I’m on TDY from Hell – The Beginning of the End

The battle lines were drawn as Michael and Satan walked calmly to their respective sides of the gym. The heavy-hitters stood on the frontlines: Seere, Lucifer, and Satan against the two archangels. Gerry was in the second line. The Dux line. Lucian’s perception of what was going on around them had narrowed considerably. He had his mind fixed on the thirty-foot Emmanuel. Behind him were his lieutenants and Vicky’s people.

They all looked ready to shit their pants.

They might be the big bads in Charlotte, but this was several orders of magnitude outside their wheelhouse. Even Gerry was outclassed. He was standing among titans and he was a very fragile man in comparison.

<It doesn’t matter.> He let the power grip him. <Nothing matters.> It was how he went into every battle. You had to fight like you were already dead or you wouldn’t be willing to do what was necessary.

He wasn’t going to willingly sacrifice himself. He wasn’t suicidal, but he needed to be ready to take risks to win. A flexible mindset helped with that. He reached deep within himself – to the core of his being – and pulled.

His true Infernal form tore through his feeble mortal flesh and replaced it with hard Infernal Iron. His height exploded upward until he was standing slightly higher than Emmanuel.

<Forty feet.> He couldn’t stop the grin from forming on his face. He’d accumulated enough power to tower over the majority of buildings in the city.

He hadn’t had many chances to fully transform since arriving in Charlotte since he had to be in his warded penthouse to even think about it. Those few times he did, he made sure to remember what he’d heard – what felt like a lifetime ago – in the Carver’s chambers: his Infernal form was a blank canvas that he could mold to his will. He’d though it had ben perfection back then, and he’d been wrong.

Instead of smooth metal with blue light shining from the crevices in the armor, he’d made some alterations. Spikes adorned the armor in strategic locations. That would prevent enemies from grabbing a hold of him and using their greater strength as leverage, because Gerry knew no matter what his power level his enemies would likely be stronger.

He’d shifted the metal to form a shield on his left forearm. It was small – not large enough to protect his whole body – but it was enough to deflect the swords the angels were carrying. He had his own broadsword to attack and defend, and a little surprise in his left hand beneath the shield he was saving for a special occasion.

Gerry savored being the biggest guy in the room for about a second before Lucian exploded next to him. What stood next to Gerry – towering fifty feet tall – looked nothing like Lucian. Armor covered the other Dux’s chest, but that was it. The rest of his body was covered in thick scales, and large reptilian wings arched above his back. His arms and hands were still human and gripped twin scimitars, but his legs were thick and tipped with glittering black claws. If that wasn’t different enough, his face had elongated into a snout and smoke was curling up from his nostrils, which made the savage grin – full of rows of jagged teeth – that much more unsettling.

<Glad he’s on my side.> Gerry looked pretty tame next to the other Dux.

In reply to Lucian’s challenge, Emmanuel swelled another twenty feet until he matched the size of the other Dux. Gerry didn’t let his irritation show, and instead refocused on the rest of the group. His eyes found Ava. The Dominion of Charlotte’s eyes were red and puffy, but there was a look in them that made Gerry shiver…and that expression was fixed directly on him.

He focused his attention on those eyes and knew who he’d be fighting when all hell broke loose. Even worse, he soon found himself looking up at those eyes. Ava shifted her stance when she reached her full fifty-foot height so she was ready to attack.

The guardian angels behind her responded to the challenge as well, but each of them only reached a height of twenty feet. That was still half a dozen extra swords to worry about though, and each of those was deadly Divine Steel.

<I need to get me one of those.> Gerry knew the first thing he was going to do.

The growth of the Duxs and Dominions were the equivalent of silverback gorillas puffing out their chests and daring the other to make the first move. The only ones who didn’t seem to be posturing and daring the other to attack were the heavy-hitters.

“Do you have any conditions?” Satan asked, cutting through the tense silence.

“I don’t suppose you will leave the humans out of it?” Michael asked, but his expression wasn’t hopeful.

“No.” Satan shook his head. “It is their war as much as yours or mine. The moment Father incorporated the realm he doomed them to this eventuality.”

“Very well.”

It was a signal that Gerry didn’t see coming. The orb in Uriel’s spear had been glowing brightly since the beginning, and now she used it. It wasn’t a full-scale attack like Gerry was expecting. He put his shield between himself and the spear and channeled all his strength into digging in against the incredible force he was expecting to meet. Instead, Uriel simple raised the spear a foot off the ground and brought it firmly back down onto the ground. Gerry barely heard the impact, but he felt the change.

It wasn’t an attack, but a wave of something passed over and through Gerry. He felt a chill run through him and wasn’t able to suppress an involuntary shiver. It caused him to commit a big no-no in warfare. He took his eye off the enemy to make sure some catastrophic damage hadn’t been done to him.

A quick scan didn’t show any breaches in his armor. His grip on his well of ætherial power was still strong, and a check of his mind showed no obvious signs of intrusion. When he looked back at the heavy-hitters he saw that Lucifer was laughing.

“That’s clever, Sis, but it won’t last long.” Despite his helmet and the odd light shining through the visor, Lucifer’s voice sounded normal.

“Long enough to finish this.” She smiled back.

“They turned us insubstantial to reduce the damage to the humans and their infrastructure.” Seere explained to the people behind him. “The flaw in their strategy is that it is against our will and will only last for so long. In addition, the more power expended during the battle the quicker it will unravel.”

Gerry nodded. His attention was fixed back on Ava.

The tension was back as the forces of Heaven and Hell faced each other across the bloodstained gym. It was like two gunslingers at high noon with their hands poised to go for their guns. Someone just had to make the opening move.

The anticipation ratcheted up and up as the seconds passed by. Gerry wanted to unleash on one of the guardians to get their superior weapons, but it would be suicide to try that, so he waited impatiently.

He didn’t know how much time had passed, but finally Satan moved and changed. Gerry had never seen and Infernal transform into their full-power combat form, or even knew that it could happen so quickly. One second Satan was an old man leaning slightly forward on his cane, and the next The King of Hell was charging straight at Michael.

As Gerry look upon him, there was no question at all that he was the King. Between steps the feeble body of the old man exploded into a three hundred foot creature of power and destruction. Thick Divine Steel armor gleamed, but it had a patchwork of darker Infernal Iron welded onto certain parts. He had the body of a man, with a tattered red cloak streaming behind him, but that similarity ended at his head.

The head of Satan had four faces. The first was a face of the angel he used to be. He was handsome perfection with a charming smile and eyes that made people trust him. That face was currently facing the rear. The face currently facing forward was similar to Lucians. It had an elongated snout with dark red reptilian scales. Golden eyes shown with hate and menace, and its ear-splitting roar would have collapsed a building if he wasn’t currently insubstantial. Rows of deadly teeth populated the mouth, but two fangs were prominent and dripped something bright green onto the floor. The face facing right was a ram’s face with two curled horns. Between those horns was a fiery crown. Lastly, the final face was avian. It had a sharp black beak capable of stabbing and tearing into his enemy, and two cruel red eyes.

When Satan charged Michael changed. He braced himself as he changed from normal, ripped Santa Clause to the three hundred foot Knight of the Almighty. His armor was identical to Satan’s, minus the patchwork repairs the King of Hell had been forced to make in exile. Michael’s armor was freshly polished and reflected the power he held. He also brought a hundred-foot sword into a defense stance as Satan drew closer.

Uriel moved toward Michael’s flank to protect him, and immediately had to deflect a blast of power from Lucifer.

Both the archangel and Lucifer were both towering above Gerry now. They’d engaged their full power as the attack started. There was a difference though. Lucifer was closer to two hundred and eighty feet tall compared to Uriel’s two hundred and fifty feet. They were easily spilling out of the gym now, but since they’d been rendered insubstantial they passed right through the walls.

The blocking move brought Uriel’s orb between the blast and her. Light met light, and Lucifer’s beam ricocheted off to the side. The force staggered Uriel, but she was able to get her footing before Seere reached her.

Gerry’s lord wielding his own giant broadsword as he towered just as tall as Uriel. She parried the attack, but Seere pushed the advantage and drove her back into the football field behind the gym. Sword and spear flourished and flashed as the two giants battled.

What Gerry decided to refer to as Satan’s dragon-face was streaming fire onto Michael, who had summoned a shield to protect himself from the scorching heat. The defensive tactic saved him from burns, but it left him open for the tackle. At the last moment, Satan’s faces rotated and the ram-face smashed into Michael. The archangel went toppling onto his ass and Satan jumped on him with his raven-face facing forward and ready to poke at the weaknesses in the commander’s armor.

Gerry didn’t see much more than the two titans exchanging blows and rolling around on the ground, but he also had other things to worry about. His side had the numbers and that was clear as the Divine’s champions were occupied with Seere and Satan. Lucifer was left open to unleash ranged attacks with his devastating energy blasts that streamed through the opening in his helmet.

Emmanuel moved to counter The Morning Star but Lucian jumped toward him unleashing his own blast of fire. The Dominion of Charleston powered through the attack and crashed into the Dux. They both went flying as the two combatants beat their wings to gain elevation.

That left Gerry, his lieutenants, Ava, and her soldiers. The Soulless and Vicky had done the smartest thing possible under the circumstances.

They’d run for their lives.

A hand gesture from their commander was all the guardians needed. They took to the air and shot toward Lucifer. It was a suicide run, and they all knew it, but they needed to take the Infernal Lord’s attention of Uriel. He’d already scored a hit against the archangel and it left a thick scorch mark on her armor.

The maneuver worked…to a degree. The eight guardians succeeded in drawing Lucifer’s attention, but only six of them were able to avoid the blast from his helmet. The two other were obliterated by the powerful stream of energy. The remaining six fell back, regrouped and split into two teams. One continued to harass Lucifer while the other headed toward Gerry and his lieutenants. Gerry waved for his own lieutenants to join the battle.

They had already transformed. Jezebel was a quasi-feline nightmare of claws and teeth. She had no wings, but she could jump considerable distances. She leapt into the action, and was able to grab on of a guardian’s feet. The two flew off to fight to the death.

Jeb looked more zombie than man. A green mist swirled around him and lashed out to attack anyone he chose. He couldn’t fly, but he could levitate, and he moved forward to engage another guardian.

Lastly, Lono lumbered forward. He was the largest of Gerry’s lieutenants standing almost twenty-five feet tall. He was stark naked, and itt showed off his corpulent frame in all its glory. His skin was a deep, burned red-color that sagged and rolled with his tremendous girth. He looked like an evil Buddha waddling into battle. He had sharp teeth better to eat his victims with, but he relied on his sheer strength in battle.

Gerry saw him engage a guardian. The angel sliced off a chunk of fat hanging from the gluttony-powered Infernal’s arm, but it didn’t slow Lono down. He grabbed the angel’s sword arm, brought him close, and repeatedly punched the Divine soldier in his helmeted-head.

Gerry saw the soldier drop his sword, and saw the opportunity. Ava mirrored his motion, and they both raced toward the fight. She made a key mistake as they both joined the fray. She incorrectly assumed that he was there to assist Lono.

He was there for the sword.

She swung her own sword at Gerry’s chest, assuming he would bring his blade up to protect his lieutenant. Instead, he slid like a baseball player behind Lono to where the angel’s sword lay on the ground. He seized it mid-slid as Lono roared in pain. The gluttonous Infernal had done his best to lessen the blow of the much larger Dominion, but her blade had sliced through his arm holding her soldier, and deep into his chest.

He staggered backwards from the force of the attack and that let the guardian get back in the fight. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a sword to attack with. Gerry channeled his æther into the sword. It blazed with blue fire, and he brought it in a powerful upward stroke as he leapt back to his feet. The sword bit into the Divine Steel armor of the guardian just above the hip. The armor held briefly, before folding under Gerry’s strength and the Infernal fire coating the sword. The sword bisected the guardian from hip to mid-chest, spilling his Divine æther across Gerry’s chest, and throwing the two halves of his ruined body into the air.

Lono waddled away clutching the stump of his arm while Ava landed in front of Gerry. Her eyes were filled with righteous fury as she towered ten feet over him. No words were exchanged. He’d helped kill her daughter and he’d just defeated one of her soldiers. She wanted him dead, and he was determined to avoid that at all costs.

 

***

 

<Stupid, so stupid.> Ava wasn’t cursing anybody but herself. She’d underestimated Gerry twice, and both times people had paid for her stupidity with their lives. <My sweet Maria.> She fought back tears as she repositioned to face the Infernal Dux. Instead, she focused on her anger.

She’d sat right across from the man and hadn’t seen what he truly was. His human guise was flawless and he’d spoken nothing but the truth, but everything had still been a lie.

<I’ve been complacent.> She came to the conclusion as she circled Gerry. <I let my prior victory go to my head, and he cut me down at the knees.>

Now Frederick was dead. His bisected body spilled Divine ichor all over the ground. His essence had returned to Heaven to be recrafted into a new body, but that didn’t stop the trauma of death. The Guardian would remember it for decades to come.

<That’s not the worst thing.> As crude as the thought was, it was the truth.

Frederick’s death had given the Dux possession of a blade made of Divine Steel. There weren’t too many differences between Divine Steel and Infernal Iron in the construction process. It was the empowerment phase that made the crucial difference. Infernal Iron was imbued with power by an Infernal Lord. It made the weapon far more dangerous than anything mortals could contrive, but it was still only blessed with power by a second-rate ætherial creature. Divine Steel was anointed by her almighty Father, a primordial being. The power of his blessing was far superior to one of his own creations.

Now, Gerry had a blade far more powerful than anything he’d ever wielded before, something powerful enough to threaten Ava.

“For the record I find you extraordinary.” Gerry was a full ten feet shorter, so he had to look up at her.

Ava was speechless before she felt fresh rage burn in her heart. “You killed my daughter, you vile creature.” She advanced cautiously and moved through a few forms.

Gerry danced backwards and deflected the attack with skill. “I didn’t kill your daughter. Lucifer and Seere killed her. If you’re looking for revenge then I’d look over there.”

Ava wasn’t stupid enough to take her eye off her target, and she didn’t need to. She could feel the battle behind her. Archangels were battling Infernal Lords. It was hard to miss, and it put her in an uncomfortable position. She’d selected her most powerful form to fight this battle for good reason. You didn’t stand toe-to-toe with the Prince of Darkness at anything less than full strength, but she wasn’t fighting one of her older brothers. She was fighting a weaker Dux; weaker but faster.

Gerry slid away from another attack, maneuvered to the side, before pressing his own. It forced her to bat her wings and spin in the air with a flourish. He came in low and would have done some damage if her blade wasn’t already waiting for him. He moved away at the last second, avoiding a cut that would have bitten deeply into his shoulder.

Ava contemplated decreasing her strength and increasing her speed. Gerry was a competent swordsman, but he was still only an Infernal with a few hundred years of experience under his belt, a millennia tops. Ava had been a soldier since before mankind existed. His speed was the only thing that was saving him.

A hideous scream broke her concentration and made her decision for her. Uriel took the full brunt of a blast from Lucifer to the front of her armor. The Divine Steel held for a fraction of a second before blackening and splintering under his energy. She screamed as the blast burned into her flesh, but tried to use her own momentum to avoid the full force of it. Seere pressed her at the same moment. She was mid-rotation when his giant broadsword slashed upward across her hamstring. It caused her to stagger, and she would have died from his follow-up stab if her orb didn’t pulse and throw the Great Dissenter backwards. She intercepted Lucifer’s next blast with the Orb, but it was clear the archangel was hurt.

Michael was still engaging Satan, so it was up to Ava to help. She disengaged from Gerry with a few powerful beats of her wings and rocketed toward the Morning Star.

 

***

 

“Is this what you wanted, Brother? Are you happy?”

Michael replied by swinging the shield right into Satan’s human-face. It busted the King of Hell’s nose pretty good, but the face moved with the blow. The dragon-face roared its reply, and since Michael’s shield was out of position he received a full bath of flame across his shoulder and side. He felt his flesh singe from the heat, but his armor held. He brought the shield back around with the intent of taking off Satan’s head, but the Infernal Lord ducked under the attack and backed away to avoid any follow on attacks from Michael’s sword.

Behind them battle raged. Both could hear Seere, Lucifer, and Uriel duking it out. That made Satan smile. Michael took a step in that direction, but Satan countered it and cut off the archangel commander’s chance of helping his ally. Satan had the upper hand here. He didn’t have to worry about Uriel attacking him from behind. His brothers were more than able to keep her busy.

“So?” Satan reached toward the middle of his back.

A section of his Divine Steel armor broke off. It was a sword. He brought it around to his front, twisted it, and pulled it apart into dual blades. That had always been Satan’s greatest strength in battle. His whirling faces and whirling blades gave him a versatility that not even Michael could compete with.

“No.” Michael replied firmly. “I don’t wish to fight you, Brother, but you continue to make the same mistake time and time again. You are literally insane.”

“Is it insane to question? Is it insane to think for myself? If yes, then I am most definitely insane, but it also makes you a fool, Michael.” The human-face was back with the nose already mended. “You’re nothing more than daddy’s little errand boy. You have been since our creation and you will be forever unless you stand up for yourself.”

Satan took a few practice swings with the dual blades and they sang through the air. The song was death, and more than one angel had felt it. He’d even killed other archangels with the blades.

“You mistake loyalty to my father and family as foolishness. You have nothing but loyalty for yourself. You would slaughter Lucifer and Seere in a heartbeat if it would take you one step closer to our Father’s throne, so don’t talk to me about sanity.” Michael shot back.

Satan didn’t reject the statement. He just shrugged. “Our brothers know that. They even expect it.”

“And that will always be your greatest weakness, Brother.” Michael brought his sword and shield into a ready stance.

“Weakness doesn’t survive in Hell, Michael.” Satan charged, his dragon-face unleashing a torrent of flame to block the archangel’s line of sight.

Uriel screamed off to their side and Satan feinted one way and went the other. Michael was ready though, he’d fought his brother’s deception before. Their swords met in a vicious collision. The shockwave spread outward from the point of impact.

