Two Worlds – Chapter 202

Benjamin Gold

Location: Savannah City, New Savannah, United Commonwealth of Colonies

On a normal world, the setting sun would have brought about some relief from the strangling humidity on New Savannah, but as Ben walked through one of the city’s many parks, he felt no such relief. New Savannah had three moons, one was occupied as the system defense force and Commonwealth Fleet’s main anchorage in the system. The second belonged to none other than Gold Technologies, and the third was split between a few other defense contractors.

The moons were crucial to defense and industry in the system. It gave the defensive units a hundred million kilometer buffer between any invading force and the planet full of civilians. As for the corporations, while their headquarters might be on New Savannah, all the real work got done up on the moons. Operational security dictated that a lot of the testing of new weapons and equipment couldn’t be done around populated areas, so a barren moon was the best option. Although, Gold Technologies’ moon wasn’t quite barren. It had a small, domed city with nearly a hundred thousand people living in it, and if projections continued to hold steady, there was even talk about terraforming the moon into a livable home.

As Ben walked the street of New Savannah, he didn’t care about any of that. He was concerned with the extra light the three moons threw off and the hell it played with the circadian rhythm that humanity was forced to evolve beyond as it spread from planet to planet, none of which lined up exactly with Earth.

“So…who are you voting for?” Ben turned to his companion for the evening.

Jacobi Wentworth was dressed just like Ben, to impress. Both were in their CMUs on the dress setting. Those were their orders for the evening. Both might have thought it was a slight conflict of interest to be dining at the behest of a corporation, but RADM Stillwater had told them to go. Although Ben and Jacobi didn’t really like the ranking Commonwealth officer on the planet, they still had to follow his orders. It made it just that more awkward that the person inviting them was Ben’s dad.

“The way I always do: Progressive,” Jacobi answered nonchalantly.

The response stopped Ben in his tracks, and she continued to walk a few steps before realizing he’d dropped behind. “Seriously?” Ben couldn’t stop the word from coming out condescendingly. “You want Mackintosh to stay in power?”

Jacobi frowned at him, and placed her hands on her hips. Her single platinum stripe caught one of the moon’s light, which also highlighted the intensity in her eyes. “I believe in the party platform, Ben. The Commonwealth should be doing more. We shouldn’t just be confined to matters of security, trade, and taxation. I think some other common principles between the Commonwealth’s member systems should be explored more.” Her hands went from her hips to crossed across her chest in a classic defensive cue. “So, I suppose you’re an Eagle supporter.”

“I do not think the current administration has managed the Commonwealth well over the last several years.” Ben didn’t back down, but he held any bite out of his tone. “The Prime Minister pushed this big education reform, spent billions on it, and it never gained any traction. That’s just one example. The Commonwealth was designed the way it was, to only deal with matters of security, trade, and taxation, because our founders knew that anything else wasn’t going to work out. The differences between New Washington and Asgard, New Lancashire and New Savannah, even Earth and Mars, make trying to shove everyone into a single way of doing things impossible and dangerous.”

“I’m not saying that everyone should have to do everything the same,” Jacobi countered.

“But that isn’t the way humans and power act,” Ben interrupted. “Once they get one thing, especially if it is something as contentious as education, across the Commonwealth, they’re going to want another, and another. Soon, they’re going to demand everyone think the way they do, and anything other than that mindset is deemed inferior or even hateful.”

“I think that’s taking it too far.” Jacobi frowned.

“History says otherwise,” Ben was ready to list off half a dozen examples from Ancient Rome to pre-expansion America, but she waved him off.

“So, I bet you think the Eagles way of outsourcing everything to corporations is the best way to do it.” Now it was her turn to fight back.

“It’s a little hard for me to be objective about what you’re asking because of who I am, but in general I do agree with aspects of it.” Ben pondered his response for a second. “It’s like a range. The Commonwealth is range control, the safety officer, and the trainers. They provide the left and right limits, correct, or punish anyone if they do anything wrong. The corporations are the soldiers on the firing line. They know their limits and need to act within them to meet whatever the objective is; whether that’s an individual systems educational curriculum, or trade routes.”

“Thanks for dumbing it down for us stupid grunts,” Jacobi glared and started to stomp off.

“You know I didn’t mean it that way,” Ben hurried after her, and his long legs allowed him to get in front of her quickly. “I just thought it was a good analogy.”

“An analogy that completely sidesteps the growing corporate influence on our government; influence that will only grow if an Eagle prime minister gets into power.” Jacobi stopped when Ben’s hand touched her shoulder.

“We’re completely in agreement there.” Ben nodded, while Jacobi looked a little surprised at the admission. “I’ve seen those high-level good old boys and girls rub each other’s backs for favors, promises, and to get ahead. Hell, I had an old girlfriend do it to me.” Ben cringed a little bit when Sarah came to mind. “But it comes down to a simple risk assessment for me. We’re in the middle of a war on two, hell, maybe even three fronts. We’ve got the ongoing feud with the Blockies, the Windsors bashing in our back door, and now we’ve got aliens whose intentions we don’t know. Carol seems fine enough, but you heard her, they aren’t trading with the Windsors, so who is?” Ben knew he’d scored a few points when Jacobi looked thoughtful. “So, my risk assessment tells me I’d like someone like Admiral Simons in charge of this instead of Mackintosh, who’s never worn a uniform or served on anything except a corporate board of directors.

“You do know that Deja Simons was an Infantry Admiral not Fleet?” A smile pulled a Jacobi’s lips, and that made Ben grin back. “Unlike some Fleet officers, I’m fond of a few infantry grunts.”

“Oh…really…” Jacobi chuckled and threw her hands around the back of Ben’s neck. At 178 centimeters, she was tall for a woman, but she still had to crane her neck up so Ben could lean down and kiss her.

“You know I was talking about Sergeant Cooper…right.”

“Asshole,” Jacobi slapped him in the chest but smiled.

Ben pretended it hurt, before his hand found hers, and they continued walking toward the voting center. What had just occurred was the mark of a healthy relationship in Ben’s opinion. People could have different worldviews, different beliefs, sometimes even radically so; but what really mattered was how those arguments ended. Not in screaming and punches, but in laughter and kindness.

“At least we’re not Blockies,” Jacobi added as they climbed the steps. This voting center was located at some type of local theater. “If we were we’d all have to toe the party line or be labeled as undesirables.”

Ben couldn’t agree more as he held up his GIC to be scanned at the reception booth. Ben’s GIC matched with a registered voter in the Commonwealth’s database, so he was allowed to pass. He gave a small nod to the two soldiers flanking the entrance in Dragonscale armor before heading inside.

Unlike younger members of the military, Ben had met the minimum obligation in an approved suffrage service, and earned the privilege of voting in Commonwealth-level elections. He waited in line for a few minutes before he was waved forward and into one of the privacy booths. It was very similar to testing cubes used throughout the Commonwealth, just not as intrusive. He had to crouch down a little to enter the booth, but it opened to allow him to pass instead of him having at wiggle through it. When he emerged on the other side it was brightly lit and almost homey.

“Welcome to the 2433 Commonwealth Election!” A cheery female voice announced. “Please scan your GIC on the device at the center of the room, and confirm your information. If the information is incorrect in any way, please notify an election official.”

Ben scanned his GIC and took a seat in the comfortable chair at the center of the booth. He dutifully studied his information as it sprang to life in the air in front of him.

 

Name: Benjamin Gold

Genetic Identification Code: NY0511240650671

Physical Health: Superior

Mental Health: [Authorized Personnel Only]

Education: Doctorate in Intergalactic Relations from Oxford University

Occupation: Lieutenant Commander, United Commonwealth of Colonies Fleet

Criminal History: N/A

Citizen Status: Confirmed

Voting Status: Eligible

 

Ben was glad to see that his education and occupation had updated. The last thing he wanted to do today was have to sit with election officials for hours while they figured out how to update his information in the voter registration system.

“The information is correct.” Ben’s voice command caused a green light to blink, and then the information disappeared. What appeared in its place was his first voting option.

Due to the expansive nature of the Commonwealth election day, it could take up anywhere from twenty minutes to a few hours of a voter’s time, which was why the voting booths were so accommodating. Ben’s registration had him as a citizen of Aurum, the corporate homeworld of Gold Technologies. It didn’t matter that he’d been born, and lived most of his life on Earth, Ben’s father made sure each of his children were registered as a citizen of Aurum for legal reasons. In fact, Ben believed they held foreign dignitary status as representatives of Aurum, but that was true of most majority shareholders from corporate worlds. Thus, the first round of voting considerations was for local Aurum proposals and candidates in the city he was registered in: Dinas Aur. Ben didn’t know the people, so he watched short holos of their platforms before making a decision. He also read the ordinance proposals carefully before voting yes or no.

Uneducated voting was a downfall of pre-expansion societies, and as someone who’d studied these things very carefully, Ben was doing his part not to repeat the mistakes of the past. After he’d gone through all of Dinas Aur’s voting subjects he moved on to Aurum’s candidates and proposals. Because he’d had a healthy conversation with Jacobi, he watched the platform videos, and archived campaign footage, on the candidates to represent Aurum on the Council of Representatives. Aurum had five seats, and ten real total candidates, five from each major party. Ben didn’t pay much attention to the minor party candidates. After listening to what the politicians had to say, Ben went four for five on Eagle Party candidates. The last candidate he voted Progressive because of the guy’s view on the New Lancashire incident. The fact that he didn’t call it a debacle, like the Eagle Party candidate, won the guy Ben’s vote. Lastly, were Commonwealth level initiatives.

The Prime Minister of the Commonwealth was not elected directly by the people. They were elected by the majority party, or a coalition of parties in the Council of Representatives. In-depth research by the Commonwealth founders had chosen this system over the American Presidential System. That meant, Ezekiel Mackintosh’s reelection or Admiral Simons’ election would be up to the Council when it gathered after the election results were tallied in several months.

