit the mall.”

“You’re letting me drive your super expensive car and you’re going to buy me clothes.”

“It’s only money.” He replied simply as he shut his eyes and waited for the car to start.

It didn’t, so he cracked his eyes to look up at her.

“You’re drunk aren’t you.”

“A little bit,” he smiled.

She nodded her head like everything was falling into place. “You want me to be your chauffer.”

“You drive me around tonight and in return I’ll let you drive a car you seem to be salivating all over, and I’ll buy you clothes. Seems like a pretty good arrangement to me.”

“You’re an ass.” She said, but started up the car anyway.

“Glad you finally see the light, Iz.”

“I’d prefer you call me Isla or Izzy.” The engine rumbled as she put it into drive and pulled into the street. It jerked forward as the powerful engine took her by surprise.

“And I’d prefer if you kept it down, Iz, I’m trying to sleep off a bit of my tipsiness before we get there.”

He couldn’t see her with his eyes closed, but he could feel her eyeroll as she finally reached an open road and opened it up.

Her scream of delight was a welcome change to the toxic feelings and constant suspicion that he’d been enduring from everyone else today.

 

***

 

Kyoshi stifled a yawn as she took the lift down into the HCP. It was finally Friday, and she couldn’t wait to be finished. This first week had been wearing her down from the beginning, and it wasn’t just the academic and physical rigors. Seth’s meltdown and drama was beginning to get around. People were starting to notice what was wrong with her friend.

<Then the DVA hauled him in for questioning.> She shook her head as the soft chime announced she’d arrived. <All anyone is doing is pushing him away. He needs us, he needs his friends, we need to bring him back.>

She tried to put that aside as she walked down the sci-fi-esque corridors and toward the locker room. Today was a big day, without having to deal with Seth.

Kyoshi was beginning to get a feeling for the classes she was taking, and all the extra work she’d have to put in this semester. The above ground classes weren’t really a concern. She’d always been good at school, and she was confident she could maintain a 3.5 or higher GPA this semester. It was the HCP classes that were going to consume her energy.

Focus quite literally did that. It was mentally brutal work. The exercises that Professor Livingston started putting the class through on day one were harder than anything she’d personally given Kyoshi to work on last year. Every day she left that class with her brain feeling like it had spent five minutes in a microwave.

Close Combat was basically an extension of physical training, and a continuation of what they’d started last year. Although, the previous year had been all about learning to fight. For someone like Kyoshi who had multiple martial arts backgrounds it wasn’t too difficult, but that wasn’t the focus this year. This year’s goal seemed to be to put the class in the most unpredictable or shittiest scenarios possible. She understood that Coach McMillian wanted to make them ready for anything, but showing up to a two-on-one fight where your power doesn’t work on one of the people isn’t exactly fair.

<Fair has nothing to do with it.> She remembered the Coach’s words perfectly. <It’s about you saving civilian lives and continuing to breathe. The rest doesn’t matter.>

Focus left her mentally exhausted and Close Combat left her physically bruised, so the healing class with Dr. Sanderson was actually one of the best parts of her day. He’d jumped right into it without waiting any time. They were in the middle of getting CPR certified with plans to move onto operating AEDs next. She really took that class to heart – literally.

She smiled to herself and she pulled on her gray uniform and entered the gym. Before she could get on to those specialty classes she had to go through good old-fashioned physical training, and that always started with pullups.

She grabbed the bar and knocked out ten easily. They were up to doing twenty every time they entered or exited the gym, but she hadn’t done as much upper body training as she should have on summer break. The last ten were a struggle, and she had to throw her legs up on the last two. If Coach McMillian had been watching he would have yelled at her for poor form.

She quickly joined the rest of the class that had already arrived. A quick peek at the clock on the wall and the Coach started.

“I told you all it was coming so I hope you gave it some serious thought.” He scanned the crowd trying to get a read on if people pondered his statements from the beginning of the week. “This year’s focus is teamwork because Heroes often work as a team. Sure, people work solo, but you can bring the full resources of a team to bear on a problem and solve it more quickly and efficiently. Heroes and the DVA both promote team formation for Heroes to combat our lack of numbers and to better coordinate with state and local agencies where we operate. Your training in this starts today.” He looked down at his clipboard.

