Two Worlds – Chapter 141

Eve Berg

Location: Yangon, Eastern Block

 

Eve slid around the corner. She lost her footing and had to put a hand out to stop herself from crashing into the far wall of the beat-down bodega. 3mm rounds smacked into the wall less than a meter from her head as she recovered and hauled ass.

“You better be fucking ready,” she huffed over TACCOM. She had her V3 LACS’ artificial muscles pumping at one hundred percent on top of her own enhancements.

She couldn’t be sure but she was falling back at close to fifty kilometers per hour. It had all the hallmarks of a full retreat, and that’s exactly what she wanted the Blockies to think. No fewer than three Nutcrackers and a few squads of regular grunts were in pursuit. A chance to kill a Commonwealth Ranger was a high honor in their military culture, and it came with a sizable bonus.

“Copy that, Vixen-Two. We’ve got you on STRATNET. Take a right four blocks up and we’ll be waiting.”

<Good. I made it out of no-man’s-land.> She thought about the space between the advancing Commonwealth brigade and the defending Blockies. The place was so pumped full of EW systems that line-of-sight was the most reliable way to keep in contact with friendlies.

Making it out of that hellhole was half the battle. The other half was getting the enemy right where she wanted them.

<Being bait still fucking sucks,> she huffed as she forced herself to slow down to make the turn.

Rounds cracked into buildings all around her. A 3mm one smacked into her shoulder and sent her off course hard into the wall of some local pharmacy. It didn’t penetrate her armor, but it forced her to take a second to dislodge from the weird plastic stucco the Blockies liked to use as cheap building material.

“Motherfucker!” She gasped as no fewer than six, smaller 1mm rounds slammed into her chest.

It would have been game-set-match, but her V3 was a tough nut to crack. She shrugged off the hits and built back up to a full sprint down the new street.

“Vixen-Two, you’re too close.” The harried voice on the other side of TACCOM announced as Eve barreled down the street.

<Damnit!>

“Vixen-Two, we need to abort.”

“No fucking way!” Eve replied just as the three Nutcrackers rounded the corner behind her.

The Blockie HI were scuffed up from over six hours of fighting, but their plate-like armor still worked like a charm, and so did their shoulder-mounted missile launchers.

MISSILE LOCK blazed on Eve’s HUD a moment before her railgun’s automated function kicked in. The weapons swiveled to the rear and let loose. Three missiles were already inbound and building to hypervelocity speeds. Still, her next-gen software and rate of fire allowed her railgun to swat all three from the sky. Eve didn’t even have time to whoop with joy before the shockwave washed over her. If not for the junker sitting in the street she would have ridden the wave, but instead she smashed into and over it. She wound up on her ass, and took cover as more 3mm and 1mm rounds started to chew up the old car’s frame.

“Fire!” she didn’t even realize the word flew out of her mouth.

“Vixen-Two…”

“Just shoot the fucking thing!”

Instead of running, Eve curled up into a ball and prepared to activate her ES armor feature.

“Roger that, firing in three…two…”

Eve felt rounds starting to eat through the car and into her back before heat, light, and fire engulfed the street.

It had been part of some genius LT’s plan to draw a portion of this area’s defenders away from their entrenchments by dangling a Ranger in front of them. Eve got the job because she was the fucking new girl. As the FNG, she got all the shit jobs, which this time involved running from twenty-plus Blockies. The plan had been for her to make it back behind the safety of their lines before ruining those Blockies’ day with a Mobile Energy Cannon (MEC). The big, bulky contraption was basically a destroyer-level energy cannon that the Infantry got to haul around and blow shit up with. The brigade only had two in their MTOE, so getting allocated one was a big deal, but with no fewer than three Nutcrackers defending this section of the town they needed to be smart.

Of course, being smart only got you so far. Eve had been in enough fights that she knew luck played a big part in staying alive. The plan wasn’t half bad, and the execution had been done pretty well if she said so herself, but her luck ran out there at the end.

Two-hundred terawatts turned the street into a shitshow. Error codes flooded Eve’s HUD as the sustained blast killed two of the three enemy HI and seventy percent of the grunts. The other HI only survived because he moved behind his soon-to-be deceased comrade, and the thirty percent of regular grunts lived because they were dragging ass in the pursuit.

Eve didn’t get to see the rest.

“Exiting virtual simulation,” a voice announced in the cube Eve was currently occupying.

“Ah shit,” Eve grumbled. She felt blood in her mouth where she’d bitten her tongue, and she spit the iron-tasting saliva onto the ground.

“Analysis rendering…analysis rendering…”

Eve waited patiently for the computer to tell her how badly she’d screwed up while she tried to fight off the VR crash. Her nerves still felt the singe of the energy blast that had washed over her, and it was taking her mind a second to make the adjustment. She was still pumped up on adrenaline and every other natural endorphin that the human body produced in a fight or flight moment. In her case, it had been a crawl up into a ball and get shot moment. It wasn’t her proudest moment.

“Analysis complete.” There was a ping on her PAD as the results ended up in her mailbox. Those results were CC’d to her NCOIC and OIC, which were an actual officer and senior NCO thanks to the size of the Ranger compliment attached to the invasion fleet.

“Huh,” was her only response when she saw the results. She hadn’t actually died, but her medical code had dropped to red, and per the simulation’s programming, red meant she was out of the fight.

She did get to see the results of the ambush, the enemy KIAs, and the push to take the section of the city after Eve was gone. They all succeeded, and the knowledge that she’d been a critical part in that success was more than enough to compensate for her lightly-toasted virtual self.

<They’ll be at it for several more hours.> She knew these Division-level exercises could run for days, so she needed to report to her unit for something to do.

She’d been stationed on CWS Agincourt herself, and Aggie was one hell of a ship. To be precise, she was one hell of a big ship, and even though the giant VR section was in Infantry-country she still had a walk to get back to SPECOPS-land.

“Private First Class Berg,” a SGT was waiting for her when she got back, “it looks like you got turned into a human s’more.”

“Yes, Sergeant.” There was no good answer to the NCO’s statement, and her nerves were still a little flayed to come up with anything witty.

“Report back here at 1630.”

“Yes, Sergeant.” If she thought it was weird the NCO was giving her three hours off right in the middle of the duty-day, she didn’t question it. She’d been fighting in VR for the last six hours. She was exhausted.

Eve did what any good soldier did when they had some down time: grabbed chow, dropped a deuce, and got some sleep. When she walked back into the assembly area at 1625 there were more people waiting for her. The Ranger LT and GYSGT stood off to the side talking with each other and one other man. Two other Rangers that she vaguely knew from PT and formation stood a respectful distance away from them, but when one of them caught sight of Eve, he gave the LT a heads-up.

“Fall in, Private.” The LT was an older, grizzled veteran. A Ranger LT – in charge of one hundred of the most kickass soldier in the galaxy – wasn’t some shavetail right out of an academy. He was someone who’d nearly drowned in the shit and come out the other end, even if the Commonwealth had been forced to rebuild him in the process.

Eve jogged over to the center of the room and snapped to the position of attention. She expected the other three enlisted Rangers to join her, but they didn’t. She was standing there all alone. The LT and GYSGT came over to stand in front of Eve while the rest moved behind her. She felt them, but couldn’t see them in her peripherals. She was instantly on guard.

“Eyes front, Private!” The GYSGT snapped when he saw her scanning her peripherals.

She obeyed, even though she felt an iron weight dropping into her gut.

“Do you know what today is?” The LT asked.

“Friday, Sir.”

“WRONG!” The GYSGT roared. “Drop and give me one-fifty.”

Eve knocked out the one hundred and fifty pushups in a minute and a half without breaking a sweat.

“I’ll give you another chance, Private.” The LT calmly asked again.

Eve gave her answer a few more moments of thought. “T-minus three days until we step off for the invasion, Sir.”

“WRONG!” The GYSGT didn’t even get to say the number before Eve dropped and started doing pushups.

She was down there for a while before she was ordered to recover.

“Junior enlisted nowadays,” the LT sighed. “No one stays up to date with their personnel files anymore.”

That was when things clicked, and Eve had to strangle a smile. She failed, the GYSGT saw it, and she must have done another five hundred pushups before the LT ordered her back to her feet. By now, her breathing was a little heavier.

“You get it now, Private?” It was clear this was the last time the LT was going to ask.

“Yes, Sir! My informal training period is over.”

“Hey-yo we’ve got a winner.” The GYSGT threw up his hands in mock celebration.

Eve stood a little straighter as he took out his PAD and pressed his GIC to the screen. There was only a few second delay before the Ranger tab appeared on her uniform. Despite doing her best, Eve teared up a little bit. She’d lived through hell to get that tab…literally. She’d spent months on a planet that couldn’t be anything but hell. She’d dropped in a Spyder onto an enemy-occupied planet. She’d killed in anger, nearly been killed half a dozen times, and helped fight off an army of scavenger bots in her spare time.

<I fucking did it.> She held her head up high and had to try with all her might not to look at the tab on her uniform.

“Welcome officially to Alpha Company, 33rd Ranger Battalion.” The LT stepped forward and shook her hand. The GYSGT followed the officer’s example. When they both stepped back, two people grabbed Eve by the arms.

She knew what was coming so she didn’t fight it.

“Congratulations, Berg.” The mystery man the GYSGT and LT had been talking to stepped into view. SGM Queen had a proud look on his face. “I told you right when we met that if you didn’t crap out on me I’d make you a Ranger. Now here we are. You did it without shitting the bed too bad.”

“Thank you, Sergeant Major.” Eve kept the tears out of her eyes.

“Don’t thank me yet.” With a deep breath the SGM reared back his fist and punch Eve hard in the chest.

The SGM was a big guy, and his fist hit like pistons, so it wasn’t a surprise when Eve felt something crack and breathing became a painful experience.

“Now for our last order of business.” The LT looked down at his PAD. “Attention to orders!” everyone, including the guys holding Eve up, snapped to attention.

What the LT read next she didn’t expect.

<What the shit?!> Unlike the tab, she didn’t even realize when her PFC rank disappeared and was replaced by the two chevrons of a Corporal.

“Congratulations, Corporal Berg.” The LT shook her hand.

She shook back with a confused look on her face.

“That MSM you got for surviving Hoplite helped your case, along with the Sergeant Major’s recommendation. All it took then was the Battalion Commander’s signature.”

“I don’t know what to say, Sir.”

“Don’t say anything yet.” The two guys grabbed her again and held her steady. “E-4 means four punches, and the tab punch doesn’t count.” The GYSGT reared back and delivered another blow to her gut.

He switched out and one of the guys holding her gave her a punch. He was also a corporal.

“Don’t let anyone one fool you, corporals run the company.” He whispered in her ear before switching with the other guy.

“We’ll catch up with you later to give you the four-one-one.” The other guy gave her another punch.

By now, Eve was pretty sure half her ribs were broken, and she was barely able to stay on her feet. Then the SGM stepped up again. He didn’t say anything. He just punched her a second time in the gut. It knocked the wind out of her, and made stars dance in her vision. When the other two CPLs released her she fell to her knees.

“Get her to sick bay.” The LT commanded.

“There’s a reason we do this on a Friday. Now you have all weekend to recover,” were the SGM’s parting words before the CPLs half-dragged her to sick bay.

Eve didn’t care though. <Suck it, Mom.> A savage smile split her face. <I did it.>

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 29

“Three…two…one…breech!” The shape-charges on the warehouse doors warped the metal beyond recognition while blasting big ass holes in them. Flash bang grenades capable of crippling a mid-range strongman followed the explosions, and a few seconds later two SWAT teams stormed the building through the front and rear entrances.

KaBoom had led his team through the wall while Jetwash came in through the upper skylight. He controlled the fall of the glass with his aerokinesis. A field of flying glass daggers hung suspended in the air around the Hero as he took an overwatch position, and it was his aerial position that saved a bunch of lives.

“Everyone out!” He yelled over through the earpiece that was linked through Dispatch to everyone on the assault team.