In total, it took Ben about an hour to vote, and when he was done, he still had to wait another twenty minutes for Jacobi.  Since she was from East Newfoundland, he had no idea what proposals that system had put to the voters, and she didn’t really want to discuss it when she emerged. Not because she wanted to hide anything, but because they had more important things to consider.

“That was the easy part of the night.” Ben held out his arm and she took it.

Considering they’d just voted on items whose ramifications would ripple across the Commonwealth for the better part of a decade, told you just how hard a dinner with Thomas Gold was going to be.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 201

Eve Berg

Location: Capitol City, New Washington, United Commonwealth of Colonies

<I swear…If you shoot me one more sideling glance I’m going to punch you right in your stupid fucking face.> Eve promised herself as she watched Carol detail the attributes of the new shield technology on the V4A.

Eve didn’t need much of a briefing on the A’s. She, along with a lot of other SPECOPS operators, had been surveyed for upgrades to the V3. She’d given her two cents based on her experience in combat, and hoped the guys back in R&D had taken them seriously. As far as she was concerned, and especially with the new concept and missions the SRRT would be conducting, she really hoped they had made the blades camouflaged too. The last thing she needed was have the enemy walk up to see disembodied nano-blades floating in the air again. That had literally almost gotten her killed on Yangon.

<Son of a…> she looked over and saw Coop looking at her. When he saw her looking he tried to make it seem like he was looking at something else, but that just made him look like an idiot. <I’m going to punch him right in the dick. Mark my words…> Eve stopped the violent genital-mutilation thoughts and took a few deep breaths.

Truthfully, she had no idea why she was so pissed at Coop. The first thing that had gone through her mind when he walked into the underground hanger, with Mike of all people, was surprise. The Infantry wasn’t as big as the Fleet, but it was still comprised of millions of people. The odds of them both being Splitstream rated, on the same planet, and assigned to the same SRRT team were infinitesimally small. If she let herself go there, she might even think fate had something to do with it, but she wasn’t that naïve. She was still happy to see him.

He still looked good. He’d filled out more in the last few months with feeding and training. He wasn’t the lanky guy from Basic, or the guy still getting used to his enhanced body. He was a proper HI trooper now, and she was a proper ranger. His always-confident smile, just on the edge of arrogance, but with the will to back up any of his claims, had always been attractive. <Apparently, that was part of the problem.>

That little second-long burst of emotions at the sight of him got wiped away when he twitched, looked past her, and then back to her. Instinctually, Eve knew there was only one person he could be looking at, and it stung a little for more than one reason.

To Eve, Coop had been a project during Basic; aside from their weekend-long fling, it had been her job as the squad leader to shape and lead her people. Coop had come a long way during that time. He’d gone from a skinny, pissed off, little Rat shit, to someone that actually cared. Near the end, he’d wanted to win, and he’d pushed the members of his team to do the same.

One of her most cherished memories of Basic was right at the end. The last ruck march required all of them to meet certain time hacks. As a future ranger and HI trooper, she and Coop needed to be faster than a lot of their other squad mates. Eve had to be the fastest, and she concentrated on that. Coop kept pace with her for a while, but fell off near the end. By the time she crossed the finish line, she was wiped and plopped down on her ass in the Georgia grass to drink some much-needed water. Coop crossed the line not too long after her, but didn’t plop down and take a breather. Instead, he dropped his pack, stripped off his armor, asked her to watch his shit, and then headed back down the road to see who in the squad needed a last little boost of motivation. At the beginning of Basic he would have been much more likely to steal another recruit’s water than to help them cross the finish line before their time hack. For Eve, that memory was the definition of success, and then they’d gone off and fucked like bunnies, so that was a nice bonus.

When Coop looked past her at the Asian, Fleet petty officer, Eve could tell he’d changed. War had hardened him, she totally understood that, but there was something in his eyes that she hadn’t seen before. Whatever passed between the two of them, he wanted to keep it hidden from her. Since he was going to be watching her back on these upcoming covert ops, Coop couldn’t have any secrets from her, especially with a member of the two-person team flying them around.

That they were also probably fucking didn’t rub her the right way, but she was a big girl, and she didn’t care who Coop stuck it in, but the non-verbal vibes he was sending off every time he looked at the girl was what really pissed her off. After all, Eve had just come from a big operation against the Blockies, and PO3 Lee looked like a lot of the people she’d just fought against. She knew when the thought crossed her mind that it was insensitive, and stereotyping, but she didn’t give a shit. When someone looked like someone else who’d tried to kill you before, you couldn’t help but have a reaction.

Eve felt a tap on her shoulder and looked back to see GYSGT Cunningham frowning at her. It wasn’t until then that she realized she’d been staring down Coop and the PO3 for the last half minute. Coop looked like he wanted to be anywhere else but here, and the PO3 looked like she was wondering what was shoved up Eve’s ass that was making her such a bitch.

“Sorry.” Eve mumbled to the GYSGT and turned her attention back to the engineers and Carol, who were pulling forward the second platform. Since this was what Eve would be wearing into combat, she decided she should pay attention. She knew about the V4As going into this, but the Bs were something entirely new.

The engineer clearly thought so too, because he was practically jumping up and down to talk about it. “Unlike the V4A, which was already in development, with input from the SPECOPS community, the V4B is entirely comprised of new technology purchased from our new trading partners.”

Just looking at the V4B, the differences were obvious. Unlike all the other LACS models in existence, the V4Bs didn’t have the reptilian look that the scales gave the rest of the Commonwealth’s armor. In fact, the V4B hovering in front of them was smooth. It was about half a meter shorter than the V4A, and much less bulky. It almost had a feminine look when compared to the V4A; without all the curves.

“The first upgrade is the suit itself. We kept the internal malleable carbon-tubing weave for user consistency, but the neutral net has been updated to modern-Hegemony connectivity standards, so there is less circuitry imbedded in the suit.” The engineer was particularly giddy about this fact, and Eve could see the utility.

She’d heard of people getting hit during combat, and losing suit effectiveness. Even with redundancies built in, when stuff got blown off stuff stopped working. If they could reduce that risk for the soldiers, then Eve was all for it.

“The exterior of the armor is the most notable change. Simply put, the V4B is not made with a duro-steel exterior. We’re calling the armor’s material exo-steel. Exo means outside, and it is fitting because the material is outside our understanding and capability to produce. We had to import and then sculpt the metal, with Carol’s assistance, to make to V4Bs.”

“I think I speak for everyone when I say we don’t care exactly what it’s made with,” the GYSGT interrupted. “What is important from our perspective is will it protect us, and how does it incorporate our weapons?”

Eve was thinking the same thing. The V4Bs looked all sleek, new, and shiny, but there was a clear lack of weaponry.

“That’s completely understandable.” The engineer nodded. “As far as protection, exo-steel is tough and durable, but it is designed differently than duro-steel, and we honestly don’t fully understand it. For instance, unlike duro-steel and the V4As, there is a nano component built into the armor instead of having nanites swarming over the surface. The armor is organically smart, and will try to fix itself if it is damaged. Shields were designed into the armor at the beginning instead of integrated afterward, and as such, they are more effective.”

<Truly smart armor,> Eve mused. Up until now, humanity had been trying to make the armor just as smart as the human operating it. A perfect blend of man and machine would be the ultimate combat tool. It seemed like the Hegemony had already broken through that technological barrier.

She wasn’t sure how she felt about it. The engineers were psyched, but if the aliens had engineered self-thinking metal, instead of armor that ran on code and algorithms, what else were they capable of. It also sent a chill up Eve’s spine that she would essentially be inside another thinking thing, even if the thing’s intelligence was limited to ‘fix yourself if you’re hurt’.

<But why would they stop there?> she wondered, but had to turn her attention back to the demonstration.

“The next big leap forward has to deal with miniaturization.” The engineer sent some sort of command to the V4B because the exterior rippled in several places to reveal concealed weapons. “Carol has given us the tools to leap forward decades in the arms miniaturization race that every military is involved in. Small, better, smarter weapons means each soldier can pack more punch and put that punch exactly where it needs to be.” The engineer walked over the V4B and began to highlight points. The first were two ports that had opened up in the rib area with red lights gleaming within. “These are micro-missiles. You have two, eight-round launchers here and here. The missiles are the size of an enhanced human’s thumb, and each launcher has a sixty-four round magazine.”

Eve couldn’t stop her eyebrows from climbing nearly to her hairline. She assumed the micro-missiles would be at least as effective as the old V3 missiles, and now she had ten times more to work with. <Holy shit.>

“The missiles operate on a dual dynamic of gravity burst and explosive ordinance to achieve maximum effectiveness in such a small payload.” Carol replied to a question Eve missed, but it seemed to satisfy the asker.

The engineer moved to small openings on the armor’s thick wrists. “Along with the missiles, you have four powerful energy cannons that can toggle blasts from one-to-fifty megawatts.” Lastly, he pointed at the shoulders where two small spheres had popped up. “We also made sure an upgraded railgun was integrated into the armor. Each sphere has twenty thousand rounds of ammunition, but can also channel energy from the suit’s battery, which makes it a de facto point defense laser. Depending on how it works in an operational environment; we might remove the kinetic rounds and go full laser.” The engineer seemed excited about the possibility, but Eve had her reservations. Sometimes it was better to hit something with something solid rather than an energy beam.

“So you’ve kept all the old weapons systems?” The SGM stepped into the conversation.

“For user comfort, and rapid deployment, we aren’t including any new weapon designs until tactics are developed on the military side,” the engineer confirmed. “But we did make one change concerning the threat the Star Kingdom of Windsor’s mechs pose. Sergeant Major if you would please.” The engineer input another command and something jutted out of the V4B’s collarbone area. The SGM walked over, and with a grunt, pulled out a large nano-blade.

