Two Worlds – Chapter 134

Rear Admiral Hank Nelson

Location: CWS Abraham Lincoln, New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 It was chaos on the flag bridge of Honest Abe, but that was a good thing. Chaos meant action, and in RADM Nelson’s mind, a Fleet full of inaction was bound to atrophy and rot away. Their purpose was to protect the Commonwealth in whatever way necessary. The chaos was them doing their job.

“Captain Jacobson reporting in, Sir.” The RADM’s aide stepped aside so a stately woman could enter.

Her brunette hair was done up in a tight bun without a strand of hair out of place. She was tall, just a hair under two meters, so she looked down a long, slightly-hawkish nose at her superior. She had blue in her eyes that only served to highlight the stormy blue irises. She was every inch the proper commander.

“Janette, have a seat.” Nelson waved for the CAPT to relax.

She did as she was instructed. She had an inkling of why she was here, but she wasn’t taking anything for granted.

“I’d ask you how things are going, but I read all the reports coming off of Andromeda,” the RADM smiled. “I can say with certainty that you’ve got the best battlecruiser in the task force, Captain.”

“Thank you, Sir.” The CAPT didn’t crack a smile, but there was a slight tug on her lips that showed one was attempted.

“Because of your success I have a new assignment for you.” The RADM continued. “We’re in a precarious state here in York Sector. We’re engaged in combat operations against the enemy with little to no reinforcements from the Fleet. Lancelot is going to be undergoing repairs for at least six months, and the new cruisers we just received are going to need another few weeks in the yards before they can resume operations.”

New Lancashire didn’t have naval yards per say, but they had crews of willing and able workers ready to be shuttled into orbit to work on the massive warships. The RADM was glad they wanted to help because it was a lot easier than forcing them. The ships needed to be repaired so they could defend the colonies. Without them combat ready they were all in deep shit.

“The last thing the enemy is going to expect is a lunge into their territory after the bloody noses we gave each other in System 1552. They’re probably doing the same thing we are and calling for reinforcements, and with the way things are shaping up in Syracuse Sector I doubt they’ll fare any better than we are.”

“Yes, Sir.” The CAPT kept her face neutral because she hadn’t heard the words just yet.

“To that end, I’m giving you command of a strike force, Janette. Andromeda, four other battlecruisers, and the missile cruiser Deluge will be placed under your command. I want possible courses of action on my desk by the end of the week. We’ll approve one with Commander Patterson present, allocate a necessary marine contingent, and get back to the business of winning this war.”

“Yes, sir.” Now a slight smile spread across the woman’s face. “I won’t let you down.”

“No you won’t, Janette.” The RADM’s voice dropped low enough to be considered frosty. “Because the mission I send you out on is a must win. You either take the objective or you don’t come back.”

“I won’t let you down, Sir.” The dismissal was evident, and the CAPT took the hint.

The moment she was out the door, the RADM’s aide was back. “Sir, the commanders from the Royal Navy have arrived.”

“Send them in.” Nelson got to his feet and made sure his uniform was on the dress setting. The guys from Windsor were sticklers about customs and courtesies, so he had to show off his medals and achievements to be taken seriously.

“Gentlemen.” Nelson smiled as the two officers in red entered.

He’d been briefed on them when the two cruisers arrived in New Lancashire. One was a nobleman, a Lord of someplace. He was a Lord Captain, but not as important of a Lord Captain as Lord Captain Churchill who commanded the Dreadnaught Francis Drake. It was some combination of peerage and ship command priority that made the Lord Captain junior to Churchill. Even if Churchill commanded a destroyer, he would have still been senior to this cruiser’s Lord Captain because he was a Duke. It was all very confusing.

The second royal officer was just a plain captain, and Nelson found that refreshing. It was just as refreshing as the Queen herself ordering the two warships to assist the Commonwealth in whatever way necessary. It showed the Star Kingdom was taking the alliance seriously, and that was a breath of fresh air in the tornado that was the York Sector.

The two officers gave Nelson a short bow before extending their hands. They talked briefly about the Queen’s orders to them, the mood back in the Star Kingdom, and general likes and dislikes. Nelson wanted to get a feel for them before making his request.

“Two more cruisers are going to be vital in the coming months, especially cruisers as robust as yours.”

Just like the dreadnaughts, the Star Kingdom’s cruisers were bigger, bulkier, and the RADM assumed better armed than the Commonwealth’s own cruisers. The new Virtue Class cruisers Nelson had just received were five hundred meters from bow to stern, had armor 3.5 meters thick, 65 missile tubes, and twelve energy cannons. They were the best armed cruisers in the fleet.

In contrast, Nelson’s passive scans showed the Star Kingdom’s cruisers had armor as thick as his battleships: 6 meters. They were seven hundred meters long – nearly as long as a Commonwealth battlecruiser – and had sixteen energy weapons that his sensors could make out. They couldn’t get a count on the missile tubes, but if the RADM extrapolated the numbers he expected them to be in the ballpark of seventy-five. The royal warships were battlecruisers in all but name, and Nelson could really use them.

“Lord Captain,” he turned to the senior royal officer, “would your Queen accept one of your warships engaging in combat operations with members of my task force?”

The Lord Captain didn’t even miss a beat. “Of course, Sir. We would be honored. Our own crews do not have the combat experience of your own navy, so we are more than happy to get the experience.”

“Excellent.” The RADM couldn’t keep his grin under control. “I have a strike force assembling to drive into the heart of enemy territory as soon as possible.”

“I will take Benjamin Disraeli on this mission while Neville Chamberlain remains with the main task force.”

“Very well, I will inform Captain Jacobsen of your ship joining her order of battle.” He would have said more, but his aide came running through the hatch.

“SIR!” the young LT looked past the annoyed look on the three senior officers’ faces. “We have an FTL footprint.”

The glare evaporated from the RADM’s face. All three of the officers jumped from their seats and made their way out of the conference room and onto the bridge proper. The 3D holo-tank hovering in the center of the room showed the unidentified blob of disturbed space-time that indicated an imminent arrival.

“We’re predicting multiple large contacts, Sir.” The navigation OIC was hovering over his own display as data flooded it. “Half a dozen, maybe more.”

The RADM’s practiced eye swept the holo-tank. Some of his ships were running exercises nearly fifty million miles away, but the majority of the task force was still in orbit around the planet New Lancashire.

“Let’s see what we have before we start a panic.” The RADM decided. The ships that were coming out of FTL would emerge hours away from the planet. That was more than enough time for Nelson to counter their movements.

It was an excruciating five minute wait before the blob in space solidified into actual ships.

“I’m showing two destroyers, four battlecruisers, and an undersized carrier.” Abe’s CIC churned out the information, before refining it.

By the time the first transmission reached the assault carrier everyone on the ship was breathing a sigh of relief.

“Commonwealth task force commander, this is Commodore George Zahn, Gold Technologies Security Fleet. Sorry for dropping in on you unannounced, but we hear you have a bit of a security issue with Cobalt Mining Corporation.”

<Mad George Zahn.> Nelson knew of the Commodore. He’d been a battleship captain in the Commonwealth fleet before retiring. He was known for being reckless and making rash decisions, but those decisions tended to work out. It was a toss-up if the man was skilled or lucky. Either way, Gold Technologies thought he was good or lucky enough to hire him to command a carrier group.

<About time.> The RADM schooled his expression so no one could see him smile.

Corporate fleets weren’t the same as the Commonwealth fleet. First off, the largest groupings of them were carrier groups much smaller than a traditional task force. The corporations didn’t have the luxury of fielding hundred-ship fleets to engage in massive space battles. Their mission was to protect the corporate worlds, defend commerce, and only occasionally duke it out with another corp if the Commonwealth couldn’t arbitrate the issue. None of those missions require as many ships, especially when the corporations were able to lobby the Commonwealth and get additional fleet resources assigned to protect their interests.

The carrier group put together to come out to York sector wasn’t a huge one. They had two destroyer-sized ships to work as scouts or vanguard and rearguard. The main force was four ships that supported the corporation’s assault carrier. None of the Gold’s ships were as big as the Fleet’s ships. It was the opposite of the Royal Navy’s oversized vessels, but they were enough to get the job done.

<Excellent. Everything is working out just as I planned.> Nelson invited Zahn to come aboard Abe before they headed off to System 1776.

He wished the corporation had brought more ships, but seven would have to do. It increased the Commonwealth-friendly fighting strength in the Sector by twenty percent, and with what he was planning another small fleet in the area was going to be priceless.

The bad news was they hadn’t heard back from the destroyer and marine squads sent to retake the station. That wasn’t a good sign, and it had more than a few people on edge. Nelson only wanted the Gold heir to get roughed up a little, not to actually die.

<Although, if he dies I bet I could get one hell of a force commitment from Gold Sr. to the sector to help stamp out piracy operations in the name of his fallen boy.> As good as that would be, he couldn’t think about that. He had to think of the big picture. He had a war to fight against a professional enemy, and having Gold Technologies there to help in any capacity was a move in the right direction. If the Fleet couldn’t provide for the protection of its citizens, then Nelson was committed to getting it done whatever the price.

“Gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me.” Nelson excused himself from the bridge. He had some calls to make and things to set up in the next few hours before Zahn arrived. It was a delicate situation he had to handle properly. If he did, things would be looking up for the Commonwealth in the York Sector and for Rear Admiral Hank Nelson.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 133

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Cobalt Station, System 1776, New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 Coop was drowning in darkness, but it was a good drowning. It was hard to explain how something that would kill you felt good, but it did. All the worries in his life were gone while blackness wrapped him in a comfortable cocoon. He wasn’t worried about getting shot at. He wasn’t worried about Gunney Topper giving him the shit details all over Honest Abe. He wasn’t even worried about the next woman he was going to chase – he’d found a particularly large-chested engineering spacer who looked open to the possibility of a midnight romp in the depths of Abe’s maintenance compartments. Hell, he didn’t even worry about Eve Berg and what that crazy bitch was up to.

He was completely comfortable in his bed of darkness.

That all changed in an instant. It felt like someone had stuck a grav-rocket to his back and kicked it into full gear. A light appeared above him as he was quickly propelled to the surface. As the light got closer his level of comfort lessened until finally he was thrust back into the neck-deep shit of the waking world.

“What?” It took him several seconds to focus. His vision was still a little blurred, and he was having trouble feeling his face.

SUIT INTEGRITY BREECHED

The glaring red letters flashed across his HUD along with a dozen other error codes.

“Ugh…fuck.” He wanted to move, but everything felt like it weighed a million kilos.

“Good, you’re awake.”

Coop honed in on the voice and looked up. A sweat-drenched face with dripping golden hair and blue flecks in his eyes was looking down at him. It was about that time that Coop realized he was moving slowly – very slowly – in the opposite direction.

<He’s dragging me.> That explained the sweat. In his armor, Coop was heavy as shit.

“What?” Coop repeated as he swiveled his sensors around three hundred and sixty degrees to get his bearings.

What had happened before the comforting darkness started to come back to him. His squad of marines had assaulted some under siege miner’s colony in the ass end of nowhere. Not only had there been hundreds of miners trying to kill them, but they’d been armed with modern rifles. The marines had taken casualties, but had fought their way through. They didn’t have the numbers to retake the whole station against that type of resistance, but they were able to accomplish their secondary mission of finding some bone-headed ship captain that got captured by the enemy.

<Looks like I found him.>

“We need to get the hell out of here.” Coop braced himself to get to his feet.

“No.” The officer put pressure on him to keep him down. “Don’t.”

The man was strong, but he wasn’t a match for an HI trooper in armor. Coop got his arm under himself and pushed up. He got high enough that he could get his legs under him and… he went tumbling to the left and crashed into the wall with the screech of metal against metal.

“What the fuck?”

“Don’t look down.” The officer ordered, but telling someone not to look down made them automatically look down.

There were very few times Mark Cooper had been rendered speechless in his nineteen years of life, and this was one of them. One of his armored legs ended just below the knee in a large ball of metal. It was multi-colored from whatever had gone into making it, but it was smooth in a way only enhanced gravity could accomplish.

<A grav grenade.> The memory of what had happened just before the darkness fell on him like a ton of bricks.

He’d found the captain, the dude who was now trying to drag him up a set of stairs with little success. The other marine with him had gotten knifed by some little shit while someone else had gotten a hold of a Buss and was unleashing hell on them. He’d been carrying the captain and the injured marine when the grenade had been lobbed in. He’d pushed off with as much power as he could and thrown the two guys clear. Apparently, it hadn’t been far enough. The tremendous force of focused gravity had grabbed hold of him and never let go.

<Fuuuuuuuuck.> Coop’s mind just went completely blank for a second. <I should have dropped the dead weight.> He looked up at the LCDR who wasn’t making a lot of progress up those stairs.

“Private,” the older man stopped to take a few deep breaths. “We need to get out of here right now. The pirates have got reinforcements coming and your squad mate is buying us time to get to cover. We need to move.”

The sound of gunfire hit Coop’s ears like someone had flipped a switch. It was easy to tell the difference between the M3’s 1mm rounds and the Buss’ 3mm rounds. There were a lot more 3mm rounds coming in their direction than 1mm rounds defending them.

“Help me.” The last thing Coop wanted to do was look weak in front of someone with blue in their eyes, but he didn’t have much choice.

The officer got under Coop’s left armpit and heaved. Coop got his foot underneath himself and did a one-legged squat. They got Coop to his feet, but hopping up the stairs was a completely different matter.

“Shit!” They were nearly to the top when Coop froze and looked around. “Where’s my weapon?”

The officer gave a look down to Coop’s thick stump and then back up at his helmeted-head. No more words were necessary.

<It gives a whole new meaning to being one with your weapon.> Coop remembered being yelled that on the ranges during Basic. Now it made him laugh in a self-deprecated way.

“We need to find cover. This place is crawling with pirates.” The officer’s eyes were darting around the new hallway they were stumbling down.

“We cleared a lot of this place.” Coop informed.

He strained to hear the sounds of a gunfight behind them, but an eerie quiet had settled over this part of the station. The churning of the engineering and mining processes could still be heard, but there were no more pops of gunfire. He took that as a bad sign.

Coop had only spent a small amount of time with the SSG, but he seemed like a good guy and a good marine. Now he’d probably had his head blown off by whomever the fuck had stolen that Buss. To make matters even worse, Coop and the officer were now sitting ducks. The only bright side in the otherwise supremely shitty last ten minutes was that Coop felt good –really good –pharmaceutically enhanced good. There was no other explanation of how we was able to get around while missing the bottom quarter of his leg.

They limped around the corner and saw people at the end of the corridor. The officer almost yelled out, but Coop stopped him by pulling him back around the ninety-degree bend.

“What…?”

“Those aren’t our people.” Despite the damage to the armor the friend-or-foe indicator still worked perfectly, and STRATNET was not registering those people as the good guys. “They’re hunting us.”

Coop appreciated the fact that the officer didn’t start to whine like a little bitch, but there was still a lot of fear in his bruised eyes. The more Coop thought about it the more he was afraid. They were in the middle of hostile territory. He didn’t know what had happened to the other marines, but the SSG was probably dead, and so was anyone else who went up against that Buss. They needed a plan.

“I saw a door part way down the hall. Let’s get to it and lay low for a second. We need to figure out what to do.” Coop got a nod of agreement from the officer.

They waited until the pirates vanished into another room and scurried as quietly as they could down the hall. Thankfully, the door was open and they pushed through it. It looked like a breakroom. There was a large food dispenser, tables, chairs, and an old, dirty holo-screen. It was nothing but static right now since the gunboat and destroyer were jamming any transmission into the station. That only made their escape plan that much harder.

Coop collapsed onto the floor and the officer did the same. They spent a few moments just sitting there catching their breath. They’d only walked a couple of hundred meters, but hopping on one leg and propping up someone in armor was no walk in the park.

“I’m Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Gold, but given our current predicament you can call me Ben.” The officer extended his hand.

“Private First Class Mark Cooper. Call me Coop.” Coop took the big man’s soft hand and made sure he didn’t crush it.

“Ok, Coop, so what is the plan?” Ben wiped sweat from his brow and looked longingly at the food dispenser.

Coop thought it was weird that he – the lowly enlisted grunt – was making the plan over the officer. An officer, who if he was in the infantry, would be a battalion commander.

<Fleet pukes. Only good for getting us from point A to point B.> Coop kept the thought to himself.

“The plan is simple, Sir. We get the hell off this bucket of bolts. My squad came in on a Spyder that crashed in the hangar bay. I don’t know if it’s space worthy, but it has big guns. I’ll radio them and get the situation. We’ll also check in with whoever is in charge of the rescue force now and get instructions.” Coop finished, but the officer was already shaking his head.