“No.” Michael was distracted by the physical reaction of the attack. All he was able to do was get his shield up before more flames tried to roast him alive.

He was forced to split his concentration between his attacking brother and the shockwave from the swords as it slammed into the gymnasium with the force of a Category 5 hurricane. Brick and mortar were ripped from the structure. Part of a wall crumbled from the force, but it didn’t completely flatten the building. It hardly mattered. What did matter was that the spell that had turned the Infernal King of Hell insubstantial had failed.

Satan was loose on the world in all his terrible glory.

“Will you look at that?” Satan’s human-face smiled at Michael.

“Satan, no…!” Michael started, but the Infernal Lord had already unfurled his black wings and launched himself into the air.

Radar all over the area would be pinging what looked like a flying aircraft carrier moving at speeds far exceeding anything commercially available. Michael didn’t have the luxury of hesitation. His own white wings sprang open and he launched himself after his brother.

There was no hiding it now. Heaven and Hell had come to Earth.

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The First Shot – Part 2

“MOVE! TAC Channel Bravo!” MAJ Ward ordered as they retreated through the door and down a hallway filled with charred paper and wrecked furniture.

He switched over to the new communications channel and did a quick comms check as they moved with a purpose down the hall. They didn’t flee like a bunch of untrained teenagers. They moved tactically as they fell back deeper into the facility. There were doors evenly spaced down the hallway and they had to cover each of them as they passed. The rooms beyond them looked pretty ordinary: desks, computers, and office supplies like you’d see at any office in the US. The difference was that this hallway alone housed roughly a dozen offices, and a few were larger ones with cubicles. A quick tally told the MAJ nearly fifty people worked in this section alone.

“The objective has massive power requirements.” Cuthbert saw the MAJ looking at his surroundings. “I’ve kept a rough count and at least four hundred civilians work at this facility.”

“We guessed there would be civilians onsite, and that’s why we planned the raid at night. They might be helping the enemy, but they’re still civilians.”

They came to the first corner and CPL Dawson made the motion to freeze by holding up a fist. The marine poked the barrel of his rifle around the corner for a better look. The MAJ tapped into the rifle’s feed for better view.

The video wasn’t the best quality, but it showed another empty hallway in both directions.

“We need to take a right and get to the stairs at the end of the hallway.” Cuthbert informed. “We need to hurry. They were set to start testing the device an hour ago.”

“What?” The MAJ hissed. “Why the hell didn’t you . . .” his statement was cut off as gunfire filled the hallway.

“Contact rear!” He announced as he rotated one hundred and eighty degrees and opened fire.

An energy blast caught the lead enemy soldier in the chest and he went down, but they kept coming. They advanced down the hallway on either side and used the doors and offices as cover to protect their advance.

“We need to move!” The MAJ grunted as a round hit him in the chest but didn’t penetrate. “Dawson, get us the fuck out of here!”

“Go right!” Cuthbert yelled frantically.

“Fuck! I’m trying!” Dawson replied as more gunfire hit them from another position. The young marine stumbled from multiple impacts and ended up going straight into an adjacent office instead of to the right. “I’ve got a light machine gun to your left, my right.” The CPL’s voice was pained.

“McGee . . .”

“On it, Sir.” The CSGT poked his head around the corner quickly to evaluate the threat. “Cover me!” From one of his many pockets the CSGT pulled a cylinder-shaped grenade. He opened up his single barrel L96A1 and slid it into the chamber.

“Cover him.” The MAJ rotated from lasers to good old-fashioned bullets and poured it into the advancing enemy.

The doorway he was using as cover started to disintegrate under the combined return fire of the enemy, but he kept on shooting. If they couldn’t take out that light machine gun and get to the objective, they were totally fucked.

“Frag out!” The CSGT laughed as he pivoted around the corner and fired.

The ground rumbled beneath everyone’s feet as fire and shrapnel destroyed the machine gun and any soldier standing within ten feet of it.

“Move!” The MAJ physically grabbed LT Thrumball and threw him in the direction of the T intersection. “Right! Go right!”

They rounded the corner and abandoned tactical doctrine in order to sprint to safety. They made it a quarter of the way there before more gunfire tore into them from ahead. If not for the armor they’d all have been killed outright, but instead they walked away with a few flesh wounds and a lot of bruises.

“On me!” The CPL put his shoulder into a closed door and crashed into another office.

The group followed his lead.

“It’s the objective’s garrison.” Cuthbert was breathing heavily. He was lucky as hell to be alive. The MAJ knew that. He’d taken two rounds meant for the spy. “There are stairs at the end of the hallway that lead to the vault entrance.

“Objective’s garrison? I thought they were behind us.” PO2 Chambers was wrapping some gauze around his bicep that was bubbling blood.

“That’s the facility’s garrison. The objective has its own platoon-sized force protecting it.”

“Cuthbert, I know you’ve been a captive for a little while and might be off your game, but if we’re about to charge into thirty enemy soldiers please fucking tell me about it beforehand.” The MAJ resisted the urge to grab the spy by the throat and throw him back out into the hallway as a decoy.

“Noted, Major.”

The MAJ wanted to argue more, but they didn’t have time. He poked his rifle out and put more lead downrange. He caught two soldiers trying to sneak up on them and sent them both to meet their makers.

“We need to move.” Options were cycling through his mind, but the CSGT was way ahead of him.

“Allow me, gentlemen.” The man they called fire-crotch jumped to his feet, rolled his neck, and then ran shoulder first into the wall. The drywall crumbled under his assault, and a roughly human-shaped hole led the way into the next room.

“Go . . . Go!” The MAJ waved them through the improvised door while he provided cover fire.

His onslaught kept the enemies behind cover and allowed the CSGT and CPL Dawson to make a bigger hole into the next office, and the next one, and the next one. A minute later and they’d practically reached the stairwell, so of course that was when the universe decided to make their lives even more difficult.

The MAJ ducked just in time as rounds impacted the doorway above his head. “Shit!” he rolled away from the barrage and tossed a grenade at the facility’s garrison mustering behind him. It was a careless toss to buy time, and it worked.

He heard people scream as the grenade detonated. He figured they had thirty seconds before the facility’s garrison ventured forward and pinned the small Commonwealth team between them and the objective’s garrison. Either way, it was the definition of being caught between a rock and a hard place.

“We’ve got about twenty-five seconds before we get pinned.” The MAJ reached the rest of the team.

“And we’ve got more problems.” The SEAL PO2 had his gun on two women standing defiantly in the room across from his team.

“For fuck’s sake check my ID.” One woman, a tall Caucasian one with a scowl reached into her bra and pulled out a slip of plastic.

It looked like nothing but a spare piece of plastic, but she pressed her finger to it and spoke. “Call sign Trojan, security code Delta-Nine-Four-Charlie.”

The piece of clear plastic started to darken and resolve into an ID with three big letters written on top: CIA.

“Of course the Agency is here.” The MAJ grumbled. He’d seen these IDs before and so far he didn’t know if there was a way to counterfeit them. His armor also checked the woman’s ID against known assets in the area of operations and it checked out.

“And of course the army started to blow the shit out of my carefully planned op without so much as a friendly heads up.” Her eyes were filled with fire, which explained the two dead enemy soldiers on the ground.

A quick observation showed they’d been killed by a knife, not bullets or energy blasts.

“She’s with me.” The woman – a Dr. Elizabeth Shaw according to her ID – stepped in the SEAL’s line of fire when he turned his weapon on the other woman in the room.

She was short, Chinese, and had the same fire in her eyes that Dr. Shaw did.

“She’s my partner. Japanese Defense Force Captain Aiko Tanaka. She’s fluent in five languages, is a communications expert, and has been watching my back for weeks.” Dr. Shaw didn’t move despite the SEAL’s irritated look.

“What are you two . . .?” Cuthbert started to ask, but the MAJ cut them off.

“We don’t have time for this.” The whole exchange had taken half of the time they should have been getting out of here. “Chambers and Cuthbert watch them. We take them with us. If they’re really allies, they’ll help. If not, then we’ll use them as human shields and shoot them when we’re done.”

“Major that’s . . .”

“We don’t have time to argue, Doctor.” He cut her off and the look on his face shut her up. “We need to move.”

Dawson opened fire from the doorway. The enemy had taken the lack of counter fire as an excuse to move forward, and the marine made them pay for that.

“Everyone, frag grenades to the right on three. Does anyone have smoke?”

The CSGT nodded.

“Good. Smoke to the left to give us some cover. We’re charging the stairwell on a three-count after the grenades.”

The look on everyone’s faces said it was the last thing they wanted to do, but they knew they didn’t have a choice. Charges made good war stories, but the hardly ever worked out well for the people doing the charging.

“Smoke out.” The CSGT whispered as he lobbed another cylinder around the door and to the left. There was some yelling as the enemy saw it coming and ran, but then just a loud pop and hiss as the thick black gas expanded into the hallway.

“One . . . two . . . three!” The MAJ gave the gas a little time to expand before three grenades flew out of their room and to the right. He would have preferred they had more, but that was all the frag grenades they had left.

He held out his arm to stop Cuthbert from charging toward the stairwell too early. A moment later three loud BOOMs shook the building, and then they charged. No one sounded a war cry during their charge. It was stupid to let the enemy know you were coming to slit their throat, and in their case, to alert the garrison behind them that they were in the hallway.

They had fifteen yards to cross before they reached the stairwell. It looked like one of the grenades hadn’t made it into the doorway and exploded in the hallway. There was scaring from where the high-velocity shrapnel tore into the steel-reinforced walls, and burn marks near the site of detonation. There were also three torn up bodies, which they quickly stepped over.

The MAJ kept his rifle up for the first ten yards. It was still the most efficient way to kill the enemy if they poked their head out on the approach. Once he was within five meters he slung the weapon around to his back. The sling strap caught the M18 and kept it from falling, but it still made him grimace as it smacked into a spot on his back where he’d been shot only a few minutes before. He ignored the pain as he reached across to his left side where a wicked looking knife was sheathed.

It was a six-inch K-Bar given to him by an old First Sergeant when he was a company commander. The MAJ didn’t know it at the time, but the old NCO spent a pretty penny on the parting gift. It was a top of the line model and coated in some synthetic crap that was supposed to keep it sharp. A knife you never had to spend time sharpening was a precious tool in the MAJ’s line of work.

There was no time to be coy at the entrance to the stairwell. They were in a situation where the violence of action would determine the victor. The MAJ went right while LT went left. Immediately, the MAJ came face-to-face with a ragged looking Chinese officer. His eyes were a little unfocused and he had some light bleeding, but otherwise he was still prepared to fight.

Until the MAJ ran his knife through the man’s chest.

He pushed the Chinese officer back, smacking him into another soldier who was trying to get to his feet. Behind that was a wall. The MAJ pinned the enemy officer against the wall and gave a jerk upward with the knife. The man cried out in pain as the MAJ cut into something vital, and then coughed up blood in a gurgle of fear as the Ranger lifted him up and tossed him over the railing to their left. The man’s screams as he fell didn’t hinder the MAJ from turning on the remaining soldier. The man was on his knees going for his own knife. The MAJ kicked him savagely in the face. It shattered the enemy’s nose, knocked him back to the ground, and gave the Ranger an easy opening to jab his knife into the man’s spine.

The MAJ’s eyes swept the scene looking for more targets, but there were none. It looked like the other two grenades found their mark and killed another half dozen men at the top of the stairwell.

“They didn’t send the whole garrison.” Cuthbert did the math as the rest of the team streamed into the small space and took up positions to cover the hallway to their rear. “How are we going to get down?”

CSGT McGee answered the question with a flourish. He pulled a large loop of rope off his shoulders and went to work tying a knot to the thick railing. The MAJ could imagine the royal marine whistling some tune while he worked.  The knot was done in seconds. The MAJ checked it and gave it an experimental tug. Air Assault school had taught him the same knot, and the CSGT had done it flawlessly.

“I hope you know how to repel?” The MAJ turned to Cuthbert, Dr. Shaw, and Captain Tanaka. The soldiers had harnesses built into their armor, but the others didn’t.

“Can’t we just take the stairs?” Shaw looked over the edge and her face paled a little.

It was covered in grime from walking through the cloud of dust from the grenades, but he could still make out some freckles.  Her blonde hair had a gray tinge to it now, but her eyes were determined, and she swept her hair back in her hands and started to tie it up with a small band. The Japanese officer didn’t have any difficulties with her chin-length hair.

“No time.” The MAJ shook his head. “Dawson you go first and do your recon thing; then you ladies, followed by Cuthbert, and then Chambers. The LT and I will be the last to go. Now hurry!” He could already hear shouts and footsteps getting closer as the facility garrison probed the black smoke swirling in the hallway.

The MAJ gave one last look over the railing. It was about three stories to where the Chinese officer’s body lay spread-eagled on the ground in a growing pool of blood. He ignored the inconvenient landing he’d have in the near future and turned his attention to the hallway.

The two females took hold of the rope one by one and wrapped their legs around it. They didn’t have gloves, so they had to go down hand over hand while controlling their descent by putting pressure on the rope with their legs. It was slow going, but once they got down the soldiers would be able to haul ass.

The MAJ and LT paid attention to the hallway during all of this. The black smoke spoofed IR and the normal mark-one eyeball. Millimeter wave radar wasn’t much better, but the MAJ didn’t think the garrison was as well-equipped as his team. They were going for quantity over quality, which was a theme the Commonwealth had seen throughout the war. The UK-US forces might inflict severe casualties on the enemy, but lost the battle because the Easterners overran them and accomplished their mission. The MAJ heard their Space Corps was doing much better, but for the grunts on the ground it was a constant pain in the ass.

The LT didn’t have to announce contact when the first of the enemy garrison emerged through the smoke. He just dropped the guy with two center-mass shots. The MAJ engaged his own targets. They divided their field of fire easily. He took the right side of the hallway and the LT took the left. They took their time and moved methodically from target to target until a small mountain of bodies blocked anyone from passing.

“I’m heading down.” The CSGT tapped the MAJ on the shoulder.

Carabiners could be heard snapping into place and then the hiss of the CSGT fast roping down to the bottom. The soldiers didn’t have to go down hand over hand. They just needed to apply pressure to the rope by tugging it taut behind their back when they got close to the ground and physics stopped them.

“Moving.” The LT announced as he peeled away from the doorway. It was a given that the MAJ would be the last man down.

The MAJ gave it a ten-count after he heard the LT started repelling before turning and hurriedly attaching and feeding the rope through his harness. He made sure to do it off to the side so he wasn’t an easy target for the enemy, but he’d eventually have to step into the open to make the drop. He took two deep breaths, rushed into the open, and jumped over the edge. Right before he cleared the railing he saw two metallic balls heading in his direction.

The enemy had finally taken a page from their playbook.

“Grenade!” The MAJ didn’t bother putting any pressure on the rope and dropped as fast as possible.

The grenade detonated with two ear-splitting BOOMS. The MAJ and the team were down and far enough away to be out of the kill zone, but the sound bounced around the stairwell and amplified it. The women and Cuthbert winced in agony as their eardrums were assaulted, but the soldiers’ helmets protected them.

The one thing that wasn’t protected was the rope.

The MAJ felt it start to give and immediately hit the brakes. He came to a relative stop eight or so feet off the ground before it snapped and he fell. He hit the ground with his feet together, knees bent, and immediately went into a parachute landing fall. The PLF was a technique taught in Airborne School on how to properly land, and it worked in this situation.

He pitched to the side when he landed, collapsing and twisting so he took the brunt of the landing on his five points of contact: balls of the feet, heels of the feet, thighs, ass, and shoulder. Instead of breaking his ankle on the fall, the MAJ went through the practiced roll and popped back to his feet. The most painful part of the experience was his M18 jamming into his kidney, but he’d live.

“Let’s move.”  He pointed down the only way they could go.

“The vault is just up here.” Cuthbert informed.

Sure enough, a big steel door sat at the end of an undefended hallway. The problem was that it was locked.

Previous

The First Shot – Part 1

Major Thomas Ward, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment

Location: Classified Facility between Dongfanghongcun, China and Khabarovsk, Russia, The Eastern Block, 2141 CE

 SATELLITE STATUS . . . CONNECTING . . . CONNECTING . . . FAILURE

SECONDARY SUBROUTINE INITIATING . . . SEARCHING FOR SIGNAL

SIGNAL ACQUIRED . . . REROUTING . . . CWS GERALD FORD . . . CONNECTING . . . CONNECTING . . . SUCCESSFUL CONNECTION

Major Thomas Ward didn’t even notice the connection as a flurry of bullets turned the concrete above his head into tiny shrapnel missiles. He ducked low and ran while using what was left of the steel-reinforced wall as cover. It was a difficult task for a man six and a half feet tall and weighing nearly three hundred pounds with his armor on, but he made it happen. He dove the last five feet like a ballplayer sliding into home base. He landed in a jumbled heap and nearly lost his rifle, but he was alive.

“Where the fuck is my god damned air support?!” His deep baritone cut through the fog of war. “Wilson? Captain Wilson, do you copy?!”

“Captain Wilson got his arse blown off by a grenade twenty minutes ago, Sir.” A man slammed hard into the wall next to the MAJ back-first.

“Shit!” The MAJ got to his feet, pivoted around into the open doorway and let loose with a five-shot burst of energy particles.

He caught two soldiers in the brown and beige camouflage of the Eastern Block’s local defense force. The high-powered laser melted and cut through the ballistic weave of their body armor to create giant, blackened holes of super-heated bodily fluids and organs.

The two men died with a gargle in their throats, as the three men behind them jumped back behind cover.

“Die you slanty-eyed bastards!” The man next to the MAJ poured more fire onto the enemy’s position, but his rounds were traditional bullets.

“Colour Sergeant!” A third man joined them at their impromptu defensive position. “I don’t believe they liked being called that.”

“My apologies, Lieutenant, but what are they going to do; try and kill me?”

Despite the dire situation the three soldiers found themselves in, they couldn’t help but laugh at the off-color joke. What was a little casual racism when you were fighting to the death.