“We analyzed footage from the fighting on New Lancashire and have come to the conclusion that the forearm blades on the V4A and older Lacs models aren’t well suited to combat against a mech wielding a separate blade. A wielder has a distinct advantage, and we wanted to give that to level the playing field with the V4Bs.

<That’s going to take some getting used to.> Eve thought as the SGM gave a few experimental swings of the sword.

The engineer continued the briefing with Carol’s occasional interruption. The V4Bs were designed to be more fluid and faster than the V4As, and each team would have two members in each. For Alpha Team, that meant the GYSGT Cunningham and Cooper in A’s, while Eve and the SGM got issued the new B’s. If the GYSGT was pissed she wasn’t getting the fancy new tech, she didn’t show it.

Perhaps the most surprising bit of info came at the very end. “What about battery life?” Coop was the one that finally asked it. “This stuff seems super badass, but with everything your packing into it, it’s got to be hell on the battery.”

“Not as bad as you would think,” a new voice announced.

Eve looked over toward the lift and saw a person she’d only seen on TV walking toward them. Unlike some of the people in the room, she’d never met Thomas Gold, and unlike some, she was not enamored with the corporate titan. He was too much like the Prime Minister; too artificial-looking.

“Each of the SRRT team’s suits is equipped with a small gluon power cell. It’s nothing like the ones on the gunboats, or even the behemoths the Windsors have put in their superdreadnoughts, but it will give you ninety-six hours of operation at full power, and weeks with only intermittent use of certain systems. The new charging racks being welded into Argo will also charge up the suits in a quarter of the time.” The smile Thomas Gold gave everyone screamed ‘trust me’, which was why Eve didn’t like it.

“You know an awful lot about this.” The SGM was also appropriately skeptical.

“Of course I do.” Thomas smiled back. “I own the suits. The Commonwealth isn’t allowed to trade with the Hegemony at this point. Everything in those suits and even Carol’s presence here was paid by Gold Technologies. We’re just loaning all of it to the Commonwealth military because its our patriotic duty and we’re here to help.” The smile never wavered, and Eve’s suspicions grew even deeper.

If Eve was allowed to vote, which she wasn’t yet, she’d vote Eagle Party like the majority of the military. The Eagle Party had a strong pro-corporation stance, and Eve was for a positive relationship between the most powerful entities in human history. But this…this was a whole different level of corporate involvement. She wasn’t sure how she felt about it.

“But that’s not the reason I’m down here,” Thomas continued. “I’m here to invite you all to a Gold Technologies get together I’m throwing. I like to look at everyone involved in this venture as part of the Gold family, and when you’re in the Gold family you deserve the best.

Eve would let the officers field this question, because she was pretty sure there were ethical guidelines about accepting gifts from corporate entities.

“We…” LCDR Gold started.

“We would be delighted to attend.” RADM Stillwater finished the LCDR’s statement. “Please send us the details.”

Thomas Gold nodded to the RADM, did a surprisingly good version of an about face, and headed back to the lift. That left Eve and the rest of the members of SRRT Two wondering the same thing.

<What the hell just happened?>

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A Change of Pace – Season 2 – Chapter 51

“Bad boys bad boys…whatya gonna do…whatya gonna do when they come for you…” Lilly sang along to the song as she drove down the dark country rode. Only her two headlights pierced the blackness as she kicked up dust in her wake. That was a good thing because it showed no one was following her. It was bad because it was only her headlights. “Shit!” she didn’t see the road drop off until she was right on top of it, and she was not obeying the posted speed limit.

The bronco went airborne for a few seconds until it hit the ground hard enough to grind her teeth.

“Jesus!”

“What the hell!” The two passengers made themselves known as they braced for further impacts.

The car fishtailed, and sent bits of gravel careening into the woods, but she got control, and continued their retreat.

“Sorry. It’s tough to see anything out here.” She leaned forward and tried to make out anything beyond her high beams directly in front of her. Her biggest fear right now, aside from Heroes descending to kick her ass, was hitting a deer or something.

“Do you want me to drive?” Seth asked, but she shook her head. She needed to control some aspect of this situation.

They didn’t have a lot going for them right now. The police knew where they’d been, but not where they were heading. That didn’t matter a lot when you were able to pull the resources they were able to pull. Lilly had almost run into a checkpoint twice while navigating these backroads with nothing better than the map in the bronco’s glove box. Beyond that, she didn’t know the area, and she could feel the noose tightening around them. Worst case scenario…she took the risk of teleporting them all away, and hoped Seth didn’t burst something internally. She’d give him the choice to stay, obviously, but she doubted he wanted to be in prison any more than she did. He was just too pretty for that.

One bright point in this dark situation was the piece of machinery sitting below the center dashboard. She had an idea, grabbed it, and didn’t see any downside to trying.

“Breaker…breaker…this is BubbleGumBooty. What’s with all the hold ups. I’ve got some priority cargo I need to get to New Orleans. Anyone got a way out of this mess?” Lilly didn’t know the procedures for talking over the radio to truckers in the area. Only what she’d seen in the movies.

“I hear ya, BubbleGum.” A frustrated voice answered her in other a minute. “BigDogBilly here. I’m stuck on the 20 at a standstill. I’ve heard from a few other weary travelers that the 55 is backed up too.”

“Hey, BigDog and BubbleGum, RandyDandy here, if you can make it to the 10 on the coastline it’s smooth sailing.

“Thanks, BigDog and Randy, next drinks are on me if we cross paths.” Lilly cut the transmission and brought the car to a stop to look at the map.

If cops were watching the 55, then she was going to have to head east, back the way she’d come, to get on the 59 and down to the 10. The cops would probably be focusing their attention to the west, especially if the Heroes were involved. No one would expect her to head back toward Orlando, but navigating the fifty plus miles back to the 59, on the backroads, in the dark, was going to be a pain.

<Better than jail.> She considered as she did a quick three-point turn and headed back the way she’d come. <This could work.> She shrugged.

Seth and Morina didn’t asked any questions or try to debate the decision. As it stood, Lilly had successfully broken both of them out of prison before, so they figured they owned her a little trust at this point.

<I’ve got this.> Her headlights cut through the night as she drove on.

 

***

 

“How about this one?”

“Nope.”

“This one?”

“Getting warmer.”

“This has got to be a winner!” Mason hefted up the pineapple to give it a good once over.

He and Kyoshi were standing in the middle of the supermarket’s produce section. Mason was much more used to the cramped bodegas in Brooklyn than the spacious Californian Whole Foods, but he couldn’t argue with the food quality.

“Let me see.” Kyoshi took the fruit from his hands and proceeded to pull out one of the spikey leaves at the top. It came out easily; she nodded, and put the fruit in her basket. “That’s how you choose a pineapple.”

It was a weird thing for a couple of HCP trainees to be doing the day after Christmas. Just about everyone else was hitting up the stores for the deals that always occurred, but Kyoshi’s family had a different tradition. They were gathering up a feast of foods that were out of season, as a reminder that the warm weather was right around the corner; because it was not warm in San Francisco in the winter. It wasn’t New York, but it was in the mid-forties and raining. It was like all the happiness of Christmas went right out the door a day later and allowed the gloom to come sweeping in.

<Speaking of gloom,> Mason saw the Breaking News bulletin flash across the bottom of the TV hanging from the ceiling. There wasn’t a lot of volume, and that made it impossible to hear in the crowded store, but the closed captions were going, so he could read along.

Some reporter was outside a police station in Mississippi. Mason only had to watch for thirty seconds for his whole day to be ruined. <Hey,> he thought, and gave Kyoshi the equivalent of a mental poke in the shoulder.

She turned up to the news report just as mug shots splashed across the screen. Two of the three they knew very well.

<Oh, Seth, what had you gotten yourself in to?> The couple’s thoughts echoed each other, but there was nothing they could do.

 

***

 

“Can you believe this shi…stuff?” Anika fumed as she watched the same news coverage from Becca’s family room. Most of the Whitfield clan was out and about, but Becca’s youngest sister wanted to stay with the ‘cool’ girls at the house instead of going with mom shopping.

Becca watched the news coverage with the same frown, but not as much venom, as her girlfriend.

“Who’s that? He’s hot.” Becca’s sister stated plainly.

“You better not say that around Momma!” Becca chided.

Despite the long drive, Anika loved it when they came home to the Whitfield’s for holidays. She loved her own adoptive parents, but there was something so natural about being with her girlfriend’s family. Although, someone thinking Seth Abney was hot, instead of a steaming pile of no-good shit, was something new.

“It’s not all about looks.” Becca was trying to impart some wisdom on her sister. “You see that he’s wanted by the police. It says he’s done a lot of things wrong. He’s…he’s a bad guy.” Becca choked up a little bit, so Anika walked over to put her hand on her shoulder.

Becca might have trouble getting accustomed to this, but Anika wasn’t. She’d know Seth was an arrogant, egotistical ass from the beginning. She never thought he’d go this far, but she never thought he’d make it as a Hero. He just didn’t have what it took.

“You know what will help…ice cream.” Anika smiled when Becca’s sister immediately lost interest in what was on TV.

“It’s not even noon yet.” Becca frowned.

“Do you want ice cream or to continue that conversation?” Anika was already following the little Whitfield into the kitchen.

“Point taken.” Becca got up and joined them, while throwing one last look over her shoulder at the pictures on the screen.

<Oh, Seth, what had you gotten yourself in to?>

 

***

 

<One…two. One…two. One…two…three.> Angela said the combinations in her mind as she threw punches at that heavy bag. She followed up with some punishing knees and elbows, dropped back for a final kick, and then needed to wipe the sweat from her eyes. She’d let her hair grow out since earlier in the year. Now, she’d need to get it cut.