“No radios. The two pirates that were holding me captive grabbed a bunch of Commonwealth gear from a storage locker before you arrived, including a big communication’s node. They’re probably patched in and listening to everything you’ve been saying.”

Coop opened his mouth to argue, but snapped it shut. The backwoods miners did have modern rifles, the guys guarding the officer were pretty ready for them when they came to rescue him, and they’d been easily followed when they’d first started to clear that station. The bad guys listening in on their comms traffic was a pretty good explanation for that.

“Ok, no commo.” Coop made the executive decision on that. “But we aren’t going to make it to the rendezvous point of the hangar bay without a weapon. We’re sitting ducks here, especially you.”

Coop at least had the armor. All Ben had was a feeble smartcloth uniform.

“Then let’s get some weapons.” Ben said it like it was the simplest thing in the world.

“Sure, Sir. Let me just poke my head out of here and ask those nice miners for their guns.” Coop laid on the sarcasm pretty thick, and Ben blushed.

“I mean let’s set a trap and take them.” Ben clarified, but it was still easier said than done.

<We aren’t going to sneak up on anybody.> Coop took a sip from his hydration bladder and struggled back to his feet.

Ben gave him a hand.

“Sir, with all due respect,” Coop was planning on saying something not very respectful when the door hissed behind them.

It slid open to reveal two miners with their weapons dangling in front of them on makeshift straps. There was an awkward moment where the four men just stared at each other before springing into action.

“Fuck…!” Both miners yelled as they fumbled to bring the rifles on target.

Coop didn’t have any such fumbling. With training engrained into him he activated the twin blades in his LACS’ forearms. The meters-long, nano-edged weapons erupted forward as he lunged. The miners didn’t get their muzzles up above their hips before Coop’s blades slid effortlessly through their chests. The weapons were meant to cut HI armor, so human flesh was like cutting paper.

The blades exploded out the miners’ backs and painted the hallway in a gory Picasso of blood and pulverized tissue.

“Grab the guns,” Coop hollered as he lost his balance and fell forward.

He collapsed onto of the two men he’d just killed making even more of a mess. They didn’t explode like pieces of fruit dropped off a building, but it wasn’t pretty. Ben scrambled forward and collected the two M3s and Coop struggled to his knees and retracted his blades. He looked like he’d just gone on a rampage. Blood and guts covered the front of his armor and dripped from his forearms.

<Hopefully that’ll make these assholes think twice about fucking with us.> He doubted it would, but it made him feel good.

Ben handed him one M3, which he used to help prop himself up before running a diagnostic check.

“How did you…?” The officer asked sheepishly.

“Give it to me.” Coop handed Ben the weapon he knew was good to go, and ran a second test. The miners hadn’t had the weapons long enough to screw anything up, and they hadn’t fired more than a few rounds between them. “Please tell me you at least know how to shoot.”

“It’s been a few years,” Ben answered defensively, “but I remember the basics.”

“Just point it at the bad guys and pull the trigger.” Coop didn’t have a lot of confidence in the officer’s ability to hit anything. “It will at least make them keep their heads down so I can maneuver and finish them off.”

Coop stuck his head out the door and looked both ways. It was clear. “Let’s move, Sir. You take left and I’ll take right and behind us.” It was a horrible arrangement to cover everything, but there weren’t many good options on the table.

Coop just hoped they could get to where they needed to go in one piece. If they got back to the Fleet they’d be able to fix his leg up lickety-split. <And I’ll get some good R&R while I rehab it.> He was already planning on giving Mike a call when they got back to the destroyer.

The big-chested engineer would have to wait, but Coop had always wanted to try his luck with a nurse. He’d definitely have the sympathy angle working in his favor.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 21

“Huh.” Lilly looked at the caller ID on her cell phone.

“Who is that?” Stal sat up a little straighter from where she’d been lounging.

“Just a member of my team. Cool your jets.” Lilly shot back.

“Our employer does not want us to take outside calls.” Nightingale was removing her plastic apron splattered with blood.

“It’s a good thing that I’m a rebel then.” Lilly shot the other woman a smile before hitting the accept button.

“It’s me.” Mika maintained operational security by not saying his name. “I’ve got an interesting bit of information for you.”

“Shoot.” Lilly took a seat and relaxed. The rest of the mercenary team saw her body language and relaxed as well.

“Your old cell is getting pinged left and right.”

“So,” she shrugged, not understanding why this was worthy news. “We knew the DVA would do that after my…mistake.” She didn’t know what to call it, but Armsman had been pretty opinionated about what it was.

“True, but they stopped pulling on that thread days ago. Sure, they could be trying it again to bait you, but it’s not really their playbook.”

“Don’t let the suits get in your head and make you complacent. The Heroes and them might need to play by a set of rules, but they can be pretty creative. I’ll take a look at the call data. It’s probably nothing, but better to be informed and prepared then get caught with our pants down.”

“Ok. Are you coming back or should I send it to you?”

There was really only one option to ensure no one tracked the information back to her or Mika.

“I’ll be right there.”

“The Boss does not want us going anywhere.” Stal informed, but it didn’t sound like she cared much.

“Again,” Lilly pointed at herself, “I don’t give a shit.” With that she exploded in a wave of darkness and disappeared.

She made several jumps all over the world before teleporting back to Armsman’s private island. She never appeared inside the structure, always outside on the beach. In the off chance someone did follow her it was better to have them targeted by the island’s defenses than to be able to emerge right in the heart of their lair.

<His Fortress of debauchery.> Lilly saw a boat pulled up onto the sandy beach.

It was the weekly supply boat that brought food, fresh water, and willing women right to her uncle’s doorstep. <Now that’s what I call service.>

Just to be safe she stayed away from where their guests would be. If they recognized her then Armsman would have to kill them all, stage a boating accident, and it would just be a whole lot of hassle. She took the long way around and entered the cool server room where Mika spent all of his time. Hot pocket wrappers and empty energy drinks littered the floor around his work station where he stared unblinkingly at the screens surrounding him.

“Hey.”

“Shit, Wraith.” He jumped in his chair and knocked over a full can. Thankfully, it fell on the floor and not the computers. “Don’t sneak up on me like that.”

“I walked right in the door, Nano. You’d be so dead if anyone ever raided this place.”

That made the teenage technopath blush, but he’d come a long way from where he’d been a year ago. She wasn’t able to make him uncomfortable like that for long.

“Here is what I’ve got?” He pulled up the call data after closing a few windows.

“What’s the number?”

“It’s a burner phone, so I can’t trace whose it is.”

“Footage of the purchase?”

“No. It purchased from some bodega down in Orlando, but they don’t have surveillance cameras.”

“Who doesn’t have surveillance cameras now-a-days?” Lilly sighed with frustration while Mika just shrugged.  “So we’ve got nothing.”

“I’ve got the locations of the calls, but none of the footage I have has good angles. Whoever is making the calls is being pretty clandestine about the whole thing.” It was Mika’s turn to sigh with frustration.

“That’s not exactly the DVA’s style.” Lilly frowned. “Could you put those on a map?”

Mika did his techno-magic and dots appeared around the city. Time and date stamps appeared next to the dots, and a line of the caller’s probable travel connected them all. Lilly stared at the map for a minute and knew she was missing something. There was a tingle at the base of her mind that she just couldn’t put her finger on.

“And we’ve got no footage at all?”

“Nope.” Mika frowned at his screens. “There’s footage of who I think the person is getting in a cab, so you could go ask the driver.”

“It could still be a trap.” Lilly dug for that hidden clue she was missing, but came up with nothing. “We aren’t going to fall for one of Hunter or Seraphim’s little tricks.”

“Definitely not.” Mika agreed. He was a hacker not a fighter. He wouldn’t last two seconds against the Heroes.

Lilly turned to leave, but looked over her shoulder at the dots on the screen one last time. “Can you pull those places up on Google Maps or something?” The tingle in her mind turned into an itch. Whatever it was she was getting closer.

“Yeah, sure.” Mika pulled up another window and quickly pulled up a photo of the location. “This looks like a place a bunch of bums would sleep.” To reinforce that point the view of the location showed several homeless people sitting under an overpass.

It might have meant nothing to Mika, but it meant everything to Lilly.

“Go to the next location.” She practically teleported back to his side.

“Ummm…ok.” He looked up at her with confusion, but he pulled up the next location.

Lilly couldn’t stop her eyes from watering as Mika flipped from location to location. Now she knew why she was getting a familiar twinge from the data. She’d been to all these locations. <With Seth.>

“What was that number that called me?” she already had her phone out and ready to dial.

“Whoa.” Mika waved his hands back and forth in front of him. “Slow your roll, Wraith.”

“Don’t tell me to slow my roll!” She didn’t even realize she was screaming and had a fistful of Mika’s t-shirt. “Sorry,” she let go, “I just need that number.”

“I don’t know…”

“Mika.” Lilly’s voice dropped an octave to low and dangerous levels. “Give me the phone number.”

Something must have perked up in Mika’s hindbrain because he quickly handed over the number.

“Thanks,” she replied as she took a deep breath. “Don’t worry. Everything is going to be just fine.” She wasn’t sure if she was talking to herself or Mika, but she quickly headed back outside before vanishing from the island.

She reappeared in an alley that smelled like piss several states away from Orlando. She quickly stripped out of her Wraith garb and became Lilly. She kept the guns and knives because she wasn’t a complete idiot, but she stuffed the rest of the clothing behind a dumpster. She might have to throw it out rather than wash it judging by the smell, but she needed a little unanimity for the call she was going to make.

She stepped out onto Bourbon Street in the French quarter of New Orleans. It wasn’t packed full of drunk people throwing beads and flashing cameras. This wasn’t spring break girls gone wild. This was the start of fall, and while it still got crowded at night, during the day it was just like any other street. She kept her head down as she headed away from the alley trying not to draw any attention. The police and several Hero teams patrolled the city, but they would be busy with other things at this time of day.

She walked several blocks until she came to a bar that was more of a café during the day. She found a seat in a corner booth with a good view of the entrance and only a few steps to an exit. She ordered a coffee and sat there watching everyone for twenty minutes. She kept an eye on everything outside and didn’t see anything suspicious. No cops drove by, no more people entered the café other than an elderly couple. If that couple worked for the DVA then she would happily return to jail because they were some of the best undercover agents she’d ever seen. Once she was sure she wasn’t being followed or surveilled she pulled out her phone.

<You can do this. Don’t be a little chicken shit.> She wasn’t going to make the same mistake as last time.

Her fingers still trembled as she hit the buttons, and she took a couple of deep breaths before hitting the green call button.

The phone rang three times before he answered. “Hello?”

It wasn’t like last time when she’d called him out of the blue. This time she felt emotion in his voice, and that emotion resonated in her.  He didn’t mention that other tramp. He wasn’t even thinking about her. She could tell his full attention was on the person he’d clandestinely sent this message to.

“S…Seth,” she whispered holding back tears.

“Liz.”

She felt a tightening in her chest as he said her fake name. Even though she wasn’t Liz, she was. She’d lived an entire life – a fantastic life – as Liz Aretino. It was arguably the best time of her life. Liz was a part of her, but she needed to stop the lying. She couldn’t lie to him anymore. More lies would only drive him further away.

“I guess you should probably call me Lilly now.” Her tone got a small laugh from Seth.

“Ok, Lilly. God that feels weird.”

“Tell me about it.” Lilly could feel them falling back into a comfortable and familiar place, and she knew how dangerous that was.

“Look, Seth…”

“No…Lilly, I need to speak.” His voice was tense and she felt her chest tighten again.

She could understand the position she’d put him in. She could understand how she’d hurt him, but she couldn’t understand or accept a life without him in it in some way. She knew things wouldn’t be the same – no matter how much she would give to have that – she’d already fucked up that chance.

“Lilly, was I just a pawn in your game? Did I ever mean anything to you?”

Lilly had been stabbed by a renowned Hero not that long ago, but these questions from Seth hurt so much more.

“Seth Abney, you have no idea how much you mean to me. I’m not going to lie and say things were always innocent between us, but I can say with absolute certainty that I’ve always been intrigued by you. From the moment I saw you stand up to those jackasses I knew there was something about you. I knew you were hot, and I knew I could use you to get what I want, but it became so much more than that. Please, if nothing else you need to believe that.”

“How?” His response felt like a bullet to the brain. “How can I believe any of this?”

Lilly was speechless. There was no way she could make him believe what she was saying. <Actions speak a shit ton louder than words,> her mind answered for her.

“What do you want me to do to prove it to you?” She asked. There wasn’t anything else she could do.

There was nothing but silence on the other end of the line.

“Seth…?”

“I’m thinking, because I can’t be unreasonable and ask you to turn yourself in, even if that would be the best thing you could do.”

“What can I do for you Seth? This is about us. What do you want?”

“Well…I want you to leave Izzy alone.”

Lilly gripped her phone so tight she thought she was going to break it. Just hearing that whore’s name was enough to get her blood boiling.

“I know you’re watching me,” Seth continued. “I know you’ve got me under a microscope, and I don’t want you to kill some misguided kid. She’s got her own issues in her life, and I think she sees me as some kind of project.”

“How could you be a project? You’re Seth fucking Abney.” She might be stroking his ego a little, but she genuinely thought he was a great man.

<I wouldn’t want to be with anything less.>

“I’m not exactly the man you left.”

<And that’s all my fault.> She knew his comment wasn’t a swipe at her. It was just the truth.

“Just tell me what I can do.” She said again. She could hear the desperation in her own voice.

There were a few more moments of silence. “Just…just don’t kill anyone. Please.”

To anyone else that would be seen as perfectly reasonable – even moral and ethical. For someone like Lilly, and her current situation, it was a bit of an issue.

<That might be the problem.> She thought before answering.

“I won’t kill anyone.” The idea didn’t bring a smile to her face, but the sense that she was making progress with the man she loved did.

“Thank you.” Seth sounded like he meant it.

“Can I see you sometime?” she asked timidly.

This time the silence didn’t feel right. “That might not be a good idea for a while. The DVA is on me like stank on shit. You’d be putting yourself in danger.”

“I can handle myself,” she answered confidently. “I still see what you’re saying, and I’ll be careful.”

“Thanks, Lilly.” The name still sounded strange on his tongue, but she knew she’d come to love it.

“I’ll call you soon from a different phone.” She went to end the call.

“Remember your promise….WAIT!” The sudden exclamation made her pause. “Did you send me a phone?”

“No.” She hadn’t, but now she wanted to know who had.

“Ok. Goodbye, Lilly.” He cut the line before she could ask any follow up questions.

She placed the phone next to her on the table and with minimal effort teleported it across the world to an active volcano. She sat at the table for another ten minutes sipping her coffee and keeping a look out. She paid her bill, left a good tip, and walked back to the alley she’d left her stuff in. She dressed back in her Wraith gear, even if it smelled faintly of stale piss, and teleported back to Orlando.

When the wave of darkness dissipated the rest of the team was moving around chaotically.

“Where the hell have you been?” Damascus stood with his arms crossed and a glare on his face.

“I’ve got other shit to do than just sit her with my thumb up my ass,” Lilly shot back.

“Well we’ve got something for you now, so suit up.” He pointed at a table where gear had appeared.

It wasn’t just any gear. It was gear that was nearly identical to the gear the DVA had seized from her.  The only thing missing was her specialized rifle, but there was no shortage of other firearms available.

“Jesus, are we storming Fort Knox?”

“Something like that.” Damascus’ smile told Lilly she wasn’t going to like whatever was about to happen.

Her promise to Seth flashed through her head and she settled for some tech genius, fancy tasers from the armory on the table.

“Be ready to go in five.” The silver-haired pyrokinetic turned to leave.

“Wait. Where are we going?” Lilly called after him. “I need a destination jackass!”

“Don’t worry. You’ve been there before.” The terrorist jumped in a SUV and exited the warehouse leaving the three-person team to do whatever it was they were supposed to do.

<Don’t kill anyone…don’t kill anyone…> she chanted over and over as she strapped on her new vest and had Nightingale do her super-mojo and cover her with the thin layer of nullifier material.

Being armed and equipped like this, it was tough to think of a target that could stand in their way. Unfortunately, the universe had a cruel sense of humor. That, or Karma was a real bitch about payback.

 

***

 

Daisy kept her eyes peeled as she drove her truck into the underground parking garage of the Orlando Police Department headquarters. She circled twice before heading for the DVA only entrance to the bottom level. If a person looked hard enough they could see where the additional countermeasures had been added.

<All that anti-terrorism money going to good use,> she thought as she saw the slightly discolored patches of concrete.