Speaking of death, “GRENADE!” MAJ Ward saw the gleaming steel ball flying through the door.

With impossibly quick reflexes he grabbed the ball out of the air, and tossed it sidearm back through the door. His little league coach would have been pissed at the poor form, but last the MAJ knew the guy was probably dead defending Alaska from the latest Russkie incursion.

The startled yell of the enemy was all the reassurance the MAJ needed before a loud BOOM ripped through the room. Without the noise-canceling effects of his helmet, his ears would have been ringing from tinnitus.

“Fall back!” He ordered as he pointed toward a door on the far side of the room. “If you’ve got any more demo, now’s the time to use it.”

“Roger that, Sir. Didn’t anyone tell you? The Royal Marines always come prepared.” The CSGT gave a smile visible through his own – slightly different helmet.

One by one they fell back into the next room, with the CSGT moving last while the MAJ and LT covered him. There were no sounds of pursuit, but that wouldn’t last long. All three men knew it, so they used their time wisely.

The MAJ unfastened his helmet and placed it on his knee. That freed up his teeth, which he used to rip open an airtight brown package that he removed from a pocket on his thigh. The scent of some pastry wafted out of the bag before he started to wolf it down.

“Major Ward, 2nd Battalion, 75th Rangers, US Army,” he said between bites.

“Colour Sergeant William McGee, 40 Commando, His Majesty’s Royal Marines.” The stout man took a seat.

The MAJ gave a nod and extended his non-pastry-holding hand to the NCO. In the US Army the CSGT would have been designated as a Sergeant First Class. It was a senior NCO position, which meant the guy should know his shit. From what the MAJ had seen so far, he looked like he knew what he was doing. McGee had close-cropped vividly-red hair when he removed his helmet. His eyes had the hard look of a man who’d seen plenty of action, and after years of this constantly escalating solar war who hadn’t.

The CSGT saw the MAJ looking, and ran his hand through his stubble with a grin. “A gift from my mum, the boys all call me fire-crotch.”

“That’s enough, Colour Sergeant.” The third member of the group spoke up, and the CSGT obliged. “Lieutenant Allen Thrumball, A Squadron 22 SAS. It’s a pleasure, Major.” The LT hadn’t taken a seat. He was alert and watching the door they’d come through.

“Likewise.” The MAJ shook the shorter LT’s hand.

The LT was thin compared to the MAJ and CSGT. The MAJ was built like an NFL linebacker – broad shoulders and a big-chested – just like the Rangers liked it. The CSGT didn’t look like he topped five-eight, but he was built like a boulder. If the MAJ needed someone to ram down a door then the CSGT was his man. The LT looked like the kind of man who could run all day and all night and never quit. He had a shrewd look in his eyes that said if he couldn’t run through something he’d go under, over, or around it, and as a last resort just blow the shit out of it. All it took was brief introductions to know that every man in this room was a highly-trained and lethal soldier.

It explained why they were here in the first place.

The mission they’d been given was simple. It was a high altitude drop out of a frigate heading up into low orbit. There were two ten-man teams: one from the US and the other from the UK. The two nations were the primary members in the fledgling United Commonwealth that had been established.

While the governments might have melded, the militaries had not. The MAJ didn’t blame the higher ups for being resistant to change. The MAJ’s Rangers and the LT’s Special Air Services had been around for two hundred years. The CSGT’s Royal Marines were several hundred years older than that. That was a lot of heritage and tradition to overcome in a few years. Still, they needed to overcome it. The war between the Commonwealth and the Eastern Block was constantly escalating. The whole solar system had a stake in the fight now.

MAJ Ward had been in charge of the US team, which was a mix of Rangers, Marine RECON, and a few SEALs. They’d dropped with the latest and greatest gear the most ingenious minds in the United States of America had to offer. The Armored Combat Suit of the Future was an integrated network of information sharing components that collected data and gave the soldier the information he needed to make tactical decisions. The three main parts were the M18 dual-action combat rifle, the two-tier body armor, and the helmet’s heads up display (HUD). The helmet protected the soldier from low-caliber impacts and the HUD filtered the information to the soldier and gave them options.

The two-tier armor was self-explanatory. There were two parts to protect the soldier from the growing threats of modern warfare. The first part was a ballistic weave that was capable of stopping objects traveling at formidable velocities. It still stung like a bitch to get shot, but it was better than having a round blow a chunk of your guts out an exit wound. The second tier was a layer of laminate plating to protect against energy blasts. The idea of the design was deflecting and dispersion of those particles. The plates were flexible enough to take the shockwave of hits to the ballistic weave above it, but they couldn’t take a direct hit without cracking, which was why there was a layer of weaving both below and above the plates. In total, the armor vest weighed around thirty-five pounds. Elbow and knee pads of the same materials added a little more to the total, but Ward wasn’t complaining. He’d taken more than one hit from the enemy and nothing had penetrated.

The last piece of the next-generation war fighting equipment was the M18. The dual-action rifle was a double barrel. One barrel fired Commonwealth-standard 7.62 rounds. Rumor what that they were working on upgrading to electromagnetically-propelled rounds – like the ones used by the warships – but the technology hadn’t been miniaturized yet. Any soldier you asked was fine with their current armament. They’d rather have something a little outdated that they could trust than something new and unreliable.

The second barrel was the tube for the laser. It was capable of twenty-five kilowatt bursts, which was about the average power usage of an entire home packed into a single bolt. After a few hundred shots, it needed to be recharged, but that could be done by plugging it into any electrical socket. Even solar recharge was possible if you had the time.

The UK soldiers – despite being from the same theoretical army as the Americans – wore the same armor, but had different rifles. Their own L96A1 fired the same ammunition and energy blasts, but it was a single barrel and required changing settings and ammunition. It had the advantage of being lighter than the M18, but it really depended on the soldier which one they preferred. The MAJ liked his M18 and the LT liked his L96A1. Both officers were pretty sure the CSGT didn’t care what he was shooting as long as it took down the enemy.

“Well, Sir.” The CSGT stated as he downed a full canteen of water. “This is a right proper clusterfuck if I’ve ever seen one. What’s the plan?”

The MAJ knew the CSGT had a point. They’d dropped into the LZ just fine, but then everything went to shit. Spoofed satellite imagery didn’t give them a clear picture of enemy forces on the ground. They ended up landing a quarter mile from the local militia’s headquarters. They had to fight their way through over a hundred men to reach their objective. The MAJ had seen at least two of his team fall in the battle. Then to make matters worse, they arrived at the objective to find nearly a full battalion tasked with guarding it. They were Chinese regulars, not some local defensive militia. That was when they’d been cut to pieces and dispersed into buddy teams to try and gain entry.

“The plan is to accomplish the mission, Sergeant. Our orders are to destroy this place and whatever the hell they were doing here, so that’s what we are going to do.”

The MAJ really would have liked to know what the hell they were doing at this facility, but that was need to know, and apparently the soldiers tasked with this operation didn’t need to know.

“I do have one question for you.” The MAJ continued. He’d been fighting long enough to know that “because I told you so” wasn’t a very motivating plan, and in their current state someone needed to ease the tension. “Why do you Brits pronounce lieutenant leftenant? That’s always bugged me.”

The CSGT cocked an eyebrow before barking out a short laugh. “Well that’s simple, Sir. Our superiors frown at us when we say they are a resident of a toilet.”

The LT shook his head, but had a smile on his face. The MAJ didn’t get it.

“One of our terms for the bathroom is loo, Sir.” The LT explained. “If you are a loo-tenant, then you reside in a bathroom.”

The MAJ just sat there for a second. “Is that really the fucking reason?”

“Hell if I know.” The CSGT shrugged.

The three soldiers would have continued their lively conversation if the door to an adjacent room didn’t burst open. Three new men in armor rushed into the room. The MAJ, LT, and CSGT had their rifles on the new team in a heartbeat, but the LT’s HUD lit up with blue friendly designations.

“Hold fire!” He yelled just as someone from the other group did as well.

Even in the digital age of warfare they’d all come within a hair of wasting each other.

The MAJ got to his feet and threw the brown pastry package on the ground. “Sound off.”

“Petty Officer Second Class Dustin Chambers, SEAL Team 3, US Navy.”

“Corporal Elijah Dawson, RECON, US Marines.”

“Sir Benjamin Cuthbert, His Majesty’s Secret Service.” The last man’s proclamation surprised everyone. The MAJ knew the PO2 and CPL.

“Where the hell have you been?” The MAJ waved his soldiers forward while the CSGT and the LT watched the two doors.

“Trying to fight our way through this hellhole, Sir.” The SEAL NCO shook his head. “I got a message out briefly before they jammed us up. We were supposed to have air support from a squadron of F-37s, but they aren’t freeing shit up from the invasion.”

The invasion was the reason there had been limited reconnaissance and preparation for their operation. Elements of the 3rd and 12th US Army Infantry Divisions, being supported by the Japanese Defense Force and Royal Navy, were trying to seize control of the key Russian naval base at Vladivostok. They would never hold it – they could never hold it – but destroying it would rob the Easterners of a critical North Pacific base and give the Japanese mainland some breathing room. It might even lead to breaking the blockade that had been starving the island nation for nearly a year.

It was why the Commonwealth commanders were throwing thirty thousand soldiers and dozens of warships at the vaunted base’s defenses. It was also where every member of this covert mission was supposed to be until they got reassigned. Not that it was much of a covert mission anymore.

Now, the MAJ wished he’d been tasked to help assault a heavily defended seaport instead of fighting for something he didn’t understand in a place he couldn’t pronounce.

He shut that thinking down immediately. He was a soldier and he would do his job no matter what the cost,

“Is anyone from the team left?” He feared the answer to the question.

“Not that I know of, Sir, and the radio is dark for everyone else.”

“So we’re it.” The MAJ walked back over to his helmet, picked it up, and snapped it back into place.

His HUD powered up as he regarded the five other men in the room. “We’re all that’s left. Let’s get it done.”

“I can be of assistance, Major.” The only man not in armor announced confidently. “I was undercover with a Russian emissary when I was captured. They’ve kept me prisoner in this lovely little spa for the last four months. I have a good layout of the facility in my head, and can point you to the objective.”

“How do you know what our objective is?” The LT asked from where he was covering the door.

“I was the man sent to discover whether or not it was here. It is,” the secret agent stated seriously, “and we need to destroy it.”

“Bloke doesn’t need to tell me twice.” The CSGT slapped his pocket where he kept his extra demo gear.

“Ok, let’s move out. Dawson you’re on point because you’re such a sneaky bastard.” That got a grin out of the Recon CPL. “Mr. Cuthbert, please tell him where to go and stay behind him to avoid getting shot. I don’t want to be searching this place when the rest of the enemy battalion gets their shit together.”

As if to emphasize the point a loud explosion shook the room and rained dust from the ceiling. The screams of the wounded and dying were only one room away.

Next

A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 24

“This is incredible, absolutely incredible.” The reporter was crouched behind a tree and kept ducking every few seconds as loud explosions or gunshots echoed all around her.

<You don’t have to tell me.> Seth was leaning forward with his eyes glued to the TV.

He’d participated in free-for-all battles in the HCP, and the amount of damage a bunch of teenage Supers could do was incredible. This jailbreak had hardened criminals fighting for their freedom while seasoned Heroes tried to rein them in.

“There goes another one.” A loud crack echoed from close by and she ducked. “We at WKYTV know that sound well. That’s Bender, a member of the Rocky Guard from Denver, and he just made us a little safer by taking out another one of these criminals.”

The reporter was smiling so widely that Seth was sure her jaw was going to be sore for a week. He tried to ignore the commentary and pay attention to the action. The reporter – at least she was cute – really wasn’t adept at covering something like this, and that was a shame because footage like this was never seen live.

Super battles were inherently destructive so the media tended to record from afar. Sometimes there were people embedded in the action, but they never showed it live. It was like war footage. Seth bet in a few months there would be an entire special aired showing everything leading up to and during the fight with some of this footage. The only difference would be that the major networks would edit out the newbie.

“Oh my god! Zoom in…zoom in!” She pestered the cameraman as she pointed forcefully at something in the opposite direction of Bender’s latest victim.

The picture blurred as the cameraman swiveled and had to go around the tree, but once it focused again Seth had a clear shot of the side of the building with several holes in it. There, he got a perfect view of Lilly stalking toward another figure.

“Holy shit!” Seth’s jaw dropped as Lilly and Mr. Morningstar engaged in an intense fight.

The reporter was chattering the whole time, but Seth ignored all of it. He studied the fight. Both of the fighters were extremely skilled. He’d been in the HCP long enough to see that. Lilly was quicker and stronger. She was able to bounce back from hits faster, and that would probably be the deciding factor. Mr. Morningstar was no slouch though, but he either wasn’t using his power or it wasn’t working. Sooner rather than later he began to lag, and Lilly exploited that.

“Hero and villain locked in a titanic battle for…” the reporter was spouting off meaningless dialogue when a Morningstar punched Lilly right in the face.

Seth winced at the sight, but it was quickly overtaken when a vicious roundhouse kick did some real damage. Even from the treeline, Seth could see the kick had hurt the Hero. Mr. Morningstar was cradling his arm to his chest. He tried in vain to stop the follow-on attacks, but Lilly’s fist seemed to blur she struck out so fast and caught the older Hero right in the throat.

“Oh no,” the smile fell from the reporter’s face as Morningstar fell to the ground. “Go to commercial or pan away you idiot.” She reached out and physically moved the camera, but not before Seth and millions of Americans saw Wraith pull a pistol and aim in at the fallen Hero.

“Bender! Over there!” The reporter must have seen the local Hero and pointed out the Hero in distress.

A big man came rushing over, slid on the ground, and practically shoved the reporter aside as he brought up a sleek, deadly looking rifle. The cameraman got a close-up view of the Hero doing his job, but that wasn’t what Seth was paying attention to.

His heart had leapt into his throat the moment he saw Mr. Morningstar go down, and he felt that heart breaking when he heard three shots echo through the TV.

<It could have been someone else. There is SWAT there and other Heroes.> He tried to convince himself that Lilly hadn’t gunned down the leader of the Protectorate. That she hadn’t just thrown the promise she made to him in the dirt and smashed it to pieces.

A resounding boom echoed through the TV as Bender took aim and fired. Somewhere in the back of his mind Seth already knew it was too late. Lilly had killed the Hero, and judging by the nasty looking rifle recoiling into the Hero’s shoulder, she might be dead too.

Something hard, sinking, and dark filled Seth’s gut. He felt like he was going to be sick. He rushed to the bathroom and emptied his stomach into the porcelain throne. He’d been mostly on a liquid courage diet lately, so it flowed out of him easily. It smelled like half-rotted asshole, and that made more come up. He retched three times before everything was out of him, but the darkness in his gut was still there sinking deeper and deeper into his soul.

Depression turned to anger. He lashed out. His fist smashed through the mirror above the sink and into the drywall behind it. Glass and blood went flying as it sliced through his fingers and split his knuckles. He ignored it all.

He just screamed. He screamed his lungs out. He tried to rid himself of everything pent up inside him, but it didn’t help. If anything, it made it worse. He didn’t remember what happened next. His mind went blank with anger and pain. When he finally came to he was standing in the hallway, he smelled smoke, and some guy was unconscious in front of him.

Seth looked behind him and saw flames licking at the sofa of his apartment. The smoke was growing and any second alarms would start wailing. His mind focused on the man in front of him. He vaguely recognized the man as the guy from the front desk. He needed to get him to safety.

He hoisted the man’s unconscious weight into a fireman’s carry and started toward the elevator. He was halfway down the hallway when the fire alarm went off. When Seth got to the elevator he wasn’t the only one trying to cram into the small space. He knew he shouldn’t be taking the elevator when the building was on fire, but he wasn’t going to carry the guy all the way down to the lobby by himself.

His mind started to drift back to the pain and anger of his situation as the elevator plodded along, but he forced it down by checking on the man. His pulse was strong and his breathing was regular, so there wasn’t any danger there. His jaw was clearly dislocated, so he was in for a long and uncomfortable recovery, but he would live.

A soft ding announced the elevator arriving at the destination, and it opened into a lobby full of activity. The fire department had already arrived. The apartment building was on the ritzy side, so they knew their response time needed to be quick. Half a dozen men in fire-resistant clothing ushered the group from the elevator outside where an ambulance and four cops were waiting.

“Shit, kid.” One of the cops helped Seth lower the unconscious man onto the stretcher and noticed all the blood on him. “What the hell happened to you?”

There was a large blank period in his memory, but Seth remembered what happened beforehand. “Glass.” He looked down at his blood covered hands and the multiple lacerations.

“Let’s clean you up.” The paramedic pulled Seth away from the cops and got to work bandaging his hands, while to firefighters went to work.

Thirty minutes later and the team that had gone upstairs came back downstairs with water dripping from their coats. “The fire is out,” they announced, “but no one is going to be able to go back in until the fire investigator and building inspector from the city come take a look and declare it structurally sound.”

That got a bunch of groans, but Seth wasn’t one of them. Sitting there getting bandaged and waiting for the fire to be put out had left him too much time to think. Melancholy had overwhelmed him.

“Do we have to wait here?” He asked the nearest cop. “I’ve got a study group,” he lied.

“After you give us your name and info you should be good to go. We’ll contact you if we have any questions.”

Ten minutes later Seth had given his information to the cops. He refused a ride to the hospital and instead jumped into his car and peeled out of the parking lot. He knew where he was going. Less than a few minutes later he was sitting behind a well-worn bar with his fake ID out and demanding the top-shelf stuff. A swipe of the credit card later and he was upending an expensive bottle of scotch to replace what he’d vomited out.

By the time he was halfway through that bottle his emotions had numbed to the point he didn’t want to lash out in anger. His bandaged hands didn’t hurt anymore either, so he couldn’t think of another place to spend his time.

<Is she dead?>

<Are we done?>

<How can I ever trust her again?>

The questions that had been rattling around in his mind were silenced with every successive shot until he wasn’t thinking about anything at all.