The HCP was virtually empty, but a few students and instructors still roamed the halls. Most everyone went home for the break, but Angela wasn’t everyone. She was top of her class, and needed to stay that way. Plus, both of her parents were gone on assignment, so her going anywhere else was a waste of time.

“Martin!” Coach McMillian walked into the gym where she was practicing. “What are you doing here?”

“Training, Coach.”

“Geez, you’re never not here, Martin. Go out, buy something, and have a hamburger.” The Close Combat instructor approached with a frown on his face.

“Heroes don’t shop, coach.” Angela continued with her next set of combination.

“Tell that to my bank account,” Craig mumbled.

“What?” Angela’s frown deepened.

“Nothing,” he waved away the statement like a bad smell. “The point is that you need to get out. There is going to be plenty of time for you to be unavailable to do anything but eat and breathe because you’re a Hero. Take a second and live a little while you’ve got the chance. Everyone needs the opportunity to decompress.”

“I can’t, Coach.” She continued with her training.

“Why not?”

“That’s why.” Angela pointed at a TV hanging from the ceiling. During the school year, and designated workout with coaches, the TVs were off, but during off time, and during the evenings, they were turned on to let everyone keep up with what was going on in the world. Today, that meant Seth Abney’s face plastered on national TV as a criminal.

“Oh.” Craig was momentarily speechless.

“We’ve got one of our own who’s gone rogue. Better yet, he’s gone rogue with a teleporter. He knows the layout of this place like the back of his hand. If they come looking for a fight. I want to be ready.”

“Security procedures have been changed since Abney got the boot. He’s not going to be able to get back in conventionally, and if he tries unconventionally, we’ll be ready for him.” Craig gave Angela a closer look. “Does this have anything to do with Wraith being the one who set off the bomb that nearly killed your dad, and forced you to see things no teenager ever should?”

“No.” Her answer was too quick, and betrayed her real emotions.

“You know Doctor Johnson is…”

“I’m fine,” she shot back and started hitting the bag faster and harder.

Craig took that as his cue to leave. “Just think about it.” Were his parting words as he left the sophomore class’s top student to work out her anger on a punching bag, which was better than Seth Abney’s face.

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PCS to Eden – Old Allies

“Yes, General…YES!”

To the Army General trying to find her G-spot it sounded like he was hitting all the right buttons, but it was an illusion. Jezebel’s thighs smacked into the side of the rickety, wooden desk with every thrust, but that was about it.

The General’s eyes were glazed over, sweat covered his body, and his only ambition in life was to fuck the shit out of her. He’d forgotten everything else: the situation in the city, the readiness of his forces in the FOB surrounding them, and even his wife and kids at home. That was the nature of an Infernal of the Fourth Choir. It was a parasitic relationship disguised as a symbiotic one. The General got pleasure while unknowingly giving his lust-filled æther to her, but in reality, she was sucking more than his balls dry. She could keep this up for hours, even days, all while the General continued to waste away. When she had him completely under her spell, he’d crack bones, filet flesh, and dehydrate himself to death pleasuring her.

Or at least that was how this was supposed to work. Things tended to get a little weird when your immediate supervisor got impaled and burned alive, and the big boss got his fucking head chopped off. The resulting death and destruction took out her whole network of human traffickers, call girls, informants, and people who just owed her favors. A three-hundred-foot-tall archangel also put his armored boot through her place of power, which released years of carefully stored energy back into the world.

Unlike her bosses, she’d survived the battle a little worse for wear. The Guardians knew how to fight, and she’d sacrificed chunks of herself to win. Step one was to regrow those lost bits. That took a while as she wandered the city trying to gather æther. As a general rule, people were down to fuck after natural, or supernatural, disasters. God was literally twat blocking her, so she went hunting.

She’d come up through the ranks like all the other Internals who made their way to Eden. She knew how to find a good mark, seduce him, and then work her magic. The problem was her magic wasn’t working like it was supposed to. She could still gobble up the æther, but other enchantments she tried to do weren’t working. That led to her having to fake it until she made it with several partners. She didn’t like having to act, so with the General she’d used something a little different.

<This is how low I’ve fallen.> She fought back a sigh as her tits stuck to the slip-resistance, black covering on the General’s desk. The man going to town on her ass didn’t notice thanks to a little concoction she’d whipped up and slipped into the wine. <I’ve had to resort to becoming a poisoner.> Worst of all, she didn’t think she’d gotten the dosage right. She hadn’t done something like this since the American Civil War, so she was a little rusty.

“Oh yeah, baby. Almost there…almost there…almost AHHHH.” She felt the General give an awkward jerk behind her.

She looked over her shoulder and smiled. The man wasn’t giving her his O-Face. It was a grimace of pain, and his he was grabbing his left arm.

“Come on baby, give it to me.” She concealed a smile as the General’s brain and body were pulled in two different directions.

He knew he was having a heart attack, but she had a firm grip on his lust. The result was a discombobulated exchange where the General kept trying to pull out and call for help, but his body kept thrusting forward in a mad rush to climax.

“You can do it, baby.” She urged him on. The sounded of her voice and the grinding of her hips against him pushing him over the limit.

The man’s jaw went slack, his eyes rolled into the back of his head, and he slipped out of her as he fell straight backward onto the hard, linoleum surface of his office floor. Jezebel waited a second to make herself a little more presentable. She pulled her breasts off the table, and grimaced as they gave a sucking sound when they came free of the slip-resistance cover. She pushed her dress back down over her hips, pulled her panties up, and straightened everything so it wasn’t all twisted up.

It was still obvious what had gone on here. It reeked like three hours of fucking in the room, and even though she’d straightened the dress there were wrinkles and more than a few stains on it. Lastly, she grabbed her six-inch, fire-engine-red heels and held them in her hand. She gave one last look to the man twitching on the ground and blew him a kiss. She could tell he was already gone. The smell of fresh shit was perforating the room.

<Only one thing left to do.> She downed the rest of the poisoned wine. It wouldn’t affect her Infernal nature as much as a human, and chanted a short spell to dispel any lingering evidence of her act. Once that was complete, she was in the clear from the point of human law.

“HELP!” She put her acting pants back on and screamed bloody murder. “Someone please…HELP!”

There was only a short delay. The General’s Chief of Staff, a loyal major, who’d planned to ride the Two-Star General’s coattails to the top rushed into the room.

“Shit!” His eyes went immediately to Jezebel, and she saw the wheels turning.

The Major knew all about the General’s family life, and she could tell he had a hardened soul as she gazed into his eyes. He was contemplating whether to kill her and dispose of the body. It would be easy in all the carnage that plagued the city.

<Don’t do it…don’t do it…> The General looked like natural causes, but if she tore this guy to pieces there was no hiding that.

The Major’s hand drifted toward his sidearm, and Jezebel did all she could to act like an innocent prostitute until the final second.

“Sir, what’s going on?” Two armed men with MP on their arm rushed into the room. “Holy shit…” They stopped dead in their tracks.

“Someone help him!” Jezebel screamed. She thought she deserved an Oscar for her performance, and her restraint in not ripping the Major’s arms off and shoving them up his ass. It gave a whole new meaning to double-fisting.

“Call it in!” The Major stepped in and took charge. He kneeled over the General and felt his pulse. “Stupid bastard,” he muttered under his breath, but Jezebel heard him. “You two,” he pointed to the MPS, “get her out of here.”

“Sir, we need to…”

“The General’s had a heart attack in an embarrassing circumstance,” the Major snapped back. “Do you want his wife and kids to know about this?” Both MP’s shook their heads. “Get her out of here,” then he pointed at Jezebel, “you keep your fucking mouth shut or we’ll find you. Understood?”

Jezebel just nodded her head repeatedly like a frightened girl caught in an unthinkable situation.

“Everyone, MOVE!” The Major prompted them into action.

The MP’s took her roughly by the arm and led her out the back. They made a call and waited for an armored Humvee to arrive. From there they took her to the front gate, where they were waved through no questions asked. They drove her a few miles to a gas station where they stopped to let her off. She could tell both male MPs wanted to fuck her, and so did the female who showed up with the Humvee. She drank up the æther from the three of them during the drive and thought about quickies behind the dumpster, but ultimately decided against it.

When they arrived, she threw open the door, stumbled clumsily, fell, and looked up at the Humvee in fear. One of the guys looked like he was about to chase her down, but decided against it when he saw the look on her face, which was the whole point of the little charade.

“Keep your mouth shut!” he ordered instead while pointing threateningly at her. He held her eyes for a moment, and then shut the door and drove off.

Jezebel stood up shakily and stood there until the the Humvee was out of sight. Then her whole demeanor changed. She shed her call-girl persona and became an Infernal again.

“Asshats,” she spat in the direction of the Humvee, turned around, and almost walked right into someone she thought was dead. “G…G…Gerry?”

“Jezebel.” Gerry nodded.

“If it isn’t Skankarella. Where are your twelve STD-riddle dwarves?” The Soulless Vicky stepped out from behind Gerry, and Jezebel involuntarily snarled at her.

“Check your snatch, bitch.” Her fingers started to extend into claws as she got riled up.

“Ladies.” Gerry spoke the one word and the feud ended. Jezebel could feel the power in the word.

“How?”

“Luck mostly,” Gerry knew she was asking about his survival.

“But Seere is…?”

“Yes.” Gerry nodded.

“So…?”

“I’m in charge now.” Gerry’s word was law, and Jezebel immediately accepted it.

“More than in charge,” Vicky smiled knowingly. “Boss man can kill Guardians with a snap of his fingers.”

“Vicky…”

“Sorry, Boss, but that’s fucking cool.” The Soulless grinned proudly, and Jezebel wondered if she’d finally be able to bed the Dux.

