Two Worlds – Chapter 148

Noah Grisham

Location: System 1861, United Commonwealth of Colonies

The place was in pandemonium. It was like a fox was in the chicken coup and biting off chicken heads left and right. Noah hadn’t ever seen a real fox, but they must have been ruthless creatures if whoever coined the phrase was telling the truth.

Alarms had started blaring once the Collie ship slingshotted around the planet. For a second they thought they’d dodged a bullet, only to find the bullet headed right at them faster than they expected. Everyone with a ship had abandoned the place when the distraction went off. Noah had been as surprised as anyone that they had old-school nukes, but the plan was great. Faruk knew his shit. It wouldn’t buy them a lot of time, but all the Collies would be able to get were some emission signatures, and if they were close enough some visuals.

“Shit!” By the time Noah and Able made it to the hanger they couldn’t locate anyone named Alvarez, and everyone was too busy getting the hell out of there.

When they got back to the arms dealer the shop was closed up and he was nowhere to be found.

“At least we have a name.” Able commented with a shrug as he walked toward Dawn. The guard Faruk had posted was long gone, but no one had done anything in the chaos.

“Can we make it?” Noah asked when they were both on the small bridge of the mining ship.

“If we leave now, yes.” Able was already powering up the engines. “They’ll get a good look at Dawn though.”

“We can always make adjustments.” But that wasn’t what Noah was worried about.

So far, this was his only lead on the people who’d fucked him over. All he had was the name ‘Alvarez’, definetly a fake name, and suspicions. That only went so far. He needed something more concrete that he could use to take action on. He needed people to pay for what they’d done, and there was a chance that if he ran he’d never get the vengeance he was looking for.

<What can you do if you’re dead?> That ultimately made up his mind.

“Get us out of here.”

The Dawn fled System 1861 like everyone else.

 

***

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: CWS Argo, System 1861, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Lock and load boys and girls, the Devil is playing his fiddle and we’re invited to the party.” SGT O’Neil walked down the center of the group of soldiers.

The soldiers were loading weapons, running last-minute diagnostics on armor, or just shooting the shit with each other over private TACCOM channels. For a few of the green privates, this was their first rodeo, but not for Coop.

“What the hell is he talking about?” Coop was more of the shoot the shit type of person before an operation. There were only so many times you could run a diagnostic and get a green thumbs up.

“Sarge is from the Papal Planets. He’s got a scripture quote or something about the idle hands being the devil’s playground for just about everything. It’s annoying as fuck.” One of the ship’s assigned marines responded.

“Yeah, what the fuck is a fiddle anyway?” Coop scoffed.

“A fiddle is a bowed string musical instrument sometimes called a violin; although, they’re usually more primitively constructed or smaller than proper violins.” SGT O’Neil walked up to the two soldiers and stood between them. “There are countless stories of the Devil using music to seduce his victims.”

“Roger that, Sergeant. You’ve got nothing to worry about here. I’m not into dudes.” Coop replied with a straight face.

“Who said the Devil is a man, Cooper?” The Sergeant left Coop scratching his head as he moved on to check on the other soldiers in the assault team.

Argo was decelerating for an intercept with the asteroid, but the rock taking pot shots at her with energy beams was making the process longer than expected. Coop wasn’t worried though. He’d overheard the CPO on the bridge telling Ben that the beams looked like they were being aimed by a five-year-old, and even if they miraculously hit Argo they wouldn’t do much more than scratch her paint. They were meant to dissuade someone without military-grade ES armor.

“Ten minutes, marines.” The SGT announced, so apparently things were moving along quickly now.

The issue they’d run into while planning the operation was the insertion portion. There were three possibilities the skipper and marine NCO came up with. The first was to fly Argo into their hanger and use the railguns as point defense against anything and anyone the pirates threw against them. That plan had been quickly shot down when it had been pointed out that they’d fired two nukes at them and there could easily be another one set up as a self-destruct mechanism to get rid of any evidence on the asteroid. That was not something Coop liked to hear as one of the people who would likely be inside the asteroid when it happened.

Option number two was a short space walk on the crust, followed by blowing the doors, and then insertion. This was a better idea than putting Argo in danger, but it would still leave the marines vulnerable to attack or any countermeasures on the surface of the asteroid. A cursory scan had already shown a few poorly-hidden mines.

Option number three – the option eventually approved by the skipper and SGT O’Neil – was to use the gunboat’s small shuttle. It put the fewest number of soldiers at risk and would allow the marines to get a foothold on the asteroid by ferrying soldiers back and forth. It sounded good on paper, but it sucked ass for Coop. The shuttle was only big enough for the pilot and maybe three tightly-packed marines, but the SGT wasn’t going to send three lightly-armed soldiers into an unpredictable situation. They were going to send Coop.

“That’s why you get paid the big bucks.” A marine patted Coop’s hulking armored frame when he got the good news.

“I don’t get paid any more than you do. This is bullshit,” Coop shot back, but kept the last bit to himself.

Now, he was stuffing himself into the back of the shuttle. The thing was used to transport VIPs back and forth, and had not been designed for a fully-armed HI trooper. “I ain’t fixing this shit.” Coop announced as he scraped up the walls, cracked some display, and tore up the lining of the seats.

The pilot didn’t say anything. His hands were shaking. The shuttle had minimal point defense lasers and no offensive weaponry. It was not designed to do what they were about to do, and the only thing protecting the pilot was his CMU’s on combat mode and a helmet. If they got hit he was fucked, but Coop might survive.

“Uh…we’re ready.” The pilot gulped.

“Hey, calm down.” Coop told the man forcefully. There was no way he was going to die because the guy was so nervous he forgot how to fly. “You just get me there and I’ll do the rest.”

The reply was the shuttle dropping out of Argo and jerking as it left the ship’s internal gravity field. That didn’t help the shuttle’s interior. Coop was surprised he didn’t poke a hole through the thin hull.

The asteroid loomed large in front of them. There was some debris floating around it where Argo’s armaments had taken out the energy cannons and anything else that presented a threat to the shuttle. The gunboat was still standing guard as the shuttle shot toward the ball of rock, but there wasn’t much it would really be able to do if they missed a laser. The CPO might be good, but he wasn’t faster than light.

The pilot took evasive action on the approach, and by the time they reached the metal doors of the asteroid’s main hanger bay Coop was a little woozy. The shuttle didn’t have the internal gravity field that the gunboat did. It didn’t have much at all.

“They left the front door open,” the pilot gulped as the tiny shuttle slipped through the massive doors. Argo would have been able to easily get through those doors.

Millimeter wave radar painted the hanger and updated Coop’s STRATNET. It was exactly what they studied before the operation. A central runway ran half a kilometer down the center of the hanger. On either side of it were little cubby holes where you could either park a small ship or stack supplies. All Coop saw was a lot of dead space where a fire team could be sitting waiting to fire a shoulder-launched missile down the shuttle’s throat.

“Drop me off here.” Coop instructed the pilot once they’d passed the giant door.

“I’m supposed to take you to the end.” The pilot’s hands had relaxed, and Coop took that as a bad sign. Things weren’t better now, they were even more dangerous.

“Get me on the fucking ground now!” Coop’s tone did the trick and the pilot put the shuttle in a shallow dive while twisting it around one hundred and eighty degrees.

“Pressurizing.” The pilot’s compartment sealed itself off from Coop’s spot in the rear while all of the air exited. His LACS was environmentally secured, so he didn’t notice the change aside from some changes in the sensor readings. “Good luck.” The skids hit the ground and the rear hatch popped open.

If Coop – or any other soldier – had their way they would have moved with a purpose to the next available cover or concealment. Instead, he had to squeeze his big metal ass out of a small hole. A sniper could have fucked him up good in the critical seconds it took to unass from the shuttle, but thankfully no one punched his ticket.

“I’m in.” His breathing was heavy and his leg was a little sore as he moved from cover to cover clearing those big open sections.

<I could have used some drones.> He’d asked for some of the pencil-sized copters that would expand his awareness while sitting there alone, but was denied. They only had a dozen aboard, and they were saving them until more boots were on the ground.

He’d cleared a quarter of the area before the shuttle reappeared with the rest of the fire team he was leading.

“Where the fuck are you going?” Coop radioed the pilot when the small craft overshot his position. “Get the fuck back here and…”

The LACS HUD went from clear to red as his armor detected the missile launch. It all happened so fast that Coop’s neural network was the only thing fast enough to respond. Thankfully, Coop was paranoid as fuck after seeing the blueprints of the hanger and knowing he was going in alone.

The pilot was just starting to bank when the missile fired from the far side of the space. Coop took a small amount of satisfaction knowing that he’d made the right call in getting dropped off at the end of the runway, because they’d have eaten that missile and there wasn’t anything he could have done about it.

He was able to do something about this one.

The railgun swiveled and put up a wall of lead between the shuttle and missile. The missile exploded about twenty-five meters from the shuttle, which saved it from destruction but still fucked it up a bit. The small craft spun wildly in the air before the pilot got it under control. It was a good thing it spun away from Coop’s position or else he wouldn’t have been able to get a lock on to the rocket-team’s location.

His armor vibrated as an anti-personnel shell rotated into his 125mm tube and the computer calculated the trajectory. Coop took a knee, but kept his Buss and railgun trained in the direction they’d taken fire from. He felt the tremor through his armor, and spike of pain in his leg, as the cannon fired. There wasn’t a lot of height to the hanger bay, so the shell came in on a shallow arc and detonated about head-level. Ceramic bits spewed out in a torrent of death that would turn any human into finely puréed meat, but the missile’s onboard camera took a picture of the scene before detonating. Whoever had fired the missile had hauled ass after trying to sucker punch the marines, so he destroyed a whole lot of nothing.

“We’re clear. They shot and booked it out of here.” Coop hustled over to where the pilot had put down the shuttle.

One of the onboard marine’s status icons was yellow. He’d been smashed around the interior after the explosion and broken a few things. The rest of the team was green though, and they spread out quickly to form a loose perimeter.

<What is it with me and hanger bays?> Coop wondered as he took stock of the situation.

It didn’t take long to figure out the shuttle was down for a minute. A few pieces of shrapnel needed to be pulled from the hull and patched before it could fly again in space. That left him with three total fighters including him. The injured marine could be useful in a pinch, but by the dark stain on the crotch of the pilot’s CMUs, Coop guessed the Fleet guy wasn’t going to be of much use in a firefight.

“We need to clear the rest of this hanger, look for booby traps, and secure the entrances and exits.” Coop gave the order because either Argo was going to pull in, or the shuttle had nine more runs to make, and one good hit was all it would take to turn it into a flaming ball of wreckage.

“You two on me.” Coop took point. “Let’s get it done.”

<The quicker we get it done the quicker the Sergeant can get here and take over.> Coop wasn’t a fan of this taking charge crap.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 147

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: CWS Argo, System 1861, United Commonwealth of Colonies

“Anything yet, XO?” Ben was sitting in his command chair anxiously tapping his fingers against the armrest.

Everyone else on the bridge was busy at work analyzing the data sent in by the drones, or running Argo. Currently, the gunboat was decelerating toward the planet it was going to orbit around while the drones scanned the locations.

Coop watched all through the helmet sensors in his LACS. He was standing guard with another PVT. It was standard operating procedure to have a marine guard stationed at the hatch to the bridge when in enemy territory or even unknown space. Some skippers had the marines on guard twenty-four-seven no matter where they were. Thankfully, Ben didn’t have that big of a stick up his ass, but he’d still requested Coop to be on guard detail once the ship starting heading into the system after transition.

<Speaking of asses.> Coop adjusted his view and magnified. The XO was currently bending over something and… <Jackpot.>

The way the other PVT chuckled showed that he was enjoying the same sight. There really wasn’t much else to do on a small gunboat out in the middle of nowhere. VR porn only got you so far.

“Contact.” The XO’s curt alert dramatically changed the atmosphere on the bridge. A ripple of tension rolled outward from her.

Coop couldn’t blame them. They’d fought pirates once before and won the traditional battle, but they’d lost the war. They lost their captain, several marines, and then got benched for months because of it. It was in every spacers’ best interest to do well on this mission or their negative evaluation reports would follow them through the rest of their careers.

“What do you have?” Ben looked cool and collected – like a leader was supposed to – but Coop saw the change. The most telltale sign was that he’d stopped drumming his fingers annoyingly against the seat.

“I’ve got faint radiation readings coming from location alpha.” She made a swiping motion and the information traveled to the skipper’s display. “They’re still falling, but you can see there is an undertone of EM and even some basic radio waves.”

Coop zoomed in on the data from his post. He didn’t understand most of it, but there was a chart with numbers and shit on it. All the HI trooper needed to know was that there was a line with a zero. If there was no one home then the various signals Argo’s scanners were set to detect would come back with jack squat. Instead, the lines were elevated and fluctuating. Like the XO said, they were going down, but Coop knew what that meant.

The same thing happened back in the PHA. The Rats didn’t need any fancy equipment to pass the word that the cops were coming to do a welfare and contraband check. Lockouts passed the word when they saw the po-po blocks away and everyone sprang into action. Even the geriatric old bastards did their part. The black market goods sold in plain view in the lobby were packed away into secret compartments throughout the tower. That’s what Coop was seeing here. He was seeing the local black market trying to shut itself down real quick when they knew the cops were coming.

<Huh.> Coop had trouble thinking of himself as a sort-of-cop, but as long as he didn’t get the short end of the stick he really didn’t give a shit. He might even be able to use this to his advantage.

The various gangs and even tower complexes sometimes had a few cops on the payroll. As Rats they didn’t have much, but they could scrounge up a few bucks, some recreational narcotics, or even a fine woman for the cops to look the other way on something that would otherwise get a Rat busted. That was the life Hailey had been looking at before Coop took her as his own.

<Fuck…Hailey. I wonder how she’s doing.> It had been the first time Coop thought about his old fuckbuddy in a long time. It felt like another life, because it was another life.

Anything that happened before Basic belonged to weak-ass Coop’s life. Now, he was HI trooper Coop, the biggest baddest motherfucker in this system.

He shook his head and cleared it of the vision of the amber-eyed girl from his past and focused on the present. Being the cop in this situation might be a good thing after all.

“They’re trying to power down, but they’ll fire back up the moment they know we’re onto them.” The XO was still clicking away at her terminal. “I suggest we set this course.” A dotted line appeared in the holo-tank in front of the Skipper.

“Good thinking.” Ben mused for a second, but made a few tweaks. “We’ll use the planet to block our signature while we power up for a slingshot maneuver. We’ll use the planet’s gravity to cover the ground between it and the asteroid in half the time.”

Half the time still constituted seventy-three minutes, but that was the nature of space. It was really fucking big.

“When we’re within a light minute I want an active scan of that rock. Let’s give the marines something to work with.”

<Thank you.> No soldier liked to go into an op blind like this, and some planning was better than no planning at all.