 

***

 

“Isla are you coming or not?”

Izzy sat on the couch with her face glued to the TV. One of the greatest Super battles of the year, possibly this decade, was happening right in front of them and all Marcy wanted to do was head straight to the club so she didn’t miss dollar-shot hour.

“Isla?” Marcy put her hand on her hip and gave her a pointed look.

Marcy was model thin, with model good looks, and model tastes. Her straight blonde hair was done up in a way that made it a little exotic and crazy. Her mini-skirt showed off plenty of toned, tan leg, and her top was tight enough to show off her modest bust. Half the time Izzy didn’t even think the girl needed her power.

Marcy manipulated pheromones, so she could make people do a lot of things for her; including letting the bouncers let her in underage without the cover charge. She was nice enough – a little spoiled maybe – but Izzy didn’t mind her as a roommate. What she did mind, was her as an HCP classmate. In Izzy’s opinion, the beautiful blonde did not have what it took to be a Hero. She didn’t know if it was Marcy’s upbringing or the way her power worked, but the girl was lazy. She always got everything she wanted – even some truly ridiculous things – and because of that she’d never learned the value of hard work. For someone who’d had to claw their way to get where they were it wasn’t an attractive look.

Izzy predicted she’d end up walking a runway or married to some sugar daddy, but Marcy would not be a Hero.

“Isla, focus?” Marcy snapped her fingers.

“No I’m not coming.” Izzy shook her head and kept her eyes on the TV.

The parties that Marcy did drag her to were pretty awesome. She’d give the blonde the credit she deserved. The bikini party at the sorority had been a lot of fun even before Seth jumped over the fence.

“Oh my god he’s so cute.”

“You know that guy?”

“Please tell me you have his number and are going to ride that.” The comments she got when she returned from her short conversation ranged from flattering to wildly inappropriate, and made her the life of the party for ten minutes.

Izzy didn’t think Marcy liked that and might have even used her power to bring the party back on course. Izzy didn’t mind, she had other things on her mind. As the TV showed the breaking news coverage of the Super brawl, he came to mind again.

She’d tried to give Seth some space. Sure she liked him. She wasn’t sure if it was the wounded puppy look, bad boy attitude, or him being an older, more experienced HCP student. If she was being honest with herself, she’d never been good at picking guys.

<If you never try then you’ll never know.> That was her motto and it made her smile.

That smile vanished when the screen showed a girl in black fighting to the death with a man Izzy recognized from local news coverage in Orlando.

“Oh no…pan away or go to commercial you idiot.” The reporter hissed as Wraith knocked Mr. Morningstar to the ground and pulled out a gun.

Even though the camera guy looked away it didn’t stop the mikes from picking up the sound of the three gunshots closely followed by a much louder boom. Her hands shot to her mouth out of shock and fear.

<He warned you.> Her mind told her as she remembered the conversation they’d had in the dining hall. <He told it to you straight and you didn’t really believe him.> Hearing it from Seth and seeing Wraith shoot a Hero in cold blood were two totally different things, and they put everything into perspective.

<What am I doing here?> She looked around and asked herself.

In front of her were a half empty pizza box and a two liter of soda. She hadn’t eaten the whole thing herself, and her HCP workouts didn’t make her too worried about gaining unwanted weight, but they underplayed something so much more.

<I need to be training. I need to get better. I can’t be pigging out and going to the club every weekend. There are villains like Wraith out there who are going to put a target on my back. I need to be ready.> She didn’t want to think that they could come for her at any moment, but she’d be lying if she said that thought wasn’t in the back of her mind.

Despite all of that, some things needed to come first. She fished around in the seat cushions and found her phone. It rang and rang and rang but no one picked up on the other end. She hung up and tried again, but only got the same result.

<Plan B.> She signed onto social media and searched for his profile.

Like a lot of teenagers in today’s world Seth had social media accounts. He hadn’t used them much since graduating high school, and hadn’t posted anything new for months, but he still had them. He also made some of the same mistakes as most kids. He left his geo-positioning software open for some of the apps. That way they could track his location and give him better deals or recommendations on whatever.

Izzy had learned to navigate these features while in the orphanages. They had kids run away sometimes, and she was the person who would find them. They never got far, because no matter how angry or sad the kid was they always took their phone with them, so she could always find them. Now, she was taking those tricks and finding Seth.

“Gotcha,” she whispered even though she was the only person home.

She used another app to call an Uber because the person she would have called for a ride was Seth. Whatever she wanted to think about the man’s attitude, he was pretty generous with his car.

<I need to get dressed.> she was dressed in a baggy t-shirt and sweats. That was fine for a night eating pizza at home, but not for going out to a bar. At a minimum she needed to look like an adult so they’d let her in.

Fifteen minutes later she was dressed to slay bouncers and her Uber was here. The middle-aged driver ogled her a little, but she didn’t pay him any attention. She had to focus on what she was walking into.

There was a line outside when she arrived, so she did what Marcy would have done. She walked right past the line and up to the bouncer. She held out a twenty between two of her fingers, thrust out her chest, and cocked her hip out so her could admire her curves. The man gave her a once over, took the twenty, and waved her in without even glancing at her ID.

<So easy.> She walked through the door and was immediately assaulted by the beer and BO.

There was a reason the guy had let her in so easily. This was a sausage fest. The girl to guy ratio was shit. She ignored the heads that rotated after her, and had to fight the urge to activate her power. Her shimmer protective energy would keep anyone from grabbing her ass, but it would also get her thrown out of the HCP. There weren’t many good solutions.

“Hey there cutie. You a spinner?”

<Here we go.> Izzy sighed.

She spun and grabbed the guy’s wrist that was reaching for her. A little twist and pull and she had it securely in a lock.

“AH fuck.” The guy fell to his knees when she put a little pressure into the hold. It wouldn’t take a lot to break it.

“Apologize to me,” she stated flatly. “Now.”

“Geez, ok..ok…I’m sorry. It was a compliment,” he relented after a little more pressure.

“Think of a better compliment.” She released his wrist and the man immediately retreated back to a group of his friends.

No one else gave her any trouble as she approached the bar. <Thank you, Coach Meyers.>

She really needed to pay as much attention to the alternative instructor as possible. That trick she’d taught them had worked like a charm. She’d called the impromptu class Douchebag Repellent 101, and with hindsight being twenty-twenty the name was perfect.

There weren’t many seats open at the bar, but two on either side of Seth were vacant. The broad spectrum elemental manipulator was giving off a not-so-subtle fuck off vibe. Then there was the tower of shot glasses he’d stacked in a wall around himself.

<Shit.> He was drunk…really drunk.

She took a seat next to him and he didn’t even notice. The bartender did. The worry on her face must have given her away.

“Do you know this guy?” He cocked his head in Seth’s direction.

“Yeah. Has he been any trouble?”

“Not as long as I keep serving him. I tried to stop once, but the look he gave me…” The bartender shuddered at the memory. “Just…will you please get him out of here. He’s going to get alcohol poisoning soon. I’m actually pretty impressed he’s still conscious.”

“I’ll do what I can.” Izzy wanted to order a drink but thought twice about it.

“Oh…and his phone has been ringing off the hook.” The bartender left with those final words of wisdom.

Slowly, glass by glass, she started to deconstruct the wall Seth built around himself. She’d started a commotion behind him, and talked with the bartender while sitting next to him, but it was only when she touched his booze-wall that he finally noticed her.

He turned to face her, and she had to bite her lip. His eyes were droopy, unfocused, and bloodshot. She hadn’t noticed it until now but there was an acrid smell to him that she couldn’t place. He clearly had trouble controlling his movements, because he knocked over some of his wall when he turned to face her.

Glass falling to the ground and shattering drew attention, but people’s attention didn’t linger. In their minds it was just another drunk idiot.

“Heeeeeeeey.” The one good thing so far was he smiled when he saw her. “How’re they hangin’, Iz?”

“Come on, Seth. Let’s get you home.”

“Whooooa. Already trying to get me back to my place eh? You got to buy me a drink first pretty lady.”

She blushed slightly at the pretty lady part, but knew she could use his addled brain to her advantage. “I’ve got a better idea. Let’s have that drink at your place.”

“Sorry…nope…can’t.” Seth got irrationally loud, and earned some irritated looks from the people around them. “Place burned down…poof.” He did a hand gesture that she couldn’t follow.

“What?” was the only logical response to Seth’s incoherent thought process.

“Fire…” he held up a finger and a small flame flickered to life.

“Seth!” She hissed and quickly covered it with her hand. That was a bad idea. “AH shit!” the flame burned her palm and she jerked back wagging it back and forth to try and cool it. “Can I get some ice!” she yelled to the bartender.

“Shhhhh.” He held up a finger to his lips and a stupid grin spread across his lips.

“Ok, we need to go.” Irritation replaced worry as she accepted some ice and placed it against her tender flesh.

“You’re pretty.” In typical drunk person fashion he quickly changed topics. “You’ve got nice hair.” He reached for her hair and she slapped his hand away. “Your face is hoooot.” He tried again and was rebuffed.

She half carried, half dragged him to the door and called another Uber with her free hand.

“Ok.” He held out his arms in a stopping motion when they reached the curb. He swayed on his feet. “We can do it, but we’ve got to go to your place. Remember fire.” Thankfully, he didn’t conjure fire in front of everyone waiting in line to get into the bar.

“The only thing we’re doing is getting you hydrated and to sleep,” she stated forcefully as she waved down the approaching Uber.

“But the sex…?”

“I doubt you could even get it up.” She shot back, and got a few snickers from the peanut gallery.

“But…” he pulled his phone out of his pocket and immediately dropped it.

“I’ve got it.” She waved him off. The last thing she wanted him to do was face plant.

She plucked the phone up off the ground. Lights were blinking on it indicating voicemails and text messages. Seth was too busy trying to get himself into the Uber so she opened up his main screen and checked in.

The texts were from his friends asking where he was and if he was ok. They must have seen the same thing that she had. She shot a quick text to Becca saying that she’d picked up Seth at the bar and was taking back to her place to get him to sleep. She wrote SLEEP in bold and all caps. Then she moved on to the voicemails.

She had to pry his passcode out of him, but she finally got it. The first two messages were form his friends again asking the same things they had in the texts. She deleted those.

Then she listened to the third one. Her face paled as she listened to the recorded voice of the detective.

“Seth.”

“Wha…” he’d finally maneuvered himself into the car and had his eyes closed.

“We’ve got to make a stop on the way home.”

That was as far as she got before Seth blew chunks all over the backseat of the car.

Previous

I’m on TDY from Hell – The Lineup

The deathblow was quick and clean. The dagger of Divine Steel easily sliced through Maria’s chest and into the stone alter below it. It cut her heart in two, and ended her life. She did not suffer. It had to be quick. The healing powers of angels were well documented throughout history, and that was the last thing the Infernals wanted to deal with.

Her chest deflated as her last breath escaped her. Her eyes were still wide with fear, but they were now glazed with death, and slowly the smell of fresh shit drifted outward. Death was not pretty.

Gerry had seen a million deaths over a dozen lifetimes, but he had never seen a mother loose her child. Lucifer’s comment had fileted Ava raw. It was written all over her face.

“No.” Her denial came out as a whisper as her sword clattered to the floor and she fell to her knees. “My baby.” Tear started to stream down her beautiful face, and he had to look away.

It wasn’t hard to find something else to occupy his attention. The power conduits his lieutenants had warded into the floor around the alter were glowing a brilliant gold now. It was nothing like the angel’s radiance, but it was strong enough to state that something was happening. They grew brighter and brighter as he felt the ætherial shift from Maria’s death.

The intensity reached its apex and the power of the Nephilim multiplied by the sacrificial ceremony unleashed itself. Outwardly, nothing happened to the world. The squad of angels still stood around their leader looking slightly confused about what was happening. Gerry and his lieutenants stood around their leader with only slightly more insight into what was happening, and Lucifer and Seere stood next to the alter glowing with power.

Then everything shifted. The æther wobbled like it had been struck a mighty blow. It strained against something, flexed, and then strained again. Gerry felt like he was sitting in the middle of an unnatural disaster. It was like someone had just opened a window in the middle of a hurricane. The æther battered back and forth, and only those sensitive enough to see it even knew something was happening.

There was a deepness to the event that Gerry had trouble identifying. It was like he was back in the Carver’s dungeon with Prince Seere completing the ritual to transform him into a Dux. He felt like he was at the opening of a precipice. Underneath him an ætherial nuclear bomb had just exploded and he was only experiencing a fraction of the shockwave. He didn’t possess the skill to look any further, and he didn’t want to.

He just needed to concentrate on what was right in front of his eyes. Both Lucifer and Seere’s eye were alight with something foreign to Hell: complete and utter joy. An incomprehensible amount of æther was swirling around and into them. The angels saw that just as clearly as Gerry, and they back away in fear. Except for one.

“Now! Before it is too late.” He leapt toward them, passing where Ava was nearly catatonic on her knees.

The halo around the angelic soldier blazed with Divine power. There was a flash of steel as he brought his sword up for a killing blow. His target was Lucifer, The Morning Star.

The world was blotted out by an intense light. Gerry grimaced as he shut his eyes tight and threw his hands over them. It didn’t do much to help. The odd gold-white light seemed to penetrate and fill everything. Slowly, the world returned as his eyes healed. He blinked rapidly to clear the gold-white stars dancing across his vision, and when he did the angel was nowhere to be seen. The wall behind him had been freshly decorated. It was not painted in the soldier’s blood and guts. There was a black scorch mark on the wall. Angel wings were fully splayed out in what would have made a fantastic charcoal painting, and it was made even better since it signified they had one less opponent to face.

Lucifer and Seere hadn’t even moved. They both stood transfixed on the spot soaking in the power of the ceremony while the ætherial fabric of the universe continued to roil beneath them.

 

***

 

Ava was numb. The world had fallen away under her feet. She’d thought she could get there in time before her heart broke again. She’d felt the death of her son. She’d felt him die. She didn’t know how, and she didn’t know who was to blame, but she was going to bring Divine justice down on them.

She’d marshalled her forces as she fought through the pain and led them to the location of Gabriel’s demise. What she found was not what she’d expected. She couldn’t see anything as she hovered over the school complex. The lights were on around the gym, but she couldn’t sense anything going on within.

It hadn’t been a leap to suspect wards were at play.

“We go in hard and fast.” She told her soldiers as they unsheathed their swords and started to glow as they summoned more of their Divine essence.

She would take care of the roof. She summoned her own power. Her glow overshadowed all of her soldiers combined. With a grunt she grabbed the æther in the roof and pulled. There was a concussive blast as matter sought to fill the void she’d just created, but they now had a point to assault whatever was happening.

That began the worst moment of Ava’s life: two children gone in one night, two Lords of Hell invading Eden, and the unleashing of an ancient power she hadn’t seen since her Father’s victory that secured them Eden in the first place.

It didn’t help that it was the Father of Lies and The Great Dissenter that she was facing. There was no chance of negotiations. She simply couldn’t trust the two former angels.

Ava didn’t think things could get any worse until she turned her attention to the lesser players. Victoria – the Soulless Maria had been hunting – was there. She was looking half in awe and half terrified at what she was seeing. Most of the others filled with Infernal-tainted æther she didn’t recognize, but she committed them to memory. As a Dominion she was supposed to impartially govern her territory, but she had special plans to send those creatures back to Hell.

There was one face that she did recognize and she had to fight back the crushing guilt when she saw him staring up at The Great Dissenter with admiration and fealty.

<The martial magician.> As if on cue, the man turned and locked eyes with her.

It was clear now he was Infernal, and judging by his greater size and proximity to the Infernal Lords, he was likely someone important. Despite that, his look wasn’t hateful. He wasn’t sneering at her like a conquering army at their prey. If anything there was a hint of pity in his eyes as they met hers.

She ignored it. Even if he did feel bad that didn’t change anything. He’d help kill her daughter. They’d all have to pay.

“Now! Before it is too late!”

Her head whipped around as Lucas took the initiative. Her inaction had led to his seizing the initiative. She encouraged that in her subordinates. <If you see and opportunity than take it,> was what she always said.

The problem was that Lucas misjudged the swirling æther around the Infernal Lords as a weakness. It was the exact opposite. She opened her mouth to yell at her comrade in arms, but it was already too late. The Morningstar’s hand was already raised and pointing at the charging angel. All Ava could do was squeeze her eyes shut and turn her head.

It didn’t help much as the Father of Lies energy blast scorched Lucas from this plane of existence. She felt the heat of the beam blast past her. If not for her armor of Divine Steel her pale skin would be fire-engine red. She hoped there was enough of his æther left to reconstitute him in heaven, but she doubted it.

She’d felt Lucas shredded by the insane power of the former Seraphim. The reminder of Lucifer’s power was a wakeup call to the turbulent emotions churning inside her. She was powerful, the most powerful angel in the area, but she wasn’t a match for the Lords of Hell. The traitor Gerry, and his band of goons she and her soldiers could deal with, but she needed backup if she wanted Charlotte to come out of this fight as anything more than a smoking crater.

The scorching of her retinas began to heal quickly once the blast ended. She didn’t bother to look behind her where Lucas’ scorched remains were on full display. Instead, she bent her head, prayed, and made a call she wished she would never have to in her life.

She was finished by the time the two Infernal Lords lowered their arms. The ætherial aura around them was beginning to fade as they did what they wanted with their new power, but it was replaced by confident grins.

“It is done.” The Great Dissenter breathed in deeply and exhaled.

Reality swirled as he exhaled, and Ava shuddered.

“Now, what to do with you?” The Father of Lies turned his attention on Ava and her squad.

Backup arrived just on time. A comet of bright light shot across the sky and landed next to Ava, fracturing the floor, and jostling the group of angels.

“You called.”  Emmanuel, the Dominion of Charleston, lifted the visor of his helmet.

The other Dominion stood thirty feet tall – towering above everyone in the room. He was clad from head to foot in gleaming Divine Steel, and his curved cavalry saber seemed to vibrate with its blade honed to a molecular level.