<No,> she took a closer look, <but she’s trying.>

“I’m consolidating our forces,” Gerry continued. “You were the first to pop up on my scrying spell. Come back with me, we’ll find the others, and we’ll move onto step two.”

“Well I can save you a step there, My Lord.” Jezebel thought being formal was the best course of action right now until she figured out the nature of the new dynamic. “I can take you to Jeb. Lono died during the fighting, but Jeb and I’ve been working together to regain our power since your presumed demise. It’s been rough going,” she stated honestly, “but we’ve made headways.”

“Like…” Vicky scowled.

“I just fucked the human commander to death. Does that count?” Jezebel smiled, Vicky rolled her eyes, but Gerry nodded appreciatively.

“Take me to Jeb, and then we’ll work on getting your power back to appropriate levels. You’re looking a little ragged.”

Jezebel tried not to take that personally, but it was hard for an Infernal of her Choir to take physical criticism. They were supposed to be the pinnacle of attractiveness and sexual desire. Ultimately, she just shrugged it off because she knew there was only one way for her to get her full power back in the time frame Gerry was suggesting. She licked her lips at the thought of it.

It had been decades since she’d taken an æther -filled load from a Dux.

 

***

 

“Money…get away….get a good job with more pay and you’re OK…” The lyrics of Pink Floyd’s Money drifted through the open windows of a lake house north of Charlotte, and not too far from the refugee camp.

It was amazing that five miles away a mass of humanity had been stuffed together to live like herded animals in tents when such opulence, with fantastic views, was so close by. It was over four thousand square feet, three floors, six bedrooms, four baths, and a veranda that caught the sunset just right. All for the list price of just south of three million.

“Money…it’s a gas…grab that cash with both hands and make a stash…” Jeb smiled at the second line of the song.

As an Infernal of the First Choir, and powered by greed, Jeb loved everything about this song, and its topic. He especially liked that peculiar line. <Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.> He sipped a thousand dollar glass of scotch and savored the moment.

He’d been in Eden for a little bit, and he’d tried to make the stash of cash every opportunity he could, but over time the methods changed. First, it had been stage coaches hauling locked chests full of gold. That had been a good time for the Infernal when his territory was the fledgling American West. He’d tried his luck as a famous gunslinger every few decades. Legends were still told about him, but eventually he had to ‘die’. It would draw too much attention, and although his Dux at the time was lax, he wasn’t that lax that he’d forget about their true mission from Seere.

After the Wild West had become less wild, the money ended up in banks. People still robbed the banks, and it was a fad there for a while, but all of those famous robbers had died or were killed off during the last century. What Jeb hadn’t seen coming was the stock market collapse and the Great Depression.

His assets took a big hit during the Thirties, but he had a gift for finding new opportunities by exploiting people. He’d invested heavily in weapons manufacturing before and during WW2, and then infrastructure in the 50s. Real Estate was also a big money maker as people sought the American Dream, and he didn’t make the same mistake twice. He pulled out of the junk bonds propped up by bad real estate before the 2008 collapse. He’d actually been one of the people that shorted the market and made out big.

Today, money wasn’t in banks or in stage coach chests, it was digital. Money was ones and zeroes that he could manipulate anywhere in the world. It didn’t matter that Satan and the Archangel Michael stomped on the second biggest financial city in the country. The money was in cyber space.  While the infrastructure destruction, human loss of life, and the disruption it would cause would be costly, Jeb wasn’t worse off for it.

<Fate favors the bold.> Jeb didn’t even consider the people living in tent cities. He planned to ride this out in luxury until orders came his way. <For now…> He plopped down in a chair, kicked his feet up on the railing, and watched the sun’s light begin to spread across the calm waters of the lake.

No sooner had his head hit the pad on the back of the chair did his tablet ping annoyingly. The tablet was tied into the state-of-the-art security system the house was equipped with, so he couldn’t ignore it, but he was still an Infernal. He lazily picked up the tablet and hit the alert to see a camera’s view of a familiar face.

“Come on in,” he called, and his voice carried down to the expansive foyer Jezebel was standing in. “How’d it go? Did you get the codes?”

There was a rustle of wind, and the other Infernal was snatching the scotch right out of his hand and plopping into an adjacent chair.

“Nope. I ended up killing the general.”

Jeb sighed, but this outcome wasn’t unexpected. He wanted to be able to get into the military systems and get as much information as possible. He could use that information to increase his influence at the defense contractor he was invested in, by leveraging more contracts with the DOD. Authorizations would also have been able to get him past any checkpoints or random stops the military would be doing throughout the area for the foreseeable future. Freedom of movement would have been nice, but it wasn’t essential. He had other ways to get from Point A to Point B.

“But on the other hand…” Jezebel pounded the scotch.

“…She found me.” A second voice announced behind Jeb, and made the Infernal jump into the air and shift halfway into his combat form.

Green mist sprouted from his flesh that began to morph and unravel. His true face, a sunken mess of angled bone that didn’t include his horns, lips carved back in a wicked smiles, and scars crisscrossing everything. He nearly lashed out despite his brain identifying who it was, because it wasn’t possible that this man was alive.

“M…My Lord,” Jeb stumbled over his words as he turned to face Gerry.

The Dux didn’t look any different than when Jeb had last seen him…minus the sword sticking out of his chest and Divine fire consuming his flesh. Other than that…nothing.

“How…?”

“None of your concern.” Gerry’s eyes swept the mansion. “This will do.”

“What will do, My Lord?” Jeb felt himself falling back into his roll of trusted lieutenant naturally, and he hated himself for it.

<If I’d moved faster maybe it would be me in charge.> The thought crept up, but he pushed it back down. Those types of thoughts were dangerous; especially, if a Dux knew what you were thinking.

Thankfully, Gerry seemed to remain oblivious to the spurt of mutinous intent. “This will be our new headquarters. We need to get out of the camp and into something more appropriate. Call Vicky and get our people moving.”

Jeb didn’t even feel the pang of regret as his private home was requisitioned. “Yes, My Lord. Let me show you to the master suite.” Jeb bowed and led the way.

<Better alive and subordinate than in charge with my head on the chopping block.> Jeb knew even though the Dux was alive, that didn’t mean the angel who killed him wasn’t going to try again.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 200

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Savannah City, New Savannah, United Commonwealth of Colonies

From the looks Coop saw on the rest of his team’s faces, he wasn’t sure anyone had asked Carol, or Bob, about how the Windsors were getting their new weapons. Even RADM Stillwater looked a little surprised, but Coop refused to believe no one had posed the question. If a lowly SGT was the first to bring this up, then the Commonwealth was royally fucked.

“Keep up the insight, Cooper.” The SGM cut off any further questions Coop might have. “Right now I want the teams together and assigning responsibilities. Our training schedule outlines today as a more of a meet and greet, and getting settled. The real training starts tomorrow.”

Coop wasn’t sure how he was going to like the ‘real’ training, but he didn’t get a chance to ponder the ways the SGM could make his life suck. There were things in the here and now that could accomplish that.

“Berg, Cooper, on me.” GYSGT Cunningham snapped, and then chuckled. “I didn’t think I’d ever be saying that again.”

Coop obediently trotted over to the GYSGT and Eve. As far as meet and greets went, his was going much worse than Bravo Team. Coop heard SSG Hightower introducing himself and learning a little bit about SGT Sullivan. LT Wentworth mostly stayed in the background and let the NCO handle everything, but gave and received information willingly, and even laughed once. Eve just sat there and glared at him. It was so much different than the last time he’d been with her.

She’d said she’d catch him later, and he responded with something suave and debonair about it not coming soon enough. Then she’d told him not to get killed, and he told her the next time they met up they’d fuck like bunnies, but now that they were here, it looked like her glare would turn his nuts to stone like she was space Medusa.

“So…I didn’t die.” Coop put on his best grin and held his arms out wide while trying to look innocent.

“Congratulations for meeting the bare minimum qualifications for existence,” Eve shot back.

“I did lose my leg to a grav-grenade though. That sucked donkey dick.” Coop dropped his arms and gave a genuine shrug.

That seemed to thaw Eve a few degrees. “That does suck. I took a round in the leg not long ago. Rehab made me think it would have been better off if they killed me.”

“I know…right,” Coop replied while trying to act nonchalant. “The thing I really remember was the Jell-O. It was awe…”

“It sucked; tasted like ass,” she cut him off.

“Yeah…it was awful. That was totally what I was going to say.” Coop tried to pass it off, but he’d loved their cherry flavor, and his face just couldn’t hide it.

“Wow.” The GYSGT sat back to watch the show, but she couldn’t stay quiet that much longer. “How long were the two of you fucking?”

“A weekend,” Coop answered.

“None of your business.” Eve spat, and then glared when Coop’s reply registered.

“Do I need to separate you onto different teams, or can we play nice?” The GYSGT wasn’t kidding now.

This time, Coop and Eve were on the same page. “We’re good.”

“Good.” She gave the two of them a stern glare, before turning to Coop. “I’m pretty familiar with Berg’s record over the last year. Fill me in on yours. I could read it all in the reports, but I find it’s always better to get a first person account.”

“Sure, Gunney. Not too much really now that I think about it. I played riot cop down on Earth when Chicago decided to trash itself. I got to go in with some marines as their HI when some miners took control of a station. I saved the Lieutenant Commander’s ass over there when the miners took him hostage, but that’s where I lost my leg.” Coop gestured over his shoulder at Gold. “Then I did some anti-piracy ops and took back some Commonwealth property that had been requisitioned. Last, but certainly not least because it’s the reason I’m here, I got to be a human punching bag for Windsor’s mechs when they invaded New Lancashire. We barely got out of that one alive. The Lieutenant Commander saved our ass that time.” Coop finished up his spiel and turned to Eve. “What have you been up to?” For some reason, he thought she might be mildly impressed by his action-packed time in the HI.