The team hadn’t advanced far enough to see the laser trip wires the bag guys had planted near the collection of stuff at the center of the room. They could have placed the explosives at the doors, but they likely would have been triggered by the breeching charge and resulted in fewer casualties. Luring the cops and Heroes in before blowing the place to hell ensured a lot more carnage. Unfortunately for the bad guys, they’d been in a rush and forgot the skylight.

Jetwash had an eagle-eye view of the room setup and was able to direct the bomb squad in dismantling the explosives, but it took time. Everyone from the DVA to Hunter was chomping at the bit to get into the room. Any clue, even a small one, which could lead them to Wraith would be worth it.

“Clear!” The bomb squad called out and Hunter teleported to the middle of the room.

“She was here,” he informed immediately. “I need a circle of caution tape here.” He walked the perimeter of an area and the crime scene investigators quickly marked the area.”

As they did, Hunter put his hand out and felt the tear in space-time that Wraith’s teleportation created. It would be the easiest thing in the world to follow, but he’d learned his lesson last time. As much as he disliked the thought, he needed to rely on good old-fashioned police work to find her this time.

“I know you’re thinking about it.” KaBoom stepped up to the edge of the tape. Stepping across it wouldn’t do anything to the kinetic absorber, but it would alter the readings and taint their admissibility in court.

The DVA was already carting in big boxes of tech to document the rupture and confirm that it was Wraith who did it. It was the equivalent of a teleporter’s finger print; each one’s was different.

“What else can you tell me?” Hunter had only been briefed on the operation five minutes before it kicked off.

“We grabbed Seth Abney talking to her downtown, traced the phone call, and here we are. We threw it together in twenty minutes, and it shows just how good the local coordination between agencies has gotten in the last few months.”

A year ago, if the Fist was acting up it would have taken an hour for the cops and Heroes just to get on the same page, and there was no way in hell the DVA would even stick their nose into it.

“Do you think we’ll get anything?” KaBoom looked around at the massive amount of resources being expended.

“Maybe.” Hunter shrugged. Half his attention was still on the space-time rupture. “They’re smart, but we caught them with their pants down. They might have expected anything incriminating to go up in flames, but now that we’ve got it we might find an advantage.”

“Jesus Christ!” A cop stumbled backward out from behind a curtain and proceeded to empty his stomach all over the floor.

“Get him out of here!” The DVA agent in charge stalked over and did everything short of kicking the guy in the ass to get him moving.

“Agent Phillips,” Hunter nodded to the woman and then toward the curtain.

“Looks like a serial killer’s Disney Land in there.” The DVA agent’s face was a little green.

“Nightingale,” KaBoom and Hunter said in unison.

“Stripped the person’s skin off, extracted organs, and cut off some pretty important bits.” The DVA agent stopped there, but having read Nightingale’s file they both knew the torture expert did much more to that poor bastard.

“If you ask me, our best bet is going to be Abney. I knew there was something up with that kid.” Agent Phillips continued.

Having met both Wraith and Abney when they were together, Hunter didn’t buy the agent’s story one hundred percent, but he had to conclude that Abney had gone and monumentally screwed up his life with a single phone call.

“I say we dangle him as bait and wait for Wraith to bite.”

“He and his lawyer will never go for it.” KaBoom played devil’s advocate.

“It’s that or he rots.” Phillips’ shrugged. “I got the word from the brass in D.C. and the shit he pulled is covered under the Patriot Act. We can charge him as supporting terrorism. That’s hard time in a get fucked in the ass federal prison. Once we drop that bomb I think he’ll take the deal.” The agent was smiling.

“If she comes for him.” Hunter stated.

“Then we take her down.” The smile that crossed the agent’s face showed just how much she wanted to do that.

“Easier said than done.” Hunter added his two cents.

“Details boys. With big strapping Heroes like you two how can we fail?”

Both heroes knew from plenty of personal experience against Wraith that there were several ways to fail. For that matter, Agent Phillips did too, but it was hard not to feel some hope with this break in the case. Finally having something Wraith wanted couldn’t be overlooked.

“Let’s bet on it. Fifty bucks Abney takes the deal and helps us bring Wraith in.” She held out her hand for someone to make the bet.

“I’ll take that.” KaBoom shook on it.

“Even if we get Abney to cooperate we’re going to need more firepower to take her down. She won’t be alone.”

“We’ll bring in the big guns,” the agent smiled. “I heard Reaper is back on the job.”

“She is, but we’ll need more.” KaBoom’s statement surprised the agent. “We aren’t going to go into a close fight when we can bring overwhelming force to bear. Is Seraphim free?”

“I’ll have to check. She’s been operating along the southern border doing drug interdiction lately,” Hunter replied. He’d have someone else make the call, because if he did they’d probably get a big fat no from his estranged wife.

“Good.” Agent Phillips clapped her hands loudly. “Let’s get the scene tagged and bagged. We’ve got a busy weekend ahead of us. Mr. Morningstar’s funeral is already a logistical nightmare with most of the city wanting to attend, and now with word that Wraith is in town HQ is going to want us to throw everything including the kitchen sink at this thing. This funeral is as much about honoring a fallen Hero as it is about showing the world that Orlando is back on its feet.

Both Heroes bristled at the comment, but they’d been in the game long enough to know the reality of the situation. The funeral was going to be a big deal, and they needed to be ready, which meant they were in for some sleepless nights.

 

***

 

Agent Simmons was having a great day, and she felt guilty about it. The biggest bust in her career had occurred right in the middle of one of the shittiest weeks of the year, maybe even the decade: a prison break which was a mass casualty event for the prison’s staff, criminals unaccounted for, and the death of a legend. She knew she could feel proud of her accomplishments and still feel the pain of the last week like everyone else, but they were tough emotions for her to rectify. She wanted to celebrate her role in catching the Abney kid red handed, and play it up to her boss so he’d remember when it came time to write her evaluation. She’d been at the lowest field agent grade for the last year and she wanted to get promoted. Her bust was the key to that.

She pulled her small, gray Nissan into her assigned parking place at the apartment complex. Part of her being so low on the totem pole meant she couldn’t afford anywhere better to live. The neighborhood was ok, but after Seif al-Din’s attack it had kind of gone downhill. Her car had been broken into twice and she always carried her gun when walking around. Most of the people in the complex knew she was law enforcement, so she’d ended up the head of their new neighborhood watch. She hadn’t actually participated in a nightly patrol, but from what she’d heard it mostly involved twenty-something-year-olds sitting around and drinking while looking through a set of binoculars she’d loaned the group.

It was late when she arrived and the two watch members on duty gave her a wave. Judging by the cans in their hands, her impressions of the group weren’t that far off.

<Community activism is important in public safety.> She reminded herself as she waved back. As long as they didn’t rope her into standing guard all night with someone else she was ok with it.

Like most of the people in the complex, she was a late twenty-something-year-old, fresh out of an enlistment in the marines, and looking to work her was up the ladder in her new career. Judging by the amount of times guys came up to randomly talk to her she was fairly attractive, but she had a hell of a right hook, which intimidated some guys and kept them at bay. She was single and would be ready to mingle when she found the time, but right now her life was her job, so she wasn’t going to get shit faced with some junior banker in the middle of the night when she had to be at the office at six am.

One of the watchmen started making his way toward her, but she held up her arms full of files and shrugged. The guy took the meaning and made a “call me” sign with his finger and thumb. She smiled politely back with no intention of calling him. Then she was out of sight and heading up the stairs to her second floor apartment.

On the neighbor front, she’d gotten pretty lucky. The guy upstairs was never home because he was a night manager somewhere, and the couple downstairs didn’t bother her at all except for the occasional sounds of them humping or their Chihuahua barking. Often the two occurred at the same time.

Tonight the upstairs guy was gone and there was no humping or barking downstairs as she unlocked her door to the dark apartment. She did a quick customary scan of the space. The marines and DVA stressed situational awareness, and it was something someone in her line of work needed to succeed.

Everything was clear, so she closed and locked the door behind her, placed her keys on the table and headed to the bedroom. She stripped off her blazer, removed her holstered weapon from her belt, and placed it on the nightstand.

<I’ll close my eyes for five minutes and then I’ll get to work.> She had dozens of files to go over, but she needed a moment to unwind before diving into them.

She flopped down on the bed and…

“AH! What the fuck?!” she screamed as tiny daggers dug into her back, arms, legs, and neck.

She jumped back to her feet to see her white comforter stained red. She flipped on the light and the comforter started to glisten.

<Glass?> The sheet was covered in glass.

Her instincts screamed that something was wrong and she listened to them. She lunged for her nightstand and removed her pistol from its holster and pivoted to do a three hundred and sixty degree sweep of the room. She hadn’t even done one hundred and eighty degrees before she realized she wasn’t alone.

Two people were in the room with her. Her finger moved instinctually from where she’d rested it parallel to the trigger guard to the trigger. She line up a shot on the taller of the two people who was dressed in black with a mask she’d seen hundreds of times in files like the ones in her living room. She squeezed the trigger with the soft part of her finger between the tip and first knuckle…or at least that’s what her brain told her body to do. Her body did not comply.

She tried again…nothing.

“Look, Morina, it looks like someone has performance anxiety.” Wraith chuckled as she walked forward and easily disarmed Agent Simmons. “But where are my manners?” Wraith placed the weapon in her coat’s pocket. “My name is Wraith and this is my close personal friend, Morina. You have a lovely home, so lovely that we let ourselves in while you were running around ruining other people’s lives.”

Simmons tried to speak but her throat wasn’t working.

“You are Agent Claire Simmons. You were top twenty percent of your class at the DVA Academy with a distinguished record and honorable discharge from the Marine Corps. Plus, you were all state in high school field hockey if I’m not mistaken.” Wraith smiled as she walked in a circle around the frozen agent.

<What do you want?> Simmons could only think her response.

“What was that?” Wraith held her hand up to her ear and leaned in real close to mock her. “What’s the matter, blood manipulator got your tongue?”

Simmons wanted nothing more than to spit right in Wraith’s face, but like the rest of her she couldn’t work her mouth to gather the saliva. In fact, she was beginning to drool down the side of her cheek.

“My friend will give you the use of your mouth back so you can answer a few questions. Answer them truthfully and we’ll let you go with a minor ass whooping. Answer untruthfully and I’ll leave you to my friend.”

Simmons didn’t know who Morina was off the top of her head, but there had only been a few confirmed blood manipulators since Supers made themselves known. They went on of two ways: medical professionals that helped a lot of people, or deranged psychopaths. Since Morina was with Wraith, Simmons was betting on the latter.

Wraith turned and nodded to Morina. The iron grip that had seized Simmons vanished from the neck up.

“AAAAA!” She got half a scream out before the grip clamped back down on her.

“Stupid bitch,” Wraith’s haymaker hit Simmons across the side of the face. Her body reacted by toppling to the floor like a frozen statue. Luckily, she didn’t shatter on impact. Unluckily, she was pretty sure her jaw was fucked up.

“Keep an eye on her.” Wraith left the room, and Simmons heard her going through the files in the living room.

<Shit.> Most of the stuff was mundane, administrative crap, but a few were more sensitive documents.

“Look at what we have here.” Wraith’s feet came back into view and she bent down to shove the paperwork in her face. “Are those the security plans for Mr. Morningstar’s funeral?”

It was a rhetorical question, and Simmons tried her best to spit in the villain’s face again.

“Geeze, they’re going all out for that old fucktard. If I would have known killing him was going to get him a big-ass funeral, then I might have just shot his dick off as my revenge. The guy wasn’t that great. He didn’t do that much. Morina, can healer heal a dick that’s been shot off?” She turned to her partner in crime.

The blood manipulator shrugged. Her eyes were fixed on Simmons, and there was something in them that made the DVA agent’s blood run cold.

“Oh well,” Wraith pocketed the documents and squatted down so she was fully in Simmons’ eye line. “Let’s get back on topic. I need you to tell me all the latest upgrades to the Protectorate’s HQ. I’ve got the layout up here,” she pointed at her head, “but I need to know what new tricks they have up their sleeves.” She nodded and Simmons felt control of her mouth returning to her.