“Splendid!” A man next to Gerry clapped his hands with a prideful smile on his face. “I have been waiting decades to place my blade in your heart, Emmanuel.”

Recognition flashed in the other Dominion’s eyes. “Today only one of us will walk away from here, Lucian.”

The Great Dissenter snorted and shared a look with the Father of Lies. “Today, none of you will walk away from here.”

Ava matched his smile with one of her own. “I wouldn’t be so sure of that.”

She had dismantled matter with her arrival, and Emmanuel had shattered the floor with a flamboyant landing. Both were meant to demonstrate the breadth of their power to their enemies. The next arrival didn’t need to do any such thing.

She simply appeared between Ava and Emmanuel and eclipsed their meager abilities. Ava had trouble comprehending her sheer power, and she thanked her Father that they were on the same side.

The Great Dissenter squinted with displeasure, and The Father of Lies gave an exaggerated huff.

“Hello, Uriel. Long time no see.”

The archangel in charge of the protection of the United States of America looked at the scene with precision. She was a mountain of strength in this churning shitstorm, but even she looked cautious.

“Lucifer, Seere.”

“What, no titles sister?” Lucifer puffed out his chest and swept the archangel a bow. “Uriel Keeper of the Flaming Orb, welcome to our little get together.”

Uriel’s face was passive as she continued to survey the scene. “You are trespassing in our Father’s garden.”

“It isn’t his.” Seere spat. “He took it from its true creator, and turned it into his little soul factory.”

“It is his, brother,” Uriel said forcefully. “Your failed rebellion already showed your inadequacy against his might.”

“That was then, this is now.” Lucifer shrugged. “Are you really prepared to do this?” He spread his arms in invitation. “Many of your precious humans will perish.”

“We have means to mitigate that.” In response to her statement armor started to crawl up the archangel’s dark flesh.

It wasn’t as blocky as the Dominions’ armor. There was more fluidity to it, but one look at the æther showed it was stronger. Lastly, a spear appeared in her hand with a golden orb fixed below the blade. Both Lords of Hell gave the orb a concerned look but nothing more. Ava could tell they were still confident in their chances.

“Very well.” There was a flash of light and Seere stood before them with bloodstained wings, scorched eye socket, and great broadsword. He wasn’t as tall at Emmanuel, but he’d shed his human form for the time being. His armor fell somewhere between the Dominions’ and Uriel, and it swirled with Infernal energy.

“As you wish.” Lucifer grinned and another flash of gold-white light blinded everyone.

Ava gasped as the Father of Lies rose out of the transformation. Unlike the polished silver of the Divine Steel, Lucifer’s had inlaid gold and angelic writing carved into the seams. It went to reason that the carvings would have compromised the integrity of the armor, but a look at the æther contradicted that. If anything the runes inscribed on the fallen angel made his armor stronger and more powerful than Uriel’s.

Unlike the rest of the combatants, his helmet was on and his golden wings were splayed out behind him. With all the large angels gathered together it was getting a bit crowded in the gym. The wings pulsed with æther, but what really caught everyone’s attention was the single slit in his helmet. There was nothing but glowing gold-white light behind it.

Uriel repositioned her spear with the blade toward the two Lords of Hell. Ava thought she imagined it, but she swore she could see indecision pass across her superior’s face.

<Impossible.> Uriel was known for being the most pragmatic of the archangels. She would never waver from doing what was right.

You could have cut the tension in the room with a spoon, but it was a soft clicking sound that finally did it. It didn’t come from either side. It came from the men’s locker room. It was comical to watch all eyes swivel to the door between their two sides, but the levity of the situation ended there.

An old man with a stooped back and a cane gingerly opened the door and stepped out in between the two opposing forces. Ava thought it was some senile old man with a death wish. She almost ordered one of her soldier to spirit the man to safety, but then he raised his head and looked at them.

His eyes told them everything.

Uriel hissed and got into a crouched fighting position with her spear pointed at the new threat. Ava almost did the same, but kept her eyes on Lucifer and Seere. They were no longer the greatest threat, but they still thought they could defeat the forces of good arrayed against them.

“Satan.” Uriel hissed as her spear shook slightly in her trembling hands.

“Sister.” He disregarded her completely and looked at Lucifer and Seere.

To their credit, the two Lords didn’t look too abashed under the King of Hell’s gaze.

“A round of applause for you two.” He lifted the hand holding his cane and clapped three brisk claps. “I’ve been searching for that seal for a long time, but no matter.” He replaced the cane on the ground and took a deep breath. “You’ve weakened the veil enough for me to break through. It is crumbling even as we speak.”

True fear crossed Uriel’s face, and that was when Ava knew avenging her murdered daughter was the least of her problems.

“Soon our armies will meet on the real field of battle, so I leave the decision up to you, Sister.” Satan regarded Uriel. “Die now or die later.”

Uriel hissed again, but didn’t answer. Her orb was glowing so brightly it looked like it was about to explode, but it didn’t, and it was a good thing, because right when things seemed the most hopeless the door to the women’s locker room opened.

“Sorry I’m late.” A man stepped out and regarded everyone.

He had flowing white hair, a great bushy beard, and kind blue eyes. He was the spitting image of Santa Clause if Santa was jacked beyond belief and looked like he could snap your spine with his pinky finger. His face was considerably less jolly as he surveyed the room, and those kind eyes hardened into ice.

“Come on!” Lucifer wings shivered with irritation as the new man stepped up next to Satan.

They were within a few feet of each other, but neither looked uncomfortable with the other’s presence.

“Michael.” Satan gave the new arrival a respectful bow.

“Brother.” Michael returned the bow. “Father sent me.”

Satan’s eyes narrowed at the comment, and he turned to face the commanding archangel of their Father’s Divine Host.

They were quite a contrast. Satan looked old and feeble while Michael shone with health and virility. Of course the outward human appearances meant nothing. This was the Commander of the Host versus the Captain of the Seraphim Guard: the two most powerful of their Father’s creations facing off against each other. The only thing more powerful or destructive would be their Father himself facing one of the other Primordial Beings of creation.

“Father wishes for you to return to your realm, to leave Eden be, and to avoid any further bloodshed.” Michael delivered the demands with the confidence of commanding the most powerful army in existence.

“Those are the demands of a tyrant, Brother.” Satan answered calmly. “He wants no one to challenge his rule or to be free to make their own choices. Don’t you remember how this all started,” Satan pointed at Seere and Lucifer. “A simple case with a simple premise. Why can’t we, his angels, make our own decisions?” He looked back at Michael. “When he got a displeasing ruling he cut out the judge’s eye and stripped him of his authority. If you ask me, that sounds pretty tyrannical to me.”

“Don’t try to twist the issue, Brother.” Michael countered. “You’ve always craved power. You’ve never been content with being Father’s right hand. You needed to be God. That is what this is all about. You’re quest for power,” he gestured at Lucifer and Seere, “and you took many of our brothers and sisters with you into the Pit when you failed.”

The two ætherial beings stared at one another for several tense seconds.

“I see that we will not come to an agreement.” Michael looked genuinely sad.

“I agree.” To everyone’s surprise Satan shared the sentiment.

“May the best man win, Brother.” The two men shook hands and walked to join their respective sides.

<The King of Hell, The Father of Lies, The Great Dissenter, two Infernal Duxs, four Infernal lieutenants, and half a dozen Soulless against our Father’s Champion Michael, Uriel, me, Emmanuel, and my eight remaining guardians.> Ava couldn’t tell if those were good or bad odds. All she knew was that she feared for her life, for the people of Charlotte, and for every human soul in existence.

She couldn’t characterize it any other way. The Apocalypse was here, and it was about to kick off with a bang.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 138

Noah Grisham

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

“Able, I don’t want to rush you, but if you don’t get that fucking door open then we’re going to be human popsicles inside of an hour.” The pirate lord of Cobalt Station stood impatiently beside the Maccabee mercenary.

Despite his brutish appearance, Able was quite good with electronics and engineering. He kept Dawn –or whatever pseudonym she was boasting at the time – flying and ready to fight, so a piece of junk mining station should have been a breeze. It would have been, if the rowdy miners hadn’t gotten a taste of power and decided to wreck the place.

Currently, Able and Noah were two corridors away from the sealed off Administration Level because the miners had tried to burn the door open and scorched the circuitry beyond repair. Able was bypassing bypasses to get the door open and get at the remaining workers loyal to the corporation.

<We need hostages.> Regardless of whatever else the miners wanted, Noah knew what they needed. <Without leverage we’re screwed.>

The Collie marines had taken a huge chunk out of the rebellious miners, but had taken their own losses along the way. Despite losing over a hundred and fifty men and women, the rowdy folk were ecstatic that they were able to beat back the attempt to retake the station.

They were headstrong and confident in their success now, which meant Noah needed a fine touch to manipulate them. He needed to give them a new target, and that target was the Administration Level. That would give them access to the cash the corporation kept on site, the expensive personal property of the managers that had been fucking them in the ass since the day the mining facility opened, and the managers themselves who the miners were planning to fuck in the ass.

<Payback’s a huge, thick, merciless dick.> Personally, Noah didn’t give a shit. All he cared about was getting off this bucket of bolts, and he needed hostages to do that.

“Almost,” Able grunted as sparks flew. “And…there.”

The cheering of the miners mingled with gunfire was all the reassurance Noah needed that the job was done. He slowly walked the corridors back to the thick blast door and waited for a couple of minutes. The level was still defended by half a dozen Corpies, but they wouldn’t last long with the modern weapons the pirate had been supplied by his mysterious benefactor.

<A benefactor who’s going to be pissed we lost Gold.>

A person who could front the kind of cash for this mission was not a person to be insulted, so Noah’s plan was simple: get the hell out of York Sector and not come back for a decade. He could take Dawn and find work somewhere else. With war brewing, things would be ripe for the taking.

Able led the way once the fighting died down. Dozens of miners littered the walkway into the Level. Being sectioned off for precisely this reason, the limited defenders had superb defensive positions. Only the miners sheer weight of numbers and huge balls allowed them to overrun the positions. Mutilated corpses were all that was left of the defenders, and more than one of them was getting pissed on when Noah and Able walked by. The miners might have turned on Noah if not for Able walking beside him with the giant Buss weapon that Collie heavy infantry used. The miners had seen that weapon and Able in action, and they didn’t want to screw with the mercenary.

“That’s enough!” Noah shouted when he finally reached the living section.

Within his view, one woman was getting gangbanged and another was about to. A couple of guys were on the ground bleeding from head wounds, and the looting was in full effect.

“Take what you want but leave the people alone.”

“What?!” One guy – a big guy – rose up at Noah’s commands…and Able promptly incinerated his head with an energy blast.

“Any questions? Good,” he didn’t give them time to ask any. “Property only.”

The remaining miners were cowed by one of their leader’s cauterized stump, but they took to pillaging the place like champs.

“Th…thank you.” The woman who’d nearly been brutally violated stuttered as Noah approached.

“Shut up bitch.” He snapped raising his hand to strike the woman and making her flinch. “If you don’t do what I say when I say it I’ll let them ruin you.” That shut her up, and allowed him to focus on the situation.

The Administration Level held the corporate command center for all of the system’s sensors. <Ah fuck,> was all he could think.

Seven big contacts were decelerating on a course to take up perimeter positions a few thousand kilometers from the station. They weren’t transmitting the transponder IDs of Collie warships, but the blazing icon of Gold Technologies. The Corpies had come for their property back.

“Able.” Noah got his partner’s attention without alerting the miners. “We need to get the fuck out of here now, and we need cover to do it.

Noah figured this went one of two ways. First, the Corpies stormed the station with a shit ton more people than the Collies, they slaughtered the miners, and retook control. In that situation, the pirates got strung up and hanged like in the old days. The second way was worse. The Corpies wanted to make an example of the rebellious miners. Instead of sending troops to retake that station they just blew it up. He was pretty sure they’d be able to write it off their taxes since New Moon had fucked up everything and this could technically be deemed a pirate stronghold now.

The more he thought about it the more he was sure the Corpies were going to go with option two. He had to think fast. They’d be in energy cannon range in twenty minutes, but would probably wait the full hour and get into position before blowing them all to hell. The pirates needed to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

“I’m on it.” Able stated when Noah shared his certainties.

The Corpies cutting costs wherever they could actually helped them in this situation. The station was a modular design. As it grew, more sections were added to the central structure, which just happened to be the Administration Level, refining apparatuses, and cargo bay.

Noah quickly caught on to what the big mercenary was planning.

Dawn was docked on the far side of the station from the approaching fleet, so by sheer luck they had that advantage. Able was currently programming the central computer to blow the modular sections of the stations. When they were blown apart, the pirates would drift in Dawn like a piece of wreckage. Once clear, the sections would self-destruct and the pirates would escape in the ensuing chaos.

“We good?” Noah’s foot wouldn’t stop tapping against the desk as the twenty-minute mark passed. The Corpies could technically wipe them out now.

“I’ve slaved the system to my PAD. We’re ready.” Able slipped the slender device into his pocket and picked up his Buss.

“I changed my mind.” Noah bellowed to the miners still ransacking the place. “You can have the women!”

Cheers were mingled with screams as the pirates used the commotion to slip out. They didn’t run, but they moved with a purpose across the station and to Dawn. That took five minutes, and another five minutes to get minimal life-supporting functions active on the ship without drawing too much attention.

Noah checked the station sensors from Able’s PAD and saw the Corpie fleet dispersing to take up positions on three sides of the station.

“Now or never,” he muttered as he released the docking clamp and Dawn began to drift away from the station.

They gave it a few minutes to gain some distance before Noah activated the subroutine. Two things happened at once. The first was that all of the lifepods fired simultaneously at the approaching fleet. It could be taken as a desperate attempt to flee the station or as a suicide attack on the warships. Either way, it gave Noah a look at the fleet’s intentions.

The lifepods only made it within a thousand kilometers of the warships before point defense lasers lashed out and destroyed them. Noah almost thought he’d misjudged the situation and this was a rescue operation after all, but his initial assumption was correct.

At the same time the lifepods launched muted explosions cut the station into a dozen separate pieces. Those pieces started to drift apart, or in a few cases thrusters activated and drove the sections farther into space.

“Angle us toward the planet, quarter pulse.” Noah commanded.

There was a large gas giant close by, and if Dawn could get close enough, the volatile atmosphere would cloak her from the Corpie Fleet.

“Wait for it…wait for it….” Thousands of kilometers opened up between Dawn, the dismembered station, and the Corpies. “Wait for it…”

Unfortunately, the Corpies weren’t willing to wait for it anymore. Dozens of energy blasts ripped through space and into the various station sections.

“Now! Evasive maneuvers!”

They were too late on some of them. The energy beams sliced through some parts, detonated others, and turned the section of space into a brilliant inferno followed by a space junkyard. The few sections that didn’t explode outright from the attack were taken out by Noah.

Dawn successfully evaded the blast meant to destroy it and went to full power. They ran like hell for the planet as more energy blasts chased them.

 

 

Admiral Sonya Berg

Location: New Washington, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Sonya walked into the Commonwealth Emergency Operations Center ten minutes late, but she didn’t care. She’d planned on missing this meeting altogether and sending a deputy before the good news arrived. One of the recon drones Admiral Ward sent out had returned with the location of CWS Hoplite – one of the lost battleships – and a manifest of its surviving crew. Eve was on that list.

Even though she was late, the ADM was riding high on life at the moment. Her daughter was alive, and from the few reports uploaded to the drone, she had performed her duties with considerable heroism. Awards and commendations were in the young woman’s future, and if Sonya was lucky enough, the taste of combat had wiped away any illusions of the Infantry her daughter still possessed. If Eve put in her application from the Naval Academy, Sonya could have her daughter enrolled and in classes within a few months.

That would be the perfect outcome. <Nothing about this meeting is going to be perfect.>

Her arrival caused a commotion. The Prime Minister looked up and gave her a small smile. The man was a military imbecile, but he knew how to politic. The two men standing at the end of the room next to the holo-screen were not smiling. High Admiral Gilmore – her superior –and Commandant Garrett – the head of the Infantry – looked like they were in the middle of a briefing.  Sonya’s deputy showed no emotion as he vacated his seat for her.

“Thank you for joining us, Admiral Berg.” Gilmore acknowledged her with more than a little frost in his voice.

“How are things in Syracuse Sector?” the PM asked, and successfully derailed the briefing.

“The remaining units of the task force are being repaired as quickly as possible, Sir, but I would be lying if I didn’t say Third Fleet is a little rattled from the defeat.”

That is not what the PM wanted to hear, but it was the truth.

“They’re also chomping at the bit for vengeance, Sir.” She waited until she had the PM reeled in before delivering the punch line. “All they need is a target.”

“Finally, you and I are in agreement.” Garrett “The Bear” dared a smile. He’d been the one to argue an offensive strike into Blockie territory instead of rescuing the units trapped at Rogue Island.

“In the broader goal yes, but time will tell with the details, and we all know the devil’s in the details.” She gave the Commandant a measured nod.

“Then, with your permission Prime Minister, I would like to continue the briefing.” The High Admiral directed everyone’s attention back to the holo-screen.

It looked like Sonya had arrived at the end of the more tedious bits of information. She just got to hear the end of how the losses affected overall fleet disposition. In a nut shell: they used to be spread pretty thin, now they were even thinner.

Despite that, everyone was in agreement about one thing. They needed to hit back, and the blow needed to hurt.

“The recommended targets are quite similar to the ones we suggested during our last conversation.” The holo-screen split into three sections and showed three different enemy systems. “Xin Omsk, Yangon, or New Petersburg.”

Xin Omsk was a lightly populated system that was growing rapidly. It had the potential for a lot of industrial capacity, but it was in the Rim so it was slow going. Yangon was an important juncture system with half a dozen different valleys leading into it. It would be hard to get to the system undetected, but for that same reason it had lighter defenses than a system like it should have. Lastly, New Petersburg was a Blockie Sector capitol like Syracuse. Personally, Sonya thought even having it as a potential target was stupid.