“We will have four teams of seven. Today team captains will be announced, the teams will be picked, and the workout will be a team one decided by the captain. You can do whatever you want for the remainder of class, but I suggest you use your time wisely. There will be monthly exercises to test each team, and we’re already a quarter of the way through this month. Your first trial will be in a matter of weeks, so if I were you I’d start preparing today.” He cracked a smile that made Kyoshi nervous.

It was never a good thing when the close combat instructor was excited about something.

“The four team captains are: Angela Martin, Jason Cook, Kimberly Goodman, and Erin Fisher.”

<That makes sense. They are the top four in the class.> The rest of the class seemed to agree because not many people commented on the captains. Although, having Erin as a captain was a bit weird. She’d always been a bit off.

The captains stepped forward and spaced themselves out in front of the rest of the class. They all kept a straight face, except Erin who looked like she was in her own little world, but Kyoshi saw their minds calculating the best picks. Just from a basic surface read, Kyoshi could tell that Angela and Kimberly were better at this sort of thing than Jason and Erin.

“Captains, you have five minutes to think then you will choose in the order I selected you. No longer than one minute can pass for you to make your selection. We will continue until everyone is picked and then you’ll get to work. Time starts now.”

Kyoshi listened in while the captains looked over team possibilities. Once the five minutes was up Angela didn’t hesitate to make her first pick.

“Kyoshi Schultz.”

<What?!> Kyoshi didn’t move at first. <That’s got to be a mistake.> Angela hadn’t been thinking about picking her at all.

In fact, it was literally the first time she’d been picked first at anything. She was a giant, clumsy girl who also happened to be an easily identifiable Super. Back in high school that didn’t win any popularity contests.

“Move it, Ms. Schultz.” Coach McMillian pointed for her to fall in with Angela.

<I picked you because you’re the best advanced mind in the class. Not only does that give us a tactical advantage on the battlefield, but it gives me an advantage here and now. What are the other captains thinking?>

“Anika Kemps.” Jason made his selection.

<He kind of had the same idea you did. Anika is still learning her gift but she’ll at least be an early warning system and she had the added power of her speed and strength. She was probably the better first pick.>

Angela ignored the last part and asked for info on Kimberly.

<She wants a power team.> Kyoshi could easily decipher the blaster’s motivations.

“Anna Fletcher.” Kimberly made her pick, and Anna strutted over to her new team.

<Erin… it’s hard to tell what she’s thinking.>

“Mason Jackson,” Erin called out in her far-off, detached voice.

Despite the slim chances of being on the same team, Mason getting picked by another captain still hurt. Their time was going to be a commodity in short supply and it would have been nice to see him during team activities.

“Alexander Webb.” Angela didn’t hesitate.

She’d wanted Mason, but Alex was another good person with superior strength she could leverage.

Jason didn’t hesitate to snatch up Teresa Shaw. Kimberly added to her powerhouse team with Casey, and Erin went with Lorelei Gilford to complete the second round. The selection went pretty quick after that. Teams got picked roughly going down their rankings depending on what the captain was looking for. Angela did make a surprisingly big jump down to grab Fiona the only teleporter in the class. After their dealings with Liz, they knew not to underestimate or undervalue a teleporter.

As time went by it became more and more obvious that one student high in the rankings was being left out. Seth, who looked like he’d been in a decent mood, got surlier and surlier as the selection continued. Kyoshi was willing to bet the man was not used to being picked near the end for anything. It surely didn’t help when he was picked dead last by Erin.

“Those are our teams.” Coach McMillian pointed to a wall when they were done and everyone’s names appeared on it. “The rest of the class is yours, and please take the time to come up with an interesting name. There might be some extra credit in it for most inspiring.”

Kyoshi wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth so she went back to studying the board.