In time they would fade and mesh a little better with the rest of the structure, but right now it was painfully obvious where the mines had been placed. Anyone trying to break into the DVA motorpool, or assault the station, was literally going to get their asses blown off. Then there were the patches on the walls, and the not-so-hidden grooves. Daisy was pretty sure some automated weaponry would pop out of those spots and engage targets from a centralized control room within the station.

She couldn’t speak for the whole building, but the police and Protectorate HQ was looking like a tougher nut to crack each day.

<That’s new.> She rolled down another ramp and had to stop at a check point. She’d already gone through a police one above, but now it looked like the DVA wanted to do their own.

“ID?” The guard still looked bored as he ran her credentials through a scanner. “What is your reason for visiting?”

“I have an appointment.” Daisy replied as she gave the guard a big smile.

He didn’t buy it. “What is the purpose of the appointment.”

“That’s a whole lot of none of your fucking business.” She kept the smile in place, but fixed the guard with dagger-eyes.

“Wha…um…” He clearly wasn’t expecting that answer.

“Let’s go. Move along. I don’t have all day, and I’d rather not be late.” Daisy made a hurry up motion with her hands.

Her ID came back good and it showed she did have an appointment scheduled, so the guard let her through. He probably called in the rude, six-three blonde but she didn’t care. Mr. Morningstar and the team knew she was coming.

<They even sent down the welcoming committee.>

The single elevator into the Protectorate HQ – which also had some new concrete patches surrounding it – opened up to reveal an armored Hero. He gave Daisy a big shit eating grin that she returned.

“Galavant, how’s the head? You’ve got shit for brains so taking that bullet to the dome couldn’t have hurt that much.”

“HA! It’s amazing Seif al-Din’s beat down didn’t knock that stick out of your ass,” he replied.

Both Daisy and Ronnie Fitzpatrick – aka Galavant – had been badly injured in the attack on the city. Galavant had taken a sniper’s bullet to the head while Daisy had been thoroughly beaten by the big man himself. They were able to bond over that, and the beat down she had given him at the beginning of the previous school year. She kept the information that she made him shit his pants pretty close to the vest.

“But seriously, why are you down here? Don’t get me wrong I appreciate it, but I can find the conference room myself.” Daisy stopped joking.

“New security protocols,” he shrugged and handed her the plain gray mask. “They want a Hero escorting a VIP like you.”

“I’m a VIP now?”

“That’s what they’re telling me.” They entered the elevator. It required a security code and biometric identification before it allowed him to select the button for the top floor.

The shared some more light ball-busting on the short ride before the elevator opened, and that’s when Daisy finally got her first surprise.

“Finally someone read my memo,” she smiled.

Instead of leading right into the bullpen of cubicles there was now an enclosed space with a heavy metal door.

“I thought you’d like that,” he smiled as he underwent a second security scan.

They didn’t get a chance to talk after the door opened because there was a whirlwind of activity in the room. Dozens of DVA analysts moved around with a sense of urgency. A large central screen monitored events all over the city while keeping an eye on the larger picture of country-wide operations.

The biggest surprise was the number of Heroes in the room. It used to just be a few members of the Protectorate wandering around, but now there were half a dozen new Heroes and familiar faces. Daisy didn’t acknowledge any of them since she wasn’t in costume. Hunter was animatedly talking with Jetwash, and probably trying to impart some seasoned wisdom on the young Hero. From the look on Jetwash’s face, he wasn’t having any of it.

Whatever they were talking about would have to wait. A DVA agent called them both into an office for some sort of meeting.

“We’re in here.” Galavant led the way across the room to a large conference room filled with costumed Heroes.

He closed the door behind them and flipped a switch. Whatever newly-installed countermeasures were in the room were activated, but the men and women in the room didn’t relax.

“Please take a seat.” Mr. Morningstar was sitting at the center of a group of Heroes.

Daisy recognized KaBoom: the midrange kinetic absorber and team’s de-facto second in command. Also present was Grace in her Amped outfit, Jackhammer in his baggy red and gray costume, the big strongman Ox, and the nullifier Absence with her yellow starbursts on a royal blue skintight suit.

“Good morning.” She ignored the professional appearance of everyone sitting in front of her as she took her seat. She’d fought beside all of them, and been in the game longer than a couple of them combined.

“We are here today to evaluate the fitness of Daisy Lee Meyers, formerly known as the Hero Reaper, for return to active duty serving this city and nation as a Hero.” Mr. Morningstar stated formally as Galavant took his seat at one end of the table.

“Thank you for your consideration.” She kept her expression neutral.

“We see in your file that there is a one-year hold on any recertification. Why should we lift that restriction?”

“I see we aren’t pulling any punches.” Daisy was a little surprised that Grace had asked the question, but she was willing to roll with it. “I think the attack on the city and my contributions speak for themselves. We’re still under threat, a dangerous villain that was put in jail escaped, we have new threats emerging, and I think I can help.” She paused dramatically, “Then of course I’m the strongest person here and you might need that.”

“Thank you for that honest answer.” Grace didn’t ask any follow up questions, so Daisy took that as a good sign. She also caught the slight smile, which was another positive.

The look on Mr. Morningstar’s face wasn’t as comforting.

“Ms. Meyers…”

<Never a good thing when he doesn’t call you by your Hero name.>

“…please explain the series of events that resulted in your one-year hold on your file.”

“Sure.” Daisy organized the facts of the almost-mugging of her students and the professional kidnapping attempt at Sprout before continuing. “The first incident…”

The white florescent lighting of the conference room vanished and was replaced with a low-light red. At the same time, a shrill alarm sounded from the other room. There was no hesitation from any Hero in the room, including Daisy. They all jumped to their feet and headed to the central monitor.

“Emergency deployment!” Hunter was marching toward them with a grim look on his face.

“What’s the situation?” Mr. Morningstar took charge.

“We’ve got a break in at Florence ADMAX. Someone has smashed their way into the subterranean levels and is freeing the prisoners.”

“How the hell did that happen?” Daisy asked.

“We don’t know. The alarm was delayed going out. Just about everyone not on an active operation is being brought in for this. We’ve got a lot of bad people in there, and we need to make sure they stay there.”

“Sounds like a job for a Hero who can immobilize large groups of people with little risk.” Daisy stated while scratching her chin. “I wish we knew someone like that.”

“Dispatch?” Hunter rolled his eyes.

“Temporary Hero authorization is being given to Reaper for participation in this operation. Details will be dispensed in route.” The disembodied voice spoke through the other Hero’s earbuds loud enough for Daisy to hear.

“Great, let me get suited up and then we can cork this bad boy.”

“No time.” Hunter grabbed her and everyone else grabbed Hunter. “We’ll sort that out when we get there.”

One second the Heroes were standing as an island in the middle of the chaos and the next they were gone.

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I’m on TDY from Hell – Setting the Stage

“I detest children,” Jezebel looked around the school gymnasium and sniffed.

Her nose wrinkled from all the teenage angst whirling in the æther. There was lust in the air, but it was unfocused, unbridled lust. Lust was like wine. You could get drunk off just about any brand, but some vintages were better than others. The unbridled lust of a teenager in heat was like boxed wine. It did the trick, but there wasn’t much else to it. There weren’t any hints of seduction or the finer points of sexuality that made lust so much more than a carnal emotion.

What she sensed here was a lot of passion, fumbling, and thirty seconds of thrusting before the man’s lust peaked and the woman’s plummeted. In her experience, that was how first times usually went, and someone had their first time in this room only a few hours ago.

Still, she was a lust-powered Infernal, so with a deep breath she sucked in the lingering æther.

“Really?” Vicky followed Jezebel into the gym. “Your snatch is basically a dong-magnet. Are you telling me that some random dude hasn’t knocked you up, and nine months later you pooped out a kid?”

“My kind doesn’t work like yours, Soulless.” Jezebel envisioned herself tearing the Souless’ leg off at the knee and shoving her foot down her own throat. “My children are never children at all. They are hatched at maturity. To be a child is to be weak and helpless. Anything I breed is born ready to serve.”

“Well, that’s creepy as fuck.” Vicky stepped aside so Jeb and Lono could roll in the supplies they’d need.

“Is there anything else you need, Ms. Jezebel?” Janitor Joe was basically salivating next to the sexy Infernal.

“I will need you soon, my love. Please be patient. “She didn’t even look at the elderly man. She didn’t need to. He was completely enthralled with her and would do anything she asked…anything.

“Ah, the American public school system. Good times.” Anton was the last into the large space where half-finished banners and decorations littered the floor.

“When did you ever attend school,” Vicky raised a skeptical eyebrow.

“I spent a decade teaching down in Charleston. It seemed as good a way as any to attain some loyal feeders. You can’t imagine how many teenage girls swoon over a man quoting Shakespeare.”

“Oh I can.” Vicky didn’t let Anton see her smile. She’d been one of those once. Of course, she’d been the one that took advantage of that relationship.

“Enough!” Jeb was tired of the chattering. “Let’s get this over with.”

The greed-powered Infernal clearly thought this was beneath him, but the Dux had commanded they handle it.

The Dux’s lieutenants – no matter the management – rarely worked together on projects. There were several reasons for that: different management styles, they hated each other, competing over the limited æther in the city, and they hated each other.

The ætherial pie could only be split so many ways. What was the real difference between greed, lust, and gluttony? If someone lusted too much were they not greedy? If someone engaged in too much sex were they not gluttonous? Their ætherial power was not clear-cut. It was more like a vendiagram with overlapping circles, and those overlapping sections could be explosive. As a rule they kept to their individual territories around the city, but they were now all together in one place under one roof.

“The site is secure.” Anton informed. He had a squad of his Soulless watching the perimeter. It was unlikely that anyone would stop by this late, but better safe than sorry.

“The cameras are on loop.” Vicky informed. Elisa was in the school’s security office, and Vicky had compelled the guards to forget they were ever here.

“Let’s get started.” Jezebel commanded Janitor Joe to lie on the floor while Lono brought the cart of supplies forward.

Making wards was a fickle science: ingredients, intentions, and power were all at play in their creation. Most importantly, they needed someone motivated to get them done properly. Right now, they were all motivated by the fear that Gerry and Lucian would dismember them if they failed.

“We need four outward concealing wards in each corner of the ceiling.” Jezebel started out with the most obvious. “I can handle those.”

“The ceremony calls for three ætherial conduits at the center, but we’ll need another four to power the wards.” Jeb pointed at the center of the basketball court where the school’s mascot was emblazoned and its four corners.  “We’ll make a triangle with an inward concealing ward in the center.”

“We’ll need dozens of protection wards calibrated for the Divine. I’d say three on the side walls, six on the ceiling, and three on the floor. If we are attacked it’ll be from above or the sides. Might as well throw containment wards on each of the doors,” Anton added as he surveyed the space.

“Too many conealment?” Lono spoke up for the first time in his broken English. It sounded like the fat of his triple-chin was strangling his attempt to speak.

“He’s right.” Jezebel nodded at the biggest Infernal in the room. “Too many inward concealment wards are going to dampen the other wards’ effectiveness.” That would be a big problem.

“That’s an easy fix.” Vicky shrugged. “We’ll get these banners finished and hang them over the wards to hide them. I’ll I’m the chair of the homecoming committee, so I’ll be here early to supervise the finishing touches before the dance. We’ll only need the one interior ward to hide the trio of conduits at the center. Everything else can be covered up.”

“An elegant solution.” Anton gave her a nod and then turned to the Infernals.

“Fine…”

“Whatever…”

Lono just nodded along, and they got to work.

Jezebel started with the outward-directed concealment wards. Their purpose was to keep the eyes of the Divine off the school while the Duxes completed their little ceremony. One was enough to hide an Infernal wielding æther. Two was enough to disguise a dux in their true form. The penthouse Gerry lived in had three just to be safe. If four were called for then there was going to be some serious shit going down. On a simpler level, the wards affected the senses of anyone nearby. There could be a fire raging the middle of the gym and no one outside would know any better until they crossed the threshold.

The ward wasn’t overly complicated, but it required enough power that it wouldn’t simply burn away under the intensity of what was occurring within it. That required one key ingredient: blood. Not just ordinary blood, Infernal blood. The other ingredients were simple: six ounces of dead-man’s soil as a binding agent, a gallon of black paint you could get at any home improvement store, a sprinkling of frankincense, a sliver of silver, and a drop of dragon’s blood to fortify it against mundane methods of destruction. She stuck it all into a large pewter cauldron, lit a fire with her magic, and mixed it all together for six minutes and sixty six seconds.

That actually made it seven minutes and six seconds of mixing, but that’s not how the instructions explained it. There was a power in symbology that was as integral to the process as the ingredients themselves.

She added the ingredients in the proper order, and stirred for the first six minutes before taking out a small dagger and slicing her palm open. The wound started to heal quickly, but not before she got the required amount of drops into the potion. She hit it with a solid amount of motivation at six minutes and sixty-five seconds. There was a loud poof, a shower of sparks, and the black tar-like substance transformed into a luminous shade of silver.

She snapped her fingers and the fire went out. That was step one. Step two was getting the pattern right. Drawing a ward wasn’t like spray painting of vandalizing the surface of a building. It was an art. The complex geometric designs had to be painted with a masterful hand or it would just be shit scribbled on a wall.

Jezebel worked slowly and meticulously. It was shapes within shapes within more shapes. Sweat was flowing freely down her back by the time she carefully swept the final brushstroke across the white, brick wall. You could tell it was done correctly when the silver liquid seemed to solidify and sink into the surface of the wall.

<One down three more to go.>

It took her an hour to do just one, but she had it easy. Jeb was doing the power conduits in the center with Anton’s assistance. Their potion was much more complex with rarer ingredients. If Jezebel screwed up then they just needed to go to the nearest cemetery and dig up another grave. Jeb didn’t have that luxury.

Power conduits required a lot more of his blood to start – a full liter. On top of that was a dozen crows eyes, the heart of a newborn baby, a shard of Infernal Iron, and an ounce of plutonium of all things. A human even attempting to concoct an ætherial power conduit would die of radiation poisoning before being burned to a cinder by the powerful energy.

Unlike Jezebel’s wards, the power conduits were a brilliant gold in color. They contrasted sharply with the black interior concealment ward Anton was constructing. The ward would normally conflict with the ceremony, but by the time it was time to start the sacrifice the ward would no longer be needed, and the activation of the conduits would scorch it from the floor.

The three Infernals and two Soulless worked diligently into the early morning. Wards were not something that could be thrown up at a moment’s notice, and ideally they’d have time to settle before needing to be used. They didn’t have that much time, so they had to make do.

“Get it in place!” Vicky growled at Anton.

Everyone’s nerves were starting to fray after a night spent do intensive work.

“I’m trying.” They were securing the last banner over the exterior concealment charm in the far corner of the room and having a little trouble tying it off to one of the rafters.

“Ms. Jezebel, I’m tired.” Janitor Joe’s eyes were partially rolled into the back of his head as his body’s needs fought against Jezebel’s enthrallment.

“Soon, precious, very soon.” She patted the prostrated man’s cheek and his whole body shuddered with pleasure.

Her smile slipped as she turned away from him and focused her attention on the Soulless. They’d finally attached the banner and were giving the room one last look. The homecoming committee would find little to do when they arrived today. The banners on the walls and ceiling were already completed and hung. More giant signs were plastered over the doors. Plastic tables with cheap, white tablecloths were set up and ready for the punch the high school’s students would inevitably try to spike. It looked like just about every other budgeted school dance in the school’s history. The banners might have even been a slightly higher artistic quality since people more than a few centuries old had completed them.

The students would come to enjoy the socialization, grinding on each other, and hope to get laid, high, or drunk while the chaperones weren’t looking. They wouldn’t even notice they’d walked right into a trap, and Janitor Joe was the final piece of the puzzle.

“Joe, sweetie.” Jezebel took a seat behind the old man. She could feel his arousal spike as she ran her hands over his chest. “I need you to do something for me. Is that ok?”

“Yes, anything.” The exhaustion had vanished from the man’s eyes.

“I want you to give yourself to me fully.” She smiled as she continued to caress him, but moved her hands lower.

“Of course,” he exhaled with pleasure.

“I need you to say it. Say that you give your life to me.”

“I give my life to you.” There was no hesitation in the man’s response. He was so thoroughly caught in her web he never stood a chance.

“Good.” She nibbled on his earlobe playfully.

Joe shuddered as her teeth grazed his flesh. He arched his back, craned his neck back to look at her, and sealed his own fate. As he arched his neck, Jezebel’s hand moved from his belt up toward his head. As it moved it transformed. It shifted from the finely-manicured nails to a large, sharp talon. With an easy swipe she drew it across his throat.