What they did know off the bat was what was in the files when the Commonwealth was hollowing out the big rock to begin with. The design was pretty simple. There was a bay in the front that acted as a buffer to space and a place to dock supply ships when they came in the grab the stored supplies. Behind that was a central cavern with the bulk of the supplies. Smaller nooks and crannies would be drilled for more sensitive items like weapons and ammo, and secured according to regulations. A vault door really wouldn’t do much to stop a determined thief, but it would at least slow them down.

This particular asteroid was a hair over two kilometers long and three quarters of a kilometer wide. It fell somewhere in between a weirdly shaped battleship or assault carrier. Having been on the latter, Coop knew that meant there was a lot of empty space in there for people to be hiding shit that went boom.

<All the more reason to have good intel when we head in.>

The minutes droned on and on as Argo executed the slingshot around the planet. Coop felt the floor rumbled a little when the little gunboat hit the appropriate coordinates and the engines went to a hundred percent thrust. The compensators handled it perfectly and they didn’t get liquefied as they used the planet’s gravity to increase their speed and fling them toward their ultimate target.

About five minutes after exiting the planet’s dark side on their new course they saw the pirates respond.

“They’re coming back online.” The XO informed as the sensors started to pick up a lot more activity. “Targeting radar is painting us!”

The crew had been at battlestations since they initiated the slingshot, but Ben still hit the button and red lights started to flash along with a claxon’s wail.

“Defensive measures only, guns.” Ben ordered.

“Aye, Sir. Playing defense only.” The older CPO at the weapons consul acknowledged.

“Missile launch! I’m reading two bogeys coming at us at zero-one-zero and three-five-zero. They’re…”

Coop felt his sphincter tighten when the CPO didn’t say anything for a moment.

“They’re…barely holding together.” The senior NCO tried hard not to laugh. “I could knock these out of space with a wet fart.”

“See to it, Chief.” Ben was smiling as Argo continued on its course.

That smile disappeared when both missiles prematurely detonated twenty-thousand kilometers away.

“Radiological alarm!” A new blaring rang through the ship. “ES armor engaged.”

“Idiots.” Ben shook his head as Argo continued on its heading. “Who the hell uses thermonuclear warheads anymore?”

Coop had a guess. No one used thermonuclear anymore because they were dirty, and a nuclear blast didn’t pack as much punch in space as it did on a planet. No one used them on planets anymore because of the dirty part. They had antimatter bombs now. They were just as powerful if not more, and there was none of the follow-on cleanup.

<But that’s what those assholes are counting on. They want to make a mess.> Coop watched through his sensors as Argo monitored to two new suns that were burning brightly in space before them.

The shockwave of the two blasts ratted Argo for a second, but they powered through it. There hadn’t been any chance that was going to hurt the gunboat. The Commonwealth built them sturdy.

As expected, sensor readings coming from the asteroid were shit until all the radiological material from the blast dispersed into space, and then Coop’s assumption became reality.

“Jailbreak!” The XO frowned at her terminal as the information updated on the holo-tank.

The holo-tank cleared and Argo started picking up a dozen ships hauling ass away from the asteroid. Coop couldn’t help but be impressed. The tactics might be on a bigger scale, but he’d seen this done before. When Rats in the PHA didn’t get word early enough of a raid, or they couldn’t bride the cops, they initiated a distraction. Usually it was something small like a fire, but full on riots had started as a result of a housing block not wanting to get their shit searched.

<Half a galaxy away and nothing changes.> Coop couldn’t help but respect the people on that rock he was going to kill, but more importantly, he couldn’t help but give himself a pat on the back. He’d seen this coming when the professional spacers hadn’t.

“Damn.” Ben had a sour look on his face, but everyone knew there was nothing they could do.

Dozens of ships were bugging out in different directions. There was no way Argo could catch more than one or two of them with her superior engines. Ben had to make a choice, and Coop thought it was a pretty easy one.

“Re-direct the drones and get as much data as you can on those ships. I want emission signatures, engine IDs, and profiles. If you can give me a visual of the ship I want a Polaroid picture of the hull number stamped into the stern. I want the Fleet to be able to track these guys down in the next few weeks.”

“Yes, Sir!” The crew could tell their captain was irritated.

Seventy minutes became an hour and then forty-five minutes. As the time wore down and the remnants of the distraction faded from their sensors Argo got a much better read on the station.

“I’m reading multiple generator sources with conduits to the surface. It could be environmental or weaponry.”

“Institute minimum evasive actions. What is our new ETA?” Ben made a decision.

“Sixty-one minutes.” The XO pushed several buttons, but Coop didn’t feel any change in the ship.

“How long until we’re close enough to do a scan for lifeforms?”

“Forty minutes, Sir.”

Ben rubbed his chin as he evaluated the data. “Sergeant O’Neil, I need a deployment plan for your people.” He called out to one of the few marines on the bridge. “Cooper, get in here.”

“Moving, Sir.” Coop held back his smile. He was starting to like being in the loop while all the other grunts sat around twiddling their thumbs and waiting for orders.

The holo-tank split in two and a 3-D picture of the asteroid popped into existence complete with all the data they had on it. Coop thought it looked like a giant bean. Stuff was highlighted on the surface, but his focus was on the front door.

“These things are designed to only have one way in and one way out.” The ship’s marine detachment SGT poured over the information. “The only way in is through the front.”

“We could make another way.” Coop’s mouth got the best of him.

Both the SGT and Ben turned to look at him.

“What I mean is…”

“No, I get your meaning, Cooper.” The SGT gave him an ‘it’s ok’ look. “We could make a hole in the asteroid for a second entry point, but that involves a lot of risk to Argo and the asteroid. We aren’t a battleship that can take a lot of hits. We’re designed to be fast and avoid getting hit, so sitting and firing at a target to make a hole isn’t what we were built for. Plus, if we go too far we could crack the asteroid in half and kill everyone, or not go far enough, and our team would be trapped and useless on the surface. Do you want to do a two-klick hike on the surface of an asteroid during a battle?”

“No, Sergeant,” Coop replied just as they felt the ship shudder.

“Enemy has engaged.” The CPO informed. “They’ve got three energy cannons that were camouflaged on the surface in the two-hundred-terawatt range, but their fire control sucks. I’ll take them out when we get closer and have a better firing solution.”

The CPO spoke casually as Argo flew into a storm of energy blasts that would erase Coop from existence like he’d never even been there in the first place. <I hate this spacer shit.> He wanted to be able to see bullets coming his way and make his own decisions on how he lived or died.

“The hanger bay it is.” Ben nodded and the SGT concurred.

<Who cares if we crack the rock in half? They’re just pirates we’re going to kill anyway,> was Coop’s thought on the topic, but people above his pay grade had already made a decision. It was his job to do or die, and he did not intend on dying on some worthless rock in the middle of nowhere. He was going to send those poor pirate bastards to meet the reaper.

“Go lock and load, Cooper. Mission briefing in ten.” The SGT dismissed him, and he quickly obeyed.

He went back to see the armorer. He saw Lee at a corner intersection. She was busy doing engineer shit, but she shot him a smile and a wink. The meaning couldn’t have been clearer. It said come on back to me and I’ll show you one hell of a good time. He intended to do just that.

He knew the drill with the armorer. The gunboat was pretty damn new because there wasn’t even dust on the auto-loader for the LACS. Coop watched as the numbers ticked up as he got a full combat load for the first time in his career. No non-lethal or anti-riot crap. This was a true-blue combat load.

He practically salivated over thousands of 3mm plasma-tipped rounds for his Buss. The bullets would hit with the punch of a heavy weapon and ignite the plasma for a big, satisfying boom that would turn the target into mush. That was on top of a fully loaded 40mm grenade tube with extra rounds in his armored compartments ranging from buckshot to high explosive. Those would finish anything the plasma rounds couldn’t. He had his eight hypervelocity missiles in the launcher and a railgun fully packed with fifteen thousand rounds. Lastly, he had his 125mm spine-mounted artillery tube. He got his twelve thermobaric, ten kinetic HE penetrators, ten anti-personnel, and five electronic warfare shells, but they refused to give him the one-kiloton antimatter round. Since setting that thing off inside the asteroid would kill everyone and break the big rock into several much smaller rocks, Coop couldn’t really hold it against them. He took another anti-personnel round instead.

By the time the pirate’s asteroid base came within a couple of light-seconds of Argo’s sensors Coop was cocked locked and ready to fuck some shit up, and judging by the data streaming in, the enemy was ready to dance.

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 32

“Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, friends and family of the deceased, and to the citizens all over these great United States…welcome. We stand here today to honor a fallen Hero. Mr. Morningstar was a man who embodied truth, justice, duty, honor, and self-sacrifice for the good of the many. He gave his life defending us, and for that we are forever grateful.” The mayor bowed his head for a moment of silence.

“Mr. Morningstar was not the strongest Hero. He was no Titan or Iron Giant. He couldn’t wield the elements, he couldn’t run faster than a speeding bullet, or fly. He was a man with the gift for making people see the light, to submit rather than fight. Mr. Morningstar’s ability stopped battles before they began, and it spared our great city many times from incidents of untold mayhem and destruction. Even though he wasn’t a flashy Hero, Mr. Morningstar worked hard to become leader of the Protectorate. He guided the team in the defense of this city for nearly two decades. The average citizen will never know all that he did for this community, but a few of them have chosen to step forward and speak to us about how Mr. Morningstar touched their lives for the better.”

“Blah…blah…blah…” Lilly sat on a rooftop over half a mile away listening to the speech on the radio. She could see the Mayor if she peeked over the lip of the roof, but it was safer to stay seated.

Nightingale and Stal were busy lounging behind an industrial-sized air conditioner. Between them were the tools of the trade: guns, knives, IED’s, grenades, even a baseball bat. It was all spread out and meticulously memorized by Lilly, so she could call upon it at a moment’s notice.

“Why we wait?” Stal wasn’t a person comfortable with inaction at times like these, and it was fraying at the strongwoman’s nerves.

“Soon,” Lilly replied casually. “Once I get the call we’ll get started.” She looked down at her phone hoping the text message was there, but the screen was still black.

“This plan is foolhardy.” Nightingale replied, but didn’t make any attempts to get up.

“We get to kill two birds with one stone. That’s not foolhardy, that’s fucking brilliance. If we pull this off we’ll be legends.”

“Dead is still dead.” Stal responded, but didn’t seem to believe her own warning. Being a top-tier strongwoman tended to have that effect on a woman’s sense of vulnerability.

The mayor continued to babble on, and Lilly split her attention between the radio and her tablet. Nano was pumping in data and footage of the event. A split screen showed the approximate position of the Heroes based on what he could make out in the footage. Lilly didn’t see Reaper, but the armored Seraphim was on a rooftop adjacent to the stage, and Hunter was only a few steps away from the mayor. He was the emergency evac guy, she was sure of it.

<Let’s see if you can dodge this.> She smiled behind her grinning volto mask.

As if the universe was giving her the go ahead her phone vibrated in her palm. She looked down and saw the two most beautiful letters GO.

“Let’s do this.” Lilly took a deep breath and became Wraith.

What came next was going to be tough. It would push her teleportation abilities to the limit.

It was easy for her teleport herself, something, or even a group of people from one place to another. It was simple and second nature. Today required her to teleport multiple things to multiple locations simultaneously. They needed a good distraction because a good distraction would cause a good panic, and a good panic would get them what they wanted.

<Reaper.> That was the end game. Ge the bitch who’d made her Dad a human vegetable.

It wasn’t going to be nearly as easy as it looked, or they’d planned for, especially considering her self-imposed constraints. The best distraction was death and destruction, but she wasn’t going to do that. She’d made Seth a promise and that was being put to the test today. She’d already failed once before and she was not going to do it again.

<Speed and focus…speed and focus…concentrate.> she took several deep breaths and looked at her portable armory.

Six grenades were laid out separately from everything else. She focused on those six metal cylinders and etched them into her mind. Once she was confident she had them all, she peeked over the lip of the roof and down the street. They had a pretty straight shot to the where the mayor was ushering people up to speak, and that helped a little. She found the six predetermined locations that she’d scoped out during the recon for this mission and tried to lock those locations into a corresponding grenade.

She felt the migraine start immediately. It was like trying to sit in on half a dozen Ph.D. level classes at once, take notes, and remember everything. Lilly liked to think that it was her skill and power that allowed her to do it, but it was probably her sheer stubbornness that ended up getting the job done. She felt the teleportations lock into place like tumblers on a safe.

“Now,” she grunted, and Stal and Nightingale rushed forward to pull the pins.

They’d rigged the grenades for a delayed reaction so they didn’t go off in their faces, but it was still going to be close. Nightingale pulled the sixth pin, and with a near-debilitating jolt of effort six puffs of darkness spirited the first step of their plan away.

Lilly’s vision wavered and she had to brace herself against the roof’s tiny wall, but it cleared quickly. She turned her attention to the tablet just in time to see the cameras pan up and the first grenade to go off.

Flash bangs were a hell of a tool for SWAT teams making entry into hostile territory, so Nightingale decided not to try and reinvent the wheel, but to use it on a larger scale. The grenades appeared around the stage and down the crowded street filled with easily-panicked people.

<Boom goes the dynamite.>

The first grenade detonated. Light and sound assaulted the people below it. The mayor grabbed his ears, shut his eyes, and then tackled the young woman currently standing at the podium talking about how Mr. Morningstar had gotten her off drugs or some other pointless shit. Lilly didn’t care. She was too busy watching the progression of the grenades. Number two went off about twenty five meters from where number one exploded, but immediately came up against a barrier. The light and sound ended up assaulting it instead of the people below it. The force field flashed violently, but it was short-lived before the grenade’s energy dissipated.

Grenades three through six met the same resistance.

“What the hell, Nano. You didn’t tell me they had a force field manipulator present.” That would have changed their entire game plan.

“I didn’t know,” he shot back clearly stressed. “I still don’t see any recognizable Hero doing the manipulating. They’ve got to have someone undercover or in plain clothes. They’re prepared for you, Wraith. They know your tactics.”

<Fuck.> Lilly cursed.

She’d become predictable. This tactic wasn’t too different from what she’d used when robbing that armored car in Nevada. A grenade dropped from above followed by a frontal attack to get the target.

“What now?” Lilly posed the question to the team.

“We’re prepared for this.” Nightingale replied casually as she pulled something from her pocket.

“What…we are?” Lilly didn’t remember this part of the plan.

“We knew when you started talking about stun grenade that you’d gone soft.” Stal stood up and cracked her neck. “We let you go through with your little plan while making ours.”

“Your purpose is now transportation, Wraith. Can you do that?” Nightingale asked calmly as she watched the crowd below.

The thousands of people had naturally panicked. The force fields were up and protecting them, and the cops were telling people to stay calm, but human beings didn’t stay calm when shit was exploding everywhere. They took the path of least resistance and got the hell out of there. The grin on Nightingale’s face said that was exactly what she wanted to happen.

“I was the distraction to the distraction.” Lilly figured it out slower than she was comfortable with.

“A two pronged attack,” Nightingale stated as she raised a shiny, metal device in her hand. “Get the sheep running and instill a false sense of security in the shepherd. Then…” she pressed the button and a hideous ripping sound rocked the city.