“I suggest we hit New Petersburg. Kick them in the nuts for the sucker punch they hit us with.” Of course, Commandant Garrett went against what she thought.

“I don’t think Third Fleet can do it.” Sonya immediately dissented. “Admiral Ward is good,” she added quickly to not sound like a defeatist, “but he’s not good enough to crack those defenses with just his fleet. Plus, we still don’t know where their Sixth Fleet is.”

“One of our drones registered them passing through this system.” One of the thousands of randomly numbered systems popped up on the holo-screen. “With that information, it looks like they’re heading back home.”

“So they didn’t want to give us more than a punch on the nose or they’d be driving farther into Syracuse Sector. I think our response should be proportional.” Sonya delivered her advice. “We hit Xin Omsk with a task force from Third Fleet and wipe out the infrastructure they’ve managed to build there. We’ll have several skirmishes over the next year or two as a result, but things will settle down after that. That’s the way these things always play out.”

“High Admiral?” The PM turned to Gilmore.

“I suggest the middle road, Sir. We hit Yangon. It’ll be a solid body blow. It will greatly affect the Sector economy, but not enough to constitute an extreme counterattack. Then Sonya here can get with some of her contacts and have privateers and mercenaries harass any merchant traffic heading through the area. It will blacklist the system for years, hamstring them in this section of space, and be the military victory the Commonwealth needs.

“I’m glad all of my advisors are in agreement.” The PM chuckled and then asked for them to convince him.

That conversation went on for hours. Everything from Infantry resources to Fleet tonnage, transit times, and logistical matters were discussed. In the end, the High Admiral won his confidence.

“Yangon it is.”

The attack would take three months to prepare for, another month in transit due to the route they’d have to take to get them there undetected, three quarters of third Fleet under Admiral Ward would conduct the attack with the other twenty five percent to serve as a QRF for any raid the Blockies might launch in the meantime. Lastly, several troop transports would make the journey with the warships with a full division – with appropriate special operations support – to stamp out everything on the planet’s surface.

It would be the largest assault of the twenty-fifth century:  over a hundred thousand soldiers, three assault carriers, ninety battleships, forty battlecruisers, a mix of another fifty cruisers and destroyers, six troop transports, and an armada of supply ships to carry everything that the force would need to be victorious. Over half a million soldiers and sailors, trillions of dollars of equipment, and tonnage numbering in the hundred million range would be going deep into enemy territory to defeat the enemy.

Sonya did not envy the task that Admiral Ward was being given.

Previous

Two Worlds – Chapter 137

Mark “Coop” Cooper

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

 “AHHHHH…I love drugs.” Coop sighed as he lay awake on the operating table.

He’d been out of it for a little while, but the pharmaceutical cocktail in his system made it too dangerous to keep him out for too long. With the metabolic needs the drugs and nanites were demanding, he could slip into a coma and die.

“Easy there, soldier.” The doctor hovering over him with a computer-operated laser couldn’t smother his grin in time. “Stay with me here for just a bit longer.”

Part of the reason they’d had to wake him up was so he could put his LACS in MAINTENANCE MODE and they could get to work. Without his LACS in that setting they wouldn’t be able to fire lasers at it without the scales reacting and throwing high-intensity energy beams all over the place. They needed sustained, powerful bursts to get through the LACS armor. That and time.

“We’re almost through the one side. Is local anesthetic applied?”

“Oh yeah,” Coop replied dropping his voice a few octaves before bursting into laughter.

“Kid’s high as a fucking kite.” The nurse was resting her hand on his armored chest. Not that it would do much good.

“Ok, we’re through.” The doctor gave Coop a pity-filled look. “This might suck a little. We’re only a destroyer sick bay, you’re doped out of your mind, and we’re not exactly equipped for this…” he stopped talking there. It wasn’t exactly good bedside manner. “This might tingle a bit.”

It didn’t tingle at all. If Coop was being honest, he was only fifty percent sure he wasn’t dreaming this whole thing. Images of his weekend sexcapades with Eve kept flashing through his mind’s eye. Once, she even started making out with the experienced whore he’d dabbled with back on Mars, while he got to watch. That was hotter than hell.

<Hell…burning…> that thought, along with a pungent scent ended the imaginary threesome.

Coop was no stranger to the smell of burning metal scorched by explosions, but the scent of burning flesh was something entirely new for him. He could feel his body reacting as he put two and two together.

<They’re cutting off my fucking leg!> Abstractly, he knew that was what was going to have to happen after the grav-grenade flattened it and then crumbled it up into a ball like it was old-fashioned paper. The smell just made it all too real.

“Hold still.” The nurse grunted as Coop started to sit up. She couldn’t stop him from getting halfway into the seated position.

“Private Cooper, sit back down NOW!” someone yelled, but Coop didn’t give a shit. He was drawn to the repugnant smell of his own flesh being sliced through.

“Grab him!”

Coop felt multiple hands start to pull him back down, and a few of them had to be the reinforced bodies of marines, but it wasn’t until a golden head of hair came into view that they were able to push him back down.

“I’m through,” the doctor gave a huge sigh of relief. “All we have left is the far side of the armor and then we’ll be able to get the Private out of this and into a proper medical bed.

“I’m not getting out of this.” Coop clutched the chest plate of his armor with both hands. “The miners and pirates out there are fucking savages with modern guns!” Everything seemed to be melding together in his mind.

“Shit.” The doctor’s face appeared along with some mutli-spectrum light thingy. “He’s overdosing. Hold him down, Sir, I need to finish this fast.”

The smell of burnt flesh was quickly replaced by burning metal, and all Coop saw was blue eyes and golden hair.

“You hang in there, Cooper. We did not go through all of that just to die when we got to safety.”

“Hey, Gold. When did you get here? Where is here?” Darkness was starting to creep into the edges of Coop’s vision.

“Listen to my voice, Cooper. Stay with my voice. Don’t go toward the light.”

“What light? There’s no fucking light. All I see is your quaffed hair you dumb shit. I swear to god you could punch a hole in a battleship with the glare coming off that hair of yours.” That got a few laughs just as the cutting stopped.

The medical team and LCDR Gold quickly got Coop out of his armor. He was missing his one leg below the knee, but that was something modern medicine could easily fix. He’d be out of commission for a few months, but that meant he would get assigned to some ground-based medical facilities for regen and therapy. That meant local girls, legit bars, and maybe he’d even get to see his good old buddy Mike again.

Those were the happy thoughts that lulled him to sleep after he got juiced up with a shit ton of nanites that would keep any infection from setting in and purge the drugs from his system. When he woke up in a few hours he’d have to piss like a race horse.

 

Commodore George Zahn

Location: GSFS King Midas, York Sector, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 Commodore George Zahn, the Mad Captain of the Intrepid, and a whole bunch of titles imposed by others sat on the bridge of the pride of the Gold Technology’s Fleet. King Midas was smaller than its Commonwealth counterparts, but he knew she was a fighter. He’d put her through her paces right out of the shipyards on Gold Prime, and he was confident she was the finest warship in the galaxy.

<Updated fighter launchers. Eight hundred top of the line drones, twenty percent more point defense lasers and railguns, one hundred and twenty five missile tubes, forty-two energy cannons in the 20 petawatt range, a next generation EW suite that the company is looking to sell to the Fleet next year, and a hull seven meters thick all packed into two and a quarter kilometers and crewed by twenty-five hundred souls.> Automation was taking a giant leap forward in the next generation of Gold Technology designs, and Midas was its poster boy.

The holo-tank at the center of the flag bridge was better in the CMDRE’s opinion than what was on the Fleet’s ships. The crew was something else entirely. That was the one thing Zahn missed about the military. It had more stability than the corporate security fleet. He would lose talented officers to other commands, department changes, or straight up being stolen by competitors. In the Fleet, he could at least count on some semblance of stability for the duration of a cruise.

It was hard to build a crew, to fight a ship, and to defeat the enemy when you had to change department OICs every other week.

<Not this time.> A smile crept onto the CMDRE’s lips.

Zahn was not a handsome man, and his smile might have led credence to his title the Mad Captain more so than his deeds. Just because he’d taken a cruiser headlong into the might of a pirate armada did not make him mad. In his opinion, when someone was confronted with no good options, then the best option was to go down swinging. Half of the Intrepid and the entire convoy of merchant ships owed their lives to his mentality. He’d only had to inflict thirty percent casualties on the enemy before they turned tail and ran. He knew they would. They weren’t real soldiers.

This mission was different. He’d been given his orders directly from the CEO. He’d sat in the titan of industry’s office and been given two data chips. One he was ordered to open when his carrier group departed for New Lancashire. The chip contained only three words: RECOVER THE HEIR. He thought the wording was weird, but who was he to judge the man who paid him significantly more than the Fleet ever did.

The second chip he held in his hand as King Midas rocketed through space faster than the speed of light with his small carrier group in tow.

“Transition in five minutes, Sir.”

“Thank you.” The CMDRE held the chip tight in his grip.

No one else knew he had it. He didn’t even know what it said, but he had a sinking feeling in his gut. Thomas Gold could smite a planet if he wanted to, and while the CEO had been composed during their short meeting, George could see that he was fuming with anger that someone had kidnapped his son.

He squeezed his fist, but there was no danger of crushing the mixture of polyplast and circuitry.

“Three minutes, Sir.”

The CMDRE just nodded as he unclasped his hand and stared at the chip.

King Midas shuddered only slightly as it dropped out of Alcubierre several light minutes from Cobalt Mining Station. George watched as the light-minute bubble expanded. There was no one within range for over an hour until the CWS Breckenridge popped into existence. A brief communication with the destroyer’s captain lifted a tremendous weight from George’s shoulders. Lieutenant Commander Gold was unharmed aside from a few scrapes and bruises. He was being transported back to New Lancashire while his gunboat Argo maintained security until George’s group took charge of the system.

A loud cheer went up from Midas’ crew when the transmission was completed. The CMDRE smiled and nearly forgot about the chip in his hand. Three hours later he relieved Argo and took up position around the rebellious space station. It was only then that he inserted the second chip into his PAD and saw the second part of his orders:

KILL THE REBEL SCUM

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 23

Options…Lilly needed options. In a perfect world she would have had time to think, plan, and implement that course of action. Unfortunately, this was the real world, and the real world sucked monkey nuts sometimes. One second she and her team were going to enact their escape plan, and the next the fucking wall exploded and Heroes were pouring into the place.

She recognized a lot of the spandex-wearing, brightly colored douches arrayed against them, but three immediately stood out. Her eyes snapped to Hunter. The big teleporter was her biggest worry. He limited her escape options, and the big ass gun he was unslinging from his shoulder would fuck up anyone’s day.

Hunter was bad, but the woman standing in the center of the group was worse. Reaper and Wraith’s eyes met for a moment. Lilly didn’t know what flashed through the other woman’s mind, but she wanted that bitch dead. That was easier said than done. Lastly, she looked at the guy who took a small step forward and opened his mouth.

Rage filled Lilly as Mr. Morningstar used his power on the crowd of criminals. A few of the weaker minded ones actually started to buckle under his persuasion, but only a few. Morina swayed a little on her feet, but shook her head before shooting daggers at the man. With her own internal fortitude and Nightingale’s nullifying armor, Lilly didn’t even bat an eye lash.

“Surrender and you will be treated with respect!” was Mr. Morningstar’s last line.

Lilly raised her pistol and put two shots downrange aimed for the man’s center of mass. They hit an invisible barrier a few feet from the group of Heroes, and she noticed another Hero grimace with discomfort. <Gotcha.>

Lilly’s plan was to overwhelm the telekinetic and put a bullet in Morningstar’s brain. The memory of him mentally torturing her by bringing Seth into the Protectorate’s little prison section nearly made her see red. If it was just the two of them she would have ripped him to pieces with her bare hands, but they had other things to worry about.

The Heroes probably had a plan of what was going to go down. Lilly’s team had a semblance of a plan that would have been better with more prep time. The people who didn’t have any plan were Nightingale’s new recruits, so they did what they did best: they attacked.

<What else are they going to do…just throw them back in prison. Those guys have nothing to lose.>

Lilly watched as the big guy who’d been speaking for the prisoners began to shudder and scream. His bones broke and his skin stretched as it went from a pale to a deep red. A crown of thorns sprouted from his skull as he shot up three feet, and his muscles and veins bulged. Fangs descended from his mouth dripping a tar-like acid, and when he finally opened his eyes they were twin orbs of crimson fire.

He roared and the shockwave echoed down the hall toward the Heroes.

<Holy shit!> now Lilly recognized the guy.

There were a few Supers – mostly on the bad side – who legitimately thought they were gods. Seif al-Din would have been that way if not for his twisted faith. The beast before them had terrorized the West Coast for nearly a decade before he’d been brought down by a team of Heroes. He called himself Belial, the Duke of Damnation, and he honestly believed he was a demon from hell.

Looking at him in the flesh, Lilly had trouble disputing that. He was strong, fast, durable, could breathe fire, could hold you in a trance if you looked into his eyes, and was just a good old mean son of a bitch.

“Lead us, Belial!” Nightingale screamed as she used her own power. Globs of black goo flew from the nullifier onto the big hell-beast. In no time at all she’d covered his entire chest. That was good enough.

Lilly felt a squeezing sensation as something – or someone – tried to squeeze the life out of her. It was unsettling and a bit uncomfortable, but she felt no less alert or drained in any way. <Fuck you, Reaper, and thank you, Nightingale.> Now it was an even fight.

Belial shook his head back and forth, gave another earth-rumbling roar, and charged forward. His considerable height and girth blocked most of the hallway, so Lilly didn’t see what happened next.

“You need to go.” She turned to Morina. One of the few people in the world she could call a friend.

“But I want to stay and watch the show.” The blood manipulator was licking her lips as she swayed on her feet. Reaper was doing a number on her.

“Maybe next time. You’d want to work with me in the future right?”

Morina looked at her and blinked with genuine confusion. “Work with someone?” It was like the thought had never even occurred to her.

“Yeah,” Lilly grinned. “I think we’d make a hell of team.”

“We could make the world bow before us.” Morina’s face lit up with a savage and truly disturbing light.

“Suuuuure.” Lilly glanced behind her. She could smell ozone. Someone was throwing an electrical attack at Belial, and his forward progression had slowed.

<Reaper and the telekinetic,> she surmised. <Hunter is probably repositioning their people now.> she’d spent long enough talking with Morina. They needed to move.

“If anyone but me comes to get you, you turn them inside out. Understood?” Lilly got an exaggerated head nod in response before a blast of darkness took the blood manipulator away.

There was a chance that Hunter would follow her, and she pitied the man if he did. Morina was no push over, and Hunter didn’t have any jurisdiction in that country. It would be a hell of a diplomatic nightmare.

“We need to get out of here.” Nightingale walked over to stand next to Wraith.

“Easier said than done.” Lilly tried to see around Belial as he struggled against the unseen force. “Hunter is a tracking teleporter. Wherever we go he should be able to follow.”

Speaking of the man, Hunter appeared in the other corridor with Mr. Morningstar and another Hero she didn’t recognize. Lilly had enough time to duck out of the way before he let it rip with his giant rifle. The shot blasted into Stal and threw her backwards. She screamed in pain, but it didn’t look like the round broke skin. It probably just hurt like hell. When she got back to her feet she was ready to tear someone’s head off, so Lilly obliged.

“Go get him.”

Stal charged forward and Lilly grabbed her as she passed. There was an explosion of darkness around them, and then a second explosion farther down the hallway. It was a short range teleport to get Stal close without having to take another hit. The strongwoman charged out of the darkness and hit the unknown Hero right in the chest.

Hunter and Mr. Morningstar had jumped away when they were overrun by the darkness, but the new guy didn’t know Wraith like they did. Stal’s hit carried them both through the far wall and out of sight.

“Get Hunter,” Lilly commanded. “If you can nullify him he won’t follow us.”

That was true, and it was what they needed to make their escape, but it also let Lilly get the last member of the group alone.

<Payback’s a bitch old man.>

Lilly grabbed Nightingale and they teleported the short distance a second time. Lilly felt the two Heroes as the darkness spread upon their arrival. Hunter had backed himself into a corner and was calmly swiveling his rifle back and forth. Once the darkness cleared he’d have clear shot at the two villains. Mr. Morningstar was on the opposite side. Close, but not close enough to get to before their cover dissipated.

<No…no…NO!> Lilly shrieked as she saw her revenge slipping through her fingers.

There was no question at all that Hunter’s rifle would blow a big bloody hole right through her, and no sense of vengeance against the leader of the Protectorate was worth that.

<No not yet!> she yelled at the darkness as it began to thin.

She flexed her mind, begged, and pleaded for the darkness to stay with her.

Surprisingly, it obliged.

The darkness held on like a fog around them. It wasn’t as thick as the explosion when she teleported, but it was there obeying her command.

<Awesome!> she thought as a savage grin crossed her face.

She didn’t think much about Nightingale and Hunter. She pushed the villain in the Heroes’ direction and left the rest up to them. She couldn’t care less if they both died, Nightingale still creeped her out.

Lilly’s attention was completely focused on Mr. Morningstar. The old Hero had his arms up in a defensive stance as he backed slowly away from the origination point of blackness.

<He has no idea.> Lilly struggled to stop a giggle from escaping her throat. Not that it would have mattered. Sound didn’t translate well in the black world she was clinging to.

She was conscious of a growing pressure in the back of her mind, but she ignored it in favor of focusing on her victim, and he was going to be her victim. She crept quickly to the side of him and watched his movements for any indication he knew she was coming. He didn’t, but his head was starting to move frantically back and forth. He knew the limits of her teleportation-induced darkness, and this didn’t fit with what he knew.

<Surprise,> she meant it for him, but the roar of Hunter’s rifle firing nearly made her shit herself.

The pressure in the back of her mind spiked and she lost whatever newfound grip she had on the darkness. The fog began to thin quickly, but she felt Nightingale and Hunter struggling for control of the rifle with the last wisps of shadow.