Blood fountained out of the wound and onto the floor. They were sitting right in the center of the interior concealment ward. The blackness of the ward seemed to open wide and swallowed the blood as it leaked out of Joe. The ward drank up the human sacrifice and drew power from the dying janitor’s blood. Jeb stood by to make sure none of the blood made onto his power conduits, but Jezebel was a professional.

The ward consumed Janitor Joe’s blood and then his body. He was cold and dead by the time the darkness devoured him. His soul passed through it and to the realm of Prince Seere, but it was what the sacrifice did on this plane that mattered.

“We’re done here.” Jeb announced as the concealment ward and the power conduits winked out of existence. “School starts in an hour and we need to be gone before the teachers arrive.”

“I’ll stay and make sure they see me at work.” Vicky nodded as the rest of the Infernals strode out of the gym.

Anton was the last one. He gave the gym one final look and a satisfied nod before turning to Vicky. “Can you feel it?”

Vicky was feeling a lot of things. Thirsty after seeing a man bleed out was at the top of her list.

“Not that.” Anton didn’t need her answer to guess what she was thinking. “There’s something in the air, something more. Whatever is happening tonight it’s going to be big.”

“The only thing guaranteed with all these Infernals involved is that it is going to be a big bag of dicks. I got paid and that’s enough for me.” She gave the other vampire a hard stare. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Anton, but I can’t wait for you to get the hell out of my town.”

Anton didn’t reply. He just grinned, spun on his heel, and exited the building. That left Vicky all alone to sell the hardest part of the whole operation. She needed to convince the faculty that for the first time in the four years she’d attended the school that she was actually being proactive. That in itself was a miracle, and she hoped it didn’t draw too much attention.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 132

Eve Berg

Location: CWS Hoplite, Rogue Island System, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“On the count of three: one…two…three…HEAVE!”

Hoplite was a big ship. She was a few decades newer than Valkyrie, and had more railguns and missile launchers. It was a mix of that and good luck that she’d survived when Valkyrie bought the farm. Survived was the key word because she was not unharmed. Several large holes had been blown into the mighty battleship and there was something wrong just about everywhere. The damage control crews were doing the best that they could, but somethings only a shipyard and time could fix. The crew’s mission at the moment was to get the ship to the yards, and for that to occur they needed to reestablish power and get the Alcubierre Drives back online.

Eve and SGM Queen were making that happen with good old-fashioned sweat and elbow grease.

“Damn she’s a fat bitch.” The marine standing next to Eve got a chuckle from the Ranger.

A dozen of the strongest people on the ship were putting their shoulder into a giant support beam that had collapsed when the ship took a haymaker from an anti-matter missile. The beam’s collapse had taken out power conduits and a multitude of other primary system relays. It needed to be moved before serious repairs could be started.

“AHHHH!” Eve’s prolonged grunt intensified as centimeter by centimeter the beam started to move.

“Come on you worthless piece of shit!” SGM Queen added his own motivational chant as the duro-steel beam weighing tens of thousands of kilograms moved toward their goal.

They’d set up multiple jacks to get the beam back into place as much as possible. Welding and nanites programmed to fuse the metal back together would hopefully hold it. If Hoplite just cruised back to the yards then it should hold just fine, but if they got in another fight they would be in serious trouble.

“Almost there.” An engineering officer was supervising the whole process. He had a giant tube of the nanites just waiting to go. “And…stop. Hold tight for me.”

People swarmed the beam. Eve and the SGM felt the weight literally get taken off of their shoulders as the jacks went into place. One by one the regular grunts started to step away until finally it was just Eve and the SGM.

“Keep it in place just a little longer.” The engineer was fussing over the end where black liquid was swirling around the previously broken connection.

“How’s it going, Berg?” The SGM’s voice was conversational as they shouldered the last few thousand kilograms.

“My armor is at twenty-four percent power, my Buss is sitting uselessly against the wall, and my lower back is killing me. This is not what I signed up for.”

The SGM laughed, but didn’t rebuke her. He and Eve had been going nonstop since Hoplite fell out of Alcubierre. Their suits could get places the regular marines and spacers couldn’t, and their strength was sorely needed. They’d only gotten a few breaks in the last few days, and that was primarily for the armor to recharge. Even at only a half charge they’d been sent back to work.

<It’s all worth it if we get to see another day.> Eve told herself that first day before the backbreaking work. Now it was, <They better just kill me outright next time so I don’t need to do any of this clean up shit.>

“We’re good.” The engineer finally waved them away. There was a groan as the duro-steel settled, but the jacks held and the welding nanites were hard at work. “That’ll be secure in another two hours and we can move onto our next structural break.”

<Whoopee!> Eve stepped aside as spacers rushed into the area with coils of replacement cables.

She could see cleanly cut lines hanging in the space they’d just moved the beam from, and if the officers were to be believed then replacing those should get primary power back up and running.

<At least when they get the reactor up and running again.> That was another place Eve and the SGM had spent a lot of time talking over TACCOM with more engineers. The amount of radiation in the room made it impossible for people to be in there for long periods of time without protection, and there were only so many protective suits that hadn’t been damaged in the battle. They’d been working on cleaning it out since the beginning, and hopefully they were just about done.

It was all basically a colossal clusterfuck.

Eve was prompting her LACS to give her a sip of water – and pondering what she was going to have to do next – when an ear-splitting screech echoed down the corridor. Her armor immediately cut out the sound to save her hearing, but then STRATNET started to go crazy. Dozens of channels were lighting up with distress calls, and a check of vitals showed half a dozen crewmembers go from green or yellow to black.

“What the hell is…?” Eve turned to the SGM and nearly dropped the Buss he threw at her.

“Everyone take cover!” The SGM yelled as the other marines ran to grab their own weapons. “Marines give me a firing line in front of the jacks, NOW!” The authority in his voice had the grunts immediately obeying.

“Sergeant Major what the hell is going on?” Even not knowing what was happening Eve was moving to join the firing line.

“Scavenger bots. The Blockies launched fucking scavenger bots in their missiles.”

Eve’s face paled inside her armor. She’d heard of scavenger bots briefly in Basic and again in Ranger School. Cumulatively, she’d probably only gotten about thirty minutes of instruction on the parasitic nanites. Now that she was facing them, she wanted to find Gunney Cunningham and knee her in the ovaries for not telling her more.

Scavenger bots had been a part of naval warfare for the last three decades. They were considered to be a dirty, dishonorable way to fight. It was the equivalent of kicking a person while they were down. They were often transported in can-opener missiles. When the missiles exploded and peppered holes in a ship the nanites would enter as well. Once they identified they were on an enemy vessel – which wasn’t difficult when they started picking up enemy TACCOM and STRATNET transmissions – their programming would initiate a consolidation subroutine. It pooled them together until they reached a threshold. Once that threshold was reached the new golf ball-sized parasites would begin to wreak havoc on any organic or inorganic matter they could find. The picture Eve had seen in Ranger School looked like small metal balls covered in razor blades.

Scavenger bots were the Fleet’s version of a virus. They used them to infect the host and weaken resistance so they were easier to overcome. It wasn’t the best strategy to take an enemy warship with their critical systems intact, but it was a good way to disorganize any resistance before it could even form.

“Energy beam, Berg.” The SGM’s voice was tense as they both rotated the barrels of their Buss’. “We only need a low blast to end these little shits.”

Eve dialed her Buss so the beam would fire in a wide cone instead of a tight beam. The main weakness of the scavenger bots was they were fairly fragile. A low-charge energy beam would take them out. The designers made them maneuverable and harder to hit, but one hit would do it. The problem with that and the marines’ current configuration was that they were all sporting M3s.

It was much harder to hit one of the small bots with a fletchette than with an energy beam.

“Steady.” The SGM projected calm as the screeching grew louder. “Fire on full auto. Fill the corridor with lead.”

It was ever marine’s wet dream to just unload like that, and the SGM didn’t have to tell them twice.

“Berg, you fire low and I’ll fire high. Don’t let any get through or those boys are in for a bad day.”

Eve and the SGM’s armor were better suited to protect them. They had pouches of nanites that would actively fight the scavenger bots if they attached to the V3 LACS, but the regular grunts had no such protection. If the bots got on the marines they would have to crush them with their gauntlets, which would take seconds those marines didn’t have.

“Here they come.” The screeching reached a fever-pitch as a swarm of metallic objects shot around the corner. “FIRE!” The SGM’s command was lost in the roar of gunfire.

The M3 rounds tore up the corridors polished floors and walls. The bots shattered on impact with the 1mm fletchettes, but far too few were being destroyed. There wasn’t even a squad of marines firing, and despite the lead they were putting downrange there was still a lot of open space. That, and the bots programmed evasion protocols weren’t helping.

“Don’t let them get into the vents!” the SGM ordered as a few marines chased groups of bots that were trying the get into the ventilation. Once in there they could come out anywhere.

“Wait for it, Berg.” The two Rangers held their fire as the bots drew closer. “Wait for it.”

Eve’s finger desperately wanted to pull the trigger. The bots were so close now her optics could pick up the swirling blades on the bots surface. Given enough time those blades would eat through metal. Bone wasn’t a problem for them.

“FIRE!”

The corridor erupted in light as the rangers fired their energy beams. The laser wave smashed into the bots and ninety-five percent of them fell to the floor with scorch covered bodies. The remaining five percent launched themselves at the kneeling marines.

“Fuck! It’s on me!”

“Get it off…get it off!”

“Just shoot it!”

The marines’ Dragonscale armor went haywire as the bots attached themselves to it and started to feast. Their design to deflect moving projectiles was a hindrance in this case. It was like opening the door for the bot to burrow deeper into the armor.

It was pretty obvious they hadn’t been trained in this type of threat.

“Lock it in place!” Eve yelled as she grabbed a marine who had three bots on his chest. She pulled him off his feet, threw him on his back, and started to punch him repeatedly in the chest.

She crushed the first one in the process of knocking the wind out of the broad marine. She swiped the second one and crushed it in her fist, but by then the third one had squeezed between the scales and was tearing into the underlying circuitry.

“Take it off!” Eve yelled as the marine’s hand scrapped against his armor.

He didn’t move fast enough.

Eve was in the process of trying to wrench the marine out of his armor when the bot hit flesh. The man’s panicked yells transformed into screams of pain. He went limp just before she pulled the armor over his head, and she saw the hole over his heart.

“Kill it, Berg!” The SGM was ripping the armor off another marine while the rest were busy punching each other in a life or death game of whack-a-mole.

To anyone not knowing what was happening, it looked like the marines were in the weirdest fight ever.

“Don’t just sit there, kill it!” The SGM screamed again, and Eve got his meaning.

The bot might have chewed through the marine’s chest, but it was still active.

<Ah fuck!> She grimaced as she plunged her hand into the gaping chest wound, caught the bot trying to chew through his spine, and crushed it.

She yanked out the mass of blood, circuitry, and chewed up internal organs that covered her hand and shook it off as best she could. The SGM and the rest of the marines seemed to have everything under control. Only one other marine failed to destroy the bots before it burrowed into them.

“Shit! Private, you…” A marine yelled at her just as a bot fell off her back. It was twitching like it was having an electronic seizure, until Eve planted her boot on it and crushed it into a dozen smaller pieces.

A swarm of smaller nanites flowed over the back of her LACS, onto the front, and into an external pouch. They’d done their job. Eve just wished she was a second faster in doing hers.

“Clear.” The SGM called out.

“Clear.” The marines responded.

“Get to the armory. They’re handing out the reserve energy weapons to deal with the threat.” The SGM ordered. “Berg, get to sick bay and secure the wounded. I’m headed to engineering.” The big Ranger didn’t even wait for confirmation before he took off running.

“Take care of the dead.” Other marines outranked Eve, but she wore the battle armor, so they listened.

She headed in the opposite direction as the SGM. Sick bay wasn’t far and she reached it in less than a minute. A smaller swarm of scavengers was eating away at the door when she arrived. There were two bodies in the hallway. Both were in smartcloth CMUs and never stood a chance.

Eve didn’t even slow down. She fired three successive bursts from her Buss as she drew nearer. Each time she narrowed her beam to bring more power to bear on the little machines. They dropped liked flies as the energy blasts washed over them, but half a dozen still remained when she reached them.

She tossed her Buss in the air, flipped it around, and used it like a baseball bat to crush two of them. As far as countermeasures went it was a stupid move, but it was effective. The remaining four bots attached themselves to her. Her own armor responded as multiple pouches opened to spew her own nanites. The battle was short and sweet. Her nanites were victorious, and she made sure to stomp on the four twitching machines before knocking on the sick bay door.

A friendly face answered. “Berg, what the fuck took you so long?” Gunney Cunningham looked paler than usual, but Eve chalked that up to her injuries not fear.

“No excuse, Gunney.” Eve replied promptly as she got a count of the people in the infirmary and radioed a SITREP into the SGM and the marine officers.

“You can make up for it by getting me a weapon and some armor.”

Eve gave the other Ranger a once over. She was still a bit wobbly on her feet, and lacking a healthy flush in her skin, but her eyes were determined, and her expression said she wasn’t asking. She was telling.

“Follow me, Gunney.” Eve got her new orders and would drop the older woman at the armory along the way.

“Lead the way.” The two women took off to secure the rest of the embattled battleship.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 131

Admiral Sonya Berg

Location: CWS Spectre, Syracuse System, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 A rhythmic pinging echoed through the hull of the small ship. The ship was a cross between a luxury yacht and a mail carrier. The exterior was unadorned, simple, and built for speed. Mail carriers were the fastest way beside an Alcubierre-capable drone to get information across the galaxy.

The interior was a different story. It was still a small ship, with room for less than a dozen people, but the crew assigned to it traveled in style. Most of the crew was crammed into the small bridge for the final approach to their destination. The captain was a young-looking lieutenant commander who doubled as the pilot of the small craft. The XO was also the navigator, and a Senior Chief Petty Officer was in charge of everything else. The NCO was a master engineer specifically trained to deal with the high-performance engine on the ship, as well as operating the formidable weapons system.

Anyone that tried to mess with the mail carrier look-alike would find it a tough nut to crack with some very sharp teeth.

Two other people were on the bridge as the three-man crew readied for transition. One was a large woman with a permanent scowl tattooed on her face. Despite being in a secure space with a crew they’d worked with for years the woman was still on guard. Her hand permanently rested on the handle of her holstered pistol.

The last person on the bridge was the one responsible for the rhythmic pinging that was echoing through the small space. Every time her foot hit the ground the crew became aware of her growing impatience. Since it happened twice a second it felt like she was screaming, “MOVE…MOVE…MOVE” at them.

Admiral Sonya Berg had a lifetime keeping her emotions a secret. Her face didn’t reveal anything that was going on inside her head, but her foot did. The crew didn’t dare to look back at the Chief of Naval Intelligence, but they knew something was up. It wasn’t every day that you got yanked out of bed and told to fly from New Washington to Syracuse system immediately. High profile visits by someone of the Admiral’s stature usually took a lot of planning and preparation. At a minimum, they would send word ahead to the local commander that someone important was heading their way.

“Transition in three…two…one…” The disguised mail carrier made a smoother transition than other ships in the Commonwealth’s fleet, but the tapping didn’t cease.

There was a line coming out of the launcher, but the Admiral’s personal code allowed them to bypass. Starships didn’t have horns like air-cars, but if they did the pilot expected everyone would be honking at them.

“Spectre, this is Orca-Actual.” We’ve been assigned to escort you in. Follow inbound course one-one-seven. The road is being cleared.” A nearby destroyer informed over TACCOM.

“Much appreciated, Orca. Following inbound course one-one-seven.” They cut the link before anyone could bother the Admiral. She didn’t look like she wanted to talk.

Course one-one-seven led them straight into orbit around Syracuse and toward a giant assault carrier that was Third Fleet’s flagship.  The Agincourt was one of the most formidable ships in the galaxy. Her nanite armor and duro-steel hull with an added latticework of nano-tube weaving was six meters thick. She boasted forty energy cannons and two hundred and twenty missile tubes. She was nearly four kilometers long, with a crew compliment of six thousand that did not include the two brigades of marines assigned to her. She was a city in space all by herself, and Aggie – as she was affectionately nicknamed by the crew – was a city ready for war.

Which meant the arrival of one of the highest ranking admirals in the Commonwealth Fleet threw a wrench in everyone’s day.

“We shouldn’t have used my code. These spacers have better things to do.” Admiral Berg’s face soured as they approached the massive carrier.

She hadn’t spoken more than a handful of times since they left New Washington, so no one really knew what to say to that. They didn’t think the CNI waiting in line for several hours was the best use of her time.