Lilly looked down and saw smoking and screams rising up from the east. The alley had been away from the main procession, so security was light, and never accounted for hundreds of people using it as a quick exit.

The dumpster where Nightingale and Stal had placed the bomb turned into an improvised claymore where the power of the explosion ripped off chunks and propelled them into the tightly packed crowd. The explosion rose up, hit the force field overhead, and ricocheted back down into the crowd.

Wraith was shocked. <How’d they play me like this,> was her primary concern. Her secondary worry was what Seth was going to think about this, and the people actually in the explosion were a distant third.

Lilly felt anger rise in her chest at being manipulated, but that was quickly wiped away by a second explosion. Another dumpster in another alley that people had rushed into became a death-dealing device.

There was complete and utter pandemonium on the streets below them, and that was exactly what they needed to get their mission done. Lilly held her temper in check as she grabbed the two other villains and they vanished off the rooftop in a blast of darkness.

 

***

 

The Detective was walking across the open vestibule with his hands full. He had a cup of coffee in one hand, a donut in the other, and a file held securely between his chin and chest. He knew it was stereotypical for a cop to be having donuts, but it was impossible to get anything else right now. The whole city was shut down for the funeral, traffic was backed up everywhere, and the only good place to get a snack was a bakery around the corner. Because of all the madness, they were struggling to keep up with the demand, and apparently the easiest things for them to make was donuts.

<I’m not waiting an hour for a turkey and ham sandwich.> He would have shaken his head, but then the file would have spilled all over the place.

It was a rape case, and he was on his way to interview a suspect. His eyes were trained on the locked doors across the vestibule that would take him down to the cells, but a peculiar sound pulled his attention to the left.

Standing in the middle of the vestibule looking confused and scared was a teenage girl…and she was crying.  As a father, the Detective immediately detoured over to the woman in distress.

“It’s ok,” he quickly approached her and had to figure out the best thing to do with his full hands. Carefully, he grabbed the file with his donut-hand and moved it under his armpit. “What’s wrong? What can I do to help?”

“I…I…need to report a crime.” The girl sniffled.

“Ok, everything’s going to be just fine. You’re safe here, no one is going to hurt you, and we’re going to help.” The girl responded positively to his words with a small smile. “Officer!” he called to a passing patrolman. “Please escort her to my desk.” He turned back to the girl. “I’ll be right back to take your information and find a solution to your problem. Just wait their patiently and I’ll be back soon.”

“Ok,” she wiped her nose with another sniffle.

Morina watched the Detective give the Patrolman some instructions. <Hehehe,> she mentally giggled. She was in the center of the city’s law enforcement apparatus and they had no idea what was about to happen.

“Come with me.” The Patrolman didn’t look as concerned as the Detective, but as long as he did what he was ordered to do there wouldn’t be any problems.

He led her away from the Detective and toward a security station. She emptied her pockets and walked through a scanning device. She didn’t have anything but some keys, her wallet with fake ID, and a cell phone. She passed without incident, and after a quick look through her purse all of her belongings were returned to her. On the lower levels of the police HQ, they were more worried about someone bringing a gun or knife onto the premises, not a Super. Morina was the weapon.

After the scan she was given a visitor’s lanyard and escorted into a metropolis of cubicles. Judging by the sea of gray cubes, she bet it was usually pretty crowded in here. Today, there weren’t more than a handful of people at work. It was all hands on deck for the funeral.

<Exactly as we suspected.> She took a seat at the Detective’s desk and waited.

A couple of other detectives registered her presence, but the quickly went back to their work. A colleague taking victim statements was a routine part of their job.

She waited ten minutes before she got back to her feet and walked toward the door.

“Excuse me.” A hawk-eyed woman stepped into the path before she was halfway across the room. “Can I help you?”

To Morina’s ears it sounded more like, “What are you doing?”

“Um…bathroom.” Her eyes darted back and forth to convey fear…and the woman bought it.

“You need an escort.” She looked around for someone, but it was so empty there wasn’t anyone else. “Ok, follow me.”

The woman led the way through another door and into a long hallway that seemed to run the width of the building. Morina noticed more offices, the signs for the bathrooms, and a stairwell at the far end.

The other woman veered right at the sign for the ladies restroom and pushed open the door. It seemed like she was being very serious about being an escort. She leaned up against the row of sinks and crossed her arms. Morina quickly averted her eyes submissively and entered one of the stalls.

She needed to think quickly. Unfortunately, she wasn’t Wraith, Stal, or Nightingale. She wasn’t some super-secret agent type. If she ran into problems she just killed them dead and hoped that was the right call.

The itch that was gradually eating its way through her self-control suddenly became overwhelming. Before she knew what she was doing, she pulled a bobby pin from her hair and stabbed it deep into her forearm. A small squeak escaped her throat as red sprouted from the wound and started to dribble onto the floor.

“Are you ok in there?” The female detective asked.

Morina saw her feet move closer underneath the stall door.

<More,> she breathed heavily and pulled the pin up her forearm. The dribbling became a stream.

“Jesus Christ!” The Detective must have peaked in and saw Morina mutilating herself because she threw her shoulder into the door and the fragile lock popped right off.

The detective quickly moved forward while one hand darted to the toilet paper and hurriedly started to unravel a big wad. “Hold on!” Her other hand grabbed Morina’s wrist and stopped her from doing any more harm.

The Detective’s eyes were filled with worry as she put pressure on the wound to stop the bleeding. Her full concentration was on Morina’s arm, so she missed the blood on the floor collecting and rising into the air behind her.

“You’re…” the detective looked Morina right in the eyes, and she could tell by her reaction that the Detective knew something was off.

Instinct took over. She kept one hand on the blood-soaked toilet paper while the other went to her gun. She turned around to scan for threats and that’s when a few ounces of blood smashed into her face and worked its way down into her throat.

She backed up in surprise, and Morina sprang on her. The blood flowing from her arm stopped on command, and she hit the woman in the chest with her shoulder. They both went tumbling to the ground. Both of the Detective’s hands went to her throat as the blood blocked her windpipe and started to suffocate her.

Morina took the opportunity to go for the woman’s gun that was in her now-unstrapped holster. Through her panic, the Detective quickly put two and two together. She went for the gun too, and it became a struggle for the L-shaped hunk of metal. Morina needed to keep the Detective from getting a round off and alerting the station to the infiltration. The Detective wanted to get a round off to bring help, or more ideally, shoot Morina dead and stop the blood from choking her. Time would be the deciding factor.

The Detective was stronger than Morina, but Morina had moved first. Both of her hands were already on the weapon. Instead of trying to pull it out and risk accidentally firing the weapon, she threw her weight into forcing it farther down.  The Detective threw her elbows into Morina’s neck and back trying to knock her off. It knocked her to her knees, but she didn’t let go, and it pulled the other woman down with her.

<Hold on.> she repeated the words spoken to her only seconds ago when the situation was wildly different.

After thirty seconds, the Detective’s strikes started to weaken. Morina was huddled successfully in the fetal position around the weapon. After a minute it was basically over. The Detective could hardly lift her arms. The fight had deprived her of oxygen more quickly, but Morina still held on for another minute to be certain. When she finally dared to look, the Detective’s eyes were glazed over in death.

Morina’s whole back hurt from the pounding she’d taken, and she’d bashed her knee when they fell. It was hard to get up, and her initial movements were jerky, but she eventually shook off the brunt of the pain. She undid the holster from the corpse. She didn’t have the slightest idea how to use a gun, but she clipped it to her hip like she’d seen in the movies. Then she grabbed the body under the armpits and dragged it into the farthest stall from the door. She hoped no one would notice the dead woman until her job here was done. Next, she grabbed the Detective’s blazer, badge, and ID card. The blazer made her look like she belonged a little more, as did the badge, and the ID was going to get her where she needed to go.

Lastly, she found a pocket knife the dead women kept on her, and opened up her victim’s veins. Blood didn’t gush out of her without a beating heart, so it didn’t go everywhere and turn the bathroom into a bloody Jackson Pollack painting. Morina pulled it out of the Detective and guided it up to her. It filtered up under her clothes and clung to her body like liquid, red armor. She used her ability to coagulate it into a semi-solid instead of pure liquid, so she didn’t look like she was bleeding out from every area of her body. She pulled out all five-plus liters from the corpse and coated the concealed parts of her body in a thin layer of blood that looked a lot like dark cherry Jell-O. The sensation of it against her flesh was ten times better than sex, so it took her a moment to get a hold of herself.

Slowly at first, but then more quickly she moved to the door and peeked her head out into the hallway. It was empty, so she retreated back in and took out her phone. She quickly typed GO, and then exited the bathroom and headed toward the stairs. The pad lit up green when she scanned the Detective’s ID, and she rushed upstairs to the top floor.

Previous

Two Worlds – Chapter 146

Eve Berg

Location: Syracuse, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 A soldier walks into a bar. It sounded like that start of a bad joke that either ended in getting shitfaced or a bar fight. As Eve surveyed the clientele of the drinking establishment she concluded it could go either way. There were a lot of people in the gray CMUs of the Commonwealth. A decent chunk was Fleet, but there was a fair amount of Infantry there as well. On top of that, about a quarter of the room was filled with men and women in the black and gold of the Syracuse Defense Force (SDF).

From what she heard, the SDF was a legit defense force. The institutions mandated by Commonwealth law ran the gauntlet between professional fighting organizations and useless groups of bodies that ate up resources. The Commonwealth by nature didn’t butt into individual systems a lot, but there were some points they were iron clad about. Military matters were one of them. A system needed to maintain its PDCs and orbital fortresses. The Commonwealth usually paid to construct them, and in some systems even manned them, but the Fleet and Infantry only had so many bodies to throw around between hundreds of systems. It preferred to muster its strength at staging points like Mars, Asgard System, Wolvesbain, and a few others rather than deploy piecemeal across the galaxy. A lot of systems were tasked to defend themselves with a small garrison of regular troops to help train when they weren’t conducting other mission essential tasks.

Syracuse was a major industrial system for the Commonwealth. It was a junction system, and had incalculable raw materials to be mined. On top of all of that it was a sector capitol which didn’t amount to much except for an increase in funds. Because of its importance, the Infantry kept a brigade and a half permanently stationed on Syracuse, manned half of the two-dozen PDCs, and routinely had a decent amount of warships in orbit. Even with that, the brunt of the system defense fell to the SDF. They had squadrons of capitol ships, several divisions-worth of trained soldiers, and their gear was nearly up-to-date. They were a fine fighting force by any measure, but having the entire might of the Commonwealth fleet and its attached Infantry in their system was making them a little uneasy…and testy. They were proud of their little army and navy, and they didn’t like being looked down on by anyone.

It was a given that when one proud fighting group met another proud fighting group there was bound to be some tension, and the quicker Third Fleet got on its way the better.

Those men and women in black and gold stuck to themselves in the back of the room while the rowdier Commonwealth soldiers and spacers bordered on loud and obnoxious. A woman with Eve’s looks and build stepping into the mix didn’t help. It was an endless stream of catcalls as she made her way to where her party was waiting for her.

GYSGT Cunningham was sitting next to a pretty woman eve didn’t know. From the way she uneasily looked around her, Eve guessed she wasn’t military. <A date?>

On the other side of the GYSGT was another familiar face. SGM Queen had a disappointed frown on his face. If Eve had to guess, he’d learned the GYSGT batted for the opposite team when she showed up with her lady friend tonight. That ended any campaigns he might have been planning.

“Gunney, Sergeant Major,” Eve ignored the latest crack about her fine ass and took a seat.

“Private…I mean Corporal Berg.” The GYSGT’s smile was just a little too big to be completely sober. She reached across the table and gave Eve a forceful pat on the shoulder right where her new two chevrons were.

Eve could help but wince a little. Sick bay had fixed her up lickety-split, but the new bone material needed time to set. She just couldn’t do any strenuous physical activity for the next twenty-four hours or get in any more fights. The forceful slap just jostled her a little, and got a luahgt out of the GYSGT.

“She handled it like a champ.” The SGM help up his glass to Eve before taking a gulp and raising his hand. “Next round is on me.”

<Shit, free booze. I should get promoted more often.> Eve didn’t ask for anything fancy or imported when the frazzled looking waitress got around to them. Something domestic and cheap was fine with her. The SGM was still an NCO even if he was an order of magnitude higher than her in rank, experience, and pay grade. They didn’t make as much compared to officers.

“So, Gunney, why am I here?” Eve finally broke the silence after a beer.

The Gunney had been giggling and whispering stuff in her date’s ear, something totally un-Gunney-like, but sweet in its own way. Still, this was everyone’s last weekend on this rock before spending the net month in space followed by an undeterminable amount of time fighting for their lives. Some people in this bar might not even make it back. It was only natural for people to want to enjoy themselves. Eve might like the GYSGT and SGM, and didn’t want to serve under many others when the bullets started flying, but she still ahd her own plans for the weekend. That did not include spending a lot of time with senior NCOs.

“You’re on my team, Berg. I asked for you because I trained you and know you can handle yourself.” The GYSGT said matter-of-factly. “I just wanted to let you know the shitstorm we’re going to be stepping into. Babe, could you go grab us another round please?” The GYSGT flashed her a credit chip with a healthy amount of dollars on it. The girl read between the lines and went to the crowded bar so the soldiers could talk.

“The 2511th’s Alpha Company is a good unit. It’s got a solid LT who’s been with the unit for half a decade. It’s got the added benefit of having a person other than its NCOIC being the HI for the unit. That helps my job tremendously. Command and control if difficult enough when I’m also dealing with the company’s indirect fire missions.” Her face grew solemn with some memory before she shook herself. “But even if my company is great, it still doesn’t mean things are going to go smoothly. Mission to seize Alcubierre Launchers is some of the most dangerous missions there are.”

<Well thanks for asking for me personally.> Eve tried not to roll her eyes when she learned she’d been voluntold for something so dangerous.

“The power sources on these things are unimaginable. Kilometers-long generators power the devices that gan slingshot full fleets into FTL. There is also exotic matter everywhere. They have quantum devices to receive instantaneous signals halfway across human-explored space, and those are just a few things. These are literally mankind’s greatest invention and its most valued possession rolled into one. The fight we are going to engage in will be bloody, brutal, and we’ll take a lot of casualties, which is why I’ve got a full five-person Ranger fire team attached to my company.”

<Fan-fucking-tastic.> Eve drank what was left of her beer, which was nowhere near enough after receiving all this intel.

“Because of the shitstorm we’re about to walk into, I just wanted to sit down with you and get your feelings.”

<Did the Gunney just ask me about my feelings?> The shock must have shown on Eve’s face, because it got another laugh out of the NCOs.

“You’re not some boot fresh out of Basic that doesn’t know their fart from a NBC attack,” the GYSGT smiled and leaned back in her seat. “You’re a valued member of my team who’s been in the suck a lot for someone your age, and I want your impression of things. You can even tell me you’re pissed I volunteered you for this. I don’t give a shit if you are, but I won’t hold it against you if you want to rant a little.”