As much as Lilly thought Nightingale was a creep, this was a situation where she had to trust the other woman. Trust wasn’t something she had a lot of these days, but she needed to have it now. She needed to trust Nightingale to handle Hunter because she couldn’t deal with him and Mr. Morningstar.

Her repositioning helped her when the darkness faded enough to get a look around. Morningstar was looking in the wrong spot and not ready for Lilly to grab a hold of his shoulder and teleport him away. They landed not far away in another explosion of shadow. She gave him a quick kick in the spine before he could take a swing at her.

The old Hero grunted in pain as the kick threw him to the ground, but he hadn’t stayed alive so long in his profession by being a push over. He rolled with the kick and came up in a fighting position. Lilly didn’t even bother trying to hold onto the darkness. She just went straight at him.

Frustration, rage, anger and sadness empowered her blows. She danced around with Morningstar and ignored everything else going on around them. It was a horrible strategy, but she couldn’t help it. She was focused on one single goal: defeating the man who had torn Seth from her.

His fist hit the side of her face much harder than was reasonable for an old man, but she used the power and momentum against him. She rotated into the punch, engaged her core, and threw her leg around her. She aimed for his head, but he saw the move coming. He got an arm up to block. It saved him from getting knocked the fuck out, but she felt something snap under the weighted impact of her boot.

His growl only confirmed it.

STOP!” He yelled as he clutched the broken arm to his chest.

The power washed over her, but she brushed it off and walked forward. He dodged her next few punches and backpedaled to gain more space to maneuver. She didn’t give him a chance to breath. She kept after him.

STOP!” He tried again, but the power didn’t do anything.

She feinted left and went right. Whether it was old age, exhaustion, or the old Hero was finally panicking, Lilly would never know. The only thing that she cared about was when her fist lashed out and caught Morningstar in the throat. His backpedaling became a fall as his good arm shot to his mangled larynx. He landed hard, with none of the grace he’d shown after her first attack, and he didn’t get up. He coughed and wheezed and his eyes bulged as he fought for breath.

“It sucks doesn’t it?” Lilly kept her distance in case Morningstar was playing possum and waiting for a shot at her. “It sucks to be sitting there helpless while someone else fucks with your life.”

His face was getting blue and his movements were more uncoordinated, so she stepped closer as she slid the pistol from its holster.

“Take it in, old man.” She took a deep breath and resisted the urge to look around. “This is where it all ends.”

The promise she made to Seth flickered in her mind, but she quickly pushed it down. Mr. Morningstar looked like he wanted to say something. She doubted it was an apology, and she didn’t want to hear anything else.

She pulled the trigger twice and put two bullets into his heart before aiming high and putting a final round in his head.

<AH!> She felt the importance of the moment wash over her. <Whoever said revenge didn’t fix anything was so full of shit.> She smiled behind her mask and turned to survey the field.

A bullet hit her in the chest mid-turn. It was her turn to have the wind knocked out of her. She fell hard to the ground as her whole world spun out of control.

 

***

 

<Why do I always get the big homicidal monsters?> Daisy groaned as she pumped out electricity into the charging beast.

Her and Amped were tag-teaming the creature while Hunter took a team on a flanking mission. Amped was holding the shifter back with telekinetic force while Daisy pummeled it. She had the easier of the two jobs because every once in a while…

“Incoming!” Amped’s face was scrunched with exertion.

The warning was not needed. Daisy clearly saw the glowing fire building in the demon’s throat before it roared forth its fury. The inferno hit another barrier a few feet from them. It was still hotter than hell, but Amped was able to hold the two barriers.

They had a laser blasting Hero Daisy didn’t know the name of partnered with them, and she was taking shots at the demon’s unarmored head, hands, and legs. It didn’t look like it was doing much good. Every once and a while she’d get lucky and hit something sensitive. The demon would growl, pick up his clawed hand or foot in pain, and get blasted a few feet back by Amped before he got his talons back into the floor.

It was a game of back and forth. One side would gain some ground then lose it. It was all pretty pointless and they needed to change up their tactics. With hindsight being twenty-twenty having Mr. Morningstar bellow out for everyone to cease and desist was a pretty stupid move, but they had their rules of engagement and escalation of force procedures. They had to at least give the villains a chance to surrender. They were Heroes after all.

Daisy ceased her electrical attack and the beast started to crawl forward inch by inch. Their laser-firing friend let loose another string of blasts into the creature’s face. It didn’t do shit but make the creature shake its head, but if not for the blast of light Daisy would have missed it. She was busy looking for another target, and the light illuminated the damage the blaster had done. You could barely see it, but it was there.

Nightingale had wrapped her nullifying armor around the shifter’s chest. It was a dark, glistening black blob that shut out Daisy’s reaping ability and made the attacks on his torso useless. Or so she thought…

The light from the laser illuminated the armor as it continuously struck the creature’s head. The part where Daisy had been unleashing her electrical attack looked fine to the untrained eye, but Daisy had a shit load of training. She saw that the material was a little less black, and a little less shiny than the rest of the impromptu armor.

<Yahtzee!> she grinned as the possibilities ran through her mind.

The most obvious was that since the compression armor created by Nightingale wasn’t being reinforced by the nullifier, it had limits. If they hit it hard enough one too many times it would break. Then they’d just have to deal with the super strong and durable hell-creature, but at least she would have more options there.

“Hey, four-eyes!” Daisy didn’t know the other Hero’s name, but she had on some cool glasses. “Follow my lead.” She pointed at the creature struggling to reach them and unleashed another torrent of electricity into the creature’s chest.

The laser Hero followed her lead and they poured power into the nullifying armor. Under their combined attack, the armor started to show wear and tear. It went from black, to a dark gray, to a lighter gray, and then it started to crack under the pressure.

That was good for them, but the demon started to realize the situation and redoubled its efforts.

“Any time now guys,” Amped grunted as the beast slowly started gaining ground. “I can’t hold it much longer!”

It was amazing that Amped had held the giant shifter for as long as she had, but that time was rapidly coming to an end. When it did it was quick and without warning. Amped was standing there shaking with effort one second and then just simply collapsed.

The demon rocketed forward when the force restraining it suddenly vanished. Daisy and the laser Hero dropped to the ground as he soared over them. He took a swipe in passing, but missed. As he soared over them Daisy channeled a huge blast of electrical energy into him at nearly point blank range. The armor, which already looked like a thousand-year-old clay pot shattered under the force of the attack.

The creature landed ten feet from them and dug its claws into the ground to make a hairpin turn. Its throat burned red as it opened its maw to roast the Heroes alive, but Daisy beat him to it. She reached out and grabbed the shifters life-line and squeezed.

The fire died in his throat with a gargle, and he swayed on his feet. He didn’t go down. He was too tough for that, but he’d definitely lost his edge.

“Hit him!” Daisy ordered, and laser girl started pounding him with attacks.

He struggled to keep his footing as blast after blast struck him in the head, torso, and legs. His life-line was taut iron, but second by second she was wearing him down. One laser hit him hard in the shoulder and threw him into the wall. He slid down slowly while trying to steady his legs. She launched another blast that hit him low and he crumbled. He tried to get up, but she finally overwhelmed him. His whole body shuddered as he gagged and vomited all over the ground. Slowly the horns receded into his head, his skin went back its normal pale color, and he shrunk back down to normal size.

Daisy didn’t realize that she was sweating profusely and shaking from the fight. She’d used about eighty percent of her stored electrical energy to take down the monster. Laser girl didn’t look too much better, but they shot each other a grin. There’s no bonding experience quite like bringing down an evil asshole.

“Ok.” Daisy took a deep breath and refocused. “Grab Amped and get her to safety. She did a hell of a job saving us from being deep fried. She needs a healer ASAP.” She looked down the hallway where a number of bodies were sprawled.

Her attempts at leeching the demon and Nightingale’s team might not have worked, but she took down the rest of the prisoners who’d escaped.

“We need to get someone in here to secure the prisoners. Let’s…”

The resounding roar of Hunter’s rifle firing cut her off mid-sentence. She found herself running toward the sound of the gunfire without thinking. Her kinetic absorption was dialed up to the max as she rounded the corner in a slide to avoid any ambush. She slid into the opposite wall, pushed off with her feet, rolled, and came up running. In front of her was a gradually receding darkness that could only be made by one person that she knew of.

She didn’t go running right into that darkness because she wasn’t an idiot, but she stalked around its perimeter until it had faded enough for her to see. There was no Wraith or Nightingale, but she did see Hunter. He was on the ground with a blob of black firmly affixed to his back and a knife wound to his gut.

“I’m fine. The bitch snuck up on me,” he grimaced as he waved her way. “She went that way.” He pointed to a large hole in the wall of the prison that led out into the yard.

The sounds of fighting and gunshots showed that the fight out there was anything but over, so she ran to join the fun. She leapt through the wall into another combat roll to avoid any waiting ambush and came up ready to fight.

Destruction was everywhere. The maximum security prison looked like it belonged in Fallujah not Colorado. There were SWAT teams on the scene now. They were working inward from the periphery grabbing villains the Heroes had already taken down and securing them with whatever was needed to secure their powers. They were letting the Heroes handle the fighting unless they came under direct attack.

She pulled her eyes from them and searched the battlefield. It didn’t take too long to find Nightingale. She was sprinting across the open ground, dodging gunfire, and working toward something. Stal was with her. She was using her body to cover her teammate, and it was working. She calculated their trajectory and quickly saw where they were heading. Two figures were down on the ground.

<Here goes nothing.> Daisy sure as shit wasn’t going to let them get away.

Kinetic energy collected in the soles of her feet before she launched herself into the air. It was a high arch, but she was right on target. The SWAT team almost took a shot at her until Dispatch likely told them to stand down. She planned to come down right on Stal’s head. The strongwoman might be tough, but she was confident that would do some damage.

The two villains were hovering over one of the people on the ground. At the angle she was coming down, Daisy was going to squash whoever that was too. <Too late to stop that,> she mentally shrugged as gravity pulled her toward her targets.

She was still a solid thirty feet from her goal when Stal and Nightingale vanished in a puff of blackness.

<SHIT!> Daisy landed in a shower of dirt and grass.

She was angry for sure that they had escaped her for the second time, but that was nothing compared to the emotion when she saw the other figure on the ground. Her composure broke as she saw the lifeless body of Mr. Morningstar with a smoking hole in his forehead.

She felt an uncontrollable rage building in her that she needed an outlet for, so she unleashed her power.

She dropped everyone in a half mile: police, Heroes, and criminals alike. With everyone down there was no one there to see her cry.

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I’m on TDY from Hell – The Power of Prayer

The warded limousine pulled up right in front of the gym’s entrance. It straddled the concrete walkway, but was mostly on the grass. The teacher supervising the parking lot was clearly pissed at the flagrant breech of traffic regulations, and the look on his face said he was going to let the driver know about it.

“Are you drunk?!” He yelled as he banged on the window. “You can’t park on the grass. You’re blocking the door. It’s a fire hazard!”

“My apologies.” Anton got out from behind the wheel and smiled.

The teacher wasn’t mollified, because the next second Anton had the man by the throat and was slicing into his jugular with his fangs. The human weakly beat against Anton’s shoulder, but he might as well have been punching a brick wall. The resistance went from feeble to pathetic before the human expired. The smell of shit filled the air and Anton tossed him aside. Blood coated his face and the front of his tuxedo, but he didn’t bother to wipe it off as he walked around to the other side and opened the door.

Jezebel stepped out of the limo first in a dress to die for. She walked right passed the ticket table and toward the locker room where Vicky had set her ambush. Judging by the sounds it wasn’t going well.

Jeb and Lono were next. They moved to block the door; one with his sheer mass, and the other with a murderous expression. As the two Infernal lieutenants moved into position, Anton’s people rushed passed them into the gymnasium. Over a dozen Soulless barred their fangs at hundreds of shrieking teenagers and backed them onto one side of the gym. It was only when they tried to intimidate one of the teachers that things got interesting.

The Soulless that was snarling at him flew backward as he took a vicious punch to the head. He wasn’t dead, but he was clearly stunned. Two more vampires jumped toward the older man. One got caught in midair with a kick and went rocketing across the gym. The other landed on the man, but had his momentum used against him. He rolled off the man as he turned and ended up being thrown into the wall. The bricks cracked under the pressure.

Gerry emerged from the limo just as the man pulled a slick six-shooter from the small of his back and started blasting away. The Soulless – who a moment ago had been terrifying students – were now leaping behind cover. Two didn’t make it in time. The bullets ripped into them and they dissolved into ash. The students screamed again at the ghastly sight, but remained corralled on their side of the gym.

The man burned through his six rounds in no time. The revolver opened and the spent rounds spilled out. Before they’d even hit the floor the man had six fresh rounds loaded and was flipping it closed with a flick of his wrist. The slight slack in firing brought a few Soulless out from behind cover. One took a bullet through the brain for her trouble.

Gerry watched the show with a grin. It seemed there was more than one Nephilim at this shindig. He let it go until three of the Soulless were immobilized and three more were dead. There was an end point where it stopped becoming fun and the teenagers started to get the idea that they could escape.

With hand gestures – that were now second nature to the Dux – he summoned a shield in front of him and advanced toward the man. A bullet smashed into the shield and it cracked from the force of the bullet.

<A normal bullet wouldn’t do that,> Gerry thought calmly as another bullet hit the same location and broke through the energy barrier.

He was already spinning away and repairing the shield. He passed a table during the spin, grabbed it by the edge, and chucked it at the teacher. The man stood his ground and pounded the shield with another bullet before reaching out and swatting the table out of the air. It went careening toward the kids, and that’s when Gerry saw his weakness.

The man’s eyes darted toward the screaming humans and concern flashed through them. Gerry rolled away from another bullet, slid under a table to avoid another and came up in a crouched position between the man and the children.

The man had Gerry dead to rights, but he didn’t fire.

Gerry didn’t give the man time to think. With another gesture he formed another energy sword and advanced on the man. The man dropped the gun and shifted into a fighting stance. He looked confident.

“Get him, Mr. Delgado!” some idiot kid – probably a football player – charged at Gerry trying to catch him by surprise.

Gerry easily sidestepped the human’s tackle and moved his blade so the child impaled himself. “Please, Mr. Delgado, come and get me,” he smiled.

Gerry siphoned the anger rolling off of the Nephilim as he charged. Thirty seconds later and he had to give credit where credit was due. The Nephilim was good. He’d clearly done this before. His strikes were precise. He didn’t overextend or go for any obvious bait. In fact, he was trying to rotate Gerry away from the children so he could get his gun and resume shooting.

It was a sensible plan. The only problem was the half-angel would have to go for the gun eventually. Gerry dropped his sword and shield and engaged the man had-to-hand. He was strong and durable, but so was Gerry. He didn’t draw on any of his Infernal talents yet. The wards weren’t powered up, and revealing who he was would bring the Divine down on them. He couldn’t have that before the sacrifice was complete.

Gerry backpedaled to avoid a combination that ended in a kick. It drove him the farthest away from the gun so far, and that’s when the Nephilim took the bait. He dove for the gun and Gerry moved. The Dux had always found the best way to catch an enemy off-guard was to hide the true extent of what you were capable of. In this case, Gerry hadn’t shown the man how strong or fast he really was.

He drove his knee hard into the side of the half-angel’s face mid-leap. The man careened off course and landed in a heap ten feet from the gun. He was stunned, and trying to shake it off, but Gerry jumped on the opportunity…literally. He landed on top of the Nephilim and started raining down blows onto his face.

His cheekbones gave out first and crumbled inward to give his face a sunken  look. Gerry’s left first shattered the suborbital bones above his eyes before right fist cracked his forehead. The back of the man’s head drove further and further into the hardwood floor with each blow. Only when the man’s arms had fallen to his sides in defeat did Gerry let up. He stood up, towered above the man for a second and then grabbed him by the neck and lifted him off the ground.

That was about the time the locker room door opened and Jezebel dragged their target into the gym.

“Ah, Maria, glad you could join us. Thank you Jezebel.” Gerry felt the overpowering desire for violence and blood slowly fading away with the victory.

“Fuck you,” the smaller Nephilim spat, which only succeeded in getting his blood up again.

“If we have time, but first,” he raised the older Nephilim higher so everyone could see.

“Don’t you fuck…”

Gerry didn’t care what the little girl had to say. He snapped her defender’s neck and tossed his lifeless body to the ground. The wards reacted instantaneously. He felt the power of the half-angel’s death release a burst of pure æther. The wards on the ceiling doors and floor blazed to life as they absorbed the power. The children screamed as the posters and banners covering them burst into flame. They clustered into an even smaller circle like herded animals instinctually trying to protect themselves.

Gerry didn’t pay them any more attention than the dead Nephilim. He watched the wards to gauge their power. <It’s a start.>

Vicky appeared from the locker room looking a little shaken, but she got her shit together by the time Gerry reached the three women.

“She chose to suffer.” She stated, so he drove his foot into Maria’s knee and snapped it. She screeched in pain for what felt like ever until he put her out of her misery.

“Bravo.” A slow clap started near the door as Lucian stepped out of the protection of the limo and directly under the protection of the half-powered wards. Gerry would have preferred he waited another moment, but it was too late now. Even half-powered the wards should be able to cloak them from their enemies.

His lust-powered infernal was on his arm with her fanged teeth and alert eyes. She hissed at Jezebel as they stopped next to Gerry and her Dux looked at the body of their target.

“It is best not to linger.” Lucian nodded toward the center of the gym. The explosion of æther had burned out the weak inner concealment ward and revealed the trio of power conduits.

“Bring the alter.” Gerry ordered, and Lono lumbered forward with a giant stone slab that was placed directly in the center of the triangle.

“Please…We don’t have anything to do with this. Just let us go, and we won’t tell anybody.”

Gerry tasted the lie on the other teacher’s tongue as he tried to negotiate. The Dux was surprised the human didn’t realize it yet. There was no leaving this place alive. They all served a purpose.

“Deal with them.” He gave a dismissive gesture at the hundreds of humans huddling together. “Don’t waste anything.”