 

Team 1

Angela Martin, Kyoshi Schultz, Alexander Webb, Fiona Richardson, Natalia Romanoff, Oliver Carpenter, Blake Rhodes

 

Team 2

Jason Cook, Anika Kemps, Teresa Shaw, Liam Garrison, Emilia Scarborough, Danny Mason, Janet Ibsen

 

Team 3

Kimberly Goodman, Anna Fletcher, Casey Williams, Rebecca Whitfield, Jacqueline Eton, Carson Long, Richard Gibson

 

Team 4

Erin Fisher, Mason Jackson, Lorelei Gilford, Simon Skylar, Ashley Bates, Rowan Michaelson, Seth Abney

 

<I hope Angela has a plan.> Kyoshi frowned, because just by looking at the board she didn’t think her captain had picked the best team.

If anything, Kimberly’s looked like the team to beat.

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I’m on TDY from Hell – Vicky’s Day

<He has the chance to take out the Lycans and he goes off to skewer a troll?!> Vicky fumed as she took the turn tightly into the school parking lot.

There was a loud squeal of tires and the smell of burning rubber as she fishtailed and regained control of her Porsche coupe. A brief spike of fear shot through her for the moment she was aimed directly at another student’s SUV, but it quickly subsided as she straightened out and sped between the rows of fancy cars to her assigned spot.

Even after more than a hundred years on earth, Vicky still feared death. <Especially when the sun is out.> The blazing ball of light was shining it’s annoying rays down on her from nearly ninety-three million miles away, and ruining her existence.

As she stepped out of the car, undoing the top two buttons of her white blouse in the process, she was as weak and helpless as any old human at the school. Weakness like that pissed her off, and on top of the Dux’s decision to go after the troll, she was in uber bitch-mode.

The security monitor was walking brusquely toward her with a no-nonsense expression.

“Fuck off.” She strutted past him as he opened his mouth to yell at her reckless driving.

She’d get a ticket, and a summons to the principal’s office, but she didn’t give a flying fuck. <Speaking of fucking.> She opened the email Caroline had sent her.

As a business practice, Vicky encouraged her employees snooping around the homes of their clients. They couldn’t ever take anything, but submitting incriminating photos of the powerful men and women of Charlotte added to the blackmail files she kept on everyone. While the power players of the city were busy sleeping off a blowjob or a good fingering she was gathering intelligence to keep them in her good graces for life.

Caroline had done the same for the Dux. <And she found bupkis.> Vicky frowned as she walked through the front door like the queen bitch she was.

She tossed her phone in her expensive purse and strode down the hall with a confident swagger that turned every male head in her direction.

“Hey, baby.” She plastered herself to the varsity quarterback’s chest and kissed him. She tugged at his lower lip a bit when she pulled away, and felt him instantly get hard. “I just needed to tell you I can’t make it tonight.” She added cruelly, seeing the joy drop off the jock’s face. “My dad is being a hardass and won’t let me out. I’m still grounded.” She pouted for emphasis.

“No problem.” The jock tried to sound like it wasn’t a big deal, and failed miserably.

Vicky had him, a few other popular guys, her gym teacher, and the vice principal wrapped around her finger. She would have had the principal, but it was a woman and she didn’t swing that way.

<And I barely have to give up any ass to keep it that way.>

The quarterback was still waiting to tap her ass, and she could practically feel his blue balls from here.

“I’ve got math, gotta run.” She twirled, her already short skirt lifting up just enough to see something, and walked away.

<That should keep him going for a few more days.> She didn’t know what she wanted to do with him yet, but ideas were formulating. At the very least he could be a blood bag for her.

Math was her least favorite subject, mostly because she’d taken the class dozens of times over her lifetime. <If I have to learn sine and cosine one more time.> She kept the anger hidden below the face people expected to see on the most popular girl in school.

She plopped down in her chair, crossed her legs, and opened her hand over her shoulder.

“Here you go, Victoria.” The voice had an edge of hero-worship to it.

“Thanks so much, Mary.” Vicky took a look at the homework she was handed. “I was so busy I totes forgot about this.”

<I hate how children speak today.> She perused the information and determined she’d get a B on it. <Good enough.>

“My name is, Maria.” The girl’s reply held a bit of exasperation, but it was gone by the time Vicky turned around and smiled sweetly at her.

“Sorry.”