That was when the GYSGT’s date showed up with the beers. Eve grabbed hers before it hit the table and chugged it.

<Out of the frying pan and into the fire.> She set the bottle down when she was done, belched, and then got into it with the Gunney.

The night ended with a bar fight and getting shitfaced, so it seemed those corny bar jokes had a ring of truth to them after all.

 

***

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: CWS Argo, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “Attention, prepare for transition in t-minus one minute.”

When the announcement for their transition into System 1861 came over the intercom Coop was taking a dump. Something the cook had whipped up wasn’t sitting well with him. He’d heard a rumor back on Abe that if you were taking a shit during a transition it would clear out your system. He had no idea if it was true or not, but the painful rumbling in his stomach was something he needed to get rid of. This could evolve from a simple scouting mission to a combat operation in a heartbeat and he didn’t want to shit his suit.

He didn’t want to go to sick bay and be that little bitch complaining of a stomach ache, so he was determined to do everything he could before going there. He’d never hear the end of it from the regular grunts, and as HI he was supposed to be the toughest of them all. He wasn’t going to be taken down by some bad soy.

“Hello, is anyone in here?” The voice was female and vaguely familiar. It was LT Briggs, the Argo’s XO.

More than one marine had taken a run at her over the past few days, and she’d professionally rebuffed them all. Coop didn’t even try to go there. Spacer Lee was just about all he could handle. She was a bit of a freak and he loved it. However, not actively chasing the hot officer and letting her see him like this were two totally different things.

“Yes, Ma’am.” Coop tried to act as nonchalantly as possible while sitting on the porcelain throne with a audibly rumbling stomach.

“We’re about to transition…”

“Roger that, Ma’am.”

“Ok,” there was a short pause. “Good luck.”

If Coop was any other self-respecting person he would have been mortified. He was still embarrassed. A hot girl knowing what was happening would always have that effect, but it was bearable.

Thankfully, he didn’t have to think about it much because less than five seconds later everything shifted as Argo dropped out of FTL into System 1861.

“Holy shit!” Coop gripped the railing of the metal stall. He now had proof that the transition shit was legit.

After taking a minute to collect himself, Coop cleaned up and headed toward the bridge. The Argo’s small space didn’t have a lot of room for anyone aside from the bridge crew. Normally, it would have been the marine squad leader. There were a few of those present, but it became clear quickly that the skipper trusted the HI trooper onboard. So, Coop was privy to stuff that a normal PFC wasn’t.

He was still a PFC. The CPL paperwork hadn’t gone through yet, and even if it did, he wouldn’t learn about it until they got back to New Lancashire. That sucked for this mission. If they got into some shit that qualified them for combat pay Coop would get paid at the PFC rate. The War Department was stingy like that.

Coop studied the holo-tank in the center of the bridge as it slowly expanded to a light-minute out from the gunboat. The ES armor was active for transition, but once it became clear there wasn’t an ambush waiting they dropped the shielding to divert more power to the engines.

“XO, how long has it been since the last warship passed through this system?” Ben asked from his command chair in the center of the bridge.

“Eight years, Sir.” The XO was at her own station watching her screens and adjusting sensors to get a better view of the space around them.

“What was the status of the system then?”

“Abandoned and unoccupied, Sir.”

“Prepare to launch drones.” Ben was leaning back in his seat and staring intently at the holo-tank.

Coop found the whole thing boring as hell. That was space combat. Staring at a holo-tank watching icons disappear until you got yourself blown up. Ground combat might be terrifying, but it beat sitting on your ass all day long.

“Drones prepared, Sir.”

“Don’t get them too close to the targets and program them for indirect approaches. We’ll set course for this world.” Ben selected the icon for the third planet in the system. It was too far out to be a goldilocks world, but with a little work it could be terraformed.

More importantly, it sat outside of the interior asteroid belt where two of their three potential targets were located. If there was anything at those two targets, parking Argo in orbit around the planet gave them an excellent tactical position to intercept or outright destroy. In the planet’s current orbit, they’d be lined up perfectly.

Coop took that as a good sign of what was to come.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 145

Noah Grisham

Location: System 1861, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Noah kept his head on a swivel as he walked down the landing ramp of Dawn and into the bay. The tang of artificial air was sharp, but even more recognizable was the small group of men heading in their direction. Able stood next to the small pirate captain in his armor with a blaster held casually in his hand. After a little discussion, it was determined that he would leave the Collie heavy weapon in the ship. Toting around that giant cannon was going to raise a few eyebrows and dry up some information sources when word got around. Noah was here for answers, and he was determined to get them at any cost.

“Welcome friends!” The man at the front of the approaching party smiled widely at Noah and Able. “Welcome to Last Resort.”

<Interesting name,> Noah thought, even if it was accurate. Being in the ass end of the galaxy and living in a hollowed-out asteroid was definitely a last resort for however many people were here. If this was his station it would be called Means to an End.

“Thank you.” Noah kept his thoughts to himself as he reached up to clasp the man’s hand. Even in this part of the galaxy a hand shake was still the best way to show you had no ill will toward another.

“My name is Faruk, and my mercenary band is responsible for the well-being of this station.”

<Translation: I run this place and I get my percentage from anyone else doing business here.> As was customary, Noah pulled out a hundred-credit chip and handed it to the mercenary captain.

“I hope my ship will be taken care of.” He looked at the men behind Faruk and then over at his newly-repaired ship.

Faruk looked over the credit chip. “Blockie currency is devalued against the Commonwealth dollar. One-fifty will get you what you’re looking for.”

Noah could feel Able tense up behind him, but he smiled and dug into his pocket for more cash. Instead of pulling out another hundred-chip and having them transfer funds around he pulled out two twenties and a ten. It made it look like he had less cash than he really did.

“Thank you, friend.” Faruk took the one-fifty and nodded his head. One of the men accompanying him walked over to the Dawn and took up a sentry position next to it. Noah knew the guy would pop a squat the minute they were out of sight, but having him there was all the security Dawn needed. If Faruk was really in charge, his man simply being there was enough to deter anyone from messing with his ship.

“What brings you to Last Resort, my friends?” Faruk was all smiles as he and Noah led the way while their two guards walked behind them.

“Weapons.” Noah smiled. “We’ve got a pipeline open with the Blockies and are looking for somewhere to store and sell. Last Resort was highly recommended, so we came to check out your operation.”

“We would be more than happy to accommodate new investments in our little paradise.” Faruk’s smile grew even broader. His pearly-white teeth contrasted sharply with his bushy, black beard.

“Your mercenary company provides security for the station?” Now Noah started fishing for information.

“I have forty well-armed and highly-trained men who keep the peace,” Faruk assured.

<So at least twice that.> Noah read between the lines. Faruk wasn’t stupid enough to give away actual intel on his little band of misfits, so he’d give a number high enough to make Noah feel comfortable while concealing his true strength.

“Our cut is twenty percent off the top and you’ll have to pay to lease the space, but everything else is profit for you, and I guarantee you that you will find plenty of business here.”

They’d been walking through a series of dimly lit corridors carved through the asteroid’s metal-infused rock, reinforced with civilian-grade duro-steel beams, and sealed with a thin layer of polyplast before arriving at a large, grimy-looking blast door. When Faruk said “here”, the door opened on well-maintained hydraulics into a brightly lit, colorful exposé. It looked like pictures of a bazaar on Earth from hundreds of years ago. Little shops had been carved into the rock while poorly constructed polyplast carts rolled through the pathways. It was a hodgepodge of people, goods, and smells as what Noah estimated to be a thousand people tried to buy and sell the black market products.

If Noah was actually going to sell something in the future, this was the place he’d be coming to if he didn’t burn bridges with Faruk today. Today was all about information.

“Do you like what you see, my friends?” Faruk’s smiled seemed permanently plastered on his face.

“Very much,” Noah’s return smile was genuine. “If you don’t mind, I would like to scope out my competition.”

“Not at all. I will leave my associate Barry here to be your guide. I hope you find our accommodations will meet your business needs. When you are finished, tell Barry and he will call me so we can make a deal.” With his final piece said, Faruk stepped backward, blended into the crowd, and vanished.

That left them alone with Barry. Barry was a big boy. He had a heavy-world build, was nearly as big as Able, and was strapped down with an assortment of weapons. He had everything from an Imperial blaster to an Old West six-shooter, but from the slight glow coming from the antiquated pistol Noah guessed those old-school rounds were plasma tipped. You didn’t find many of the exploding bullets outside the starfaring nation’s militaries, which said Barry wasn’t someone to be underestimated. He had a ballistic-weave vest on under his coat, and he scanned the area in a way that screamed former military. Noah would need to be careful around the big man, but at the moment he had his uses.

In total, Last Resort had five gun dealers. It would be a tough market to break into if Noah really was going to sell guns on the asteroid. Each of the dealers was filling a niche and seemed to have an understanding between each other. Two dealers sold handguns. One favored traditional rounds while one tended toward energy. The traditional dealer had everything from 22nd century chemically-powered tech all the way to modern electro-magnetically propelled rounds. They were nothing compared to the velocity of the M3 or Buss Able had tucked away back in Dawn, but they’d fuck up your day if you were caught in some turf war over pointless shit. The same was true of the energy pistols. They didn’t fire more than four rounds before you needed to switch battery backs – and those were sold separately – but they’d still burn through an unarmored man. Able’s armor would stand up to both those types of ammunition pretty easily.

One dealer traded more in ammo than weapons. He still had a handful of guns for purchase, but he had an ammo supply that none of the other dealers could match – including battery packs. He was the guy that had the plasma rounds for sale. He wouldn’t show the goods, but Barry vouched for him. Still, Noah would be surprised if he had more than a few dozen rounds stockpiled.

The last two dealers dealt with assault rifles and the more serious armaments. The first dealer they went to – like the pistol dealers – traded more in energy weapons. He had a single-shot plasma cannon from Able’s homeworld that the mercenary practically drooled over. Even though Barry was as much their handler and their tour guide, Able and him got along well. Mutual appreciation for things that went boom went a long way toward forming bonds.

While the energy cannon dealer had an impressive collection, he wasn’t the guy Noah was looking for. It was the last dealer they checked out that had the answers.

The shop was successful enough that it had a polyplast wall and door separating it from the rest of the bizarre bazaar. There was an old-fashioned bell attached to the door so when Noah opened it a soft jingle echoed through the small space. Another polyplast wall stood behind the counter. An old man exited through that door and gave his customers a smile. Noah tried not to grimace. It looked like someone had drawn a knife across the man’s face at some point in the past. Ugly scars ran outward from the corners of the man’s mouth all the way to his ears. It made his smile downright unsettling.

“How may I help you?” In addition to that the man was missing more than one finger. It was typical. Thieves tended to have fingers cut off as punishment in a number of systems throughout the galaxy no matter what nation they belonged to.

“I’m looking for rifles.” Noah didn’t whisper, but he kept his voice down. Able was distracting Barry for the moment. Each man was trying to stump the other on their firearm knowledge. It was a serious competition.

“Look around,” the man gestured to the display cases and walls, “I have plenty.”

“Not just any rifle.” Noah leaned forward onto the counter. “I’m looking for M3’s. I’ve got a job that requires a lot of fire power, and word on the street is that you can deliver.”

The man tried to keep his face neutral but pride got the best of him. <Bingo.> Noah knew he had the right guy.

“If you’d come through here a couple of months ago then I would have had hundreds of the things to sell you, but I’m all out right not.”

“Can you point me to the guy that sold the rifles to you in the first place?” Noah saw the indecision creeping along the other man’s face before he even finished speaking. “I’ll make it worth your while,” he tried to draw the arms dealer back in. “Five hundred…no seven-fifty for the name?

The offer brought a thoughtful look to the dealer’s face. “For a grand up front, I’ll give you the name, no refunds, and if you come back looking for trouble I’ll put a hole in you and your big-ass friend over there.” He gestured at Able.

Noah winced internally at the cost of the information, but he ended up pulling out ten hundred-credit chips and handing them over. The guy he was after was worth tens of millions, and even a little bit of revenge was priceless.

The dealer verified the currency was legit before tossing it into a safe under the counter. “The guy said his name was Alvarez, but he was a creepy dude. He came flying in here one day with crates of military-grade hardware to unload. He found me and I took it off his hands for next to nothing. Two days later a mining crew showed up for the crates and paid me double the street value for them. I nearly closed my doors that night and booked a flight to the Mid-Worlds for retirement with the payday I made.”

<Less reminiscing and more details old man.> Noah kept his temper in check.

“I unloaded the crates from a converted mail courier with an EU registration. You wouldn’t be able to tell from a distance, but I could see where hull panels had been replaced with the discardable versions that pirates like to slap over improvised energy cannons or missile launchers.”

Noah knew those well, and he was sure the guard stationed down at Dawn was documenting how many his converted mining ship had on its hull.

“Did Alvarez say where he was from, where he was going, anything that will help me find the guy?” Noah was laying it on a little thick, but he didn’t care. Alvarez was the link, and he needed to find the guy. The fact that the dealer thought he was a spook didn’t bother the pirate.

“No idea,” the dealer shrugged, “but he might still be here. I saw him two days ago doing business with a few other traders. You could check with Faruk to see if his ship is docked.”

Noah didn’t remember seeing a mail courier in the bay when they parked Dawn, but it was a big space with multiple levels so he might get lucky.

“Thanks.” Noah spun away and moved toward the door. “Able, Barry, I’m finished here and need to talk with Faruk.”

Barry just nodded as they left the store. He pulled out his PAD and texted the asteroid’s boss.

 

***

 

It couldn’t have been more than two minutes since Barry left with the two customers before the bell chimed again. The arms dealer looked up from where he’d been crouching behind the counter to see a familiar face.

The man didn’t even look up, he was on his PAD typing away.

“Alvarez! Some guys were just in here asking about you. I think they want to make a deal for…”

The dealer didn’t have time to react as Alvarez swiftly drew a pistol and put a supersonic dart into his forehead. It was fired through a suppressor, so it just sounded like a soft cough followed by the heavier thump of brain matter and skull hitting the polyplast wall behind the counter. The dealer fell against that same wall with only half a head before sliding to the ground and out of sight.

Another few clicks of the PAD and Alvarez was hacked into the store’s security system, erased the surveillance footage, changed the sign on the door to closed, and activated the cleaning nanites to tidy up the place.

<That was easy.> He kept one eye on the door as he put the finishing touches on his report. It contained nothing specific, but enough for the intended reader to know that the mission had been accomplished.

Alvarez’s name wasn’t Alvarez. He didn’t even naturally look like the guy the dealer knew as Alvarez, but after the fuck up in Windsor he’d been forced to find a new face and a new backer. He’d gotten both, but instead of infiltrating an opposing state he was busy running guns on some off-the-books project.

He expected it though. He’d been kicked to the bottom of the heap, and now he had to work his way back up. With the arms dealer’s final statement, that job became just a little bit harder. The dealer was the last loose end, but since he’d talked there were now more people that needed to be eliminated.