Nothing powered wards like blood sacrifice. What followed was a slaughter. The remaining Soulless went through the humans like wood through a wood chipper. Their lives were snuffed out and the æther released into the world. The wards acted like magnets and pulled that power in. With each dead student the power of the wards grew until they’d reached their maximum effectiveness. Anymore and they’d burn out.

Together, Gerry and Lucian sealed the wards with a complex bit of Infernal magic. They could be who they truly were now. They didn’t need to hide.

Both men grew larger. Muscles bulged and skin grew taught as they expanded. Their inferiors backed up at the sight.

“Much better.” Gerry felt the æther swirling through him like a long-lost friend as he towered nearly ten feet above the tallest Soulless.

Lucian was several feet larger, but Gerry didn’t mind that. He’d let the Infernal have his pride for the moment. There was no debating the Lucian was stronger than Gerry. He just hadn’t been on Eden long enough to acquire the necessary reservoirs of power that Lucian had, so he didn’t try. He focused his physical abilities on being able to avoid the larger Dux if it came to a fight.

“Prepare the girl.” Lucian’s voice bellowed through the space.

When he opened his mouth there was a faint glow at the back of his throat that Gerry made a mental note to keep an eye on.

Preparing the Nephilim was easy since she was unconscious. She was laid on her back on top of the stone slab. She was posed in a peaceful position with her hands clasped in front of her. A wreath of red roses was placed on her head while petals made an unbreakable circled around her. The other Infernals went to work on carving wards that paralyzed her in that position. The few remaining humans – who hadn’t been sacrificed or used by the injured Soulless as a snack – were bled dry over those wards. They glowed a ruby red and wouldn’t extinguish until their power wore off.

Once immobilized and adorned with her crown she was stripped of her clothes and a white linen sheet was laid over her naked body. Different incenses were burned by Lucian and Gerry as they walked counterclockwise around the body. Sometime during the circling, the incense must have awakened Maria, because her eyes were open and bulging when she found out she couldn’t escape her fate.

The other Infernals stood at the four corners of the large tab and chanted in the guttural language of the Damned.  It was a bit on the wordy side for Gerry, but it simply asked for this sacrifice of the sixth born of a fair dominion be accepted and the oaths unbroken. Gerry didn’t know about any oaths, but that was what Seere had told them to read so they read it.

They chanted for sixty-six seconds as a sea of blood spread around them.

“It is time.” Lucian motioned for his Infernal to come forward with a sinuously curved dagger wrapped in purple silk. When the silk was removed, it gleamed the brilliant, untarnished silver of Divine Steel.

There were no instructions about who should make the final blow, but the sudden influx of power Lucian was drawing on said he was ready to fight his claim. Gerry couldn’t challenge that might, so he stayed silent while he imagined taking the dagger and driving it into Lucian’s heart by way of his back.

Lucian raised the dagger high above his head. One hand griped the handle while the second laid flat across the pommel. He would need a power thrust to cut into the Nephilim’s heart and complete the ceremony.

“That’s enough.” A new voice cut through the silence that preceeded the death blow.

The man was standing behind Lucian in a flawless white suit, with a flawless smile, on a face that was beyond the definition of flawless.

“We’ll take it from here.” A second voice announced from behind Gerry.

That voice was as familiar to Gerry as the back of his hand. The power of Prince Seere was comforting as it washed over him.

“Yes, My Lord.” Gerry didn’t even think. He stepped aside and let the two Lords of Hell assume the places of honor.

Maria’s eyes were so wide and fearful that he thought they were going to burst out of the young woman’s head. Instead, she gave a shudder and they rolled backwards when she passed out. As far as ways to die, being passed out when two former angels drove a ceremonial blade into your heart wasn’t the worst way to go.

In a rare show of teamwork, the two Lords of Hell each placed a hand on the dagger. Seere wrapped his around the hilt while Lucifer placed his hand on the pommel.

“Like we agreed in our contract, Brother.”

“Yes.” Seere rolled his eyes and held the dagger steady.

The two lords repeated the incantation or prayer – Gerry wasn’t sure which it was – that Lucian and Gerry had stated earlier. Slowly, they let the dagger drop toward the Nephilim.

NO!”

The roof to the gym exploded with such force that Gerry, Lucian, Jezebel, Jeb, Lono, Vicky, Anton, and the other Soulless were all thrown like ragdolls across the room.

The roof didn’t just explode, it was gone; its matter wiped from existence by Divine intervention.  Through it descended several miniature suns; the brightest of which not even Gerry could look upon. He did recognize the voice.

Ava had come for her daughter and she was pissed.

“I will smite you if you move one more inch you foul beasts.” The fabric of reality shook from the threat in her words.

It had little effect on the two Infernal Lords. They looked from each other to Ava – who they had no trouble seeing through the brilliant light – and laughed.

“Oh, baby sister.” Lucifer smiled sadly at the Dominion. “No mother should ever have to see the death of her child.” The sad smile transformed into a grin that would make the Cheshire cat run away and stick its head in the sand for the rest of its days. “But for you, I’ll make an exception.”

With one powerful thrust Lucifer and Seere plunged the blade into Maria’s heart, and everything changed.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 136

Eve Berg

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

“HOLD THE FUCKING LINE!”

Three rows of soldiers stood between the scavenger bots and total annihilation. Over the last few hours the marine detachment onboard the wounded Hoplite had been reduced to a handful of squads. The bots had done a good job of killing off the crew and its defenders. Hoplite had been kneecapped in the retreat from Rogue Island, but the bots had broken its back. Now, they were just trying to survive.

“LET THEM HAVE IT YOU LIMP DICK MOTHERFUCKERS!”

If Eve wasn’t so busy concentrating on sweeping her Buss back and forth across the corridor she would have been in utter awe. Half a squad of marines were in the prone position firing as fast as their M3s would allow them. A second half-squad was in the kneeling position, and another half-squad – including SGM Queen and Eve – made up the final standing defense.

Everyone was in full armor and giving everything they had, except for one woman in the center of the second row of kneeling marines. GYSGT Cunningham was wearing nothing more than her CMUs. She had no armor, no helmet, so she had no advanced optics or STRATNET and TACCOM to rely on. She was doing it old school with the scope on her rifle and big fat balls of courage.

“KILL ‘EM ALL BOYS!”

She was like some ancient war god in the flesh. Sweat streamed down her face which was starting to burn from having the Rangers’ laser fired so close to it. She squinted with each shot but she kept on letting the enemy have it. She wasn’t even at full strength. Her STRATNET medical code was yellow. She still hadn’t recovered from her injuries in defense of the PDC, but that didn’t mean anything in the here and now. They were the last thing standing between the bots and the engine room where the techs were frantically trying to restore power.

Eve raked the oncoming bots with a wide beam of energy. They sparked, stuttered, and collapsed to the floor in a heap. It was like black snow falling in space, but they just kept on coming. They were a never-ending swarm of locusts straight out of ancient Egypt and they didn’t look like they could be stopped.

“VENT, ELEVEN O’CLOCK!” The GYSGT and two other marines shifted fire to keep the bots from scampering into an air duct and flanking the ship’s defenders.

All that was left were the marines and techs around the engine room and a similar compliment holding the bridge. The CIC, armory, crew quarters, and shuttle bay had already been overrun. A battleship like Hoplite had a standard crew of fifteen hundred spacers and one or two companies of marines. After the battle, and the bots savaging them, they would be lucky to come out of this thing with a hundred survivors.

Normally, a ship would have its own compliment of nanites to fight off scavenger bots, but you needed power to program, activate, and release them. If they lived, Eve was going to write a strongly worded message to her mother to have the engineer behind that design feature assassinated with extreme prejudice.

<What a stupid fucking design flaw!> she growled as her laser nearly overheated and she had to rotate her barrel.

“Grenade!” she yelled over TACCOM.

The marine next to the GYSGT patted her on the shoulder for her to get down as a loud thump sounded from Eve’s Buss. The explosive flew halfway down the hallway before detonating at the front of the onrushing horde of bots. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of the small robots were consumed in fire and high-speed shrapnel. Thankfully, the grenade was programed as a shape charge with the blast directed away from the marine guards so they didn’t get the any flying debris. They did get a bit of the back blast, and the GYSGT grunted as the shockwave hit her.

“WHAT ARE YOU DICK LICKERS WAITING FOR? KEEP FIRING!” No sooner had the NCO yelled it than the swarm burst through the smoke and fire to continue its charge.

“Fuck!” The SGM slashed his laser at a forty-five-degree angle through the bots before his nearly overheated. He rotated to the 3mm plasma round barrel and unleashed hell.

If Eve could have seen anything through the black swarm threatening to overrun them she would have seen the complete and utter destruction of the Hoplite around them. The interior of warship was sturdy and built to take a hammering – especially battleships – but the constant battering by the 1mm and 3mm rounds had torn huge holes in the ship’s corridors and poured lethal munitions into adjoining spaces. Any of the SGM’s round that didn’t find a bot went nearly a thirty meters forward before finding the next bulkhead still intact and even that was starting to crumble under the weight of fire.

Not that it really mattered. Hoplite was FUBAR already, so a little gunfire wasn’t going to hurt.

The bots crept closer and closer. They pushed against the wall of duro-steel, high powered lasers, and the occasional grenade like a demon struggling to grab their souls and drag them to hell. Centimeter by centimeter they were gaining ground no matter what the marines and rangers did to stop them.

“Reloading!”

A quarter of the defenders ran out of ammunition at the same time. Behind their lines the techs who weren’t hurriedly trying to restore power were on ammo duty. They were sliding the magazines forward to the waiting marines, and making sure their meager supply of grenades was ready for action.

“AH SHIT!” The bots surged forward as the defensive fire was drastically cut.

They were within thirty meters now – spitting distance.

“Fall back by squads!” The SGM bellowed the order as he read the situation. “Back squad, GO!” The three marines standing beside the rangers stopped firing and retreated behind the thick engineering compartment door. “Middle squad, GO!”

The four marines around the GYSGT got to their feet and scrambled backward while staying low to avoid the fire still coming from the rangers. One tapped the GYSGT on the shoulder and she followed them, but didn’t retreat back into the compartment. She stood shoulder to shoulder with Eve and the SGM laying fire into the bots as they fell back.

“Front squad, GO!” The last five marines got to their feet and scrambled for safety.

“NOW!”

The SGM and Eve had worked out a plan for just this scenario. The bots surged to within ten meters of them when they rotated their barrels to the grenade setting and let loose with everything they had. Eve didn’t bother being gentle. She shoved the GYSGT back into the room as they went to rapid fire.

Hellfire, shrapnel and pressure waves rebounded through the corridor as half a dozen grenades slammed into the bots. Eve could have sworn she heard an uptick in their buzzing – almost like a shriek – as the grenades tore deep into them.

“GO!” The SGM gave Eve the signal to fall back as he rotated back to his laser setting and started tearing into them.

The grenades had bought them precious seconds, but the bots were raging forward now that only one ranger stood between them and victory.

“SET…MOVE!” Eve settled just inside the door and took over so the SGM could retreat.”

It was an awkward shot with the SGM’s armored bulk blocking half the doorway, so she concentrated her fire where she could. As the SGM passed her she widened the aperture of her laser and brought the rest of corridor into range. When the blast doors finally slammed shut in front of her she didn’t need her LACS magnification to see the serrated little teeth of the bots.

“Fuck me.” She mumbled to herself. That was all the downtime she got.

“EVERYONE OFF YOUR ASSES. IT ISN’T TIME FOR A CONGRATULATORY CIRCLE JERK. WE AREN’T DONE YET.” The GYSGT was reloading her M3 and waiting for orders.

“Guard the intake points.” The SGM lit up several locations on everyone’s HUDs. “We bought maybe fifteen minutes with the door, but they’ll try to find the path of least resistance, and I’m sure there is already damage that’s going to allow them easier entry than through a meter of duro-steel.”

Assignments went along with the locations and Eve found herself looking up a large open tube of some sort not far from the reactor the techs were scrambling over like a bunch of worker ants. Even from her spot near the back of the room she could hear the bots hitting the door like a rainstorm.

“We’re so close.” The lead tech – only a Specialist Second Class – answered when the SGM asked him how much longer until they restored power. “Thirty more minutes and we’ll be able to get our own nanites into the fight.”

“You’ve got maybe ten before we’re dead, so make that work.” The SGM made his curt response before checking in with the bridge team.

The situation was basically identical. They’d held the corridor as long as possible before retreating behind the thicker blast door of into the bridge.

“Congratulations,” the SGM’s tone was as rough as sandpaper. “You’ll live about ten minutes longer than us.”

Eve couldn’t stop the giggle from escaping her throat. She was overtired, overworked, had been fighting, killing, and watching people die for days now. She was close to snapping, but she could hold on for a couple more minutes. Right now, all she needed to do was look down this tube and make sure none of those bots made it in here to eat the techs and marines alive.

“Focus, Berg, I trained you well. All these grunts are looking at the three of us. If we break then they break. Stay calm, collected, and fuck up anything that peeks its head in here.” It was like the GYSGT knew Eve was fraying around the edges, and surprisingly the little pep talk helped.

Things were relatively calm for the next four minutes, but that was all the respite they got. It started off as a soft buzzing that slowly grew to a howl. It wasn’t hard to figure out what it was. The scavenger bots had eaten through something to get into the shaft she was guarding. The shape of the shaft enhanced the buzzing sound until it came out as the howl of an angry animal determined to tear into human flesh.

“Incoming!” she yelled. Immediately, the SGM and GYSGT were at her side.

“Everyone else hold position.” The SGM ordered. He didn’t want them to get hit from ten different directions if they broke through somewhere else.

Orders still went out if shit really hit the fan to cover down on them, but everyone knew that wouldn’t save them all. There were just too many bots. Tens of thousands of the little shits had been in those missiles that had hit them, and they’d eaten enough to increase their numbers a hundred times over. It was basically the perfect shitstorm to hit the injured Hoplite.

<If this is where I go then fuck it.> Eve steeled herself as the howling grew louder.

A lot of things ran through her mind in those last thirty seconds: her mother and their crappy relationship, her brother and their not quite as crappy relationship, her dead dad, the weekend-long copulating she and Coop had done after Basic, and all the training she’d received on that god-forsaken planet the Rangers called their training grounds. She’d turned nineteen in the middle of training, so all she got was a few pats on the backs from her fellow trainees, and a crap-ton of pushups from the instructors.

All in all, it was an interesting nineteen years.

The moment they saw movement in the blackness they opened fire. The SGM and Eve used their low-powered lasers to avoid breaking anything if possible. They still had a slim chance of getting power back, and that would go down the shitter when they started firing 3mm and 1mm rounds into the equipment. They blasted away for thirty seconds. The tight space was keeping the bots contained and it gave them just the time they needed.

“We’ve got some juice!” Things around the room that had been dead started to hum weakly back to life.

Eve took over responsibility as the SGM shouldered the tech aside and flashed through the menu to get the things they needed to stay alive. Five seconds later pouches around the ship birthed a hundred thousand little gray bots that leapt to Hoplite’s aid. One of those was in the engineering room.

A loud ripping noise filled the space as the little critters leapt into the air and search for targets. It was right on time, because Eve’s Buss overheated and melted the laser components into slag. Without her holding them back the scavenger bots flooded into the room.

“Hold fire!” The SGM yelled as the gray and black bots crashed into each other.

It sounded like a hissing, feral alley cat fight. Gray and block bots started falling from the sky above the marines and techs. The techs hunkered down as best they could under desks or anything else they could fit under. The marines took cover as well. The only people that stood under the sudden downpour of little robots was Eve and the SGM.

Both were very pleased to see that there was a lot more black than gray tumbling out of the sky. In the end it all came down to programming. Hoplite’s defensive bots were only programmed to kill invading bots while the scavenger bots were programmed to target everything. When the enemy bots had their attention split between everything in the engineering room, the gray bots only had one thing to focus on.

It still took time, and there were casualties. Three more techs got overrun by the scavenger bots despite everyone’s best efforts. After the first tech got burrowed into, Eve glued herself to the GYSGT’s side to ensure she didn’t share the same fate. She was one of the easiest target in the room, but she came out of it unscathed.

It took a few minutes of fierce fighting before the gray overwhelmed the black and shot back up the same shaft they’d entered. The SGM had everyone hold position and see to the wounded until the sound of the scavenger bots eating the blast door stopped. Even after that, the rangers and marines had to move carefully through the ship. There corridors were filled with ankle deep pockets of gray and black dead bots. It was creepy as fuck to walk through, especially when a few were still twitching.

Within an hour of the defensive bots coming online Eve and the SGM made it to the bridge. The GYSGT was back in sickbay organizing the triage and ignoring everyone’s orders to get checked out. The bridge crew was partially slaughtered despite the defensive bots’ best efforts. Only six marines were left from the guard detachment. The captain was dead, along with three department OICs. The XO was trying to organize things the best he could, but the CMDR was still traumatized by seeing his friends eaten alive by enemy robots. It was one of the worst ways to go in spaceborne combat, and it hadn’t been this successful in a while.

“FTL footprint!” The two words cut through the bridge like a fart through a wedding ceremony. Everyone’s face fell as they all thought the same thing.

<What now?>

“It’s coming in at three-two-two degrees about sixty million kilometers away, Sir.” The new operations OIC was a fresh-faced lieutenant. “CIC is…” he stopped.

Normally the combat information center would refine the information and pass along their analysis to the bridge crew. Unfortunately, everyone in the CIC was dead, so it was up to the LT to figure it out.

“It’s small, Sir.” The LT stated after a minute. “Likely an FTL-capable drone.”

“A search party?” The XO dared to hope.

The whole ship collectively held their breath until the transponder codes synched with Hoplite’s battered systems and identified the drone as friend or foe.

<Please for fuck’s sake give us a break for once!> That was the extent of Eve’s praying.

It paid off.

Two seconds later the icon blinked friendly-blue, and a cheer rang up from the survivors of Hoplite. They’d been found. Rescue was on the way. They were going home, but more importantly, they’d live to fight another day.

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