“FUCK YOU!”

A relatively light slap sent her reeling in pain, but Morina had already reasserted control. On top of the broken jaw, the slap nearly made her black out.

“I’m going to ask you again. What are the defensive countermeasures the DVA has in…”

Three repetitive knocks on the door brought the villain up short. Both Wraith and Morina looked in the direction. If she hadn’t been effectively paralyzed, Simmons would have made a move to escape, but all she could do was drool and bleed onto the faux wooden floor.

A second round of knocks and two people called her name. She hadn’t spoken with them much, but it sounded like the couple from downstairs. Wraith rose to her feet and pulled two sleek looking pistols from shoulder holsters.

“Coming, just give me a second!” She yelled into her arm to muffle the response, but still loud enough for the couple to hear.

Simmons wanted to scream a warning to her unsuspecting neighbors but she couldn’t do anything but watch as Wraith left the room. Simmons heard the sound of the door unlocking and being opened. “Hey…” was the only word spoken before two sizzles were quickly followed by two thumps. She heard more footsteps and something scraping across the floor before the door closed and locked again. Wraith reappeared dragging the young couple toward the bathroom.

“I’ll leave these two for you,” she said to Morina. “I’ve got a promise to keep.”

Once the couple was dragged into the bathroom, Wraith squatted back in front of Simmons. “Tell me the plans.”

They went back and forth for several hours. Simmons refused to talk and Wraith beat her some more. She cut off three of Simmons fingers’ on each hand, both of her big toes, and was getting ready to pull finger nails off of what remained when Simmons finally broke.

She knew she was going to die at this point and she just wanted to get it over with. Pain was a powerful motivator, so she gave Wraith everything and then some. Some things were true, others were lies, and a few were even elaborate fantasies. She was laughing and crying by the end of her recitation. The pain had frayed her grip on reality, and she’d given Wraith the biggest middle finger she knew in her explanation. The villain wasn’t getting any more out of her. She’d just have to verify for herself what was true and what wasn’t.

“She’s gone,” Wraith stood up and stretched her back. “She’s all yours.”

Morina had been steady for most of the interrogation, but she’d started to tap her foot and scratch her forearms the longer she sat there watching Wraith work. Now, the biggest smile split her face as she grabbed the DVA agent by the feet and dragged her toward the bathroom.

Wraith knew what would happen next. The blood manipulator would drain the three people of their blood, bathe in it, and do whatever her ritual was. Serial killers always had rituals, and although Wraith got along with Morina, that didn’t stop her from thinking the ritual was creepy as fuck.

While the blood manipulator worked, Wraith wiped down the apartment of forensic clues and studied the files. She had two missions coming up: the funeral and Seth. If she was lucky, she might be able to execute both in the same day.

<Use one as a distraction for the other.> It was pretty straightforward, so the Heroes would be prepared for that. <And I need to parcel through the bullshit she gave me.> Wraith knew a new energy cannon that sped up the passage of time within its confines was unlikely to be real, but it was going to be hard to verify what was the truth.

She’d be as well prepared as she could be, but there would be some risk involved. There was always risk in being a villain.

Morina emerged from the bathroom forty-five minutes later with perfect skin, a smile on her face, and a skip in her step. Wraith didn’t even ask. She just grabbed the blood manipulator’s hand and teleported them and the necessary files to several locations before finally returning to their base of operations.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 140

Benjamin Gold

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

 Ben walked up and down the corridors of the giant mess cupboard. The space was large enough for a battalion of marines to assemble in, but no marines were allowed back here without authorization from Abe’s mess officer, which for the last three months had been LCDR Ben Gold.

The problem wasn’t a marine’s untrustworthiness. It was that Ben had come to figure out that soldiers were always hungry, and when they got hungry they got sticky fingers. That was the entire reason he was back here doing a spot-check of the inventory. Everything was digitally logged and accounted for by the ship’s network when it was loaded onboard and moved for distribution. It had taken Ben a few months, but he’d eventually figured out the tricks to bypassing those levels of security.

He stopped to check a crate of freeze-dried meats and looked at his PAD. There were supposed to be fifteen hundred of these packages in the most recent shipment. The first thing he did was check the seal of the container. A person could reseal after opening, but it was hard to match it back up exactly, so there was often some evidence of tampering. This crate looked ok, so Ben moved on.

He repeated that task for the next three hours until lunch. He would eat last and spend most of the time in the kitchen monitoring the NCOs that were assigned under him. He wished he’d be taken out of this position before the three-month cut off, but that day had already passed. Even if he left tomorrow he would be forced to complete a change of rater NCOER for the fourteen NCOs among the support unit.

It was all part of his punishment. No one came right out and said that he was being punished, but the few conversations he’d had with RADM Nelson left little room for interpretation. Ben had been captured by the enemy. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t really his fault, that he’d fought valiantly during the kidnapping and even killed the security chief who set it all up. It also didn’t matter that he’d fought tooth and nail to escape. The RADM repeated multiple times that those actions reflected highly on the crew of the Breckinridge and its marines, not Ben. That had made it easier for Ben to write up a commendation for PFC Cooper, but it still left him in a bind.

The real reason the RADM was pissed was because they were fighting a war with limited resources, and he’d been forced to divert resources to rescue Ben when he needed to be pushing the offensive against the Blockies.

The only thing that kept the RADM from relieving Ben on the spot when he stepped aboard Abe was because he’d promised to convince Commodore Zahn to stay in the sector. Zahn’s orders were something to that effect to begin with, but the RADM didn’t need to know.

Since he arrived back in friendly space, Argo had been sidelined. The crew still kept the ship ready for a fight, but they weren’t given any missions. A ship that was built for commerce protection, anti-piracy operations, and advanced scouting had been sitting in its bay gathering cobwebs: all because of Ben.

“Look at the bright side, Sir.” Chief Yates told him over a beer when they were both off duty. “I’m retiring after this.”

“Chief, how does that help me?” Ben gave the NCO a level stare.

“Huh.” The man frowned and scratched his chin. “I guess it doesn’t.”

So, when Ben got a message on his PAD to report to the RADM as he was counting apples brought up from New Lancashire, he didn’t have much hope for the conversation.

<That’s good enough.> Ben stowed his PAD in his leg pocket and left the cupboard. He made sure to secure the door behind him, because even as he walked away he saw a few marines standing down the hall looking conspicuous.

Even with grav-lifts it took almost twenty minutes to get from the mess area to the Admiral’s conference room right off the flag bridge, and even once he arrived, he had to wait. The RADM’s aide stood guard by the door like a loyal hound.

Ben was accustomed to the hurry up and wait phenomenon that penetrated every facet of the military, so he came prepared. He had templates to fill out for all of the NCO’s NCOERs, so he spent the forty minutes sitting there filling in all the information to save him time later.

“A HA HA HA HA!” The door slid open and Commodore Zahn stepped out with the RADM smiling behind him.

<At least he’s in a good mood.> Ben fixed a pleasant expression on his face, but didn’t laugh at whatever private joke they’d just shared. He wasn’t going to be that guy.

“Anyway,” Zahn wiped a tear from his eye, “my carrier group would be honored to participate in maneuvers with some of your units. We need the training, and I can’t think of a better way to conduct it.”

“Please.” The RADM waved away the compliment. “It is the least I can do after you agreed to keep your forces in the vicinity. If the Blockies head our way then we need to be able to work together.”

“Ah, Mr. Gold.” Zahn caught sight of Ben and extended his hand.

“Hello, George.” Ben shook.

Military protocol was a little fuzzy when it came to interacting with corporate navies. Normally, the Fleet would treat corporations that were in good standing with the Commonwealth as they would other allied navies, meaning ranks would be given the same respect as an officer in the Fleet. By that logic, Ben should be calling Zahn “Sir” or “Commodore”. The difference here was that Ben happened to be one of the primary shareholders in the corporation that Zahn worked for, so even though the Fleet dictated that Zahn was a superior officer, Zahn still worked for Ben and his family.

After all the crap he’d been through in the last three months, Ben was just fine addressing the Commodore by his name. The RADM frowned, but George didn’t think anything of it. He knew where the real balance of power lay in Gold Technologies.

“I’m off to Midas, but the invitation for dinner is always open, Mr. Gold.” George was shameless in his ass-kissing attempts.

“That is greatly appreciated, George. If I have some free time I’ll take you up on it.” Judging by the last three months, Ben wouldn’t have any free time anytime soon.

“Lieutenant Commander.” Rank might not apply between Ben and George, but it surely did with the RADM.

Ben followed the smaller man inside the conference room and braced to attention.

“At ease. Take a seat.” The RADM waved his hand casually, and Ben did as he was instructed.

The RADM pulled out his PAD and hit a few buttons. A map of the explored space in York Sector expanded in the holo-tank at the center of the room. One system was highlighted, and it made Ben gulp.

“System 1776.” The RADM didn’t have to say any more to convey Ben’s failure on that one. “We have been making a lot of headway against pirate elements in the sector thanks to Commodore Zahn. Our intelligence has pinpointed a possible staging area.”

“Staging area?” Ben raised an eyebrow as system 1861 was highlighted.

“Even pirates need secure locations to rearm and resupply.” The RADM explained. “Since the crackdown with Cobalt Mining Station, friendly ports have been dwindling. As a result, the pirates are having to develop their own resupply points. They like to use previously established infrastructure if possible. They prefer abandoned stations, but sometimes they’ll sneak onto planets in the terraforming process. There aren’t many of those around here, so we’ve been combing through the records of any abandoned military or civilian projects, and I think we have a winner.”

System 1861 had six planets, all outside the Goldilocks zone where terraforming was possible, but there was a thick asteroid field that looked like it would make a corporation a healthy profit once the sector filled in a little more. The military anticipated that and had started hollowing out a few asteroids as resupply points for patrols. Things had changed when the FTL routes had been established and System 1861 became off the beaten path. Construction had stopped and would only be resumed when a corporation moved in to mine the field. It would have been beyond easy for one of the construction crew to let slip the asteroid’s location to some pirates for a small price.

“We have three possible locations that Argo is going to investigate. I would prefer to have Myrmidon tag along, but all of my other resources are on picket duty waiting for a Blockie counterattack, so Argo has to handle this solo.”

The tone in the senior officer’s voice was clear. This was Ben’s last chance. If he screwed this up, the RADM would sink his career. Even Ben’s connections wouldn’t be able to save him from accusations of incompetence, and that would be the end of his dreams for the Diplomatic Corps.

“Yes, Sir. Argo is ready to go.”

“Good. You’re set to deploy in the next forty-eight hours. You’ll take another two squads of marines to help with clearing the installations, so it’ll be a cramped ride, but you should be there and back in no time.”

“Yes, Sir. I’m on it.” Ben knew when he was being dismissed, and he felt rejuvenated more than he had in months.

He was more than halfway through his deployment cruise, and looking at the scoreboard he was zero for one. He had won a small battle, but that didn’t mean anything when the people he was supposed to have defeated then captured him and the whole facility the Commonwealth was charged with protecting.

Ben had to get this one right, and he had a few ideas on how to make that happen. As it always did, it all started with having the right people involved, and if he was taking on more marines then Ben knew who he wanted at his side.

Noah Grisham

Location: System 1861, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Noah wiped the sleep from his eyes as Dawn limped into docking clamps. To say things had been tough since the Corpies obliterated Cobalt Mining Station was an understatement. It had taken two weeks before Dawn could peak her nose out of her hiding place and get the hell out of System 1776. By then, Noah and Able were drinking water made from recycled piss and were down to less than a thousand calories a day. Another couple of days and the two pirates would have killed each other for some fresh meat.

From there they headed as far from the Collies as they could. They needed to catch their breath before figuring out their next move. They’d docked at a Blockie outpost under no flag and running on fumes. That had led to another two weeks in the station’s prison followed by an offer they just couldn’t refuse. The Blockies were hiring any privateers willing to harass the Collies. News of the battle in System 1552 had already spread, and the resulting alliance between the Star Kingdom and Collies. The Blockies were on the ropes and they could use all the help they could get.