With a final flourish of his hands he finished drafting the classified report and sent it to his ship’s neural network. Upon detecting another friendly STRATNET beacon, the ship would transfer the message and the report would leapfrog its way back to New Lancashire where it could only be opened by in-person scanning of the GIC of Rear Admiral Hank Nelson.

Alvarez didn’t expect there to be an issue even with the latest complication. In a few hours marines would be storming Last Resort, and knowing Faruk, the mercenary company running the asteroid wouldn’t go down without a fight. If the spy got lucky, his new targets would get blown away with the rest of them.

<The bloodier the better.>

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 31

There were two very different conversations going on during the morning of Mr. Morningstar’s funeral; three if you call the political chit-chat a conversation.

“No…no…no…We need more light!” A man cried dramatically on the stage as he looked up at the dark morning sky. “Today just had to be the day the universe decided to not cooperate with me.” He brandished his hands frantically at the clouds blocking out the sun.

The man stomped around the quickly erected stage just in front of the church where the fallen Hero’s private ceremony would be held. The stage was the brainchild of the Mayor. Preapproved people would be allowed to take the stage and use the microphone to tell the gathered crowd what Mr. Morningstar had meant to them, or how he had personally impacted their life. Having a stage meant having a stage manager, and the only one available had been a rather eccentric one from UCF. By the way he was running around and yelling at people you would have thought this was the Olympic opening ceremony.

That was what was happening on the ground. Very different words were being uttered all around the stage.

“Eagle-Two, comms check, over.” The SWAT captain wasn’t standing too far from the stage manager, but he was completely ignoring the other man. Where the stage manager looked like a whirlwind was about to pick him up and carry him off somewhere, the SWAT captain was a mountain of immovable granite with cold eyes scanning the horizon.

“Coms check, TOC, I read you five-by-five.” The sniper three hundred yards away on an overlooking rooftop replied.

“Show me you don’t have your head up your ass, Eagle-Two.” The Captain’s words were threatening, but they implied some sort of punishment the sniper would not enjoy if he wasn’t on the ball.

A second later a red dot appeared on the Captain’s chest. “Stay awake up there, Eagle-Two, the sun decided not to cooperate and I can feel a fall chill in my nuts.”

“That sounds like a personal problem, Cap. You might want to get that checked out.”

“Keep talking, Eagle-Two. I’ll get to you in a second, Eagle-Three.”

“Roger that, Sir.”

Daisy smiled as she took in the world around her with her sixth sense. For half a mile she could feel the life-threads of everyone. This early there weren’t a lot of people, but the number was steadily growing.

<The Mayor’s brilliant idea isn’t going to help.> The last thing the city needed was some grieving single mom talking about how Mr. Morningstar saved her baby to get her head blow off by Wraith mid-sentence.

It also meant overtime for Grace. As the primary telepath on scene, it was her job to vet everyone going up to take the mic.

<We need more bodies.> Daisy came to the same conclusion she had several times today. There were just going to be too many people.

The Mayor’s office was projecting over fifty-thousand people to turn out. To monitor them and keep them safe there were three hundred officers, two SWAT teams, the Protectorate, and half a dozen independent Heroes that were coming in for the occasion. There would be more off-duty Heroes in the church for the private service, but they weren’t there to protect the public. They were there to grieve, but they would help if shit started to slide downhill.

Daisy felt the pressure building in the back of her skull as she tried to keep everything in sight. The pressure would only get stronger when fifty-thousand life-threads needed to be monitored, and the very last thing the DVA, OPD, or the Mayor wanted her to do was drop everyone like she had at the prison. That was a one way ticket to losing her newly-granted certification.

“Minority community turnout is going to be hit or miss.” One of the Mayor’s aides stated from not too far away. “Polls show that they like the Protectorate overall, but of their members, Mr. Morningstar was their least favorite.”

“He was from an older generation and he didn’t really care about connecting with the community as much. I have reassurances from KaBoom that the team is willing to work in a new direction under his leadership.” Orlando’s mayor, Thaddeus Miller, was a former defensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins. He’d gone to UCF before sending twelve seasons in the NFL, and then going into politics. He’d started off with city council, was now the mayor, and insiders thought he had his eye on Congress or even the Governor’s Mansion in the next four years. He was a big man, with a shaved bald head that was shined daily. Even in the low light of the morning there was a slight gleam coming off the man’s brown dome. There was just as much of a gleam coming off of his perfectly-white teeth, and those were always on display in a smile. His life as a four-time pro-bowler had prepared him perfectly for politics.

“What about…” the aide didn’t say it, but that was enough confirmation for Daisy.

She was an unknown in this political situation. With something that was so going to be so public, politicians tended to not like unknowns; especially wildcards, and every report the Mayor was reading on her said she was unpredictable.

<I’m right here, dumbasses,> she bit her tongue. Her job right now was to literally step in front of a bullet if someone took a shot at the political leader of the city, and all they were worried about was what she would say when confronted by cameras. <There were some things about this job that I did not miss.>

<Easy there,> Grace’s voice popped in the back of her head. <Thad is actually a pretty good guy when you get to know him.>

<Thad?> Daisy’s eyes never stopped scanning the windows surrounding the stage. <And just how well have you gotten to know him?>

Daisy didn’t get a response, but a mental impression of a giant middle finger was answer enough. She suppressed her smile and continued to do her job.   

“Ms. Reaper,” the Mayor abandoned his little chat and walked over to her.

“Please just Reaper, Mr. Mayor. Ms. Reaper makes me sound like I should be on the Halloween version of a syrup container.” She accepted the Mayor’s handshake and didn’t know if he was doing the macho squeeze thing or not. She was on absorb-mode for all kinetic energy.

He barked a short laugh, gave an up and down shake and then let go. “Reaper it is then. I just wanted to welcome you to our fair city and thank you for everything you are doing today and going to do in the future.”

“Wrangling for my vote already, Mr. Mayor. Reelection isn’t for another eighteen months.” Daisy had a habit of sticking her foot in her mouth, especially when her attention was elsewhere, but in this particular instance she could really care less.

The Mayor followed the comment with a much longer laugh. “You can never start too early, Reaper.” The big guy’s smile was a bit startling. “Good luck today.”

“Thank you, Mr. Mayor.” That was all the time he had to talk to her, but she shadowed him until he was in the armored SUV and headed back toward his office. That was where her assignment ended. “Dispatch, he’s on his way out.”

“Thank you, Reaper.” The computer-synthesized voice of Dispatch hadn’t changed at all since the first time to support Hero came on the scene more than a decade ago. “You are relieved of your duties. Next assignments begin at twelve-hundred hours. You are free until then.”

“Thanks for the break.” Daisy didn’t take the earbud out, but she did pull out her phone and make another call. “Hey, baby, you want to grab a quick breakfast before we get sucked into this black hole of a protection detail for the rest of the day?”

 

***

 

“Damn, it’s freezing.”

Becca looked at the Floridian out of the corner of her eye and couldn’t help but smirk. It was low sixties – maybe high fifties – and the woman was acting like it was an ice age. Coming from the Midwest, where wind chill could drop the temperature fifteen or twenty degrees during the winter, this was nothing. All of her friends seemed to be thinking the same way.

Mason was used to New York, Kyoshi hailed from San Francisco – which wasn’t as warm as people thought – and Anika’s family had spent a lot of time in Montana only to recently move to the Midwest. This weather was nothing.

The residual body heat of everyone present would set in eventually. There were hundreds, maybe even thousands of people crammed on the sideways of the major roadway. In front of them was a line of police officers spaced every twenty feet. They were all in their dress uniforms: crisply ironed pants, a jacket with medals and badges pinned to it, and white gloves. They looked every inch the competent police force, and that was only highlighted by the weapons on their hips. Every third officer also had an assault rifle slung over their shoulder. Their eyes were scanning the crowd religiously. Just like the HCP students in the crowd, the officers were aware of the high threat level of this ceremony.

The civilians were blissfully unaware aside form a few questions about the cops’ guns. Not everyone liked the sight of such a heavily armed force. Becca kept her eyes forward and was grateful for them. If things turned bad, then they were going to need all the firepower they could get.

“Stop looking around,” Kyoshi whispered as Mason’s head seemed to be in a nonstop three-hundred-and-sixty-degree scan.

“Can’t help it,” the strongman grunted. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

All of them had the feeling. There were just too many chances for something to go wrong. There were too many windows, too many rooftops, and too many shadowy corners where threats could suddenly appear. It was the eternal pain of dealing with teleporters. They were all thankful Professor Meyers was here.

A drum could be heard in the distance. The beat was a solemn march. Becca knew from the safety briefing that the drummer was at the lead of a small contingent of officers and Heroes accompanying the casket of Mr. Morningstar. The casket was being pulled by a horse through the crowd-lined streets to the church where the private ceremony would be, and the politicians would be saying a few words.

“Shhh.” Becca shushed the both of them. This wasn’t a time to be talking. This was a time to be remembering and thanking the fallen Hero for his service.

 

***

 

“I can’t see.” Isla was cranky, and the six-plus-foot guy standing in front of her wasn’t helping.

A group of the freshmen HCP students were standing together at a safe distance from their HCP classmates. Professor McMillian had told them to spread out, but still travel in at least pairs. They needed to be vigilant about safety without drawing attention to themselves. The SI infraction rules were still in effect. If anything happened, the professors wanted them to run for safety.

“Let the Heroes handle it.” McMillian had said that at least a dozen times in their safety briefing.

“Sorry.” Aiden stepped aside so Isla could get a better view, but there was still a random woman in front of him that was taller than Isla’s unimpressive five feet two inches.

The drumming was growing closer, so they wouldn’t be staying for much longer. It was physically impossible for them to get any closer to the church and speaking area. They were nearly a mile away and packed into the sidewalks like sardines. They expected things to break up quickly once Mr. Morningstar’s funeral procession passed. The town had the afternoon off, and once people paid their respects they were planning to take advantage of the slightly longer weekend.

“Most of these people don’t care.” Scarlett Vaan stood with her arms crossed and a sour look on her face. “Most people are more interested in the time off then what happened. They want to forget about it, push it into the past, and move on.” She just shrugged when the younger freshman shot her shocked expressions.

“Most people like to avoid conflict,” she looked Isla straight in the eyes. “They feel they need to be here, but unless Mr. Morningstar directly touched their lives in some way their feelings for him and his death are only skin deep.”

“That’s a sad way to look at people. Psychology is giving you a jaded look on life.” Aiden shot her a warning look over his shoulder. The silver-haired woman was drawing some attention with her statements.

“Yeah…it’s the psychology.” Scarlett raised an eyebrow, but the drumming was almost on top of them now.

Everyone shut up and turned to face the procession. Whatever people thought about the situation, or the people involved, they all felt a certain way about death. It was only human to pay some sort of respect to the fallen, and whatever their feelings about humanity, they could do at least that.

It took a few minutes for the procession to pass at a slow march. Once it was a respectful distance away people started to get out of there. Scarlett led the charge. Isla stuck around a little longer as people streamed around her. There was something in the air that had the hair on the back of her neck standing up. She didn’t know if it was the circumstances, the HCP, or what was going on in her not-so-personal life, but the sensation was there.

If felt like something was watching and judging her and the city or Orlando. Her shiver had nothing to do with the cool breeze blowing through the city as she turned to leave.

 

***

 

“Do you still have eyes on Reaper?” Lilly was in her Wraith heavy-combat load.

Her costume, armor, pistols, knives, grenades, assault rifle, and sniper rifle were either on her person or strewn on the rooftop around her. They were over a mile away from the stage that had been constructed. It was way beyond her range to take out someone important – like the mayor – but it would serve as a staging area. She wasn’t going to pull armaments from her little bunker out west when Hunter would undoubtedly be on scene, so she’d hauled all of the stuff here, and set up booby traps for anyone who tried to take the roof by force.

“We have eyes on her near the stage.” Nano informed over the encrypted earbud the assault team was wearing.

Stal and Nightingale were on the rooftop next to Wraith getting set.

“Why does that matter? We have armor.” Stal announced patting the black, nullifying armor they were all wearing.

“It matters because the armor isn’t perfect. Belial still got taken down.” Wraith snapped back. Her nerves were on edge. The list of Heroes at this powder keg was a who’s who of people that wanted to kill her. “And some can easily target something next to us and kill me or Nightingale. We don’t have your durability.” Wraith was specifically thinking about Seraphim.

The bitch had it out for her despite the ass whooping she’d delivered during their last meeting.

“Fine.” Stal harrumphed. She didn’t pick up any weapons. Her hands and feet were WMDs, especially in a crowded place like this.

“We go in five minutes.” The procession had just begun. “Is she going to be ready?”

“She’ll be ready.” Wraith referred to the missing member of their little team. Morina had a different mission, and she was almost in position.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 144

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

Over the last few months, Coop had learned something very important about himself: he would much rather be stationed on a planet than on a ship. In terms of career progressions, it wasn’t the best feeling to have, but he didn’t really give a shit. Being stationed at a base on a planet gave you good chow, real booze, and a good selection of women. Being stationed on a ship meant the same shitty recycled food day after day – no matter how good the cooks were – booze that was distilled in some backdoor engineering compartment, and the only women around were other Infantry or Fleet. In Coop’s personal experience, the risk was greater than the reward when it came to getting into someone else’s CMUs. He’d only managed it once, but it had been one hell of a ride.

When he stepped off the shuttle and onto the Abe’s flight deck he frowned. He was wearing his newly-broken-in LACS V2 armor, so no one could see his face, but he probably would have gotten chewed out for how he was looking at people.

<Let’s get this over with.> He was here for the five grand and to continue to cultivate a relationship that was already paying dividends. It wasn’t a bad idea to have a good officer or two in your corner when he inevitably stepped in some shit. Coop knew himself pretty well by now, and he’d eventually have to call in some favors.

People moved aside as Coop took the passages toward the gunboat bays. The few Infantry guys he passed gave the suit a not-too-friendly frown. That was because it was brand spanking new without any scratches or dents in it. That meant he was either some asshole walking around in HI armor when he didn’t need to, which equaled asshole, or he was lucky enough to get new equipment, which equaled lucky asshole. Either way, the infantry grunts Coop passed weren’t the friendliest bunch. Not that he cared. He had other shit to do.

Argo was docked at the ass end of the carrier back near the engines. She would be the last ship to launch in case of an emergency, and it had that untouched look that showed it hadn’t seen much of anything in the last few months. Argo was bigger than he thought she would be. She seemed squeezed into the bay, but other than that she was a good-looking ship.

A small team was walking around the hull doing a visual inspection when he walked up. One was a fit, cute woman with the platinum stripe of an LT. He headed toward her for obvious reasons, but was cut off by a SGT.

“Private Cooper?”

Coop had checked, and before he left the BN commander hadn’t signed off on his promotion yet.

“Yes, Sergeant.” With a quick sideways glance at the LT he turned his attention on the marine.