Thankfully, the ADM didn’t bring it up again. Everyone kept their eyes on their holo-screens as they maneuvered for landing. The ADM turned to her security detail leader and gave a small cough. The woman nodded and turned her head away. When no one was looking, the ADM took a container from her uniform pocket; she popped it open, emptied two pills into her hand, and tossed them into her mouth. She swallowed without any water and placed the pills back in her pocket.

Within a minute the incessant tapping of her foot stopped, and they made their final approach into the gunboat bay of the colossal carrier. Since Spectre was just over half the size of a gunboat they easily fit into the bay. It was all the troops that were lined up as the ship came to a halt that made it a tight squeeze.

The ADM’s expression remained unreadable, but her head of security raised an eyebrow. “They must have pulled every marine unit doing a uniform inspection.” There were a couple hundred marines in their dress uniforms lined up on either side of Spectre’s hatch that made a pathway toward the bay’s door.

“Docking complete, lowering gangway.” The pilot informed as the ship started to power down.

Without a word the ADM rose from her chair and headed toward the back of the ship. Two other agents from her protective detail met her at the rear hatch. Despite being on a friendly warship the three agents were on high alert. Their charge was one of the most valuable people in the Commonwealth Fleet. Nothing was going to happen on their watch.

“PRESENT ARMS!” The command echoed through the large bay as several hundred arms snapped salutes.

The ADM descended the steps with practiced grace, snapped her own salute to the Commonwealth flag, and then to the officer of the deck. “Permission to come aboard, Lieutenant.”

“Permission granted,” the young woman squeaked.

She stepped back immediately and a much less intimidated man stepped forward. “Welcome to Third Fleet.” Instead of saluting, he extended his hand.

As another full admiral with five golden stripes running down his CMUs, Admiral Michael Ward wasn’t required to salute his equal; even if her job was a little higher up the food chain.

“Thanks, Mike.” Sonya knew the commander of Third Fleet. They’d done a couple training courses together when they were both Captains looking to make flag rank, and they’d kept in touch.

“Your staff is looking a little light.” Mike nodded behind her to where her three security agents were scanning the bay for threats.

“This isn’t an official visit, so there was no need to roll out the red carpet. Can we walk?” As a matter of principle, Sonya didn’t like being in such an exposed position for so long. It dramatically reduced the chances she would lose her head.

“Sure.” The other ADM had half a dozen CAPTs and CMDRs behind him, but they all moved out of the way so the two admirals could move, and then they stayed out of the way when the three large security agents glared at them.

“Give it to me straight, Mike. How bad did they fuck us up?” Sonya waited until they passed out of the crowded bay to ask the question. Her agents would take care of any human or electronic attempts to eavesdrop.

“Truthfully, it could have been a hell of a lot worse.” Despite the blue in Mike’s eyes, his age was showing right now. “Two battlecruisers and three destroyers got caught trying to scramble out of the system. We lost three battleships and the Manchester with all hands. Three more battleships were too damaged to make the jump. We’re hoping the Blockies picked up the survivors and we can organize a prisoner exchange, but you never know with them. Two battleships disappeared somewhere between Rogue Island and here. I’ve got drones scouring the systems, but it could take months. Worst of all, the Blockie fleet has disappeared from the system.”

Sonya did the mental math. “So we’re looking at twenty-five thousand casualties not counting the marines, closer to forty total, and we’ve got another six or seven thousand unaccounted for.” That didn’t even take into consideration the sheer tonnage lost.

It was one of the worst military defeats in recent Commonwealth history – nearly fifty thousand spacers and marines – and Sonya had pushed for it.

“We’re still compiling the casualty list…but it’s looking something like that.” They reached the Fleet Commander’s cabin. The staff peeled off to resume their duties, and the security detail swept the rooms before taking up positions outside.

The two ADMS were finally able to let their guard down. Mike collapsed onto the couch and pulled himself a tall glass of fancy Earth-bourbon. One look at Sonya and he poured her one too.

The stoic CNI’s face had cracked. Tears were leaking down her cheeks and she looked on the verge of completely breaking down.  “Mike,” she choked out. “Where is my daughter?”

 

Gunnery Sergeant Gwen Cunningham

Location: CWS Hoplite, Uncharted system, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

“We’re losing her! Get me ten cc’s right now!”

Gwen’s eyelids were too heavy to open. She felt exhausted, everything was sore, and any attempt to move made her head spin.

“Doctor they aren’t programmed,” someone whined.

“I don’t care if they’re not programmed. Some jackass decided that flesh-printing to stop a cerebral hemorrhage was a bright idea. The body is attacking the new tissue, and it’s leaking again. If we don’t get something in there to stem it, this patient is totally and absolutely fucked.”

Gwen finally got her eyes open and immediately shut them. Light streamed down from directly above her.  Sounds aside from some foul-mouthed doctor were starting to come back to her. There were lots of people moving around nearby, and the beeps and hums of medical machinery were familiar to Gwen after her lengthy career.

“Shit, she’s coding!” From nearby a steady beeping became a low screech. “Where are those nanites?!”

The sound of footsteps running made Gwen lift her head and look around. The normally clean and tidy sick bay was packed to the gills with people. Some had blood all over them, others were burned, quite a few were unconscious, and more than half had a vacant expression on their face as they stared at nothing in particular.

“Clear!” There was a jolting sound. “No response…Charging…Clear. One more time…”

Gwen knew the outcome even before the doctor started cursing again.

“Time of death, 22:21. Take the nanites back. They’re no good now.” The plastic screen moved and the surgical team stepped away from their patient.

The doctor looked more like a butcher than a surgeon. She was wearing a thick plastic apron over her CMUs. There were two golden stripes barely visible on her sides, so Gwen made the assumption she was the ship’s chief medical officer. She knew she was on a ship by the number of spacers and lack of marines. She could also tell that whatever had happened wasn’t good.

“Good, you’re up.” The doctor caught the GYSGT with her eyes open and walked over.

A PAD was attached to the side of the bed she was laying in. The doctor picked it up and moved it along Gwen’s body.

“You’ve been out for a full day onboard, and I don’t know how long back on the ground. I don’t know what happened to you, but I can tell you something big fell on you and you had pretty severe radiation poisoning.”

“Well shit.” The last thing Gwen remembered was talking with Beastmaster. “Do you at least know where we are?”

“Somewhere between a rock and a hard place.” The doctor shook her head. “Our task force got in a fight with a Blockie fleet, and it didn’t end well. I just know we took some hits, didn’t spend long in Alcubierre, and most of the crew is injured. Despite all of that, I was told by a scary looking sergeant major that I better save you, so you must be important.”

That was a surprise to Gwen, but she didn’t argue. Anything that kept her alive was good in her book.

“Most of your bones have mended, but I want you to take it easy for a few more hours. I’d like for them to set for at least a day, but something tells me that isn’t possible. The radiation is out of your system, but expect a challenge keeping solid food down for the next forty-eight hours. If you piss or shit blood tell me, but otherwise you’ll be fine with time. Try to get a little more sleep. Your body could really use it.”

Gwen would have loved to do just that, but there was a lot of yelling, groaning, and people constantly being brought in or taken out. It wasn’t conducive to sleeping.

It was only made worse by a screeching noise that just seemed to get louder and louder. Something tickled the back of Gwen’s brain, but since her brain still felt concussed she didn’t pay it any attention. It was only when the screeching noise was nearly on top of them did the lightbulb go off.

“Shut and lock the door!” Her body protested as she jumped out of bed, leapt over two people with burns over a good bit of their body, and hit the close and emergency lock button on the door.

“What the hell are you doing, Gunney?” The chief medical officer appeared with a scowl. “We’ve got people to transport.”

“If they’re out there then they’re already dead.”

The doctor looked like she wanted to roll her eyes, but the look on Gwen’s face stopped her short. “Shit you’re serious.”

“Everyone who can move needs to make sure there is no way into this room: vents, ducks, any opening at all needs to be plugged.” The screeching reached its highest pitch yet and then something impacted the other side of the door.

It wasn’t one big thump. It was a continuous racket, like there was a heavy rain pounding on a roof.

“Are we good!” Despite being an injured GYSGT, Gwen seemed to have taken command of the bay.

“Clear, Gunney.” A few marines answered.

“Mind telling me what the hell is going on?” The medical officer stood with her arms crossed across her chest.

“The Blockies left us a little gift, and we need to wait here until the exterminator arrives.”

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 20

Daisy walked the sci-fi corridors of the HCP with a stack of folders that nearly reached her chin. It was ideal to place a cup of coffee on, but that was about it. Thankfully, the students parted like the Red Sea around her or there would be problems.

The paperwork was mostly bureaucratic bullshit. She had printed herself the results of the first sophomore team competition to get a better read on what went on. She knew the basic results. Martin’s team had beaten Cook’s team and Goodman’s team had beaten Fisher’s team. Martin had outthought Cook, and Goodman had overpowered Fisher. When Craig set the matches, Daisy had an idea that was how they’d turn out. Now, she was looking at all the data gathered from the fights.

All of the special combat cells and arenas were outfitted with sensors developed by tech genius Supers. They allowed the instructors to do a lot more than just record the fight. These sensors measured the size, shape, and particulars of the exploding orbs Goodman lobbed all over the place. It evaluated how Whitfield ran on water, and how much force was behind each punch thrown by anyone with enhanced strength. It even measured the air displacement when Richardson teleported all over the place.

All of that data could then be measured against baselines taken during freshman year to see how the students were progressing and where they needed assistance in their training based on past trends. The HCP saw each of its students as world class athletes, and it treated their training the same as if they were preparing for the Superbowl or getting ready for the Olympics.

<I sometimes wish I had this.> Daisy’s training had ben radically different.

There was no measurements or quality analysis of Super abilities in the 50s aside from seeing if you could jump over a tall building in a single bound or were faster than a speeding bullet. They didn’t care about that stuff sixty years ago, but they cared about it now.

That was some of the other paperwork in her arms. She’d just completed a basic analysis of the freshman and compared it to the data gathered during their combat trial. Some were showing improvement, others were the same, and a few were actually doing worse than before. Those few wouldn’t make the cut to the second semester if they didn’t get better or didn’t stop overindulging outside the HCP. An HCP student couldn’t act like any other college student and still compete at the level required of them.

The crowds started to thin out. It was the end of the day and not many people were heading toward the infirmary. Dr. Sanderson was usually getting people out of there about now.

“Coach Meyers?”

Daisy had to peak from behind her folders to see who was addressing her. “Ms. Vann. What can I do for you?”

“What are you doing here?”

Scarlett Vaan was just exiting Dr. Johnson’s office. Daisy knew she had her internship for her doctoral program with the psychologist, but she also knew she ended her day at five. That’s why Daisy’s appointment wasn’t until five-thirty.

“I’m here to see Dr. Johnson.” Daisy hefted the files a bit as an excuse. She might be coming to grips with her emotional health, but she wasn’t about to share that with one of her freshman students.

“I didn’t see you on the schedule.”

Daisy didn’t know if Vaan was prying or just being diligent about her duties with the doctor. Either way, Daisy didn’t have a lot of extra time or energy for it.

“We can’t always fit what needs to be done into a regular schedule, Vaan. Sometimes you have to drop in unexpectedly to get the job done. If you’ll excuse me…” Daisy made a “please move” gesture with her head, and the advanced mind stepped out of her way.

Daisy felt a tickle in her mind and gave the freshman a good wallop of the most annoying sound in the world. The young woman grimaced at the annoying, grating sound and blushed before walking away.

<Kids.> Daisy shook her head, even if Vaan was older than the seniors in the program she was still a kid. <Hell, just about everyone here is a kid compared to me.> She chuckled at her own joke and knocked on Johnson’s door.

“Come on in, Daisy.”

Daisy had been seeing the good doctor at least once a week for the last year, and she could honestly say she’d rarely seen him this tired.

He saw her looking. “I’ve forgotten how much more work it is to have an intern.” He sighed and gestured at the empty chair in front of his desk. “They always have so many questions.”

“How is Vaan doing?” She asked.

Daisy knew a lot about the technical pats of Vaan’s powerful ability. She also knew she threw her combat ranking match for whatever reason. Maybe Dr. Johnson had some insight into that.

“She’s a sponge.” Johnson gave Daisy a smile. “She is very dedicated to learning this craft, and I am thoroughly impressed.”

Daisy could sense a “but” coming.

“But…I would be remiss if I said she was Hero material. Ms. Vaan has the potential to be a great asset to the Hero community, or any community for that matter, but I don’t think she has what it takes to be a Hero.”

“Thanks for the diagnosis, Doc.” Daisy pulled out Vaan’s file from her leaning tower of paperwork and scribbled a few notes.

“But that’s not why you’re here.” Johnson smiled, and accepted a large booklet that Daisy pulled from the middle of the paperwork tower. He looked at it with suspicion. “It’s been awhile since I’ve done one of these.”

“Me too, but all of my informational and biographical data sections are already filled out. We’ve just got to do your part.” Daisy couldn’t help but feel a few butterflies in her gut.

She’d been trying for years to get Johnson’s brother in New York to do this very thing for her. He always turned her down. She hated the other Johnson for it, but now she knew he’d been doing her a favor. She wasn’t ready for the responsibility. She could barely get her own shit together. She had a metric fuckton of issues to get through, and this Johnson had helped with that. Being surrounded by good people, old friends, and a bit more understanding of what had happened to her mind had helped her treatment by leaps and bounds. Now, she really and truly felt ready.

Of course, that didn’t mean she was going to like taking the psychological evaluation to recertify her Hero status. Just by looking at the booklet she could tell that her and the Doc were going to be here well into the night.

<The sacrifices I make for this country.> Daisy summoned her mental fortitude and dove into it with Johnson.

The start of the analysis was pretty basic. “In the past six months have you felt anxious, worried or scared about a lot of things in your life?”

“Well…Seif al-Din attacked the city less than six months ago, and I saw some of the best Heroes in the city go up against him and come up short; myself included, so there was a little bit of anxiety and worry going on there.” Daisy’s tone was light and almost joking, but Dr. Johnson was taking copious notes. That was just the way he was.

“Did you feel your worry was out of control?”

“No.” That was something she was sure of. “I was able to keep my head, assess the situation, develop a course of action, and execute.”

“Do you feel restless, agitated, frantic, or tense in regards to what happened?”

“I feel agitated, but I still get a solid eight hours every night. Some things are beyond my control and I’ve learned to live with that.”

“Well that covers my next question about sleep.” Johnson smiled as he jotted down a few more things before turning the page. “It is common for people to have an unexpected wave of anxiety or panic lasting up to fifteen minutes. In the past six months have you had any of the following symptoms: heart pounding, sweating profusely, parts of your body begin to tremble uncontrollably, or having difficulty breathing or swallowing.”

<Not in the last six months.>

“I have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder from my many many many years of services.” Daisy laid it on thick to emphasis she wasn’t your average patient. “I have not had any of those symptoms in the last six months. I’ve made several breakthroughs concerning my condition and my past that have allowed me to manage things.”

“Any pain in your chest, feeling sick to your stomach, dizziness, cold or hot flashes, fear of losing control, going crazy or dying.”

The memories of her getting lost in her own flashbacks came to the front of her mind, but that hadn’t been for a while. Mastermind had eased a lot of those pressures.

“Not in the last six months, but I have had them in the past.”

“What changed?”

<Don’t I wish I could say.>

Dr. Johnson had been wondering what had happened since she started feeling better, but the legacy of several Presidential Administrations and a mountain of nondisclosure agreements larger than her student files made her keep her mouth shut.

“I found someone I could relate to. Someone who’d been through something similar. They helped me through our shared experiences.” That was the best she could do, and she hoped Johnson didn’t push it.

Since he was an empath he got the gist of her feelings and didn’t push, although he did write a lot of notes. Things went on like that for a few hours. He’d ask questions from the questionnaire and she’d answer them. She’d elaborate when she could, and give generalities where she couldn’t. She hoped it wasn’t hurting her chances in the evaluation, but no matter what she was feeling there were just some things she couldn’t say.

All things considered it wasn’t that different from one of their regular sessions. She’d come a long way from the days when she used to ruin the poor doctor’s furniture. Both of their salaries were grateful that she’d gotten through that part of the process relatively quickly. It was just a really long session. Daisy checked the clock to see three hours had passed by the time Johnson turned to the last page in the booklet.

“Hmm.” He smiled as he looked down at it. “They still end the questionnaire with the same question.” He looked up at Daisy with a small smile. “Why do you want to be a Hero?”

“I don’t want to be one.” Daisy answered immediately. “I am one. It’s what I’ve been for the last sixty-plus years. Hell, I might even be the longest serving Hero out there, but don’t quote me on that.”

Johnson smiled at that as he scribbled it all down.

“That concludes the questionnaire.” Johnson made a few flourishes at the bottom of the last page – that must have been his signature – before closing the booklet and handing it back to Daisy.