Noah took them up on it. They helped repair and resupply Dawn and sent them on their way to wreak havoc on Collie shipping. They weren’t even out of the system yet before shit hit the fan. A Collie task force dropped out of FTL just as Dawn was about to jump away. The Blockies only had an obsolete destroyer and the station’s defenses to fend off the multiple battlecruisers, and what Dawn’s sensors were identifying as a ship of the Royal Navy.

The writing was on the wall and Noah didn’t need to sit around and wait to see who won. It also meant that he’d just gotten a free refit from a station that was going to cease to exist in the next few hours. Those free supplies had set Noah up for the next two months, and fueled his real mission.

Noah Grisham was not a man who took betrayal well, which was ironic considering how many times he’d literally stabbed someone in the back. The single all-consuming thought on the pirate’s mind was who had fucked him over so badly it had nearly killed him.

He had his first lead.

It had taken resources and flying around the sector for weeks to figure out where a person could smuggle large amounts of supplies without any asking questions. The answer, which cost an arm and a leg in bribes, was a private consortium of like-minded entrepreneurs in System 1861. They’d commandeered a mined out asteroid and turned them into a hot spot for less-than-legal trade. If someone was smuggling something big under the radar it went through System 1861.

That was where to start, but the real clues were the two M3 rifles in the Dawn’s makeshift armory, which was code for Able’s room. The digital data had been thoroughly wiped.  Five hundred bucks and the best criminal hacker in the Sector’s underworld hadn’t turned up shit.

Even though there was no digital information, there were the physical rifles that could still be used for clues. The rifles had numbers etched into them that Noah could hopefully track to the source – or at least another clue that would lead to the source.

<Once I find that son of a bitch I’m going to cut his balls off and feed them to him.> Noah was on a mission, and nothing was going to stand in his way.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 139

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “Almost there…almost there.” Coop was breathing heavily. Not quite gasping for breath, but he was definitely out of practice.

“Give it to me, Cooper.” A good-looking woman looked him intensely in the eyes.

“You know I love it when you talk dirty,” Coop smiled and focused on the task at hand.

He was almost there. He was so close he could feel the satisfaction building. <I’ll show her.>

With the last of his energy, Coop threw his foot forward and planted it at the end of the course. “Yeah!” He looked at his physical therapy specialist, who had a matching smile on her face. “Suck on that.” He made a vulgar gesture with his hands toward his crotch. “One hundred meters, in LACS armor, no power. You can cash that and take it to the bank.”

“Settle down, Cooper.” She made placating gestures but couldn’t stop smiling. “You’ve finally met the standard. Your medical condition will be updated to yellow. You’re still on limited duty until you regain full strength in your leg, but you’ll be able to start training in armor again for small durations of time. We’ll get the ball rolling and let the S1 know you’re ready to get reassigned.”

That was music to Coop’s ears. Despite what the doctors on Breckinridge had said, there was not a new leg waiting for him when he got back to New Lancashire. They had his DNA on file, but with the limited supplies of a newly colonized world, and the enhancements that needed to be done, there was a waiting list for new HI limbs. Coop ended up laid up in bed for a week before undergoing half a dozen surgeries to attach the new appendage.

He would give credit where credit was due. The docs had done a spectacular job. Aside from it being a scrawny chicken leg compared to his other one, it didn’t feel any different. <Why should it?> It was his leg in every facet down to the tinniest molecule.

He thought getting the new leg attached would be the hard part, but like usual he was wrong. Within two weeks of getting back planetside he had a new leg, but it took three months to get where he was now.

Even having two legs again, he had trouble with his balance sometimes. The disproportion of the two was so great that it was hard to get used to, and when he finally did get the handle on it things were changing again. He underwent daily nanite injections to speed up the recovery process, and spent hours in rehab. He’d been assigned his own PT specialist: a cute brunette by the name of Sandy, and he’d spent the last few months trying to get in her pants.

She had expertly dodged his advances so far by citing regulation. She could not ethically treat him and fuck him at the same time, but now the game had changed. Coop had strengthened his leg enough that he’d be out from under that pesky ethical conundrum soon.

His leg still ached. It wasn’t quite up to his other leg’s perfection, but it was a start. Getting back into a proper LACS V2 was also a relief. <Now if I can only get into her, my recovery will be complete.>

He was using his most charming smile on Sandy, and her growing dimples showed it might actually be working.

“What do you say? You, me, a nice meal, a bottle of wine, and thirty to forty-five minutes of some other physical activity? You’re always telling me I need to increase my cardio.”

A blush filled her pale cheeks and Coop was ready to put her in the win column when…

“Coop!” Mike’s booming voice filled the small PT clinic and snapped Sandy out of the trance Coop’s charm had put her in.

“Well…um…I’ve got to go and file the paperwork. I’ll talk to you later, Cooper.” With a shake of her head she walked off.

<God damn son-of-a-bitch!> Coop fumed as he turned to fix Mike with his hate-filled glare.

The big HI trooper – still in his LACS – pretended not to notice he’d cock-blocked his best friend.

“Mike,” Coop returned the greeting through gritted teeth. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I’m back, and do I have some shit to tell you.”

Coop couldn’t see the man smiling, but he could hear it in his voice.

Things had been pretty much business as usual for the Commonwealth over the last three months. Gold Technology’s Corpies had dealt with the bastards that took Coop’s leg, and that was the end of that. The Blockies hadn’t conducted any new raids in Commonwealth territory because Admiral Nelson was too busy keeping them guessing. Every couple of weeks the vaunted Strike Force would sail for targets unknown and return victorious. They’d gone on four separate missions and accomplished all of them. They were so successful that soldiers were starting to volunteer for the missions, and Mike had been selected for the last one.

“All I’m going to say is asteroid mining station,” Mike sounded particularly proud of himself.

Coop looked down at his sore leg. He’d had enough adventures at asteroid mining stations for his lifetime, but friends were supposed to listen to other friends boast about the shit they’d done, and Mike was Coop’s friend. Even if he wanted to plant his boot in the other man’s ass for the cock-block.

“You can tell me over a pint, but you’re buying,” Coop insisted.

“Fine by me. I got combat pay on my last paycheck.”

Despite Coop’s own unfortunate series of events on Cobalt Mining Station, he didn’t give his pound of flesh for nothing. Apparently, LCDR Gold was grateful to the HI trooper who saved his ass, and wrote him up for his actions during the rescue. Coop had a shiny new Meritorious Service Medal for his heroic actions against pirates and rebel miners whenever he turned his CMU’s to the Dress setting. An MSM was a pretty big deal for a PFC to have, so his military business card was looking pretty good right now.

Even better was the cash. A reward for the rescue of LCDR Gold had been posted by the officer’s rich daddy: a million bucks. Of course, when Coop brought this little fact up to his chain of command Gunney Topper had proceeded to stomp on Coop’s nuts and chew him out.

“A soldier doesn’t need a reward to do his job, Cooper!” The Gunney had stood over Coop as he lay in bed and laid into him in front of the whole post-surgery unit.

Thankfully, Coop had just been transferred out of the 2222nd and into the medical unit until he recovered, so when he replied with a resounding, “Go fuck yourself,” he wasn’t going to get court-martialed. Even better, Gunney Topper wasn’t Coop’s rater for the three months required by regulation, so the stick-up-his-ass gunnery sergeant wouldn’t be putting his dislike for Coop in an official evaluation.

Even though the infantry stomped on collecting the reward, Gold turned out to be a decent guy. He’d coughed up ten grand for Coop as a thank you, and Coop said “you’re welcome” by accepting. Coop still thought the big officer was a moron for getting captured in the first place, but he was a moron who paid his debts. That was the type of moron Coop could stand.

Life was looking up for Coop – aside from the blue balls – that sucked, but everything else was getting back to normal.

He cheated a little as he exited the PT clinic with Mike. He amplified the power a little bit to his recuperating leg, so he didn’t’ have to suffer the two-kilometer walk back to the armory. The clinic itself was one, squat polyplast building among the modular collection of buildings that made up the planets one and only hospital.

Really, there wasn’t much to New Lancashire yet. The planet might be the capitol system of York Sector, but it wasn’t much to look at. The system hadn’t been discovered and settled until ten years ago. In terms of terraforming processes, that was short. Initial scans showed a higher than average amount of ore on the planet, which would make it a good site for future shipyards. It was only eighty percent the size of Earth with 1.01 G – 1% more gravity than the homeworld. That was great from a colonization standpoint. No one had to undergo expensive treatment to simply survive.

Environmentally, it was still a work in progress. Over seventy-five percent of the planet’s surface was land, with quite a few ore-rich mountain ranges crisscrossing the surface. The twenty to twenty-five percent of the surface containing water could be loosely defined as inland seas that had mostly dried up before the Commonwealth arrived. Those seas were in the process of being refilled with water from wrangled comets while the atmosphere was tampered with. Currently, it was a survivable mix of oxygen and nitrogen, but there was a lot of dust in the air, so most people preferred to wear a simple breather and protective eyewear when outdoors.

For HI like Coop and Mike, that meant being in armor most of the time. It was a good workout for Coop in getting back up to one hundred percent.

Only a handful of Commonwealth settlements graced the planet’s surface with a total population around a quarter of a million. The capitol, Town Center – Coop thought it was a shitty name -was situated on the coast of the smallest inland sea, which had the most water when the terraforming process began. It was designed in a grid formation with multi-story buildings in the center for administration, science ventures, corporate interests, and necessary facilities like the hospital. Outward from that section were standard duplexes and single-family homes for the colonists. They were cookie-cutter, spartan designs, and you only got into more customized designs once you reached the outskirts of the city limits. Town Center’s population of a hundred thousand made it the largest on the planet, but a lot of that was devoted toward three things: the project refilling and populating the inland seas with life, the footholds of corporate interests like Gold Technologies, and supporting the growing military infrastructure. The latter held the greatest number of employees, so it wasn’t uncommon to see soldiers moving from the nexus of downtown Town Center to the military base and PDC at the outskirts of the city.

Mike and Coop didn’t draw much attention aside from people advertising their wares on the dust-covered street. There wasn’t much conversation as the two HI troopers took their sweet time getting back to base. Neither was in a hurry. About halfway back Mike finally spoke up.

“Sorry about that. I didn’t think you and Sandy were a thing until I opened my mouth.”

What little anger Coop had left deflated. “Don’t worry. I might still be able to turn it around, but you win some and you lose some.” He shrugged, as a gaggle of civilians parted for the large HI troopers.

A few of the women even looked over their shoulders at the large soldiers.

By the time they reached the base’s gates it was thirty minutes from quitting time. New Lancashire ran on a twenty-three hour day, so naturally the brass decided to keep the schedule the same as on Earth and just take the one hour from the soldiers’ free time.

Coop was going to miss being able to hit up a bar or flirt with the local women, but he was excited to get back to a twenty-four hour ship’s schedule and grab that extra hour of sleep every night. The gate guard scanned the projection of their GICs and waved them through. There were a few groups organizing for the final formation of the day, but other than that nothing looked like it was going on. Because they’d checked in so late, Coop and Mike had no intention of going to the final formation. They had to turn in their LACS for the day before shitting, showering, and grabbing that beer.

“Cooper!” The corporal at the gate called after him. “Report immediately to Charlie Company, 2223rd Headquarters, Building 1258.”

“But…” Coop’s reply fell on deaf ears.

“The 2223rd?” Mike sounded just as shocked as Coop. “That’s a whole different battalion.”

“Makes sense,” Coop shrugged. “They got some new replacements in last month, so they probably filled my old slot with the Quad-Deuce.” Truthfully, Coop wasn’t as bummed about it as Mike seemed to be. Getting out from under Gunney Topper’s shit details was worth the separation. They were still in the same brigade.