Maria was a sixteen year old sophomore. Vicky was an eighteen year old senior and queen of the school. The pecking order was firmly established and everyone knew their place.

“Good morning class.” The teacher walked in, an old guy Vicky would rather kill than debase herself for. “Today we’ll be working on the sine and cosine functions.”

<Fuck my life in the ass!> Vicky felt like she was in hell.

 

***

 

<I’m in Hell.> Maria sat a few feet behind the unsuspecting creature. <Just a half second and I can sever her spine with the blade in my sleeve.> She knew she’d be in deep shit if the school found out she was carrying weapons on school grounds, but somethings were more important than human rules.

Despite the absolute need to act, Maria sat there patiently, more patiently than most of the children in the math class until it was over. Then she let Victoria walk out alive surrounded by a crowd of admirers.

<Everyone wants to be like Vicky.> Maria had no problem admitting that there was a hint of jealousy in her tone.

Puberty had been a bitch for her. She was thirty-two years old in the body of a sixteen year old. Some women would kill for that, but they were all idiots, and had no idea of the sacrifice.

“Maria, can I speak with you for a moment?” The teacher called as she headed for the door.

Everyone in the class knew she was Vicky’s homework bitch. There was one in every class, and it was a position Maria had worked to attain. That way it kept her within arm’s reach of the Soulless.

“Sure thing, Mr. Delgado.”

Mr. Delgado was in his fifties, had been teaching at the school forever, and was beloved by his students. He had a quirky sense of humor and was slightly mentally trapped in an earlier time. No matter what he said he couldn’t quite get the modern lingo and pop culture down.

“Please don’t ask me if I’m a fan of NSYNC or the Back Street Boys?” The last few people left in the classroom laughed, and then Maria was all alone with her math teacher…and brother.

“I just wanted to check with you. Mom said she stopped by and saw you earlier.” Gabriel Delgado had been watching over the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School district for thirty of his one hundred years.

It was only because of him that they had caught the scent of the Soulless in the first place. The evil creature recycled through school once a decade, and Gabriel just managed to recognize her from before. A little digging on top of that proved what she was.

“She talked with you too?” The family rarely got together, and her interactions with Gabriel over the last six months were the most family-like time she’d been involved in for the last few years, other than mom literally dropping in every once and a while.

“Yes, she told me to make sure you didn’t do anything stupid.”

Maria looked up and around like she expected her mother to come floating down through the ceiling, but nothing happened. The angel that gave birth to them and paid to have them schooled by the finest martial arts masters came and went according to her schedule. It had made for a tough childhood.

“Yeah, I get it. I’m the baby sister and everyone needs to watch out for me.” Maria rolled her eyes. Until her mother had another child she would have that mantle. It didn’t matter how old she was. She was the youngest of six overprotective siblings.

“No,” Gabriel chided. “You’re the headstrong little sister who is going to do something rash and get killed.”

Her older brother had been doing this a lot longer than she’d even been alive, so she bit down her retort, and settled for looking sullen.

“Our orders are to watch and observe. If we see her taking a human life than we can take action, but not before then. Mom’s looking for something. I can tell. And I think Victoria might be a way to lead her to it.”

“I’m glad she dropped that tidbit of crucial information on me when we chatted.” Maria threw her hands up in the air.

“You need to learn to read between the lines more. I’ve gotten some calls from our siblings with new marching orders, and a lot of it points to a shift in the status quo. Don’t worry, little sis,” he smiled at the look on her face. “When you’re around as long as I’ve been you’ll figure it out.”

That earned the older Nephilim a punch in the shoulder.

“And do better on your homework!” He called after her retreating back. “It’s like a sixteen year old is doing this.”

<Jackass,> she thought, but she still smiled as she headed off late to her next class.

 

***

 

Vicky left the parking lot the same way she’d entered, burning rubber and giving the security guy the finger as she sped past him. She was out of there a full hour earlier than anyone else. All it took was bending over provocatively in gym to get the teacher to let her go early. As long as she kept his spank bank filled with imagery, he let her do whatever she wanted.

And she wanted to get the fuck out of the cesspool of humanity.