“Welcome aboard. I’m Sergeant O’Neil, the ship’s contingent NCOIC. We’ve got a couple of other squads aboard for the mission so it’s going to be tight quarters. Head in and stow your gear. You’re the only HI we have, so the bunk by the charging rack is all yours. We’re having a briefing at 1100, and then the skipper will address everyone at 1300.”

“Roger that.” Coop had the SGT opened up in a small side window while the majority of the HUD was showing what his rear sensors were seeing.

The LT was still leading the inspection team, and she was bending down to check something low. <Now that’s an ass.> It seemed Coop’s morning quickie with Sandy hadn’t quite satisfied him. <What is it with hot LTs?>

Coop started moving after that because the SGT had stopped talking and moved away. It looked downright strange for him to just be standing there in the bay by himself, so he moved toward the outer hatch. He took a left when he entered the gunboat. There was just enough clearance for him in his armor, but when he moved from section to section he had to duck down. Being HI on this tiny ship was going to be a bit of a pain in the ass. The bright side was that he had a little more room than the other grunts. His bunk next to the charging rack was bigger, and had about a quarter-meter extra space for him to plop his shit in. From the looks the lounging PVTs gave him, they’d hoped no HI was going to show up, and they’d be able to grab the bunk later.

Coop stowed the LACS in the charger and did a proper diagnostic as he shut down. It was still a new suit and he wanted to catch any bugs if he could. He hadn’t been in the armor long enough to trust it completely, but he was still glad he wasn’t in a V1 antiquated piece of shit.

With nothing left to do until 1100 he decided to tour the ship. It was small enough that he was probably going to be able to get through all of it in half an hour. The grunt country was pretty standard. There were a few VR spots to do training – enough for a squad – but not enough for the two dozen guys he’d seen camping out on the makeshift cots. There was a common area next to the bunks with a holo-screen and some pre-recorded programs on the system, but that was pretty standard on a warship. A few of the other infantrymen were sitting around the holo watching some sort of comedy. Forward of the grunt country was Fleet territory and the bridge. He didn’t want to go there quite yet, so he headed to the stern where engineering and the engines were located.

Coop had learned there was nothing quite like a good mechanic, and being friends with them, especially on a ship, was always a good idea. They usually produced the moonshine that ship-board poker games used as currency if the people were short on cash. He didn’t have to go far to find a group of marines surrounding one engineer.

There were three of them – all sporting PVT or PFC ranking – and they circled the lone engineer on three sides. Coop could see why. She was pretty hot, Asian – which equaled exotic – and had her CMUs pulled down to her waist. She had on a sports bra of some sort, and was covered in grease and other mechanical fluids, but it was still bare skin and perky breasts. The marines were like moths to the flame.

“Oh yeah,” she replied to a question. She was leaning casually against a bulkhead, so nothing had gone over any lines, but she was prepared if they did. She had a large wrench in her hand that was just as capable of breaking skulls as fixing machinery.

“You better believe it.” The marine was grinning like he’d just scored a game winning basket.

“I am a trust-but-verify kind of girl, so let me see it.”

“What?” The young marine was clearly surprised at her comment.

“Yeah.” She continued to smile. “You said you’ve got a big snake in your pants, so let me see it.”

“Here?”

“Yeah,” she frowned. “Are you scared?”

Coop would have just whipped it out, but he didn’t have much shame. These kids clearly had some self-respect left.

“Hey.” Coop cut into the conversation.

He only had PFC rank on his shoulder, but he was at least half a meter taller and thicker than the biggest marine present.

“Hey,” they called back tentatively.

“I guess we’re meeting up at 1100 but the Sergeant is going to do a surprise inspection before then.”

“How do you know?” They were understandingly suspicious of the new HI trooper trying to talk them away from an exotic engineer who’d just admitted she wanted a guy to whip his dick out.

Coop tapped his ear and smiled. “I’ve got better hearing than you. I’d hurry up if I were you. He’s coming by soon.”

He didn’t know how long the other marines had been on the ship, but apparently it was enough time to have made a mess. They hurried off with a sense of urgency, and left coop along with the half-dressed engineer.

“So,” Coop smiled and mirrored her casual lean against the bulkhead. “I’m Coop. I like your look.”

“Really,” she smiled, but still held the wrench in her hand. “That’s your best line.”

“Not a line, just the truth,” Coop kept up the smile. He’d played this game before. “It’s nice to meet you…”

This was the test to see if it went any further or if she blew him off.

“Spacer Aiko Lee, I’m the engineering apprentice, and you, Coop, are a very big boy.”

“I’m the heavy infantry trooper assigned for this mission.” Coop smiled confidently.

“Are you proportional?”

“Want to see?” Things were on the very edge of getting hot and heavy. Coop might even like the next few days on the ship.

“Cooper! Glad you made it.”

<Oh come on! You’ve got to be shitting me.> Coop kept the irritation off his face as he turned to face the familiar voice.

“Thank you, Sir. I was properly motivated.” Coop braced to attention as Ben Gold entered the corridor.

“Lee,” the LCDR turned to the engineer. “Has that stabilizer been double checked yet?” Unlike every other guy so far, his eyes didn’t gravitate toward her partially-bare upper body.

“On it, Sir.” Her face was serious again.

“Re-read 670-1 while you’re at it.” The LCDR quoted the military dress regulation as a subtle way of not condoning her appearance.

The look Lee shot Coop as she left said that they weren’t finished here, and he took that as a good sign as he followed the LCDR.

“I double checked your readiness status as of five minutes ago and you’re all green.” Ben smiled, but didn’t ask for details. The less he knew the better.

Ben led the way up to the forward portions of the ship. He showed Coop the Fleet spaces, the bridge, and they ended up in the skipper’s office.

“This is for you.”

There was a ding on Coop’s PAD and it revealed a new deposit into his bank account.

“Don’t worry about it being red-flagged. My financial people know the financial security regulations better than anyone. Those are all coming from legitimate sources that are within war department guidance.”

True enough, Coop checked the deposit and it came from a casino. Gambling was a common past-time of the soldier, and as long as it wasn’t done on duty it was ok. Even if it happened on duty, a blind eye was likely going to be turned; especially if it was a friendly game between soldiers.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Hopefully we won’t have any problems during our mission, but if we do that is why you’re here. Our armory is fully stocked with everything you armor will need. You’ll report to SGT O’Neil since I have you slotted as part of the ship’s marine contingent, and he’s been instructed to ensure you are good to go. Do you have any questions for me before we get started with this mission?”

Coop knew why the LCDR wanted him in here. Coop had literally saved the guy’s ass, and despite his brief dip into the world of a ground-pounder, Ben Gold was still a pretty-boy, rich-kid, Fleet jockey. He wanted to feel safe, and if Coop was the way he was going to do that then the HI trooper was cool with it. He had five-thousand reasons to be happy.

“No, Sir. I’m good.”

“Excellent. Report back to SGT O’Neil. You’ve got a briefing coming up soon, and I’ll address everyone else before we hit Alcubierre.”

Coop stood and gave the LCDR a sharp salute before doing an about face and heading back to grunt country. The guy was paying him good money. The least he could do was show him respect. Plus, if this went well, there would be other opportunities for extra income while they were stationed in the same AO.

Coop’s good mood took a bit of a hit while he sat through the SGT’s briefing. They were headed to a system in the middle of nowhere to clear some half-finished asteroid storage areas of possible illegal activity. It all smelled a little too much like what happened back at Cobalt. Even worse, they still had no idea how the pirates had gotten those modern weapons. That shit wasn’t supposed to happen, and Coop didn’t want to walk into a clusterfuck a second time.

<At least this time I’ll have a proper load.> Part of the brief was a heads-up on their supply situation. No environmentally-friendly rounds this time. This wasn’t some corporate run station they had to treat with kid gloves. They were going in hot. Everyone there was a hostile, and Coop was looking forward to some real 3mm boom-boom this time.

Despite the uneasy feeling in his gut, there wasn’t anything else for Coop to complain about as Argo slid out of Abe and headed for the Alcubierre Launcher. It was a quick couple of days’ work for a big paycheck, and now he had Lee to look forward to. When he had a free moment he’d find the engineering apprentice and play “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours”.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 143

Admiral Michael Ward

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

 

“Attention on deck!” Several hundred people rose swiftly to their feet and assumed the position of attention.

“At ease. Relax everyone.” Admiral Michael Ward, commander of Third Fleet, entered the room and waved away the formalities.

It was after 1700 on Friday, so technically weekend leave had already started; but as all of the people in the conference room knew they were always on duty. It was more of a conference hall than a room. The ADM needed the space to accommodate all of the skippers from the battleships down to the gunboats as well as all of the Infantry command teams from the battalion level up. It added up to quite a few people. Just looking at the sheer size of the command teams present reminded the ADM just how massive the offensive he was in charge of really was.

It was something the ADM was used to. The Ward family had been fighting for the Commonwealth – and its predecessor the United States of America – for hundreds of years. They were as close to military royalty as you could get, and Michael was the current patriarch of the family. At two hundred and three years old he was one of the last officers still serving of an older generation, and he sure as hell was the only one in fleet command. When crews talked about “The Old Man” they were talking about him.

Despite his advanced age, he looked like he could be in his fifties or sixties. His hair was silver, which he kept in a professional high and tight. His green eyes were sharp and highlighted with the blue specks of first generation cellular rejuvenation therapy. He was two-hundred-and ten centimeters tall and was in great shape for a man of his considerable age. He was clean shaven, which only highlighted the lines on his face. Not a lot of them were laugh lines. He’d seen some shit.

He was a veteran of the Mid-World Wars: the wars that had plagued the Commonwealth and Eastern Block in the mid-to-late 23nd Century as their expansions butted against each other. Those had been the last real wars in the ADM’s opinion. Ever since then had been minor skirmishes where the fighters advanced into the ring, did a round or two, and then retreated to their corners for years or even decades.

<Looks like things are about the change.> He thought as he took the podium at the head of the hall. <And I almost thought about retiring.> He hid the smirk.

“Welcome everyone to the last operations briefing before we step off on Operation Winter is Coming.” No one but the ADM got the reference.

<Children,> he continued on.

“For operational security all leaves and passes are being executed as normal for this weekend. We are not going to the give the enemy two more days of advanced warning that we’re moving against them.” A large part of the Fleet’s course of action relied on surprise, and the ADM was determined to do everything in his power to achieve that.

“We will be Oscar-Mike no later than 0900 Monday morning. The formation is in your operations order. All traffic inbound and outbound will be halted at the Launcher. Phase One is designed to maximize the usefulness of the launcher. The farther we can get without using our exotic matter fuel supplies the better.” A star chart showed the planned two-day FTL trip that would take them nearly five hundred light years toward their objective. They would still be in Commonwealth territory when they emerged, but they would be in the ass end of nowhere. There wasn’t even a secret refueling depot that far out, much less a Blockie patrol. They would be as off the grid as an entire fleet could get.

The ADM detailed the movement, which after the initial jump would be weeks of smaller jumps designed to take a roundabout course to Yangon. The hundreds of thousands of sailors and infantry would be antsy during those weeks in transit so he made sure the commanders knew they needed to keep their people busy.

“Here is what we can expect when we enter Yangon.” The ADM finished the transit portion of the briefing and a detailed holo of Yangon System popped into existence. “Yangon has four planets. One is too close to the local star to be habitable, and doesn’t have anything but a mirror setup from the original system defense plans. Intel states that these haven’t been maintained for decades. However, we’re still going to fire some missiles and go for proximity kills to avoid getting hit by those petawatt-level energy blasts. The outer world is a gas giant with several small mining operations. They are a secondary objective that we’ll deal with if or when we have time.”

He zoomed in and focused on the second planet. “Yangon-2 is the larger of the two habitable planets. It is near-Earth in its environment and has a booming population. Current estimates have it around seven hundred million, but that is expected to grow due to these.” He pulled away from the planet to a spot in between the second and third planets. The holo showed three Alcubierre Launchers.

“This data is courtesy of a Naval Intelligence ship masquerading as a cargo hauler. The intel is a week old and will change between now and when we get there, but it gives us a starting point.” He zoomed back out. “We have three objectives.” The screen split into three sections highlighting three areas. “Yangon-2, Yangon-3, and the Launchers.”

“Captain Simpson will handle the nitty-gritty of capturing these three objectives while the Fleet is tasked with handling the system defenses. Those are three-fold. As I said before, we have the mirror system from the solar laser array. After that is the system defense force, which the last intel sweep showed sixteen battleships and twice as many cruisers. Last but not least are the fortresses. Each planet has one and the launchers have two rotating around them.”

Fortresses were one of the oldest forms of space defense, but had largely been replaced with defensive rings or in a few cases planetary shields. Like their earthbound counterparts, the massive battle-stations suffered from a key weakness: maneuverability. The hundred million ton globes packed a hell of a lot of firepower, but they couldn’t maneuver for shit. The two rotating around the Launchers would be more of a problem for Third Fleet, but the two tasked with handling the planet would be simpler to deal with.

Fortunately, this was where the ADM excelled. He came from a crop of officers that valued the concept of closing to knife range to launch boarders and just slug it out with the enemy. Being able to engage in feints, complex maneuvers, and counter-intelligence sabotage were all well and good, but sometimes you just needed to stand toe-to-toe with the enemy and blast each other until only one was left standing. That’s what it was going to take to deal with the Launcher fortresses, and the ADM was the man for the job.

“The Launchers are the primary objective. With those offline it will take days instead of hours to get reinforcements.”

Losing the quantum-entanglement tech that allowed the Launchers to communicate across a galaxy, with no lag time, by messing with physics concepts the ADM didn’t understand was a system defender’s worst nightmare. The process was power intensive, couldn’t have any gravitational disruption, and was so damn expensive that Launchers were the only place you could realistically use the tech. Otherwise, it would have changed communications throughout the known galaxy. Still, what they did was incredibly important. They acted as homing beacons in a constantly moving universe so ships could travel through the Launcher network. Their impact on interstellar trade and travel was monumental, and that included military transportation, which was why it was so important to knock out the Launcher’s first.

“Once we take the launchers we’ll deal with Yangon-2, where the majority of the defensive forces will likely be stationed, and lastly we’ll take Yangon-3. Captain Simpson will detail the Infantry’s operation.”

Captain Simpson was a big man – like anyone with HI or special operations enhancements – and his Ranger tab was prominent on his CMUs. He was the commander of the 25th Infantry Division, which didn’t mean much for this operation. Only one brigade of soldiers under his current command were actually from his division. The rest were a mix and match of what could be transported to the staging area. The last three months had been spent in nearly continuous VR training to mesh the different command teams together and get some sort of working relationship going. The ADM had seen those results. They’d started out horrible and progressed to ok.

“Accurate numbers of defenders for the Launchers is impossible to know, but our own doctrine requires a minimum of one battalion. Taking that into consideration, First Brigade is going to be responsible for disabling those Launchers. Commanders should start focusing their training on those scenarios during the rest of our voyage.”