The two HI troopers parted ways there. Coop didn’t want to make a poor impression on his new boss because he knew how shitty that could turn out. The base wasn’t big – only a hodgepodge battalions-worth of soldiers from a variety of units were on the planet – so it was easy to find building 1258. A SGT manned the staff duty desk and immediately pointed down the hallway. Coop’s metal boots scuffed up the freshly polished floor as he walked down to a door marked C Co. LT Wentworth. He knocked and waited.

“Enter.” The voice was muffled, but the order came through.

Coop entered, marched up to the desk, assumed the position of attention, and…it was a good thing his LACS hid facial expressions because his jaw dropped. LT Wentworth had raven black hair done up in a bun on the top of her head, sun-kissed skin, full red lips, and intelligent green eyes with just a spark of mischief hidden beneath layers of focus. The CMUs weren’t designed to be form flattering, but even then Coop could tell she kept it tight.

The pause lasted about two seconds longer than appropriate before Coop snapped out of it. “Private First Class Cooper reporting for duty, Ma’am.”

“At ease.” She gave Coop’s blank visor a hard stare that only highlighted her symmetrical cheekbones. “I’ll keep it short and sweet, Private.” She steepled her hands on her desk and looked through the armor and at him. “You’ve been assigned to my company effective immediately. I know your medical status and your first job is to get healthy. You will make all of your medical appointments. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Coop stood a little straighter.

“The company has our quarterly range qualification coming up at the end of the week. You will be present for that. There is nothing in your medical profile that states you can’t stand and shoot. We are also scheduled for field training exercises (FTX) with other parts of the battalion at the end of the month. If you are not medically cleared by then we will work with the medics to ensure you have transportation for your appointments. Those are the highlights on the training calendar for the next four weeks. After that, we’re to be ready for any operations battalion wants to assign to us.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Coop was too busy looking into those eyes to think of anything else.

“I’m going to be candid with you, Private.” She crossed her arms across her chest and leaned back slightly. “I hear one of two things about you. I either hear that you’re a skirt-chasing ass, or that you’re a first class soldier who threw himself in the line of fire to save lives and complete the mission. I don’t know which is true, and I don’t much care what you did in the past. What is important to me is what you do while you are with my company. You will follow the standards set by this battalion, obey the orders of those appointed over you, and accomplish the missions I set. Am I clear?”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Good.” She gave him one last appraising look. “I’m going to turn you over to the HI NCOIC. You will coordinate with him as well as myself and Gunney Weitz depending on the situation.” She checked her watch. “Staff Sergeant.”

A door in the corner of the office opened and a large, familiar man stepped through.

“If it isn’t, Private Cooper.” SSG Hightower gave him a crooked grin. “I don’t know whether to call you a retard for thinking you were better than a grav-grenade, or a hero for saving an officer’s life. I can’t make up my mind so I’m not going to call you either. Be here tomorrow morning at 0600 for PT. I need to get you back into shape. Have a good evening, Ma’am.” He directed the last words at the LT.

“Goodnight, Staff Sergeant.” She turned her attention back to Coop. “Last thing you should know, Private. Your actions as documented by Lieutenant Commander Gold and your MSM gave you enough points to be eligible for Corporal. I’ve put your name forward to the Battalion Commander, and am expecting a response by the time we leave for the FTX. Do you have any questions?”

<Will you marry me?>

“No, Ma’am.”

“Then goodnight, Private. I’ll see you tomorrow bright and early.”

Coop gave the LT a crisp salute, did an about face, and marched out of the room. He waited until he’d left the HQ building before he let himself relax.

<Damnit! Why did I have to get the hot officer.> Now he’d be imagining that face when he got a lap dance later tonight.

It pissed him off all over again that Mike had cock-blocked him and Sandy.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 28

“Are you shitting me? You’re joking right? Next you’re going to ask me to pull your finger…right?” Lorelei had her hands on her hips and fire in her eyes. Since she could shoot lasers out of those things, it wasn’t an exaggeration.

Surprisingly, news about Seth’s probation hadn’t spread throughout the sophomore class by the time they reached team training the next day. Seth was still nursing the tail-end of a hangover and was taken off guard by his teammate. He was surprised because he had to explain it. He only expected to have to defend himself.

“Nope.” It was better to get straight to the point. “I can’t use my abilities.”

“Great.” Ashley Bates was brooding a little ways away from the rest of the team.

“Guys…” Mason tried to come to his defense, but the girls cut him off.

“No, shut it, Jackson.” Lorelei stepped in front of the strongman with her hand outstretched.

There was literally nothing she could do to stop him, but Mason stopped just short of making contact. He had an unhappy look on his face, but after a moment he took a step back while Lorelei took a step forward and got right into Seth’s personal space.

“What is your deal, Abney? What are you even doing here?” Her hands weren’t on her hips this time. They were pointing accusingly at him. “You don’t give two shits about anything but yourself. You’re successfully dragging the team down every practice. You fucked up our first match after breaking your ankle five seconds into it. Now, you can’t even use your power. What good are you to us? What good are you to anyone? Stop screwing everyone else over and just go home.” She finished with a huff.

“Everyone just take a breath.” Mason stepped up when she stepped back. “Let’s be rational. We’ve got a workout to do before we even start working with our abilities. Come on, Seth, I’m going to need a spot.”

“No.” The word wasn’t heard by anyone but Seth at first. “No.” He repeated more forcefully.

“Bro, we’ve got to…”

“No,” Seth repeated a third time. “Lorelei’s right. You guys do your thing and I’ll see you later.”

“Hey, Seth, don’t…’

“Let him go.” Lorelei was still fuming and so was the rest of the team. Even Erin, who was normally off in her own world, had her face scrunched up in disappointment. “We’ll get more done without him.”

The only person who looked uncomfortably out of place was Rowan. The transfer student knew the rumors, but he didn’t know Seth that well. He just kind of stood there in the middle of the group and looked at the floor.

Seth didn’t stick around and wait for more shit from his teammates. He turned on his heel and headed for the door. He didn’t even bother to go to the pullup bar and do his required exercise before walking out of the gym.

“What the hell, guys! Do you think we’re going to be any better off down a person?!” Seth heard the start of Mason’s argument as the door shut behind him.

He headed straight for the locker room to get out of the suddenly oppressive and constrictive gray uniform. He tore the thing off and threw it in his locker before pulling on his clothes. They still reeked a bit like beer, which only made him want a drink, but he had something to do first. Instead of heading back up to the student center he took the long way.

Seth walked the corridors of the HCP in the opposite direction toward the lake. He was pretty sure the various large arenas they’d competed in were underneath the body of water. He reached out with his power and felt the softly lapping waves several stories above him. He found the lift nearest them and took that up to the surface. He emerged in one of the dorms that lined the lake. He looked at the footage to make sure the other side of the polymorphic mesh was clear. It was, so he pushed through it, walked past the vending machines, and took a left away from the door. He didn’t know if the DVA had people on every HCP exit waiting for him, or if they just sat on the ones he used frequently. He’d never used this one before, so if they didn’t it bought him some time before the alert went out.

It all depended on how long the supervising professor waited to tell them that Seth wasn’t in class.

He ducked out a side exit and shuffled around in his bag with his face turned away from the security camera he’d spotted. They’d make the connection sooner or later, but it would buy him time, and that was all he needed.

With college classes organized the way they were, no place was ever really empty, so to get real privacy he needed to get off of campus. Calling an Uber was simple enough, and he had it take him into Orlando. There, he could get lost in the crowd long enough to do what he needed to do.

He ended up in a mid-range restaurant in the middle of the city. It was between the lunch and dinner crowds so there was plenty of open space.

“Give me a private booth away from everyone else.” Seth said to the cute waitress who was probably attending UCF or one of the other schools in town.

She gave him a head-to-toe appraisal and a sniff. He could see from the scrunch of her nose that she was going to turn him down, so he went for the universal motivator. “Here’s a hundred bucks.” He pulled out a crisp Benjamin and it changed the whole equation.

She stuck the bill in her bra and seated him in a small alcove at the back of the restaurant. He had good lines of sight to everywhere, no one could sneak up behind him, and it didn’t look like anyone had followed him into the place.

<Now or never.> He thought as he rifled through his bag, took out the burner phone he’d been saving, and dialed the number he’d committed to memory.

Five rings later it went to voicemail. “Pick up your fucking phone and call me back,” he growled.

He placed the phone on the table in front of him and smoothed his facial features as the waiter came over. He ordered a beer, showed the guy his fake ID, and sat back to wait. He didn’t have to wait long. Less than three minutes later the phone began to vibrate.

The vibrations against the wooden table drew the eyes of the few patrons in the bar, but they drifted away the moment he picked it up.

“Hello.”

“Hey!” The excitement in Lilly’s voice was the exact opposite of what Seth was feeling. “I’m so glad you called me back.”

Seth would have made a few moments of idle chitchat, but everything that had been bubbling inside of him burst out like the universe finally popped his internal bubble.

“What the fuck, Liz! What the fucking fuck!” He didn’t care that he’d slipped into using her old name. All he cared about was not drawing too much attention to himself while he chewed her ass out.

“I made you promise me one thing, just a single, little, teeny-weeny thing; and you took that promise and took a massive diarrhea shit all over it. You didn’t even make it a day. Fuck, it wasn’t even six hours before you blew that guy’s brains out.

“Seth, I did it for…”

“Shut the fuck up!” He couldn’t help but raise his voice a little, and that got a few glances. A couple with a baby in a stroller looked over from where they were talking with a waitress. It looked like they were going to find another dining establishment.

“Seth…”

“No, Lilly, don’t make excuses. You didn’t do this for me, or for us. You did that for you. Admit it!” He was fuming. He could see the red tinge at the corner of his vision.

“I…I…”

He’d succeeded in making her speechless, which was a hell of an achievement.

“Seth…” she took a deep breath. “You’re right.”

That wasn’t quite what he was expecting.

“That son of a bitch hurt me when he did that to us last spring. He hurt me bad. I was already broken. I’d been beaten, stabbed, defeated, and that fucktard took the last good thing I had. So, yes, I admit it. I killed him for me, but I did it because of what he did to us. For fuck’s sake, Seth, just look at us now. We’re at each other’s throats, and that is just what they want. I love you, Seth, and I’d never do something intentionally to hurt you.”

Seth was silent for a moment. He hadn’t looked at it from her angle before. “You still shouldn’t have broken your promise.” His temper was still up, but it was simmering instead of boiling over. “I want to trust you, Lilly. I want to be able to figure everything out with you, but you aren’t giving me anything to work with. Your whole life is a lie. Most of what you’ve told me is a lie, and the one promise I made you make you broke inside of a day. What am I supposed to do with that?”

There were several moments of silence on the other end before she replied. “What can I do to make things right?”

“I…I don’t know.” He took a deep breath and put his forehead against at the cool tabletop. “But I do know that any more lies and deception between us is going to use up the last bit of faith I have.”

Of all the yelling and cursing they’d done over the last few minutes, it was the hardest thing to say, and it hit the deepest.

“I understand.”

Maybe it was him being hopeful, but it sounded like she was telling the truth. He still didn’t know how this was all going to work, and he didn’t have any idea what the hell he was doing, but his hope that everything would turn out ok was still hanging on by a thread. Deep down he knew it was stupid, selfish, and majorly self-destructive, but he couldn’t help himself. Despite all of the shit he still loved the memory of what they’d had. If she was truthful with him going forward, he might get to love the real her.

<Fuck,> he mentally exhaled while running his hand through his hair and taking a big gulp of the imported beer the waiter had brought him.

“Ok,” he exhaled. “Where do we go from here?”

“That clearly took her by surprise. “Well…um…we could…”

Seth never got to hear the answer. Two electric darts attached to coils of metal impaled his shoulder and sent fifty-thousand-volts of electricity coursing through his system. His whole body seized up, he pissed himself a little, and the phone went clattering onto the table.

“Target neutralized!” The woman from the couple pushing the baby carriage – that had been seated several tables to Seth’s right – had the taser leveled at Seth and was ready to send more voltage through his system.

“Seth…?”