“As you know I don’t make the final rulings on these things, but in my professional opinion you have done remarkable work in the last year. I don’t know all the details, and I probably never will, but whatever it is keep on doing it. Whoever you’ve been healing with stay with them. They’re a good influence on you, and anything that’s a good influence on you is a good thing for this school, state, and whole damn country.”

“Holy shit, Doc. I can’t remember the last time you cursed.” Daisy smiled.

“I’m a therapist, not a saint.” Johnson grinned back. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get home to the wife and kid. They like it when I’m home for dinner, even if it’s a late one.”

<Johnson’s got kids?> It was the first bit of personal information Daisy had ever heard about the good doctor, and she took that as a very good sign.

Not only had she come a long way in her therapy, but she’d come a long way in developing and maintaining the personal relationships in her life. Dr. Johnson was just one of those people she didn’t even know a year ago and now considered a friend.

<Speaking of dinner.> It was her turn to pick up the take-out on the way home.

Topher’s shift didn’t get off until ten, so they’d both be getting home late, and she very much felt like expressing how much she valued their personal relationship tonight.

<Fried chicken and sex. What more can a man ask for?>

If there was something more, Daisy hadn’t come across it in her 88 years.

 

***

 

Cars lined the street going in both directions. Parking in this side-street housing area was normally pretty bad. Students found open spots and parked there for the day when they had class. At night, when they were looking for a party, they parked there too. Despite the cars parked bumper to bumper, Seth still had excellent situational awareness.

<I see you…and you…and you.> He picked out the DVA agents keeping a close eye on him. He even noticed the surveillance van.

It took him a little longer to identify the DVA’s mobile command post, but there was only so many times a utilities van can show up in the same vicinity as you before you take notice.

<I hope you enjoy watching a bunch of underage kids get shitfaced.> Seth grinned as he walked down the street. He’d pregamed enough to have a little buzz already.

The house that was his destination was already vibrating on its foundation and just about bursting at the seams with people. Guys and gals stood on the spacious front porch and chatted while sipping out of red solo cups. Most were in various levels of inebriation, with the most extreme already sucking face and making bad decisions.

If all went well, then Seth would be among them soon.

“S-Man!” The loud and boisterous voice of Butch filed the room. “Now we can start the party.” The big man gave Seth the bro half-hug and pointed him toward the keg. “Liquor is by the bar and the ladies are everywhere.”

They clinked their plastic cups together and Butch walked away to pursue his own goals. Seth had his own mission tonight, as he slipped into the crowd. He talked to the girls that came up to him – a lot of girls – but didn’t seek out any female companionship. He already had enough on his mind when dealing with the fairer sex.

He kept an eye on his surroundings as the night progressed. There were three DVA agents in the party with him. They always had one with a direct line of sight to him while the other two moved through the house to secure better vantage points. It kept Seth on the move and them constantly guessing.

He was just waiting for the right moment.

“Your eyes are so green.”

He was talking to a cute brunette when he saw his chance. “Do you want to go upstairs?”

That could only mean one thing, and the girl looked like she’d been waiting for it.

“Sure.” They walked up the stairs conspiratorially. The girl didn’t want her friends to know she was sneaking off to bone a guy she’d just met. Seth wanted to gain an extra ten seconds on the DVA.

“The room at the end of the hall should be free.” Seth pointed to Butch’s room. The big guy wouldn’t mind if a willing woman found her way into his bed. “I’m gonna hit the bathroom really quick.”

“Hurry back.” The alcohol made her think she looked sexier than she was as she sauntered toward the room.

The moment her back was turned, Seth moved with a purpose. He made it to the bathroom and locked the door. From there he went to the window. It was on the side of the house, so there were less people about to see his crazy stunt. He lowered himself out of the second-story window, fully extended his arms so he had the least amount of distance to drop, and then let go. He summoned a little bit of wind to break his fall, and he rolled with the impact. It jolted him and didn’t feel great, but he didn’t hurt himself like the trial earlier today.

From there he scrambled to his feet and headed toward the fence. He easily hopped it into the property next door – a sorority that was having a pool party.

“Ladies.” He gave the dozens of bikini-clad girls a nod as he proceeded to their back fence readied to jump it.

His goal was to put as much space between him and the DVA as possible. He had a rental car waiting around the block. He just had to get to it.

“Seth?” A familiar voice called form behind him.

Seth stopped with his hands on the top of the fence. His mind told him not to turn around, but his crotch insisted. Seth turned his head to look over his shoulder where Izzy was standing by the pool. Like all the other girls she was in a bikini and holding some mixed drink with little umbrellas in it.

The HCP did wonders for a person’s body – male or female – and he couldn’t help but notice that. Of course, she noticed him noticing, and it was awkward. Their last meeting hadn’t ended well.

“What are you doing here? Are you stalking me now?” The last line was delivered with a hint of a grin on her lips.

“Sorry, just passing through.” Seth made sure to look her in the eyes.

He started to pull himself over the fence. He didn’t have time to wonder why she was at a bikini sorority party.

“Wait!” She called and ran over to him. The running over part made it all the more difficult to leave. “I just wanted to apologize.” She looked appropriately contrite, or as contrite as possible in her current wardrobe. “I pushed you last time and that wasn’t right. You were right that I’m a bit new to this, and I should take your lead a little more.”

Seth really needed to move or this whole diversion bit was going to be pointless, but he felt obligated to respond. “No, it’s my fault. I was an ass, and you didn’t deserve that. You’re actually pretty awesome,” he waved his hands up and down to emphasize her awesome bod, “I’ve just got a lot of shit on my plate.”

“I got it.” She smiled. “I’ll take it easy on you.” The wink she gave Seth really made him want to stay, but he couldn’t put it off any longer.

“See ya.” He vaulted over the fence and merged with another group of partygoers heading for another party on a parallel street.

He walked normally because nothing stood out more than a person running around. Luckily, the group walked right past the rental car he had waiting, so he was able to hop right in and pull out into the suburban streets. He took the long way to get out. He stuck to side streets and avoided anything that looked like a government vehicle or the surveillance van because there was no way they hadn’t noticed he was gone.

Once he was sure no one was following him he got on the highway and headed toward downtown Orlando. He didn’t stay on it long. He got off in a not-so-nice part of town and found a rundown bodega – one he knew didn’t have any video cameras.

The young guy behind the cash register barely even looked up as Seth walked in and got what he needed. He paid in cash and headed back to the rental. He drove to another sketchy location beneath an overpass, parked the car, and opened the bag.

There were half a dozen disposable cell phones with extra sim cards. He ripped open the plastic packaging and plugged the charger into the port with shaking hands. He knew this was a horrible idea, but he had to do it.

He’d considered using the burner phone he’d found in his pocket in the dining hall, but it all seemed too coincidental. He hadn’t seen any flash of darkness to indicate that Liz was the person that slipped it into his pocket. It could be the DVA fucking with him, and trying to get him to incriminate himself. He wasn’t going to fall for their trap, so he got his own phones.  He still had the old phone, but it was somewhere secure until he figured everything out.

Once the new phone had enough power he flipped it open and dialed a number he’d memorized once he realized who’d called him. Seth had zero hope of actually talking to Liz when the line connected. He knew she wasn’t dumb enough to keep the phone that the DVA was trying to backtrack to her. Seth also knew she had to have someone working her tech side of things. A person didn’t break out of prison or do all the things she’d done without top-notch tech support. It just wasn’t possible in the world they lived in. Whether it was a Super or a criminal team of hackers didn’t matter. He just hoped she was monitoring the line.

The line rang for a solid few minutes before a returning a “this line is no longer in service” recording, but Seth also heard some weird crackles when it was ringing. He wasn’t a cyber expert, but he knew someone was listening. Either it was Liz or the DVA. Liz he’d answer. The DVA he would just dump the phone.

<That’s why I bought a dozen sim cards, but I need to keep moving.> Seth put the car back into drive and sped away from the underpass.

His eyes kept jumping back and forth from the road to the mirrors in search of anyone tailing him. He didn’t see anything as he pulled into an underground parking garage, parked, and dialed the number again. He got the same result.

He did that six more times before he called it a night. To anyone else it might look like someone was placing random calls and trying to get ahold of someone. He was sure the DVA had tried this approach already, and he had no idea if his would work, but he had one thing the DVA didn’t. Each stop he made was in a place that meant something to him and Liz. They’d done some very rated X things in half of those locations. He made a call from a parking lot of their favorite restaurant, and made the final call from just outside the rebuilt Sprout coffee shop where she was almost kidnapped.

<Holy Shit, she might have been in on that whole thing.> That almost made him regret doing this in the first place.

He sat there the longest trying to figure out if what he was doing was ok. Ultimately, he decided it was. He wasn’t doing anything illegal. He just wanted to talk to her without everyone and their mother listening in.

If Liz was getting the call information, he hoped she’d be able to put all those pieces together.

<This is stupid.> He contradicted himself as he returned the rental and took an cab back to his apartment.

He made sure to stagger to his door when he arrived, because he was sure the DVA was watching his place and radioing in that they’d required him. He went upstairs and quickly chugged some vodka in case they came by. It also helped settle his nerves.

What it didn’t do what erase the image of Izzy in a bikini winking at him.

 

***

 

Half a world away a young technopath recorded and analyzed the incoming calls on the discarded line. He didn’t know what to make of them, so he forwarded the information to the intended recipient.

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I’m on TDY from Hell – A Sit Down with the Divine

Gerry checked himself in the rearview mirror of the muscle-car one more time as he put it in park. The gravel was still settling behind him from the hairpin turn he’d made into the makeshift parking lot of the church. It was the same church he’d gone to with all the other members of Charlotte’s supernatural community, but this time he didn’t have imps on the corner turning tricks or mercenaries with high-powered rifles on a nearby rooftop. Today it was all him.

<Deep breaths…be truthful…> he repeated to himself as he straightened his vest and got out of the car.

The church wasn’t in a great part of town, and there was more than one face looking at him with surprise. He was dressed in a dark gray three-piece suit. It was the first time he’d worn a modern suit, and he had to admit he liked it more than the eighteenth century formal wear he’d been forced to wear as a member of Boston’s merchant class. The designs weren’t that much different from each other, but the materials were worlds apart, and the modern suit was much more maneuverable than its older counterpart. If it came down to a fight, Gerry wouldn’t be able to blame a loss on his clothing.

He gave the sports car one last pat before walking toward the wooden double-doors to the Divine Sanctuary. He expected some type of vandalism when he returned, and just hoped they didn’t remove the tires. He looked down at his watch as he walked confidently toward the door. He was five minutes late, but unlike his Prince, he didn’t expect the Dominion to rip his arm off and bash his skull in with it.

He easily pulled the heavy doors open and stepped into the sanctuary. The second he crossed the threshold a shiver went down his spine. It felt like he’d walked through a wall of cold water.

<A ward.> He hid his concern, and reminded himself that his human form was absolute. Unless he decided to change he was for all intents and purposes just another human. He purposefully wasn’t carrying a lot of æther to avoid detection. If he needed it, he could draw on it at a moment’s notice. Even then he wasn’t sure how much help it would do him.

His eyes were immediately drawn to the single figure in the room. She was sitting in the first row of pews, and it was impossible to miss her. She was wearing a simple white dress that was enhanced by the soft glow of power surrounding the woman. Her hair hung limply around her deceptively delicate shoulders. In her hands was a book. She was flipping slowly through the pages and took in every word. At the sound of his footsteps she bookmarked her spot, set the book down on the wooden seat, and turned to meet him. Her eyes met his and it seemed like she was reading him just as easily as she had been reading that book.

Her eyes held no judgement or even irritation for him being late. Even though they didn’t, he felt shame settle on his shoulders.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” he apologized, and he meant it.

“Don’t worry,” she smiled and it almost knocked him flat on his ass.

She had a beautiful smile that made little dimples out of her high cheekbones. It was hard to believe that she was the mortal enemy of his kind.

“Please have a seat.” She gestured toward another pew.

He accepted, and she took a seat on the pew in front of him. Gerry didn’t trust himself to speak, and was amazed at how at-ease she was with everything.

“You felt the warding when you entered.” It wasn’t as much a question as it was a statement. “It tells me that you have no ill will toward me.”

Gerry wasn’t sure about that, so it must be something localized within a time span. He certainly didn’t intend to try anything during this meeting.

“I will also know if you speak any lies to me. I don’t want this to be an interrogation, but you are new to the city, and some suspicious things have happened since your arrival. I’m not blaming you, or criticizing your line of work, but I need to get all of the facts straight.”

It didn’t surprise him that she would be able to tell if he was lying. “Another ward?” he asked for clarification.

She shook her head back and forth, “Experience.”

He nodded and gestured for her to ask away.

“What is your name?”

“Gerald Fuller, but a lot of people just call me Gerry.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Gerry.” She extended her hand toward him. He didn’t sense any lie in her words, but just because she was pleased to meet him didn’t meant she wouldn’t try to rip his arm off.

He only hesitated for a moment, and he hoped she chalked it up to his nervousness. She was an angel after all. When their skin touched it was like lightening shot through him. He could feel her immense power. The æther swirling around inside of her was so clear and bright it made his eyes water.

“You can feel the æther?” It wasn’t a condemnation, just a question.

“I am a master of my discipline, Ms…”

“Just Ava is fine.” She smiled that award-winning smile again.

“Ava,” he returned her smile with one of her own. “As a master of my discipline we are more attuned to what you call æther than average magic wielders, but I have sensed nothing like you before.”

“It’s just my nature,” she answered before moving on. There were more important things she needed to cover. “How long have you been here?”

“A few weeks, maybe a month, my exact arrival is a bit foggy.” It was the truth. The way Seere had transported him to Eden was still unclear.

“Why did you pick Charlotte?”

“It was chosen for me, but I’m glad I’m here. There is something about this city…” he let himself trail off and smiled.

There was something special about Charlotte. There was an undertone to everything. The virtues that powered his Infernal nature were present here in force.

“Your family wanted you to come here?”

“Not my family per say, but a father figure. He wanted me in Charlotte, and judging by all the contracts I’ve received I know why.” He was toeing the line with his answer, but the angel didn’t attack, so it seemed he was telling enough of the truth to avid her suspicions.

All the best lies had kernels of truth in them. Too much deception would eventually trip an Infernal up just as easily as a human.

“I see you were fulfilling one of those contracts,” she read out the wrong date.

“I believe it was the day before when I was hunting the werewolves. Although it was late so it might have crossed over into that day, but yes I was doing a contract during that time period,” he clarified.

“So you did not kill The Dark Mage of Charlotte.”

<Right to the point, and I don’t even have to lie.>

“No I did not,” he answered with the confidence of an innocent man.

“Do you know who did?”

<Damn.> She’d walked him right into that one, and the slight hesitation caused one of her eyebrows to rise.

“I have my suspicions,” he quickly explained. “I also don’t have all the facts. I’ve only heard rumors that he was bitten, so that makes me suspicious of the wolves. I know there are more out there.”

Suspicion of the wolves was natural, and everyone had their suspicions about anything, so nothing was a lie. She still watched him closely, but pushed on.

“Did you know the Dark Mage?”

“I just saw him at the gathering we had here, but I never talked to him.”

“Did you hold anything against him?”

“I didn’t know him, so I didn’t have anything to hold against him. I’m not the biggest fan of necromantic magic, but who is?”

Having to fight the same warriors over and over again on the battlefields of Hell made his dislike for the reincarnation of the dead that much more true. He full understood his bias was hypocritical since he’d been revived dozens of times over the centuries, but he chose to ignore that part of the argument.

“Do you bear any ill will toward this city?”

“Toward this city? No. It’s a great city, but that can’t be said for everyone in it.”

“Elaborate please.” Her eyebrow was raised again. It was such a lovely eyebrow.

“I have my contracts, Ava. I review them and some of them are for me to end certain people in this city. Of course, I have discretion who I take action against, but in the end something is going to happen to someone and I have no idea if that is going cause ill will toward the city. Unless you can see the future, I don’t think anyone really knows.”

“Seers are very rare.” She mused, and nodded at the response. “Very well, Gerry. Thank you for coming to see me. I don’t often interact with the community in this city, but the death of a gifted child needs to be investigated.”

“Of course.” He made sure not to agree or disagree. “It was lovely meeting you. I hope if we meet again it is on friendly circumstances.”

The truth in his own words surprised him. She was an angel, an agent of the Divine, but she was also a beautiful woman who’d been around for God only knew how long. The things she’d seen and experienced, not to mention her expertise in combat, would be something Gerry would very much enjoy speaking with her about.

More than likely their next meeting would not be so civilized, and equally as likely only one of them would be walking away from it.