Of the reports the ADM had read, First BDE was the best, so he was glad they were going to be the ones to take the critical platforms.

“Yangon-2 has seven PDCs, and each will be hit with a brigade. Yangon-3 has another three PDC, and the remaining brigades will be tasked with seizing those objectives.” The details were sent to the commanders’ PADs so they could begin their own training.

“This is not going to be a walk in the park. We’re going to hit resistance the moment our boots hit the ground. The Fleet will provide overwatch, so that will help tremendously, but don’t get complacent. We will lose people out there. It’s our job to make sure they lose everything.”

The CAPT handed the floor back over to the ADM to wrap it up. It was a barebones initial assessment and allocation of resources that would be refined over time. They needed that flexibility because the intel would be five weeks old by the time they finally reached Yangon, and the situation could be completely different. They could end up in a fighting retreat all the way back to the nearest Commonwealth system. He didn’t think that would be the case, but a few extra squadrons of battleships passing through the Launchers or in system for training wasn’t out of the equation.

The ADM was a firm believer in the Dark God Murphy: what could go wrong would go wrong, and there was a lot that could go wrong when a fleet was so far from home.

 

 

Eve Berg

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

 

Corporal Eve Berg stood at attention with the rest of the Rangers while the LT briefed them. She paid close attention to what the officer was saying, but a lot of it didn’t mean much to her. The overall course of action was good to know, but what she wanted to do was dig down into the weeds into her part in all of this.

“Berg, I’m assigning you as assistant fire team leader under Sergeant Sullivan. You’ll be teamed up with the 2511th for the initial assault on one of the Launchers and be launching from Aggie.

“Yes, Sir!” she yelled back with all the intrinsic motivation of a newly promoted E-4.

<Another mission, another unit…> It was the lifestyle of a Ranger.

Hell, she’d been doing more shit since getting out of Ranger School than most spacers saw in years.  She just hoped Aggie fared better than her other transports.

Her PAD vibrated in her pocket, but she didn’t dare take a look until after formation broke up. She was free until Monday, which was a rare move on the LT’s part, but she wasn’t going to argue it. She’d take the two days leave – her first leave since that weekend after Basic – and enjoy herself on Syracuse before they shipped out. This deployment was going to be a long one, and she didn’t know the next time she’d have any free time to herself.

When she checked her PAD any thought of free time went right out the window. A brisk email had been sent to her asking her to report immediately to a location on the surface of Syracuse. It was weird and out of the ordinary until she saw the signature block at the end of the message. That put it all into perspective.

 

Gwen L. Cunningham

Gunnery Sergeant, Infantry

NCOIC, A CO 2511th INF BN

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 30

It felt good to be back in the suit. This wasn’t some emergency situation thing while the latest shitstorm was passing through town. Daisy was legit back in the show now, even though her Hero certification hadn’t been technically restored yet. There were more tests for her to take at the D.C. office when she got the free time, but the Protectorate was able to get around that right now by having her temporary status extended indefinitely until her certification reactivated. She was in team’s rotation part-time for the time being, and right now that meant she was the Hero on call.

She’d had customized fatigues ordered and delivered within twenty-four hours. They were a hell of a lot better than the crap they’d issued her for Mr. Morningstar’s detail. The fabric was lightweight and breathable while still being made of a ballistic material that would stop most small caliber ammunition. It was nothing like her old uniform that could hold together under artillery fire, but things were different here in Florida. She’d die of dehydration in that material down here, and it didn’t matter much for a kinetic absorber what caliber round it could handle. What did matter was them being top-grade fire-retardant material. She’d nearly been burned alive once in the last year and she wasn’t planning on going for two.

She’d dug her old domino mask out of her things, strapped it on, and immediately discarded it. It didn’t fit the circumstances. Shit was sliding sideways fast, and she didn’t need something to convey that. Her full-face shield came in with the rest of the uniform. The designer, a go-to for any serious Hero, had styled some red accents onto the metallic-black material that gave it a little devilish flair. On top of it went her black patrol cap. She’d had to slap it against her leg half a dozen times to get all the dust off of it, but it fit just right, and she wasn’t willing to get a new one. Her short hair went into a ponytail and through the open space at the back, and she was Reaper again.

Despite that, it had been a long time since she’d been on a call like this. <At least ten years.> She thought as she lifted the thin, yellow caution tape that made a horizontal barrier across the door of the apartment complex.

Even when she’d still been an active Hero, Daisy had usually been brought in for scorched-earth missions or things deemed serious by Iron Giant or the DVA. John was well aware of her short temper back then, so he didn’t waste her time with minor league shit. She was a different person now, and KaBoom was a different leader, so she got the same assignments as everyone else.

The neighbors were out in the hallway and their eyes went wide as she strode confidently down the hall to the gaggle of whispering detectives. She didn’t know if they remembered her from a decade ago, or if they just thought she looked bad ass. She didn’t pay them any attention other than a quick scan to classify them as non-threatening. What she was trying to figure out was the lead detective’s name. She’d seen him around the precinct before, and Topher had even introduced them once.

“Detective Martinez,” she gave herself a mental high-five when the man turned to regard her.

The next few interactions were crucial. Even though she wasn’t a new Hero in Orlando’s scene, she was new to the routine calls, and that meant she needed to carefully cultivate a relationship with the rank and file of the OPD. How she acted here with Detective Martinez was going to be spread around through the force. She was pretty sure the SWAT guys and a few uniforms that worked on the raids might have some stories, but Martinez was going to be the first to interact with her like this.

“Reaper.” He acknowledged her with a head nod and a look that said ‘I don’t really need you here, but I’ll take the help I can get’. It was a hell of a lot better than ‘Who the fuck do you think you are, and why do you think you can walk right into my crime scene and run the show?’.

“What have we got?” She decided to play it business-like for now.

“Nothing.”

She did a double take and got confirmation when Martinez shrugged.

“I’m not even sure why we’re here.”

“You’re here because I asked,” Daisy turned to see Debora striding down the hallway. She had her pant-suit jacket pulled to the side to show her DVA badge to the officer who looked like he was going to move to block her.

“Agent Phillips.” Reaper gave her the same tone and nod she did Martinez. Local vs. Federal beef was something she did not want to get in the middle of.

“Reaper.” The DVA agent returned the nod and strode past her and the detectives to the room where a man with CSI in big letters on his back was taking pictures of a perfectly clean apartment.

Too clean.

<Badge and gun on the table…no sign of forced entry…nothing looks like it’s been taken…> Daisy might not have done this in a while, but she remembered the basics.

“Do you mind telling us what the hell is going on?” Martinez asked as he followed Debora into the living room. Daisy brought up the rear.

“This is the apartment of DVA Agent Simmons. She didn’t report to work this morning, she didn’t call in sick, and no one has been able to get a hold of her since she left the office last night. This is atypical behavior from an agent with stellar reviews and perfect attendance.”

“So…she went on a bender and hasn’t crawled back out of the bottle yet.” Martinez suggested as he accepted a pair of gloves that Debora was handing to everyone. Daisy’s outfit came with gloves, so she walked into the kitchen to take a look around while everyone pulled on the latex.

All Daisy could think of was butt inspections when she heard the snap of the plastic and the weird squeaking sound of them being adjusted. She quickly pushed the thoughts aside and looked around the kitchen. She opened the fridge and found a dedicated agent’s contents: half a carton of eggs, milk that was about to go bad, and take-out that was either fresh or had been in there way too long judging by the noxious fumes wafting into the air. It didn’t tell her much about the agent other than she was a workaholic.

“Agent Simmons is a young, talented agent. She did not go on a bender. She is missing.”

“Unless things have changed, someone usually has to be gone at least forty-eight hours to officially be classified as missing,” Daisy said her piece and didn’t bother looking at Debora. She could feel the heat of the DVA agent’s glare on her back.

“Normally, yes, but there are exigent circumstances in this case.”

“Which are…?” Martinez asked as the group made its way into the bedroom.

Daisy scanned the living room before following. The bed room looked just as clean, but the bed’s comforter was missing. <Weird,> she wondered if anyone had checked the washer.

“Agent Simmons was part of a two-person team that captured an individual assisting the supervillain known as Wraith yesterday.” No one needed any further explanation.

They all split up and started to do their detective thing, and Daisy went over to the CSI guy. He was a little star struck and stumbled over his answers. It was what she’d already surmised. They’d dusted for prints and everything, but so far they’d come up with diddly. The evidence was pointing more and more in the direction of the bender theory.

“Do you mind?” she asked as she grabbed the UV light from the CSI guy’s kit of tools.

He didn’t, but he said he already took a look at everything and didn’t find anything. It didn’t matter. She had a hunch. It wasn’t a lot to go on, but she couldn’t buy that the breakout from the supermax prison and anything Wraith did from now on was coincidental. There had to be a reason, and so far every prisoner except one was accounted for. She’d read the file and knew what to look for.

While everyone else poked around the bedroom, she shut herself in the bathroom and closed the door. She flipped on the UV lamp and watched as the blueish glow washed over everything. The tile was clean, too clean, and the CSI guy probably noted that in his report. She also bet that aside from the food in her fridge, Agent Simmons was a classic neat freak. The orderly apartment suggested it, so that cleanliness would be written off.

Daisy wasn’t willing to assume that. She waved the light and looked into all the nooks and crannies. There was nothing behind the toilet, anywhere in the back of the closet, or under the lip of the sink where someone’s foot might accidentally leave residue. She waved it over the tub and it was just as immaculate. She was about to move on when a momentary shine caught her eye.

“Someone get me a screw driver!” she called out. Less than ten seconds later Debora had one, and had squeezed into the dark space with Martinez.

Daisy unscrewed counterclockwise and the drain cover popped off. The top of it didn’t show any residue, but the underside was shining like a beacon. The drain itself wasn’t too bad, but there were still some flecks of brightness. Normally, they would be swabbed and sent to the lab with the lowest priority since there still wasn’t any real indication that Agent Simmons was missing, but the bottom of the drain cover was the smoking gun.

“I’d bet you a month’s pay that if you swab and test this blood you’ll get a positive DNA test for Agent Simmons.” Daisy wasn’t happy she’d made the discovery.

“Shit,” Debora cursed and seemed to deflate in front of her.

“How the hell did you know to look there, and how do you know it’s blood?” Martinez was squinting at the bright underside of the cover.

“Bloodhound.” Daisy replied.

“What?”

“The only prisoner missing from the prison break in Colorado was a woman named Bloodhound. Her MO is to kill people, drain their bodies of blood, and bathe in it. My guess is that some of it leaked out while she was bathing, or she tried to drain some of it, or maybe she even forgot to put the stopper in when she cut her victim’s throats. I don’t know, but I do know that blood is thicker than water and doesn’t drain like it. She cleaned up after she was done, but she missed this bit.”

“Victims?”

“It’s just a gut feeling, but judging by the level of cleaning that went into this, and the amount of blood the human body has in it, I’m guessing two or more people were drained into the tub. I suggest we canvas the neighbors and see if anyone else didn’t show up for work this morning unexpectedly.” Daisy felt the weight of guilt settle onto her shoulders.

This was the part of the job she didn’t miss: the feeling that she could have prevented this if she was here or had done something different in the past.

<You didn’t do this. Wraith and Bloodhound did. Concentrate on that.> She took a deep breath, composed herself, and got to her feet.

“Get CSI in here and get the evidence. Then you can make this an official homicide case and get the resources that you need.” She looked at Debora. The DVA agent couldn’t see behind the mask, but Daisy’s face was pained. “Sorry for your loss, Agent Phillips.”

Debora didn’t say anything. She threw open the door and started yelling orders to everyone.

 

***

 

The last few freshman of West Private’s HCP shuffled into the auditorium just before the scheduled start time. The rest of the classes watched them without judging. They knew everything those first semester freshman were going through, and the last thing anyone wanted after a workout session with Coach McMillian was to sit in the auditorium for an announcement from the Dean.

Mason, Kyoshi, Becca, Anika, and Angela were sitting together and all hoping this would be quick. The grumbling of stomachs in the room was nearly as loud as the side conversations.

“Thank you, everyone, for coming on such short notice.” Dean Ditmar stepped out onto the stage with a hurried look on his face. The stress was something his students were not used to seeing. “I just wanted to gather everyone together this evening to discuss what has occurred and will be occurring.”

Several people in the crowd – mostly freshman – shifted uncomfortably. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where this conversation was going.

“Not long ago, the Hero community and this city lost an icon.” The Dean’s tone was somber. “I have personally known Mr. Morningstar for more than half a decade, and his reputation preceded him long before that. He was a good man, a great Hero, and an asset to this city. As all of you know, he lost his life fighting against people who have attacked our city and our nation. Due to the media coverage, it was a very public death. Most Heroes who die in the line of duty do not get the moment captured on national television, but how his death was broadcasted does not affect his relevance as a Hero and guardian of this city. If anything, it shows everyone: Hero, civilian, and HCP student just how important the daily battle for peace and justice really is.” The Dean stopped to take a sip of water from the bottle on the podium.

“Most of you also know that his murderer is still at large, and once masqueraded as a student at this college.”

All of the eyes in the room pivoted in Mason, Kyoshi, Becca, and Anika’s direction. A few then moved down toward Isla in the front row, but none of them found what they were looking for.

“The public funeral and private ceremony for Mr. Morningstar are being held tomorrow starting exactly at noon. The city is pulling out all the stops. A funeral procession of Heroes and local law enforcement will escort Mr. Morningstar’s body through the city to the church. Once there, only close friends and families, transported by teleporter, will be present for the actual service. Members of the public may be inclined to stay and follow the procession to the cemetery where Mr. Morningstar will be laid to rest.”

Becca’s hand shot up the moment the Dean finished and he pointed for her to ask the question everyone was thinking.

“Can we attend?”

“That’s why I called this assembly.” The Dean smiled back with a hint of sadness. “Members of the West Private HCP are more than welcome to attend as civilians. The secret identity clause of your contracts still applies. You may not reveal what you are or what you are doing at West Private, and that is important because the threat level for tomorrow is high.” The Dean’s face grew serious. “As I mentioned, Wraith and the others who attacked the prison are still at large. If their goal is to continue to hurt this city then attacking the funeral will be at the top of their agenda. The DVA and over a dozen Heroes are tasked specifically with security, but no defense is perfect. That is a good lesson to take away from this meeting today. Several very powerful people will be there tomorrow, and there is still a chance for things to go very wrong. I can’t stop you from attending, but you all need to keep that in mind if you do go.”

“Are you on the security detail?” An overzealous freshman asked.

“No, but I will be attending the funeral and will do my duty if called upon. I’m an asset in reserve for the authorities to utilize.” The Dean looked around for any more eager question askers. “As the Dean of the HCP, your safety is my top priority and we will be ensuring accountability of all students throughout the day tomorrow. The whole city, including the school, has established tomorrow as a half-day in honor of Mr. Morningstar. It is as much a security concern as anything else, but I encourage all of you to take advantage of this time to train and learn.” The Dean looked around again for any raised hands. “If you are planning to attend tomorrow, please see Professor Livingston and she will give you the relevant information.”