He could hear Lilly on the other end, but his fingers were locked up and he was taking painful breaths.

“Seth!”

“Get the phone. She’s still on the line.” The man from the couple rushed over, grabbed the phone, and stuck something into the USB port.

“Seth! What’s going on?”

“L…” fifty-thousand more volts went shooting into his system, but it didn’t stop the gurgling scream from escaping his throat.

“Tracing…tracing…got her.” The woman was on her phone a second later relaying an address in Orlando. “Cuff and book him for aiding and abetting. We’ll see what else we can get to stick when we get him back to the station.”

“Should we call West Private?” the man asked.

“No.” The woman gave Seth a shake of the head. “All the connections in the world aren’t going to be able to save his ass now. We’ve got him red handed.”

A fresh wave of agony jolted through his system and that was more than he could handle. He couldn’t think about him and Lilly anymore as his world went black.

 

***

 

“Seth…Seth!” Lilly called through the line.

At first she thought the call was dropped, but a quick look at her screen showed it was still happening. Then she heard the shouting on the other end of the line, followed by a grunt of pain. Something was happening, and whatever it is it wasn’t good. She quickly hung up.

“Everyone we need to clear out!” She yelled to the rest of the Supers in the abandoned warehouse.

Stal was watching her soaps and didn’t even acknowledge her.  Morina and Nightingale were huddled together over a corpse the older woman was dissecting. The blood-manipulator and nullifier were drawn together the first moment they met in the way creepy people recognized other creepy people. Lilly didn’t care as long as they didn’t start getting into really weird shit, and dissecting an already dead corpse didn’t cross that line.

“Why?” Nightingale didn’t look up as she used a pair of forceps to pull something back and get a look under it while Morina watched with fascination.

“I just got a call,” Lilly hesitated to say who it was from or what it was about. “Let’s just say I’ve got a bad feeling Heroes are going to be kicking down these doors soon.

With a small puff of black her phone disappeared and reappeared in an active volcano across the world. The itch at the back of her skull that something wasn’t right persisted.

“You can do whatever the fuck you want,” she stated when no one moved. “I’m getting out of here for a little, and since I’m your only transportation you might want to take me up on that offer.

“Damascus…”

“Fuck that douchebag,” Lilly cut off Stal when she brought up the terrorist asshole. “You can call him for a ride if you want, but I doubt he’ll stick his neck out for you.”

Stal and Nightingale exchanged a quick look before nodding to each other.

“Good. We’re out of here in five.”

She figured that was enough time to get everyone out. If someone was onto them then they would have to mobilize. Having her confirmed at a location as enough to bring a team in on the mission, but knowing that she ran with at least two other Supers from the prison break was enough to give the Heroes pause…hopefully.

After five minutes everyone was gathered with anything important. Most of the warehouse’s items were being left behind with a little extra surprise for anyone that came in looking for them. As it turned out, Nightingale’s surgical skills were used for more than just torture and her little experiments. She was quite adept at making explosives. All that time working for the Republic of Krezic had taught her a particular set of skills.

“We need to make multiple jumps, and we’re going to need more surprises.” It was always better safe than sorry, and she was sure if her location had been identified then Hunter would be on the case. She’d almost caught him with the trick last time, so he’d be ready, but every second they slowed him down was a second they could put some distance between them.

Nightingale was more than happy to oblige. She had two more blocks of Semtex with detonators in her bag. Morina clapped at the sight.

“Here we go.” Lilly visualized her destination and willed the group to be there. Darkness exploded around them and a few seconds later they appeared in a cave by the ocean a world away.

“He’ll come through in the same place.” She explained to Nightingale so she could place the bomb and the triggering mechanism – an IR strobe that would sense the presence of a person and detonate.

Once the bomb was set and armed they teleported again. This time they appeared in the wilderness of northern Canada. Nightingale set up another bomb, and then they hoofed it. The best countermeasure other than setting explosives to kill whoever followed you through the rips in space-time was to put distance between teleportation points. It would be harder for Hunter to track them if he didn’t know where she teleported from.

They hiked for about a half-mile before Morina started complaining. She would bleed a man dry without a care in the world, but walking almost three thousand feet was a protest-worthy offense. Lilly found a good spot and teleported again. This time they arrived at their fallback position. Ironically, it wasn’t all that far from the original warehouse. When their surprise bit the Heroes in the ass they’d be able to see and hear it.

The place was already set up, so Stal plopped down on the couch to watch her soaps while Nightingale and Morina discussed what they would do next. That was fine with Lilly, she had other things to do.

“I’ll be back.” She didn’t wait for a response before teleporting away. She dropped into her loft across the pond before arriving on her Uncle’s secluded beach.

“Mika!” She yelled as she stormed into the underground fortress. “Get me a trace on the last call to my burner now! I need a location on Seth.”

The technopath was asleep on the job with his face plastered against the keyboard.

“MIKA!” She roared in his ear.

The boy jumped a foot in the air with a wild look in his eye. He had key-shaped impressions on his face from his slumber, and he was having some trouble realizing where he was.

“Get a location on Seth , NOW!”

“Yeah…ok…location…Seth…on it.” The boy’s scatterbrained mind was starting to settle.

“What the hell are you yelling about?” Armsman stepped into the computer nexus of their little operation.

“Finding Seth.” Mika answered before Lilly could come up with a good story.

The sour look on the legendary villain’s face showed her just what he thought of her ex but still kind of boyfriend. Facebook didn’t have a relationship status update for what they were.

“That stupid boy is going to get you killed,” was the only thing her Uncle said on the subject. “Go see you father. It’s been a long time since you visited.” He walked away without another word.

There was a reason Lilly hadn’t visited him in a while. For all intents and purposes, Hellgate was dead. He’d been in a vegetative state since last spring. The bitch Reaper had done everything but stop his heart. It was just one of the reasons she wanted to see the Hero rot in whatever Seif al-Din had in store for her. After that, Lilly would get her revenge, and then she’d finally be able to lay her father to rest.

“Hey, Dad.” She walked into the state-of-the-art medical clinic Armsman had in his home. “I’ve been up to a lot lately.” She explained it all to him.

It had a duel effect. It was therapeutic to the soul while ramping up her desire to find Seth. There were very few things in this world that she cared about, and the boy she loved was one of them. When she left the clinic she was focused and ready for action, like a professional athlete before a big game.

“I’ve got him…I think.” Mika’s fingers were flying across multiple keyboards when she stepped into computer mainframe. “Top screen.”

She followed where he pointed and saw a grainy surveillance video from what looked like a restaurant. There was a man hunched over a table talking on the phone. There was a few seconds of footage before something silver shot across the screen and the man went rigid. Two people rushed over, one grabbed the phone and stuck something into it while the other secured Seth.

“I followed him.” He played bits of surveillance footage that followed the two people half-dragging Seth out of the restaurant and to a waiting black SUV. “I ran facial recognition on the people that grabbed him.” He hesitated. “I’m pretty sure they’re DVA. I didn’t press for more info once I learned they were in government databases because it would trigger alerts.”

“Push it.” Lilly’s tone was cold as she assessed the situation. “I’ll take you somewhere so you can use another network to access the info and not lead anyone back here, but I want to know everything about those two people: family, friends, even their pet’s doggy daycare. Give me a complete profile on them Mika.”

“S…sure.”

Lilly wasn’t sure if it was breaking into government databases or the expression on her face that had the technopath stuttering.

“Ok. Hit me with the bad news. Where is he?”

“I followed the black SUV through the city’s traffic cameras until it went underground here.”

“Police HQ.” Lilly only had to see the outside of the building to know where it was.

The good news was that she had a teleportation point in the building already that she’d used to steal info. The bad news was things had changed. It was a police, DVA, and Hero hot spot now. If she went in there it would be surefire suicide. The cells themselves had anti-teleportation gadgets built into them, so she couldn’t just jump in and out.

<Fucking tech geniuses,> she grumbled.

It didn’t matter. She had her in. She replayed the video of the two people grabbing Seth, and felt sorry for them and the false sense of safety they felt right now.

<Time to bring in Morina.>

Previous                                        Next

The First Shot – Part 7

MAJ Ward exchanged fire with the two assassins, but it was a futile battle. He popped out of cover randomly low and high to get better shots, but they had the numbers. While one kept the MAJ pinned the other advanced and vice versa, and then there was the banging on the front door. The Redcoats were coming and it was only a matter of time before they broke through.

The MAJ cursed as he crouched low, left cover, and got a single shot off before rounds ripped into the ruined doorway. One ricocheted and smacked him in the gut where he’d taken the last blast less than twelve hours ago in another time.

“Damn!” He could see they were within twenty yards. “Come on Colour Sergeant.”

Unfortunately, the British beat the Easterners into the church. He heard the door coming loose on its hinges as the soldiers threw their weight into it and it crumbled. Four redcoats streamed into the room and spread out into a line. The MAJ was already on the move. He dove behind the pews to avoid the volley.

“Fire!” The soldier in charge bellowed and muskets went off with a roar.

Their heavy balls were slow moving, but they still did plenty of damage. Chunks of the pews were blown apart, and if the MAJ hadn’t low-crawled away he would have gotten some nasty splinters. He was a quarter of the way to the pulpet when the Easterners joined the party.

“You two, halt in the name of the . . .!” The soldier never finished as modern, silenced rounds tore into them. They collapsed in a spray of blood.

The MAJ had a fleeting thought that this wasn’t how it was supposed to go, but it was interrupted by a resounding BOOM. He was already rolling forward into one of the pews to get out of the assassins’ line of fire. He came up in a kneeling position with his pistol raised and ready, but the assassins were already in full retreat. He took a shot, but his bullet buried itself in the wall a few inches from his target’s shoulder before he disappeared through the wrecked door.

The MAJ didn’t take the time to relax. If anything, his situation was even worse than before. Something had exploded, four soldiers were dead, and he didn’t even know if the CSGT was still alive. He did know he needed to move, and he moved quickly to the wall and along it so he had a good line of sight on both doors. People outside were screaming now, undoubtedly because of the gunfire, but when he got to the foot of the stairs he could see something much worse was on their minds.

Not only was there a groaning twenty-second century royal marine struggling to get up, but the MAJ could see flames licking at the stairs.

“Sorry, Sir.” The CSGT winced as he struggled to his feet. “I got the lanterns up, but I doubt that’s what anyone is looking at.”

The screams outside solidified into a single word now that he was close enough to the door.

“FIRE!”

Towns of this time period were primarily made of wood. A fire was a danger to everyone, and every available man would be running to the nearest pumping station to fill their buckets and help. More than one great city had burned down throughout history because a fire got out of control. For the MAJ and CSGT, it offered an opportunity.

“Come on.” The MAJ easily hoisted up the CSGT and headed for the front door. He didn’t dare go out the back with the assassins still unaccounted for.

They emerged into a growing crowd of men. Dozens were throwing buckets of waters on the flames. A quick look at it and it was clear the church wasn’t going to make it, and the chances of saving the buildings on either side of it were slim. It didn’t look like the fire would spread much further if the men were able to get ahead of it, but nothing was certain.

The MAJ was in a minor state of shock as he half-carried the CSGT away from the blaze. Men called after them, many of them cursing, but the MAJ didn’t stop. It wasn’t the fight that had shocked him. They’d come as close to victory as they could with those odds, but he’d just changed history. Longfellow would no longer write about the midnight ride of Paul Revere. He’d write about the burning of the Old North Church and the mystery of the men who started it.

“I’m good, Sir.” The CSGT walked under his own power once they’d rounded the corner. “I just busted my gut. Probably broke a rib.” The marine seemed to grimace every time he took a breath.

“We’ll patch you up when we get back across the river.” The MAJ’s eyes scanned the area for any threats but didn’t find anything. “Let’s get the Lieutenant.”

The LT was skulking in the shadows of an alley two blocks from the church. You’d actually have to enter the alley’s darkness to see him at this time of night, and if you were an unwanted guest he would have finished you by then.

“What the hell happened?” were his first words when they arrived.