Gerry gave her a slight bow – because that was what felt right – before turning his back and leaving. He tried not to sweat as his exposed spine was ripe for the slicing, but someone with nothing to hide wouldn’t be afraid to show their back to a friend. He breathed a short sigh of relief when he passed through the door and into the parking lot. A kid was spray painting a giant penis on the hood of his car, but took off running when he saw Gerry walking toward him.

In Hell, he would have fileted the child alive, but here he let him go. There was still a slight tingle and vibration running through his body from being in the Dominion’s presence. It was exhilarating being in the presence of that much power. Similar to when he’d first been around Prince Seere, minus the fear. Being in Ava’s presence was different. He almost wanted to be caught to see which of them would win the fight. There was something primal about going up against someone like her to test himself, even if he had a good chance of losing.

<I might know soon enough.> The plan was to complete the mission with Lucian without the Dominion finding out, but even the best laid plans got blown to shit when the first shot was fired. He’d just have to wait and see.

His lieutenants were already hard at work to set the stage for the sacrifice. A second look at his watch showed that Vicky should be arriving at her school with Jezebel, Jeb, and Lono to begin the initial preparations. The rest of the show would begin tomorrow.

He gave one look back over his shoulder at the slightly rundown church before hoping in the car and driving away.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 130

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Cobalt Station, System 1776, New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “Why the fuck is this room so big?”

“What the fuck did they think was going to happen?”

“Why the fuck are you talking instead of moving!?” The CPL cut into the chitchat and verbally planted his boot in a PVT’s ass.

Coop laughed to himself, but it got interrupted by the rumbling of the floor beneath his feet. The hangar bay of Cobalt Station looked like a third world war zone. About fifty miners lay dead and scattered throughout the space, with twice as many still fighting the advancing marines. Coop’s mines and the steady lobbing of smoke grenades was making it hard for the miners to inflict any more casualties. Even though they had M3’s, they didn’t have the armor networks to tie the weapons into. It severely degraded their effectiveness, but they didn’t seem to care.

Coop sighted a young-looking woman shooting the large rifle from the hip as she backed up and occasionally looked over her shoulder. A three-round burst of 3mm environmentally-friendly rounds hit her center mass and sent her toppling to the floor. His LACS neutral network logged that as his thirteenth kill of the day.

“We can’t sit here farting around anymore.” The CPL was pissed and Coop didn’t blame the older man. He’d been given command and walked right into a shitshow.

“Ballboy, get up there and plow the road. We’ll follow and cut a path through them. It beats the hell out of this slugfest.” Rounds pinged off the interstellar shipping containers housed in the bay.

Coop didn’t know exactly what the CPL meant by “plow the road”, but he had a few ideas. His giant Buss rotated the chambers to the grenade function while the remaining marines consolidated on their position. Coop fired off a few more smoke rounds – this time to either side of him – before reloading with something with a lot more bang. Then he told the CPL his plan.

“Hang on to your nuts boys and girls. We’re about to go for a ride.” The CPL stepped away from Coop and took cover behind a container.

Coop toggled to his weapons menu and did something MSG Smith had advised against in HI school. There were hundreds of weapons options to give an HI trooper maximum versatility and flexibility on the battlefield. Some were just downright ridiculous, while others could be a danger to the trooper and others. Coop wasn’t stupid enough to go that far, but his selection had the possibility to really fuck him up.

With his Buss set in rapid fire grenade launcher mode he pulled up the schematics of the station and zoomed in on the hangar bay. He got his location, got the exit door’s location, and planned to draw a straight line between the two points with grenades.

<This should be fun.>

“We’ll drop smoke every twenty-five meters.” The CPL ordered the rest of the marines while Coop lined up his first shot.

This little maneuver wasn’t going to kill the hundred remaining miners trying to kill them, in fact it was going to leave a lot of pissed off people chasing them. <But that’s why god made proximity mines.> Coop grinned.

They’d regroup with the rest of the marines, complete the mission, and then fight their way out. Coop would rather go at the rest of the pirates with a few squads of grunts than the seven they had now.

“Execute!” The CPL ordered, and everything in front of them started to explode.

Coop carved a path of destruction through the remaining hundred plus meters of the hangar bay. He used up the majority of his grenades doing it, but it was a hell of a show. The other marines dropped smoke every twenty-five meters on their flanks just like they said they would. It didn’t matter as much because any miners caught near the blast were to shell shocked to return fire until the charging marines were well past them. The whole deal only lasted a minute, but Coop was pretty sure he turned pyro in that short period of time.

“One and Two, this is Three. We’re through the hangar bay. Three casualties. The Spyder is down, I repeat, the Spyder is down. Casualty collection point is located at the Spyder.” The CPL added a STRATNET becon to the TACCOM message.

The red coded marine and the worst injured of the yellow had fallen back to the downed bird when Coop came up with his master plan to basically blow the shit out of everything. They’d rendezvous with the Spyder crew and hold up inside the war machine. The miners would have an impossible time cracking that bird if a half-decent defense was mounted, especially if they could get some of the secondary weapons systems back online.

That was a different group on a different mission. Coop and the CPL’s team had to clear this section of the station, find some stupid tin can captain, and get the hell out of here. They’d gotten through a hellish hangar bay, but they knew they’d only succeeded in kicking the hornet’s nest.

“Jam the door and let’s move.”

One of the marines took out a boxy device and placed it over the access panel that operated the door to the bay. He hit a few keys and a high-pitched whining noise filled the air. The little box scrambled the display and sent it into emergency lockdown mode.

“That’ll hold ‘em for a minute,” the marine grunted as he repocketed the box. It was also a useful tool to open up locked doors, and they all knew there would be a few of the ahead of them.

They formed two staggered columns – three on either side of the hallway with the CPL moving between them as needed – and started to clear the place room by room. The first two dozen spaces were empty quarters. They looked like single and family living units based on all the personal crap lying around. The owners were either holed up somewhere waiting for this all to end, or they were out there shooting at marines. Either way, Coop hoped they didn’t run into anyone. Room twenty-seven ruined that hope. Some douche looked like he was trying to take advantage of the chaos to liberate a few items that didn’t belong to him. He turned around quickly when he heard the door slide open and raised a two hundred year old pistol.

All the marine leading the clearing of the room saw was a man with a gun pointed at him, so all Coop saw when he entered was that guy’s brains blown all over the wall behind him. <Stupid dipshit. If they stopped screwing around we could be through and done with this. The more they fight the more they die.> Coop was starting to lose the adrenaline rush he’d had in the hangar bay. Killing stuff that couldn’t fight back wasn’t an enjoyable task.

The clearing was slow going because there were so many damn rooms. They were starting to look nervously behind them. It wouldn’t take forever for the miners to get the doors open and follow. Hell, if they couldn’t get the electronics to work there was the necessary equipment in the bay to pry the suckers open. Either way, no marine wanted to get shot in the ass. The longer they didn’t see the miners, the more nervous they got.

“Is there a better way to do this corporal?” Coop finally spoke up as they finished moving through some type of conference room. There was some good-looking chow on the table, so they must have been planning some sort of big meeting.

“If you can hack into the station’s biosensors and map the place for living organisms then we can skip these rooms and move on, but if I remember you’re a thirteen series correct? Did they teach you to hack between artillery sessions?”

Coop got the message. He needed to do his job and stop bitching. About eighty rooms later he felt like bitching a little more.

“AHHHHHH!” Screams erupted from room one-twenty-nine as the marines barged in. Coop was covering the rear, but he heard the CPL hurriedly try and talk someone down from doing something stupid.

That was about the time that Coop started hearing clanging coming from down the hall.

“Corporal, we need to move.” Coop had a bad feeling in his gut. “Corporal!”

“Keep your panties on, Ballboy.” The CPL exited the room supporting a young woman.

Her clothes were in tatters and she wouldn’t look anywhere but at the floor. Coop had a few guesses about what happened, but he kept that information to himself. The CPL was handling it, and Coop had bigger issues.

“That clanging is getting louder, Corporal. Let me have two guys and we’ll got check it out.”

The CPL nodded his head and Coop waved for two privates to form up on either side of him before they headed back down the way they’d come.

“I’ve got a solid mass heading this way,” Coop was a few hallways away when his millimeter wave radar started picking up something. “Let’s take it slow.”

It was a good thing they did, because two corners later they peaked around a ninety-degree bend and almost got their heads blown off.

“Where the fuck did they get this shit!?” Coop’s LACS identified the weapon that tried to cut him in half as another Buss, but the miners had mounted it on an old self-propelled bot and were marching down the hallway in search of victims.

To make matters worse, Coop could tell from the sound of the weapon firing that it was firing standard 3mm ammunition, not the friendlier rounds he was packing.

“Slow it down.” The CPL ordered when Coop relayed the news.

So Coop set an ambush. He staged two hallways away along the path the sled was traveling. He put some camo netting over two mines so they couldn’t be detected. It screwed with the sensors, but it wasn’t a big deal since he was going to manually detonate. The two regular grunts would mop up the mess after he blew the heavy weapon straight to hell.

When the miners rounded the corner, Coop was glad he’d covered up the mines and decided to manually detonate. They had an advanced group of three miners moving a good twenty meters in front of the Buss. If shit went down then those three would likely die first – and maybe by friendly fire – but it was a good counter to the mines Coop had been dropping everywhere.

<They aren’t a complete collection of back-system bumfucks.> Coop thought as the three scouts passed right over the mines.

Ten seconds later the Buss came into range and Coop initiated the detonation. Even around the next bend he felt the station shudder from the explosion. The commotion didn’t die down as injured men and women screamed in pain.

“Clean up on aisle two.” Coop joked as they moved into the hallway and dispatched the downed miners. It was as much a mercy killing as anything. The guys and gals were so jacked up they wouldn’t ever get fixed up this far out in the middle of nowhere. “Let’s get back to the guys.” They tallied another dozen kills between the three of them, and Coop made sure to put a few extra rounds into the Buss to make sure it never worked again.

They followed their team’s STRATNET icons to a large utility room the CPL had commandeered. The other marines had made a perimeter, and the CPL was in the center talking with someone with more authority.

“Roger that, Staff Sergeant. We’re on it.” The CPL finished up his SITREP as Coop’s impromptu team filed into the security perimeter. “Everyone listen up. Teams One and Two have finished their searches in their assigned sectors. The LT is down. Staff Sergeant is in command. We’ve got thirty percent casualties across all the squads. These fuckers have been picking us off with our own guns, but we’ve fucked them up pretty good. For every one of us they’ve shot we’ve gotten forty of theirs. ”

<Is anyone going to ask the obvious question? How the fuck did they get them?>

“No one knows how they got them, and I don’t give a shit. We’re here to do our job.”

“CPL…”

“Stow it, Cooper. We’re rendezvousing with Team One at this location.” The CPL cut off Coop and turned everyone’s attention to a waypoint that appeared on their HUDs. “We’re going to regroup and push deeper into the station. We haven’t found the missing skipper yet. Cooper, you’ve got point.”

<Great.> Coop kept his thought to himself as his neural network mapped the quickest way to the rendezvous point. After all, it was his job to take the brunt of an attack if it came.

They moved quickly and lethally through the station. A few loitering miners got what was coming to them, and a few innocents got told to hide in their rooms and lock the doors. Coop actually liked when they came across a person not trying to murder them. It was a minor relief that not everyone on this bucket of bolts was trying to kill them.

The fourteen other marines were waiting for them when they reached the rendezvous. The CPL huddled with the SSG and a SGT who’d taken over for the LT.

“Did the LT die?” Coop didn’t know of a sensitive way to ask the question to the grunt next to him on perimeter security.

“Nope, but he’s going to need a few new internal organs. I saw the medic shooting him full of medical nanites where his liver should have been.” The guy shrugged but kept his eyes on the hallway. It was big enough that five guys could run down it shoulder-to-shoulder; which was why Coop was on it.

They waited for the SSG to make a decision on what they were going to do next.

“Listen up, we’ve got a change of mission. We’ve suffered enough casualties that the destroyer’s skipper just wants us to locate and grab the officer that got himself captured. We’re going to need more marines if we want to take back the whole station, and they want to figure out how these Rim miners got their hands on modern hardware.

<Don’t we all.>

“We’re going down three decks into the engineering, processing, and sorting sections. It will get claustrophobic down there. These places aren’t made for humans to be traipsing through. It’s designed so bots can do repairs, but there are a few rooms down there if the bots need to get fixed. I’ve got four on the schematics, so we’re going to split up into four teams of three and one team of two. Ballboy,” he looked over at Coop, “you’re with me. We’re going to the main engineering control room. That’s where they most likely are, so be ready to do your HI thing and save the FUBAR officer who got us into this mess.”

“Yes, Staff Sergeant.” Coop did a check of his weapons. He was low on ammo, out of grenades that could do any real damage, and he wasn’t going to set off a mine in a crowded space where big heavy machinery might crush him.

<Good thing my fingers are just as sticky as when I left the PHA.> Coop chambered a few hundred rounds he’d grabbed off the Buss he’d destroyed. He’d use them as a last resort, but they were better than nothing. <Fuck the station’s integrity. I’m not going to die for some idiot who got himself captured.>

“Let’s go, Ballboy.” The SSG had Coop take point again as they headed for the stairs.

Taking the grav-lifts would have been faster, but they would have been sitting ducks in those shafts. At least in the stairwells they had some maneuverability.

They went down three flights of stairs and immediately entered a space Coop could barely move in. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” He has to turn sideways to squeeze between two pipes that were reading temperatures over fifty Celsius. Whatever they were, they were doing something.

“Two hundred meters on the left.” An arrow appeared on Coop’s HUD and the distance counter shrunk the closer they got.

They each took one side of the hallway and rapidly moved forward. There wasn’t any cover so they had to move fast.

It was a good thing they did. Coop and the SSG had just reached the door when Coop’s sensors picked up the gun pointing around the corner, and it wasn’t just any gun.

“MOVE!” Coop grabbed the SSG by the back of the armor and practically threw him into the room as the roar of another Buss lit up the hallway. Coop felt the impacts of the heavy rounds as he twisted from the throw and tumbled through the doorway.

Searing pair flashed through his side and he screamed. The armor’s medical systems went into overdrive. A brief diagnostic and explanation of the injury flashed in the corner of the HUD. He’d been grazed by a round, but it had penetrated the armor. Medical nanites were being injected and blood loss was minimal. He was still green as far as medical indicators went.

“Help.” The call was weak and coming from the corner of the room.

A large man in CMUs was strapped to a chair. His face looked like someone had used it as a punching bag, which judging by the blood splattered around him was probably accurate.

“Look out!” He tried to warn them, but it was too late.

Someone rushed the SSG from a dark corner and threw a punch into his armored gut. Normally, that wouldn’t have done jackshit, but the SSG doubled over from the blow and his surprised gasp was audible over TACCOM.

“Me and Staff Sergeant need some help down here!” Coop radioed for backup as he aimed his Buss at the uninvited guest.

The man jumped back away from the SSG with something long and dripping in his hand.

<He’s got a fucking nano-blade. How the hell did this asshole get a nano-blade?> It didn’t matter to Coop. A thirty-centimeter nano-blade lost to a fully loaded Buss every time.

“NO!” The big guy struggled against his restraints. “One stray shot and you could kill us all.”

The guy’s yell distracted Coop long enough for the knife wielding asshole to jump behind some machinery and disappear. Whoever the hell the guy was he had to be pretty small to fit behind there.

“Get him out of here, Ballboy.” The SSG was leaning heavily on some pipe with his hand against his gut.

“Come on Staff Sergeant, you know I’m not supposed to leave a man behind.” Coop walked over and easily cut through the restraints with the edge of his forearm blade.

“We need to move, there’s a guy with…”

“I know. There’s a guy with a Buss guarding the hallway.” Thankfully STRATNET had him pinged so backup would be ready for him. “Let’s get you out of here, Sir.”

“Thank you.”

The LCDR – if Coop remembered his rank stripe correctly – looked genuinely happy to see Coop.

<It ain’t a bad thing for an officer to owe me one.> Coop was already thinking about when he could call in that token when he heard a gunfight erupt in the hallway. The loud booms of the Buss drowned out the M3s.

“Let’s go, Ballboy. We don’t got all day.” The CPL’s voice demanded from where the relief team had taken up covering positions.

“You provide cover fire and I’ll run for the stairs. Don’t shoot my big ass though. This hallway is tight.” Coop radioed back, and then looked at the unarmored LCDR and the injured SSG. “I’m going to carry your ass out of here, Sir. Staff Sergeant…”

“Don’t pick me up like I’m your bride, Ballboy. I just need a helping hand, and I’ll help with that cover fire.” The SSG looked like he needed to be carried, but Coop knew plenty of guys that would rather die than admit weakness.