“I was in Ranger school for most of it, but then I went in and saved the Gunney’s ass…no offense.” She turned to their team leader.

“No offense taken.” Cunningham shrugged. “My ass was cooked well done when you showed up.”

“After the Rogue Island op we both took part in one of the biggest Commonwealth offenses in the last few decades. I got to hit both space and planetary targets. One was a boarding action and the other was a covert insertion, which is probably why I’m here aside from being Splitstream rated.”

“Cool,” Coop replied casually. He wasn’t keeping score or anything, but he counted himself as having four major ops to Eve’s two.

“Don’t forget that bronze star for valor for saving Sergeant Sullivan’s life, or that you were the one who came up with the bright idea that allowed us to take that launcher in the first place.” The GYSGT clearly had Eve’s back, because that award made Coop’s little MSM look like a pat on the back for a job adequately done.

It was good that Coop was speechless, because the SGM was heading their way. If they were measuring dicks right now, Eve’s was bigger.

“How are things looking Gunney?” The SGM stopped to look at Coop – not Eve or Cunningham – just Coop.

“Cooper and Berg were actually in the same Basic class, and even in the same squad, so there is just some catching up to do. Cooper isn’t a total fuck up, so we can work with him,” she deadpanned.

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Gunney.” Coop couldn’t stop the retort before it left his lips.

“Don’t mention it, Cooper,” Cunningham didn’t miss a beat.

“What are their assignments?” The SGM acted like the little exchange didn’t even happen.

“I’m going to put Cooper in an A and Berg in a B. I’ll take operational unless you want it, and primary commo, Berg will be primary medical and liaison with locals, and Cooper will fill secondary assignments with the primary responsibility of sustainment.”

Coop liked the lack of responsibility in being back up, but ‘sustainment’ sounded boring. Of course, Cunningham and the SGM didn’t care what Coop wanted.

“Good. Let’s get them briefed and fitted.” The SGM turned to head over and check on Bravo.

The GYSGT turned back to them. “What this means for you two is refresher classes in first aide, TACCOM standards, and making sure we load translator and customs software into your LACS. Cooper, you’re going to go through everything since you’re our universal fallback and I don’t know what training standards you’ve been held to here, but my guess is not tier one.”

Suddenly, being the backup included a lot more work, but that wasn’t what Coop dialed into during the GYSGT’s assignments. “We’re getting new LACS?” He asked.

“We’re being issued updated equipment to meet the needs of our team,” the GYSGT replied diplomatically, but Coop’s take away was, ‘cool new stuff’, and they didn’t have to wait long.

A few moments later Carol reappeared with two hovering platforms following her. Coop couldn’t stop grinning as the SGM called everyone over. He practically skipped over so he could be in the front row for the briefing. Coop was never a first row kind of student, only when it involved blowing shit up did he really get interested. That, or sex ed.

“Good Afternoon, soldiers.” Carol’s translator sounded politely uninterested.

“Everyone listen up,” the SGM talked right over the Twig. “The wrench turners are going to give you a once over of the new LACS V4A and V4B. They’ll tell you things that have changed, the things that have been upgraded, and the things that are staying the same. Carol has been nice enough to go over those upgrades in more detail, so listen closely. Take it away.” The SGM gestured to an engineer who still looked a little irritated at being called a wrench turner, but he got to work.

To anyone looking, the V4A and V4B looked different. The V4A was noticeably bigger, pushing three and a half meters. It was also thicker. The arms and legs were much thicker than on a normal human, but to Coop that meant they’d packed more shit into it. <The more the better.>

The engineer started with the things that were staying the same. The interior was still the malleable carbon-tubing weave with all the sensors and circuitry that allowed the armor to emphasize the pilot’s movements and make them exponentially more powerful. Above that was still a reflective coated duro-steel to stop energy weapons, and the ballistic gel to reduce blunt force trauma and protect the integrity of the reflective duro-steel. The exterior was still the carbon nano-tubing in the dragonscale pattern with a swarming coating of nanites to react to specialized munitions, reinforce damaged sections, and provide camouflage. Coop wasn’t used to the camouflage feature from the V3s, but he was sure he would enjoy it. He was also sure he’d enjoy that they’d thickened the armor from six centimeters to eight centimeters.

The specks were true for both the V4A and V4B, but the exteriors were clearly meant to be used differently. The V4A had the telltale sign of many internal compartments meant for carrying ammo, batteries, or snacks depending on the trooper inside it. Across the breast of the V4A, and not the V4B, was a horizontal bar, which reminded Coop of what they used to censor a woman’s tits on the no-fun holo-channels. Also, the V4A had what looked like a big carapace covering a portion of its back, which gave it a vague turtle-like appearance. Coop could think of several reasons how that could be useful or a complete pain in the ass.

“The V4A’s are designed to be the pack mules of the team. The circular storage container on the back, surrounding the 250mm, modular artillery tube, is designed to transport anything the SRRT team needs to complete their mission.”

“Excuse me,” Coop couldn’t help but interrupt the man. “What do you mean by modular?”

“The V4As were the next SPECOPS LACS about to be put into circulation, but were pulled and designated for the SRRT project. Since the missions SRRTs conducts will not always be frontline combat operations like HI, the SPECOPS community wanted more flexibility in their weaponry. What we came up with was a removable artillery mount where the space could be utilized for a number of other things depending on the mission.”

A LACS without an artillery weapon was blasphemy to an HI trooper like Coop, and he would have let the engineer know that if the GYSGT hadn’t grabbed him tightly where his shoulder met his neck. “We’ll talk offline about this, Cooper,” she stated with a squeeze that made his fingers go numb, but it got him to shut up, and allowed the engineer to continue.

“The big upgrade, aside from the modular nature of the space, is this,” the horizontal bar on the breast was pointed out. “We received the first batch of shields from Carol and attached them into the armor. We weren’t able to incorporate them into the internal design, since the armor was already manufactured, but it meets safety standards. You’ll be able to activate and deactivate your shield from the HUD where we’ve created a specific shield menu to select. You’ll also be able to pre-program scenarios when you would like the shield to automatically activate.”

The rest of the V4A’s weapons were more or less what the old V2 and V3s were equipped with. It still had the two shoulder-mounted weapons, but because of the V4s increased size they were retractable now thanks to some ingenious folding design. The launcher held twelve high-velocity missiles, and the railgun came with 30000 rounds that could be used for air and missile defense, or against enemy infantry and armor. The 250mm spine-mounted artillery tube had a seventy-shell magazine, which was a hell of a lot more than Coop was used to on the V2, but was only a slight upgrade from a V3. None of that was a huge surprise, but then the engineers showed off the blades.

“Due to the new nature of threats you’re likely to come into contact with, the design of the V4s was modified to include complete nano-blades, not just the edges. This will allow the soldiers to make full use of the blades’ many functions instead of being pigeonholed into one method.”

Coop liked the sound of that, and he couldn’t wait to test it out. When all was explained, and Coop was allowed to approach and take a closer look at what he’d be wearing, he was impressed. He doubted he’d ever utilize the modular nature of the artillery tube, but he could see why someone might want the option. He just hoped it didn’t ruin the integrity of an HI trooper’s primary weapons system.

<You’re not an HI trooper.> He had to remind himself. <You’re going to be sliced, diced, and reassembled. You’re a modular trooper now.> The thought was grim, but it made him chuckle.

That got everyone looking at him, and Eve shaking her head. <Yep…this is going to be just like old times.> He returned to his seat and waited for the briefing to continue.

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Two Worlds – Chapter 199

Mark “Coop” Cooper

Location: Savannah City, New Savannah, United Commonwealth of Colonies

<Piercing, light blue eyes…high cheekbones…blonde pixie cut…a permanently fierce expression that I know fits her personality…and the body of a warrior goddess.> Coop shifted his gaze. <Dark brown eyes with a mischievous twinkle…exotic…a total flirt…with a small, slender body, but damn if she can’t put her feet behind her head when it counts.> 

Coop’s eyes flashed back and forth between the most prominent women in his recent past. Recent for Aiko meaning she had her limbs wrapped around him less than a day ago. Eve had been away longer, but that only made her more attractive. She was the fruit once tasted but then taken out of reach. Despite the passage of time, Coop distantly remembered destroying a hotel room with her. He’d been between those powerful thighs before. One time, she’d even choked him out with them.

The two women were opposites physically, mentally, and just about everything else ending in an ly. Aiko came from a disadvantaged place by being mix raced. She’d survived an abusive, controlling marriage to end up as a wrench turner in the Fleet. She learned how to fend for herself, and embraced a more unconventional way of life. They’d done business and pleasure together, and he’d thoroughly enjoyed it.

Eve was the ice to Aiko’s fire. She was a valkyrie born to a military family. The youngest of her siblings, she was emotionally neglected due to her father dying in battle. Her mother had no time for her as she climbed the ladder to full admiral. Eve strived to succeed at everything she did, and as far as Coop could tell, she’d been successful. She was just as likely to chew him out as make out with him, but there had been a connection between them when they finally hooked up at the end of Basic. Maybe it was their time training together that formed a bond, or them testing out their new, enhanced bodies, but his weekend hotel-destruction was still at the top of his five all-time sexual experiences. Aiko just occupied the other four.

“Sergeant?”

Coop flashed back to that motel room with her riding him like a bucking bronco, and then it flashed to the motel here on New Savannah where Aiko was doing something that Coop didn’t even know if it had a name.

“Sergeant?…SERGEANT!”

Coop snapped out of it as SSG Hightower smacked him hard on the back of the head. Everyone was looking at him. The LT was scowling at him, Aiko looked like she wanted to roast his dick over a bonfire, and Eve looked like she’d just chewed up nails into shrapnel and was going to hose him down with them.