“Nothing we can change now.” The MAJ needed to focus on the present. “We need to get back to the others right away. We’ll discuss it in the AAR.”

The after action review was going to be a weird one. Item number one on list of improves would be to not burn down eighteenth century Boston on the eve of the American Revolution.

Getting back across the river was more difficult than expected. The ferry didn’t run at night and soldiers guarded the area. The fire helped them in that regard. Dozens of Redcoats were streaming toward the church to help fight the flames, which left only a few to guard the small boats.

“Excuse me, good Sir.” The CSGT limped up to a young man who couldn’t have been much older than twenty.

The young guard seemed torn between leveling his musket at the CSGT or appearing more helpful to a clearly injured man.

“You can’t be here.” The guard didn’t point the long musket at the CSGT, but he hefted it so he could quickly bring it on target.

“Apologies, governor. I just wanted to report a crime.”

That piqued the guard’s interest for a second until an arm wrapped around his throat.

“I’d like to report a robbery,” the CSGT continued. “We’re stealing your boat.”

“Get in the boat, Sergeant.” The LT hissed as he undid the lines tying it to the dock.

The MAJ waited until the guard’s body went limp before he let the man slump to the ground. Too many people had already died tonight that shouldn’t have. He and the LT took the two sets of oars and started paddling, while the CSGT provided rear security. Once they were two hundred yards out they all relaxed a little. There was little chance anyone could hit them from that range without using cannons.

They made it across the small strip of water in what would have been Olympic record time for that day and age. The MAJ had a lot to do with that. He was a big and strong guy, and he’d been that way since birth. Twenty-second century scientists had mapped the human genome by the time the MAJ was born, and they’d developed techniques to tweak the genome in embryos before birth. They couldn’t do anything crazy, but they could eliminate a lot of genetic diseases or weaknesses, so when the MAJ’s parents got pregnant they had the procedures done.

He came from a military family. His father was a full-bird colonel, and his family had someone serve in every war since the 2020 campaign in Afghanistan. One Ward had even made general. It was a forgone conclusion that Thomas Ward would serve his country just like the rest of his family had for one hundred and twenty years, so they gave him the tools to do it. His strength, dexterity, hand-eye coordination, speed, and intelligence were all built on a foundation of good genes. What had come after that was all because of his hard work and effort, but he had a good canvas to work with.

“What should we do with the boat?” The LT asked when they pulled it ashore just outside of Charlestown.

“Push it out and sink it. It’s better if they don’t know we’re here.” The MAJ’s eyes swept the commotion going on in Charlestown.

It seemed like the whole town was coming out to see the fire blazing across the river. The small team of soldiers waited for the boat to mostly submerge before heading in to where they’d left Chambers, Cuthbert, Dr. Shaw, and Captain Tanaka.

They’d rented a room at a small inn, but the MAJ had no intention of staying.

“Why, Major?” Cuthbert bucked at the orders to pack it up. “You completed your mission. The patriots know how the British are going to advance. There is no need for us to go traipsing off to Lexington in the middle of the night.”

The MAJ held his temper before responding to the spy. He was used to having his orders followed with no backtalk. “By my count there are at least two Easterners remaining. For all we know they told the Redcoats about Revere and Dawes. They could even be prisoners by now. We need to head out now so that we can get ahead of the British column and make sure the minutemen are mustering. If there is no one to meet them at the Lexington Green then this war never gets started.”

“I don’t see why this is our problem.” Cuthbert pushed back again.

“It’s our problem because we swore oaths to protect and defend the Commonwealth.” The MAJ turned on Cuthbert and stepped into his personal space. “We have an obligation to see that history is not altered and puts both or our nations at a disadvantage. Do you understand?” The question was a challenge.

“Yes,” the spy answered after a second despite his frown. “I’m just playing devil’s advocate.”

The MAJ doubted it, but he had bigger things to worry about. Saddling horses was not something he had a lot of skill at since riding one into battle was suicide from his perspective. He was able to manage it along with the LT and SEAL PO2. The CSGT and the rest piled into the wagon where the wounded marine and Cuthbert sat in the front while the women took the back. Dr. Shaw worked on wrapping a bandage around the CSGT even as they started off down the road.

The SEAL looked pissed he had missed all the action, but now that secrecy wasn’t as big an issue the MAJ doubted he’d be on the sidelines for long. They kicked their horses into motion and galloped away from the small city. Speed would be what allowed them to get around the column marching west toward Lexington and Concord. The MAJ knew from his history books that Dawes and Revere were supposed to reach Lexington before the British even stepped off from Lechmere Point, but with the fire and the gun battle at the church he just didn’t know anymore.

They almost snapped the axel on the wagon carrying half the team while they road hard for their goal, but it miraculously held together. The MAJ, LT, and PO2 felt like they were constantly getting punched in the nuts. None were comfortable on horseback.

They reached the first town on the road to Lexington and found it dark.

“Where the hell is Revere?” The MAJ was slightly ahead of the rest of the group and sitting in the open square surrounded by a handful of buildings. He was supposed to evade a patrol and head farther north, but he still hadn’t been here.

“This can’t be good.” The LT pulled up his horse beside the MAJ’s.

The MAJ dismounted and hurried to the closest door. He slammed his fist against it and yelled the thing that made the most sense.

“Get up! The British are coming. They’re marching on Lexington. Assemble at the Green! To arms!”

The LT and PO2 followed his example. They spent five minutes pounding on doors. Candles were lit and people came to see what all the ruckus was about, but they couldn’t stay.

“The British are coming! To arms!” He yelled one last time before kicking his horse and galloping out of town followed by his team.

“Sir,” the CSGT called from behind him with a tell-tale shit-eating grin on his face. “I thought you said that Revere fellow never said that.”

“Shut up, Willy.” The MAJ ordered, but he couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across his face.

He wasn’t just reading history anymore. He was history, but more importantly, he was participating in the growing chain of events that founded the United States of America. It was mind-blowing.

They stopped at every town and hamlet between Charlestown and Lexington. Once there, he had a decision to make. In the history they’d come from, Prescott made it all the way to Concord to warn Sam Adams and John Hancock of the Redcoats looking to seize their guns and powder. As much as the MAJ wanted to meet those legendary men, he was needed here. He bellowed to a separate group of men on horseback to go to Concord. The MAJ didn’t know any of these men, and they didn’t know him, but a lifetime of command was recognizable in his actions. The other men obeyed his order without hesitation and galloped toward the town a few miles away.

Men were starting to arrive in numbers at the Green. By the time the sun broke the horizon, and the night’s crazy events came to an end, there were over fifty men standing in staggered ranks. The MAJ and his team weren’t among them. Many of the men had grumbled when he lied about having to ride onward to alert more of the surrounding area, but the glare he gave them silenced their complaints. The aura of command hadn’t changed much in three hundred and sixty-six years. That, or his sheer size scared them into it. He was probably one of the biggest men they’d ever seen.

The team took up position in the tree line with a semi-obstructed view of the Green. All the soldiers were in full armor now, and were using their technology to its fullest potential.

“I’ve got hostiles approaching.” Chambers was the first to locate the approaching British column.

They looked every bit the professional army. They marched in step, with flags fluttering in the morning breeze, and drums accompanied by fiddles gave the men motivation. They’d marched fifteen to twenty miles through the night. Through his scope the MAJ could see they looked tired, and he couldn’t blame them, but the coming action seemed to revitalize them.

“Give me a count.” The MAJ asked as he turned his attention to the militiamen.

They did not look like an army. They looked like a rag tag band of farmers with guns standing between their homes and the most professional fighting force in the world. They couldn’t win this fight. They wouldn’t win this fight, but they would stand up and die for their beliefs.

“I’ve got seventy-seven militiamen and three hundred and ninety-six Redcoats.” The SEAL reported.

“Three hundred and ninety-six?” The MAJ took his eyes off the militiamen and turned toward the PO2. “Count it again.”

“Is something wrong?” Dr. Shaw crawled up next to the MAJ.

The soldiers were in a firing line spaced a solid ten meters apart. The three spies were supposed to be watching their rear. They were armed with pistols, which was more than enough to overcome any force trying to sneak up on them with sheer rate of fire. What they weren’t supposed to be doing was crawling up to talk to the soldiers.

“Get back to your position, Doctor.” The MAJ reprimanded her. He could only see part of her face because of all the data on his HUD, but what he could see told him she wasn’t going to follow his orders like she was supposed to.

“The militiamen’s numbers are correct, but there should be roughly seven hundred Redcoats. There are only half that many here, which makes me wonder where the other half is. It also makes me want to have people watching my back, which is your job, Doctor, so get back in position now.” This time he got through to her. That, or the thought of another three hundred Redcoats sneaking up on them.

She returned to her position, and the SEAL confirmed the number again.

“Shit.” He kept that to himself as he surveyed the Green.

The Redcoats were forming up less than a hundred yards from the militiamen. The prevailing infantry tactics of the time were linear. A line of soldiers – a few ranks deep – stood close to one another and fired volleys back and forth. The style of fighting was brought into being by the proliferation of hand guns and the relatively short range of the smooth-bore muskets with their long reload times. Massed formation fire was necessary to shock the enemy by concentrating fire at the center of their line. The goal was to rout the enemy and have them retreat in disarray. Moving a line of troops was very slow, and they’d inevitably lose cohesion, but it was the foundation of armies at the time, and the British were the best in the world.

It was clearly evident on the Green as the Redcoats formed up. The MAJ saw the SEAL’s targeting laser drift over and lock onto the center of the British officer’s chest.

“Hold fire.” The MAJ’s order was met with grumbling. “We can’t interfere. We need to let this play out.”

The Battle of Lexington played out right in front of their eyes.

“Thrown down your weapons. Ye villains, ye rebels!” The British officer yelled across the battlefield at the militiamen.

There was clear confusion and fear on the faces of the militiamen. It wasn’t the seven hundred Redcoats history said it was, but it was nearly half that many, and they were still outnumbered the militia more than four to one.

“Any second now.” The MAJ had the whole battlefield in view and was recording. He’d be able to catch who fired first and finally figure out who fired the shot heard around the world.”

The militia commander was seeing the futility of the defense and was ordering his men to disperse when . . .

A shot, clear and loud rang out through the morning sky . . . and a round punched into the middle of the MAJ’s back.

“SNIPER!” The LT rolled over and sent a stream of fire off into the distance while the rest of the soldiers rolled out of their positions and towards cover.

The sound of the Redcoats opening fire on the disorganized militiamen was lost in the heat of the battle in the trees.

“Motherfucker!” The MAJ yelled as he rolled away just before a second round struck the ground and sent a fountain of dirt into the air.

The MAJ didn’t feel his life leaking onto the ground around him, so his armor had stopped the shot, but it hurt like he’d just been kicked by a pissed off horse and his legs were sluggish at best.

“I’ve got him! Six hundred meters at one hundred and ninety-three degrees,” the CSGT zeroed in on the assassin.

A stream of bullets cut through the New England forest toward the assassin’s known location. The MAJ added his own rate of fire to the onslaught. He’d didn’t know if they got the guy or not, but the sniper fire stopped.

The musket fire did not. The screams of dead and dying militiamen cut through the air when the M18s and L96A1s were silenced. The MAJ crawled back to his vantage point and got a look at the chaos. The British officer was trying to regain control of his formation, but a thick cloud of smoke – indicating several volleys – was already floating away on the morning breeze. There was a lot less smoke coming from the militiamen and a lot more screams.

History said that only one Redcoat was injured compared to eight militiamen dead and nine more injured. That looked close to correct. No Redcoats were on the ground, but about twenty percent of the militiamen were down and half weren’t moving. The rest had scattered in retreat.

The Battle of Lexington was over, but the shot heard around the world hadn’t come from either side. It had been fired by a Chinese sniper at an American major from the future who’d been looking in the wrong direction. That was a hell of an omission from the history books.

The American Revolution had begun, but the MAJ and his team had a feeling in their guts that things were going to be different this time around.

That might not be a good thing.