Being a high school student was a necessary part of her cover, but she absolutely hated it. <Just one more year.> After she graduated she’d need to wait at least a decade before going back or else someone would recognize her.

She hopped on the I-77 and floored it, reaching speeds of almost a hundred in a quarter of a mile. The road split from two to four lanes, and she ignored the rules by hopping into the HOV lane. She gave a scream a delight as she sped back down toward the city and her evening plans.

The Dux would have new plans, maybe need a new playmate, and maybe finally get around to killing the mutts that were invading her territory. <Or the people hunting my family.> There were a lot of issues that needed to be dealt with, which was why she was going to the office first.

Once she regained her strength she would head over to the demesne and get her marching orders.

She had many offices depending on what facet of her business she was working on. Tonight, she headed straight for Club Desire. She called Alfred and told him to meet him there, and informed Elisa to have the books ready for review. It was never too early to prepare for tax season. The last thing Vicky needed was getting audited by the IRS.

<Everyone knows they got Capone with tax evasion.> She’d met the man once, even fucked him to see what the hype was about before feeding on him. His business was nothing compared to hers.

She maneuvered through the beginnings of rush hour with practiced precision, and turned off into an underground parking garage two blocks from the club. Alfred was there waiting for her. During the day he was her bodyguard and her pretend father, even though she’d never call him daddy.

They emerged from the parking garage and entered a small diner on the corner looking like a working father taking his spoiled daughter out for an early dinner before taking her home. Except this diner had an understanding with them and a hidden door in their freezer. The door led to a tunnel that traveled all the way to the sub-levels of the club.

The guard at the entrance was an alert human, who’d be replaced by one of her coven at nightfall. He thought Alfred was the boss too, and gave him a head nod the jiggled his double chin. He was the type of guard who would use his sheer weight to overpower his enemy. And there was over three hundred pounds of power stuffed into his frame.

<I’m hungry.> Vicky checked her watch and sighed.

Blood tasted like blood when a Soulless was as weak and useless as a human. Dealing with extreme thirst during the day was one of the things that drove younger, untrained Soulless mad and got them killed. Cops didn’t like people who were trying to eat other people. It was a shoot first and ask questions later type of situation.

She waved Alfred away and entered her officer where Elisa was waiting.

“Good, you’re…” the look on her assistant’s face made Vicky stop dead in her tracks.

“Hello, Cousin.” A deep voice resonated from the corner of the room where a man sat in one of the visitors chairs. “It’s been far too long.”

Even though no one in here was stronger than a normal human, the man’s presence still sent shivers down her spine, but she couldn’t let him see that.

“Anton, I didn’t know you were coming up.” She continued walking into the room and took a seat behind her desk. “Elisa you may go.”

Elisa looked between her boss and the mystery man and quickly scurried away.

“She’s precious.” The man’s rumbling chuckle sounded like miniature thunder.

“She’s also great at her job.” Vicky looked at the books she’d requested before pushing them aside. “Now that we’ve exchanged pleasantries do you mind telling me why you’re in my territory?”

Anton stepped forward and took another seat directly in front of her desk. He was a massive man, with the light-dark skin of the North African coast. Today, they called the country Senegal, but it had no name when he was taken from there in a slave ship over three hundred years ago.  Anton was the leader of a larger coven in Charleston, was one of the oldest Soulless in the south east, and most importantly was a servant of Lucifer.

“Peace, Cousin.” Technically, they were all descendants of the first Soulless, but it was a matter of scope. There were a few hundred Soulless in North and South Carolina. “I am here at my Lord’s insistence.”

<This could either be good or very very bad.> Vicky kept her face politely interested and gestured for him to continue.

“He has a mutually beneficial proposition to present to the Dux of these lands.”

“And you want me to introduce you.” Vicky smiled.

“Yes.” He smiled back.

“And what’s in it for me?”

Instead of frowning or looking angry, Anton laughed. “You always did drive a hard bargain, Victoria. Very well. If you introduce me to your Dux I will alert you to the Nephilim that are hunting you.”

<Shit.> She couldn’t keep the shock off her face.

“Now you’ve got my attention.”

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