<It’s your funeral.>

“Cover fire in three…two…one…go!”

Coop busted out into the hallway just as reinforcements started to light up the other end of the corridor. The SSG twisted and fired his M3 one-handed. Bullets flew by so close that Coop sucked in his gut even though it wouldn’t do anything. The reinforcements had a good angle on the bad guy and were able to keep him pinned down as Coop hauled the beaten LCDR and wounded SSG several hundred meters towards safety.

They made it about three-fourths of the way there when Coop heard what no infantryman ever wanted to hear.

“GRENADE!”

Coop had a full three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view with his HUD and he knew the grenade was going to land about ten meters from him. There was nothing he could do about it but ride the blast.

Instinctually, he poured power into his armor’s artificial arms and threw the SSG and LCDR ahead of him. If Coop was lucky they would exit the blast radius. With them taken care of he activated the ES system in the armor. The nanites hardened at a molecular level right as he poured power into his legs and jumped. He’d ridden enough blast waves that he knew how to…

The grenade detonated and Coop felt a tugging sensation that would have left him with major whiplash. Instead, he felt unbelievable and agonizing pain in his leg until his body couldn’t take it anymore and he passed out.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 129

Noah Grisham

Location: Cobalt Station, System 1776, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 The last thing the pirate captain expected sitting in the bowels of Cobalt Station’s engineering and ore processing center was his PAD to vibrate with an incoming call. At first he just looked at it with confusion. Able was the only other person in the room who had a PAD, and he was busy spinning his laser pistol around his right index finger. He looked like a gunslinger from half a millennia ago. He obviously wasn’t the person calling.

The only other person in the room was his mark, Lieutenant Commander money-pants. The mark’s face was starting to bruise from where Able had smacked him around. Blood was dripping from a split lip onto his lap. His head was lolled forward in the way only an unconscious man’s could. There was no way the gunboat’s captain was making a call to his captor.

Noah’s mind churned and he wondered if this was the hostage negotiator call. That would be bad for a number of reasons. Most of all, it meant they knew where he was. Noah and Able were hiding their captive in the belly of the station for a very good reason. They didn’t want anyone to know where they were. That was so a squad of Collie marines couldn’t shoot them full of holes and blow their guts all over the walls. It was in his mortality’s best interest not to engage with any negotiator.

Curiosity got the best of the captain. If they already knew he was down here then there was no reason not to answer the call. <I might be able to talk my way out of this clusterfuck.>

Because it was a clusterfuck. They’d been able to grab the mark, but the head of security managed to get killed in the process. Since the guy didn’t trust the pirates – for good reason – he hadn’t given them any of the codes. The station’s defenses were offline. The people who hadn’t mutinied had locked themselves behind blast doors with the master controls, so even if Noah wanted to get in and hack the systems he couldn’t.

In the meantime, those rebellious miners who’d joined the mutiny for a small sum of cash and the promise of freedom were doing their best seventh century rendition of Vikings pillaging and plundering. They were eating, drinking, and fucking like there was no tomorrow; which was what today was going to be if Noah didn’t find a way off this tub of bolts.

All of this led him to hit the accept button on his PAD. “Hello.” He answered sounding like everything was going as planned.

“Mr. Grisham.” The voice was digitally altered and unrecognizable, but that didn’t stop a chill from going up Noah’s spine. He’d gone to considerable lengths to hide his true persona under a shit ton of fake data. If this guy had gotten through all of that then Noah’s pirating days might just be over.

“You have me at a disadvantage, Mr…?”

“You can just call me Sir.”

Noah bit his lip as the condescension made it through the filtering application. “What can I do for you, Sir?”

“You can listen. I hired you for a reason, and you have done your best to screw up the best laid plans.”

<So the guy that hired me finally shows his face; metaphorically speaking.>

“I didn’t screw up shit.” Noah instantly went on the defensive. “A control-freak asshat jumped the gun and got himself blown to bits. I then improvised this grand little mutiny, and got a whole station of people to turn on their corporate overlords. I not only got the mark, but have been able to keep a military vessel off my ass for the last day. If you ask me, that’s doing a pretty good job all things considered.”

“Considering you hired the aforementioned captain of the Full Moon the only impression I have of you is a poor taste in choosing your associates. That is not something to brag about and certainly not something to be rewarded.”

Noah felt his face heating, and he had the sudden violent urge to kill someone. Unfortunately, he couldn’t take any action with the other two people in the room.

“You seem to know everything.” Noah finally shot back. “What is your grand plan to get Mr. Gold off this god-forsaken station?”

“Storage locker Alpha 711. Go there now, gather the supplies, and prepare yourself. You have less than an hour before a Commonwealth destroyer full of marines attempts to retake the station.”

That was news to Noah, and despite this rich asshole’s critique, Noah gladly took any information that kept him breathing.

“Able, storage locker A-711. Grab everything and bring it back here.”

In typical Able style he just grunted in the affirmative.

“Any other words of wisdom?” Noah turned his attention back to the mysterious caller.

“Don’t die, and bring me Lieutenant Commander Gold alive.” With that said the line disconnected. Noah still didn’t even know how he got the call in the first place.

A minute later Able returned and showed Noah what was in the large storage locker.

“Fuck me.” Noah stared wide-eyed as a smile curled his lips. Get these to the miners upstairs and tell them we’re about to have company. We might just get through this after all.”

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: System 1776, New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Coop was ready. He wasn’t just ready, he was fucking pumped.

<Game time!  Let’s do this shit!> It felt like everything over the last several months had been leading him to this moment.

This wasn’t some welfare riot by a bunch of Rats throwing flaming bottles and firing centuries-old guns that couldn’t even scratch his paint job. This was the real deal. Pirates had taken control of a mining station and kidnapped a Commonwealth officer. The captain’s ship was keeping the situation contained, but they couldn’t retake the station themselves. They needed a group of asskickers to do that job for them.

And Coop was the biggest and baddest asskicker along for the ride.

“Cooper, get your head out of your ass.” The LT in charge of the mission snapped.

“Yes, sir. Sorry, Sir. Just prepared to lodge my foot up some ungrateful miner’s ass, Sir.” The marines around him laughed. They were a good group of guys.

“Save that fire for the enemy, Cooper.” The reprimand was mild, and the officer turned back to the holo-display in the destroyer’s only conference room. It was more than a tight fit for the thirty marines in full battle rattle.

“We have three teams. I will lead Team One. Team One will ingress here. This is where they tried to blow up the Argo. We will drop from the Spyder, attach to the hull, and blow the panels here, here, and here.” A 3-D display shone red where the panels are and simulated them blowing away from the station’s blueprints. “We will be charged with clearing this section.”

“Team Two will be led by the Staff Sergeant. Team Two will ingress along the hull behind where the pirates and miners are expected to be. Intelligence has them gathering in the central mall and berthing areas of the station. You can guess what they’re doing.”

<What I’d probably be doing.> Coop didn’t hold anything against the miners.

He’d known a few Rats that had been miners before. It was one of those professions where you ended up in a PHA if you weren’t born there.  It was a pretty shitty existence. You go out with a small crew to some god-forsaken asteroid and either man the computers for twelve hours shifts of you’re down on the surface using portable lasers to saw off big chunks of valuable shit. You didn’t get to keep any of it. All of it goes toward the company’s bottom line, and the suits watched everyone like a hawk. They basically strip searched everyone when they got back to the stations. You got paid shit, and you blew what little you had on rent, food, and maybe a little female companionship. Women miners were a rare breed, and they were often as dirty as the shit they were mining.

<Or at least that’s what they tell me.> Coop got all of his information secondhand, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t find a nice miner’s daughter and do some drilling of his own if the occasion called for it.

“Team three. Cooper this is your team, even though the corporal is going to lead it. You will ingress at the most likely point of entry: the main hangar. This is where they will be expecting an attack. You ten are going to be the sword that distracts the enemy while Teams One and Two are the daggers that cut their hamstring and stab them from behind.” The officer looked very confident in his briefing.

“We don’t know much about the enemy. We’ve got overall numbers for the station, but we don’t know how many mutinied. There could be twenty or two hundred bad guys waiting for us. It doesn’t matter either way. We will follow our SOPs, clear everything like we were trained, and be back in New Lancashire for PT tomorrow. Understood?”

“Yes, Sir!”

“Good. Team leaders, report final checks when completed. We’re a go in fifteen.”

“Team Three!” The gung-ho CPL came over their team net.

“Weapons check!”

“Green.” Coop had done his diagnostics. He didn’t need to do one every ten minutes.

“Armor check!”

“Green.”

“Commo check!”

Coop toggled through the variety of responses including pings on TACCOM and STRATNET. CWS Breckinridge was their node for the mission, so as long as the destroyer was sailing they’d be good to go on all of their networks.

While the CPL radioed in their final status update, Coop scrolled through his own options. His environmentally friendly load eliminated his traditional role as the units HI support. He wasn’t going to be firing any artillery rounds inside the station, but he needed to be ready to provide support in a large space like a hangar bay.

<Let’s see.> He mused. <What should daddy bring to the party?>

The rules of engagement were to only fire when fired upon, and to not break too many things. The company was certainly insured, but with the defense contract the government might be liable for some of the damages, especially if those damages were avoidable. That meant it came out of the sector budget, which would lead to a pissing contest between the Ministry of War and the sector government.

Coop didn’t give a shit about any of that. He’d put a mine right on the most expensive thing in the whole station if it kept him and the other marines from taking a headshot. They didn’t have any intel about the enemy’s weapons capabilities, but they had killed a marine already. That meant shit was serious.

“Everyone on the Spyder!” The thirty marines followed the OIC’s orders and trotted toward the destroyer’s single bird.

The small warship didn’t have a dedicated flight deck like the assault carrier, or even a separate section for the assault shuttle. The fifty-ton war machine was nestled into a section just inside the hull. The hull could retract on command and birth the little shuttle into space. Since destroyers really weren’t meant to carry lots of marines or be a transport it was an acceptable design. It didn’t really work out so much when you were strapped for ships and needed to make lemonade with some really tiny lemons.

<At least we’ve got plenty of space.> Coop plugged himself into the onboard charger to get another ten minutes of battery life. He doubted he’d need it, but better safe than sorry…or dead.

“Ok, marines, let’s crack this nut.” That got some boots pounding on the deck while Coop made sure his Buss was on the grenade setting.  He was going to need some shock and awe to get this thing rolling.

“Three minutes!”

Coop didn’t even realize they’d dropped out of the destroyer’s belly, but they were racing toward the station. He had no external links to the shuttle so he couldn’t see what was going. There were no sudden course changes and jolts, so no one was shooting at them. It was a shame. It felt too easy.

“Everyone better be buttoned up like a tick’s ass.” The SSG yelled as O2 levels began to drop. The troop compartment was being slowly depressurized so nothing exploded when Team One needed to exfil to their ingress point.

Dropping off Teams One and Two was pretty uneventful. They just hopped out of the Spyder’s ass end, engaged their magnified boots and hauled ass toward wherever they were going to get into the station. They might be protected from the cold bitch that was space in their Dragonscales and combat-ready CMUs, but it got uncomfortable after about fifteen minutes in the void. Coop had no such limitations, even in a V1.

“Hangar bay is open.” The CPL announced as Coop felt a slight increase in the shuttle’s acceleration. “We’re going in hot, so be ready to haul ass.”

Coop unhooked himself from the charger. He was at 100% and ready to kick ass. He felt a slight pull in his navel as the shuttle did a hairpin turn within the hangar bay. He felt the ground shudder beneath him as the Spyder’s autocannon opened fire.

<So much for me being the one to break something important. > The assault shuttle’s 30mm cannon rounds were going to fuck up anything before Coop even got a chance.

“GO! GO! GO!” the CPL yelled as the rear ramp clanged onto the ground.

Coop was the first out the door. His HUD automatically updated with the Spyder’s targeting data. There were a lot of red icons in a space several football fields long and wide, so he picked the biggest collection, aimed his Buss, and pulled the trigger. A soft thump reverberated through his armor as the 40mm anti-personnel grenade launched from his Buss, over a ton of cargo containers, honed in on the STRATNET data for the enemy, and dropped down into the middle of their shitty formation. Coop felt the rumble of the explosion in his boots as five tangos dropped off STRATNET.

<And that’s my cherry being popped.> Coop didn’t stop moving, or searching for another target, but it was a surreal moment. He’d fired in anger against another human being trying to kill him. It felt only slightly different from braining the Rat back in Old Chicago, <but I sure as shit ain’t gonna be written up this time.> Coop switched to his 3mm plasma rounds and fired several three-round bursts at a group of containers fifty meters in front of him. Three miners – by the look of their heavy clothing – ducked behind cover. Only two made it. One went down with a much smaller hole than usual from a 3mm round, but if he wasn’t dead yet the nanites in the environmentally-friendly bullet were seriously fucking him up.

“Man down!” The call came over STRATNET, and sent a cold shiver down Coop’s spine.

The ten-man assault force had spread out when their boots hit the ground. Coop was going up the center while the lighter-armored marines took the hopefully less defended flanks. Coop checked STRATNET and saw a PVT who’d gone from green to red. As ten percent of their fighting force, even one loss was big.

“SHIT!” Another marine went from green to yellow.

“Ballboy, lay down some smoke so we can regroup and figure out what the fuck is going on!” The CPL sounded stressed, but that was unavoidable when you had a fifth of your force get hit in the first minute.

Coop did more than shoot. He launched the smoke grenades to give the dispersing marines some cover, but he also went to his weapon’s menu and selected his new options. His LACS sensors cut through the smoke, and the 3-D mapping of the hangar bay was already complete; so the computer was able to select several advantageous positions to place mines.

Coop’s armor shuddered as the mines launched, magnetically locked to the containers, and went active with friend-or-foe identifiers. Anyone with a STRATNET beacon could pass through just fine. Anyone else would be taking the escalator straight to hell.

“I can tell you what the fuck is going on.” Another PFC spoke up while Coop was covering them. “These fuckers have modern weaponry that’s what’s going on.”

“How the fuck…?”

Internal alarms started blaring in Coop’s LACS. MISSILE LOCK flashed across his screen. Thankfully, his neural networks worked faster than he did. His railgun swiveled toward the threat and burped out a defensive salvo. Coop would have to look at the data after the fight to see how many missiles were fired, but they were of the hypervelocity variety.

The hangar bay was suddenly filled with explosions and shrapnel as the railgun rounds met the missiles in a flurry of destruction. The rest of the marines hunkered down behind cover, but that didn’t stop a third grunt’s medical status from declining to yellow.

“We need to…” Coop’s yell got interrupted by a high-pitched whine.

The smoke was still gathering in front of the marines, but he had a clear view of what was going on behind them. The Spyder was listing dangerously to the left and smoke was pouring out of one of the engines. The pilot looked like they were fighting to keep it airborne, but it looked like they’d taken a bad hit. The only reason it hadn’t been destroyed outright was because the hypervelocity missiles hadn’t had time to gather speed. Still, the Spyder had been wounded.

“Make a hole!” The pilot sounded calm and collected despite fifty tons of death about to eat the cold steel of the hangar bay deck.

Coop turned his attention back to the front where the missiles had come from. The LACS and the Dragonscale armor had zeroed in on the origination point of the attack.

“Covering fire!”

Coop didn’t have to be told twice. He let loose with his Buss on full auto even as the ground shuddered beneath his feet from the Spyder’s emergency landing. The already damaged armorplast between the marines and the missile team disintegrated under the squads combined fire. It took a little while longer with the less effective rounds, but they got the job done. After a mad minute, the CPL had them cease fire, and reestablish sectors of fire to deal with the remaining tangos in the bay.

They wouldn’t be dealing with anymore missiles today…hopefully, but that didn’t erase the fact that they were down three men with one seriously injured, and had a broken Spyder.

The CPL detailed someone to stay back with the PVT reading red, but the two yellow codes were able to keep moving. The CPL assigned them rear security. “Push forward!”

Coop did just that, and started blasting away the remaining miners and pirates in the hangar bay as the marines leapfrogged forward in three to five second rushes. When he reached the first body he noticed a familiar weapon in the dead man’s disintegrated hands.

“Corporal, they’ve got M3s. Where the hell did they get M3s?”

“Beats me, Ballboy. Quit talking and keep killing. We aren’t out of the frying pan yet.”

That became abundantly clear when a 1mm round clipped Coop’s faceplate. It didn’t penetrate, and that unlucky SOB who fired it would never see another sunrise, but it still rattled Coop. It would rattle anyone who just got shot in the face.

<What the fuck is going on here?> It didn’t take a genius to realize things weren’t going as planned.

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