“Oh me?” Coop tried to play dumb. “Just made sergeant yesterday, so I’m not really used to being called it, so just call me Coop.”

“I’ll call you, sergeant, because that’s what you are, so start acting like it.” The speaker was a big guy with SGM chevrons and rockers on his uniform.

<Way to make a first impression.> Coop had successfully fucked that up, and he knew he’d be working to get out of the dog house with at least three people now.

“As I was saying,” the SGM continued. “I am Sergeant Major Queen. I’ll be the operations NCOIC and field leader of the SRRT. With me is Gunnery Sergeant Cunningham, my number two and Alpha team leader. Staff Sergeant Hightower will be the Bravo team leader.” The SGM nodded to the SSG, who simply nodded back. “I’ve also brought a couple of kick ass Rangers with me, straight from hell. This is Sergeant Berg and Sergeant Sullivan. They’ll be assisting with training and split between the two teams, which are as follows: Alpha Team is under the Gunney’s preview, and will be Sergeant Berg and Sergeant Cooper. I’ll usually attach myself to Alpha Team, but I like to move freely when on an op. Bravo Team is Staff Sergeant Hightower, Sergeant Enders, Sergeant Sullivan, and will have our OIC, Lieutenant Wentworth attached to it. Ma’am.”

The LT stepped forward and looked at the eight members of the action portion of the SRRT. “I won’t bullshit you and say that I’m trained and qualified for this. I’m not. I just happen to be Slipstream rated along with the rest of you. What I do have is experience fighting the enemy we will be fighting, and I’ve worked with half of you. The Sergeant Major is the lead when we’re in the field. He’s got the training, and I want the rest of us to listen to the Rangers the Sergeant Major brought with him. We have a lot to learn, but the Rangers should also listen to my HI troopers. We’ve fought the enemy before, you haven’t, and they are unlike any enemy you’ve ever faced. With our two groups meshing, I know we can accomplish the mission.”

<I know who I’d like to become one with.> Coop’s eyes shifted, and they were immediately met by Berg’s. <Oh no…it’s like Basic all over again.> She seemed to have his thoughts dialed in, so he just gave her a weak smile.

In return, she scowled and executed a rude finger gesture that no one else spotted. Or they did, and everyone thought he deserved it. He gave that a second thought as the LT stepped back and SGM took control. “Lieutenant Commander Gold and Petty Officer Lee will handle our ride.” The SGM patted the gunboat, and immediately got yelled at by the engineers, but one look from the SGM had them shutting up and averting their eyes.

“Our mission parameters are simple. We are a covert force that I am going to train to be tier one, on par with any Ranger, SEAL, SAS, or Recon team out there. Our missions will be sabotage, covert insertion, reconnaissance, and target elimination if we’re given the green light.” The SGM’s eyes scanned his new SRRT to see their reactions.

“That means assassination,” Mike whispered.

“I knew that.” Coop elbowed Mike in the ribs in response.

“Do you have a problem with that, Sergeant Cooper?” The SGM zeroed in on him…again.

“No Sergeant Major, just point me in the direction you want and tell me who to kill,” Coop replied confidently.

“I shouldn’t be telling you to kill anyone, Cooper.” Instead of getting loud, like a drill sergeant, the SGM’s voice grew low and serious. “I expect individual initiative and problem solving skills on the part of my team members. If we’re reconing an objective, it’s going to be against enemy VIPs with top-of-the-line security. I expect you to not throw an entire system’s government into chaos when we don’t need it, and I expect you to take a shot if you deem in necessary. You aren’t just one of many HI troopers now.” The SGM swept the crowd again, but Coop felt like he was still talking to him. “You are an action arm of the Commonwealth. Your decisions will have ramifications for billions of people. It is never to be taken lightly.” He frowned at Coop. “If I had my way you’d still be a PFC and wouldn’t even be here, but we have limited resources on this, and I have my orders.”

<I was a corporal,> Coop almost corrected him, but upon further consideration, kept his mouth shut.

Coop looked over and saw Eve smiling at the SGM’s comments, but then she spotted him looking, and that smile became twin blue daggers aimed at castrating him.

“What we might lack in experience, we make up for in technology,” the SGM continued. “Our liaison, Carol, will be instructing us on the uses and limitations of the new tech as we train. She’s also been compensated to give us as much intelligence as possible on what we might come up against, so we can plan for all contingencies.”

A light went off in Coop’s head. He was sure people had thought about it already, but no one had told him anything about what was going on outside New Savannah recently, so he slowly raised his hand. The SGM was going over a few more administrative issues when he noticed Coop’s half-raised appendage.

“This isn’t daycare, Cooper. If you have a question for the benefit of the group, ask it.” He folded his arms across his chest and looked at Coop expectantly.

“Thanks, Sergeant Major. Well…I’m sure someone has covered this with Carol already, but I got a pretty good look at some of the Windsor’s’ tech when they were trying to kill me, and it looked a lot like the tech we saw demoed by Bob with Rear Admiral Nelson. I don’t know if the royals figured out the advancements on their own, but I think it would be tough for them to get a few hundred years more advanced than the rest of us. So, my question, which is as much for you, Sergeant Major, as it is for Carol, is why doesn’t your species stop selling to the Windsors and start selling exclusively to us? I think the Commonwealth can buy a whole lot more shi…stuff than the Kingdom of Windsor.”

Carol was across the room, but even without ears, she somehow picked up that Coop was talking about her. She started hovering over, but the SGM had a question first.

“Can you give me examples, Cooper?” Since meeting the big NCO, Coop got the impression the guy wasn’t upset, pissed, or annoyed by Coop talking.

“The biggest one that pops to mind is the shields.” Coop had a brief flashback of the Windsor’s drop ships cutting through New Lancashire’s defenses like they weren’t even there, and the mechs walking through a barrage of artillery that could have stopped an entire infantry brigade. “I was on the receiving end of the shield test in New Lancashire, and I saw a distinct way the shield reacted to being hit, and that reaction was mirrored in what I saw against the enemy. That being said, I don’t know if all shields react the same way when hit by plasma-tipped rounds. I’m not a physicist or engineer, but I think it’s worth asking.” Coop’s looked at Eve in his peripherals, and she looked thoughtful instead of pissed. Aiko had nearly an identical expression.

“That’s a valid point, Cooper.” The SGM nodded in approval, just as Carol arrived.

“I detected that my presence was required.” Carol’s own environmental shield flared as she came to a halt.

The SGM gave Coop a pointed look that said, ‘this is your question, so ask it.’

“Hello, Carol.” Coop decided that being polite to the large alien was always the best course of action, especially if she was going to be a technical advisor with a bunch of untested tech.

“Hello, Sergeant Cooper,” the ET replied in the monotone of her translating device.

“I was just wondering if your species has considered suspending trade with the Kingdom of Windsor because we’re in an active state of war with them, and since we’re the bigger starfaring nation, we’re going to be the better customer in the long run?”

“I am unaware of any trade contacts between my race and the polity you call the Star Kingdom of Windsor.” Carol replied flatly. “However, pursuant to Clause D of the Compact of the Hegemony of Peace and Tranquility of Sapient Beings, I cannot speak on behalf of the other member races.”

Coop had heard that before, and it sent a chill down his spine equal to when Eve looked like she wanted to castrate him. Like any normal person, he didn’t like something he couldn’t control, and he disliked it even more when he couldn’t control something he didn’t know existed.

“Thanks, Carol,” Coop sighed.

“You’re welcome, Sergeant Cooper.” It was clear from the Twig’s response that she didn’t understand the nuances of human emotion just yet.

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PCS to Eden – Refuge

The refugee camp, Vicky’s base of operations, was a campground that had been commandeered by the government to assist with the exodus of survivors from the destroyed city. It wasn’t the first their small convoy passed as they headed up the I-77. They passed the military’s FOB, which was seeing an influx of heavy weapons after the carnage that Gaius’ force had unleashed. Tanks and artillery were the main component of the new force. Most gear was coming by truck, but there was a line of heavy equipment digging what looked like a small airfield.

<Makes sense.> Gerry thought as the dust kicked up from the construction diluted the moonlight.

The Charlotte Airport had been the sight of a vicious part of the battle between Satan and Michael. More than one plane had been carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey, and the Archangel had actually tackled the King of Hell into the terminal at one point. The result was a broken place where the military and civilian relief agencies couldn’t fly in troops or supplies. Beyond that, it wasn’t even in a secure area, and the military didn’t look like they were willing to go in until they had overwhelming force at their disposal. Driving in everything needed for that push was just too slow, so now they were making their own airfield.

Gerry looked up at the thump-thump-thump of passing helicopters in route to the new airfield. They were loaded down and ready for war, which was what they were going to find if things continued as they were. The Divine was still flying around putting down the last of Gaius’ men, but the old general didn’t look like he cared. He knew when to advance and when to retreat. Now was a time to retreat and consolidate.

Their small caravan left all of that behind as they pulled off the highway and headed down a country road. It was well kept, with an arch over the road with the campsite’s corporate logo hanging above everyone who came to enjoy the scenic views and woodland beauty. That beauty was marred as Gerry’s vehicles came to a halt behind several eighteen wheelers waiting at a military checkpoint.

“I’ll handle this,” Vicky stated as she undid the top two buttons of her shirt and pushed up her breasts to make a pleasing view of her cleavage. “Hiya, Harold!” Vicky squealed when an armed guard waved them to a halt and lowered a barricade in front of them.

Harold’s clothing was a slightly different pattern than the men Gerry had seen torn to pieces by Gaius’ legionaries, which dictated a separate service. US Air Force was written in bold on Harold’s chest, and his weapon was slung professionally with a magazine locked and loaded, and Gerry presumed, a round in the chamber. Harold and his people might be guarding a refugee camp thirty miles from the front lines, but it looked like they knew what they were doing.