The Dean stepped away from the podium and the classes took that as a sign of dismissal. Everyone gathered their things and started to either stream out of the auditorium or to the Focus professor. Surprisingly, despite the danger, more students headed to the teacher than to the door, but a few made a beeline straight to the Dean.

“Dean Ditmar,” naturally Becca got to him first, “have you seen Seth? He wasn’t in any of our classes today and we’re worried about him. He’s been a bit off lately, and with his probation we just wanted to check in.” Anyone who didn’t know the petite speedster would have thought she was giving the Dean puppy-dog-eyes, but it was just her natural expression.

“Mr. Abney has been temporarily removed from the program until the criminal charges against him get sorted out. How the issue is resolved will determine if he returns to this program or not.” The Dean didn’t elaborate before leaving the stunned sophomores.

“He’s gone?” was all Becca was able to say.

“Oh man,” Mason sighed as his face fell.

Anika kept her mouth shut and Angela just shrugged. Their eyes met briefly and they could both tell the other Super thought Seth was better off somewhere else. Neither thought he had the current mindset to be a Hero.

“Hey, have you guys seen Seth?” Isla walked up to the small group with the same concerned look on her face. The look only deepened when she heard the news. “I don’t understand?”

“It’s not difficult.” Angela started off, but softened her tone when Becca shot her a withering look. “Seth is obviously going through something, and with his legal problems the staff is probably correct in assuming he’s not ready to be a Hero now, so why would they waste resources training him?”

“It’s just…” Isla stopped and struggled over what to say. “Nevermind,” she sighed and walked away back toward the rest of the freshman who were gathered around Professor Livingston.

“What should we do?” Mason asked once they were alone again.

“Nothing,” Anika replied. “If he’s out then the HCP is going to wipe his memory so he can’t expose the rest of us. The Dean gave us the whole spiel last year. For all we know, Seth doesn’t even remember who we are right now.”

That sent Becca over the edge. She sniffled and headed for the door with Anika following after her apologizing. Angela agreed with the sentiment with a simple nod and followed the two other Supers out. That just left Mason and Kyoshi.

“I can’t sense him in the building, but we can drive by his place if you want?” She could tell Mason was taking it hard. It was always difficult to see someone you’d fought beside gone like that without even a goodbye.

“Sure.”

Kyoshi intertwined her hand in Mason’s and the two large Supers carved a path toward the exit. They’d both get with Professor Livingston tomorrow morning to confirm they’d go to the funeral.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 142

Benjamin Gold

Location: New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 “No. Absolutely not, Sir.”

Ben sat in front of Charlie Company Commander Lieutenant Jacobi Wentworth and tried not to let his frustration show.

“Please, Lieutenant, just let me ask him.”

“Lieutenant Commander, it’s not a question of whether Private Cooper wants to come on your mission. It’s a question of his ability.” The Infantry LT’s tone was frosty. Ben might outrank her, but she knew he was in her wheelhouse.

“If I could just…”

“Sir, respectfully…” The next words out of the LT’s mouth were unlikely to be respectful; otherwise she wouldn’t start out a sentence like that. “…I don’t know why you want Private Cooper, but you can’t have him. Not only do we have training scheduled over the next month that he needs to attend, but he is also yellow on medical. Even if he wanted to, and I agreed to it, he still wouldn’t be able to go. Plus,” now her eyes matched the frostiness of her tone, “I’ve been waiting over eighteen months to get the HI compliment for my company to finally be one-hundred-percent. I’m not going to let that slip through my fingers because you want an extra layer of defense on whatever your mission is.”

Ben sighed and leaned back in the chair. He wanted Cooper for this mission because aside from SGT O’Neil, Cooper was the only person he had complete trust in. That was trust born in blood and sweat. Once you carried another man across a space station while simultaneously killing the enemy, you formed a bond. Ben had six confirmed kills from that mission and almost bought the farm at least a dozen times. Stats like that changed a man. Most importantly, it made him want what he wanted if he was going to go back into that type of situation again.

If he was being honest with himself, he didn’t feel completely safe without HI Trooper Cooper at his side.

The question was how to get what he wanted, and the answer to that question was the LT sitting in front of him.

“Let’s cut the bullshit,” Ben skipped any thinly veiled formality between them. “What is it going to take for you to sign off on it?”

“Sir, it doesn’t…”

“Don’t concern youself with the medical issue,” he cut her off. “I want to know what you want to sign him over to me for five days, a week tops?” If Ben knew one thing about people, it was that they always wanted something. His father had taught him that, and the LT was no different.

He’d made sure to read up on the LT before meeting up with her. Jacobi Wentworth was a bit of an oddity. She was a fourth generation East Newfoundlander. The system was about as far from the Eastern Block as you could get, so there wasn’t much of a military presence. They had a small system defense force – no more than a handful of cruisers for commerce protection – but Fleet units only passed through in transit to more strategic locations.

The LT came from a standard middle-class family. Father was a senior NCO in the defense force before retiring after thirty years and moving into teaching. Her mother was a medical administrator. There was nothing in the LT’s history that explained why she would go off and join the Infantry, aside from adventure or a desire to prove herself.

Judging by a glance at the chest of her CMU’s, Ben was betting on the latter. The majority of the ribbons were standard for an Infantry officer with six years of service. It didn’t escape his notice that she’d been serving longer than him, but he outranked her. He doubted she’d missed that either.

In that time, she’d achieved a Basic Combat Drop Badge. The silver badge was in a place of prominence above everything else. Since they were in peacetime up until recently, most of those drops had been police actions. Four had been small riots, but one was a legitimate armed conflict against the New Caliphate. The skirmish between the New Caliphate and Maccabbee Alliance had drawn Commonwealth attention. The two independent states were in a constant state of tension, and things had boiled over. The LT had been part of the force sent to restore peace, and she’d received a Purple Heart for her troubles.

All of that meant that the LT had every intention of being a career Infantry officer. She was always looking for the next challenge, something to better herself and her soldiers, and that was something Ben could help with.

The LT gave Ben a piercing look for a few seconds before leaning back in her own chair. “This is stuff you would agree to give me even if I can do nothing about the medical status.”

Ben was taking a risk here, but there was no reward without a little risk. “Yes,” he answered.

She jumped on him after his answer. “I want a week of spaceborne training: EVA ops, ship assault, the whole nine yards. I want to have the only qualified company in my battalion ready for spaceborne action.”

Ben expected something like this. Skippers of warships didn’t like to spend a lot of time accommodating the marines’ training because they had their own mandatory assignments to complete. There was always too much crap on a skipper’s plate, and even after delegating a lot of that, the last thing he wanted was marines running all around the outside hull of his ship playing war.

Thankfully, it was also something Ben could oblige. Argo hadn’t been doing anything but sitting around for the last three months, so he was all caught up on his paperwork and crew qualifications. Allowing the cross-training with the marines might actually be a good mark on his record. ‘Extends sphere of influence outside chain of command’ was a bullet point on the OER after all.

“Deal.” Ben extended his hand and the LT took it.

“Follow me.” The LT wasn’t willing to take his word for it. Together, they marched down the hall to the Battalion operations NCO’s office.

The MSG was more than a little surprised to be pushing through agreed upon spaceborne qualification training between Ben and the LT, but he didn’t question it. He put it on the schedule and had the Battalion Commander’s signature within the hour. A minute later, the LT signed the temporary duty paperwork. All Ben had to do was get Cooper’s medical status to green and he’d have his HI trooper.

 

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: New Lancashire, United Commonwealth of Colonies

 

Coop was enjoying his night off. He needed to. With qualifications and an FTX coming up he didn’t know how much longer he’d be able to get off base and unwind. It all depended how much of a Hard ass GYSGT Weitz was if his future held spending the majority of time sleeping in a charging rack or not. Coop didn’t want to think about that. He needed to live in the moment, and that moment currently involved some farmer’s daughter with daddy issues grinding her almost-bare ass against his crotch.

The lighting was dim in his favorite strip club for purely disreputable reasons. Coop liked the place because the security was lazy and the girls were down for just about anything. Life on a new colony could be tough for some, and these establishments gave those struggling women a way to make easy cash.

“So the new LT is hot?” Mike asked. His chair was facing the opposite direction, because looking at his friend while sporting a woody was just weird.

“Smoking.” Coop supplied the correct adjective. “Easily a nine, maybe even a ten.”

“Why not just give her a ten?” Mike asked as his own stripper strutted her stuff around his massive frame.

“You got to be a freak in the sack if you want a ten in my book.” They both laughed and chugged the last of their beer. It was cheap shit that tasted like piss-water, but it was cheap.

The song came to the end and the stripper gave him one last side to side rub of her ass before rising seductively to her feet. Her eyes lingered on Coop for a moment, and when he didn’t move to deposit more money in her account she started walking away.

“Oh, come on, Destiny!” he called after her, but she didn’t look back. “Could you at least bring me a beer?”

That earned him the finger from Destiny – which he tried not to read into the irony of – and another laugh from Mike.

“So, you and Harper?” Coop wasn’t willing to go down without a fight.

“No, we’re done.” There was a hint of sadness in Mike’s voice, but he swallowed it along with a gulp of beer. Unlike Coop, he paid for another song. “I haven’t heard from her in two months. I expected to come back from the last op with at least a message waiting in my inbox, but there was nothing.”

“The Unwritten Rule.” Coop nodded his head and just sat awkwardly in his chair without booze or woman to keep him company.

The unwritten rule in the military was no contact after an agreed upon amount of time was as surefire sign that things were over. With travel times being what they were, it could take a while to get word from place to place, but two months was more than enough time to get an e-mail from New Lancashire to Luna and back at least a few times. There were a couple of explanations for the absence. Harper might be under some type of quarantine from an infectious nanite bioweapon outbreak, she could have died in some tragic training accident, but more than likely she was just polishing some other guy’s nob now. Probably a doctor knowing how determined she was to have nice things.

“Damn,” Mike sighed. “She gave one hell of a blowjob.”

Coop laughed.

“You want a blowjob?” asked the stripper. “That’s going to be two-fifty and I need your medical clearance. I don’t want rotten dick in my throat.”

“Deal.” Mike hopped up so fast he nearly bowled over the woman. “See ya, Coop.”

“If you can afford to throat-bang her you can afford to buy me a drink!” Coop called after his friend, but only succeeded in getting the finger from him and the stripper.

Three months of recovery had taken its toll on Coop’s bank account. You couldn’t spend a lot of money when you were busy doing shit on a warship. If you met the right group of people you might be able to set up some friendly gambling games, but not much more than that. On the contrary, it was amazing how fast cash flew out the door when you were busy sitting around on your ass all day long. Coop only had enough for one more beer. The bright side was that he was getting paid on Friday, so he’d be able to do more than buy a few dances next time he visited.

“Allow me.” The last person Coop ever expected to see in this joint took a seat and ordered top-shelf bottle service.

“Lieutenant Commander Gold?” The half-chub left over from Coop’s last dance vanished. “I didn’t think officers were allowed to even come in here.”

“Sure we’re allowed, but not advised.” Gold was dressed in civvies so it wasn’t immediately recognized that he was a Fleet officer. “I’m off duty, Cooper, so please just call me Ben.”

“I’m going to stick with sir, Sir.” Coop’s spidey-senses were tingling. This felt like a trap of some sort. “What can I do for you?” He proceeded with caution.

“I’ve got a proposition for you.” Ben turned around Mike’s vacated chair, accepted the drinks, but waved off the squads-worth of strippers that gravitated toward his expensive clothing. “I want you to come on a mission with me.”

Coop let out a sigh of relief. He had an easy out.” Sorry, Sir.” He patted his leg. “I’m still yellow. I can’t do anything until I’m cleared, and then you’d have to get my LT to sign off on it. Good luck with…”

“Already done.” Ben’s email arrived on Coop’s PAD with a ping. “Your LT has agreed to temporarily assign you to me for the next week. After that, you will return to Charlie Company.”

“That’s nice of her,” Coop read over the orders but that didn’t stop the confusion. “It still doesn’t fix my medical readiness.”

“That I’m leaving up to you.”

Another ping rang out from Coop’s PAD. It was an alert from his bank account. His balance had just jumped from pennies to over a grand.

“A thousand now, and five more when you get your medical status up to green.” Ben sounded like he was talking about the weather and not something that was clearly against regulations.

<Is it?> Coop couldn’t help but think he’d never read about something like this being against the UCMJ, but then again, Coop hadn’t put much stock in military law since the day he joined up.

“Two questions. First, why me?” Coop critiqued the officer.

“I want you because I know you can handle yourself if things go sideways. You’ve done it for me before, and this time I’m offering even more incentive.”

<He’s got a point.> Coop scratched his chin. He really needed cash.

“Ok, but how am I supposed to do it?” That was the real question.

“That’s for you to find out, Private, and you’ve got five thousand reasons to figure it out in the next six hours. You need to report to Argo at 0900.” Ben smiled, got to his feet , and slid the bottle of Earth-made whiskey to Coop. “That’s on me. Consider it a bonus. You’re a resourceful man, Cooper. I have faith in you.”

The LCDR walked away and Mike returned with a smile on his face. “Who was that?”

Coop didn’t say anything. His mind was running the possibilities and coming up with jackshit. <How can I do it…how can I do it…how can I do it?> He took a few swigs from the bottle hoping for some liquid genius.

Surprisingly enough, it worked.

“Here.” The bottle was half empty, and he was more than a little buzzed when he tossed it to Mike.

“Shit, is this…?” Mike never got the question out before Coop was at the door and pushing his way into the cool night.

He used his PAD to do a quick search, used a little technological trickery he’d learned in the PHA and adapted to his current situation, and headed off at a stumbling run toward his destination.

The small set of apartments wasn’t that far from the hospital. It made sense. It was the perfect place for an E5 – who was allowed to live off base – to live. Coop found the door, composed himself, and knocked with a sense of urgency that didn’t come across as too stalkerish.

Sandy answered the door in a nightgown and a sleepy look on her face. A face that lit up but looked a little confused at the sight of him.

“Coop?”

“No, Sandy. I’ve got to say this.” He took a deep breath. “You’ve meant everything to me over the last three months. You put me back together, made me a man again. I can’t ever thank you enough for that, but I also can’t stop how I feel. I can’t describe it,” he put a hand over his chest, “but I know there is something here. I’m not sure if…”

Sandy cut him off by grabbing him by the shirt, pulling him inside, and plastering her lips to his. She had to jump up and practically climb up his chest to do it, but she did it, and that was a good sign. From there it was just a matter of finding the bedroom and stamina.

<And that’s how you do it!> Coop thought a few hours later when Sandy was in a sex coma, and he was able to access her PAD.

All it took was a few clicks and swipes and Coop went from yellow to green on his medical readiness report, and because he was a gentleman he stuck around for a morning quickie before they both needed to report in. She went to the hospital, and he went to the armory. He was cutting it close, but he would be able to make it up to Abe and Argo by 0900, and he had one hell of a sendoff.

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