Previous

The First Shot – Part 6

Lieutenant Allen Thrumball was born to a working-class mother and father just outside London. He’d done well in secondary school, was a talented athlete, but he’d never been good enough to get scholarships to apply to university. His parents didn’t have the finances to help, and there was a growing unease in the country about the expansion of the countries in Asia and Eastern Europe. So, like many other Englishmen and women in a time of crisis, he joined the Army.

What Allen lacked in scholastic aptitude or athletics he made up for in soldiering. He rose rapidly through the ranks to sergeant before the merger of his country with the Americans became official. With the Army’s backing, he attended an American college online, graduated, accepted a commission as an officer, and was deemed worthy of service in His Majesties Special Air Services. He’d been a soldier for many years, and done cross training with units like Major Ward’s Rangers and Petty Officer Chambers’ SEALs, but this was only his second mission as an officer.

Allen couldn’t help but think about how things were playing out as he sat on a street corner opposite the Old North Church. His education on the American’s war for independence was nonexistent, aside from knowing it was one of many wars the British Empire was fighting at the time. He had to bow to the wisdom of Major Ward on this matter. Not only because of his knowledge, but because he was still the senior Commonwealth officer and in command.

The thought that the Commonwealth wouldn’t even come into existence for centuries had crossed the young officer’s mind, but it hardly mattered. He knew nothing of this time or place, and after seeing the MAJ in action, he wasn’t particularly inclined to start anything that he’d later regret.

That brought him to his current mission. He was searching for Thomas Bernard without knowing who the man was or what he looked like. All he knew was what the MAJ had told him. Luckily, Allen had done a few details with the American Secret Service when the President came to speak with the Prime Minister when the talks for formalizing the Commonwealth Charter were underway.

He’d been on the periphery of the security cordon – mostly watching people from rooftops with a high-powered rifle – but the tidbits of information the attached agents had given him were priceless.

It was tough to look inconspicuous just standing on a street corner, and there wasn’t a tablet or phone to pull out and fiddle with to look busy. He noticed a few soldiers walking the streets give him a curious look, so he tipped the hat he’d stolen in their direction and moved out of sight. Once around the corner, he slid his hand into his jacket and sought the reassurance of his pistol. He removed it from its holster and slid his hand into the opposite pocket, grabbed the silencer, and quickly screwed it on the muzzle. The silencer would reduce the velocity of the bullet, but it was more than enough to take down unarmored soldiers if they got too suspicious.

He peeked back around the corner. The soldiers were still holding their position, but were facing the other direction. He scanned the scene and looked for anything out of the ordinary. He watched people’s hands to make sure they weren’t in their pockets carrying a weapon. He looked at people’s eyes. People who were scanning the area were usually up to something.

He stopped and reminded himself the man he was looking for wasn’t a trained operative or assassin. He was a scared man who wanted to warn his people about how the enemy soldiers were going to attack.

Allen found his target when he stopped in front of the church and two other men headed around back. He was an unremarkable-looking man, with a piggish-nose, and eyes that flitted around the area. They lingered too long on the soldiers, but the Redcoats were still looking in the wrong direction.

Allen used his jacket to conceal his pistol as he pointed it from the hip in the man’s direction. One pull of the trigger and he could change this war and world history. That was not the kind of responsibility he wanted, so he kept his eyes on the street looking for danger. He needed to make sure no one alerted the soldiers to what the American patriots were up to.

“Target acquired.” He sent the message to his teammates and waited.

He didn’t have to wait long.

The area wasn’t crowded by twenty-second century standards, but there was a steady stream of people moving back and forth. He kept an eye on all of them, and discarded them as threats one by one. So, it came as a surprise when another average-looking man walked past Bernard and deftly stabbed the American in the throat.

Bernard was just as stunned as Allen. His hand shot up to stem the bleeding, but it was already too late. The knife had severed the jugular and he would bleed out quickly.

“Shit.” Allen reacted.

His first shot was fired from the hip. He was used to his HUD’s aiming features and not having them was making him careless. Silencers didn’t truly silence a weapon firing, but it made it much softer. The bullet striking the brick of the church as it flew past the assassin wasn’t soft at all.

The assassin was good. He didn’t stop to see who was shooting at him, he just started walking at a brisk place for the nearest cover. He turned to provide the smallest profile possible in the direction the shot had come from. Allen begrudgingly respected the man. The Easterners had sent capable soldiers to end the Commonwealth threat against them.

Fortunately, Allen was pretty good at his job. He resisted the urge to charge into the crowded street, stepped back out of sight of the soldiers, brought his pistol up into a proper stance, aimed, and fired. The shot was from thirty meters away in a rapidly clearing crowd – they’d seen the bleeding man and heard the crack of the first bullet – so he got a full view of the round drilling through the side of the man’s head and leaving a gaping exit wound. Blood and brains splattered the side of the building as the assassin slumped to the ground very dead.

Allen quickly lowered the gun and hid it in the folds of his jacket. “Bernard’s down. You’ve got hostiles incoming. One tango down. I’m Oscar-Mike.” He sent the terse message as he turned and walked away from the church.

The soldiers were hurrying toward Bernard and the dead assassin. Soon they’d shut down the surrounding area and search for the culprits. Allen would be long gone, but the MAJ and CSGT were still inside.

He wished them good luck as he turned the corner onto another block. They had a designated rally point in an alley not far from here. He’d wait there until morning. If they didn’t come he’d head back across the harbor to Charlestown and regroup with the rest of the team. After that, they’d just have to figure everything out for themselves.

 

***

 

Colour Sergeant William McGee was known by many names. The marines in his unit who didn’t call him fire-crotch called him Willy the Fish, because he could drink like one. As far as anyone knew, he held the battalion’s record for alcohol consumption. It was a term of endearment, but that wasn’t how most people saw him throughout his early life. The most common name yelled at him was “ye little shit”.

Willy had grown up wild. He’d never known his birth parents, and he’d bounced through the system for fifteen years before landing with someone who didn’t take his shit anymore. He wasn’t Dad to Willy, he was the Old Man, and he was a tough old bastard. A former Royal Marine, Willy’s foster father had taught him as much discipline as was legally allowed outside the military. The man taught Willy how to fight, how to read the room, and how to say stupid shit without someone wanting to beat your ass for it. Although, Willy thought he had that down already.

Ultimately, he’d joined the Royal Marines because of the Old Man. If he was being honest with himself, the Old Man had saved his life. Sure, joining the marines had almost gotten his ass shot off half a dozen times, but he was still kicking. Now he was kicking in the door of an eighteenth century church in the eighteenth century. Life was weird.

Willy went right while the MAJ went left. They advanced down the side aisles and cleared each pew. They moved with a purpose, because speed was their only advantage here. They were horribly exposed.

“Clear.” The MAJ had longer legs and finished his sweep five seconds before Willy.

“Clear,” he echoed and placed the gun back inside his coat. He didn’t want to scare the locals who would be coming by soon to make history.

They found some cover to hide behind and waited . . . and waited . . .  and waited. A loud crack was the only reprieve from them hiding behind heavy curtains like a couple of thieves.

“Bernard’s down. You’ve got hostiles incoming. One tango down. I’m Oscar-Mike.” The LT’s voice came over the comms.

“Redcoats are going to be in here any minute.” The MAJ grunted as they hurried from their hiding spots toward the back doors.

They just hoped the American Patriots got those lanterns into the tower or whatever it was they were here to ensure happened. Willy didn’t care much about English history, so he cared even less about American History. They made it to the rear wooden door, opened it, and nearly stepped on two dead bodies slumped on the steps. They had multiple stab marks with blood leaking out of their chests and necks that he could see.

“Shit.” The MAJ looked around, and saw two men walking calmly away from them about fifty yards away.

The men looked back and locked eyes with the MAJ.

“I’d venture to guess these are Pulling and Newman.” Willy tried to keep the smart-ass out of his tone, but it was hard.

“Move!” The MAJ grabbed Willy and pulled him back inside the church just as rounds started cracking into the plaster where his head used to be. “Take two lanterns up to the steeple and leave them displayed for a few seconds. That’s all the time the Patriots need to send the signal to Revere. Go! I’ll hold them off.”

Willy didn’t even stop to contemplate that this couldn’t possibly be how history turned out, but he knew orders when he heard them. He rushed to the stairs and even took a couple of seconds to lock the front door on the way. He was only halfway to the stairs when banging and shouts to open the door in the name of the King started coming from the other side.

He didn’t have time for that. He heard more cracks of silenced rounds smacking into the church and knew he needed to hurry. He was in great shape, so running up the short distance to the steeple didn’t even have him breathing heavy.

He cursed for a few seconds trying to find the lanterns and then for something to light them. There was plenty of oil lying around, but the tinderbox was hidden. He hadn’t smoked since he moved into the Old Man’s house. He laughed at the irony before he found the supplies he needed. It took him thirty seconds to light the lanterns with the antiquated materials before bringing them over toward the window. Then he froze.

He had no idea which side to put them on, and he didn’t have time to think about it. The sound of footsteps rushing up the stairs was all the warning he had. He stuck the two lanterns on the sill, and whipped around to meet the newcomers. He was expecting to see redcoats with their big, awkward muskets pointed at him, but instead a short man vaulted off the last step and launched himself toward Willy.

A gleam caught the lantern-light and gave him the split second he needed to avoid the knife. He twisted, but it still cut a deep gash across his forearm. He didn’t have time to curse as the stinging pain worked its way through his whole body before the man was all over him.

The guy was fast. A few punches and kicks landed before Willy even knew what was happening. One made him crumble down to his knees, and he was barely able to get his arms up to avoid a knee to the face that would have broken his nose. He was in a shit position and he knew it. The only silver lining was the guy didn’t hit nearly as hard as some of his mates, so he was still in the fight. When he caught an opening he launched himself at the attacker. He caught a punch to the chin, but he powered through it. One hand grabbed the man’s cheap jacket and the other raked his face. As he dug his fingers in, Willy felt the flesh mask dislodge and slide off in his hand.

“Fucking wanker!” he growled as the Chinese agent threw a powerful kick at his head.

He ducked under it and sprang up with the full power of his legs. He caught the assassin hard in the upper-chest and they both went sprawling. The tackle caused them to knock both lanterns onto the floor. The weak glass shattered and fire crept onto the wood.

He didn’t have time to think about it as both men struggled for position. Willy ended up on top in the man’s guard. He rained down a few punches, but the man caught and trapped one of his arms.

Willy knew the man was going for the triangle choke. He was already lodging Willy’s arm against his throat while using his legs to increase pressure on the back and side of his neck. Willy had been choked out on more than one occasion by this move, so he knew how to counter it. It was too late to get his arm out of the lock it was in, so he made sure to get his footing right before starting to lift up the man. As predicted, the man tried to grab Willy’s leg and pull it out from under him, but he’d already moved them out of his way.

Willy was short, but this man was shorter, and that screwed the little assassin. He lifted the man up until he was over his head and then slammed him hard back onto the wooden floor. The wooden boards below them cracked, but the floor held. The wind was knocked out of the little assassin, which allowed Willy to worm out of the hold and get his hand on his gun. In a smooth motion he slid it out of the holster and pointed it at the man’s chest. The man was reaching for his own belt, but he was too slow.

Willy put three rounds into the guy and he stopped moving.

The fire was starting to grow and he was standing over a body, but the Royal Marine took a second to catch his breath and massage his throat. He’d have a few bruises from this fight tomorrow. He looked down at the assassin – a worthy opponent – and saw a red light flashing in his hand. Being an expert in demolitions, Willy immediately knew what that was. He didn’t hesitate. He sprinted for the stairs and threw himself headfirst down them.

He wasn’t concerned about the injuries he’d sustain as the high explosive grenade detonated. It easily destroyed the steeple and showered glass on the crowds gathering on the streets below, but it also hit the extra fuel for the lanterns. The barrels the flammable liquid was in were disintegrated under the pressure wave of the explosion and spewed everywhere.

Half the Old North Church went up in flames as debris and fire rained down into the city around it.

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