However, Harold’s professional façade cracked and a goofy look spread across his face when he saw Vicky. “Hey, Vicky.” He looked at Gerry and at the cars behind him. “Who’re your friends?”

Gerry felt a spike of jealousy from the man and knew he could reach out and grab it to empower him, but he didn’t. The minute they’d drawn close to the camp the throne in his pocket had become uncomfortably warm. This camp was giving off ætherial energy that the throne was just gobbling up. Knowing what he did about how the throne worked, that was a good and bad thing. They needed to get to Vicky’s people quick.

“This is my Uncle Gerry. He’s my Dad’s brother-in-law. My aunt is back in Nashville looking after my cousins, but Uncle Gerry wanted to help those where he could.” Gerry cracked a smile and shrugged humbly to help sell Vicky’s bullshit.

“He brought some of his friends to help.” Vicky pointed over her shoulder at the cars behind them. “They’re all survivalist types so they can tell everyone how to get clean water, make fires, and all that outdoorsy stuff.” Vicky smiled her winning smile and Harold melted.

“Sure thing, Vicky. Thank’s for coming to help Uncle Gerry.” Harold used Uncle for a reason. The lust coming off him was palpable. Vicky knew that and was using it to her advantage.

“Thanks, Harold, you’re the best.” Vicky blew him a kiss as the barricade went up and the guards waved them through.

“T and A laced with a bit of compulsion,” Vicky explained as they wound through the overcrowded campsite. “Gets the boys every time.”

Gerry estimated twenty thousand people were currently crammed into the space meant for a thousand at most. Cars were linked up nose-to-nose and ass-to-ass. Tents were either on the grounds next to them in the little space available, or in the back of trucks. Garbage was everywhere and it made the place stink like week-old shit. Gerry bet that these cars had been loaded down with supplies when they left, but after all this time people had gone through their stores and were living off aid supplies from the government, or more likely, taking from others.

More guards in military vehicles were driving the small lanes created between the parked cars. They were in armor, were scanning the area with night vision, and looked ready for action.

“Things are mostly ok during the day. The guards keep order, but people are crammed tightly together with little food, water, and no privacy, so things get testy. We’ve had a couple big brawls, but tear gas ended those. It’s nighttime that you really need to worry about.” Vicky was grinning like the Cheshire cat. “People have been going missing. The guards think its sex trafficking, and they’re sending photos to other camps to keep an eye out.”

“But they’re actually snacks.” Gerry raised an eyebrow.

“Hey, a girls got to eat.” Vicky replied unapologetically. “Take a right up here and head to the end.”

Gerry did as instructed and arrived at Vicky’s new home. It was a small compound of handmade shelters separated by a ring of open space. He suspected she’d compelled or seduced some carpenters or construction workers in the refugee population to get together and build it for her. It wasn’t more than some ramshackle shacks made of plywood and metal stacked two stories high in a rough block shape, but it looked like a palace compared to the tent city surrounding it.

In fact, it reminded Gerry a bit of Seere’s Great Hall surrounded by the Capitol and tent city occupied by the legions. A spasm of pain went through Gerry’s chest at the thought. He knew all of that was gone. Beelzebub had burned it to the ground according to Gaius. Since the winged asshole had been trying to do it for eons, Gerry doubted anyone or anything was left standing. He’d probably salted the land so nothing would ever grow again and taken an Infernal Lord-sized shit to contaminate the ecosystem for centuries to come.

Gerry shook his head to get rid of that image and focused on what was right in front of him. A few guards walked the edge of the compound and waved at the sight of Vicky. Gerry could feel that they were Soulless. This was all that was left of Vicky’s coven. Gerry suddenly wasn’t sure how useful Vicky would be to his plans. She seemed to sense this as they parked the cars and led the group of Infernals inside.

“I’ve got whatever you want.” She waved her arms at the wide open space. The building looked more segmented from the outside, but for the most part this place had an open floor plan with only a few private rooms here and there. “I’ve got booze, the coke you drink, the coke you snort, weed, women, men if that’s your thing, and the best food in the camp.” Vicky smiled proudly at her little kingdom. “Here, have some candy.” She threw a chocolate bar to one of the Infernal soldiers.

The man cautiously opened it, took a bite, and looked like he’d gone to heaven. He’d never tasted Hershey’s chocolate before.

“Dig in. Mi casa es su casa.” The soldiers looked to Gaius for orders, and he nodded consent.

The legionnaires practically sprinted toward the food set up on a table. A few of the older ones didn’t understand the concept of plastic wrapping the food so they ate it all. After centuries on the diet of Hell, a thin bit of plastic wasn’t going to do anything to their indestructible intestine.

To make matters even better, Vicky snapped her fingers and a small harem of scantily clad men and women joined them. The soldiers couldn’t tell the difference, but Gerry had something else to compare them too. Vicky looked like she’d scraped the bottom of the barrel for these whores. They had a strung out look that said they were paid in drugs, and there addiction kept them around. Vicky saw him looking and shrugged.

“I’m starting from the ground up here,” she defended herself. “I’ve got to go back to the old ways of keeping my employees in line. My whole business went up in flames with the rest of Charlotte, so thanks for that. All my top earners are dead or fled, Caroline is still here if you want to plow her like old times, but she’s a shell of her former self. She watched a bunch of her friends and family go down in a collapsed building. She’s pretty messed up about it, but I’m sure your magic hands could help her forget for an hour.

“No thank you. “As much as Gerry wanted to partake in the sins of the flesh, he had work to do. The throne in his pocket was nearly scalding. He needed to do something about it. He walked directly to one of the few rooms in the place and opened the door. It was filled with half a dozen people with IVs sticking out of their arms and leading into blood bags.

“This room is mine now,” he commanded.

“Sure thing, Boss. Just let me move the meat bags.”

“No,” he held up a hand. “I’m going to need them.”

“Um…” Vicky didn’t get to say anything before he shut the door in her face.

With a sweep of his hand the humans slid across the room and smacked into the far wall. A few moaned softly in pain, but they were almost dead anyway. Vicky wasn’t running a catch and release game here. This was a ‘pump them until they’re dry and burry them in back behind the shed’ kind of operation. He left them in the corner for their life to leak away into a plastic bag and took the throne out of his pocket. A few words and a slight pulse of power and it was normal sized again.

<Time to get to work.> Unlike Gaius, Gerry wasn’t going to make the same mistakes. The general came in hot, caused a little mayhem, and then faded out. He’d burned bright and quick, but the Divine had snuffed him out in under a few hours. Gerry was playing the long game. <Wards.>

He used the blood from the dying humans as the base. He started with his new throne room. Wards against unwanted entry, triple layers of protection from the eyes of the Divine, and a power conduit went onto the walls, ceilings, and floor. From there he expanded. He went out to the rest of the compound and created layers of protection. He pumped power into the wards as he went. He felt the strain of the throne’s building power as he created layer after layer of interlocking defenses. No one, human, Divine, or anything in between would be able to get into the compound without him knowing. They wouldn’t be able to attack his or Vicky’s people without being attacked by the æther itself he’d twisted into offensive countermeasures. They wouldn’t be able to walk more than a handful of feet without running into resistance that grew the closer you got to the throne room.

It wasn’t a Demesne, but it was the next best thing. This was a refuge, a base of operations for him to use to expand his powerbase. A Demesne was a permanent fixture, and he wasn’t going to put that in some refugee shithole all the way out here. This place was expendable, but the one thing it was good for was collecting the æther. With all the misery floating around this place, the throne was drinking it up. Soon, Gerry would need to exercise more power to keep it from burning away the wards protecting all of them from Divine eyes.

“Bring me a map!” He ordered.

Most of the soldiers were balls deep in Vicky’s whores, but the Soulless were free, and a pretty thing Gerry had never seen followed his order.

“Thank you…” he waited for the woman to introduce herself.

“Elisa, Sir…Sire…My Lord…I’m not really sure how to address you.” She pushed her glasses up her nose and averted her eyes. She was clearly flustered.

“Gerry is fine when it is just the two of us.” He accepted the map and laid it flat on a table. He took two knives and stabbed them easily through the plywood at two corners to hold it steady.

“What are you doing?” Elisa couldn’t help herself. Gerry felt the natural curiosity in her. He also knew if it didn’t fall into the order and calm she needed it would upset her.

“I’m scrying for some friends of mine.”

“Other Infernals.”

“Yes. There is a war coming and we need all the allies we can get.”

“Coming,” the girl let out a small laugh before covering her mouth and looking horrified at her outburst. “I mean to say. Isn’t it already here?”

“These are just the opening moves. The pawns are moving across the chessboard,” Gerry replied as he reached toward the woman.

She froze as he unbuttoned the top button of her shirt and slid it open. He felt a shiver of pleasure and anticipation go through her as he reached down between her breasts and grabbed the small pendent she kept around a golden chain. “I need to borrow this.”

“Yeah…sure…of course,” Elisa tried to play off her reaction as nothing and failed miserably.

Gerry took the pendent and held it suspended over the map. He started a chant, no more than a whisper, and calmly swung the pendent in a lazy circle. As he continued to chant the pendent spun faster and faster. Soon, the golden chain was a nothing more than a blur until it looked like was going to snap.

Abruptly, the pendent stopped. The chain snapped taught, and pointed at a location.

“That’s…” Elisa was lost for words.

“The last place we want to go,” Gerry finished it for her.

The pendent pointed at the center of the military FOB. That was where the æther was saying their next ally was located.

<It couldn’t be someplace not guarded by tanks, thousands of humans, and watchful guardians,> he grumbled. Sometimes, the æther was a pain in the ass, but it was always right; even if it didn’t seem like it at the time.

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